Blogs are Like Belly Buttons

Recently another writer asked a superb question in the Fiction Writers Guild on LinkedIn:
Blogs are sort of like belly buttons—everyone's got one. How do I get people to follow mine?
My response:
How do I get people to follow *my* blog? That's the question on everyone's minds. Standing out in social media is a tricky game. 
Red Lemonade would be great because the community is young. You would have the first-mover advantage: you would gain followers simply because there are currently fewer other writers competing for your reader's eyeballs. The same thing happened with Twitter—the early adopters gained lots of followers simply by showing up. 
If you do go the Wordpress, Blogger, or public-blog route, you could always cross-promote your posts. Every time you post a new installment, Tweet about in and post about it here. Make friends on Twitter and make friends among other bloggers who can give you a shout-out. Try to get the momentum going. 
Instead of starting your own independent blog, try to piggy back off of another website's social cache. See if you can find a website willing to publish your novel in installments. For instance, if I were writing literary fiction, I would pitch my idea to The Millions, Granta, or the Paris Review—all of which have websites for which they need a regular stream of quality, original content.
Pitching to an online magazine is a new idea that I'm not sure many people have tried. What do you think? Would it be a good way to gain exposure?

Having a blog following is essential for the aspiring writer. Whether you're pitching to publishers or publishing yourself, your online following can translate into the sales that make your time investment worthwhile.

Crush It! by Gary Vaynerchuk—Vook Edition

I just came across an advertisement for Gary Vaynerchuk's Crush It! The book looks fantastic—it's definitely going on my to-read list—but even more impressive than the paper or ebook editions is this one from Vook:

Crush It! by Gary Vaynerchuk - Vook Edition

Head to the site to watch the trailer.

Vook is an innovative publishing start-up that produces, well, Vooks—books that blend video with text. From what I gather, short videos are interwoven into the body of the book. This seems ideal for Crush It!, because Vaynerchuk is such an engaging motivational speaker. Short YouTube clips of him at conferences can run alongside the text.

Other than that, Vaynerchuk's content—and the story of his rise to fame/fortune/success—seems similar to that of Tim Ferriss.

Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky

Cognitive Surplus (Penguin Press, 2010) is a sequel of sorts to Shirky’s popular 2008 book Here Comes Everybody. Shirky writes on his website that he “stud[ies] the effects of the Internet on society,” and both titles examine group dynamics on websites like Wikipedia, MySpace, and Twitter. In Cognitive Surplus, Shirky argues for the potential of collaborative new media to organize people to have a positive impact on society, and he supports his theories with examples of charitable organizations, social justice initiatives, and open-source software. Shirky is a professor of new media and journalism at NYU, and, though his arguments lack empirical rigor, his case studies are persuasive.

Shirky argues that forty-hour workweeks and rising prosperity have given us a “cognitive surplus”—that is, excess free time we used to otherwise spend watching television (Chapter 1). Since the Internet has democratized to the tools of media production, passive consumers have switched into active participants.

Using landmark psychology studies and behavioral economics, Shirky builds the case that people will often create for nonmonetary reasons. To the editors of Wikipedia or the teenage girls behind Grobanites for Charity, more important than monetary compensation are shared values and engagement in a community. Shirky also points out that individuals will often take on challenging tasks in order to master them or feel autonomous. Shirky’s hopeful thesis, quite simply, is that the Internet fosters collaboration that can use our free time for social good.

Shirky analyzes how fans of the South Korean boy-band Dong Bang Shin Ki organized to overturn trade legislation; how Nisha Susan’s Facebook group, the Association of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women, changed women’s rights in India; and how open-source software like Linux and Apache get produced. Most relevant to business readers is his last chapter, where he offers a set of guidelines for fostering digital collaboration:

