Following on from The Author Platform: Are You Being Cautious… Or Just Lazy?, a few readers commented that they’d like to know more about how to go from blogging into the void, i.e. me three years ago, to having ten thousand followers and 25-30k views a month, i.e. me today.
I’ve avoided doing this thus far because I don’t think you’re going to like my answer. It’s:
- Write good blog posts
- Don’t over-think it
Write Good Blog Posts
I tell writers considering self-publishing that the first thing they should do is make sure their book is good, because there’s really no point doing anything else unless it is. When I use good in this way I don’t mean the ‘Oh, the Booker prize judges said that book was really good’ because that’s mostly subjective and we all like different things. I mean good as in has appeal. As in someone else is going to want to read this. Lots of someone elses, preferably.
The problem is that we all think someone is going to want to read what we’ve written. I mean, of course they are. Why wouldn’t they? We’re fascinating! But in the real world, that’s just not the case.
So this is where I tell you how to write blog posts people want to read, right? I really can’t do that. We’re not talking about a checklist, or a template, or a recipe of keywords and search topics that has been proven to work for others. You can either do it or you can’t. Like writing books, I believe you can learn to do it better, but ultimately you can either do it or you can’t.
It’s the same with all aspects of social media: you either are the type of person who does it well, or you’re not. If you’re the former, you can learn some tips that’ll help you improve, and you might pick up a few tricks that make your use of it more effective, but if you’re the kind of person who hates the idea of tweeting, thinks Facebook is for teenagers and has their blog posts set to private, then I can’t help you.
Let’s just all cut the crap and admit this, once and for all.
The only good things about the Irish version of The Voice are what Bressie, one of the judges, looks like, and what Eoghan McDermott, one of the presenters, says. A couple of weeks ago he told the contestants, “remember, if you don’t get through… it’s because you weren’t good enough.”
Behold: The Bressie.
Not everyone can blog. Not everyone can write. Not everyone can whistle. And if you feel like you need somebody to tell you what to blog—as opposed to the tech stuff, the how to blog—then maybe you should reconsider trying to be a blogger.
That’s the bad, glass-half-empty news.
The good, glass-is-half-full news is that if there is any little blogging spark in you at all, it should be easy to hit the right note with blogging. Going back to the similarities between blogging and writing books, I’ll repeat what I’ve said before: my favorite writing advice is write the book you want to read but can’t find, and my favorite blogging advice is create the blog you want to read but can’t find.
Why do you like the blogs you read? (And, going back to books again, would you take a writer seriously if they said they didn’t read books? I wouldn’t even call them a writer. So why do you think you can be a blogger when you don’t read blogs?) Think of your favorite five or ten of them and examine why you keep coming back to read them, day after day. I bet your reasons will include things like:
- I enjoy reading them—they entertain me
- They give me useful information, e.g. self-publishing info
- I personally like the blogger and/or relate to their life. If I knew him/her in real life, I bet we’d be friends.
Do these sound familiar? If you’re a regular reader they should, because they’re the same as my criteria for creating the kind of online content that works. (Read more about that Why Promoting Your Book Online Is (A Bit) Like Fight Club.)
If you are literally starting from scratch, as in, there is absolutely nobody reading your blog right now because you started it yesterday, you can begin inviting visits by commenting on other people’s blogs. That’s the most high-tech, practical tip I can give you.
But if you want to be a blogger, you should already be reading and commenting on other people’s blogs.
Twitter is also a huge driver of traffic, but let’s focus on blogging for today. You already know how I feel about Twitter, which is the same way I feel about watching subtitled Danish TV dramas: I can’t understand why everybody isn’t already doing it.
I really believe blogging is a “build it and they will come” type situation. I know it is, because it’s what happened with this blog. If you write good blog posts that people want to read, people will end up reading them. People want more than that, but there’s no magic formula.
Don’t Over-Think It
I haven’t spent a minute of my life worrying about SEO.
SEO, if you’re not familiar, stands for Search Engine Optimization. It means making your blog posts, etc. as Google friendly as possible, so that people can find you. This ranges from activities such as tagging your blog posts to actually changing the wording of your posts so that Google will like them more.
Personally, I believe that for the vast majority of writers and their blogs, SEO is absolute horse feces.
Let’s think about it. If you’re selling used cars, it’s important that whenever someone Googles “used cars”, your website is sitting pretty atop the search results. For writers, it’s important that when someone Googles our name, our website or blog or an Amazon listing is at the top. Mine is, and it was back when almost no one was reading my blog and I’d only been around for five minutes. That’s because I’m the only one with my name. That’s because it got up there naturally, without the bells and whistles and time-wasting of SEO.
If you have a self-publishing blog, you might think it’s important that you’re at the top (or at least the first page) when someone Googles self-publishing. I don’t think it is. I don’t think it is because (a) there’s an ocean of self-publishing info out there so making this happen artificially (like with SEO) will be near impossible and (b) you’ll get far more traffic organically, by writing good blog posts that people find useful and enjoy, and so share with their Facebook friends, Twitter followers, LinkedIn connections, etc. And when that happens, Google finds you anyway. Most of my referral hits (as in, links that come from elsewhere) are from Google. So after subscribers, Google is responsible for the biggest chunk of my traffic, even though I forget to tag my posts half the time and if I cared any less about SEO, I’d pass out.
Good blog posts = traffic.
SEO = time that should be spent on writing good posts.
And if you do make it to the top of page 1 and the link is to a crappy blog post, what good is it going to do you in the long run?
