As the eponymous man behind the popular shawnblanc.net, Shawn Blanc needs no introduction. He has been adding his own unique perspective and voice to design and technology topics and news since 2007, becoming in the process a leading voice in his field. More recently, Shawn transformed his website into his career, taking the leap into becoming a full time writer. Shawn was kind enough to take some time to chat with me about this transition, what’s changed since, and what remains as important as ever to him as a writer. What follows is our exchange.
Shawn, let’s talk about taking your site full time. I’m looking at my RSS list right now and it seems you’re one of a handful of writers actually publishing a weblog as a primary source of income. Did you have a template in mind you could follow when you took shawnblanc.net full-time, or were you just learning on the go?
I don’t think there is a template for “how to turn a weblog into a full-time writing gig”. My only goal was to diversify the income streams as much as I could while also keeping them to a minimum. Right now the site has three areas from which it generates revenue: Fusion ads, syndicated feed sponsorships, and a membership. The site had Fusion ads and the syndicated feed sponsorship in place before I went full time. I knew that I needed another substantial way to pay the bills to really make the leap. And so a small, monthly membership seemed to be the ticket. My site doesn’t have a whole lot of readers, but the ones who are do read are simply fantastic. I thought that instead of trying to leverage pageviews (in order to increase my ad revenue) I would reach out to the current community to see if they were willing to pitch in a few bucks a month. It turns out they were and so I was able to make the leap into full time.
The membership was really innovative in a sense, inso far as I can’t think of any other weblog offering extra content for a monthly fee. Daring Fireball offers a subscription to a special RSS feed, but it pales in comparison to the scope you laid out with your membership. Can you talk a bit about how you came up with the specifics of the membership? Figuring out what extra content to provide, how much to charge…
The idea of the membership was easy. Lots of folks have paid-for newsletters, or special bonus how-tos behind paywalls. It’s not an uncommon concept. The hard part was figuring out what to provide and how much to charge.
My initial idea for the membership was a weekly or monthly newsletter. I figured it would have a short article or personal story, a few of the links which never made it to my website for whatever reason, and maybe some community-based aspect where other members could showcase the stuff they were working on.
But that all seemed like things which would benefit all the readers of my site and not just members. It was something extra but it was too similar to what I was already doing on the home page.
At some point along the way I had the idea of doing a members-only podcast. My thought was that the spoken word wouldn’t remove any value to the written word already being published to the site, and that it would be something I could do and maintain with relative ease. And so “Shawn Today” became the perk for members.
Of course, the real perk is that I’m able to write for the site every day.
Indeed. I do remember the initial rollout of the membership included more of those community aspects your speaking of, but it seems to have been scaled back mainly to “Shawn Today” in the months since. What kind of feedback are you getting from readers that’s helping you figure out what’s working and what isn’t?
I thought the community aspect was going to be huge. But it turns out virtually nobody was interested in it. And so I’ve now removed it as part of the membership. However I am regularly getting feedback and replies from members about the content of the podcast, and so I have continued with “Shawn Today”.
You’d have thought the community aspect would be big, considering the amount of email feedback you must get everyday. Any ideas as to the lack of interest?
No clue. I didn’t put a lot of energy into promoting it other than listing it on the site and in the confirmation email members receive after they join. It may be that most members didn’t have anything they wanted to promote or were shy or who knows.
Strange, because I’m sure readers have no problem sending you long emails about X topic your wrote about…
Sure. I think that’s because one-to-one informal communication with someone is much different (and probably much easier to most) than self-promotion of a project.
Have you given any thought on expanding the content of the membership in the future?
I have. But I think that any addition to the membership content would be better suited as something for the whole website. I guess I can’t speak for all the members, but I feel fairly confident that the primary reason they signed up for a membership was so they could support my writing, not so they could listen to the podcast.
