Friday 6 May 2016

Blogging in the Age of Austerity

This week the veteran, multi-award-winning science fiction and fantasy blog SF Signal announced it was shutting down. The news sent shockwaves through SFF fandom: SF Signal was founded in 2003, in the earliest, most nascent days of the blogosphere when the world was still young. Other blogs had come and gone, but SF Signal was an eternal presence on the scene. Indeed, with three Hugo Awards to its name and a large number of guest and contributing editors providing content under the eyes of founders John DeNardo and JP Frantz, the future looked quite bright for SF Signal.

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.


Anonymous said...

*Please* don't ever shut down. This is my favourite blog, and the first thing I visit every morning. I look forward to every single post you make, and as such, to reiterate my original statement: please don't shut down! I'll give you a pony if you don't shut down! :)


Patrick said...

Great article, Adam! =)

Hopefully the Wertzone will stay alive for a long time to come!

Nathaniel Katz said...

I didn't realize that you had ads until this post and, for what little it's worth, just turned off my adblock for your site. I certainly understand if you need to cut back on your blogging; I ended up letting my blog wither away entirely a few years ago. But, again for what it's worth, your content definitely is appreciated, even if not monetarily.

Bibliotropic said...

In regard to Patreon, I like its idea more than I currently like its execution, since people can donate hundreds of dollars to you via it, but for you to actually withdraw any of that money, you need to get a US tax number. Which means an annoying application process. I can understand, sort of, why this is in place, because the company is US-based and needs accountability, but it's still frustrating, and something I didn't find out until after I'd already signed up.

Personally, I'm in favour of people making money by blogging. I know it's a controversial idea (I've been told by a few people that I'm a little bit ridiculous for thinking that the hard work we put into this ought to have some monetary compensation now and again), but really, of all the Internet media outlets, blogging is the one that pays the least and we're told to expect the least. Run a podcast for 5 years, you'll probably have fans donating. Run a vlog? Same deal. Run a blog? Nooo, a blog shouldn't earn you any money, that's just silliness! Even if the content is the exact same, just in a different format.

So yeah, it really is no wonder that one of the biggest reasons I see blogs end is because the rest of life gets in the way. You put a lot of unpaid work into a thing, and it's not surprising that people back away in order to focus on things that do pay, or that don't pay but are much more satisfying. It's a lot easier to justify doing something you love when that thing also lets you pay a bill or two every now and again.

Phil Monks said...

A very honest, interesting post. For what it's worth, your blog is my go-to site for news and balanced, non-biased commentary (except for ASoIaF related stuff, anyway - What a fanboy! ;))

Definitely look into Patreon - it's a good model for keeping people engaged.

--- said...

Good article Adam. I did wonder what caused the much higher output this year.

>" 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."

^That's definitely correct.

Shame to hear the History of Epic Fantasy isn't snapping up as much interest as hoped.

Patreon sounds worth a try but yeah, worst case scenario sounds like a much lower output from you. Here's hoping things work out. I'm a huge fan of criticism in general, and you've been a great critic for years. I totally agree critics are a needed voice, especially in genre fiction (where so much content is so similar and it's difficult to parse what a reader/viewer might identity with or like best).

Neil said...

Thank you for the insight.

Unknown said...

Great post, Adam. I hope lots of things happen for you: day job, blog continues, you.find a way of making some money from blogging. Lots of good and friendly podcasters can help with tech aspects. Good luck!

Brian @ SFF Chronicles said...

The hard truth is that hobby interests bring in pocket money. Doesn't matter how much time your throw at it, or how many advertising or affiliate schemes you use, it will never come close to offering a real income - *unless* you have a paid-for product or service behind your blogging work.

I've run hundreds of websites over the past decade. In the gold old days areas such as finance and tech ads paid well - book-related topics *never* have. But the whole market has flattened out so that nothing much pays well any more.

That's why the news websites - the ones who must make an income - are absolutely stuffed with ads to the point of crashing your browser. Internet advertising just doesn't pay - certainly not as much as minimum wage.

Here's the thing - you do have a potential product - one or more commentaries on the SFF genre. Forget trad publishing - you'll get crap royalties, poor distribution, and you'd be expected to market it yourself anyway.

Instead, self-publish your own series of industry insights with Amazon KDP. Use your blog to support it by covering the same or similar topics. Heck, there are a number of successful ebooks that do nothing more than repackage content previously published for free on a blog.

Also - get yourself a Kindle - they are great for reading with vision issues, as you can change the text size and style to whatever you're comfortable with. Why do you think they're so popular with older readers? That will also give you some insight into the ebook world, and hopefully help inspire.

But simply blogging about SFF? It's something you can only do for the love of it. I have never seen anyone sustain financial success from blogging - in any field - *unless* they offered a product or service behind it.


Anonymous said...

Well, there's also another side to it. Which is that free online community content, in almost any field and almost any medium (blogs, fansites, software, forum participation), has always been driven by passionate young people with time on their hands. As time goes on and they acquire other responsibilities or interests, their participation dwindles, but a new generation comes along to fill the gap. As someone who's been online since the mid-90s... yes, it's always sad when the people or places you're familiar with online drift away, whether through changing interests or through the growing pressures of real life, but on some level I think this has to be accepted as part of the circle of life. Others will arise to fill the niche in the ecosystem...

Which I guess isn't a great comfort when you're worrying about going extinct yourself. But I guess I look it at from the other direction: what would happen otherwise? A few of the more succesful sites (etc) would, over time, grow and grow until they oligopolised the ecosystem, becoming increasingly corporate and impersonal, either because they were bought out by corporations or just because the bigger and more established the project the more 'professional' you have to be about managing it. We have enough of that. It's good that selective forces keep the population churning, because it means that a certain degree of creativity and novelty is always arriving.

