Take a deep breath and any antibiotics you have handy: We’re jumping into the writer pool. And not the fancy one everybody thinks exists – all white wooden lounge chairs and champagne on silver trays – this is the real one. The one on the front lawn, filled with old hose water and diluted beer. Hold your breath; I think a squirrel died in there this morning.
The biggest worry of any writer I meet, whether that’s an internet blogger trying to get traffic, or a novelist trying to get readers, is pure numbers. How do you get some friggin’ eyes on your friggin’ stuff? Surely, once you accomplish that nigh-on impossible literary feat, the rest is all diamonds and blowjobs and excruciatingly painful but terrifically posh diamond blowjobs.
It is not.
That is the first part of your job. Get eyes on words. Absorbing their meaning. Allowing your thoughts into their brain like little textual parasites. Infecting them. That part is tough, sure. But it’s not the endgame. As David Wong is fond of saying: The internet is a big place. There’s free porn on it. What part of your writing is better than free porn?
There are plenty of advice pieces based entirely around earning big traffic and increasing readership. It’s important stuff, worthy of discussion. But if you manage that slippery numbers trick, you can check back the next day and find out the harsh truth: You have to manage it all over again, from scratch. Those were just eyes, not brains or hearts. They don’t remember you, and they don’t care. It’s a hundred thousand views for one ad click. It’s thirty thousand free previews for one book sale. It’s ten thousand spoons when all you need is one spoon (stop, oh god, you’re going to be crushed to death beneath all these spoons).
I write for the biggest comedy site on the planet. If you take the average of all the metrics together, we passed the Onion, College Humor, and Funny or Die years ago. Every single week, I’m right there on the front of that page:The biggest one in its very broad genre in the entire world. And I defy you to find anybody else in real life that knows my name. I defy you to find anybody else that even knows Cracked.
(Crack? Wait, like Mad?)
We kill on traffic. We are traffic billionaires. We’re fucking traffic philanthropists – “you want some traffic? Got plenty to spare! Hahaha! Traffic for all!”
We will suck your dick in a gas station bathroom for some engagement.
Cracked is getting a lot better about the latter, through a very concerted effort. But I, and many other writers, are now facing the same problem. We may have thousands and thousands of pairs of eyes reading our stuff, but we have a very, very small fanbase. To build it up, we need to focus on engagement. I am not your guru here, I am somebody relating the steps as I learn them. This isn’t 101, this is the remedial class that teaches you to recognize the numbers ‘101.’
There are a few basic ways to build audience engagement: First, find a schtick.
For a lot of writers, this is as simple as picking a genre. You’re the steampunk girl. You’re the urban fantasy guy. You’re the insectile mech erotica guru. Ain’t nobody else does what you do, and if they did, they’d be hung for the worst of genre crimes: Riding coattails. For bloggers, it’s finding subject matter: Advice, comic books, games, movies. If you stick to and actively pursue just that community while pumping out consistent quality work, you may eventually earn a fanbase. But what of us hideous bastard chimeras? What of us writers who will write an op-ed piece about celebrities it’s hard to tell apart one week, and the next week write a fiction piece about huffing paint with the smurfs as a metaphor for the Enron scandal? What of us sci-fi writers who finish the cyberpunk book and think “great! Now, on to horror! To literary! To motherfucking young adult! (Shit, sorry about the language, young adults.)”
For those of us without an easily categorized specialty, we’re left to rely much more on the heinous task of “building a brand.” (I didn’t have to put that last phrase in quote marks. I just found the words themselves so distasteful that I needed to imprison them, somehow; keep them from infecting the rest of this page.) To “build a brand” (rot there, you bastards), you’re going to have to do a lot of things that seem downright unpleasant to your typical crazy-hermit-in-training writer type. You’re going to have to get your literal face out there – literally.
You need to start plastering your ugly mug up everywhere. No more mysterious, half-lit author photos, no abstract user avatars; just your stupid features in front of the world, clear and recognizable. People are built for face recall. Some may remember you from the strength of your writing alone, but not all. For many, names are just meaningless text until there’s a real person to tie them to.
For two, you’re going to have to establish a unique persona. That wasn’t a dig on your bland party anecdotes: Persona is different from personality. A persona has a mythos about it. A story. That story may not be complex or terribly original – Stephen King is the creepy dude from New England (look at his headshots, tell me he’s not nurturing that archetype); Dave Eggers is the hip young liberal with the tragic past (notice the persona is still ‘young,’ even though it has been fifteen years since he developed it); Chuck Palahniuk is the counter-culture crazy — “don’t take your eyes off him, folks! He’s probably rabid!” — even though by all accounts he’s very polite and soft-spoken in reality. Sure, there should be some element of truth to your persona, but think of it like writing a character: Nobody’s compelled by your real, well-adjusted accountant personality. But they friggin’ love the drunken party accountant with the sex addiction persona you developed – that’s intriguing, novel, and most important, memorable.
Hunter S. Thompson was a parody of Hunter S. Thompson. There was a lot of truth to the character, but it was more a boardwalk caricature than a sitting room portrait. He cultivated that persona because it made sense for his books, it made people remember his name, his face, and eventually, his work.
“Branding” is just one aspect of engagement, and this is one small part of “branding.” We’ll talk more about it and engagement in the coming weeks. And of course, all of this is utterly meaningless without consistent, quality work – but that’s waaay harder to help out with. This branding shit is extremely uncomfortable and very unfortunate, but it’s absolutely necessary and relatively easy compared to the whole ‘producing a masterpiece’ thing.
Oh god, it’s escaped the quote marks!