Nimble Media spent some time chatting with Joel Friedlander, an award-winning book designer, blogger and author of A Self-Publisher’s Companion: Expert Advice for Authors Who Want to Publish. He’s been launching the careers of self-publishers since 1994 from his book design and consulting practice at Marin Bookworks in San Rafael, Calif.
Joel is also the man behind TheBookDesigner.com, which is a popular blog that covers book design and marketing, the future of books, and just about any writing topic you can think of. In other words, when Joel talks, we listen.
Here is a portion of our interview with him.
One of the issues we deal with on a fairly regular basis is coming up with new story ideas for keywords that are used over and over again. What’s the best way to come up with fresh, engaging ideas when you’re dealing with keywords that are used over and over again?
Don’t repeat the same story 20 different ways! That will drive people away. … I spent two years posting six days a week, and I was confronted with that problem over and over again. You’re dealing with small niches with topics that only come with a certain number of keywords … but you still have to come up with ways to say something interesting every time. If it’s not interesting, then you’re dead in the water, and your bounce rate will be through the roof.
My favorite way to handle this is through “mind mapping.” I’ve written about it. Take one idea and develop it through mind mapping, where that one idea branches into other branches, and so on. Pretty soon, you’ve got 20 or 30 topics that you’ve broken down from that one idea, and it just keeps going. All of a sudden, you’ve got a bazillion ideas for blog posts. That’s one way.
It’s not easy when you’re writing copy for other people on topics that you’re not an expert on, whereas I stay in my niche. But another way to go about it is to look at other (people’s writings) on the topic. … Go to newspapers, trade magazines – all a good way of finding content ideas. Go to other similar sites, expert author sites, and read the content there, then check out the frequently asked questions’ section. The FAQ is a gold mine for story ideas.
For instance, say you’re writing a bunch of posts on what to do to get a blog site ready. Mind map it to come up with topics. Start with the “About” page. You’ll come up with a couple of posts just on that. Then think about plugins. What do you need? Any special plugins? Now you have several topics just on the different plugins. Then there’s the sharing component. Before you know it, you’ve generated 20 or 30 story ideas, just on one pretty basic topic.
Story length: We’ve written about it, you have, too. But when it comes to SEO-type blogs, do you think it’s best to stick with 300 to 600 words?
Generally speaking, write until you’ve said what you wanted to say. But you gotta know who your readers are. SEO writing is different; it’s more mechanical, more technical, in a sense. You’re banging out a lot of posts. The faster you write those posts, the more income you make.
But that’s not really what I do with my site. I’ve spent a huge amount of time figuring out who my readers are. So if I want to post something today that’s, say, 1,000 words and tomorrow post something that’s 400 words, it’s OK, because I know my readers will be OK with that.
With SEO, the 400 to 600 word range is probably ideal, but that sort of depends. Again, you have to know who you’re writing for and know their expectations. Gadget and tech readers, for example, want something quick, in and out. But what they don’t want is a 1,000-word story on why this widget is better than another. They want a “top 3 things” list. … If you’re blogging about Topic X, you gotta do the market research, see what else is out there (blog-wise), see who’s reading that stuff. If you don’t know your audience … you might still succeed, but only by chance. Again, know your market.
Where did this idea of “industry” standard come from regarding story length?
I think that used to be much more of a topic than it is now. Story length typically comes from people answering questions on beginner blogging. It’s really common for people who are just starting out as bloggers to ask, “How long should my post be?” But people doing this for years don’t worry about that as much. New bloggers are looking for guidelines and think they have to stay within the lines to be successful, but that’s not what generates success. Whether your story is 100 words or 2,000, you have to know who you’re talking to – and decide who you’re trying to attract to your blog.
But you can also find an author (in your niche) who is successful, then follow their lead, because they’ve already solved those problems.
Go to 20 “expert” sites, and you’ll find 10 “experts” who say SEO blogging is dead, and another 10 who say it’s still the future of blogging. What’s your opinion?
I think people on the technical side take that sort of thing more seriously – they still get freaked out over things like Penguin, Panda, and whatever. For individual bloggers – solo entrepreneurs, small business bloggers, corporate bloggers, whoever – you still have to know who you’re writing for. Find out how to make that audience happy, and give satisfying content. If you match the content to the market needs, if you have something valuable to offer that community, then your blogs will be successful.
