Though some people write fiction only as a hobby, there are many others who hope to earn money from their work someday, with the ultimate goal of writing full-time.
However, one major hurdle facing many would-be authors is cultivating and growing a loyal readership. Even with the plethora of self-publishing platforms and social-media sites that exist these days, it can seem harder than ever to stand out from the crowd.
And, what’s more, those very tools are making the crowd of eager writers that much larger, which makes standing out all the more difficult.
Many aspiring writers — including me — have opted to give away their work with the hope that the free content will attract interested readers who then may buy what we have to sell.
But is that ultimately a good strategy for long-term success? And is it sustainable? Many people disagree.
On the one hand, giving away your work exposes your writing to potential readers who might not have found you otherwise. But, on the other, an audience interested in your free content isn’t necessarily going to spring for your paid content, no matter how much they appreciate your writing.
It’s a tough decision, and compelling arguments exist on both sides.
And, to make matters more complicated, there are several different ways you can self-publish your own fiction. You can give it away in free e-books, serialize it on sites like Wattpad, or even publish it on a blog.
For me, publishing my fiction on a blog seems like a rational choice … though the reasons I do it might not work for many. I honestly can’t tell you whether it’s a good idea or not; all I can tell you are the reasons I’m pursuing it.
I like to blog, but I hate blogging
When it comes to writing, I’m a sprinter, not a marathon-runner. I do best with short, concise pieces, and not longer, sprawling works. I tend to write novellas as opposed to novels, and I’ve abandoned many longer projects simply because I’ve lost interest in them halfway through. For whatever reason, the characters and the story are no longer exciting.
So, for me, blogging is an ideal pursuit. You can publish content as often or as seldom as you like, and you don’t have to invest yourself in a gargantuan project that might never see the light of day.
The issue? I don’t really care about blogging — at least in the traditional sense. My passion has (and always will) lie with fiction.
If I were a “serious” blogger, I’d have a self-hosted website, and I’d market to a niche audience — preferably one with lots of discretionary income. I’d also collect people’s e-mail addresses and sprinkle affiliate links throughout my posts. I get how it all works (or how it’s supposed to work … depending on which paint-by-numbers playbook you’re following). I just don’t care about it. Even though that business model might work for some, it doesn’t much interest me.
What I do like is writing short, concise fiction pieces that (I hope) entertain. That’s why The Lawn-Cutting Crew seemed uniquely suited to function as a blog.
If you’re familiar with my site, I often refer to The Lawn-Cutting Crew as a “comic strip without drawings.” That’s because each of its chapters (except those clearly designated as parts of a larger whole) is self-contained, meaning readers don’t have to be invested in the entire story to enjoy it.
Instead, it functions more like a comic strip, where each installment stands on its own, with an individual storyline, while at the same time featuring familiar characters with distinctive personalities.
Publishing The Lawn-Cutting Crew as a blog allows me to focus on individual posts, as opposed to laboring over a giant, time-intensive project that, if I eventually grow weary of it, might not ever see the light of day. Depending on my mood, some installments are more humorous, while others are more thoughtful and contemplative.
Also, there’s a sense of instant gratification when a post publishes, and I’m not resigned to spending months and months tinkering with a book that might not ever sell.
Which brings me to my next point:
Traditional publishers wouldn’t touch my work, anyway
Given its episodic nature and self-contained chapters, The Lawn-Cutting Crew wouldn’t work as a book. Not at all. That’s why I never even considered taking it to a traditional publisher.
In addition, it’s hard to categorize what I write. For example, my short-story collection, Dying for Eternity, features a dystopian horror story, a parallel-universe romance and a spiritual thriller. There’s no way a traditional publisher could market it and attract a distinctive, cohesive audience. The pieces are much too disparate. (And it really wouldn’t be profitable to publish them individually, as standalone novellas.)
The only potential selling point would be my name alone, but I’d have to be famous and established for that — and right now, those are two qualities I’m clearly lacking.
For example, audiences would be far more likely to buy a collection of short stories by Stephen King than they would me, because they know who he is and they appreciate his style, no matter what genre he writes in. Stephen King is a household name, and I’m not — not even in my own household.
Traditional publishers require novels that conform to commonly established expectations and that can be marketed easily to a mass audience. It’s just a business reality. It’s not always profitable to gamble on books that stray from convention. It’s much safer to stick with what’s known.
That’s not to say genre writing is easy, though — it’s not. If it was, then you can bet that I’d be doing it, instead of straying in different directions.
On the other hand, if there’s a reason so many books and movies seem to be the same these days, it’s because — to some extent, at least — they are.
