Tumblr is having a moment. A big profile in the Times, a lot of buzz in the geekier precincts of the interwebs, phenomenal growth (the service adds 25,000 new accounts daily). For the uninitiated, Tumblr is a platform for “short-form blogging,” meaning that a “tumblelog” is a blog with very short posts, usually a single, found object — a quote, image, song, or video — offered with little or no comment. “If blogs are journals, tumblelogs are scrapbooks,” the Tumblr web site used to explain helpfully. Essentially it is a place to share the little interesting things you find as you wander around the internet. It is not a place for long, navel-gazing essays. Here are a few good tumblelogs to give you a sense of it: Fuck Yeah, Literary Quotes, ck/ck, and Laughing Squid.

Lately I’ve been fiddling around with Tumblr and I am smitten. While I was cranking through the final rewrite of my latest novel the last few weeks, Tumblr became my main diversion. (I have so many.)

I can see the enormous potential of Tumblr. It has a social-networking aspect: you can follow people as you do on Facebook or Twitter, and view their posts in a Twitter-like stream. But it is more interesting than either of these, since Facebook does not have interesting content (my feed is mostly filled with snapshots of friends’ kids) and Twitter is straitjacketed by its 140-character format. Tumblr is also beautifully designed and dead simple to use.

The primary drawback of Tumblr, it seems to me, is that there just aren’t enough users yet to make it really compelling. As a link farm, Tumblr’s format kicks Twitter’s ass. The links I find on Twitter are cloaked behind those opaque fortune-cookie messages, and of course they require a click-through to see what the content really is. Very inefficient. My Tumblr feed is a lot easier to read. But Twitter has so many more interesting users than Tumblr that it is still my first stop when I go snuffling around the web for interesting reading material. (My second stop: Google Reader, still.)

Inevitably, I have started my own tumblelog. I will still post my “real” blog entries here at my grown-up blog. But for the little things I find laying around the web — like, say, a video of a naked man putting himself through a hay baler — Tumblr is the scrapbook where I’ll paste them. Come check it out. We’ll see how the new tumblelog develops over the next few months.

(Note: Must … resist … reference … to Culture Club. D’oh!)

Categories: Internet    Tags: · · · ·


Yesterday was the first anniversary of this blog, which went up on May 22, 2009. As I’ve written here before, I doubt that the blog will generate significant book sales, which was why I started doing it, but I’ve come to enjoy blogging for its own sake and I’ve made a few new friends in the bargain. I may never get to that mythical thousand true fans, but if you’re a writer, you write — even if it’s not clear how many people are reading.

Anyway, here are a few random statistics about this blog’s first year. They are culled from SiteMeter, which is linked at the bottom of every page (click the green badge in the footer), and WordPress itself, the software the site runs on, which compiles a slightly different array of stats.

  • Total visits: 8,547. Total page views: 14,946. Those are infinitesimal numbers next to some of the bigger blogs out there, but they are much higher than I expected a year ago. (The SiteMeter badge in the footer of this page understates the visits count because I did not join SiteMeter until a couple of months after the blog launched.)
  • Most views in one day: 180. A spike like that usually means a post got picked up by some high-visibility blog or Twitterer.
  • Average views per day: 41.
  • Total posts: 150 (not including this one).
  • Most Popular post: 848 hits, for a post on the writing habits of Graham Greene. The popularity of this post points up the difficulty of winning fans to my books by blogging. Most people come to this blog after Googling something completely unrelated to me but that I happen to have written about, like Graham Greene. Most of these visitors don’t stick around to learn about my books. Some of them do, I suppose, but it is a vanishingly small number. So is it worth it? Damned if I know.
  • Least popular posts: 1 hit. Eight posts are tied for this honor. And I can’t even be sure that the one lonely hit isn’t me checking to see that the post looks all right. I don’t do much to publicize this blog. I link to significant new posts on Twitter and Facebook, but most of the smaller stuff I just put on the blog and never alert anyone. So most of the short posts slip under the radar, which is fine. Anyway, I will award the honor for Least Popular Post to this one, in which I announced I was taking a vacation and inexplicably required three long paragraphs to do it. It cops the prize because of this pathetic irony: a post announcing there will be nothing to read — and nobody bothered to read it. Oy. Blogging can be a kick in the groin.
  • Total comments: 259. The best part of blogging by far is hearing from readers.
  • Total cost: $0. Well, this isn’t quite true. I do pay to have the site hosted at Media Temple. But the site itself has cost me nothing. All the software and services I use are free. All the design, the Photoshopping, the coding, and of course all the writing is done by me. Of course, all that labor is only “free” if you assume my time has no value…

