On Using Your Website to Attract an Audience

Agent Smiths

Yesterday, I received a reminder e-mail that I was scheduled to call in to my publisher’s radio talk show to discuss a certain topic—a topic that was inexplicably drawn out of some sorting hat with a penchant for irony or perhaps from the bottom of that black box from “The Lottery”. I had to double check the spreadsheet.

Protagonists? Nope, that’s somebody else… No, not world building… Damn. Seriously? Me?

My topic, as you’ve already gathered from the title of this post, is “building and expanding an audience through web traffic”. If the straw I’d drawn were any shorter, I might have pinched it between two fingers, played dumb, and pilfered another. But with my luck, it would probably be something like “overcoming writer’s block through Zen meditation” or “the fine art of diplomacy in the face of criticism”.

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With an ocean or a sunset, sure. With cacti?

While I’m probably better suited to discuss web traffic than meditation or diplomacy, it’s only because I am a fine example of what not to do. Whether intersecting with my failings was a chance meeting or a blind date arranged by my publisher, who from time to time gives subtle nudges (field kicks) in the right direction, is a question for later. Let’s focus on how a web site like this one, which still manages to draw in traffic despite my gross negligence, can be squandered.

  • Your Platform and Audience

When I started pikeknight.com in 2012, I had no idea who my audience would be. People had been suggesting that I start a blog for years, but I had resisted the idea because I thought maintaining one would detract from my time writing fiction—which happened to be true. I started doing this as an outlet for dealing with rejection because I needed writing to be fun and inspiring again. I had no idea that in 2013 I would sign a three-book deal with Zharmae, beginning with The Wolf of Descarta, as an author of Science Fiction. So my topics ranged all over the place. I wrote about zombie apocalypses, rejection letters, literature, my older daughter’s bizarre imaginary friends, fencing, video games, and teaching. The post that brought me readers, traffic, and a Freshly Pressed badge was only my third blogging experience, and the subject matter was a query letter for a somewhat offensive novel (and not exactly a Sci-fi novel) that I’m afraid to release while working at a public high school in a conservative community. While this post brought me subscribers and numbers, I ultimately had to pull it down. I then had to look at the numbers and decide what kind of subscribers I would have after the two days of Internet fame I received from being featured on WordPress.com.

Most of my audience, of course, was comprised of would-be writers like me.

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My writing took a different bent in early 2013 after I officially became a single father. While I had support from my family and friends, I was figuratively and sometimes literally on my own for half the week with two very confused little girls who were looking for answers I didn’t have. In February 2013, my Descarta short story was published in Zharmae’s RealLies anthology alongside a dozen or so other authors, some that had placed markedly higher than me in the publisher’s short story contest.

At the time, I didn’t think I would go any farther with that universe or those characters.

Wanting to continue the blog, I wrote about single parenting, the sorry state of education in Arizona, online dating, the importance of symbolism, and some wannabe inspirational hippie crap. This did absolutely nothing for my numbers. Then, in November of 2013, The Wolf of Descarta was released for public consumption. My readers, who had already been deluged with whatever suited my fancy since subscribing to a blog that at first seemed to be about the hazards of the publishing industry, were plunged into the realm of Hard Science Fiction.

As of this writing, pikeknight.com has 40,845 views with 29,011 from non-subscribers. If every one of those viewers purchased a copy of one of my novels, I would earn three times my yearly salary as a teacher. I’m still teaching. Why? Because my platform is a brick house built in a bayou. Most people find my website searching for any one of the following: Fantasy clichés, Pennywise the Clown, Why I Hate Christmas Music, Importance of Symbolism, or Match.com Experience. Do any of these keywords have anything to do with Cyberpunk Science Fiction? Then it’s doubtful that my web traffic is looking to purchase a novel about hackers and gamers saving humanity from shapeshifting alien overlords.

