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Why Start a Website or Blog If You Have Nothing to Promote?

Categories: Blogging, Blogging for Writers, Build a Platform & Start Blogging, Building Readership, Digitization & New Technology, Freelance Writer, Article Writing, Getting Published, Marketing & Self-Promotion.

I feel like there’s a debate heating up between the group who believes it’s never too early to develop an online presence (that’s me) and the group who believes it’s necessary to focus on the WORK first, and not be distracted by online media—especially when you don’t have a specific message or product to promote yet.

Here are a few points I will concede:

  • Blogging about your writing process or various personal peccadilloes is not likely to lead to publication, or garner you an audience large enough to impress an agent or publisher.
  • Sometimes launching an unprofessional or unfocused blog/site can be more harmful if professionals view it and are turned off.
  • Online media can divert your attention/focus from WRITING your work-in-progress and READING in your genre, which are the two most important ways to advance your craft.
  • Getting your work critiqued online in a community setting is helpful only insofar as you trust and respect your critiquers—who ought to have insight into your genre, your goals, and what it will take to get published.

The 2 most important questions that are raised whenever I recommend people launch an online presence:

  • What do I write/blog about, or what do I put on my site?
  • How will this help me get published?


What do you put on your site or blog when you have no book?

Here’s a starter list of ideas. Keep in mind you don’t have to blog. A site can work as a business card until you have a need or an idea to add more content/interactivity.

  • Do not write about the writing & publishing process, unless you have some very unique insights, or a very unusual spin/voice.
  • Unless you are the most boring person on earth, you have passions and interests that aren’t tied to writing & publishing. These things might be witnessed in your written work (maybe you have a fascination with a historical period), or they might be complementary life pursuits to your writing (e.g., librarian or teacher). What perspective or insight can you offer related to these things?
  • What do you know about, intimately, that no one else does (that you can still write about!)?
  • What do people compliment you on constantly?
  • What types of media/materials/books are you always reading? Are there observations you can share? Snippets from your consumption?
  • Would it be appropriate to review books?
  • How about interviewing people who interest you?
  • Is there content/media you can curate?

Writers are usually curious and observant people by nature. Use that to guide you.

How will this help you get published?
It will probably not help most of you in the least. (It can very helpful and essential for information-based nonfiction writers, though.)

So why do it? Here are 5 excellent reasons to have a site or a blog when it’s not directly leading to publication:

  1. You need a starting block. You don’t want to start thinking about a site/blog the moment you need one. There’s a learning curve. Wouldn’t it be much better to have familiarity with site or blog building tools, to already have a structure in place, to already have a knowledge base? These things take time to learn, grow and improve. By the time you DO get published, your site will be far more refined and sophisticated if you’ve been tinkering and improving over a number of years.
  2. You need to develop an understanding of online interaction. Once you have a site/blog, you can start experimenting in ways you couldn’t before. You can comment on other blogs and link back to your own site, you can make mentions of it on Facebook and Twitter. You can add it to business cards, talk about it at events, etc. And you can watch how visits are affected or not. It gives you a baseline to work from when you REALLY want your site to accomplish something. Wouldn’t it be great if, in the early stages, there wasn’t pressure for the site to perform or grow?
  3. You will start thinking of opportunities you didn’t before. Once you have an online site/blog, you’ll notice that ideas and plans for it will emerge even if you’re not focusing on it. You have a more empowered and creative stance; you’re more open to possibilities for it because it already exists.
  4. You will develop the seeds of your audience (if not the core of one). Developing your readership and having direct interaction with those readers is critical to every writer’s career. (See more here.)
  5. You will develop relationships with other writers and professionals that help you over the long-term. Ever since I became active on blogs and social networks, I’ve been opened up to more opportunities and relationships than at any other time in my career. The democracy of online interaction means that a smart, insightful comment/article, or a charitable gesture, can help you make an impact on all kinds of people/publications.

UPDATE: To further prove the point, see Gretchen Rubin’s advice over at Digital Book World: “Start early.”

