5 Things Writers Must Do To Survive Online

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laptopsToday, despite all the technology and social media at our disposal, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the average writer to earn a living through his or her writing.  A few powerful corporations are reversing many of the benefits and gains writers have achieved as a result of the World Wide Web. This does not have to continue.

Almost 20 years ago, the Web became available to the public, to utilize in ways limited only by our imaginations. By the late 1990s, software had made it easy for writers to create their own websites and blogs. Coupled with the self-publishing revolution and fueled by print-on-demand and ebooks, writers were able to publish anything they wanted. They were also able use the Web to attract and interact with their target audience.

It was an exhilarating time as the volume and variety of stories and ideas expressed online increased dramatically. Gatekeepers at corporate owned media no longer controlled what was published. Rejection was no longer based upon what was deemed most marketable or what appealed to a particular editor.

Not only could writers publish anything they wanted, they could also earn money for their efforts.  The more successful writers might be able to earn a living; the most successful ones could become wealthy.

Unfortunately, the Web is rapidly becoming controlled by a handful of corporations, hindering the efforts of writers to independently connect with their readers and generate revenue using their own platforms. These corporations are solely interested in maximizing revenue. The adverse impact on writers, or the World Wide Web itself, seemingly is of no concern.

In the pursuit of more revenue, the corporations are killing independent websites with various tactics, including controlling what is discoverable through search (reference: “Google is King — not Content” and “Google Worsens Web Experience by Retuning Poor Search Results”).

These corporations are also exploiting the efforts of writers who feel it is necessary to give their content to the wealthiest of corporations in order to reach an audience they are no longer able to reach through their own websites.  Ironically, these writers are giving their content to the very entities that are colluding to thwart their own independent efforts, exacerbating the situation. 

The barriers to entry are back up once more.

Writers can survive, even thrive, online but must do things differently in order to do so.  Here are just five of many potential actions that can help.

Establish your own website. Every writer should have his or her own website. A Facebook fan page or a presence on any other social media website is not the same thing.  Indeed hosting your content solely on a social media platform only enriches the corporation that owns that platform.  Register a domain name and take advantage of one of the many applications like WordPress to create your own web presence.

I’m not suggesting that one should not have a presence on social media.   However, I do suggest that social media be used to direct people to your website, where your actual should reside — not the other way around.  Telling a potential reader to, like you on Facebook, or find you on Twitter, not only gives Twitter and Facebook free advertising, but it also sends readers visitors to those websites where they usually stay.  Direct readers to your website first.

I also discourage using social media as your primary platform because all the revenue generated, as a result of your work, goes to the corporation who owns the platform.  Your writing on most social media sites is fleeting, from the reader’s perspective.  Unless readers are online when you post your content, they are much less likely to see it, given the deluge of other information they are bombarded with.  Social media also controls, in ways not made clear, who and how often your writing is seen.  Writers feel increasingly pressured to buy, relatively expensive advertising, just to have their writing noticed on the social media platform!

Retrieving and organizing older content is often very hard if not impossible.  You don’t even control your own contacts — but the social media site does.   What happens when the social media site goes away?  How many of us have abandoned MySpace profiles and all the content and connections created there?  Building your own mailing list is still a much better way to reach your readers.

Finally, privacy is a huge problem.  How your data is used, shared with others, and monetized is completely out of your control.

Link to an independent bookstore’s website for online sales. If you visit any author’s website and you should find a link to purchase their books online.  Some authors fulfill their own online orders, but you will often find a link to Amazon.com as well.  Every author should also provide a link to an independent bookstore’s website to facilitate online orders wit that store.  It does not matter which one, just pick one that can fulfill orders directly.

By linking to an independent store for online sales you also increase the potential for in store sales and promotion.  You will also help to promote the store, increasing the store’s potential to generate revenue, and build valuable goodwill.  If you need help finding an independent store to support you may visit IndieBound.org or Huria.org for a list.

In discussing this idea with some authors, a couple mentioned they are uncomfortable linking to a single store because they don’t want to show favoritism to one store over another.  Sure there is a risk a store may become upset over not being listed on a given author’s website, but linking to no independent stores while maintaining a link to Amazon just hurts the independents and enriches Amazon even more.

It is true the web has made purchasing books much more efficient and certainly less expensive.  It may also be true that these efficiencies have resulted in the need for fewer bookstores, certainly poorly run stores.  This however, combined with the bankruptcy of Borders Book & Music and Barnes & Noble’s recent announcement of their plans to close at least 20 stores a year over the next decade, means many of us will no longer have access to a brick and mortar bookstore, let alone an independent one.

Independent bookstores play an important role for both writers and the reading community.  We must actively support them if we want them to remain open.   Today Amazon sells more books than every other bookseller combined.  Do we want a world in which books can only be purchased online from Amazon?

