The Minor Detail People Often Miss

Michelle Sagara makes a very cogent observation here about a small detail people often miss when they use me as an example of how a blog can help you sell your novel, that small detail being that I had a Web site a decade before I sold that first novel, and had been accreting an audience all that time (Michelle gets the date of the beginning of Whatever wrong — it came online in 1998. But it’s true I had a Web site of one form or another dating all the way back to ’93, and that I regularly put new content on it during that time). As Michelle notes:

I have nothing against using Scalzi as an example of a person who leverages his blog to bump sales, I really don’t. But I take exception to the people who don’t understand that if you want to build Scalzi’s blog, you need to spend 10 years amusing, outraging, and moderating people, for free, and because it clearly amuses you, and you must do this before you have something to sell. But if you have a spare 10 years, you too can achieve this.

This is something I’ve touched on as well, but I really like the way Michelle’s said it, and it does continue to amaze me that people can look at Whatever and say “look! He did it! I can do it too!” and sort of miss that I’ve been doing it, in one form or another, for a decade and a half. I don’t see any reason why you can’t do what I did; just remember how long it took me to get where I am at the moment, and that for most of that time I was just another schmuck with a blog, not someone with a career writing novels.

Also, you know. It’s pretty obvious that I’m not blind to the idea that talking about my books and writing here might get people to try the books. But I’m allergic to the idea that Whatever should be about marketing my books, or that I should frame the way I talk about the books here with an eye toward getting all y’all to buy them. Jo Walton mentioned recently she knew a writer who was told by her agent to be upbeat about her next book in her blog; I think that’s a really excellent way not to engage your readership. I’m pretty sure that if all I said about my books here was along the lines of “OMG!!!1! Theyz excellent!” people would blot out anything I said about them. People really do know when you’re marketing to them.

Personally I think people think about all this crap too hard. The reason to do a blog is because you want to. If you do it for any other reason, people will be able to tell, and it’s probably going to fall on its ass. The reason I think Whatever does well is because I like doing it, and I’ve liked doing it all the time I’ve done it. Simple enough.

52 thoughts on “The Minor Detail People Often Miss

  1. …it does continue to amaze me that people can look at Whatever and say “look! He did it! I can do it too!”

    I know exactly whereof you speak. I work in independent film, and am producing and directing my own doc. And to this day, I boggle at how commonly I still find so many wannabe and newb filmmakers besotted by the myth of Robert Rodriguez and the $7000 Movie. “If he could do it so can I” — in other words, thinking that someone’s combination of talent and staggering good luck is entirely comparable to your own situation — is not exactly a smart plan for setting the path towards your own success. It’s rather like saying, “Well, someone in Laredo won the Megamillion Powerball last week, so I bet this week I could do it.”

  2. The reason to do a blog. Because you are crazy. Simple and straight forward.

    I have tried one just to document me learning html/css/php/mySQL for my benefit. Only my wife knows the URL to it because it really is only for me. A way to get me to focus on the task of learning it because I can use all the ass kicking I can get.(oh and I haven’t updated in over a month is bad too :( ) Stupid Video game (Sins of a Solar Empire if you ask) is taking up my free time and I realize I need to get back on learning that stuff so I can move ahead in my life.

    But you. Crazy. Me, my blog is a tool to try (not that it is working) and keep me on task with my learning. But you, you are crazy.

    And for anyone else that sees one person in a million do something like this and think that they can do it better w/ not training/skill/thought is just funny. Hell I need to go up to Idaho and get me a powerball ticket like my Wagner up above suggests because if someone else can do it, then I of course can do it even easier because I am Tom and Tom is the greatest.

    Hey could someone else finish this reply, Tom’s hands are tired so one of you keep it up for me. Tom Commands so.

    Simple form. You are crazy to do this. Not that I do not enjoy reading it but no way in heck could I

  3. Personally I think people think about all this crap too hard. The reason to do a blog is because you want to.

    A friggin’ men, Scalzi, with an emphasis on quality over quantity.

    If you’re blogging for inflated stats, you’re an idiot – that road leads to self-farking madness.

  4. It’s kind of like all the people who watch golf on TV and think they can go out and be just like Tiger Woods. Good luck with that…

  5. I suppose I am one of the crazies who like the blogging. It’s sort of taken a life of its own for me, and it makes me happy. I can, and do, spend hours learning about it, and every time I think “oh, I’m just going to start taking things down a notch” I end up writing a bunch of stuff anyways. I have too many ideas and not enough time to write them up.

    Most of my motivation comes from passion (which I believe you have to have in order to blog well) and from… well… how can I say this? A desire to provide a resource for others. Which sounds fake but is true. If I blogged “just for me”, it wouldn’t be much of a blog.

