This paper was recently published in the peer reviewed Online Journal of Writing and Practice-led Research, ‘Bukker Tillibul’, Swinburne University of Technology, Lilydale.
Online Writing – From Idea to Income
Perry Gamsby, M A (Writing) Swinburne University of Technology, Lilydale
The Internet has levelled the playing field for writers in many ways, making it almost a foregone conclusion that anything you write and post will be ‘published’. Nevertheless there are very wide gaps between being published, being read and being paid. This paper considers the options available and looks at each of them from the point of view of the writer who must make his/her living online.
For many years I wrote with a typewriter. The clacking of the keys would chatter through the night as page after page would be typed, checked and then laid upside down in a pile to one side. Once the work was finished the pages would be turned over and then read from first to last in a final proofing. Errors would be managed with ‘white out’ and a penned in correction until I owned a more modern machine with a self-correcting ribbon.
The pile of papers would be stapled, pinned, or clipped, as per the preference of whoever it was intended for. Then it would be sent off with a second, stamped, self- addressed envelope ready for the return journey should the piece not be sold. More often than not the piece was returned affixed to a rejection slip. Sometimes I would be lucky: the slip might contain words of encouragement. Most often it was simply a ‘thanks but no thanks’ kind of communication.
Communication is what it is all about. Today we have word processing software within our computers that does far more than merely make fixing mistakes a touch of the backspace key. It formats, paginates, spell checks and presents our work as professionally as a predicate of printers and proofreaders. It does so much for us but it can never do it all.
Even with voice recognition software(1) that allows us to speak our work, we still need to create it. To think it up and then communicate it; to the screen, the page, the reader. No matter how the medium moves with the moment, the reality remains that we must create and communicate and then hopefully receive our just rewards.
You may write whatever you wish, whether anyone is willing to pay for it is another matter entirely.
‘Forget all the myths about the book business: the parties, the poring(sic) over manuscripts, and passionate arguments. The book business is a distribution business, pure and simple. It’s about getting the words and ideas of a writer into the hands of a reader.’ (Maneker 2009)(2)
The internet has provided both a means of communication and a marketplace for our words. What an infinite marketplace it is. It stretches everywhere, ephemeral and ever expanding, much like our universe. Part of the challenge is to be able to appreciate the scale and scope of the marketplace. The other part is figuring out how to make the best use of it.
There has always been the option of self-publishing, or the ‘Vanity Press’ as it has been so unkindly labelled. Truth be told many great works were originally self- published, including books by Mark Twain(3) and more recent self-published best sellers including ‘The Secret’ and ‘Twilight’. (4)
Today the stigma of self-publishing has almost been eradicated by the convenience of ‘print on demand’, or POD, options that modern technology has facilitated. The writer now enjoys leverage over the publication of their work as never before.(5)
Many writers choose electronic publishing, or eBooks, as the medium of choice. There are many valid reasons for this, not just the ‘speed to market’ aspect. The first is that the writer enjoys instant gratification as they are ‘published’ immediately the document makes it to the web, often published on the writer’s own ‘blog’.
The advent of the web log, or blog, has created a new breed of writer. The blogger and the act of posting a web log, or blogging, are all words that have made it into the lexicon. Any blogger can have their blog hosted for free(6). To be published online only requires access to the World Wide Web (WWW). Anyone, anywhere in the world who can get online can communicate. This is a powerful thing.
Writing, even blogging, is all about money. It has been even since before Gutenberg sold his first printed page(7). For the host blogsite it is the advertising they place on the page that brings in revenue for them. Writers can use a free host such as Blogspot to place Google Adsense(8) advertising on the page and make money for yourself. The more popular your writing, the more chance readers will click on the ads. The advertisers will pay you for those clicks.
Blogs sell books, DVDs, consultancy services, anything you like. In other words you ‘monetize’ your blog or web site and earn income as a result of your writing. But only if your writing is found and read. That is the objective, to be read.
People might be keen to read your blog, even pay to read it but this isn’t going to happen if they can’t find it ‘on the shelves’ or even know it exists. Simply putting up a web page or blog is no guarantee you will ever be read except by random passers by who, arguably, are more likely not to be looking for what you are offering.
