I Write Because I Have To, and the Realities of Writing on the Web

On a good day, this blog gets tens of visitors. Whenever I check the WordPress stats — which I assume to be slightly accurate — I ask myself: is this even worth it? Ben Brooks doesn’t look at analytics anymore. I’m sure he gets feedback on how well a post is received from Twitter or emails. My posts go into an internet black hole. Maybe twice a year I will get some feedback or a retweet or something.

I write these posts because I have to. The idea comes into my head and I will have trouble sleeping until the post is published. I don’t agonize over it. A lot of these posts sit in draft form until I’ve got the idea in a good enough shape to publish. In Ulysses I have a folder labeled Abandoned. The posts that I am never happy with go there. I rarely look at them. It could just be something that typing up felt good enough, or the circumstances that lead to me writing the post changed, or I just gave up. Usually posting is the end goal; sometimes just writing it is enough.

Like most writers, I dreamed of going independent. Daring Fireball was a great inspiration, and it’s hard not to look at Gruber’ success and think: that could have been me. It takes talent and luck to make it. Gruber has both. No sour grapes there1.

The last time I was paid for my writing was back in 2014. I wrote some for-pay articles in 2015, but Gigaom closed down with a balance due that was never paid. In 2011, the company I worked for laid off its entire Tech Ops team. Over the next two years, the only employment I could obtain was short-to-medium term contract work. What little freelance work I was able to do made a difference. Stephen King said in On Writing something along the lines of: If you received a check for your writing, and you used that money to pay a bill, you are a professional writer. I paid plenty of bills with freelance checks.

The measure I used to determine if I could become a full-time independent worker was if I earned enough each month to pay the mortgage for six months in a row2. I never made the mortgage one month, forget six months. The closest I came was around 2009. At the time, I was writing about video games, and if you added up the hours I spent playing the games and writing the copy, my hourly rate was under what I’d make working minimum wage. Writing for tech sites was a better time to income ratio. My tech articles only took 3-4 hours to write. Maybe a little longer if I needed to review a product. It still worked in my favor compared to an MMO review.

After Gigaom shut down I didn’t look too hard for another freelance gig. Macworld had laid off a lot of staff so there was a glut of Apple-based writers available. One outfit contacted me asked what I made per-article for Gigaom. They never replied when I told them.

So, I started a site (thecasualtechie) to sort of try my hand at getting my own site going. The internet advertising model is pretty much non-existent. I didn’t feel comfortable trying to line up sponsors to pay to advertise on a site that no one reads. If I were trying it today, I would probably start a site whose focus is solely on iPad productivity. I still might. The mantra has always been: write good content and people will come. Few people want to pay for content online. Internet advertising doesn’t pay much, and I’d want to control the ads that appear on my site anyway. Affiliate link commission keeps declining.

I liked having a side hustle. The income from my writing paid for my tech toys, which lead to articles about how I used them. One of the themes I had for 2017 is trying to work on some sort of a model that paid. I liked writing an article and getting paid for it. But, it was a 1 to 1 relationship. Write an article; get a check. I never wrote one article and got two checks. I’m out of the freelance game anyway. In addition to the rates being low, almost every site I worked for actually getting paid was a hassle. Invoices would be tied up, lost, not paid. Promises would be made; these promises were then broken.

As I look ahead to writing, my goal is some sort of passive model. Self-publishing is the likely solution, but It also has long odds. I’m not sure how I’d feel about pouring thousands of hours into a book no one bought. Fiction stories don’t kick at me to be born the way these posts do, but a few ideas are stirring. Maybe there is a story in there trying to get out and I am ignoring it.

This is a post with no answers. It’s not a cry for help. I’m not looking for advice on how to (air quotes) Build a Brand. I just had to share about writing on the web in 2017.

  1. As an aside, I miss the old Gruber. He used to write more original pieces. Now, he just posts a lot of links with some inline commentary.
  2. Granted, just making the mortgage wasn’t a survivable wage. It was a data point that if I could make that amount on a part-time basis, I could probably earn enough to live doing it full-time.
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