What it Takes to Become a Successful Independent Blog Writer: Numbers and Tactics
Note: This article has a fair amount of overlap with this one. Be forewarned and trust your priors on whether or not you’ll enjoy another.
I’ve been running this blog for about a year and a half, and it’s been a blast. Part of that is just having a chance to write in a place people will actually see it. But I’m lucky to have that; in the same year and a half, I’ve seen multiple blogs made by reasonably proficient writers come into being only to stop existing a few months later because they couldn’t find an audience.
Some of the people reading this have read other articles giving advice to writers and will react to those blog closures by noting that two or three months isn’t very long in the getting-a-blog-off-the-ground scheme of things. They are probably right. But a lot of those same people also might not know how much of a drag it is to spend several hours on an article and have fewer people read it than if you had made the same argument on a short Facebook post; having that happen a half dozen times is tough on a person’s motivation.
I got off the ground by getting exceptionally lucky shares from a few generous famous people with big audiences, but I’ve gone months and months at a time without similar big successes. If those doldrums had occurred right at the beginning, I’m not sure I would have survived long enough for law-of-averages stuff to kick in and give me the encouragement that made this a permanent thing.
What I think would have helped in that situation is if I had an idea of what kind of work it would take to get where I’m at, and especially what it looks like it’s going to take for me to get to the point where it replaces most or all of my other work. Don’t get me wrong: It’s a slog. I think if a lot of people knew the truth they probably wouldn’t try.
The flip side of that is I think it might be helpful for people who quit after seeing no indications of success for a few months without knowing that this is normal, and not knowing what to do about it. I’m not doing incredibly well in the “I’m a famous national name” sense, but I am farther along than most. I also have a near-addiction to watching the performance of any particular piece I write, and I’ve learned some things. I’m hoping what bits and pieces I can offer are helpful.
You don’t know enough people to help your blog
People are polite, and a lot of people go one step further and are even supportive. This means that your blog has a built-in audience of “at least some of the people who like you”. The kind of stuff I write isn’t really my mom’s cup of tea, but I could get her to read it if I really wanted to. My mother-in-law reads every article (Hi mom, let’s plan a visit soon). I make my wife read them, and my best friend reads about half of them and makes sure to click the like button in solidarity for the others.
Some “how to promote my work” articles will tell you that this is actually your greatest resource and that you should lean on these people to build your early audience. After all, who else is better set up to help you than your biggest built-in fans?
This is bullshit and does not help. Don’t do this.
It’s not that they won’t try; they probably will. But let’s say you are blessed to have 10 or so people in your life who really have your back and want to help and they share around the article to their limited audiences. Let’s say they each share it with ten people, and all those people click, and you get 100 hits. That’s great, but remember: people are polite.
Even if you get all the people they send it to clicking through (10% would be high), the chances that any of them you don’t know already stick around and actually become part of your successful audience-building is near nil. To give you an idea of why, I’m going to show you the stat-block of a recent article that did well on Hackernews:
Now, Substack is really bad at counting subscriptions, and I know from watching them come in that I probably got more like 70 total subscriptions from that article. Don’t think I’m whining; that’s incredible. Some people even chose to pay me! That’s weird! I’m really happy about that. This was a good day for me and I’m glad it happened.
But both you and I also have to consider that putting =(70/25000) in Excel shows I had a conversion rate of something like .3%, and those types of conversion numbers are typical for the kind of stuff I write. That’s not bad - I think everyone’s audience is built from extreme <1% outliers who like them a whole lot more than the average person would. But it means I have to make up in bulk what I don’t get in raw conversion rate.
If I’m optimistic and think I got something like the same in RSS subs I can’t see, that’s half a percent; I need to reach out to 1000 people to get five subs at best. And the sad, sad truth attached to that is that your family and friends, as great as they are, just aren’t numerous enough to make a dent for you.
But don’t despair: this doesn’t mean you are doomed. It just means you aren’t doing what you need to do to make this work yet. Part of making it means that you should be showing your work in a focused way to the kind of people who might like it and share it with big audiences. You need to be braving the trash-heap that is Reddit more often and steeling yourself for their at-best quasi-human commenting style.
Despite what I’m saying here, your friends can still be a part of that - this article I’m using as an example was shared by Parrhesia, who is a good discord friend. But the people who do this are people who do it spontaneously - they like your stuff enough to do it because they want to, on their own initiative and using resources they know they have access to. Beyond those people, your friend group just doesn’t have the right dynamics and eyes for this to be your go-to.