This is when the search engines come in. To be found you must rank highly with them. Google have the best grip on the search engine market(9) and you need a search engine to search the billions of web pages and find the ones that are relevant to what you are looking for. SEO, or search engine optimization, is an industry in itself nowadays. At first it was simply a matter of loading up the behind the scenes part of your web page with ‘meta tags’, words that people would use to search for your product or writing. (10)But no longer.
Long strings of words relevant to the topic, but in meaningless order, no longer attract the ‘spiders’ and search robots. These programs crawl the web classifying each and every page. The algorithms have long been adjusted to look for such ‘loaded’ pages and discard them, even black list them. Today the key to being ranked highly is content. Relevant content.
How your webpage ranks(11) is critical. Most people read the first and possibly the second page of search results. If you are not on one of these pages you are pretty well doomed to never being found or read.
When you write a book and offer it for conventional printing and publication, there is a system in place to get the manuscript from your computer to the printer and then onto the shelves of booksellers. It often begins with pitching an idea or story outline and a couple of sample chapters to a publishing agent or less often, a publishing house. The agent then pitches to the publishers. The publishers decide if there is a market for the work and either accept or reject it.
The commercial viability of the writing is simply a punt by the publisher, an educated guess as to the probable success of the work. If they buy the work and it doesn’t sell they lose money. If it sells then they make money. They are a business. Look in the dump bins of any bookshop and there are hundreds of books being sold off at a buck a time that are ‘rubbish reads’. But they made it into print because at some time in the past a publisher deemed them commercially viable.
Electronic publishing and POD publishing of hard copies takes away the arbitrary nature of the publishing world. Your writing WILL be published. No doubt about it. After all, you are uploading it yourself or paying for it to be published. Sadly there are unscrupulous vanity press firms that sting the writer with promises to publish, then follow with demands the writer purchase X number of copies. While the writer is still ‘in print’,(12) most of the copies will do little more than take up garage space, or become the Christmas gift of choice because there is still no method of marketing or distribution and sales in place.
One of the wonders of the modern writing world and a company that offers a ‘distribution package’ is Lulu.com(13). This POD publishing house is one of the fastest growing players in the world of publishing today.(14) In 2008, POD titles exceeded the number of traditional books published for the first time ever. (15) The writer is paid royalties on every book sold and they can order their own copies at cost plus shipping and handling. The quality of the books is consistently good and as the editing and pagination is the writer’s responsibility, they have full control of every page, from cover to cover.
Any problems with the finished book are due to the writer’s formatting, editing and layout. These are tasks a publishing house manages for the writer, but they can also take charge and produce a book that is radically different to the one the writer had in mind. Not so with POD where the writer is in total control.(16) Yet many writers have no interest in publishing let alone selling their work, it simply isn’t ‘their thing’. They want to write and be read and hopefully, paid. However for that to happen for most writers it means either self-publishing in hard copy or online as an eBook.(17)
More and more books are being sold as eBooks, or electronic books that are formatted specifically to be read on the computer or other devices, known as eReaders. While there are many eReaders on the market, the big name is ‘Kindle’ from the online book giant Amazon.com. An eReader can carry thousands of (18) complete books which can be purchased and downloaded from a dollar or so .
There is a ‘but’ though. Kindle and one or two similar publishing/retailing giants(19) produce their own readers but until recently these only read their own formats.(20) This is challenging the .pdf and other common formats that are available to everyone because they have their own massive distribution network in place. Now there are other options for reading electronic writing including Apple’s iPhone and iPad(21). These devices run other applications, or ‘apps’ and are something else the eWriter must take into consideration.
For writers to regain control of their work and their incomes, they need to become wise to the ways of the e-world. They need to be more than just writers: they need to become ‘eWriters’. An eWriter uses the web to publish, advertise, sell and accept payment for their work. From ‘idea to income’, the eWriter is in charge of their own destiny to a much greater degree today than ever before in the history of the written word.
An eWriter needs to take on board a whole new skill set. It is no longer enough to be able to write, now they must learn to publish, market and make sure their work is found by those looking for it and more importantly, are willing to pay for it. Writing courses should include instruction in this end of the business. It is as important to a working writer as knowing where to place one’s punctuation.
