Their reasons for shuttering the blog are very understandable: even if others could provide content, the blog was still their baby and still consumed a lot of their free time. Both editors had reached a point where they could not justify giving up that time at the expense of spending time with their families, so decided to shut down the blog. No doubt there were options for passing SF Signal onto other writers and editors, but the site was theirs and they didn't want it to continue without them, hence the closure. This news came on the heels of Charlie Jane Anders stepping away from SFF mega-site io9 to concentrate on her fiction. That was a different case, as Gawker Media who hosted, paid for and maintained io9. Anders was the co-founder and helped establish the tone and direction of the site, but as a corporate entity io9 could keep going under new management in the form of long-time contributor and arch-snarkmaster Rob Bricken. More distinctively, as a corporate media concern, the people working on io9 get paid. The people working on SF Signal do not.
Back in the autumn of 2005, for the first time in my life, I was finally able to move into a house with broadband. Before that my web-browsing was carried out in internet cafes and libraries. As a lifelong fan of SFF, this had been rather frustrating but I wasted no time in hanging around. Within hours of getting my first broadband connection installed I had signed up on several of the major SFF forums: Westeros, Wotmania (defunct), SFX (defunct) and Dragonmount. In the following weeks and months I would join many others: SFF Chronicles, SFFWorld, Malazanempire, Paizo and SFX. Due to good timing and good fortune, I would meet George R.R. Martin for the very time within a few weeks of that time and post a detailed report of that meeting on Westeros, leading to me becoming a moderator there. I posted numerous book reviews over the following months, which led to people suggesting that I start my own blog, which I finally did in November 2006. And here we are, ten years later (well, nine and a half).
Writing the blog has been immensely satisfying, especially when I've reviewed a less well-known book and seen dozens of people go and buy a copy. For a few people, it was on the Wertzone that they first heard there was a new Star Wars movie coming out, or that A Dance with Dragons finally had a publishing date, or that Fallout 4 existed. The satisfaction of writing and working on the blog for a reading audience is tremendous, and I often feel the need that my readers deserve and need the best content I can put out. Hence how a planned mild rebuttal to a cheesy "Best Fantasy Evaaah" article on another website ended up becoming a 66,000-word series on the history of the entire genre. I like to think that this commitment to original content, long posts and a fairly prolific output is why the blog is doing so well. Since 2011, during the period when I've been repeatedly told that blogging is dead, the Wertzone has increased its hit rate to unprecedented heights. All of this is fantastic and has had significant knock-on effects: attending conventions, hosting and taking part on panels, and - very occasionally - doing paying work for publishers or magazines.
All of this requires a substantial time investment, however. It's frequently involved coming in from eight hours at the day job to jumping straight into four or five hours on the site, several times a week. Sometimes that's been fine and sometimes it hasn't, and I've scaled things back. The balance of investment and reward in any activity needs to be weighed, and for the most part I've been happy with that balance.
As I get older, though, it becomes harder to justify spending so much time blogging in favour of doing other things, such as spending more time with friends, family or a significant other or just more time relaxing after work. Right now, I don't actually have a significant other (for the last couple of months) or a day job (for the last month), hence why the Wertzone was unusually busy in April. I made a conscious decision last month to, whilst undertaking my normal jobsearching activities, to also put eight hours a day into the blog and treating it like a day job. This is why there double the normal number of posts last month, and a corresponding rise in hits, social media activity, getting new Twitter followers etc. It was fortuitous that a couple of big, attention-grabbing stories came up during that time (most notably the Wheel of Time TV series news).
This never happens.
For bloggers who do have day jobs and families, it's become clear that the lack of material reward for blogging means greater pressure to step away and spend that time instead with loved ones or doing other things. And that's why it's easy to see why the guys at SF Signal decided to step away. If I get one of the several jobs I'm currently going through the recruitment process for, the amount of blogging on the site will have to fall as I devote time to that instead.
Is there a way around this? Should there be? Kind of. For a lot of bloggers, blogging is a springboard into writing fiction and once they make that transition, the blogging is left behind. For me, I have no interest in writing fiction day in, day out. I may one day try my hand at writing a short story or a novel if a story demands to be told, but I'm never going to be a career fiction writer. I much prefer writing about the genre as a critic, but the paid market for that is much smaller. After over five months doing the rounds with my agent, A History of Epic Fantasy has failed to garner as much as the merest flicker of interest from a professional publisher, despite the people nominating it for awards (and in any year but this one, it might even have stood a chance of making the shortlist) and clamouring for the book version (look for an update on that soon). But even if that takes off, that's just one project. Being an SFF critic isn't much of a career path these days, especially with venues drying up (even the mighty SFX Magazine seems to be in financial trouble and may not last much longer).
