Sunday, January 11, 2009

Against Blogging

Writers who blog are well used to being told by critics and journalists that they should pack it in and leave literary evaluation to the professionals. It’s a stale argument, as many bloggers write criticism which is more in-depth and less compromised than their professional counterparts.

However, a few nights ago, via a tip from Helena Nelson, I read an article against blogging, by writer and blogger, Morris Rosenthal, which made me think, not for the first time, on whether blogging is a good idea for writers. MR begins with an argument that most writer-bloggers must have considered at various points:

“Blogging sucked three years of creative writing out of my brain, and it can do it to you as well.”

He then continues:

“If I could sum up the problem with blogs in one 90's concept, it would be the lack of closure. Blogging never reaches a logical conclusion, it just goes on and on until the blogger breaks the vicious cycle and walks away, or finds a sort of peace six feet under.”

Of course, blogging is a form of creative writing. It does mean that you are writing a blog rather than a poem or a novel, but the blog is only the problem if that very fact begins to feel like a problem. Some writers (not me) might view their blog as a more valuable artform than anything else they have written and will have no regrets on writing it.

MR says that visitors for archived posts tend to be very few in number. All that effort, all those words you’ve written over several years, will go largely unread – that’s Chris Anderson’s “Long Tail” theory examined in the article. Compared to static pages on a traditional website. MR found that an archived blog post gathered very few hits. One problem is that search engines are attracted to, or repelled by, titles. Come up with a clever title and, once the post has left your blog’s front page, you’re unlikely to get many hits on it. However, when a blogger realises that, he/she should be able to title his posts to attract search engines and still write good content for readers. The title may be boring so that search engines aren’t put off by apparently hermetic or confusing terms, but the content can be as intriguing as the blogger is capable of.

One central aspect of MR’s argument is that blogs don’t help writers to market books. I guess most writers think that blogs do help. I know I have always thought that, but without any hard evidence. MR argues that a good static website is far more effective. Blogs, he says, can help writers who have already produced books if the blog is an occasional update on progress and content (although not too much content, or readers might feel they no longer need to buy the book) attached to a static website. However, he then says:

“But if you're unknown, have yet to produce your first book or write non-fiction as a work-a-day author, entertaining a fan base just isn't relevant.”

That may be true in general terms, but I wonder if poetry is an exception. The market is small anyway, the poetry ‘world’ is small, and perhaps a blog can be useful in creating and entertaining a ‘fan base’. That said, people will only buy a poetry book I write if they like the poetry. Whether they enjoy the blog is irrelevant. They may read excerpts from the book on my Salt page, when it goes up, and decide on that basis. They may read some of my poetry through the links on the right-hand sidebar here, but that’s static content which could just as easily be on a traditional website. MR is blunt on this point:

“In terms of visitors received and books sold for the time I put in writing, blogging is the worst return on investment I get.”

I have no idea how many copies of my pamphlet sold due to this blog. I’m sure some sold on that basis, but perhaps a static website would have helped sell as many and for much less work.

A blog, however, isn’t just a marketing tool. As MR himself said, he is an author, not a telemarketer. I’d see my blog as something I author, much like a book. It has value to me in its own right, irrespective of related pamphlet and book sales. It’s put me in touch with many writers and readers I might not have come across otherwise. On the other hand, I now wonder what I might have written if I hadn’t been writing the blog, although there’s no point in thinking too hard on such ‘what ifs…’! MR’s article also makes me think about the future, about the issue of closure, on whether I should have a website, and on whether a blog really is the best medium for sounding off on literature.

Morris Rosenthal's Self Publishing blog is still very much active!


deemikay said...

For me, blogging is really just a notebook. Nothing more. What I used to write on paper, I now write on screen. (Though I still have about 5 notebooks of varying sizes on the go!)

I have a handful of readers, but (some will be unsurprised to read) I don't really mind if no-one ever reads it. It's where I formulate thoughts and store them. I can access these thoughts anywhere there's a pc, I can share them quite easily with friends via e-mail. I can delete them if they turn out to be embarrassing drivel... ;o)

Does it affect my poems? Not at all. I recently got rid of them from my blog and transferred to a new discrete (and discreet) one.

It'd be interesting to see how many new blogs have been created this year compared to others. The blog bubble probably burst a couple of years ago. (Though it's still a BIG DEAL in India... so it would also be interesting to see how they are viewed outwith the UK/US.)

deemikay said...

Oh, and I should say that I do "trust" other media more than blogs. Books, newspapers, journals... somehow it feels less made up. Even though it's exactly that.

Which is rather hypocritical of me...

Colin Will said...