Side Bar: Here is information on two independent stores, at risk of closing, that have asked the community for help; Revolution Books in New York City and Marcus Books in the San Francisco.

NEVER link to Amazon without using an affiliate code.  I get information on books every single day with links directing me to Amazon.  The vast majority of these links do not have affiliate codes applied.  By joining Amazon’s Affiliate Program and applying an affiliate code, an on-line bookseller can generate commissions of up to 8.5 percent on books from Amazon (excluding booksellers residing; Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota, North Carolina, or Rhode Island).

Failing to use an affiliate code is simply leaving money on the table.  If you can’t or don’t want to join Amazon’s affiliate program, you can very easily use AALBC.com affiliate code. 

Not only does this generate commissions for AALBC.com, providing us with much needed support, but books sales generated through these links also count toward AALBC.com bestsellers list. This will result in a lot of free promotion for any book that makes the list.  This is win-win for the author, AALBC.com, or any on-line bookseller whose affiliate code is used.

The affiliate code rule applies to all of the large corporate booksellers, including Barnes & Noble.com, Booksamillion.com, iTunes, etc.  I chose Amazon.com, for this example, because it is the site authors most frequently link to and Amazon also has a well-run affiliate program. If any big corporate site does not offer an affiliate program, I suggest that you stop sending visitors to that site to purchase books.

Link to other independent websites. When individuals began creating websites in the mid-1990s, before there were search engines, people would recommend other websites they found interesting and useful, by providing links to those websites. Often, it was as simple as creating a list of  “Favorite Websites,” or a “Related Links” page. Groups of related websites often banded together and formed webrings (a set of sites linked together in a circular structure). Before “social” media became the rage, the web was actually more collaborative. It had to be.

Today, the majority of writers provide free promotion for large corporate social media websites by prominently placing social media logos and linking to them from their websites.  At the same time, links to independent websites have become a thing of the past. Over the last few years, I’ve seen far too many book platforms – stores, websites, magazines, blogs, book review, and other related sites – struggle in obscurity, or just wither away, partially because of the lack of support from other websites.

In order for writers to thrive online we need an environment with healthy, robust and diverse websites dedicated to writers, books and related subjects.  Linking to websites you like is just the start, but also visit them periodically and read, share and critique their content.

Stop writing for wealthy websites for free. I recently wrote an article titled, “The Pimping of Wikipedia.” In the article, I describe how the work of countless researchers and writers, laboring for free, is taken by Google and Amazon and used to generate revenue. Amazon’s “Shopping-enabled Wikipedia Page” is a carbon copy of a Wikipedia page with anything that can be purchased from Amazon hyper-linked to enable an immediate purchase! Here is an example a Shopping-enabled Wikipedia Page for a prominent author.

The monetization of Wikipedia by Amazon is a brilliant idea, but why would any writer volunteer to enrich Amazon without sharing in any of the revenue generated? The same goes for volunteer Huffington-Post bloggers or writers who publish content on social media websites.

Somehow, writers have been duped, by large corporations into believing that the small potential for notoriety is ample compensation for their work, which, collectively, is used to generate millions and millions of dollars of revenue. I remember how disappointed and angry some writers were when the Huffington-Post was sold to AOL for $315 million.  Meanwhile those writers continued to receive no financial compensation for their work.

There is an often-quoted slogan floating around the Internet, “Information Wants to be Free.” It is almost a cliché, but it also is utter nonsense in the context of our capitalist system. Anything of value is always sold and purchased. Why is a writer’s work any different? A more accurate slogan might be, “Corporations Want Information for Free.”

Social media sites can thrive, fueled solely by user-generated content – content written by everyday folks, just being… social. And that is fine. Those contributors get to exchange rumors, celebrity gossip, jokes, and their personal minutiae, and play games in exchange for a platform to engage in this activity. They also agree to be inundated with advertising, mined for information and exposed to spammers.

Professionally trained writers need, deserve, and should demand, more in exchange for their craft. The best reviews are written by professional reviewers; the best news coverage is written by journalists. Writers who give away their writing to a fantastically rich corporations, for free, are engaging in high-tech sharecropping. Where are writer’s unions when you need them?

Readers looking for quality writing will gravitate to where quality writing resides. Writers generating quality content should be paid for their efforts. We just need to work together to ensure this continues to happen.

Finally, Do Something. 
I hope you will consider implementing one or more of my suggestions.  I also hope you will share this article with other writers.  If you have any other suggestions please add them in the comments below.

Troy Johnson is the founder of AALBC.com (The African American Literature Book Club), the largest and most frequently visited (Based on Alexa.com and others) website dedicated to books and film by and about people of African descent. The above article first appeared as a blog post at http://aalbc.it/writersmustdo.