December 20th, 2009 by Will Entrekin

The Trouble with Blogging, or: A Writer’s Dilemma

Just read a post by Jane over at dearauthor.com: “Books as a Business”. It’s a mostly good article with some interesting analysis, though I would change the title, at least; books are what we read, while publishing is a business.

Which aligns with my previous couple of posts, staying on the theme of writing as creative endeavor and publishing as business endeavor. The other day, I was chided on Twitter by dietpopstar for using the word “monetizing” with regard to writing, and who told me I’d “lost my way” as I’m supposed to be “a fucking artist,” and such considerations were “vulgar.” She’s arguably right about my using the word “monetize,” I admit; I probably should have chosen a different word or phrase, like maybe “I gotsta get myself paid, too, yo.” Which, at least, is funnier.

And that’s the trouble with blogging. Not the funnier part. The part about having to get paid.

I started blogging on MySpace in 2005, and over less than two years the obscure popularity went to my head. I had lost my way then, caring as I did about subscribers and comments and kudos. But see, back then, agents and editors were just starting on their whole “You need a platform if you want a publishing contract” spiel, which I’d call a digression except it’s still prevalent today, which at least makes it an extraordinarily long and consistent digression, but a digression nonetheless. I mean, I know it’s saying that agents and editors require aspiring authors to have a platform in addition to having a great book for readers, but that phrase I just emphasized is never really mentioned, is it? I suppose most people who offer that advice hope that it is already understood, but I don’t think it is.

I admit I got distracted. I admit I got wrapped up and burnt out and it’s really extraordinarily silly to say both.

It was part of the reason for my taking a break from posting writing online for most of this past year.

The other part of the reason was compensation. I’m going to let the Joker make my point here. To wit:

I think that’s a very cogent thought. I still have mixed feelings about the movie, but I think he nailed that one.

For further support, here’s Harlan Ellison discussing the subject in Dreams With Sharp Teeth, in an excerpt that could easily be called “Fuck You, Pay Me”:

I can’t say I’ve spent twice as much setting up and maintaining this blog as I’ve made from it solely because I’ve made nothing at all from it. Most people don’t make any money from blogging. When they do, it’s usually from selling the blog as a book, or maybe from ads.

Now, I have no issue with ads. I used to work in advertising, and I still love great commercials, but this site’s traffic–which has gone to null after I basically left it for a year–is basically null, so I doubt there’s any real point to advertising.

Point is, it’s a lot of effort and work and writing to what is often little end.

Often.

Big word.

Because there are lots of ways to gets paid that gots little to do with money. The Nervous Breakdown is a good example of this; a great community of readers and writers coming together, and I’m not sure I’ve had a more rewarding experience online. Also, I got a drink at the reading in New York! So that’s worth it!

No, but really, my point is that blogging can be a major dilemma for a writer, and especially one just starting out. The writing is about creativity and stories and awesomeness, but publishing and distribution aren’t, and I confess I never started writing just to share the fun stories I was writing; I started writing to share the fun stories I was writing and become a best-selling author and get from it the sort of amount of money and fame that would make Solomon blush.

We see how well that’s turned out so far.

And I realize there’s no romanticism in admitting that. I realize that the idealization is that it’s writing! It’s a solitary pursuit committed by romantic souls who yearn to tell the stories in their hearts to millions of people.

But that’s never been what I’ve thought of it.

It’s a craft. I put as much careful thought and planning into the execution of a good, solid bookcase or bedframe or desk as into a story or novel. I don’t believe in a “muse”; I believe in words and putting them down. Oh, don’t get me wrong; I’ve always believed in sharing it with go-jillions of people–otherwise, why would I write anything down in the first place?

But the idea of writing as a “calling” or something? That it’s some pure pursuit in search of truth or something?

If I thought that idea had any credence whatsoever, I wouldn’t have gone to grad school to study things like craft and structure and story.

***

Then again, though, I also understand it’s no longer enough to just write good books. If it were, I wouldn’t be working on an MBA in business and marketing. If it were, a lot of writers a lot of people have never heard of would be making millions of dollars. And be more well known. And, you know, be read more widely.