No single famous person can grant you fame
When you start writing a blog, I think it’s pretty typical to have daydreams about someone with a huge audience finding it, liking it, and putting their stamp of approval on it in a way that instantly rockets you to fame. This kinda can happen, but it’s different than you’d think it would be. Here’s an article Scott Alexander at Astral Codex Ten shared from a review of the same book:
I’m not sure any particular writer’s audience is perfectly aligned with you folks as an audience, but Scott’s is about as close as it gets. It’s heavy on the programmer types, dudes in their 30s and rationalists; there’s definitely exceptions but most of you fit into one of those categories. In terms of audiences that can be linked to my stuff that will probably like it, Scott’s audience has more affinity than most.
Now, about 2000 of those views are “mine” (i.e. I would have got them even if he didn’t link), and I can tell by looking through my notifications that I got about 60-ish subscribers in the week after he posted that, and maybe some more later. If I run an assumption of 100 total subscriptions from 3,500 hits (which is optimistic, but reasonable) through Excel (as all the elect are wont to do), I find my best-case conversion rate from “famous guy is nice and links to me” is probably something like 3%.
(Note: That’s a ton better than what I’d get view-for-view from Hackernews or Reddit. I don’t know what other people call it, but I think a lot about “audience quality”. Scott’s audience trusts him a lot, so I get a much better conversion rate from him mentioning me in a non-endorsement kind of way than I’d get from most other sources no matter how I was presented. If you have your druthers, these are the types of places you want to link to you.)
The other conversion rate that matters for what we are talking about is how many of my readers choose to pay - I don’t pay gate any of my articles, so this number is pretty low, clocking in at about 3% of everyone. I’m not trying to live off the blog at the moment, so this is great; it’s very nice gestures from people with the means to make them, and it pays a couple of small bills a month.
So let’s say I decided I could quit my job with a clear conscience towards my family if I was pulling down $70,000 a year. If I get about $4 a month from a paid subscriber after every not-me entity takes their cut, I need something like 1500 paid subscribers total to do that. That’s not insane, and I’ll probably actually 30x and get there eventually. But it’s going to take some serious numbers to do that.
So remember that the people who end up paying are best-case-scenario 3% of 3%, optimistically about .1% of everyone. So Scott (or whoever) would have to send me something like 1,500,000 views overall for me to get there, with no diminishing returns. And as much as I appreciate the traffic Scott et al. have sent, this isn’t something any individual among them can realistically do1.
To get that kind of traffic, you need one of two things to happen: You either need a whole barrel o’ Scotts (something like 500 of that kind of big-name share), or you need your stuff to go viral on Twitter. Since the first can’t happen without the last, I don’t think you can escape Twitter as a piece; that’s just the only place you can generate the kind of traffic and big-name sharing you need.
Again, don’t despair. None of this is impossible. It isn’t inevitable by any means, but you do have to do certain things to make it have a decent, low-ish chance of happening. You have to have a Twitter, and you do have to spend some time building it (I have been really bad at this, traditionally. Consider following me here, if you want). You have to spend some time figuring out who the big Twitter successes who might be interested in your work are, so you can share your stuff with them in hopes they like it and promote it. It’s not impossible, but you have to do it.
Some people are just talented or lucky in a way that makes me a liar
A few months ago, I reached out to several moderately famous people (Scott, David Friedman, and others of that general level of known) and asked them to tell me the stories of the first time they realized they were famous. I didn’t get enough to write a whole article, but I did pick up some interesting knowings.
For several of them, there wasn’t any individual moment they could pin down as their big break. And for several, they also weren’t doing anything to promote their work at all. They just wrote; their audiences found them by themselves and stuck around because of their talent.
I’m reluctant to include luck in the equation because one-and-all they are talented and consistently good at what they do. But I’m aware of a lot of people who are very good writers, who despite being cream haven’t risen to the top; there’s a nebulous cloud of luck and circumstances that have to line up for that to happen. And that’s on top of being talented - you can get as lucky as you want, but if your writing doesn’t make people stick around, it’s not going to bring you anything like lasting success.
My friend Parrhesia I mentioned/linked to earlier? He’s stuck in that specific middle-ground right now, despite making a lot of good networking moves. He’s talented, and he’s getting better, but he hasn’t had that big break yet. He’s young and has time, but at some point he has to have what I call an “event” that will get him in front of enough eyes to give him the momentum he needs to get going.