    As for self-promotion, discussion amongst the bloggers who write about the act of blogging itself have observed that they will make more sales for someone else’s book that they’re promoting, than for their own books when they self-promote.

    My situation is such that I do have the time for the audience building, with a timeline in years; I don’t know if, realistically speaking, most people do or don’t. People seem pretty impatient to reach fame, but I don’t see any free lunches around whatever way you take towards getting published.

    I wonder if I’m evil if I’m going to be writing a column about blogging advice for writers. I don’t want to turn them into bloggers (unless they want to); I just want to gently introduce some of the realities of the blogging world, and how they might be able to get some productive use of it all without thinking “I just have a blog, and then they will come!”

    I still get pissed when people tell me blogging is so easy, so why spend so much effort?

    Sigh.

  6. It’s kind of like all the people who watch golf on TV and think they can go out and be just like Tiger Woods. Good luck with that…

    It’s more like someone else watching golf on TV and thinking that other people should go out and be just like Tiger Woods, and telling them that they must attempt to do this. At least, that was the point I was trying to get across.

    And John? Sorry about mashing the dates =/. If the dates aren’t entirely an issue, I generally go by what I remember — but my memory for dates is not perhaps all it could be.

  7. Michelle Sagara:

    No worries; it’s a minor correction to something that detracts not at all from your larger point, which you made beautifully.

  8. I fully agree. I started blogging in 2006 sort of just for the heck of it and also as an experiment to get me writing more. On the latter part it worked wonders. I’m writing a lot more fiction now than I was in 2006 and I’m submitting more. That’s a good thing. As for getting famous and having millions of hits. Well, I imagine that takes a lot of work and patience and I guess I really don’t care (I mean this in that I’m not striving to get 10 bazillion hits, but I do like it when I get hits and comments and the like…who doesn’t?). I do my blog cause it’s fun and it gives me something entertaining to do. Plus, by paying attention to other blogs I learn a lot of things: writing, science, whatever. I never thought “oh, well Scalzi did it, so I can to” (or some other equally popular name). I don’t have the same blogging talent as you and don’t expect I ever will. I’m glad I have 50 people who go to my blog regularly. I think if you want to get into blogging just to get loads of hits and make money and blah blah, then you’re doing it for a lot of the wrong reasons. It’s like getting into writing fiction because you want to be Stephen King and loaded. Okay, it’s a nice thought, but you’re just going to disappoint yourself when it doesn’t happen (which is the most probable outcome anyway).
    There aren’t a lot of people making any decent money off of a blog, or even being able to promote whatever else they do efficiently. I learned about your work from randomly surfing Borders. I picked up Old Man’s War cause the cover looked pretty, read the back and went “that sounds cool” and a couple weeks later I read the book and was amazed. One of my favorites. Then I found out you had a blog. So in my case your blog didn’t do anything to promote yourself to me; clever packaging did that job :P. Then again, there have been books I have bought that I learned about from blogs, like Diana Pharaoh Francis’ “The Cipher”.
    So, basically, I agree. You do a blog because you want to. Not because you want to “be like Scalzi” or whoever. You do it because you like the idea, you want to try it, and you want to have fun. If all the hits and popularity comes later, woohoo, great. If not, so what? Did you have fun? Then what’s the problem?

    You sir, are awesome :).

  9. I’m a consumer, not an idiot. I can tell when someone is shilling.

    So, I think the rest of you should go and buy Michelle’s new book, because it is guaranteed to be made of “teh awesum”, as her other books are. I have Michelle’s The Hidden City queued up to be my lunchtime read this week.

  10. And before there was the blog, there was the email newsletter “The Weekly Whatever.” When you stopped sending it out, saying you were just going to post it on your website, I remember thinking, “How many people are going to make the effort to go to the website every week to read it? He’s going to lose most of his audience.”

    Foolish, foolish me.

  11. Personally I think people think about all this crap too hard. The reason to do a blog is because you want to.

    Unfortunately, happy marketing people think that a blog is one more way to drive buzz, and get people into blogging in order to generate buzz. Blogging is marketing is the new “SEO trick”. Depending on your view point, this is good or bad, some bloggers get thrown into doing this because it is used to generate buzz, and ends up being a lot of fun, others well fall flat on their face. All part of the fun of it. People do things for the oddest reasons. Usually money is involved somewhere.

  12. Really? I always thought the Whatever’s business model went like this:

    1.) Write something inflammatory (the Confederacy, George W. Bush, fanfiction, Republicans, gay people, creationism, taping pig products to a cat, etc.)
    2.) Generate massive multi-site flame wars, drawing in enormous quantities of traffic.
    3.) Write book.
    4.) Profit!