There must be a synergistic relationship, but for a writer, or at least for me, it’s somewhat difficult to maintain a balance. How do you separate writing high quality essays and stories and books from writing stuff for a website? The Nervous Breakdown is great in that regard, because it’s high quality stuff for a website, but again, no payment, but again, well compensated. That community does create a totally brilliant experience for all involved.

But then again, I can’t give my creditors my heightened sense of community when they send me account balance statements.

Well. I mean. I suppose I could. But I’m not sure they’d know what to do with it, and besides that, have you ever tried to put a stamp on a heightened sense of community? Slippery little bugger.

Joking aside, part of the problem may be that the best way to market writing is more writing. Filmmakers create a trailer that hopefully gets you to buy their DVD. Musicians put up a few tracks you can stream free and then purchase for a buck or two. Writers–er. Write to get your attention for more writing. This is probably why book trailers have taken off like they have. Like the one for Greg Olear’s Totally Killer:

Which is totally awesome.

Maybe also why Henry Baum (North of Sunset), a writer and musician, is putting together a series of tracks to highlight chapters for his The American Book of the Dead.

Really interesting idea, I think.

***

I think part of the problem, at least for me, is seeing agents and editors make bold claims about platforms without much talk about great books. Then again, considering Going Rogue, Hooking Up with Tila Tequila, and the Twilight series, it’s pretty clear that great books aren’t what command huge advances, publishing contracts, or spots on the best-seller list, respectively.

Thing is, I chose those examples precisely because it gives a moment to talk about platforms. Tequila’s was, arguably, MySpace and VH1; does either audience strike you as likely to rush out to buy books, and hers, if I’m not mistaken, came and went pretty quickly. I really haven’t heard anyone else mention it. I only do because I used it as a case study, so I’m somewhat familiar with it, and because we had similar roots (though hers are darker, whoa!). Palin, on the other hand, had a very different platform of right-wing conservative people who were interested in politics and voted, the latter of which I think is key. No, they didn’t vote in enough number to get her into office, but she is a person who helped inspire people to take action; from a marketing standpoint, that’s one of the most difficult things to achieve.

Worth noting, too, as I learned via Ron Hogan’s Twitter feed, Palin didn’t need an agent, and didn’t have one; rather, she had enough interest from publishers she hired a lawyer to broker the deal. Obviously an enviable position to be in.

But I think the final example is the most interesting, at least from the viewpoint of writing and marketing. Because Stephenie Meyer never blogged and didn’t have Twitter or Facebook. Still doesn’t, so far as I can tell. Neither does Rowling, but neither existed when she started out. And Meyer has already broken beyond Twilight (with The Host).

But still I read agents often opine that they don’t really look at a website unless it’s getting upwards of 30,000 unique visits per month (or some such). About how important it is to build and maintain a platform.

Here’s my point: the most important thing on which writers can build a good platform is good writing, regardless of where it may be, and good writing is pretty much the best way to market more good writing. Also: no amount of site visits or Twitter followers is going to make bad writing good, but trying at either can distract from attention to craft (this is, alas, from experience. I wonder how much better a writer I might be if I hadn’t been so distracted by subscribers and numbers). Finally, and here’s a big one; for people who hope to make a living from writing, marketing and maintaining a website represents a challenge at finding balance if only because it’s sometimes difficult to figure out which writing you’re hoping to make money from, which you’re hoping to use to market, and which you’re just trying to share. Because those three aspects are often not mutually exclusive.

This is a dichotomy and dilemma I fear I will continue to struggle with.

Well. Until I have a go-jillion readers who each give me a dollar so I have a go-jillion dollars and then I can stick it in my ears and bathe in moolah and I won’t have to worry about it anymore.

Because that’ll be awesome.

Comments

19 Responses to “The Trouble with Blogging, or: A Writer’s Dilemma”
  1. A popular blog doesn’t make one’s writing good, but it may make one’s bad writing more marketable.

  2. Nice website, Michael, and yes, exactly. I wonder, though, if a popular blog is an easier way to a publishing contract than writing a good book. I think that’s the part I see as a problem. Or dilemma. Or something.

