My first attempt was in 2009 using Blogspot, and I got five posts into things before canning it because my random posts were barely as exciting as burnt toast.
A year later, I gave it another shot on Blogger, designing the blog to sync up with the publication of my book Unplugged. Since it was a nonfiction book, it gave me clearer topics to focus on – video games and digital culture. Blog No. 2 was far better than Blog No. 1 but it still only lasted a few months before it started to feel like mind-numbing, soul-sucking work…so I quit. Again.
My latest attempt to run a blog started in April 2018, and it’s still going strong at OnlyPictureBooks.com. Lately, I’ve been thinking about why this one worked while the others failed. To get to the heart of this dilemma, I sought advice and tips from blogging successes like Jane Friedman and John Scalzi, who each had a lot to offer.
What I’ve learned is that nearly all new blogs fail within six months. Here are common reasons why:
1. ‘So-and-so blogs, so I should too!’
It’s easy to slip into the mindsight of “Well, I love the writing of (Chuck Wendig, Meg Gardiner, Neil Gaiman, Seth Godin, George R.R. Martin, Jenny Lawson, etc.), so if I do what they do – meaning have a blog – perhaps I’ll be as successful as they are!”
This is pure nonsense. These writers aren’t successful BECAUSE they blog, but IN SPITE OF the time, energy, and focus they put into those successful blogs. Most of them blog because they like to blog – they aren’t doing it to build a career or snare the attention of agents and editors. Writers who want their own careers to follow the blueprint of these celebrated authors would be better served to mirror the writing habits and commitment to excellence in their books.
2. ‘Blogs are a place to unleash my creativity.’
Jane Friedman – who runs janefriedman.com/blog, one of the most influential writing blogs on the web – has the following advice for such creative types: “Bloggers need acute insight into their readers’ hearts and minds, and they have to translate that insight into headlines that drive clicks and shares. While blog posts do need substance – quality wins over the long term – they’re also a form of copywriting. Writers who get too creative or clever or meandering will have a tough time. Most online reading is task-oriented and problem-driven. If you want people to linger over and treasure your words, consider an email newsletter instead – or simply stick to writing books.”
In short, if you’re not coming at it from a focused business perspective, you’re not likely to find lasting satisfaction OR success.
3. ‘Why write about one thing when I can write about EVERYTHING!’
My first two blogs didn’t have a distinct niche. My current blog does, and it’s evident right from the URL: OnlyPictureBooks.com. But it’s more than that – in my pre-launch months of research and mulling, I noticed that while there are quite a few picture book review blogs, all of them have single reviewers. What are the odds that one person is equally qualified to critically review the text AND images?
I knew I could do exactly what they did, but why would I want to? That’s like wanting to start up a burger joint where your signature sandwich is two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions on a sesame seed bun. That’s just a Big Mac clone. If you want a Big Mac, you just go to McDonald’s.
So, that got me focused on finding my own hook to distinguish myself from the competition. I finally settled on having multi-vocal picture book reviews. That’s my hook. With my writing background, I’m the text expert. And for each review, I also bring in a well-qualified picture book artist to handle commenting on the image side, making each review a multi-vocal effort. Having a deep pool of artists allows for a variety of voices to help keep things fresh, too.
4. ‘Go big or go home!’
Blogger extraordinaire John Scalzi (whatever.scalzi.com) explains that many new bloggers fail because they underestimate the bandwidth it requires. “People feel like they need to post daily (or more) and then feel guilty when they don’t,” he says, “and then they resent how much time they feel they have to give to the blog, and then they avoid it. So, my advice here is that while regular posting is good (it keeps people coming around), it’s best to feel your way about what ‘regular’ means for you: Once a week, a couple times a week, every couple of weeks, or whatever. Again: It works when it’s fun, not an obligation.”
I post every Monday morning on my blog – once a week. Period. And each week of the month has a clear area of focus.
