How to Build A Web Presence

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.

Good luck.

72 Comments

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72 responses to “How to Build A Web Presence

  1. “Police your community”

    Yeah, this one’s been pretty easy for me so far, seeing as I’ve had a grand total of three comments in the five months I’ve been blogging almost daily. Of course, I’ve not published anything – yet. Well, nothing with respect to prose. (I did upload a few simple open source programs I’d written to GitHub.)

    • Same here. In fact, most of my comments come from one dear old friend whom I met way back in the days of the old by-mail SF Writers Workshop. Most of my posts don’t even garner a single comment.

    • TRX

      I was looking at my bookshelves a few years ago and wondered what had happened to a bunch of authors I’d liked. I went back to the computer and started searching, found a few were dead, a couple had changed genres, and most of the rest were victims of the industry cutting most of the midlist authors back in the mid-’90s.

      So, I actually went and looked for specific authors. The major exception was Jeff Duntemann, who I was familiar with from his publishing days. I followed his blog almost since the beginning. He linked to one of Sarah Hoyt’s blog posts a couple of years back, which is why I annoy people over there, and followed a further link from there to here.

  2. Martin L. Shoemaker

    11. Find the tools that let you keep up that schedule. I find WordPress’s WYSIWYG editor to be abominable, especially on my slow Internet connection. The result: I blogged a couple of times a year, tops. It was just too much work. Two weeks ago, I finally fixed a password issue with Word, and now I can blog using the same tool I write with every day. Suddenly, in the last two weeks, I have missed only one day of blogging, because I don’t have to fight with the tool.

    I also gave myself a little structure: a different them for every day of the week. And I plan out the posts a week in advance. That gives me writing prompts, so I can crank out a thousand words without having to decide what to write.

    • I need to get back to what I was doing before I got ill and write all posts on Sunday. This means carrying around my little notebook EVERYWHERE so I can write down themes as they occur.

      • Martin L. Shoemaker

        My ideas are usually (not always) inspired by web browsing, so I just mail myself a note with the URL and a subject like Science Sunday. About the only time I’m awake but not online is when I’m driving; and just this week I learned I can send email via voice even while driving.

        • Mine will come when I’m in the car with Dan talking about something completely unrelated. Or hanging out with friend in coffee shop. Or…
          At one time, when were all seriously writing short stories every week, the whole family had tiny notebooks we carried around everywhere.

      • that’s a pro-tip right there. Adam Carolla was just talking about how he carries a stack of buck slips with him everywhere to keep track of jokes, observations, ideas etc. that make up the content of his podcast and books.

    • I’m starting to load up a blog, and I’m not doing posts as such yet (except for a couple that I copied over from Livejournal.) What I’m doing is slotting things into the appropriate day as far ahead as I have that type of item, because I’m the mother of small children and daily blogging is not my current interest. But I would like to have this as a depository that is more searchable than my Facebook history, even if nobody ever reads it.

      Because I’m weird, that’s why…

      • TRX

        I tried blogging about ten years ago. It turned out to be more work than I cared for, so I returned to annoying other people on their blogs…

      • Martin L. Shoemaker

        FYI: You can make your Facebook history far more searchable, with a little work. You can backup your history to your computer, and the result is a little local website that’s a lot easier to search than Facebook itself. It takes a little while, but it’s worth it if you have to find something that’s a few years old.

        • I try not to put anything important *only* on Facebook. The few exceptions are replies on other people’s posts that I’ve later wanted to have a copy.

  3. TL;DR.. just kidding.

    Establishing a web presence is the wrong objective. Attracting an audience is what she is after, and don’t ask me, I don’t know neither.

    Self promotion, marketing and packaging; takes an extrovert who is not self conscious in public, and not afraid of what people will say. And there will be opposition to anything you say. Some of it will be vicious, and some of it will hurt your self esteem.

    • The bizarre thing is that some of the most vicious attacks I’ve endured were over saying something that I thought was completely above argument, or from writing about say my local library and its problems.

      • YOU KNOW WHO ELSE HAD A PROBLEM WITH LIBRARIES? HITLER!!!

      • Somebody was arguing with me on a Facebook post where it was literally the same “side” of the argument. It ended well, but it was a bit odd to see an objection to something that I thought supported the original post.

        And that’s not bizarre. I used to know someone who got death threats over his perspective on certain TV shows. This was before doxxing, but they certainly did what they could with the tools on hand (including trying to get him fired.)

        • TRX

          I see more of it online, but I see some in meatspace, too. People who will latch onto some trivial topic and go nuts with it.

          I’ve come to suspect that they don’t really care about the topic, they just want to WIN.

          • It really sucked when they came stomping over his online funeral. That was Usenet, and I discovered the “block user” function, which helped a lot. (Good friend of the family.)

  4. It can be hard to maintain a variety of topics to talk about, and it is weird to me which topics will garner the most attention. My article about characterization in the new Godzilla movie still gets as many or more hits that most of my recent articles. You never know what topics will be popular

  5. Post every day, huh?

    Even if they’re not my semi-polished posts?

    I have bunches of ideas I started off with, wrote a couple hundred words on, and then wondered if I dared – and didn’t.

    Maybe I can try a month of posting those ‘unfinished posts’ and seeing if people have fun with them. As long as they don’t divert me from, you know, SLOW actual writing, which is my main goal in life.

    Thanks for the idea.

  6. TRX

    > Instapundit

    I’ve followed links that were supposed to go to some of your articles there, but all I ever got was a blank spot where text might go, surrounded by advertisements.