I’d agree with that. As a member myself, I feel I’m paying more for the website I read everyday than the show I tune into infrequently. Is there then a sort of challenge in differentiating between content that fits the mission of the site as a whole versus content that’s additive, i.e., better suited for the membership?
I haven’t had that challenge. In fact, often times I will use the podcast as an outlet to talk through something I want to write about. It’s great because I can share un-formed ideas and musings, members will send in their feedback and personal experiences, and it can lead to something that is finalized and gets written for the site. Like you, I know that anything published to the site will benefit the members, and I don’t think any of them feel cheated that something cool (beyond the daily podcast) is put on the site rather than made private just for members.
Indirectly then, it seems you are proving that having readers pay for content is a sustainable business model for writers on the web. Of course the content is free for everyone to begin with, but I think it says something that people are willing to pay simply out of appreciation for what you do.
Yes, I know for a fact that readers are willing to pay for content. And I think part of what makes the membership successful is that I’m not requiring anything special or out of the way for the members in order to continue to read my writing.
One of the reason I didn’t like the newsletter idea was also because it meant members would be getting something else in their email inbox. And the idea of offering a members-only RSS feed would require authentication — and the vast majority of the site’s members use Google Reader which doesn’t support authenticated feeds.
So the idea of “keeping the content free for everyone” was also very much about the value of “keeping the content easily accessible for the members”.
Was the reaction to the membership something you expected, or did it surpass those expectations?
It has certainly surpassed my expectations in how well it was received, and the positive support and encouragement that continues to come in from so many people.
You mentioned feedback from the podcast helping you shape ideas and projects you have in mind. How else has your relationship to your audience changed?
The podcast is much more raw and personal than the things I write. I’ve allowed myself to be honest, real, personal, and open about the victories and struggles I’ve faced as a full-time, self-employed writer. So in that sense my relationship has, as much as it can, become much more personal.
As for my relationship to the entire readership on shawnblanc.net, I think what has changed is my increased intent on professionalism while still maintaining a strong sense of friendliness and “there is a real person over here”-ness.
What that looks like is that I am putting more energy into making sure my writing is error free and does not support or endorse things which are false. All the while, still being free to link to lighthearted things and talk about off-topic subjects as well.
How have you developed as a writer during the last 6 months? Your wrote a post about a month into doing the site full time where you explained how despite having planned to write certain articles, you were actually finding yourself exploring new ideas instead. How would you compare your writing process then and now?
I think it’s hard to measure your progress as a writer over such a short period of time as 6 months. I suppose one thing I am getting better at is writing more quickly. It’s ironic, but I am an extremely slow writer. Not a slow typer, but it just takes me so long to crank out a long-form article. I am getting quicker at that, and I am learning to trust my writing and not to second guess every sentence.
As for my writing process, in some ways it seems that it has changed significantly since taking the site full-time, and in other ways it seems that it hasn’t changed at all.
I don’t know that I could identify what exactly is different, just to say that things feel a lot more frazzled than before. Each day there is something new, — something interesting, something exciting — that is going on, and I want to jump in and find out more about it and point others to it. Yet at the same time I usually have two or three things on my mind that I want to write about as well. And so reconciling those two areas and balancing them has been a challenge and an adventure.
Do you find yourself finding picking different topics to write about than you may have before? Without any hard evidence, it seems to me as though the site is commenting less urgently on the “news of the day”. Does running the site full-time allow your to spend more time crafting your own content rather than merely responding to other’s content? Even things you link to seem more curated, more nuanced. I’ll venture to say that’s intentional?
Something I had to decide right at the front end was that I wouldn’t be a “breaking news” website. As a guy who works solo I knew it would be too much. I only post things which I find valuable or interesting or funny, or for which I have something additional I would like to say.
Is it difficult holding that editorial stance when maybe, in the back of your mind, you could be thinking about the pageviews talking about X rumor now could generate for the site?