Keep in mind that when your book/product DOES get published or
released, that shouldn’t significantly change what’s on your blog/site.
You don’t flip a switch and become a hard-selling machine. You’re
developing a strategy for the long haul; you’re developing a relationship
with an audience that sustains your career. That’s why it makes little sense to wait to develop a site/blog until you feel you’re “ready” with a book deal or launch.

Don’t let the bad eggs determine your path forward
There are many writers who go to extremes in online marketing/promotion (whether or not they have a book), and they drive people away. Such writers can be obnoxious, intrusive, and ultimately destructive.

Just because they set a bad example doesn’t mean that you should follow in their footsteps. Go online with the mindset that you’re taking steps to share something, not force something on people.

Don’t let the people who do something badly be the argument for not
doing it.

So: What are your ideas for blogging, especially when you’re a fiction writer? What do you see established authors writing/doing online that you like? What do you do that is successful?

Also: Related upcoming online seminars:

Photo credit: TuToWoN

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22 Responses to Why Start a Website or Blog If You Have Nothing to Promote?

  1. My thanks to all for sharing your experiences.

    There’s a great post that everyone ought to read over at The Tribal Writer. It gets into a high-level discussion of an author’s responsibility to build a "brand" (for lack of a better term), and part of that is being visible and available online, in between the books/products that get released.

    More here:
    http://tribalwriter.com/2010/04/30/the-online-art-of-developing-your-author-brand-molecule-or-global-microbrand/

    I’ve noticed that my blog posts *on blogging* are some of the most commented on — which says something about writers/authors wondering how this form can be meaningful and relevant, and support a career. In the end, I think everyone is going to have a different model or strategy, guided by what interests your audience and how the writer best entertains/informs.

    Which leads me the the No. 1 principle of blogging (even if you break ALL other rules/recommendations):

    Be interesting. (Or be entertaining.)

    If you figure out the secret sauce in that, you’ll experience long, steady growth. Or as some say (like Debbie Stier!), the cream will rise to the top. That’s an optimist’s view, but I believe it’s often true in the online world. Quality gets noticed, though it may take a while.

    And I shall heed the call on pen names: I’ll post on that topic soon. (Tom, it will touch on your dilemma, too — it will ultimately be about managing multiple goals or identities online.)

  2. Tom Bentley says:

    Arrgghh! I am violating Precept #1 in an insidious way: I’m blogging about the writing process by exploiting tales of my personal peccadilloes, miserable scribbler I am. My blog is also the entryway to my copywriting and editing services info, a download site for writing-related PDFs, and the host to my published articles and published fiction.

    It sounds like a mishmash needful of a stern editor with a ten-story red pencil, but it’s reflective of the jumble of genres I write in. I should consider breaking out the business-writing work I’m seeking from the freelance materials (Two sites? Three?) to make the distinction clear, but there’s so much overlap now that it seemed organic, if sloppily so, to constitute it as the goulash it is.

    And what about the video materials I’m starting to add? Oh no, bits and bytes deluge! Jane, thanks (I think) for giving me more to think about…

  3. Jane,

    It took me a long time (maybe years) before I decided to take a leap into the worldwide web with a website/blog presence. There were many fears, including what should I write/blog about? I knew I didn’t want my blog to be solely about my writing. I wanted it to be an inspiring place where people came to explore and give voices to their dreams, create their own paths, and celebrate the joys that come from trying. A month and half ago I created that place with the launch of my website/blog. I owe many thanks to you, because without your great advice it would not have happened.

    Your insights, especially the advice you posted on December 18, 2009 (WEBSITE TIPS: 5 Things That Make Me Stop Reading Websites and Blogs), have been a tremendous help in the creation of my website and blog. Thank you.

    Mia

  4. I love blogging. I’ve been blogging for six years. When I first started I though it would be an excellent way to get in some writing practice, develop my voice, and met people from all over the world.

    And it has been too.

    I am now using my blog to promote my first book which will be out in June.