  • Posting Strategies and Frequency

The current advice regarding posting is to do it on Mondays. Why? Because most people are physically back to work but mentally distracted in the wake of the weekend. Monday bloggers indulge that distraction by enabling lazy workers with computer or smartphone access. When I look back at the time when I was posting frequently, it’s easy to see that I squandered plenty of opportunities by just posting whenever I felt like writing. I could have written when the proverbial Muse descended and merely hit the “post” button on Monday morning, but I wasn’t cognizant of web traffic and trends at the time. Sometimes even when you are aware of these things, opportunities are missed because of outside events coinciding with your posts. This one, for example, needs to go out today, which is a Sunday, to be in place for the radio show. I’ve signed up for blog tours in the past that slated me for certain days of the week other than Monday. These posts are buried almost as soon as they go out.

WordPress.com seems to support this common wisdom. Most of my traffic shows up on Tuesday evening United Kingdom time, eight hours ahead of those of us on the West Coast and 11 hours ahead of those of us on the East Coast of the United States of Taking Offense to Everything.

I’ve also heard that it’s a good idea to post regularly and to let your audience know your schedule ahead of time. This seems to work for Epic Rap Battles of History, who are still going strong as a YouTube presence after many hiatuses. They just toss up a video with Charles Darwin serving as a spokesperson to let the fans know when videos will be posted again.

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I also take many hiatuses, but I don’t let anyone know when I’ll be back because I have almost no idea when I’m going to have time to blog.

The blog is important—don’t get me wrong. But it has to take a backseat to parenting, boyfriending (yes, I just created my own gerund), teaching, writing for which I am actually paid, tutoring, and as of next week, going back to school to work on my MA in English. If I could somehow get the stars to align and use my platform to drive book sales, I would be sitting here on WordPress grinning viciously as I chased the blinking cursor and imbedding silly images in my web copy five days a week. I haven’t figured that part out yet, and I don’t have the money to throw at someone to do it for me.

Cue the starving artist cliché.

  • Cross-promotion and Links

It’s good to have friends. Most bloggers build up their audiences initially by liking and commenting on other blogs—legitimately, not the hit and run wherein you drop your url and are obviously not interested in the discussion. I had quite a bit of this going on before I was published and have had virtually none of it since. Part of this has to do with the people who were starting up at the same time I was no longer operating blogs, and part of it has to do with me no longer having time to read other people’s posts and comment.

We live in a world of 140 character tweets and that “too long didn’t read” acronym I became aware of yesterday during my girlfriend’s lamentations on the current state of literacy. (We’re English teachers. What kind of crap did you think we talked about?) To circumvent some of this, I have my website linked to my Twitter, both my Facebooks, and my Amazon author page. When I do manage to post, my other social media accounts light up and entice my followers here with a brief message and embedded link. Does this do any good? So far, only on my personal Facebook, where dwell those souls who have already bought a book or aren’t planning on it. Your business Facebook doesn’t work for you unless you feed it money like one of those House of the Dead arcade games you have to keep paying to win. Twitter buries everything quickly unless you hashtag, which won’t happen automatically. (You can go in and do this manually if you can manage to not look like a spammer.) Nobody looks at Amazon author pages, as far as I can tell.

Then there’s Goodreads.

In my experience, Goodreads is utterly useless unless you’re an author with a larger publisher and a solid marketing plan—you know, that type that doesn’t need any help from the countless Sci-fi reading groups that populate the site and send out book recommendations only to end up reading decades old novels or The Martian every month. If you’re new like me, Goodreads isn’t even a good place to GIVE books away. I’ve run raffles for newly released paperback copies and—on the advice of an editor who is no longer with my publisher—dispensed a handful of ebooks in exchange for reviews. While hundreds of users added my books to their lists during raffle periods, this “publicity” has done virtually nothing for my sales or number of reviews. As for those ebooks? They ended up on piracy websites. My illegal downloads now eclipse my Kindle sales.