    I suppose it depends on how one defines “good book,” of course, and how difficult it is to write one. I’m sure mileage varies.

    One would hope, for example, that a blog would get popular by way of good writing, but there again, Twilight proves good writing is not key to popularity.

  3. Interesting stuff, Will. And thanks for the TK shout-out.

    For what it’s worth, I had no platform of any kind when my book got sold. In fact, when I met with the editors, I was afraid that they would pass because of my lack of platform. Only when I had the book deal did I venture out in search of a platform.

    Personally, I think the less you (meaning any writer, including me) spend thinking about money, the better. Audience, yes, but not money. I think it has a paralyzing effect…all it can do is make you cynical. The templates for what we’re doing are not Palin or Meyer, anyway. Those two are both, in effect, lotto winners. A great many writers in the canon made very little money during their lifetimes. Alas…

  4. Thank Greg. Glad you liked it. It’s so hard to write about, and to keep one’s eye on the prize. Which you’re totally right about, because the prize is more readers. Reaching an audience better and more effectively and delivering to them what they want.

    You’re also, of course, right about Palin and Meyer. It’s actually rather difficult to correlate publishing examples, because every book is so different.

  5. Another part of the issue, though, is that, in the traditional model, good writing doesn’t always get noticed. Thirty years ago, even if you were a great writer, you still needed the support of editors and publishers in order to find your audience. These days, it’s possible to find your audience directly. And this can be useful to writers, good and bad, whose ability to draw an audience may not have been obvious from the writing itself.

  6. WE – You picked good examples; I didn’t mean to sound like I was knocking them. I meant it more as a good thing…compare/despair and all that.

    MBC – On the whole, I think it’s better to be doing this now, because of what you suggest…there IS a way to find an audience, if you’re willing to. Some of it is luck, of course, but then, what isn’t? The good news is that, unlike in the music industry, agents and editors ARE on the lookout for good writers…whereas record execs stopped cultivating talent decades ago. I often read something and am unwowed, but I rarely if ever read something that didn’t deserve to be published. If that makes sense. The online forum means it’s easier for agents and editors to find us, which is a good thing.

  7. @Michael: The sense of empowerment–in fact, the actual empowerment–you mention is one of the single greatest things about the Internet. There are few things more personally, professionally, and even spiritually satisfying than finding, reaching, and serving an audience. Unfortunately, it can also go the other way; now that everyone has a computer and an Internet connection, everyone wants to believe they can write. And they can. Just not all of them actually well.

    @Greg: Oh, I didn’t think you were knocking them, just furthering your point about examples. What you mention about agents and editors being on the lookout for good talent is one of the great things about being online, and your point about being unwowed and deserving to be published is great, too. Books are so subjective, and maybe more so than any other medium because we as readers do so much of the work in our heads; there are as many different imaginings of what Taylor looks like as there are readers of Totally Killer, and they’re all totally right. I’ve read a handful of books I’ve wondered what their publishing houses and editors were thinking, but mostly it’s a matter of not falling in love at first chapter. Then again, I’m also generally not so wowed by Pulitzer, NB, or even Nobel prize winners, so my taste may just be a bit funky; I certainly can’t make an argument they didn’t deserve publication, mostly. But, then, I wonder if things are changing so everything deserves publication; there’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of putting everything out there and letting the culture decide for itself.

  8. Fuck You, Pay Me

    That.

    It bears repeating.

  9. Thanks for the article. Found this through Twitter, re-tweeted. It covers much of what I’ve been considering, having launched my own publishing company two months ago–this after having one novel publishing by a conglomerate, and the next seven rejected (with a different agent championing each work). The Internet is awash with try this, do that, free this, hook readers, but I spent time in commercial television and as an international Marketing Communications Manager–not a happy puppy during this time–but much of it is the same hamburger they’ve been propagating off-line for years. We’ve all finding our legs in this shifting, hopeful, possibly quicksand etherland. We’ll see, mostly through posts like this, and It Will Take Time. But mostly I think it is done by writing well, releasing it, letting it be known, repeat.

