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Sunday, 17 January 2016

Five Years

I started this blog five years ago this week, in January 2011. In that first year I averaged just over two posts per week, then from the second year onwards I’ve managed one post per week. When I started, the blog was (with one exception) the only non-fiction, non-technical writing I’d ever done. Since 2012, however, I’ve written four non-fiction books and co-written a fifth, as well as 12 short ebooks and about a hundred non-fiction articles for magazines, other websites etc. In its first year this blog got around 40,000 page-views, then about 60,000 in the second year and 90,000 in each of the third and fourth years, dropping to around 80,000 in the fifth year.

That suggests the blog has passed its peak, but the graph above paints an even more depressing picture. It shows the total all-time views per post, with the posts arranged in chronological order. Clearly the posts that are getting most of the views all came from the first 18 months! Of course there’s going to be a bias towards older posts, because they’ve been around longer, but the effect is a lot more dramatic than that. I suspect there is also a positive feedback loop involved – the more people click on a particular Google search result, the higher it appears in subsequent search listings, hence getting even more clicks.

Another trend, which I’ve suspected for some time but only just confirmed, is that there is a strong anti-correlation between the posts that I personally like best and the ones that get most clicks. In broad terms, the post topics can be divided into the following six categories:

  • “Retro-Forteana” – i.e. nostalgic posts about Fortean-related books and comics from the second half of the 20th century.
  • “Original Content” – generally plugs for my own books and other writings, plus creative efforts such as stories, drawings, videos and puzzles.
  • “Places Visited” – posts based on places I’ve visited recently, or things I’ve seen in museums (this category also includes a number of posts I did on behalf of Paul Jackson, before he started his Random Encounters blog in June 2012)
  • “Science” – offbeat aspects of real science (not pseudoscience)
  • “Historical” – oddities from the first half of the 20th century or earlier (unless they fall in the “Places Visited” category)
  • “Contemporary” – i.e. Fortean subjects of current popularity, such as Roswell, Bigfoot and Conspiracy Theories (and not much else).

As you can see from the first graph below, the posts which reflect a personal perspective (the first two categories, and to a lesser degree the third and fourth) are systematically less popular than the ones “anyone could write”. The second graph shows that, over time, I’ve tended to do progressively more of the posts I enjoy writing and fewer of the ones people seem to want to read.

In a way, this is symptomatic of something I noticed a couple of years ago. When I started writing, I carefully read various pieces of advice for new writers. One sentiment that cropped up again and again ran along the lines of “be original”, “say something new” or “find your own voice”. That sounds sensible enough – and it’s pleasantly reassuring, because it’s what most “amateur” writers instinctively want to do – but the truth is that it’s the worst possible advice. What most readers, publishers and booksellers are looking for is familiarity, not originality. If you want to be a professional writer with a large and stable audience, that’s the advice you need to follow. As for amateur writers, who are determined to be original and “speak in their own voice”, there’s only one piece of advice worth listening to: Don’t give up the day job.


Kid said...

Don't get downhearted, Andrew. If you do the blog for yourself (to exercise your thoughts), then visits by others are a plus. I blog about what I like (or don't like) and others seem to relate to most of it. Keep going.

Andrew May said...

Thanks Kid. If I really enjoyed writing blog posts, then I agree the number of readers wouldn't matter at all. But the main driving force for more than a year now has been the feeling that I have to write something once a week even if I don't want to. As a result I spend too much time worrying about what the next one is going to be about. I think I'm going to shift to a more sustainable policy of just posting something when I've got something to say!

I'm constantly astonished by the time and energy you put into your blog year after year. You must do at least ten full-length posts per week, and if my own experience is anything to go by each of these takes at least 3 or 4 hours. You have to work out what you're going to say, do all the necessary research, scan the images and clean them up, write the piece in a way that comes across as natural and spontaneous (but usually takes a lot more tinkering and rewriting than readers realize), get all the formatting correct, etc, etc.

Kid said...

Yes, but I seldom go into as much detail as you do, Andrew, so my posts are really just 'snacks' as opposed to 'three course meals'. It's the scanning, cropping, and cleaning up images which is the time-consuming bit for me. I think that, as far as my blog goes, the images are the most important part, and what people mainly want to see.

Andrew May said...

Yes, I'm sure that's right, Kid, but you shouldn't underestimate your writing talents either. To give a comparison, your arch-nemesis (L-- S--) has a superficially very similar blog to yours, but his writing style is appallingly sloppy compared to yours (he puts less effort into cleaning up his scans, too).

Colin Jones said...

Congratulations on your 5th anniversary, Andrew - by a strange coincidence, this Thursday will be exactly 5 years since I bought the laptop on which I'm writing this comment. By the way, I saw your Newton book on Google Play - I haven't bought it so far but I noticed somebody had left a one-star wasn't me !!! As for your blog - some bloggers only write one post every few months so you should just do one whenever you feel like it. Of course , I speak as one of six people in the known universe who doesn't have a blog - I just let you and Kid do all the work and I'll read the results :D

Andrew May said...

Thanks Colin - hope you can scrape together 99p some time to buy the Newton book... and perhaps even leave a good review of it!

I don't think it's true that most people have blogs these days - I only know two people in the "real world", besides myself, who keep up a regular blog. Facebook is a different matter though - if you're not on that you really are in the minority these days!

Kid said...

Thanks for the kind words about my blog, Andrew. As for 'you know who', he's not important enough to be my 'arch-nemesis' (yeah, I know you were joking), he's only an occasional minor irritant. I'm quite happy to forget he exists if he'll do the same with me. As for his blog, I suppose it's only a hobby for him, whereas I take mine (superficial as it is) a bit more seriously.

Keep up the good work - even if it's only when you feel like it.