What Writing Online is Good For, October 2005 Edition

This line in this entry over at TechRepublic Site made me twitch a little:

Apparently, the trendy new way to get noticed by book publishers is to serialize your novel online and let the editors find you.

Well, okay, if one defines "trend" as this maneuver working for three speculative fiction authors over three years (actually two-and-a-half, as one of the authors noted was an odd-duck combination, in that portions of her novel were spotted online, and the physical manuscript of her novel was also rescued from the slush pile). Meanwhile, probably more than a thousand books were sold in the spec fic arena in the same timespan by the traditional method of submitting work for editorial consideration. If you’re an aspiring first-time author, I would, you know, look at at the odds involved before making a decision.

The author of the linked article does thankfully note the long odds involved:

every one of the authors discourages people from relying on the tactic as a way to get discovered (sound advice, by my analysis), but do recommend it as a way of getting your writing before an audience and working the kinks out.

To be entirely honest about it, however, if you are going to take the time and effort to put your writing online, I think it’s far less useful to put your fiction online than it is to spend some time creating an interesting blog and cultivating an audience for it. This is not an "either/or" situation, of course, as I have done both. But I will say that one of these you should do first, and that’s to work on your blog.

The reason why should be reasonably obvious if you look at your blog in strict marketing terms (which you shouldn’t do in real life, because no one likes reading a site that is obviously tacked up for marketing purposes. I’ll get to that later). Blogs are fabulous marketing tools because what they’re good for is getting people involved with you as a writer; they’re tuning in to read what’s going on in your head and in your life, and to a very real extent are sharing your life with you. They commiserate when you suffer a setback, and congratulate when you get ahead, and otherwise view you as part of their circle of acquaintances — not just some writer, but someone they know and (provided you have comments and/or answer e-mail) interact with. In other words, at some point some percentage of them stop being merely readers and become fans.

Fans — and again, we’re talking in strict marketing terms — are useful. They’re useful because they’re likely to be proactive not only in buying any non-blog-related writing output you might create, but because they’ll also help you sell your work to others, just like fans of other creative people help those folks as well. They (probably) won’t be able to help you sell a book to a publisher, but once you sell the book, they can be there to help give the book a decent send-off. That in turn will be useful to your publisher.

Indeed, I think as more time goes on, more and more publishers will be looking at first-time authors and asking what sort of "fandom" they already have. If I were an editor and I was presented with two first-time authors, one of whom was not online, and another who was and had a couple thousand people visiting their blog on a daily basis, all other things being equal, I’d go with the writer who is already online. That’s a couple thousand people I don’t have to introduce this writer to, and possibly a couple thousand people who can help me sell that writer as an author. First-time author unit sales are usually low enough that a couple thousand blog readers can make a real and significant impact to a first time author’s sell numbers. 

I don’t expect such considerations will trump competent writing — given the choice between an exquisitely-written novel by a nobody and a crap novel by someone with a popular blog, I would hope an editor and publisher would decide the exquisitely-writing author was worth cultivating. But when the two writers are of equal competence, why wouldn’t an editor go for the one that brings readers to the party? I certainly know the relatively large readership of the Whatever is a selling point in my publishers’ eyes.

Having said all that, I think it’s also true that the moment you start treating your site readership like monkeys to be marketed to, you run the very real risk of losing them. I think one’s readers are happy to celebrate one’s achievements, but they know the difference between you celebrating with them, and you marketing to them. Not every reader wants to be treated as a consumer, and this is even more of the case in the online world. If you’re a writer and you’ve spent the time cultivating a relationship with people (and they with you), they’re going to feel betrayed if the tone of your site devolves purely to "and here’s another thing of mine to buy!" I don’t think people mind when an author says such things — authors write books with the hopes of selling them, and most people get that — as long as it’s not the only thing an author says. Such things need to be part of the conversational and narrative flow of a blog or journal, not a disjointed break from it.