If you don’t want to look like a spammer or to be taken advantage of by pirates, you’re much better off cross-promoting your website through a bigger one that’s designed to handle publicity and reviews. This might require bribery, either of the wallet or the flesh.

  • Censorship

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Here is where dreams go to die.

If you follow me or have been reading this post with some interest, you’ve probably gleaned that I am what some would call (and rightfully so) an opinionated person. Herein lies the problem of being a public figure, in this case a teacher, in need of publicity. In truth, this issue affects (or infects) websites of every theme—need for censorship.

The first rule of writing is to consider your audience. While you might be producing content for a particular niche, hopefully with a better platform than the tottering mass of plywood I’ve erected, you still have the whole Internet with which to contend. You must plan for the visitors you would never expect. Pikeknight.com receives daily hits from countries I’ve never heard of. (And I’ve heard of Sealand and Lichtenstein, whose residents are now offended at being included as obscure examples.) Googling my name returns me very easily, which is both good and bad. How hard is it, then, for a school board member or “concerned” parent to discover me here venting my proverbial spleen at the universe?

Think of the stories I could tell if I were able to write anonymously—but then, how would anybody find my books through any of the Internet magic we’ve discussed? This presents a Catch 22 situation, which is why if I could do it all again (and if I wasn’t such a sucker for self-validation) I would use a nom de plume.

With a nom de plume, I could have built this platform anonymously, left my original subscriber-bearing post in place, published that oh-so-offensive novel, and driven meaningful traffic to my website interested in purchasing my product—and without fear of losing my day job by offending the masses. I could then continue to create content that coincides with the sort of material I’m writing and hopefully build on my audience and sales in this way.

The freedom and mobility that anonymity grants is nearly boundless. Most of us read to escape from ourselves. Why not write to do the same?

Hindsight, as they say, is 20-20. Learn from my mistakes. Do not forsake my teachings.

I’ll be speaking with Alicia on Radio Z today about this topic and maybe a bit about writing books—you know, the fun part of the business. Tune in live at 4:00 PM PST or listen to the recorded podcast at any time thereafter at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/radioz.

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Book Giveaway for Betrayal at Phobos

pikeknight:

Five days left to enter before the raffle closes.

Originally posted on pikeknight:

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To thank my supporters for participating in my new book’s launch this week, I wanted to give away some copies of the print edition. I started with Amazon.com’s giveaway option, which lasted all of an hour before the goal was met. I was floored. It’s nice to know people out there are still reading Cyberpunk.

This time I’m going with Goodreads, which lets me choose the closing date and hopefully gives more of you a chance to get in on the action. All entries must be in by May 31. Good luck everyone!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Betrayal at Phobos by Daniel Pike

Betrayal at Phobos

by Daniel Pike

Giveaway ends May 31, 2015.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to Win

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Everything Aside–This Is How I Really Feel About Being Published

Let me open by saying that I am thankful for every sale, every reader, and every review. This rant comes, perhaps irreverently, at the same time as the news that Betrayal at Phobos is currently ranked second in sales with my publisher this month. I am grateful for the support system I have, which mainly involves my significant other, a handful of close friends, some former students, a couple of mentors, and my immediate family. It’s unfortunate that I’ve chosen to air my frustrations, but I just can’t keep my mouth shut about these issues any longer. I hope, at the very least, that this post proves instructional to those with hopes of becoming an author.

When I was a junior pursuing my BA in English, I had the good fortune of signing up for a creative writing class with a seasoned novelist who has been publishing on and off since the 1970’s. I got to know this professor, who many considered bitter and curmudgeonly, fairly well.  And he, knowing my dream was to write fiction for a living, sat me down after class one day and explained that writing is quite possibly the world’s loneliest profession.

