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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.