  1. Start small: “Projects that will work only if they grow large generally won’t grow large” (194).
  2. Ask “Why?”: “Designers have to put themselves in the user’s position and take a skeptical look at what the user gets out of participating, especially when the motivation of the designers differs from that of the user” (195).
  3. Behavior Follows Opportunity: “What matters is how [users] react to the opportunities you give them” (196).
  4. Default to Social: “The careful use of defaults can shape how users behave . . . . By assuming that users would be happy to create something of value for each other, Delicious [a social bookmarking site] grew quickly” (197).
  5. A Hundred Users Are Harder Than a Dozen and Harder Than a Thousand: “A small group where everyone knows everyone else can rely on personality to arrange its affairs, while a large group will have some kind of preexisting culture that new users adopt. In the transition between those two stages is where culture gets established” (198).
  6. People Differ. More People Differ More: “In participatory systems, . . . the behaviors of the most active and least active members diverge sharply as the population grows . . . . [Developers] can take advantage of this divergence by offering different levels of involvement” (200).
  7. Intimacy Doesn’t Scale: “ host millions of mailing lists, to which tens of millions of people subscribe, but people are either on a mailing list or they are not—the lines around the individual clusters are clearly drawn. . . . [The] allegiance [of those users] is to the local cluster of people on their mailing list” (201).
  8. Support a Supportive Culture: The riders in an Amtrak quiet car are “willing to police the rules themselves, because they know that if an argument ensues, the conductor will appear and take over enforcement” (202).
  9. The Faster You Learn, the Sooner You’ll Be Able to Adapt: “When . . . was experimenting most actively with new features, it sometimes upgraded its software every half hour . . . . . . . has its designers watch people trying to user their service every day, instead of having focus groups every six months. . . . [S]uccessful uses of cognitive surplus figure out how to change the opportunities on offer, rather than worrying about how to change the users” (203-204).
  10. Success Causes More Problems Than Failure: “As a general rule, it is more important to try something new, and work on the problems as they arise, than to figure out a way to do something new without having any problems.”
  11. Clarity is Violence: “Culture can’t be created by fiat. . . . [T]he task isn’t just to get something done, it’s to create an environment in which people want to do it. [Allow groups] to accrue more governance as they grow” (205).
  12. Try Anything. Try Everything: It is impossible to predict what will be successful, so try everything and allow users to experiment (“the only group that can try everything is everybody” (207)).

The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More by Chris Anderson

In comparison to David Meerman Scott's Real-Time Marketing & PR, Anderson's The Long Tail offers a rather sophisticated economic analysis of how the Internet is changing business. Anderson focuses mostly on the media and entertainment industries (probably because of his background as editor-in-chief of Wired), but he does do a superb job of extending his analysis to traditional retail (by examining and eBay). Anderson's research is a bit outdated—most of his data comes from before 2006, when the first edition of his book was published—but his theories are still relevant five years later. In 2008 he published an expanded second edition with an additional chapter on "The Long Tail of Marketing."

Anderson argues that the Internet is lowering the traditional costs of retail. In the past, companies were forced to offer only "hits" that had mass appeal. The world of physical products is inherently limited and there are opportunity costs to carrying on product over another. A movie has to earn enough at the box office to justify giving it screen time; a television program has to attract enough of an audience justify its spot in prime-time; and a CD has to earn shelf space by selling more copies than a less-popular album.

But, online, companies can offer infinite variety with little-to-no distribution costs. Services like or Netflix can offer thousands of mp3s or movie titles and deliver them to the consumer for the price of a broadband connection. Listing another product only costs (ever-cheaper) space on a server. Media companies can tap "the long tail" of the demand curve:

(The Long Tail 92)
The curve extends asymptotically: as Rhapsody added more mp3s to its library, it found that every single one of them sold.

Anderson's insight is that, in aggregate, these niche products can comprise a significant market. By examining companies from KitchenAid to LEGO—which have both physical and digital store fronts—he finds that online sales are becoming an increasingly large portion of revenue and profits.

(The Long Tail 132)
Because enthusiasts are often willing to pay more for niche products, the margins on them can be higher.

There are several implications of this long-tail shift. The first is that, as any microeconomist will tell you (and Anderson worked with Hal Varian, author of my microeconomics textbook), greater choice unambiguously increases welfare: consumers can find precisely the product they want at the price they are willing to pay. Secondly, consumers have more power than ever before because they can voice their opinions via blogs or product reviews ("twist[ing] some arms" with marketing “can only do so much" (232-233)). Ultimately, Anderson foresees mass culture fragmenting into tightly-knit, globe-spanning niches.

The challenge is to help consumers navigate this sea of variety. Long-tail businesses can crowdsource production and increase variety by aggregating the inventories of thousands of sellers (think Amazon Marketplace or eBay), but Anderson suggests that they can also play a (third) role as filters. With smart recommendation software (think Pandora's music genome project), retailers can lead consumers to new products they are likely to buy.

Finally, Anderson does an excellent job of placing the long-tail shift in historical context by examining the distribution innovations by Sears, Roebuck, and Co. and the cultural transformation caused by the home VCR.