Thursday, May 13, 2010

Give Me Your Eyeballs

Mostly because I love the taste of a fresh eyeball.

Just kidding.

As you might know, I'm a site guide for About.com. I run a website on houseplants for About.com, which means I'm the resident houseplant expert and I have near total control over this website. My website is one of 750 discrete sites on the About.com network, each run by a different site guide. In total, About.com attracts about 60 million visitors per month, which makes it one of the 50 largest websites in the world.

I've been at this for almost two and half years now. It started off pretty small, because I was basically starting from scratch. But then I added content and articles, and over time, it built. I just got my site metrics for last month, and let me tell you, it gave me serious pause. I'm contractually prohibited from giving out my numbers, but let's just say this: my little houseplants site put up traffic numbers last month that would make many bestselling authors blush.

It really got me thinking about the changing nature of what it means to be a writer. I think the "writer" of yesteryear is a dead animal. Instead, the writers I've observed who are successful use the same techniques they teach us at About.com to grow a site. It's all about eyeballs. You want to control the most eyeballs as possible. You want to create an immersive "universe" centered on your subject. Your subject can be houseplants, or it can be your novel, your imaginary world, or if you're very good, the reflected light of your sheer awesomeness. Whatever it is, it should be narrow enough that you can wrap your arms around it, but interesting enough to attract your particular audience.

And it should be interactive. There should be interaction between you and the people who visit your universe—in the form of blog comments, emails, and forum posts—and interaction between the visitors themselves, usually in a forum. The point is that you want to give people as many chances as possible to join, talk, contribute and react. In a way, you're less a writer than you are a host at a big themed party.

I've been following a few writers for a a number of years (I'm thinking of two in particular). Both of them have done an amazing job of creating a true community built around their books, the worlds they've created, and their aesthetic. In both cases, these authors are infinitely accessible—they hang out on their own forums, they answer every Facebook message, every email, and respond to every comment. In both cases, they run forums and/or blogs that attracts tens of thousands of people every month, usually repeat visitors.

I think in the future—especially as e-books destroy the print business model—distribution will fade in relevance. Instead, we'll see the rise of the Metric Writer, someone who knows how to build, measure and maintain an audience in a vertical silo built around a complete entertainment community: books, video, a steady stream of blog content, short stories and novellas, active forums, linked social media, and author availability.

Personally, I think it's a very exciting time to be a writer.

7 comments:

Erica Orloff said...

I was thinking about this. Years ago, author personality didn't matter. If I bought a book by so-and-so, I might read the jacket flap, but unless I took out paper and pen and wrote a letter to the publisher, I would expect no contact with that person. I don't think that's the case today, except, obviously, if you write J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown, you are not going to get a reply.

That said, I think author personality matters more. I can think of two authors, both best-selling, but not household names, one a woman, one a man. The guy is so arrogant and impossible, that people at conference I've been to run the other way and avoid him or roll their eyes. It's one of those, "We all know he's an ass" kind of things. The woman is someone I just wouldn't want to come within 50 feet of for similar reasons. In both cases, has it hurt book sales? I don't know. But I do know some people who just will not buy his books because of that--and they're READERS who met him, not writers. So suddenly a writer is flesh and blood--or, today, avatar in a sense, and I think how they interact with readers matters very much.

Even Rowling, who is not "accessible," has an image of decency. What she has allowed out there in terms of interviews, etc. depict her in a very positive light.

LurkerMonkey said...

I think it definitely matters more ... and maybe in ways that go beyond obvious sales. I suspect that the authors who are willing/able to create this kind of zeitgeist get better treatment at the publisher because the publisher sees they are working to build a brand.

I think, too, that a handful of authors are basically exempt from the laws of gravity. Rowling is one of them.

Mark Terry said...

I don't know that I completely agree with you about the vertical silo--I'll have to think about it--but I do think things are changing in a big way. It occurred to me just today, I was thinking of a nonfiction book proposal, and at first I thought, "Hey, just write the book and put it up as an e-book." Then I thought, "Why not write it as a book proposal, send it to your agent, let her do her thing. And if it doesn't get sold, well, THEN write the thing and put it up as an e-book."

Meaning, I think, that writers now have a lot more options. In order to make it work, I think you probably need exactly what you said--some sort of forum (read: platform), but social media, etc., has made that far more do-able than before.

LurkerMonkey said...

By vertical silo, I meant you'd try to capture and keep your audience in a narrowly defined area ... I've read in a few places that they expect the publishing companies of the future to be built around audience and subject rather than distribution (as they currently are). This makes sense to me. In other words, a publisher would focus very narrowly on, say, historical fiction and work exclusively in this area. They would have a newsletter, a dedicated audience, a channel on the major e-distributors, bloggers, forums, etc. A whole universe. This is something similar to the idea of multiple speciality imprints at publishers, except much deeper. I think successful writers will be able to replicate this ...

Mark Terry said...

Publishing's a little strange, though, because do any readers have loyalty to Random House, or St. Martin's Press? Do most readers even know that Bantam is an imprint of Random, etc.?

It'll be interesting.

Melanie Avila said...

Wow, good for you. :)

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