  13. Well, since we’re discussing of this blog, where are the old archives? The oldest post I could find is dated “March 18, 2002″ and, if I understand correctly, the blog is older.

  14. Thanks to some bad publishing decisions (like not tearing up the contract offer and going with an agent instead), I’m pretty much amusing myself without anything to market.

    Didn’t stop the blog suckage toward the end of my Typepad era.

  15. Not only is this very true (I started my site in 1993, and my book came out in 2001), but I’ll add that some publishing houses don’t get it.

    The publisher for my first book wanted to do a first print run of 5000 copies. I laughed at them, telling them we’d sell those out pretty fast. They squirmed, but upped it to 9000. Two weeks after the book came out I got a half-panicked call from my editor telling me to send in any revisions RIGHT NOW so they can start the second printing run. The first print run sold out in a month.

    They didn’t understand that I had spent years building an audience — an internet-savvy audience — who made a big run on the book when it hit Amazon. Well, big for a science trade book. :-)

    My new publisher seems to get it, and is being helpful with my online marketing ideas. Maybe they’re starting to get it now. I hope so!

  16. Gianluca:

    The older versions of the site were handrolled html, which I didn’t bother to replicate when I changed hosts in 2004. If you’re really interested in seeing them, go to archive.org and type in “Scalzi.com” in the Wayback Machine.

  17. Yeah, I know an author who was ordered by her editor to start a blog. The wacky part–unless I’m misunderstanding–was when they wanted her to start a shiny new one instead of letting her use her old fanfic LJ with over 200 people on her friendslist.

  18. My apologies if this has been asked before, but would you please share an estimate of how much time you spend writing and moderating _Whatever_?

    I’m guessing that you spend more time moderating the blog than writing in the blog (as prolific as you are), and that your work-day runs a heck of a lot longer than most people’s 9a-5p.

    I ask for purely selfish reasons (of course). I drink the Kool-Aid from the “blogging is teh roxxor” bowl, but my boss and coworkers are pushing me to start a blog for our nonprofit cancer funding group, and I’m…not so excited about the idea. The practical application seems daunting.

    So — how much of a time suck is blogging for you?

    Thanks,
    L

  19. As a LONG time reader of your blog (with sporadic vacations because, you know, it is not like we are married) I will say that the fact that you like to blog is a necessary factor to your appeal, but it is not sufficient by itself.

    The second factor is that you are good at it.

    I might like running marathons (not really, because I’m filled with fast-twitch instead of slow-twitch muscles, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that I like marathons (which I don’t)) but that does not by itself mean I am good at them.

  20. lynD:

    Some days it’s a lot, some days it’s hardly any time at all. It all depends on what else I’m doing and/or how hard I’m procrastinating.

  21. Another facet of this is that you go out of your way, whether by your own natural inclination or some devious marketing machinations, to create a sense of community here. The Self-Pimp threads, contests, et al. give the readers involvement. And as with Making Light, we keep coming back to see what the most interesting and funny of your readers (Jim and Nathan, I am sooooo looking at you) have to say, in addition to the pleasure of your company.

    That’s why Whateveresque was a brill move.

  22. I joined LJ to read the free works of an author. I discovered other authors also had LJs and “friended” them to keep tabs on when their new books would come out. I’ve discovered most authors have boring blogs. (“It’s snowing. Wrote 1500 words.”) That’s OK ’cause I’d rather they channel their creative energies into the books they write, but I realized that being an interesting blogger is an art form! So thanks for having mastered the art!

  23. If I ran my blog for marketing purposes, I’d swiftly go mad. I’d worry every time I posted something that I was turning off my audience (“audience”?) or freak out when hits or comments cycled up or down. Also, I’d be forced to join social networks, and I hate them. I never visit them, I hate going to my pages on them, it’s awful. First everyone was hopping on MySpace. Now it’s Facebook. When will the madness end?

    I occasionally get emails saying I should make my blog more XYZ or ABC but that was never the point. It was just me communicating, not on a loop or at a forum someone else owned, but on my own space. Read it, don’t read it. It’s free.

    I’m generally amused by the idea that people will read my books because of my blog, given that I read blogs all the time by authors I don’t read. Any time I say this on my blog though, I hear from blog readers who read my blog because of my books, or vice versa. I’m sure there’s a few.