    Janice~

  5. D. G. Hudson says:

    When I first started blogging, it was primarily to keep myself writing, and to force myself to be specific and concise. I had initially started the blog to have an identity when I commented on other literary agents’ blogs, or on other writer’s blogs. One of the first things I wrote was about how much of a web presence I thought I needed, and what I felt I could sustain while still writing my own work and reading. I’ve gained enormous amounts of information from following a couple of lit agents’ blogs (Nathan Bransford & Janet Reid) and some of the Writers Digest blogs, and Guide to Literary Agents blogs.

    This post is great information. In the future I’d love to hear what your opinion is on pen names . There seems to be a lot of different ideas about their usefulness.

  6. Clara says:

    Hi- just wanted to say how timely & informative this is . I started 2 blogs in 2008. The first sort of personal transitional ‘woes’ of life, but, overtime seemed to venture off course as unforseen community visited…

    The 2nd blog(motivational) is where I’m determined to stay focused on the topic at hand & have succeeded in doing so. Both blogs are doing well as far as traffic. I’ve connected with awesome community. I don’t think I was prepared for "exposure" in quite this way, but I’m looking forward to exploring the possibilities.

    Clara.

  7. Linda Adams says:

    I think there isn’t an easy answer. When I first put up a Website and a blog, I had a co-writer who was a marketer. We went the route you described, trying for different topics that might build an audience. Didn’t work, and in fact, had some unexpected results.

    The book was Civil War. He had an expertise in historical firearms, and there wasn’t much content about that topic anywhere unless you were buying them. We actually got a lot of activity from those articles–but from the emails, they weren’t people who would be buying the book in the future. Most of the emails were from people who wanted to know what their gun was worth.

    I put up topics like Microsoft Word for writers, and since I had been in the military, topics about it, also for writers. I took down the Word ones after I got numerous emails from people asking me how to do things in Word–dumb things they could have looked up themselves in the time it took to email me. Often, if I answered the question, they saw it as license to ask me more questions. So not a good use of my time! I took down the military ones after a woman emailed me on how to get her husband’s medals. I sent her the link, and she nastily responded that wasn’t what she was looking for (yes, it was. She wanted a different answer than what it gave).

    Doing a website or blog for a novel is different than for a non-fiction book. The non-fiction author is likely to be in business relating to his topic, so it’s a natural segue right into his book’s topic. But a novel writer doesn’t have the same advantage. The topics may be wide and quite varied–and may still not get anyone who might be potential readers.

    So I do the blog on writing process and try to hit areas that don’t generally get discussed–how to do omniscient viewpoint, organization for creative types, etc.

  8. Merrel Davis says:

    I found this article via twitter thanks to an RT from @JeanneVB.

    I am always of the mind that a web presence is important. Not just for your "brand", or to build momentum about your writing, but it’s important that accurate information about you is prominent and easily accessible via, say a google search, if someone looks up your name.

    I’m a screenwriter and my webspace is as important to me as my business cards. I often encounter novelists and and screenwriters who sell themselves well in person but lack the web presence, or know how to get themselves on that radar.

    Buy a domain name, install wordpress, and go!

    I help a range of writers and filmmakers do just that, I normally wouldn’t pimp my own services (feels spammy!), but in this case I think it is apropos: http://www.merreldavis.com/blog/web-services-for-filmmakers/

    Good luck, and get that site crackin’

    -Merrel Davis

  9. Another great blog post as usual Jane.

    Two years ago I was encouraged to have a presence on the web because I had a book coming out. Start a blog was the advice I was given.
    I looked at other writers blogs and thought I can’t write about the writing process because I am just learning. I can’t write about my home and family because that is just boring and I like to keep my online life private…I have a children’s book coming out, what do I do?
    I created a static blog that supported the children’s book. The address of which I add when I am doing signings or author visits. I also have a weekly blog on Author Marketing…specifically learning all about it. One of the first things I did was set up a feed to your site on my blog.