  7. What is this “Web” thing you speak of?
    (~_^)

  8. Sigh. Thanks for another KIP, Sarah. (Hopefully the bruise lasts at least a couple of days, until I finish up dealing with the computer mess.)

  9. I’ve been blogging since … oh, dear, 2002. My first book came out of readers of the original blog bugging me for some of my most popular pieces about my eccentric family. And it only went on from there.
    But honestly – one does get tired. Time blogging now, working up something more than an off-the-cuff-post is time taken from writing, from doing reviews, from doing work for the Tiny Bidness. (The current project for that is an absolute bear, for a repeat customer, and one for whom I want The Best Product Absolutely … so, priorities and all that.

    I will try to get back to blogging with the original energy I had … but at this point I am fifteen years older, and life gets complicated.

    • Margaret Ball

      “Life gets complicated.” Oh, it does indeed. And the trade-offs change. Instead of “I’ll do X first and Y as a second priority,” now I too often think “Will I do X or Y? Because I can’t have both.” I have a feeling that daily blogging and daily (fiction) writing are like that now.

      On the bright side, life has become considerably less complicated now that I’ve learned to stop making plans based on thirty-year-old expectations of how much I “should” be able to accomplish. OK, so it took a year of being bedridden, plus major surgery, plus the sloooow recovery from major surgery, to get to that point. But eventually, if Life keeps whacking me over the head, I do learn.

    • I’ve been reading you since 2002 Celia. 😀

      • Since the SSDB days? An age ago … but seriously, that was when I first realized that – hey, people LIKE my stuff! They’ll pay me money!
        This was what gave me the nerve to go straight to indy – knowing that I already had a paying audience.

  10. Draven

    As far as last week… I was going to throw you the long-promised fill in post on writing firearms, but them Mad Mike reposted his old one. Its a bit shorter than what i had outlined but it will do.

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  12. Christopher M. Chupik

    “Our response to him was between tuning him out and daydreaming of beating him to death with a brass donkey.”

    I know someone like that. Every discussion of any topic *somehow* always leads back to his book . . .

  13. I’ll second or third the thought that sometimes it’s the throwaway posts that grow legs and go walking. Earlier this week I wrote a short little post on, of all things, my wood guy, and it’s had more hits and shares on different social media… *throws up hands* I dunno, beats me. There are a few topics I can predict will bring in hits (homeschooling, for ex) but I actually try to avoid controversy.

  14. I used to write online articles for the heck of it on my webpage back in the 90’s when all of this was new. One of them, an obituary for Tex Johnson (Remember I used to work in flight test) actually was hugely popular.
    I had a second website for a game character, and allowed others to have accounts on my webserver as well (because it was new and few people had access to a webserver).
    Then I was involved in a very lengthy lawsuit and things from both accounts, as well as from the accounts by other people on my server showed up in court. Even though they had no relevance (lawyer was trying to influence the jury and the judge hated me, so he let them show everything, then just told the jury ‘to ignore it’ after the damage was done).
    So I nuked it all and then put a huge several thousand word disclaimer on my website, the one used for a fictional character in an online game.
    Two decades later and I’m still pretty cautious about what I’ll say online.

    But the infamous ‘dancing pikuchu page’ the one guaranteed to crash almost any machine out there (back then) and which was the test a lot of people used to check how good their machines were? That was on my server. Nothing like looking at your logs one day (in the 90’s mind you) and seeing that you have a page with over a million hits on it. (And no, I didn’t build it, a friend did while learning how to make webpages).

  15. If you’re curious, the reason I started reading According to Hoyt was because my mom sent me an article about something about homeschooling (or something like that). I loved it so much that when I started blogging myself and following other bloggers, I remembered the name of that blog I liked from like a year ago and re-found it. Started following Mad Genius Club because Sarah mentioned it at one point.

  16. jon spencer

    If you blog or have a site, put at least one of these, preferably both somewhere on the page.
    A RSS feed and a box with a sign up for a email when there is a new post. Oh, and make sure that those are easy to find.

    Below is my complaint department,
    And I don’t know where WordPress manages to hide the RSS feeds.
    I do not use WordPress’s reader, because it is not user friendly.
    I use NetNewsWire for my RSS feeds.
    It works, (for me at least).

  17. I have several blogs, but I suspect I’m mostly talking to myself on my writing blog, and my wargaming blog has a small following, I suspect down to the eye candy.
    The former is here:
    http://ashleyrpollard.blogspot.co.uk/

    The latter eye candy is here:
    http://panther6actual.blogspot.co.uk/

    Basically I have all the sales skill of a lead weight in a swimming pool.

    • Wow, you’re a female wargamer living in the UK. That is very cool!!!

      Looking at your blogs, I suspect the difference is that you’re writing the wargaming blog for an audience (wargamers) and the writing blog is more of a personal journal. I’ve got an audience in the past by writing researched blogposts about science, e.g.

      http://www.futureslesstravelled.com/was-there-life-on-venus/

      Writing up reports on events for the benefit of people who weren’t there, e.g.

      http://www.futureslesstravelled.com/how-to-pitch-your-novel-to-baen-books-maybe/

      Or, less attractively, by getting the attention of Mike Glyer’s File770 while blogging about the Hugo kerfuffle…

      One problem with my researched blogposts is they take ages to write, which means I can’t blog frequently. I had a very successful blog for a while called Outdoor Science about earth/environmental science. Writing the blogposts took ages and it was hard to think up ideas. When my business took off, I had to quit writing it.

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