To hammer this point one final time: Yes, a blog is a great way to market yourself. And the minute you think of your blog primarily in marketing terms is the minute you kill its usefulness. People aren’t coming to your site to be marketed to; they’re coming to be entertained and to catch up with you. Be real, or you’re going to lose them.

Now, if you do want to post creative work online, I strongly suspect it helps to have already been engaged in the online world in other means. I posted Old Man’s War on the Whatever after I’d been online for more than four years; by that time I had a couple thousand people a day coming by to see what I was up to. The reaction to OMW was stronger and more immediate than the reaction to Agent to the Stars, which I posted in March of 1999, when I only had a couple hundred people visiting every day (see what I mean about it taking time to cultivate an audience?). No matter how you slice it, if you want whatever fiction you post online to be appreciated and noticed, you need to develop an online presence first.

If you don’t want to bother generating an online presence before posting creative work online, here are some of the problems you can expect: Posting creative writing out of the blue just means you have this big mass of verbiage online; no one knows its provenance, which means they’re less willing to take the time with it, because, after all, who are you? Creative writing is also more difficult to produce on a constant basis (particularly if you’re aiming for quality), meaning that you can’t update on a daily or near-daily basis, which is the most desirable frequency for writing online. Finally, creative writing is something akin to a performance, while blog writing is closer to a conversation. By and large I’ve found people want to talk back when they’re reading online.  Upshot here: If you expect simply posting creative stuff online is going to open doors, you’re probably delusional. It takes time — lots of time.

The good news is that it’s now easier to develop an online presence than it was before. There are more options to do it simply,and  the communities are significantly more developed (particularly in places like LiveJournal and AOL Journals (nb: I work for the latter)). There are also indeed a number of editors and agents online, particularly those focused in genre like SF/F, Horror and Romance, so it’s not entirely inconceivable that you might get to know them and they might see your writing. You might even be asked to send in some writing, even if you haven’t put your fiction online (ask Jo Walton about that). But the real advantage will be that people get to know you, and get to like what you have to say. And that might have useful carryover into the rest of your writing life.

Can you plan on it? No. But you can work with it, if it does happen. And in the meantime, you might just simply enjoy writing online, which is a reward in itself.

17 Comments on “What Writing Online is Good For, October 2005 Edition”

  1. Is there any one thing that you can attribute your on-line popularity? Realizing that building an audience takes time, was there one pivotal point where you leapt from a couple of hundred visitors a day to the thousands?

    I mean, aside from the obvious answer that people enjoy reading what you have to write. I am thinking something had to draw them here in the first place.

  2. James Goodman:

    “Is there any one thing that you can attribute your on-line popularity?”

    Not really. Being reasonably and regularly entertaining over seven years is most of it. However, aside from slow accretion, here are a couple of other factors:

    1. When I moved from roll-your-own html posting to Movable Type, my audience doubled in the space of a month, which I attribute to the ability to post comments and also the relative ease that MT provides in creating/recording trackbacks.

    2. Anytime I write a particularly well-linked entry (for example, the “I Hate Your Politics” piece in 2002 or the “Being Poor” piece this year) I get a significant boost in short term visitation, and generally a long term boost on the order of an additional 10%-25%. Prior to the “Being Poor” piece, for example, I was averaging around 10K – 12K visitors a day, with occasional spikes into 15K territory; since then I average 12K – 15K, with occasional spikes into 20K territoy.

    3. Writing the books helps too; people know me from other writing formats (not everyone who reads my books read me online first, it seems).

  3. Huh, I was one of the first writers for TechRepublic years and years back.

    Their quality has been pretty iffy since the dot bomb. Some great, some horrible, and a lot of industry bullshit.

  4. Yes, John. Thanks for posting this. It’s good advice.

    And for ease-of-use, I think a basic Blogger account is hard to beat. Yes, there are better, more powerful, and more flexible solutions, but Blogger is free, easy to use, and easy to customize. Google seems to have gotten most of the bugs ironed out.

