should you be blogging to help your writing career (or is it a big waste of time)?
Maybe it’s just me, but there seems to be a bit of a backlash against blogging and “building author platforms”. Well-written, intelligent posts like this one point out – quite rightly – that blogging might be a waste of time.
But perhaps these posts operate from the wrong set of assumptions. They assume that the goal behind a blog (or social media in general) is “See me! Hear me!” = lots of traffic = book sales. So when this doesn’t work – and it doesn’t – they question the whole point of blogging.
First of all, let me say: your work needs to be excellent.
Your book needs to be excellent (and I don’t mean it needs to be Pulitzer-worthy, it just needs to deliver on whatever that kind of story promises to that kind of reader). There seems to be this belief that a big noisy author platform can make up for mediocre writing, or that excellent writing won’t matter anymore as we all self-publish online.
I’m sorry, but this is bullshit.
Hype doesn’t do well on the web – it’s too one-dimensional, too easily deflated –which means that big-money advertising and pumped-up blurbs will continue to lose their potency. Word-of-mouth will rule. People will take the stuff they like and pass it through their networks, which pass it on through their networks. The cream rises. (Fortunately for us, there are lots of different kinds.)
And we’re all competing to rise.
More and more of us everyday.
Your blog also needs to be excellent.
Blogging is a skill and an art in itself. It requires practice. It’s a different experience from writing fiction, and it makes different demands on the writer in order to satisfy different expectations from the reader.
Also, it’s still a new form. Still in the process of discovering its identity. What microblogging – Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook status updates – have done is to draw away the bloggers who weren’t quite right for blogging in the first place. Microblogs and blogs are defining themselves against each other in ways that can complement and work towards a greater whole. Microblogs can be about socializing and sharing in ways that pull people in and send them to your blog. Your blog can be about vision and substance. Your blog is your chance to write epic shit. (Your blog also sends people to your microblog. The best way for me to collect a jump in Twitter followers is to put up a worthy blog post.)
Writing epic shit is not the advice a lot of people will give you; they will tell you to write short posts as often as possible. If that fits your natural rhythm, and you can maintain a high degree of quality, then go for it. But I’m no longer convinced that that should be the ideal.
We tend to look behind us, at where the puck has been, instead of where the puck is now or (better yet) where it seems to be heading. Where frequency used to be important – back in the days when fewer people were blogging, when there was less clutter and less competition, and social media was at a different point in its evolution – I think the big thing now is share-ability. You need to write the kind of individual posts that people will bookmark, discuss, send through Twitter streams and Facebook networks. A great post has legs: it walks on for days and sends back waves of traffic. A mediocre post sits there. No one cares. Why should they? Too many options!
But here’s the thing about traffic. It has to be the right kind. When you start out blogging – and I’m just as guilty as anyone – it’s easy to obsess over your blog stats, how many unique visitors per day. Eventually you realize that that’s the wrong focus.
Because what truly matters is your list.
What truly matters is the number of people that you actually capture (through collecting their email addresses). Who agree to let you push out stuff to them. This is called permission marketing, or opt-in marketing. It enables you to send people newsletters and announcements and special offers. It gives you another level on which to build relationships.
Which is what an author platform is: a network of relationships that can generate attention and book sales at any given time.
Writers who can do this will develop a powerful advantage.
These writers will also, I think, have an entrepreneurial mindset. They will see the blog as one part of a larger picture that isn’t just about (indirectly) selling books but developing a career that mixes self-publishing with traditional publishing. They’ll have the drive for self-education that social media and changing technologies require. They’ll know to constantly tweak that approach, to experiment and evaluate and refine, and also to frame failure in a way that empowers rather than demoralizes. They’ll understand risk: whether it’s giving up advances in exchange for better royalty rates, or investing time, emotion and energy – their own personal capital – into creating something that comes with absolutely no guarantees.
They’ll understand about vision and strategy.
Tweets share; blogs provide meaning and substance; facebook fan pages offer social interaction and feedback; videos and podcasts offer new ways of connecting with readers and new dimensions to their experience of you.
But here’s the thing.
There has to be a point.
There has to be a larger meaning that people can buy into, and engage with, and return to. That improves their lives in some way. Makes the world a better place.
This is the great, amazing thing about a blog, an author platform: it’s the chance to go beyond yourself, to express your values and idealism and Do Something Truly Cool.
Your vision needs to connect to your work. It needs to attract people who will prove to be ideal readers for your work (not all of them will, and that’s perfectly fine). And because your work is excellent – remember? – these readers will become your fans, or true fans, or even your evangelists who will spread the good news about you.
I am not saying that you should try to make the world a better place just so you can sell books. Passion, authenticity and sincerity rule the day. Without them, your platform isn’t sustainable.
I am saying that the two can work together in what Johnny Truant and Pace Smith refer to as profitable idealism. And that “profitable idealism” is on the rise.
All of this requires a deep level of soul-searching and self-awareness. You need to know yourself. You need to know your strengths, so you can build your use of social media around them. You need to know what you can offer people. You need to know where you’re going and why. You need to know who your people are and where you can find them and how you can make them come to you, and then come back to you. It’s about focused, high-quality relationships instead of a scattershot, as-many-people-as-possible approach. (Quality will eventually lead to quantity, and your online and offline efforts will complement each other and blend together until the line between them blurs to the point of disappearing. )
You are never just selling a novel. You’re providing a rich, well-crafted emotional experience that the reader depends on for escape and enlightenment.
Your are never just selling yourself. You’re providing a multi-faceted experience of meaning to the people who might – just might – develop into your devoted readership.
This is why the big box bookstores – that sell stuff instead of experiences — will disappear. This is also why individual bookstores that specialize in building community have the chance to rise again.
Writers who can give people the best and most powerful experiences – through their books and perhaps also their platform (both of which are excellent, remember) – and build their lists and networks of readers – stand the best chance of becoming truly influential. Influence is power. As ebooks dominate, and then become the norm, individuals (writers, editors and agents) can become their own brands and form their own imprints. They can publish and promote themselves – and others.
Again, not everybody can do this. Or will want to do this. Or should do this.
There is more than one way to get to Rome, if you know what I mean. You can go old-school, or new-school, or some combination of the two; you could develop a large audience or a small but very loyal, buying-everything-you-produce audience. One thing I’ve learned about writing and blogging is that you can’t predict these things. You can only put yourself out there, be as excellent as you can, and speak from the heart. Build on what works for you, reject the things that don’t, and carve your own path.
But it benefits you to listen, and look around, and pay attention to that hockey puck. It’s good to know where it was. It’s even better to know where it’s going. You don’t want it to smack you in the face.
‘Cause that would suck.