Focus on the content instead. The content should always come first. Build it, and they will come.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think you should actively make Google hate you. That’s just being silly. As I wrote about The Writer’s Guide To Making Google Your Friend, I talked about how I use Catherine Ryan Howard instead of Catherine Howard (my real name), and how I don’t think you should use a title for your book that’s already been used for something else, especially if that something else is famous and has been around forever. You should also tag your posts (even though as I said, I forget to do that half the time) and come up with good blog post titles, because that’s just good sense.
We don’t want to hide from Google, but we only want to be friends. We don’t want to see Google naked or anything.
The same goes for questions like how long should my blog post be? and how often should I blog? and what’s the best time of the day to post your new blog posts? We’re talking about blogs, people. Don’t over-think this. They can be anything you want them to be. The most important thing—perhaps the only important thing—is that they’re good.
The important thing you can do for your blogging career is to wait.
Building a following takes time. Let’s look at my stats and blogging career over the last three years and examine in a bit more detail how I went from talking to myself to talking to, potentially, ten thousand people.
Hits per month, 2010.
I launched this blog in February 2010, and the first month I had about 1,500 views. I’d been using Twitter regularly since November 2009, and held a Twitter contest (I gave away some coffee) to ensure that everyone on Twitter (probably around 300-500 followers, at that point) came and had a peek at my blog during the first month it went up.
Having self-published in March, April was when my “how to self-publish” blogs really kicked into gear, because now I’d completed the process of publishing and was able to share my experience. Blog hits jumped up in August/September, when I “revealed” my sales figures for the first six months, as those posts were shared a lot. I think what’s important here is that this graph suggests that the majority of people who discovered me through those posts stuck around.
Hits per month, 2011.
2011 was the year I really focused my blog on what was appealing to people: self-publishing themed posts. Mousetrapped was out a year in March (and I shared my sales figures again to mark the occasion), and then I released two more books, Self-Printed at the very end of May and Backpacked in September. Each event was a bump up in readers. You can also see in this graph that my post-release burn out periods—where after a sustained period of enthusiastic blogging I took a little break—led to little drops, but it was easy to pick it back up again afterwards.
At no time in 2012 did my monthly hit count drop below 10,000. I actually spent most of the year over the 20,000 mark. I think that’s because the quality of my posts improved—because now I’m a couple of years in and have a greater sense of perspective, so my posts are more broad-ranging opinion style pieces than step-by-step instructions, which you can get anywhere—and this led to increased sharing on Twitter, Facebook, other blogs, etc. (I think.)
The big news in 2012 was that I got Freshly Pressed, not once, which would’ve been amazing, but twice! The first time shot my hits way past the 50,000 mark, because it was a self-publishing-themed post (How To Sell Self-Publish Books: Read This First) that then also got shared a lot, and also climbed the charts over at Reddit. But it was so popular that it was clearly a complete anomaly. I’m not complaining though. I get a badge. (The blue thing over this way –> and probably up a bit.)
And for those of you wondering how do you get Freshly Pressed?, that’s the wrong question. The only question is how do I write blog posts people want to read? That’s what I did, and the post got noticed. There’s no other way to make it happen because WP editors, as far as I know, don’t take bribes of coffee and chocolate. (Although I have LOTS of coffee and chocolate. *meaningful look*) They have, however, written a post called So You Want To Be Freshly Pressed… that’s worth reading.
If you look at this graph, it shows the entire life of my blog, from less than 500 hits in month one to just under 30,000 in December 2012. But this took three years. Three years of blogging regularly, consistently and well. (For the most part!) Three years of not giving a second thought—or, as far as was possible, a first thought—to SEO, or what days to post on, or how long my posts should be.
So in summary, if you want to create a successful blog…
(Say it with me, now!)
WRITE GOOD BLOG POSTS.
If you think there’s some practical aspect to this I can help you with, do ask me in the comments.
But if you think there’s more to it than this, I’m afraid I have to respectfully disagree. And do you really suspect there’s more to it than writing good posts and waiting, or do you need for there to be?
I had finished writing this blog post, and then I thought of something. Something so important I can’t believe I left it out.
I love blogging.
It’s like a relationship: I don’t particularly like it all the time, but I do, deep down, love it. Always. I started my first blog in early 2008, as a ways of keeping friends and family up to date with my adventures in Central America. This blog is my favorite thing about self-publishing, and it’s probably the only thing I would really, honestly miss if someone took it all away. When I get an idea for a blog post, I usually want to drop everything and start writing it now, although I write most of them with one eye on the TV (hence, The Voice of Ireland references in this post). It’s not work to me. It’s something I honestly, genuinely, really enjoy, and I appreciate so much the fact that there’s anyone at all out there listening—or reading, rather. I LOVE BLOGGING, and who do you know that’s good at it that hates the bloody thing?
I talked about this very subject recently at a social media panel at Waterford Writers’ Weekend. When people ask the question how much time should/must I spend on social media? my instant reaction is to think Social media is not for you. Because why would you be so desperate to quantify something you enjoy doing? Would you ask how much time should I spend chatting to my friends? (Twitter.) Or how much time should I spend reading entertaining articles? (Facebook; my Facebook friends post very entertaining links.) Or how much time should I spend writing, which is apparently what I love to do because here I am trying to be a writer? (Blogging.)
So that’s another must do. You must love blogging. Or at the very least, really, really enjoy it.
Do you agree?