Last thing: the map below, also clipped from SiteMeter where you can see an updated interactive version anytime, shows the location of the last hundred visitors. In the last two days or so, this blog has had visitors from Queensland, Australia; Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and New Delhi; Israel, Ukraine, Spain, France, Holland, Belgium, plus several in England; and all over the U.S. Very cool.

Categories: Odds & Ends    Tags: ·

Stock and Flow

From a blog called Snarkmarket, sorting the 2010 web using economic principles:

There are two kinds of quan­ti­ties in the world. Stock is a sta­tic value: money in the bank, or trees in the for­est. Flow is a rate of change: fif­teen dol­lars an hour, or three-thousand tooth­picks a day. Easy. …

But I actu­ally think stock and flow is the mas­ter metaphor for media today. Here’s what I mean:

Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind peo­ple that you exist.

Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the con­tent you pro­duce that’s as inter­est­ing in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what peo­ple dis­cover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, build­ing fans over time.

… And the real magic trick in 2010 is to put them both together. To keep the ball bounc­ing with your flow — to maintain that open chan­nel of communication — while you work on some kick-ass stock in the back­ground.

A very useful concept. Read the whole thing here. (via)

Categories: Internet · Productivity    Tags:

Dickens vs. the Snarks

I am reading Dickens’s Little Dorrit at the moment, inspired by the rebroadcast of the wonderful PBS/BBC mini-series. (It is being rebroadcast here in Boston, at least. I don’t know if this is true elsewhere.)

At the same time I am spending endless hours, as usual, idling on the web, particularly on blogs, where a different aesthetic prevails — hyperbolic, sarcastic, terse, frantic, distracted. A recent blog post by Ben Casnocha defines the web prose style pretty well:

In school anything you write or do will be read and graded by a teacher paid to do so. In the real world nobody wants to read your shit, and you have to earn their attention every single day.

Last year in a post titled You Have to Make People Give a Shit, I extolled blogging as a way to learn this value.

One way blogging makes you a better writer is it forces you to work hard for your readers’ attention. On the web, it takes less than a second to close the page or click a new link. Your readers are busy and distracted.

This means you must engage the reader out of the gate and take nothing for granted. If you start sucking in the second paragraph, you’ll likely lose the reader’s attention. They click to a new page.

It’s brutal. It makes you better.

It certainly is brutal, but does it really make you better? Alternating between Dickens’s elegant slow-cooked style and the fast food of the web, as I’ve been doing this week, I’m not so sure. Here’s the thing: after snacking on blog after blog, link after link, article after article, I do not feel any of the satisfaction or pleasure or transport that I get from even the dullest passages in Little Dorrit. On the contrary, all that hyperlinked, hypermanic prose on the web leaves me feeling drained and a little down.

Maybe it is just the skittish nature of the medium. The very connectedness of every screenload of words to every other makes everything I read online feel provisional and slick. There is always another article quivering unseen behind every link, another article which may be more interesting or more fresh. And then another and another.

I don’t mean to knock Ben Casnocha. Actually, I agree with him: in the raucous atmosphere of the web, it is probably necessary to write as if “nobody wants to read your shit.” In fact, when I first started to think about this post, I intended to say something similar, that web writing is shaping today’s novels by training modern writers and readers alike in a more compressed, hurried, no-nonsense prose style. I still think that’s true.