Week 1: Picture book reviews
Week 2: Author and/or illustrator interviews
Week 3: Educational activities
Week 4: Industry insider interviews (with agents, editors, and publicists)
Occasional bonus goodies (because some months have 5 Mondays)
While I wish I could post three times a week or even daily, I just don’t have – as Scalzi said – the bandwidth for that level of commitment. For me, once a week is totally doable and never feels like a burden. To avoid burnout and guilt, find the posting frequency that works for you – and stick to it.
5. ‘Goals are for soccer players.’
Many people decide to blog in order to “make money” or “get my name out there.” But what does that mean? Are we talking making $25/month or $500/month? Finding five new fans or 50 new fans a month? If you don’t have a clear bull’s-eye, you’ll never know if you hit the target.
Everything I do on my blog is designed to provide real value to writers, illustrators, teachers, librarians, parents, and industry insiders like agents and editors. To this end, I had two realistic goals for my first 12 months of blogging.
Goal 1: Average 100 new unique views per month – so that was 1,200 by the end of year one.
Goal 2: Ensure that I had three first-rate authors and industry insiders ready to go for the first three months.
I managed to hit both. Had I not lined up at least a few interviews in advance, I might’ve given up on the blog because chasing down people last-minute can be a nightmare. And had I aspired for 20,000 views per month or something equally crazy, I’d have quit out of irritation that not enough people were paying attention.
Articulating clear goals is helpful but only if they’re achievable.
Despite all I’ve shared above, plenty of writers blog and blog well. It might be a fine choice for you, too, and while there are many well-known reasons why (it’s a resume/hiring tool, networking opportunity, and writing practice; and through it, you can build self-discipline, document your life, learn new things; etc.), here are three of my favorite writing-career-related reasons for blogging:
1. It builds a brand.
“My blog has been around for 21 years,” notes Scalzi, “and has seen the rise and fall of several generations of social media. [My blog’s] entirely in my control, and I decide what gets posted there. Having control of a site means having better control of one’s career.”
It’s important for writers to be findable on the internet, and those who can effectively control what people find have a stronger brand. A quality blog can be part of that brand by clearly demonstrating your ability to write well, your professionalism, and your knowledge. A website is also an online property that you own, unlike social media profiles, where an author’s reach can be dramatically affected by one tweak of an algorithm – or lost entirely if a platform fades from popularity or goes under. The readers who read what you write in your blog become part of your platform – how big of an audience you have. It’s something industry folks yearn for more writers to have.
2. It gives your career definition.
By posting every Monday at my blog since April 2018, I’ve expanded my writing career in three key ways:
Many picture book writers, illustrators, editors, and agents are now aware I exist.
I continue to better understand what makes a good picture book work, which is helpful as I’ve wanted to publish a such a book for some time.
I have a very good sense of the picture book landscape since many of the top presses regularly send me review copies.
Plus, I don’t think I’d have one of the top kidlit agents in the business without my blog, and I have many new picture-book-loving friends as a result, too. Those were all part of my “why do this?” wish list I made long before I bought the URL and fired off my first post.
My blog helped me redefine who I am as a writer. To put it plainly, for two decades, I’ve been known as a writing generalist who’s written poetry books, novels, textbooks, anthologies, illustrated humor, and more. These days? I’m as likely to be thought of as a kidlit person, which is exactly where I’d like my career to be.
3. It creates opportunities.
Scalzi is surprised at how unintentionally beneficial his blog has been. “I’ve sold several books through it,” he explains, “dozens of posts have been reprinted elsewhere, and readers have turned into friends and business associates – not through a grand strategy but simply because I wrote what I felt like writing about, and people came to read what was there. Serendipity happens on a fairly regular basis.”
If you’re determined to take the plunge into the world of blogging, my top tips are these: plan and be realistic. If you see an opportunity in the marketplace and you want to fill it – and you can do so without sinking your other writing efforts as a result – go for it. But as Friedman warns, “for most writers, I find its demands and compromises to be too much and sometimes a distraction from the writing they really want to be doing.”
If you decide to blog regardless, let me know. Maybe we can swap guest posts?
—Ryan G. Van Cleave is the author of 20 books and a frequent contributor to The Writer. Visit him at RyanGVanCleave.com & OnlyPictureBooks.com.Originally Published