(By the way, I’m not quite big enough to do this for him; if any of you reading are secretly mega-famous and could stick him on your blogrolls or something that would be super cool of you. I’d give you a lifetime subscription to my free blog in exchange!)
All of this is to say that it’s different for everyone; being talented is a pre-requisite, but there’s going to be very talented, successful people who tell you to just keep plugging and it will happen for you. They aren’t lying; that’s really how it was for them, and it may be that way for you as well. But for many people it’s going to take active effort spent promoting your work on top of luck on top of talent; you can’t afford to skip any of those.
If I had to summarize everything I know that works right now, it would be something like this:
Write, and write at least a few times a month. Never stop. You have to keep plugging, not just to improve at writing but to buy as many entries as you can in the grand writing-success raffle.
Reach out politely to anyone bigger than you who might promote you and share your work. You don’t have to be pushy; just let them know it exists and hope they like it enough to share it.
Cultivate any channel you can that might help you get in front of additional eyes. In a practical sense, this requires Twitter; as much as it might be terrible, it’s the only place I know of that pushes enough views to written pieces to matter by itself. It also means tens, hundreds or even thousands of smaller outlets - if it gets you an additional view in a non-evil way, do it.
Make friends with other writers near your size. Cooperate and share links. Mainstream Journalists/Scholars/Pundits all have the advantage of a closed, incestuous promotional network where they boost each other’s work, good or bad. There’s nothing wrong at all with you identifying other talented people and working with them to get some of those same network advantages.
Beyond that, I think it’s helpful to really think about why you want to write. I’m a brawler; I mainly want to argue with people and do watch-doggy things around various philosophical and political movements, and I want to do this because I think our culture is veering hard towards unhappiness and I want to find ways to fix that. A lot of my rewards come from being able to do this, full stop, with no consideration for money.
Even though I’m nowhere near big enough to live off this, I’ve also been able to use it to do cool things, even at a small size. I’m doing a cool, known podcast next month. I get to talk to smart people, and I get to have people try to pick apart my work so I can get better.
I’ve been able to get cool, decent-paying jobs as a result of being in front of thousands of eyes a week, although I suspect that’s not permanent.2 That’s a big deal, but I know other people who don’t even need that. Some - like Ben Kuhn and Dan Luu3 - write because it synergizes with their other work where that other work is the real, main focus. Some people just write for the pure joy of writing and have no other goals.
Whatever your goal is, it’s easy to forget all that in the face of wanting to see your success-stats climb ever higher. Writing isn’t incompatible with that, but that’s a dangerous thing; what you say matters and it’s tempting to try to be controversial for controversy’s sake or to write about things that seem like they will pull in viewers that you aren’t genuinely interested in.
Remember that I’m writing this to encourage you. Yes, it’s a ton of work. Yes, it’s hard to keep up the level of long-term effort most of us will need. And, yes, I think for a lot of people the idea of actively trying to get people to read your stuff feels instinctively rude or pushy.
It’s still worth it, and I’ll tell you why: every article I’ve ever written that did really well was something I thought nobody would care about. Every article I’ve written that helped somebody was something that I thought would fall flat, that didn’t have an audience. But as it turns out, what people want to read is exactly that stuff - the stuff that you think will fail because only you care about it is the same stuff that only you would write. It’s the difference that makes a distinction and makes people want to read you.
Whatever that is for you, it’s worth writing about.
Semi-regular plug for The Sample, a cool and always-improving newsletter-finding platform I trade traffic with. If you like that kind of thing, it helps me out to like it from this link.
It’s worth noting that while it’s impossible to quantify, Scott-type-links probably help me in terms of street cred, as well. I have an inkling that people like Scott, Yglesias and Deboer have better conversion rates than I do. Partially this would be because their writing is better, but it’s also probably because people bucket them into “real writer” in a way they wouldn’t with a new blogger.
This is weird, because that “real writer” bucket is one step distant from “human”. You probably don’t think of your favorite writer as a real person you could just go talk to and have a beer with, and this probably makes you more likely to think it unexceptional when you spend money on their stuff.
So where someone like Scott links to me or indicates he reads my stuff in some way, it probably has some long-term benefits that modify how people think of me in ways that are hard to record.
This is actually a scary time for people like me. I do something useful for tech start-uppy companies, but it’s really only super-useful in a tough hiring market. The hiring market for those companies is about to get a lot easier at the same time every CEO in the world is starting to worry about operational funds. I’m looking forward to a couple of years of night-sweats.