    Every week I research an article for my blog on Author Marketing as it pertains to children’s writers and what commentators are saying about the publishing industry.
    For myself, the blog has improved my non fiction writing skills. I have followers which means I regularly post and take extra care in finding great content. The followers tell me that they follow me because my links are good and they pass on information to other people especially small business owners. Some of the tips are great for this community.

    I am now seen as a Go To person in my writing community in my country…(this makes me laugh quietly as it definitely feels like the blind leading the blind)

    Blogging has taken me to interesting sites where I have met amazing helpful people. I try to give back where ever I can and as I write this I realise that in two years I have never talked about my own writing on my weekly blog. However the writing community here knows who I am and what I do, all because of the blog. So for profile it can’t be beat.

  10. Elizabeth S says:

    Great post. I fall into the "focus on the work until you have something to promote" camp, but I still agree that it’s good to start early to learn how things work and to make friends.

    I’m going to pass this along to my writer’s group when we meet in June.

  11. Roni Griffin says:

    I think this is great advice, especially the part about the learning curve. It drives me a little crazy when I go to a published author’s site, and it’s so convoluted I can’t find the most basic of information.

    But I do agree with other commenters about the writing-related blogs. Mine is definitely writing focused, and I’ve accepted that it probably will not sell me books. However, I wouldn’t trade the experience I’ve had over the last year of blogging. I’ve met terrific people, gained a fabulous crit group, and have learned so much by tapping into the writing community’s blogs. What’s funny is that I started with the intention of it being a book review blog and it totally morphed into something different, lol.

  12. dana says:

    This is a nice post. Like Theresa, I like the part about how writing can be worthwhile even if it’s not directly leading to publication.

    I have belonged to a couple online forums where the writing had some real emotional urgency for me, and I wonder if the same is true for blogging? Do successful bloggers reach a point where they feel something akin to a compulsion to post? If so, where does that come from? There must be something about the mixture of the form, the words spilling out of the blogger, the degree of openness or vulnerability, the feedback, the connection that happens with one’s audience.

    I think if one were to consider the blog to be a form of art, then there could be more reasons to blog added onto the list of five: the satisfaction of creation, the satisfaction that comes with working to master a form, the satisfaction that comes with melding the mind and spirit with others.

    I wonder how people measure the success of a blog. If I did blog, I supposed I’d consider my blog successful if 1.) I felt compelled to continue writing there and 2.) If I received some satisfying comments, made interesting friend-like connections LOL.

    To that end, though, I think it would be expected to have a few false starts and stops and hiccups along the way as I tried to find out just what part of myself worked best with the form and with the people who stopped by.

  13. THANK YOU for your words of wisdom about not letting the bad eggs – writers who go to extremes in online marketing/promotion … and they drive people away – keep us from doing something that can be a good thing. I must admit they are a powerful disincentive, the bad eggs.

  14. This is an excellent post. My favorite part is, "Here are 5 excellent reasons to have a site or a blog when it’s not directly leading to publication:". That entire list itemizes exactly what happened to me. First I thought I wouldn’t attract any writers because the majority of my posts had nothing to do with writing. Now that I see how many "how to write" blogs there are, I’m glad I didn’t make that my focus. While I mostly write about subbing, I also write about home, writing, and anything that strikes me. I hope that the style of writing for each post is enough of a common thread. Since my follower count has been increasing at a faster rate, something is working.

    The community I’ve found has led to actual friendships. Even if I never have anything for my followers to promote on my behalf, it was never the original intention anyway. If I do have something to promote, I know many will help me out. It’s good advice not to change the blog and turn it into a hawking device if I get a book deal.

    Sometimes I find myself telling people to avoid creating a blog. It’s not that I’m worried about an ever more crowded community, but it’s because a few of these people don’t understand the time and commitment that it takes. For most bloggers, isn’t a magical platform just like for most writers, few magically have bestsellers without years of hard work.

  15. Wow. I just sent an email to a fellow fiction writer who was frustrated about blogs, platforms, brands, etc. and I’ll definitely pass along your post. I think you’re right on target, that an online presence is necessary and ultimately, beneficial. If you’re not invested in your career as a writer, why should a publisher invest in you?