But I’m not so sure it’s a good thing. When I turn off the computer (as I am about to do) and go back to the peaceful, unlinked, timeless world of Dickens’s London, it will be a relief. Dickens does not have to “make me give a shit.” I already do. I don’t want to feel “busy and distracted” while I’m reading, as I tend to feel when I’m reading online. And if Dickens starts to suck in the second paragraph, well, I’ve got time. What, after all, is the hurry?

Disconnect. Slow down. Read at your own pace, for your own pleasure. The web will get along without you for a while.

Why authors should (and shouldn’t) blog

I began this blog for a purely mercenary reason: to sell more books. But I discovered to my surprise that I enjoy doing it. Good thing, too, because after three months at it I seriously doubt this blog will ever be an effective sales tool.

Of course, the logic behind author blogs is unimpeachable. The blog attracts new readers as flowers attract bees. These new readers, stupefied by the insights to be found here, return again and again until they decide they simply must have more, at which point they rush out (or more likely click) to buy a book, which they take to be like a blog post only very much longer. Or something like that.

The problem is not that this sort of thing cannot happen. It does. It has happened to me, in fact. The problem is that, as book-selling strategies go, this one is massively inefficient. The number of visitors is just too small to justify the investment of time. More important, counterintuitive as it sounds, most visitors to this blog simply aren’t interested in my books.

In the first few months of my blog’s existence, the overwhelming majority of traffic has come from Google. (I know this because statistics about blog traffic are harvested by several services.) Google referrals tend to be one-time visitors, not regulars. And they come looking for all sorts of things. Here is a small sample of the Google searches that have led people here: “Boston + movies,” “friends of eddie coyle,” “philip roth writing method,” “Graham Greene words per day,” “alphasmart neo.” Do you see a pattern? Me neither. Well, I see one: often as not, these people are not Googling “William Landay.” Of course I’m delighted to have visitors stumble upon my blog this way. That is the whole flowers-and-bees strategy, after all. But there is no reason to expect that these readers will be easy to convert to fans. Most of them have never even heard of me. A few I might be able to sway, but how many and at what cost in time?

Of course, a fraction of my blog traffic does come for the “right” reasons, that is, they enjoy my books or my blog, or both. For them alone, writing this blog would be worthwhile, not because it is going to goose them into reading my books (they already do that), but because core fans want and deserve a place where they can get a better sense of the writer behind the books or even contact him. What’s more, it is valuable to me to have them here. Novel-writing is a grueling, solitary business. The company of these readers — the occasional messages they send or comments they leave, the encouragement — is enormously heartening.

Which leads me to the main point. Even though a blog may never yield a single additional sale, I heartily recommend that all writers launch one anyway. Just remember why you are doing it: because you enjoy it, not because you think it will turn you into a bestseller. Only your books — and a boatload of luck — can do that.

Of course if you are blogging for pleasure rather than to impress potential book-buyers, your blog will look a little different. It will be a truer reflection of yourself, your personality, your quirky tastes. This blog has been a little dry and generic, I think. I have been reluctant to post anything that was not “A” material, longish essays full of deepish thoughts. The result has been a blog with none of the serendipity that characterizes the blogs I enjoy most.

Take Terry Teachout’s blog about theater and the arts, About Last Night. I have been reading ALN for years with great pleasure because I never know what I will find there. It might be a longish essay full of deepish thoughts, but it also might be a YouTube video, a snippet from a book Terry is reading, a notice of an art exhibit. The randomness is what makes it fun.

I am going to tack in that direction myself here. The last few days I have posted a quote, a picture, a video, and a poem, little stuff I would previously have’ed and lobbed into the bottomless black hole of Twitter. Look for more of that. Finds like these are what “web logs” originally were: scrapbooks of the interesting nuggets people ran across as they went sniffing around the web. It’s why blogs like Terry Teachout’s work so well, why they keep renewing themselves with a mix of found and original material. This blog should be more fun than it has been, for you and me both.

