This Jason Matthews article first appear at TheBookDesigner.
At a recent writers conference I listened to a lecture from Laurie McLean of Foreword Literary, an agent I admire. She discussed the challenges of getting published and how writers can increase their chances by building a stronger author platform using social media and other tools. During the talk Laurie said something along the lines of, “At the very least, new authors should be blogging,” which was followed by a moment of silence from hundreds of aspiring authors seated in the auditorium.
That’s a bold statement, I thought, wondering how many throats just swallowed hard, the great majority belonging to writers who probably weren’t blogging. It’s ironic how Laurie’s comment affected me, since I’ve been recommending the same thing since 2010 while maintaining two blogs during that time. One is dedicated to things related to self-publishing, the other is for anything else in the universe that I feel like writing about.
And yet I’m still not sure how to quantify the importance of it; surely there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to whether an author should blog, how frequently to post or at what word count. These days when writers ask me for blogging advice, I revert to an “it depends” answer, although Ms. McLean may disagree and probably has ample evidence.
Of course I believe a blog boosts an author’s online presence. One that functions well can be an author’s HQ, leading to everything else the world might want to know about her/him. The social media and book links are there, the updates and events, the musings, sample chapters, maybe some photos and video.
But is a blog essential? Can one manage with just Facebook and Twitter, or perhaps by simply writing great books? If you don’t have a blog already, it’s important to know they can drain your time and energies. For newbies, there’s a significant learning curve to make the most of the tech involved. But even after the posts start piling up, building an audience takes time, and you may be blogging to crickets for months on end while only spammers leave comments. In worst cases, blogs can feel like a burden with no measurable reward. You may even question if the blog is helping you or hurting you as an author.
After the lecture and standing ovation, I asked Laurie if she would expand on her comment. Since she’s landed lucrative publishing contracts and has been in the writing business far longer than WordPress or Blogger, I took her reply to heart as an agent who understands many aspects of publishing that an indie author like me may never know.
She said, “I strongly believe that blogs should be a standard component of any writer’s toolkit. Not only does it get you writing on a regular schedule, it lubricates your writer’s brain, eases that fear of putting yourself out there in the world, facilitates networking with your peers and readers, and makes you focus on your author brand and how you want your work to be known.”
It’s About Writing
I have to agree because this is the crux: blogging gets you writing. Authors need that as athletes need exercise and musicians need to make music. And it doesn’t have to be the same kind of writing we do for our books. Blogging can an athlete’s cross-training or a musician’s jam session with friends, where we work on different muscles and skill sets knowing it benefits the whole and makes us better at what we do. That’s why I love my “anything in the universe” blog, where the most popular posts often have nothing to do with the subjects of my books. These cross-training posts are just stuff I find interesting and want to write about, like the life expectancy of NFL players.
Author platform boils down to online presence. Each element adds to the big picture (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, website, Amazon Author Central, Google Plus, YouTube), but having a blog is the crème de la crème if used well. Nothing else has the same potential as a blog used consistently over time, plus all those other elements can be implemented into it. People from all over the world routinely visit my blogs from posts written years ago, and these visitors arrive from thousands of different Google subject searches. For example, this morning someone visited my blog from a post I made in May of 2011 while plenty of others visited posts written at least two years back. Nothing else I do online has that kind of lasting power. Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus mentions come and go like paper flyers taped to street signs compared to the perpetual billboards of blog posts. If you like the concept of more bang for your buck, then blogging will reward your cyber investment better over time.
It’s Embracing Tech
In 2009 I recoiled at the thought of having a blog, not knowing exactly what one was and dreading another thing in my life that required maintenance. It sounded like work, and I didn’t know if I had time for it. You may feel the same way. Understandable. A Facebook friend summed it up by saying, “When I started out, I was scared of the site as I’m in my senior years and learning it nearly gave me a nervous breakdown. But now that’s a distant memory.” Like her, I also came to embrace the learning curve and even excel at it. The good news is how user-friendly these things have become.
How Frequent, How Many Words?
Here comes the real divide. Some advice says blog as much as you can, several times a week if possible. Others tout quality over quantity with more developed posts winning out in the long run. My belief is to blog however it fits into your schedule. As a reader, sometimes I prefer short messages with immediate gratification while other times I’m willing to delve into a topic. It’s smart to write both ways too. For those who fear the burden of regular, well developed posts, you can allow select others to add articles in the form of guest-blogging.
“It has been said over and over that you should write every day,” Laurie added. “A twice weekly, or even once weekly blog post, can add to achieving this goal of daily writing. I advise my clients to blog 1/3 of the time about their ‘product’ (works in progress, books for sale, etc.), 1/3 about some personal aspect of their lives (make sure it is something you want to share such as a hobby or interest rather than photos of your children and your home address), and 1/3 about the craft of writing (solving plot problems, tips on pacing, character development or dialogue, etc.). Follow this formula, write a 250-500 word blog post twice a week, and by the time you have a book to sell, you’ll already have an audience to market to.”
That’s good advice though I haven’t always followed it. On one of my blogs, I post about once a week. On the other, closer to once a month. This method doesn’t cause me to stress over them, which helps stay sane.
The most blog-induced stress I’ve experienced was when I posted every day for a month as an experiment, attempting to make the posts as interesting as possible. That was a writing challenge comparable to NaNoWriMo. By the end of the month, I was spent but the results were remarkable. Visitor traffic had more than doubled as did the number of subscribers.
Do they Sell Books?
My experience has been a mixed bag: the non-fiction blog sells non-fiction books better than my anything blog sells novels. This estimate is based on the number of Amazon links that get clicked by visitors, a helpful stat to monitor. A smarter approach is to think of them for building an audience and networking, and not to value them based solely on book sales.
What I’ve Found to Work
- blogging about topics that really interest me
- posting frequently when possible, or as seldom as once a month with quality articles
- doing it consistently for years
- making it engaging, asking questions to readers
- discussing topics that get a range of opinions, even controversial ones
- discussing new topics that people haven’t heard much about
What Doesn’t Work
- blogging primarily about my books or sample chapters
- writing about my daily happenings, life or family
- posting without much substance just to get something out there
Getting Started for Newbies
The free platforms at WordPress.com and Blogger are fine choices for authors on a budget. There’s no monthly hosting cost, but it’s wise to purchase a custom domain name at around $10 per year. WordPress.org is an upgrade for those willing to pay for more template options and monthly hosting. Also many websites have a blog tab or function enabling you to create a blog and website in one location.
Essentials that Benefit any Blog
- links to your social media sites, preferably easy to recognize icons
- links to your books on Amazon and other retailers, preferably icons
- subscription or follow links in two locations, one at the top of the page and another at the end of each post
- social media buttons for retweeting on Twitter, sharing on Facebook, Google Plus, Pinterest, etc.
- sharing enabled with your social media sites and Goodreads, etc. to display your latest post as they happen
- navigation to other pages (e.g., About – Contact – Sample My Books)
- mobile friendly features for cell phone and tablet visitors
Every author has different needs, time frames and skill sets. Like Laurie, I believe every author can benefit by having a blog, but I don’t think every author needs one. If you have extra time, want to improve your writing, want to bolster your online platform and are in this for the long haul, then yes, you should be blogging. If you’re writing to satisfy another goal and not sure how important it is to you, blogging may feel like a burden you don’t need. Or you may have limited time and the ability to write amazing books, which people read and share with others (the ultimate goal). In that case, you probably don’t need one either.
By the way, thank you to Laurie for letting me share these insights. She’s at Fuse Literary and knows her stuff.
What are your thoughts? Please share in the comments.