Wednesday, May 10, 2017

A Few Thoughts on Indie Publishing (Part 2)

I get letters.  Yesterday's was from my good friend and Academy classmate Joe, who's been trying to get a new sports blog off the ground called A Hoosier on the Potomac.  He asked me some questions about how I built my audience, and my answer ran quite a bit longer than I meant it to.

This is now the second part of what may well become a series. The first part is here.

Hey Joe,
Thanks for the note.  I confess that I'm not overly surprised that you're frustrated.  Starting a blog is an inherently frustrating undertaking in my experience.  I tell myself all the time that I should just quit, but really, it's kind of an addiction.  Honestly, the biggest reason that I write half my stuff is that I’m trying to work out how I feel about various topics.  I've been writing and/or journaling for that purpose so long now that it's kind of an ingrained habit.  Making my thoughts public is a relatively new enterprise, but writing about my life definitely is not.
I don't know that I necessarily have an "audience," per se.  I mean, my average post gets maybe 35 or 50 readers, mostly from Facebook.  That's a mix of guys I knew in high school, lots of friends of my wife, and the occasional classmate.  Unfortunately, when Facebook went to its new anti-fake news algorithm, it really hurt my traffic.  Basically, they started showing linked posts from non-mainstream websites (blogs) to steadily shrinking audiences by way of combating conspiracy theories but caught my blog in their net.  
I'm Fake News!
Another thing that has hurt my traffic has been my conscious decision to do less politics.  I felt after the election like I was alienating a lot of my Academy acquaintances, and to say the least, it wasn't a trade worth making.  So I've made a deliberate shift of late to do more entertainment and especially more sports writing, and that's made ME happier, but traffic is way, way down.  For whatever reason, lots of folks really must have liked my political commentary.  Well, they were reading it anyway.  But I KNOW that a lot of our classmates Unfriended me immediately before and after the election, and that's a trade-off I wouldn't make again.  The election posts from last year got a relatively large readership FOR ME, but tons of readers for me is maybe 200.  It's not like 200 readers is going to move the national conversation.
I get readers from three main sources: Facebook, Google+, and Twitter, in that order.  This annoys me because of the three Facebook is BY FAR my least favorite, but it makes sense at a certain level that people who know me are my primary readership.  This is doubly true when I write about my life, and my life is a frequent topic.  This is not the way I would prefer to market myself, but it's been really very hard to maintain momentum as a relatively anonymous blogger on the other platforms.
The  exceptions to this come via Swimming (sometimes), Dungeons and Dragons, and Army Sports.  Google+ is organized around topics by group, where the groups are moderated by random enthusiasts.  As is the case on many corners of the Internet, some groups have rabid followings, and marketing decent content to one of these groups is a good way to get new readers.  For example, the D&D 5th Edition group on G+ is VERY active, and when I was writing about playing D&D with my kids a few years ago, I picked up quite a few enthusiastic followers, some of whom STILL read my blog on a daily basis.  The Swimming group is much less active, but it's a big group, and I write content about swimming that NO ONE else is writing -- the subset of D1 swimmers who are also writers is vanishingly small -- so  those posts always do really, really well.  I personally have no idea whatsoever why people want to read about my workouts, but they definitely do it, and many of them are total strangers.  It’s weird because people used to come up to me at triathlons and say, “Oh!  You’re Dan Head.  I read your blog.”  That shit was next-level strange.
Writing about Army Sports is the only writing I do that gets any noticeable readership at all via Twitter -- despite my abiding love for that particular platform -- and even then, it’s only because Joe F___’s son Alex is one of my followers, and HE has an enormous Army Sports following.  So, bottom line, if I write something that Alex likes, and he retweets it, a ton of Army fans will read it, which is how my writing about Army Football really took off last year.  Even then, writing about Army Sports is inherently frustrating because there just aren’t that many Army Sports fans on Planet Earth.  We have 50,000 living grads, and I would say that fully half of them never get any news whatsoever from any non-mainstream sources.  And that’s fine, but it definitely puts an upper boundary on the number of readers any particular Army Sports article is going to get.
To answer your more specific question, I track readers using Blogger’s “Stats” tab, which is tough because it doesn’t separate bots from actual people, and it also isn’t good at tracking people who use ad-blockers or other anonymous web-surfing software.  The “Stats” tab is therefore a very rough way to gauge readership, but it’s all we’ve got.  Once you’ve installed an AdSense widget, you can also get some basic traffic tracking that way, but again, you’re going to totally miss folks who use ad-blockers, and that’s actually a lot of folks.
Screenshot of "Stats > Overview", sorted by day.
Screenshot of "Stats>Posts," sorted by day.
Last note: I’m not surprised that media folks haven’t helped you promote your blog.  Reality is that if you break in, that’s just more competition for them, and no one wants that.  So people have been polite, and that’s good, but they are also definitely hoping that you fail.  You see that, right?
Does that help?  If you want to talk on the phone today, I’ll be happy to schedule some time.  Just let me know when.

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