RETRO POST: Online Presence for Writers

I am on an Internet Vacation this week. I promised one old post and one new post each day while I was on vacation. This is the third of my old posts. It was originally posted back on April 8, 2011. I brought this one back because I get asked from time-to-time how to start a blog and how to get people to read it. I’m not sure I know the right answers, but this summarizes a lot of what I did.


Earlier this week, the Arlington Writers Group held a discussion on online presence for writers. The basic questions were things like, do writers need a website? Should writers maintain a blog? What type of social networking should a writer be doing? There has been plenty of this type of thing discussed on the Internet, but since I compiled a whole bunch of notes in preparation for that meeting, I figured I’d share my experience here for those interested. Keep in mind that this is based on my experience. It works well for me and I have seen some positive results. Everyone feels differently about the value of an online presence.

For me, there are 3 components to an online presence for writers:

  1. A website
  2. A blog
  3. Social networking (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.)

Taken together, these three things are what agents and publishers like to call “platforms” and are what I think of as your “brand”. Each of these three things are discussed in more detail below.

Writer’s Websites

This is where a writer can establish the foundation of their brand. It starts with the domain. Early on, I bought as many domain combinations of my name as I thought useful, for instance: jamierubin.net, jamierubin.com, jamietoddrubin.com, etc. The reason for this is that as a writer, your name is an important part of your brand. People need to know who you are, and once they know who you are, being able to get to your online presence by typing in your name makes things easy.

There are just a few basic things that I think are important to make available on my website:

  • An “about” page containing some biographical information as it pertains to my writing life.
  • A bibliography of my writing
  • Contact information in case there are editors, publishers, agents, or others that want to get in touch with me

Beyond that, I also think it is useful to provide:

  • Links to free samples of my writing
  • A list of upcoming appearance at things like conventions

I maintain 3 different author bios: a short, one-liner that I can include in email or in the “About Me” section of various social networking profiles; a short paragraph that might appear with a column or story that I write; and a longer biography that appears on my About page. I try to keep these up-to-date, reviewing them at each significant writing event (e.g., when I publish a new story).  My current one-liner reads as follows:

Jamie Todd Rubin is a science fiction writer and blogger whose stories have appeared in Analog, Apex Magazine, and InterGalactic Medicine Show.

Here is the current short paragraph bio:

Jamie Todd Rubin is a science fiction writer, blogger, and software developer. His fiction has appeared in Analog, Apex Magazine, and InterGalactic Medicine sShow. He fell in love with science fiction at seven, around the same time he fell in love with science. He is especially fond of short fiction. When he is not writing stories, blogging, or creating software, he can be found making not-so-subtle attempts at turning his toddler into a science fiction fan. Jamie vacations frequently in the Golden Age of science fiction.

You can read the long bio here.

A website is more static than a blog and therefore can be less time-consuming to maintain, but I have noticed that it is more effective when it is up-to-date.  Some people may be reluctant to provide contact information but as a writer, I think it is important to make this available so that people can get in touch with me. In addition to providing links to how I can be reached on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media, I provide an email address–one that is specific for requests that come in through the site and that is flagged such in my inbox. Since doing this, I have had people get in touch with me and it has led to things that have raised my visibility as a writer.

How much does a website cost? That depends. I obtained my domains for something like $10/year each. I paid for several years in advance and have them automatically renewed so that I don’t lose them. I also pay for a premium hosting service that allows me a lot of control–but this isn’t necessary for everyone. Remember, I am also a software developer and I do this kind of thing for a living so it is second nature to me. All told, I’d say that the domain names and website hosting costs me in the neighborhood of $150-200/year. But remember, too, that since this is used pretty much exclusively to maintain my online presence as a writer, I can these off as business expenses.

Blogging

Blogging is probably not necessary but it does seem to be a natural niche for a writer, since it involves, you know, writing.

I have been blogging fairly regularly since late 2005. In fact, this post that you are reading is my 3,998th. Having a backlist of posts means that I have written posts on nearly every subject I can think of and gives me a bit of an advantage these days when it comes to attracting people to my website and blog. I’ll discuss this shortly.

I set a goal this year to triple the number of daily visits to my site by the end of the year. As it turns out, I met my goal by the end of March. As of this writing, on April 8, I’ve already had nearly twice as many visits in 2011 as I had for all of 2010. This is important because it means people are reading what I write. Many people start blogs but don’t really get much of an audience. For me, it was a slow progression that started with a few friends and family, gradually expanded, and this year, really started to blossom into the type of thing I’d always hope it would be come. What follows is what I’ve done this year to meet that goal of tripling visits, and some tips that I’ve discovered along the way.