Oh for sure. But that is a slippery slope, and I just remind myself that it’s not a direction I want to go. Of course, if I am at my desk and something big breaks I have no problem dropping what I’m working on and shifting gears. But I make a point not to let the incessant urgency of Whatever’s Happening on the Internet™ have any sway in my schedule or life priorities.
I’m curious about that because when writing is a hobby or a secondary pursuit, it seems much easier to write on a whim about whatever interests us then when that writing is paying the bills. Is there a balance to strike there?
For about a week when I first went full time, I felt like maybe I wouldn’t be able to write about what interested me any longer and that I would have to begin writing about what would interest my readers.
But that was a silly notion. I knew that the pace of writing, the topics I chose, and the voice I was writing with had been the things which had brought me to a place of being able to take the site full time in the first place. And so instead of shying away from that, I have tried to lean into it even more and allow myself the freedom to write about the things which excite and interest me.
Marco Arment calls it The Blogger’s Trap.
The Blogger Trap is when your site gets big enough that it’s no longer nontrivial and so you stop writing about all the cool and interesting and passionate topics which you used to write about. And instead you write boring things or you self-censor your ideas too much.
_Thus the best way to manage expectations is to pretend there aren’t any to begin with?
Yup. Only your own. Which you should always be trying to exceed.
To play devil’s advocate, is it possible to go to far? A reverse blogger’s trap, if you will?
I’m sure it is. I don’t know what exactly it would look like, but it would probably have something to do with taking out all the energy you put into the things you write.
You’ve been hinting at it during our conversation but I’d like to know firsthand what you think is the voice of your website? What’s the takeaway you want people to have once they finish reading a piece on shawnblanc.net?
I try to write with a positive voice and to write about things which are fascinating and/or beautiful. I’m a big fan of ways that technology and computers serve as tools for creativity and so anything along those lines is always going to peak my interest. My hope for when people read my site is that they feel informed but also delighted. Not just that I’m saying things which are interesting, but that they are being said in an enjoyable-to-read manner.
To me, what’s been unique about your writing is the narrative you wrap around the topics you discuss. Reviews of hardware, for instance, aren’t merely about performance or the feel of using it, but also the experience of purchasing the gadget, when or where you used it. Where another writer will write “this tablet is heavy because it weighs X”, you’ll describe what it actually felt like lifting that device. It sometimes feels like reading a personal journal. For example, from your Kindle Touch review:
Upon opening up the top of the box the Kindle is sitting there with a plastic sheet attached to the front of the device. There is an image which demonstrates you should plug your Kindle into a computer. When I peeled off the plastic I found that the image was actually being displayed by the screen. I did a double take because it looked so much like a printed image and not like something electronically displayed using a screen.
You could have just said the device is already on when you open the box, but your description of actually living that moment and your reaction to colours the review in a whole different way.
Writing with a personal narrative is extremely important to me. Those are the sorts of articles I enjoy reading the most and they’re the ones I enjoy writing the most. Because I think they have a feel to them. They are not just a clever way of firing off statistics. Writing about software and hardware from the perspective of someone who’s lived with it and who gets it is important to me.
I don’t think it’s just the personal approach, but the descriptive way you explain your actions. I think it allows us as readers to live vicariously through you. In the case of reviewing a product, the perspective we get is much less abstracted than debating how a benchmark score relates to us.
There are plenty of sites out there doing benchmark scores and what not. But nobody can write about the things which I notice. And since the “software review market” is every-increasingly crowded, having a personal narrative makes it that much more fun.
Something I said to someone recently was that to write a review just write about what you notice and how that makes you feel and what that makes you think of. And then accentuate on the little things because that’s what gives it life.
What’s the value of looking at technology from that perspective?
The value is that it’s real life. People don’t use gadgets or apps in a vacuum, they use them in the living room or at the dentist’s waiting room. And so giving it a personal, real-life touch makes it real and personal. Stats are cool to geeks, but life is cool to everyone.
(Laughs) Well put. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me Shawn.
You are welcome. It was my pleasure.