The short answer to this is “Danged if I know.”
I was very shocked at being asked this by an old friend who started writing at the same time I did and who has NOW decided a web presence in the key to her selling. The fact that she thinks it’s more important than covers is just proof of my theory of writers: we are all just barely sane enough to function, but we have blindspots in which we compete with patients in padded rooms. I love the woman dearly, but her blindspots are wearing blindspots who have seeing eye dogs.
Leaving that aside, I didn’t answer her email. Not because it was out of order, but because it took me weeks of thinking about it to even come up with a glimmer of an answer. Because it’s not that easy.
I was once at a dinner party wtih Glenn Reynolds of instapundit, the blog whose circulation more or less rivals the New York Times, and he was asked how he became “instapundit.” His answer was “Like most things in my life, by accident.”
That is, at best, what could be said about my blog. It has a fairly impressive readership (less now, because this week I’ve hardly been there) of 2 to 4k a day, which isn’t shabby for someone who started after everyone knew blogs were out. But how I got there is… complicated.
I started it because my agent told me to. Mostly she was right (sort of) as SOME webpresence is needed to sell at all.
My first two or three years were nothing much. I was in the political closet, and also trying not to reveal anything about our family life, as the boys were in elementary and middle school at the time.
This meant most of the time I couldn’t think of anything to write about.
This couldn’t go on, so at some point I took gloves off, first about writing and second about politics. Though if you’re looking for a political blog, that’s not what According To Hoyt is. It is mostly whatever crosses my mind.
Whatever crosses my mind is often political or shades that way, because my mind was bent that way often by the turmoil that was the seventies in Portugal. You had to know if someone had scheduled some big thing or if someone was setting fire to cars in an area, because that might be your normal route to school or shopping.
From that wanting to know WHY was a step and developing opinions that didn’t fit anywhere on the Portuguese spectrum was a very small hop for me. Because I’m me.
What this meant is that in our early days of marriage, where we could barely afford food, we subscribed to three daily newspapers and at least five political magazines.
It’s who I am, and it’s my interest and the lens through which I view the world. But there are others and they also come out to play in the blog. Anything from literature and theories on what literature SHOULD be to history to weird science and futurism. My blog is hard to define, except by its community which is great. EVEN if Alexander Pournelle calls it the Hoyt Home For The Tragically Gifted.
Somehow my blog led to Glenn Reynolds asking me to substitute for him (as one of a team of 6 back then) while he was away, and then to my joining the team permanently as the night dj (NO I haven’t quit or been fired. I took a week and a half vacation due to trying to finish a book while having a bad head cold. I’ll probably go back tonight, or tomorrow night at the latest.)
All this, plus Facebook (which I’m trying to cut back on because it’s a people eater) means I have a fairly large web presence, which my kids call “very stompy” (whatever that means. They turned 22 and 25 and I stopped understanding a word they say.)
How did I get there? No clue. How can you duplicate that success? Boiled if I know.
I can, however, give you some hints that I know helped:
1- Be you. Don’t try to sound educated, or professorial or anything of the kind, unless that is who you are, naturally. Just be you. I swear readers can smell “Phony” a mile off. Don’t be phony.
2- Part of one: talk about things that genuinely interest you, but not things that are so obscure they will only interest physicists or left handed seamstresses, or something.
3- talk of something other than writing. Yeah, writing too, it’s who you are, but give value to people who aren’t writers. MGC, I think, trails behind all our personal blogs in hits, because it’s a writers’ blog. Like left handed seamstresses, that’s a specialized niche.
4- if you can, particularly in the beginning, get promo from people who have bigger platforms. Links at insty (instapundit) are good for 4k or so hits in one night. And some of them will stay. Try to have one once a month or so. BUT if you don’t have levers to get to somewhere like that, try for the giants of YOUR niche. Passive Guy, say. Or whoever it is who stomps it about where your interests live. If you have friends who have bigger blogs, offer guest posts, and at the end put something saying “I normally blog at” with link. I blogged at Classical Values, for a while. Few bloggers (blogs eat your life too) will turn down free guest posts. If they do, they’re either bad, you pissed them off, or they have a bad memory and you didn’t remind them.
5- be funny or at least amusing and cultivate a voice, just like you would for novels.
6- Post EVERY DAY. If, like me this last week, you have to go AWL, have guest posts. You’ll still lose readers and some of them won’t come back, but it’s better than dead air. (Trust me.) I don’t know why post every day works, except through “be habit forming.”
7- Police your community. I actually have had to ban very few people, but remember the “drunken uncle at the wedding.” If a poster is just there to attack and is making other people uncomfortable, don’t be afraid to ban him. He might not be doing anything wrong, but his right to express himself doesn’t trump your right to have your normal commenters enjoy themselves.
Also, if the community gets in an unpleasant rut, nudge them. My commenters once, while I was asleep, misunderstood something someone posted and attacked. He got defensive and they ran him off the blog. You don’t want that, particularly if it’s someone interesting.
People who say they’re not responsible for the tone of their comment sections are disingenuous or clueless. You can police just enough, intervening to break up things just enough that you keep it from becoming a snake pit without neutering it.
8- It takes time. So plan it. I haven’t, and it’s more or less eating my life, so I’m now trying to learn balance. Remember it’s part of your job, so schedule an hour or so and a visit at lunch, but don’t let it stop your writing.
9- Is it worth it? Particularly if you’re political, does it lose you more readers than it gains you?
I don’t know. I go through periods of thinking so. Then I get ten people in an afternoon at a con, all of whom started reading me because of instapundit, and I go “Maybe not.”
I know that I’m selling way better than before I had a web presence and that friends who help people sell tell me that if you don’t have a web presence you just don’t sell. But you have people like Doug Dandrige who have a sporadic blog and mainly hang out on face book, post amusing memes and the occasional book promo. And he ain’t hurting. I guess you need to do what works for you.
10- Oh, yeah, don’t over saturate. By all means, let your blog readers know you have a book coming out, but dont’ do this more than once every couple of weeks, and don’t become like the energizer bunny “buy my book, buy my book, buy my book.”Even at instapundit, where my value is news and commentary, but I can get away with pushing books (mine and others) I know (I see my amazon account) if I link my books, be they new releases or sales more than once a month, people start tuning it out. So, be sparing with the naked “BUY MY BOOK” even if you think you’re SUBTLY weaving it in your posts.
There was this guy who used to be on panels with me at mile hi who no matter what the theme of the panel was, strong women, made up religions, brass asses, always made the same answer, “In my book, I handled brass asses with a polishing cloth, on page thirty five. I think I did the right thing, because–” Don’t be that guy. Our response to him was between tuning him out and daydreaming of beating him to death with a brass donkey.
So, how do you build a web presence? I don’t know. But if you try, you’ll find a way, provided you’re authentic, post every day and don’t bash people over the head with promo.