The fact is, when you do all that with SEO in mind, then your stories should still rank really well. I personally have tons of articles that are on top of various Google searches for their keywords, because those readers love my blogs – and the reason they love them is because I give those readers what they want. Do that, and it’ll push up your search results every time, no matter what. It’s what I’ve done to grow my own blog.
What sort of advice do you have for freelance writers looking to make money as bloggers or through blog writing?
That’s a good question. First, stop trying to sell your writing as your sole means of existence. Believe me, working as a writer is one of the hardest jobs in the world, in my opinion. I mean, it’s really, really difficult to earn a living that way. But if you have a passion about something, then put out a site of your own, then spend your time trying to push up the traffic to that site.
In other words, it’s about information marketing. If more freelance writers looked at themselves as information marketers, then they could do some serious (business). … The fact is, everyone knows something that other people do not know much about. So, think of yourself as an information marketer when it comes to that passion – and don’t be a slave to other people’s ideas.
Take that special knowledge you have and start thinking of a way you can market it, like a product or service, then get an E-junkie page and run with it. It’s how I got started. It’s very easy. But if you really want to make money blogging, then you gotta start thinking like an entrepreneur.
What advice do you have for companies who are trying to determine tone, style, story length, type of content, etc.?
In the blog world, people respond to personal touch. If it’s written with a corporate voice … then it’s not so sticky, if that make sense. I think, the first law of marketing really applies here: Know who you’re selling to. When you’re writing, know who you’re writing for and what their expectations are. If I was a consultant for a company who was trying to set up a blog, then I would spend a fair amount of time on market research, surveys, feedback, forums. Then I’d start (blogging).
Don’t forget, success in blogging has to do with networking, too. If you don’t network, then you’re just making that steep climb toward becoming successful even steeper. Every time you network with others, you’re flattening out that hill. And what I mean by that is … reach out to other blogs, find other bloggers in your niche and help each other out.
When people first start blogging, they think about themes, colors and that stuff. Instead, find the top 10 blogs in your field, then sign up for everything those blogs have – RSS feeds, email, newsletters. Then watch those sites for three or four weeks to see what they’re doing, because those blogs have already solved the problem for you when it comes to developing a successful blog. They already have readers.
In your opinion, what’s the state of the print industry?
Well, since I deal mostly with books, let’s focus on that. Printed books have already seen a disruption due to eBooks taking off. But eBooks aren’t going to kill off printed books – or, at least, it will be a long time before printed books completely go away. No, printed books are here to stay for the foreseeable future. People want to hold a book in their hand, particularly if it’s a book that really moved them. Even people who buy eBooks tend to still buy that same book in the printed version. Lots of (publishers) now offer special bundles where you can buy both the eBook and the printed version of it.
People want that printed book on their book shelf. They want it on the desk next to them. They want to be able to loan it out. It’s what people are used to.
Kids’ books in particular aren’t going completely to the eBook format any time soon, because parents still want to buy their children printed books.
OK, that brings up another question. Textbooks seem to be the most likely to go completely digital sometime in the near future, especially at schools that can afford them. What’s the future of printed textbooks?
Printed textbooks have a special set of problems – and they’re ripe for a massive disruption. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if printed textbooks took a big hit in the next several years. Textbooks are particularly hindered by the current model, and it’s just not as profitable to print out textbooks anymore. … Printed textbooks are ripe for going completely “E” sometime soon.
But with printed books in general, it’s a genre thing. Those mass market fiction books you see at the supermarkets – the thrillers, romance, sci-fi – that stuff is moving to eBooks en masse because, let’s face it, they’re disposable books. … But serious fiction, valuable non-fiction, instructional books – those types of books stand out more in print. They’re more personal in print.
Besides, people tend to forget that print sales continue to be significant. EBooks still only account for about 20 percent of all book sales overall.
Joel Friedlander is the founder of the online, video-based training course for authors, The Self-Publishing Roadmap. Joel is currently serving as the president of the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association. Connect with Joel on Google+.