While it may be true people will buy just about anything, there are some things that sell better than others in the marketplace and online writing is no exception. At present, fiction ebooks are enjoying a surge in popularity thanks to the marketing clout of Amazon’s ‘Kindle’ and Barnes & Noble’s ‘Nook’ eReaders.
Most eBooks are of the ‘How To’ variety and offer information on various topics from finding love in a foreign land to making a living in any of a million ways. There is a formula to the eBook format and the best ways to advertise it. There are, of course, eBooks for sale that tell you how to do this(22). There is also a considerable amount of free information available if you are prepared to spend the time searching, collating, reading and learning. (23)
Having your own web site requires you to buy a domain name, create a web site to land on then host it online. You need to learn a completely new language as well as computer programming skills. Alternately you can use a ready made web page template, or simply start a blog and hope people find you. It really is a can of cyber worms you have opened and so far we have only just managed to get ourselves online. The quality of the actual web page can vary from woeful to wonderful depending on your graphic art skill set or the ready-made template chosen. An uninteresting ‘landing page’ will have visitors surfing off within seconds.(24) Even an award winning website still needs to be found by potential readers.
Optimizing a web page so the search engines can find you is a marketable skill, one you can either learn or outsource by having providers bid for your project(25). The same applies to having it found. How you write the content of the web page can make all the difference to how often the page is found.
There are software programs that analyse the top search terms and then rate them for how well they might do if you were selling something connected to that term. If you want to sell an eBook, the term ‘eBook’ might get millions of hits but you would be on page 3 zillion and five and thus never found. But the term ‘Tudor England recipe eBook’ could have your eBook on the recipes of Tudor England right there on page 1. (26)
To sell your own eBook, regardless of niche words you need to be able to have it ‘rank’ highly on the search engine so it appears on the first page. This means the content needs to be relevant and worth reading. Something to be wary of are (27) software programs that take an article and mix it up into five or more new articles Most read like gibberish. Other programs take your topic word and find passages from public domain articles online and blend them into a new article. Full of search terms but unreadable to a human. The search robots are getting wise to this and quickly black list these sites.(28)
This is why good ‘content’ is the key and why there will always be a market for good writing. Producing a web site chock full of good information will help it rank highly on its own merits. Then back links are needed. Swapping links with another site that is relevant to your own is of more value than simply swapping with the first site that agrees to do so. The best link strategy is to attract one-way, independent, ‘back to you only’ links because of the relevance of your content to the linker.
Another tactic to increase ranking is via article directory web sites that solicit submissions about a wide range of topics(29). People can then reproduce your article on their web site and this gives them relevant content for free. At the bottom of the article is your ‘resource box’ where you write your bio blurb and include a back link to your web site. These are usually well received by the search robots and can help establish you as an authority on the topics you write about. This will lead to more unsolicited, one way back links and so your page ranking should improve.
Promoting your book is the next step. Researching the market and discovering what people are willing to pay for, how much they will pay and so on identifies your target market. Promoting the product and getting the message to the marketplace requires advertising the book to the target market.
Many advertisers choose a search term or keyword and pay Google Adwords to have their ad placed on relevant sites containing the keyword.(30) You pay for each click you get, regardless of whether the clicker buys or not. This can get expensive very quickly. Another option is to advertise on relevant websites and pay for the ad, much as you would for an ad in a print media publication such as a newspaper or magazine.
Social networking is the latest buzzword and that means Facebook(31), Twitter(32) and such outlets that allow you to advertise your product and yourself simply by joining up. Some prefer to start a Yahoo Group(33) forum and promote the book there while offering free advice to forum members. Many writers are making short video clips about their book and uploading them to You Tube(34). They can then use the clip in their blogs, on their web pages and send the URL of the clip’s location to opt in mailing list members.
Writers who are published by mainstream publishing houses do book signings and promotional appearances on television and radio, in local newspapers and trade journals. It is all a part of the promotional mix used by the publisher to sell the book and recoup their investment. Selling an online product such as an eBook is no different.