  5. But not everyone who has a blog can do it successfully. I flamed out in a spectacular way at livejournal, and I’ll be paying the price for years to come – many people in the industry think I’m insane, perverted, and slightly retarded to boot. I’d give anything to NOT be known by people right now, becaue what they think of me is based on their opinion of me as a shitty blogger, not as a writer. Having an audience of thousands (or even just a hundred) only works if you know how to handle it.

  6. I would agree. I don’t think being a blogger is a requirement, or even desirable to some people, merely that it has to potential to be very useful once one has sold one’s work.

  7. Having said all that, I think it’s also true that the moment you start treating your site readership like monkeys to be marketed to, you run the very real risk of losing them.

    Amen. My agent, who tends to view blogs (thanks primarily to mine) as a magical cure-all to anonymity blues, always wants me to try to sell harder from the net. But the best audience response always comes from ordinary blogging and regular “here’s my real life” entries. “Hey, today I ate half a wheel of mozzarella cheese dipped in vinegrette because I was depressed” beats out “you can also buy my book here” any day of the week.

    I’ve spent about 5 years building up my audience through the blog; and the surest way to blow that is to turn it into one big fat “buy my stuff” commercial.

    I’d rather post kitty pictures anyway.

  8. Kitty!

    Naturally, I agree: The irony here is I’m about to post a big honkin’ entry about my book which comes out on Monday. But like I said, people don’t mind when you self-promote, as long as self-promotion isn’t all you do.

  9. Another option: If you’re writing non-fiction, create not a personal blog, but a blog on the topic you write about. The blog becomes a way of organizing your research notes, and if you start to build popularity as a side-effect, so much the better.

  10. Great post. I’m in the Scalzi-1999 blog presence stage, just starting to see daily visitor numbers in the hundreds. Is this enough of a presence to post fiction effectively? Did Agent to the Stars significantly help propel you into the thousands/day? And once you have enough readers, I imagine that a few chapters or a short story a year, placed in the side-bar with its own comments section, can really help keep them. What about works with odd lengths or difficult to market subjects? I’ve written a 100k fantasy novel with my 11-year-old daughter, I have a 50k SF novella that’s been sitting on my computer for a year. I’m going to self-publish the first, mainly as a way to explore the publishing and promotion side of the business (and then there’s my daughter’s reaction when she sees a story, into which she put a lot of effort, available at Amazon.com). I’m planning to post the novella on my blog, because I’ve moved on to other projects.

  11. Chris Howard:

    “Did Agent to the Stars significantly help propel you into the thousands/day?”

    Not really. Writing on a regular basis in the Whatever and being at least moderatly interesting was rather more interesting. I think the best way to approach posting fiction, etc is that it’s a bonus for the readers you already have as opposed to a way to bring people in: A retention tool as opposed to an acquisition tool.

    If you’re going to serialize, I don’t think length matters one wy or another, as long as it’s interesting all the way through.

  12. Well, since I’m the man responsible for the blog post in question, and I’m an unabashed fan of Whatever, I’ll be the first to apologize if my intent was lost in the blog post. The first sentence was meant to read as sarcasm, or at least cynicism. I certainly wouldn’t recommend online publishing as a shortcut to success.

    Though I suppose I should actually have some success before I’m entitled to voice an opinion on achieving it.

    I appreciate the feedback (and the crosslink; you’re the first celebrity to quote my blog instead of my Trivia column), and I’ll do my best to put it to use.

    Back to the salt mines.

  13. I think I could certainly make more effective use of my blog, and I couldn’t agree more on your comments about getting fans out of readers. I am a huge fan of Karen Traviss’ blog, and only read her first (very good) novel after a month or so there.

    Similarly I only found your blog through googling Subterranean submission guidelines or something, but am addicted. It’s something about intelligent yet reasonable discussion, drags me back. I should stop going to new blogs, they’re sucking my time away! I’ll even buy one of your books soon…

    Oh, and make Scott Lynch the fourth author to have been picked up in that fashion!

  14. Hi

    Maybe you would like to know about an easy to use directory that you can use to advertise your blog to other bloggers.

    It is a picture directory and you can find it on http://www.ilikeblogs.com

    For the first bloggers to use it, it’s free.


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