This never happens. Well, not any more anyway.
Hey, don't you get paid in free books?
Nope, or at least not any longer. Back in the day, being a successful book-focused blogger meant receiving lots of ARCs (Advanced Reading Copies), pre-release editions of books sent out for free to reviewers to drum up interest in novels before they come out. Some took this to be a reward in itself, and for a year or two there was a "controversy" about conflicts of interests and these things constituting bribery and so forth. But ARCs have largely become a thing of the past: I received over 150 in 2010 and in 2016 so far I have received exactly four (Children of Earth and Sky, The Call and The Wolf in the Attic for those curious, with The Great Ordeal on its way). ARCs have been largely replaced by e-ARCs and NetGalley, and since I can't read novels from a computer screen (vision issues; sometimes even just the blogging and internet research causes me problems), the result of that is that I no longer receive, and almost never ask for, ARCs any more. So they're out, and that's not a problem. I still have the better part of 200 books on the to-read pile and that will take me years to get through if I never buy or receive another book during that time.
So to justify continuing to blog at my current rate, I really need to make the blog pay, either enough for me to work on it full-time or enough to mean that I only need to get a part-time job. And to date I've tried two ways of generating income from the blog.
The first thing I did was put up a tipjar on the blog for contributors to make donations. I did that on 30 October 2012, so three and a half years ago. In that timeframe, I've received in total about £300 (and £100 of that from one very generous donor). That is absolutely fantastic, and that money went back into the site in the form of sourcing more content, travelling to events and buying more books and other media for review on the blog. But, to put it in perspective, that's about one-quarter of one month's pay at the UK minimum wage (and rather less than the actual living wage). It's a lovely bonus, but it will never pay for me to work full-time on the site.
More recently, back in October last year, I instigated advertising on the site, at a (hopefully) low-key and unobtrusive level. This brings in approximately £60 every four months. Again, excellent and gratefully-received, but it's not going to be paying for me to run the site any time soon. I could ramp up the advertising, even do those wrap-around adverts that would bring in a bit more, but I find those insanely annoying and it really would constitute a conflict of interest if I got paid to host an advert for a book I then reviewed.
Two additional ideas have been floated to me. The first is that I try my hand at podcasting. I've always been reluctant to try this because I read information at a vastly faster rate that watching or listening to it. I once sat down and tried to listen to the A Game of Thrones audiobook and it drove me crazy because in the time that it took Roy Dotrice to read the prologue I could have easily read three or four chapters of the book with my actual head-eyes. However, I am assured that there a lot of other people don't have that issue and there are certainly time efficiencies from podcasting (being able to listen or watch them on the move, at work, on headphones, in the car etc) that text blogging can't compete with. I don't actually have any equipment to do podcasting with, but it is something I'll probably look into later this year, especially when we move closer to the History of Epic Fantasy project moving forwards, as that would be a good way of introducing the book.
The second one is a bit more straightforward: Patreon. For those unaware of it (as I was until a few months ago), this is a crowdsourcing site where you basically get people to pledge a monthly payment in return for exclusive content/rewards (either completely exclusive or time-sensitive, so you'd get an article a month before non-pledgers). This doesn't seem like such a bad idea, although I'm dubious about the support I'd get and I do have a slight location-based issue: I have the temerity to be based in the UK, with a highly unfavourable exchange rate with, well, most of the rest of the world but especially the USA, where a large number of my readers are. But it's certainly worth a look and I'll probably be pursuing that in the near future.
Like Neo, I do always have the option of making a new Bill & Ted movie to fall back on.
But what if you fail?
Er, then I'll carry on as I am now. I don't see a situation where I'll ever quit, give up or retire from blogging, but certainly I can see situations where I have to drastically reduce my output and contributions due to other commitments. Which would suck.
But hey, do we even need bloggers in the first place?
I think the genre needs as many voices in it as possible discussing books, authors, TV shows, video games and the other things that make the genre what it is. The more voices, the more chances of the good stuff rising to the top and the stronger and healthier the field. Whether the field needs me, or any individual blogger specifically, is a different question and one that's down to the readers.