Categories: Writing    Tags: · · ·

When Every Writer Is a Publisher

Seth Godin on the future of blogs like this one:

Walt Whitman and Ben Franklin were both printers who became writers … one would imagine they did this because it was cheaper to write your own stuff than hiring someone, and having words to print and sell is good business if you’re a printer. … Today, of course, being a printer is no fun. Anyone can be a digital printer, publishing their words to the web. And so we have a mysterious flip, in which writers are becoming “printers,” not the other way around. In a world in which just about everyone is a writer and just about every writer wouldn’t mind benefiting from their work, there’s a huge need for people who can help us publish profitably.

Read the whole thing.

Categories: Internet · Publishing    Tags: ·

The Way We Write Now: Novelists and Their Blogs

I once heard John Updike say in an interview that he could not imagine a day going by in which he did not produce “text.” The word jumps out of the sentence — “text,” so like the “content” the web feeds on. Updike was frighteningly prolific. Like the great Victorians, he seemed to pour out words: thirty novels, plus countless poems, essays, reviews and, best of all, short stories. Had he been born later, he would have been a natural blogger. He would never have been so enthralled by the magic of seeing his words printed on dead trees.

I’m no Updike. I can easily imagine a day in which I produce no text. Happens all the time. The enemy of the possible is the perfect, and, alas, often the enemy of writing is perfectionism. Managing my perfectionism is probably my biggest struggle as a writer. But blogging demands constant output — content. So how will blogging affect my day job, writing novels?

I have always avoided writing for the web because I was afraid it would suck away some of the creative energy I need for my novels. Novel-writing is grueling. It demands long periods of quiet and concentration. The web, an endless stream of flashing, hyperlinked calls for your attention, is lethal to that sort of sustained focus. It is a stimulation machine. The novelist Neal Stephenson shut himself off from the web entirely because, he said (via), “I simply cannot respond to all incoming stimuli unless I retire from writing novels. And I don’t wish to retire at this time.” I have always felt the same way.

But, after The Crash in publishing, midlist (or downlist) writers like me simply cannot afford to ignore the web. Toxic as it is to book-writing, the web is essential to book-selling.

And we writers simply have to become better marketers. We cannot just leave it to publishers to sell our books anymore. They don’t know how. I recently asked my agent, What would be a realistic sales goal for my upcoming third novel? Fifty thousand copies? “The question is naive,” she answered, “because nobody has any way of knowing how many it will sell.” In no other business would it be naive to think about how many widgets you might actually sell when you try to figure out whether it is profitable to produce them. But that is the industry wisdom. So we writers have to turn to the web as a way to circumvent the publisher-bookstore complex and market directly to our readers — that is, if we can find our readers.

Or maybe it is better to say, if our readers can find us in the vast, raucous environment of the internet. It is a long, hard job to make yourself visible on the web, to find your audience. The bloggers who do it best, like two of my favorites, Andrew Sullivan and Sarah Weinman, have been at it a very long time.

But we novelists can do it, too, I hope. As business writers like Seth Godin have proved, authors can learn to pitch their own books cheaply and effectively. What choice do we have? A lucky few will be buoyed up to the surface by huge marketing campaigns by their publishers. Most won’t. We writers are all independent booksellers now. So increasingly, sometimes reluctantly, we establish ourselves on the web with blogs like this one.

I do not mean to turn this into a blog about blogging, but I suspect I will have more to say on the subject in the future. For now, suffice it to say that blogging and novel-writing are uneasy partners. I’ll post here as often as I can without it interfering with writing my novels. Like Neal Stephenson, I don’t wish to retire as a novelist at this time.

Setting my fears aside for a moment, I wonder if blogging will actually help my novel-writing by teaching me to write fast, without self-editing. It may just loosen my fingers. Imagine, loose fingers! You keep yours crossed for me. I’ll use mine for typing.

Categories: Writing    Tags: · ·