  10. You’re welcome, Vincent. Glad you found it useful. Interesting background; I’ve got the commercial television roots myself. You’re totally right; everything is awash with new ideas, and perhaps this writing well, letting it be known, repeat really is the best way to find some level of making a living; we writers have pretty much always written on spec, so maybe this is just the logical extension of that former principle. Difference being, of course, we’re writing it and sharing it and know people are reading and enjoying it but still not yet getting paid, which can be frustrating. Good luck with that publishing company; will definitely check that out. I think the level to which more and more writers are willing to do it themselves is pretty awesome. Provided, I don’t necessarily always think the product is, but then again, I don’t think all books are awesome, anyway.

  11. I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot myself lately, and I think you nailed it when you said that agents and editors never mention that aspiring authors need to have a platform in addition to having a great book. A lot of aspiring writers that I’ve met have taken the “platform” concept to heart at the expense of their “serious” writing. Or, to put it another way, I know a lot of writers who spend so much time blogging about writing that they don’t do any other writing (myself, at times, included). I wonder if part of this has to do with the immediate gratification of blogging; I’ll be the first to admit that I like having my voice “out there,” and blogging lets me get it out there that much more quickly and easily. But to what end? In my more paranoid moments, I wonder if the ease of blogging is part of some vast conspiracy to separate serious, dedicated writers from those who are more easily distracted or in love with seeing their own words in a public forum. More optimistically, though, I like to think of blogging as a social act, an essential part of participating in the writing community — and your site does a great job of promoting dialogue along these lines.

  12. Thanks, Marc. I think you’re right; it’s really easy to get wrapped up in blogging–the comments and the feedback and the instantaneous gratification–and forget why we’re blogging in the first place. Out of enjoyment and to deliver high quality content in the hope of building an audience, as Greg mentioned is one thing, but doing it for increasingly higher numbers and stats as a way to build a platform is another. Arguably, neither is wrong, but the former is probably more fulfilling. One great thing, though, is that we writers have a place to discuss this kind of thing now, by way of Twitter and blogs about writing and business. It really is very empowering, and in a very real way is making what was once a solitary act–sitting alone in a room making up stories–more social, as you note. It’s truly awesome that when there is a dilemma like this one, we can know we’re going to have a lot of other really smart writers contributing to the discussion about it.

  13. If you’re really good at something, you don’t need to get paid.

  14. Lee: You know, I’m a pretty good cook, for the most part, but I am not sure how to prepare being “really good at something,” to put it on the table. No, but seriously, I totally don’t understand what you mean.

  15. A book trailer. That’s so awesome.

    Also: I don’t understand what Lee means by, “If you’re really good at something, you don’t need to get paid.” As far as I’m concerned, it’s the complete opposite.

  16. [...] The Trouble with Blogging, or: A Writer’s Dilemma On artistry, writing, being a businessperson and the problem with platforms. [...]

  17. “It’s a solitary pursuit committed by romantic souls who yearn to tell the stories in their hearts to millions of people.”

    Wow.

    I’m so glad I found your blog again.

    And so glad we both escpapred the trappings of Myspace.

  18. I thought I knew you from myspace. I used to be a big blogger there, went my the name “Coqueto”

    Had a hell of a time and whetted my appetite for writing, and I did make some money there selling my work. However, since that platform is DEAD now, it does feel like it might have been a waste of time, as now I will have to start from scratch if I want to build an audience once more. I don’t care to spend that much time AGAIN, so I am not sure how far I will take it. I do have a novel out now, and will have my next one out before year’s end.

    I am glad to see you doing well here, Will. Kudos!

  19. Hi, Samuel. Yes, I think I remember you. So many of the pseudonyms blur.

    Congratulations on your novel. Honestly, with the transience of Internet culture and so many websites that catch on for a bit only to subsequently become a ghost town, I think having a novel is probably the best foundation for a platform one can find. It’s only been recently, after I’ve increased the breadth of my own work available, that I’ve felt comfortable writing more to a hopefully-getting-wider audience.

    So all best!

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