I thought I understood what he meant back then. After all, when you’re twenty years old and still struggling to find your voice, very few believe you have anything worthwhile to say. If you can, you seek solace in a group of like-minded people that will bolster your courage and inspire you to continue on the path to publication. They listen when you bitch about how most adults today are content to read YA novels and rant about the injustice of the university shutting down its Humanities program. They provide a mental forum to which you may bring your ideas, however hackneyed they might be. If your friends are geeks, you might even get to test drive a character or two in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign before you waste 100,000 words on a novel starring “he who nobody likes” as the protagonist and “she of the ever shifting nomenclature” as the love interest. These are your best friends, your brain trust, your stalwart companions on the metaphorical life-quest you all obsess over whilst rolling dice and punishing your body with Jack in the Box and Mountain Dew Code Red.

But are they really? Or did everything just mean so much more to you than it did to everyone else?

The biggest problem with being a creative type—and especially someone who loves Science Fiction and Fantasy—is that you elevate your interactions with people to the grandeur of an epic.

Somehow, I managed a three-book deal with a mid-sized publisher. By the time my first novel was published, I had more than a few followers online: former students, people who had discovered my blog when it was Freshly Pressed, co-workers who also teach English or history, and the aforementioned boon companions. In my mind of epic metaphors and unreasonable expectations, I believed my triumph would be shouted to the heavens—or that it would at least go viral. This, of course, would be even more unreasonable if I hadn’t stood by so many of these people when they needed my help.

There are certainly high school graduates out there doing well now but who never would have made it if I had not stepped between them and their parents, or between them and the administration, or between them and themselves.  I can count a couple successful marriages that may not have happened if I had not smacked some sense into one partner or the other, usually the male. (I am also a damn good father, and anyone who doubts this does not know the first thing about me.) But failing even this, I have always stood for moral and intellectual pursuits while doing my best to keep my opinionated nature in check, which, for me, is more difficult than writing a book or teaching a college course.

In the end, none of this matters. You can’t expect those who died for you in D and D to show one iota of loyalty in reality. You can’t expect the college student you befriended more than a decade ago in a screenwriting class to be bothered to read your work now that it’s published—even when you offer to read his. You can’t even expect the students (and fellow geeks) you’ve dragged through high school kicking and screaming to show up for your book signing at the local library.

Oh, and you certainly can’t expect anyone on the Internet to do right by you. Over 2,000 illegal downloads of my first novel and counting. I’m a public servant, people—a teacher in what is statistically the most underfunded state in the Union. If you’re going to steal bread from my meager table, at least have the decency to write a review.

Here’s one thing you can count on: life isn’t really about doing the right thing, struggling, and being rewarded with a big payoff—that only happens in the world of fiction. So that’s where I’ve chosen to stay.

I am committed to the world’s loneliest profession. I understand now what that old “curmudgeon” was trying to tell me. The readers who will get something out of your stories are almost never the people you know personally. Those who were with you at the beginning will never see you as an author and will go to great lengths to ignore your accomplishments whether you publish through TZPP or HarperCollins. If you happen to inspire an epiphany somewhere in the world, it will forever remain unknown unless someone decides to write a review.

This presents a frustrating paradox: the first rule of writing is to consider your audience, but the odds are long that you’ll ever know who they are, at least not until someone invests many thousands in marketing you, and not some label, to get your work in front of them. When that happens, love and appreciate those fans, but never allow them to become the reason you write. The only person you can count on is yourself. Write for you.

If I’m honest, I get very few questions about my book series from legitimate fans. The most common question both friends and strangers ask me about being a novelist is, “So you’re published, but are you making any real money?” This is generally followed by, “Do they stock your book at Barnes & Noble? Oh, well why not?” These people don’t seem to understand that they, and not I, hold the keys to my success. All I can do is write the books. They also don’t seem to understand how incredibly rude this behavior is. What if I walked up to an engineer and asked him why he doesn’t make six figures working at Motorola? He’d probably break my nose. And you know what? I’d deserve it.

I, for one, am going to finish writing this book series regardless of who reads it and who judges me based on the size of my publisher. Eventually, the naysayers who didn’t support me will see me on the bestsellers’ list. It will likely be the only place they’ll see me from now on.

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