I never kept a diary or wrote a journal before I started blogging, so it's been a new activity for me. Maybe it does cut into my writing time, but no more than a dozen other displacement activities. I produce two, maybe three, new posts per week, and none of them are all that long (usually), and to be honest they don't take much creativity compared to writing a poem or planning a workshop. As far as sales go, my publishing static site sells books, and I refer to it from the blog, so that's maybe generating a few more sales than if I didn't have it. (Putting a shopping cart link on the site has definitely helped sales.) I couldn't get the link to work, BTW, but I've read other good posts by MR.

Rob said...

Colin, yes, strangely the link doesn't work. Thanks for letting me know.

But if you click it and then click the link under 'what else to try', the article appears - but the link url is exactly the same as when it initially doesn't...

Rob said...

OK, seems to work now, but I'm not sure what difference I've just made to the link as I had it!

Anonymous said...

When you speak of a 'clever title', what did you have in mind? Unsurprisingly, my most popular archived post has 'sex' in the title (three times) - which isn't all that clever really, and probably only attracts the kind of reader likely to be disappointed.

deemikay said...

I have three "most popular posts" - "short folktales", "behaviour of fish in an egyptian tea garden" and "edwin morgan". Responsible for hundreds and hundreds of links.

Anonymous said...

It's beyond me why so few people type things like 'fish motifs in Bulgarian poetry' into google. I propose a search engine that ranks things based on the quality of the language used therein.

deemikay said...

Which, of course, gives you this.

In the space of me writing that last post I went and checked and another person had been looking for short folktales.

Collin Kelley said...

The argument that blogging sucks away other writing time is so played out. Maybe those who bitch about blogging should work on their time management skills. Blogging is not an excuse.

Matt Merritt said...

Yes, I'm with Colin on this one. The argument put forward in the article (that blogging takes up valuable writing time and has no 'closure') applies to any number of other activities too, but unless you're going to have nothing in your life other than writing, I don't see that it's a problem.

As you say, too, I often find it a good warm-up for other writing - it can get me into the right frame of mind.

Finally, it IS a marketing tool. Not a great one, maybe, but better than nothing, which for many poets would be the other option.

Dominic Rivron said...

I think in many areas of life we often think about new possibilities in terms of old ones. The internet is changing the ways we share words. However, how we think about "writing" is still conditioned to a great extent by the possibilities made available through pens, paper, typewriters, printing presses, publishers, bookbinding, etc.
It would be interesting to find out what writers and scholars of the day made of Guteburg's printing press - I'm sure the information's out there. Did they talk about the printed word as being qualitatively different to the written word in ways which seem quaint to us now?

Crafty Green Poet said...

I've actually found that some of my archived posts have attracted audiences, they actually have a long life in the first page of a Google search. Plus of course internal links in new posts to old posts can draw audiences to the old posts. Blogging has brought me a very wide readership, has got me quoted in the Evening News, has lead to me being invited to do workshops and also has made me write more off-blog than i would have been doinf if i hadn't been blogging, by getting me totally into writing. i can see that it might be a distraction if you're trying to write a novel though...

Claire A said...

Surely "it takes up valuable time that could be spent doing more productive things and never reaches a natural conclusion" applies beautifully to, er, writing poetry?

You know I love blogs and blogging -- and it doesn't just have to be about shifting books or chronicling the mundane details of your personal life. Blogs can be just as useful and worthwhile and informative and engaging as anything else.

And anyone who spends their time telling hundreds of thousands of people to stop doing something harmless and enjoyable is... well, it's just a bit sad, really, isn't it?

Nicolette Bethel said...

There are always exceptions to rules.

My main blog has been the best tool I have found to market my (self-published) books and to develop readership.

Of course, it isn't a journal sort of blog, but an op-ed sort of blog. Really, that's the sort I read.

Blogging may not be valuable in the metropole (the places where publishing normally takes place) but for those of us on the periphery, it's crucial.

Go read Global Voices if you still disbelieve.

Nicolette aka Scavella

Rob said...

I don't think Morris is suggesting that everyone should stop blogging or that it's a useless activity. He's saying that, given the time spent on it over years, there are better and less time-intensive ways to market your work - if that's what motivates a blog in the first place.

I enjoy blogging, most of the time. I tend to be fairly efficient about it. I'd see it as a genre in itself, not just a marketing tool. I doubt I would have written even one more poem if I hadn't been blogging, and (if I'm wrong on that) the poem probably wouldn't have been a good one.

I'm sure it has had some effect on mypamphlet sales, although that's hard for me to measure.

As far as titles of posts go, I used to try to think up clever titles, as I thought readers would appreciate them. But I now realise titles are for search engines, articles are for readers - some of whom use search engines to find them.