Having said that, my concrete suggestion would be entirely contrary to that ethos: why not get some friends together and collaborate? One blogger may not be able to keep a blog going at a commercially-viable rate of output, but three or four bloggers together can keep a blog well-stocked even if each contributes only a little. That enables the blog to keep functioning and maintain a presence and a fanbase that each blogger can then easily reach when they DO have some more free time or a project of particular interest to them. It also opens up its own opportunities (group discussions, for instance). And if you open it up for guest posts, you can even get to nurture and train the next generation of people with way too much time on their hands and no proper jobs or families yet...

Gabriele Campbell said...

Sorry to hear about your Real Life problems. I've been through times of unemployment and it sucks. Less time for blogging and a steady income is the better variant by far. But please don't give up blogging entirely - too many good blogs* have gone the way of the dodo those last years and I would really miss yours.

*Not only in the SF-circles, but historical ones - my second hobby - as well.

Good luck with the job and money hunting.

Anonymous said...

This is by far the best fantasy blog/newssite on the internet. It's great because it mixes straight reporting
with analysis.

My advice would be that if it's becoming too much, do fewer posts about things that genuinely interest and excite
you, rather than providing the usual high quality coverage of fantasy/scifi in general.

My sense is that it would be difficult to make any amount of reasonable money from blogging, so treat it
like a hobby not a job, and do less.

Stonewielder said...

Good luck Adam. I'm going to make another donation, and I hope this post inspires many more to do so as well. You are THE source for me on SF news, books, games, movies, etc. If it were not for you I would be unaware of so many authors and have missed out on all of their wonderful stories. That's priceless. Thank you so much, I'm really grateful for what you do!

Anonymous said...

Love the site and would definitely support it via Patreon.

ediFanoB said...

Excellent post Adam!
I started my blog "only" six years ago. There is one thing I did before I opened my blog. I sat down and thought about what I want to achieve with it and how much time I can/want to spend for it. I ended up with one regular post per week and additionally reviews whenever I find time to write them. Based on that I knew that I will never have a readership like your blog or others. But I'm happy with that. Nevertheless people mostly underestimate how much time is needed to prepare proper content.
Fingers crossed that you find a proper day job which let you enough time and energy for your blog. I think it is difficult to make money with a blog because people are used to get as much as possible for free.

RFYork said...

Adam, thanks for your commentary. The problem is that the web has bred a generation of content users who are firm in their belief that all content should be free. Unfortunately, if you or any other serious blogger ask for money, users seem to leave in droves.

I support several non-profits here in Portland with monthly contributions. However, I'd be happy to send you some money on an annual basis. It would be a small amount, but if enough of your readers were to send you $10 to $25 a year, I would think it could help.

Unknown said...

Hi Adam,

On the most minor of topics (audio books) -- a couple of tips from someone who listens to them all the time. Don't sit down to listen to one. Audiobooks are for when you're doing something else -- driving, washing dishes, cleaning house, rocking a baby, etc. I actually listen to them when running as long as I'm not trying to break any records.

Secondly, you should get an app which will speed up the reader. Most readers I read about 1.8x to 1.9x, but some you need to go faster.

And FWIW -- I enjoy the rather wide range of stuff you review.

Alex said...

I mostly agree with Brian @ SFF Chronicles in so far as niche subject blogs tend to be exceptionally difficult to monetise- "The hard truth is that hobby interests bring in pocket money".

If you step over into the world of parent/lifestyle blogs, fashion blogs or thrifty blogs, there are people out there making £30K-£50K a year from them but that's at a cost- most of the content is advertorial based and they lack any real authenticity as a result. I know of people who will charge a minimum of £300 to review something, or go to a press event. It's madness and unsustainable in even the mid term but it does happen. Do I read their blogs? No, but if they have 2-5,000 posts up, the site will index well, and there are SEO agencies that will pay them a couple of hundred to write an article about a particular subject with a follow link in it. That's where the money sits in blogging, not in affiliate advertising. The ASA are always getting cross at bloggers who do that sort of hidden advertising, and they keep on re-releasing their guidance on the subject to mostly deaf ears.

The biggest hurdle to anything though is time. People tend to be able to write good stuff or deal with the monetisation side of it but seldom have the time to do both properly.

As I mentioned on twitter (@pintofsimilar, *waves*), the most successful people I know started out as bloggers but used their blog as a springboard to other things. A case in point is one blogger who ended up reviewing a lot of books on her blog. She got paid writing magazine columns locally after a couple of years, based on her blog writing, set up a literature festival based on her contacts, and then wrote a novel. The novel has been an international best seller, been optioned for film and has 1,000s of positive reviews on Amazon. She's the extreme end of the scale but I know of at least half a dozen other bloggers who have either had fiction or reference books published as a result of what they blog about. Mind you, having a book published doesn't necessarily make you rich but it will make more than you can get from affiliate advertising.

So yes, as Brian says, use what you've done or are doing as a step on to something else. Look at Neil Perryman's Doctor Who stuff, that's a great (genre) example.

Just don't give up, you're writing, especially the long form stuff, is too good for that :D

Mark Andrew Edwards said...

Let us know when you hit Patreon. I can probably support you, I do appreciate your reviews.

Brian @ SFF Chronicles said...

Basic Kindle Fire tablet is on promo for just under £40:

Definitely worth it for an introduction to ebook reading. And you'll save a ton of money with all the ebook discounts and promos.

Just FYI.