  24. @Kate Vassar #20 : if you’re referring to who I think you’re referring to, then were I her editor I’d have done the same.
    A preexisting blog is nice, but if it prominently features male homoerotic slash it could not be what you want the innocent readers of a light toned alt-history/fantasy series to find when they look for the author’s website.
    I’ve got nothing against homoeroticism (although I largely favor female-on-female over male-on-male), but, you know, not everybody is as enlightened as me. :P

  25. The older versions of the site were handrolled html, which I didn’t bother to replicate when I changed hosts in 2004. If you’re really interested in seeing them, go to archive.org and type in “Scalzi.com” in the Wayback Machine.

    Thanks John. Before you can start spreading photoshopped pictures where you replaced one of the target’s family member with yourself, you MUST read every single target’s post, looking for peculiar events that you can mention in the comments implying your presence during the facts. The Stalker’s Manual is very clear on this, and I was getting worried.

  26. I’ve had a university website, mainly for classes, but with a few pages for rants and movie reviews (grin), since 2002. And a LiveJournal blog since 2005. My own website, click on Dr. Phil above, may have debuted 02.02.2008, but I’ve been thinking about it and writing content that I’ll be able to use or link to for years.

    Agent Rachel Vater wrote up some comments about author websites and blogs that got mentioned on another list I’m on. Her focus is on professionalism and providing a marketable public face which can be Googled, but she makes some interesting points.

    While I talk about the weather on my LJ blog a lot, it’s (a) because I drive 154 miles a day commuting in wintry West Michigan and (b) because I’m a storyteller and I like to tell a story. Nothing of the visibility or even the entertainment value of Herr Scalzi’s Whatever, but trying to post daily is important practice — websites and blogs which are never to rarely updated are not that interesting and don’t have nearly the promotional value that you’d think. (grin)

    Carry on!

    Dr. Phil

  27. Dr. Phil,

    Updating everyday is not as important as people think. (Blogosphere discussions about that among the bloggers who blog about blogging.)

    Basic principles are:

    1) Update in some reasonable interval. Weekly? Bi-weekly? Once a week is OK, once every two weeks may or may not be pushing it—it really depends on the type of blog, the subject, the audience. For writers, I suspect constant updates are not as vital.

    2) Your blog is as good as your last post. Because that’s what people see. If you have high turnover, not as important; if you don’t, *very* important. Better to have a great post and bi-weekly updates than to have a string of weak, uninteresting posts. Again, depends on the blog subject, audience, blah blah blah.

    Blogging doesn’t need to be stressful for writers. I really hate that apparently some publishers/agents are being clueless about this and stressing some writers out about it.

    ‘course, I usually turn hate into blogging/writing, so ’tis OK in the end.

  28. Also (Gianluca @ #27 again)… she’s writing novel-length male/female erotica and her LJ was a bit of everything with some male/male fanfic in it. It seemed to me that if the fanfic was the problem, she could lock it up and keep the readers, but what do I know? Maybe her editor thought that the male/male stuff would offend her male/female readers, or that it looked bad that she’d written fanfic before going pro. Either way, I don’t think the problem was that the editor thought people would be offended that there was pr0n in her LJ.

  29. To take a different perspective on this post, I’d like to point out that I did, in fact, wind up buying Old Man’s War because I found this blog. I’m living proof that taping bacon to your cat CAN sell a novel. On the other hand, if this place had been all Bacon Cats and whoring books, I certainly wouldn’t have hung around long enough to find myself standing in Borders thinking “what the hell, let’s see what this guy is all about.”

  30. I can’t keep a blog going for ten days, much less ten years. Trainwrecks are only entertaining if you are not the train. What I wrote yesterday, I will despise today for its failure to agree with my current frame of consciousness (resulting in its cold-blooded murder). I am too fickle. Fiction is sanitary and static. The other stuff: toxic and violent by comparison.

    I agree that one should blog because it brings them enjoyment. Otherwise it’s probably prostitution or exhibitionistic masochism.

  31. #36: I think you’re mostly missing my point, he says with a smile and a wink.

    #37: Is that a not so subtle jab at my moniker?

  32. awake on a train:

    If it was (rather like the Freudian moment in my comment I just noticed), it came from my subconscious, which does indeed have a hell of a backhand.

  33. awake on a train @ #36: Well, you know. Cherie Priest isn’t all saying nice things about my cat all the time, either (even though my cats are all very cute, and highly deserving of praise). She’s consistently entertaining on her blog, and does a highly righteous rant. But my first impression of her was a comment on kittypix.

    Do I need to bleep out the title of my favorite rant of hers? It’s here, but if you or your workplace’s net.nanny are upset by the f word you might want to pass.