The final consideration comes after your eBook is found and purchased as you will need a way to receive the money. Companies such as PayPal(35), 2Checkout(36) and Clickbank(37) all offer various ways of channelling the income to your account. Clickbank offer members the chance to be an affiliate or re-seller of other people’s products. All of these methods require payment in the form of a percentage of each sale. Some of these methods include the software to deliver the eBook to the customer as a download, automatically, upon receipt of payment. You can also sell on eBay and similar sites or establish a merchant service to accept credit card payments through your bank.
Writing for a living, and being paid enough for your writing to live on, has never been an easy vocation to follow. For every JK Rowling or Dan Brown there are possibly thousands of perhaps equally talented writers brimming with words no one will ever read. Possibly. Perhaps. Most assuredly, your words will never be read unless you take action to get them out there in front of the reader.
The first decade of the 21st Century has seen rapid advances in technology and many writers may be struggling to keep up. There is a vast amount of information that needs to be collated and assessed, then sorted and disseminated in a format anyone can easily make good use of. At present the internet offers more opportunities to benefit writers than ever before, but the learning curve is incredibly steep.
The publishing industry is changing because, while it is really in the distribution business, the means of distributing and the demand for good content has increased. The first to feel this have been newspapers and magazines having to run online editions of their printed mastheads and watch their advertising and income base shift. Publishing houses have cut back staff and the number of books they publish in any given year, all because of the growth in online or electronic writing.(38)
Giving your writing away for free is no guarantee it will be read, let alone appreciated. The reader will place the same value upon it that you have, which in that case is nothing. You are as entitled to remuneration, recognition and reward as any other professional; accountant, doctor, lawyer, engineer, architect or academic. Only you can create your opportunities. Thankfully today we have this most wonderful of all opportunities to grasp and use: the internet. Writers just need to learn how to harness and use it.
About The Author: Perry Gamsby, MA(Writing) teaches ways to take the eWriter from ‘Idea to Income’ through his ‘Eat Your Words’ course at Macarthur Community College. Perry has published and sold his own writing online since 2003. He produces content for over 65 web sites and lectures on eWriting, marketing and business. Married with five daughters, Perry lives in Sydney.
1 ‘Dragon – Naturally Speaking Preferred 10’ is perhaps the market leader in this technology http://www.voicerecognition.com.au/dragon-preferred-10.htm accessed 28 Jan 2010
2 Maneker, Marion (2009). ‘The Kindle Revolution’ The Big Money website, http://www.thebigmoney.com/articles/saga/2009/03/04/kindle-revolution?page=0,1 accessed 28 Jan 2010
3 Valetkevitch, Caroline (2007). ‘Mark Twain’s tries at financial greatness’.. Reuters / The Boston Globe. Accessed 26 Jan 2010.
4 Maneker, Marion (2009). ‘The Kindle Revolution’ The Big Money website, http://www.thebigmoney.com/articles/saga/2009/03/04/kindle-revolution?page=0,2 accessed 28 Jan 2010
5 Buechner , Maryanne Murray (2007). ‘Don’t Call It Vanity Press ‘, Time Magazine http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1617545,00.html accessed 26/01/2010
6Blogspot.com is just one provider of free blog hosting and software http://blogspot.com
7 Burke, James (1985). The Day the Universe Changed. Boston, Toronto: Little, Brown and Company
8 Google Adsense Website https://www.google.com/adsense/ accessed 27 Jan 2010
9 According to UK firm SEO Consultants, Google enjoys 71.6% of the US search engine market. The nearest competitor is Yahoo! With 14.76% http://www.seoconsultants.com/search-engines/ accessed 27 Jan 2010