    I like to see established authors discuss current trends, share insight on their publishing journeys, even see the ups and downs that successful writers go through. What I don’t like is a blog that’s purely a promotion list. Not that I don’t do my fair share of promotin’-but all promotion and no real communication makes for a dull writer.

  16. Greg Pincus says:

    I don’t know if you could see me jumping up and down in agreement over hereabouts. But I was.

    I think it’s true that for a fiction writer there are some additional challenges – and for those of us who write for the youth market there are even greater challenges – but as Jody notes, you can still build relationships. Each of those relationships could, in turn, become a person who helps spread the word when your book is out, whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, or some other beast entirely.

    As another link to toss in, I like this post from Seth Godin which includes, as his point two, that the time to start promoting a book is three years before it’s out. Starting too early is harder with that in mind:

    http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2006/08/advice_for_auth.html

    Thanks for a very, very helpful post….

  17. Marisa Birns says:

    My fiction blog (well, actually the only one I have) was a truly wonderful thing I could have done, despite my not wanting to do so in the first place.

    Critiques, encouraging comments, and downright positive reviews have enabled me to keep on writing and learning and sharing.

    As Jody said, while these great people may not be a true readership fan base,I have met other writers and have had wonderful chats about this business of being a writer, and feel I am a member of a strong community that celebrates together when the news is good, and provides comfort when it isn’t.

  18. Jody Hedlund says:

    Hi Jane,

    You’ve got my wheels spinning today and I love when that happens. I think many fiction writers are realizing that blogging is not going to give us the "platform" professionals have "claimed" it would. Likely our blogs won’t draw our true readership fan base until after our books are published. Then we’ll have to figure out a way to interact with our readers, who will be interested in our writing process, stories, and lives.

    Even if I were to find some specific niche for my blog, a unique twist on history for example (since I write historical romance), I still wouldn’t draw a big readership. I really have no way of doing that yet, unless I made a conscious effort to find blogs of others who share the same interest.

    I’ve come to the conclusion, that blogging can however help us build relationships, especially among other writers. Even if we have writing focused blogs (which mine is), we can encourage, teach, remind, and spur one another on to better writing. And in the process we develop genuine friendships that can often help in the promotion of our books in the future.

  19. e.lee says:

    there’s a tendency for blogs to become self-indulgent and personal, of course no one wants to read about complaints and rants.
    the key is to keep it light and professional

  20. Jane,

    Under your list of ideas, I was surprised to read the first one: do not blog about the writing process. I gain a lot from reading about another writer’s process. I also learn about my own process as I write about it.

    But, I see your point: if I’m blogging about the writing process along with the other thousands of writers who do the same, how is my blog different? I’ll have to take a look at that area of focus in my posts, in conjunction with your suggestion to consider what published authors are doing on their sites. Maybe it’s time for a blog topic shake-up.

  21. I think you have one of the most interesting and intelligent blogs out here. I can usually get clear, unbiased, and usable information from it. This post is no exception. I asked myself the same question many times before I finally developed my (not very good) web site, and finally decided I should go ahead. It has been a month since I blogged and I know I should probably keep the site more current. However, no one seems to be looking at it anyway, so that fact makes me wonder whether my thinking is correct. Right now, my WIPs are more important to me than the site, but I’ll try to strike a better balance.

  22. Monica says:

    Jane, this is a really insightful post. For myself, I started a blog to highlight the publications and the non-fiction work that I already had. (via http://www.mlvwrites.com) When I decided to go down the path of writing a novel, I actually viewed that to be an "experiment" and built a different site so I could see what I could do with it (via http://www.violetwar.com).

    My personal blog has been an awesome boon; I’ve gotten several jobs based on my blog. My novel website has had its ups-and-downs, but it does have its core followers and it’s been a nice way to share my process.

    Two separate sites, two different goals. I don’t regret either one of them.

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