  34. Ditto to 35: I also bought two paperbacks because of your blog (or maybe just OMW which encouraged me to buy the next one), and then passed them to someone who stayed up all night reading them, despite facing a busy next day.

  35. Authors who blog also need to be very careful. There is a contingent of people who willfully misunderstand what you write. Or they’ll take one sentence and read all kinds of hidden meaning into it. A carelessly crafted sentence can haunt you for friggin ever and lose you a lot of readers.

    DearAuthor.com has written several times about Author Foot in Mouth Disease. They love to take umbrage at any negative remark about romance. They recently took Holly Lisle to task for an innocent remark and got all snarky about something Paula Guran wrote on her Junobooks blog.

    I suggest if you’re ever caught in one of those snarkfests, ignore it. If you defend yourself, you’re just throwing chum to the sharks.

  36. Yes, making comments about the fanfiction community is also a way to get eaten by snarks. Neil Gaiman got it, too; although he made up by writing Gollum/Smeagol slash on his blog.

    So with the proper sense of humor, you too can deal with the snarks. Without it, ignoring is prolly the best thing you can do. If someone does ask about it in the comments, just shrug.

    But that sort of thing afflicts even non-writers. I know someone who has a blog about biking with her children across the US. She had an entire community of moms blast her blog for dragging children along on such a long ride. It was pretty sad.

    Such things pass, though.

  37. No hipster-here, I have been reading you since before my 8 year marriage began. I was proud of you when you sold your first book and sad with you when you lost your cat. I have watched Athena grow up and your hair run away from home. Thank you for your time.

  38. My blogging is haphazard. Mostly because I space things. Also because I have episodes of funk and despair. Clinical depression is a bitch. So I write about what get’s my attention. Some days nothing rouses me to exposition, other days I won’t shut up.

    Focusing is a skill I need to develop, and I applaud anyone who can focus on a task. Write about what you’re interested in, encourage communication, and comment on other people’s blogs. Won’t guarantee success, but it works a dang site better than not even trying.

  39. Scalzi’s blog calls to me because it’s not like he just posts cute pictures of cats. He taped bacon on a cat, took a pic, and POSTED it. That’s the special ingredient that makes his blog what it is. Scalzi = bacon. Blog = tape. Cat = me. Mwar please.

    For myself, I find blogging much easier than newsletters, even though the latter is a once-a-month thing. I can’t post crazy pictures in a newsletter, or have a mini-discussion, or turn into raging McRanty Pants. Something is lost in a newsletter.

    Initially, I blogged for my readers who were already familiar with my books and I hadn’t planned to update it daily. However, I discovered that I’m an anecdotal writer and thus began my love affair with blogging (I just went to check the archive dates–Holy Batbacon, has it really been three years?!). The joy to share yourself–that’s key to making a blog fun to read.

  40. The same thing happens with artists. We keep getting bombarded with the same advice that having a blog = incredible sales and fame, and it gets a little tiring. People point to the 2 or 3 success stories (out of how many millions of blogs?) and say, “see they because famous because of their blog and so can you.”

    I have my blog because, well, I tried and like the Proverbial Mikey, I liked it. It gives me an outlet, a place to talk about my art where people won’t roll their eyes at me. And hey, a few people read it, which is cool and fun. But I think I’d be just as happy talking to the void.

  41. Because I am a crazy nut who likes to blog, I spent a lot of last night ripping apart six myths about blogging bringing riches and glory, especially with respect to blogging and writing. Hopefully it will be useful for folks to deal with the people who say “c’mon blog! Instanto rise in audience!”

    I’m not an artist, so don’t know how far some of this applies to artists, but I suspect far enough.

    If anyone else has more myths for me to shred, please bring them along.

  42. I just remember that there was someone who complained when Cory Doctorow wrote something about his own stories (in translation, if I remember) on Boing Boing. Some people are over-sensitive to everything that looks even remotely like marketing, was my conclusion. (Also: some people think that a blog with lots of readers is some kind of public service.)

  43. I remember that, Aka. It ticked me off because I’d just met Cory, had no idea who he was, and his posts about his stories were helping me catch up with his work.

    Besides, if you don’t like the subject of a particular post, BoingBoing has dozens of other posts per day that you can go read.

  44. Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi, Ryk E. Spoor (who I knew originally as “Seawasp” of rasfw) are among the writers I might never have tried if I wasn’t familiar with them online first. Alas that my personal reading time has taken such a tremendous nosedive since I discovered newsgroups, blogs, and MMORPGs, those timesinks of the internet.

  45. Well, I have to admit that if the blog was geared towards marketing, it completely missed with me. I read all the books first and THEN found out you had a blog.

Comments are closed.