10 Tabke, Brett (2002). ‘General Search Engine Promotion and Marketing Issues’. A Brief History Of SEO. http://www.webmasterworld.com/forum5/1008.htm accessed 27 Jan 2010
11 Author Unknown (2007). ‘How Search Engines Rank Web Pages’, http://searchenginewatch.com/2167961 accessed 27 Jan 2010
12 ‘Author Unknown (2008). Unethical vanity or ‘subsidy’ presses’. Aeonix Publishing Group Web Site, http://www.aeonix.com/vanity.htm accessed 27 Jan 2010
13 Lulu will supply the ISBN as well as offering a distribution and marketing service (for a fee) for all books they print for their customers. http://www.lulu.com
14 Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Of America Website, http://www.sfwa.org/for- authors/writer-beware/pod/ accessed 28 Jan 2010
15 Jones, Philip (2009). ‘Self-publishing helps POD take the lead in US’, , The Bookseller.com http://www.thebookseller.com/news/85891-self-publishing-takes-the- lead-in-us.html accessed 27 Jan 2010
16 Johnson, Tom (2009). “Lulu, Where Are You?” 2009 Gold Rush Writer’s Conference http://www.slideshare.net/jtjohnson/lulu-where-are-you-selfpublishing-in- the-digital-age accessed 28 Jan 2010
17 Stibolt, Ginny (2007). ‘You Don’t Have to be a Technical Wizard or Rich to Have an Effective Writer’s Website’, http://www.sky-bolt.com/WritersWebsiteIdeas.htm accessed 23 Jan 2010
18 Biggs, John (2009). ’10 Reasons To Buy A Kindle 2 And 10 Reasons Not To’, Crunch Gear, http://www.crunchgear.com/2009/02/25/10-reasons-to-buy-a-kindle-2- and-10-reasons-not-to/ accessed 24 Jan 2010
19 These include the ‘Nook’ from Barnes and Noble http://www.barnesandnoble.com/nook/index.asp and Sony’s Reader Digital Book http://www.sonystyle.com. For a comprehensive table of eReaders see http://wiki.mobileread.com/wiki/E-book_Reader_Matrix accessed 28 Jan 2010
20 Maneker, Marion (2009). ‘The Kindle Revolution’ The Big Money website, http://www.thebigmoney.com/articles/saga/2009/03/04/kindle-revolution accessed 28 Jan 2010 (Author Note: Latest generation Kindle units now read PDF as at September 2010)
21 Apple iPad was released 27 Jan 2010 http://www.apple.com/ipad/ accessed 28 Jan 2010
22 This is just one of many on offer: http://www.iprofit-ebook-package.com accessed 28 Jan 2010
23 Heng, Christopher (2009). ‘Publishing Your Own Electronic Book (Ebook)’ The Site Wizard.com, http://www.thesitewizard.com/archive/ebookpublishing.shtml accessed 28 Jan 2010
24 Author Unknown (2008). ‘Puzzling Web Habits Across The Globe Part 2’ ClickTale Blog, http://blog.clicktale.com/2008/08/24/puzzling-web-habits-across-the-globe-part- 2/ accessed 28 Jan 2010
25 There are many free lance writing and programming web sites that take a commission for putting together those who need work done with those who do the work including http://www.odesk.com and http://www.elance.com
26 Callen, Brad (2009). Keyword Elite http://www.keywordelite.com/ accessed 28 Jan 2010
27 Just one of the many on offer is ‘Quick Article Spinner’ http://www.quickarticlepro.com/ accessed 28 Jan 2010
28 David Kesmodel (2005). “Sites Get Dropped by Search Engines After Trying to ‘Optimize’ Rankings”. Wall Street Journal. September 22, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB112714166978744925.html?apl=y&r=947596 Accessed 28 Jan 2010
29 Examples include GoArticles.com, http://www.goarticles.com, ArticleDashboard.com http://www.articledashboard.com, and eZine Articles.com http://www.ezinearticles.com accessed 28 Jan 2010
30 Google Adwords is the dominant player in the market at the moment. http://www.adwords.google.com accessed 23 Jan 2010
31Facebook http://www.facebook.com accessed 23 Jan 2010
32 Twitter http://www.twitter.com accessed 24 Jan 2010
33 Yahoo Groups http://www.groups.yahoo.com accessed 25 Jan 2010
34 You Tube http://www.youtube.com accessed 26 Jan 2010
35 PayPal http://www.paypal.com accessed 26 Jan 2010
36 2Checkout.com http://www.2co.com accessed 26 Jan 2010
37 Clickbank http://www.clickbank.com accessed 26 Jan 2010
38 Maneker, Marion (2009). ‘The Kindle Revolution’ The Big Money website, http://www.thebigmoney.com/articles/saga/2009/03/04/kindle-revolution accessed 28 Jan 2010