You need realistic expectations about online writing

All variables being equal, the time to use blogging or social media to build a large following is over. That window closed at some point in Obama’s second term. There are probably a few reasons for this, but the main one is that the space is simply too full. The folks who were on Twitter and Facebook plugging their theology and culture blog back in 2009 are the ones who have 10,000+ followers now, but the vast majority of that growth happened between 2008-2014. By the mid 2010s the secret connection between online writing and offline platform building was out, and everybody wanted to see what their “voice” could get for them. Today Twitter has over 260 million global users, but the most important part of that is 90% of a day’s worth of Tweets are written by the top 10% of users. Social media has arguably always been an ocean of noise, but the difference now is that the loudest voices have microphones and speakers and the rest of us have soapboxes. 

What does this mean for somebody aspiring to write and publish? 

-It means you’re almost certainly not going to blog yourself into a publishing contract. But this isn’t an argument against blogging. Blogging is the least economically valuable that it’s ever been, but it might be more epistemologically valuable than ever before. Good blogs are islands in the ocean of digital noise. Forming and expressing thoughts in a direct format—with readers who are able to track with you over the long haul—is a good writing habit, for which there are no real substitutes. 

-What you need are realistic expectations about the online content landscape. You’re not going to be able to quit your day job once you get your first YouTube subscriber or Twitter follower. If you’re looking for the internet content industry to give you an off-ramp from 9-to-5 life, your best bet is not to be a careful and thoughtful writer, but to be a social media leech who will say or do anything for clicks. Alas, man does not live by bread alone, and poorly gained wealth is not reliable (Prov. 13:11). If you’re looking to become the kind of writer worth reading, realize this: writing good stuff online still offers the opportunity to gain a niche audience, and a niche audience is the one that’s valuable right now. This is partly why newsletters are surging; people who care about their content AND being read are tired of flailing in the ocean of noise. They want to find a quiet pond. 

-A good niche offers better and more meaningful opportunities than a below-average generalism. Chasing the headlines and weighing in on every single thing Vox and the Atlantic’s Slack channels think you should be talking about is no longer a ticket to recognition…because everyone’s doing that. What’s much better is finding a space that you can fill, that readers respond to, and then taking the invitations to expand that niche when they come. If you want to write and are willing to cultivate that desire without instant gratification or short-term rewards, the spots are out there.

Author: Samuel D. James

Believer, husband, father, acquisitions editor, writer.

11 thoughts on “You need realistic expectations about online writing”

  1. Total agreement – finding you, Russell Moore and David French in the past year has been a great joy in strange times! And a helpful reminder of why I should never blog myself! Keep up the good work!

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  2. makes sense to me, Sam… thanks for articulating this… and thanks for wandering on different paths rather than going with the flow…

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  3. Samuel, your exhortations are at once sobering, clarifying, and encouraging. Over the last few years, I have experienced the reality of your post’s closing statements. Do you have any additional advice for someone who wants to go beyond just “taking the invitations to expand that niche when they come”? Is there anything you would recommend a niche blogger do to work toward, say, a future book deal? Are there any practical steps once can (or should) take toward that goal?

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    1. That’s a good question. For somebody who is an experienced writer with a voice worth listening to, I would probably say the next step is try to acquire some institutional cred. Find out the outside publications/websites that writers who are publishing with the places you want to publish are writing for, and try to get in the door (and be patient through rejection). Build relationships with other writers and editors. Let this process do its work and then, when you think you’re ready to propose a book, read the book “Thinking Like Your Editor” as you prepare the proposal.

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      1. Excellent. Thank you, sir! One follow-up question (with a clarifying preamble): the last book proposal form I skimmed through (from New Growth Press, to be precise) had several questions about my current platform size (social media followers, etc.). Since I don’t currently have what would be considered a large following, would your recommendation above (i.e., increasing the number of professional outlets where I can publish my work) work as a substitute for having a large following? Or would they, with time, lead to a larger following? In other words, is a large social media following considered an absolute necessity for being a published author, or are there workarounds?

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      2. This is a tricky one. The main reason authors are getting asked about social media followings is that the book industry is pivoting to be very self-marketing focused. That being said, no publisher worth his salt thinks a lot of followers is a substitute for a great proposal. The more you write, and the more you write for outside editors, the greater likelihood that your proposal will be quality.

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  4. Apprentice your post here Sam. As one who began blogging circa 2009 I can’t say I scaled the heights of the Christian blogosphere wave. But, it’s been the niche that is one aspect that has kept me going – whether that be youth ministry or my own people at our congregation.

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  5. Absolutely. I think this goes across the board for a lot of skills right now. And as the saying goes, “those who can’t do, teach” and I believe this is pretty evident by the amount of workshops/etc coming out as well.

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