Other self-publishing platforms have been disappointing
I self-published my short-story collection, Dying for Eternity, using Kindle Direct Publishing. Although the experience was relatively simple and enjoyable, the sales have been disappointing. Clearly, no book is going to market itself, and a lot of legwork is going to be required to promote it. But even with purchased ads and word-of-mouth, interest so far has been zilch. Amazon is a massive, massive marketplace, and unless you have a well-thought-out marketing plan, you’re going to sink to the bottom of the crowd the way Leonardo DiCaprio sank to the bottom of the Atlantic in Titanic.
The same so far with Kindle Vella, which is a relatively new platform from Amazon in which writers publish their works in serialized installments, with readers purchasing tokens to “unlock” and read them. The first three episodes of every story are free; after that, readers must pay to access new chapters.
Though promising in theory, the reality so far has been underwhelming. Growing a readership organically appears next to impossible, as only a handful of popular stories consistently dominate the homepage. Discovering a new work requires clicking through pages and pages and pages of existing content. Even though the platform is only about a year old as of this writing, I imagine many writers already feel like the proverbial needle in a haystack.
I’m also not confident that enough readers are interested in the token-purchasing approach for the platform to make it, let alone thrive. Overall, it seems so much simpler either to purchase an entire book outright, or to “borrow” one when you’re signed up for Kindle Unlimited.
Although I love the episodic approach, as it fits my style to a tee, I just don’t know if Kindle Vella is sustainable as a business model. I hope it is. I really do. In fact, I have a novel-length project I’m working on right now that’s ideally suited to Vella’s format. I’m just unsure whether I want to commit another novel the platform, particularly since the one I’ve already published is largely invisible.
Speaking of a needle in a haystack, that pretty much sums up my experience with Wattpad. The site is so massive with so many stories that organic discovery is pretty much impossible. I have pieces on there that reflect nearly the same number of views today as they did when I first published them. The idea that a talent scout is going to stumble upon one of my works and offer me a publishing contract seems about as likely as The Lawn-Cutting Crew being turned into a Netflix series. (Although I’m not opposed to the idea. Just saying.)
So when it comes to self-publishing my fiction, blogging has been the most rewarding by far. It also has offered the most visibility. My content is indexable by the search engines, so the hope is that more and more readers will stumble onto it, and that its growth will be organic.
But what about making money in the long term?
Now that’s the million-dollar question (or the $0.99-cent question, if we’re referring to one of my books). Giving your content away for free is one way of attracting loyal readers, but is it the best way? Or even an ideal way? And doesn’t giving away your writing for free devalue your work?
In his 2011 book, Quitter, Acuff says, “In order to get a 50,000-word book published, I had to write 500,000 words on my blog. I had to essentially give away a half million words before I could build the momentum and ability to actually write the book. Since it came out, I’ve added another 500,000. So in three years, I’ve written one million words to publish 50,000.”
Now, to put the quote in context, he was talking about using blogging as a way to sharpen his writing, so that he could become a better, more productive book-author. But there’s no doubt that his blog — and the many followers it attracted — are what convinced book publishers to offer him a contract in the first place. After all, authors with pre-established fanbases are more likely to sell books.
But, on the other hand, there are those who’d argue that it’s simply not reasonable to expect authors — particularly those just starting out — to give away so much free content just to “establish” themselves and attract readers. After all, giving away your product for free devalues it in the eyes of many. They might see it as substandard or second-rate, even if its quality matches that of a traditionally published book.
I have to admit, I’ve done this myself. Whenever I’ve downloaded a free book, I’ve read it with a more scrutinizing, skeptical eye than I would a pricey book by a well-known author. There’s a subconscious stigma about “free” that’s difficult to overcome, even when you’re trying to be self-aware.
And again, just because someone devours your free content doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll spring for your paid content. They may just like the content because it’s free; not because you’re the one who wrote it.
So, if I’m honest with myself, I really don’t know if I’m making the right decision. My hope right now is that my fiction blog will attract new readers and inspire them to consider my paid content. It’s a way of whetting people’s palates with what I have to offer. If they find the blog interesting and funny, then maybe they’ll find my books interesting and funny, as well. It’s a strategy. I’m not sure if it’s a good strategy, but hey, it’s a strategy nonetheless.
And, if nothing else, blogging my fiction has given me a renewed interest in writing. It’s easy to get discouraged when you write stories and books that go nowhere, sinking to the bottom of whatever digital marketplace they’re rotting in. When my focus was on novellas and short stories, I would write sporadically — only when inspiration struck — which, I’m sad to say, wasn’t that often.
But now that I blog, I write almost every day, honing my skills (such as they are), and exploring new methods of storytelling that I never would have considered before.
So, for right now, publishing my fiction on a blog is working for me — particularly since The Lawn-Cutting Crew is so different from anything else I’ve written. It’s self-contained, episodic nature works best as a blog, and it fits my particular style perfectly. I’m not yet giving up on the other self-publishing platforms, but with all things considered, this is the one I like best.
And with hard work, constant improvement and a lot of dumb luck, I’m hopeful that one day, it will lead to an income.