  • The blog should related to your writing. My blog used to be lots of personal stuff. Go back and look at posts from 2006 or 2007 and you’ll see what I mean. This year, I’ve really tried to focus on topics that are close to my writing: science fiction, and the life of a writing in his early professional career. That doesn’t mean I exclude personal posts. But they are certainly fewer than they used to be. Where possible, I’ve tried to find a niche that is unique to me. Every writer can write about their writing process. This year, I’ve been spending a lot of time on my Vacation in the Golden Age posts, discussing old school science fiction, and that has helped draw some attention. (It’s also a whole lot of fun.)
  • There should be a regularity to the posts. You don’t have to post every day like I do. But I have found that I benefit from consistency and regularly. People read my blog in part because they know there will be a post everyday. (They read it for other reasons, too, I hope.) For instance, my Vacation in the Golden Age posts always come out late on Sunday’s and I’ve found a trend where the visits to my site steadily increase through the afternoon on Sunday, as if people are checking to see if the post is up yet. Regularly works, it seems, whether its daily, weekly, whatever.
  • Make commenting as easy as possible. Some blogs require you to log in in order to comment, and indeed, I did that for a while. But then I remembered a lesson I learned from some excellent customer service training I took from Ouellette & Associates about making things easy for the customer, and I think the same is true for a reader. So now, there is no login required to comment on this site. If you are commenting the first time, your comment will be moderated and all subsequent comments are automatically approved. Fortunately, the spam software this blog uses prevents the junk from getting out there.
  • Be responsive to the readers. I allow commenting and encourage discussion. To that end, I do my best to respond as quickly as I can to posted comments. Now, I am no John Scalzi, where comments number in the hundreds for each post, but my posts can sometimes see a dozen or more comments. I still think it is important to respond quickly.

One question that come up on our group discussion on Wednesday night was: “But how to I get people to read my blog?” I’m not sure there is a magic bullet here, but here is what I did. The fact that doing these things increased the visits to my blog indicates to me that I am doing something right:

  • Link to your blog whenever you can,  but do so in a relatively unobtrusive way. For instance, ever email I send or reply to will include a signature and that signature contains a link to my blog. So do my business cards. Here is an example of what I think I mean by “unobtrusive”. Suppose I was posting a comment on someone else’s blog and the discussion there was on the topic of music videos. I might say something like: “I totally remember watching MTV in the early 80s, but I’ll tell you that my first music video came long before MTV.” All I’ve done is embedded a link back to a post I wrote on the subject on my blog and did it as part of the comment without calling out the link separately. If people want to click it they can, but either way the comment seems (to me) to be both relevant and unobtrusive.
  • Comment on other people’s blogs. I read a lot of blogs, particularly blogs of other writers or of science fiction generally. By posting comments there, I can join in the discussion, and in doing so (as I indicated above) I can link back to my own blog. I can track where visits come from and I’ve found that many of my visits come from links to my blog from comments I’ve made outside my own blog.
  • Posting early in the day increases the visits on that post, at least on my blog. I can’t always write posts first thing in the morning, but my blogging software allows me to schedule posts, so I often write my posts the night before and schedule the first for release at 7am.
  • I’ve found that a post between 500-700 words represents a “sweet-spot” for me. Clearly, this post falls outside that sweet-spot.
  • Pushing posts out to other sites is also a big help. When I post here, the post is automatically pushed to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, LiveJournal, and my Goodreads author page. This may seem like overkill, but remember that people tend to prefer one platform. So people who read the post on Facebook may never see it in LinkedIn. And people who see the post on my blog may never see it in Facebook and Twitter.
  • RSS feesd are crucial. My blog produces one automatically, as most do, and I’ve redirected mine to Feedburner to take advantage of that service.

A few other things help me specifically. I mentioned earlier that I’ve been blogging since 2005 and have nearly 4,000 posts. In any one post, I can link back to those other 4,000. Probably I’ve written on the subject before.  Then, too, I’ve found that I’ve had many hits on my blog on some days even before a post has gone out for that day. That’s because when people do Google searches on various subjects, my blog is bound to come up because I’ve probably written a post about that subject. It’s interesting to see which old posts keep coming up again and again. I haven’t yet analyzed what percentage of daily visits are for new posts as opposed to old one. But my gut says it’s about 70/30 right now.

There is a time investment in all of this, and yes, I could be using this time to write more fiction, but at this stage I feel that the time I invest on managing my online presence is worth the effort. I probably spend in the neighborhood of 8 hours/week on this stuff. But it has paid off in a number of ways. Since January 1 I have:

  • Had a post I wrote reprinted in io9.
  • Been asked to write a column for SF Signal
  • Been asked to have a post translated into Hebrew for an Israeli science fiction site
  • Received requests to do a profile on me and some of the tools I’ve written about

And it’s only April! And I’m certain that all of these requests were directly related to the online presence I’ve established as a writer, and specifically to my blog.

Social Networking

Why bother with this stuff? Well, I do it because writing is a lonely business and it is nice to have a community of other writers with which to share the anxieties and frustrations, and well as the victories. Also because it is a convenient way to keep in touch with people and “network” without leaving your office. The five social networking platforms that have been most helpful to me as a writer are:

  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Goodreads (as a Goodreads author)
  • LibraryThing

In addition, I follow a number of discussion boards that related to science fiction and the science fiction writing business. Again, more time invested in this, but a wonderful payoff. I’ve made many close friends through this type of social networking.

So how about you? What works for you? What doesn’t? Let the discussion and debate begin.