The New, New Economy: How the World of Online Publishing Is Changing, and Why You Should Care
For the past eight years I’ve made a good living through online publishing. I’ve shared much of the journey along the way, but I first documented the overall process in a manifesto, 279 Days to Overnight Success.
This manifesto went on to have a life of its own, thanks to the generous sharing of readers. Every single day—seven years later!—I hear from people who have found it online and enjoyed it.
And guess what? I think at least some of the lessons I taught so fervently back then are wrong.
Well, they aren’t necessarily incorrect—so maybe “wrong” is the wrong word.
But I don’t think the instructions are as timeless as I thought they were at the time. If, today, you do exactly what I said back then, I’m not entirely sure that success will follow. Or at the very least, the odds will be much lower.
I don’t want to overstate this, because there’s still good news. The good news is that the core principles remain the same: make something, help someone. Artists and hustlers will always find a way. Between working for yourself and entrusting your security and well-being to anyone else, the choice is still easy.
So that’s great. But what ISN’T GREAT is that the strategies I outlined, which many people have followed to varying degrees of success or failure, are far less relevant today than they were at the time. And that’s a problem!
What’s changed? Well, it’s a long list … but here are a few big things.
1. The thought leader space is oversaturated.
What happens when large numbers of people all pursue the same goal? Funny enough, they all pursue the same strategies to achieving that goal! They all set out to “build a following” and “create platform” for themselves. They all write ebooks (more on that in a moment). They all create online courses, some more helpful than others. The tech-savvy ones make apps.
And while some of this work is no doubt unique, and much of it is valuable, there is a real problem with lack of differentiation. Why is so-and-so’s course better than someone else’s? Does the world need another blog on minimalism and simplicity? (If we’re all trying to reduce, why do we keep adding?)
I realize it probably sounds unfair for the people who’ve been around for a while to complain about the space being crowded. But after all, the reason the space is crowded is because every leader actively encourages others to do much the same thing that they are doing.
Besides, just because something is unfair doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The fact that the space is oversaturated is an observation, not a judgment.
and let’s not stop there…
2. Digital products have greatly evolved.
Online publishers prospered for years, but much of it was a gold rush. I knew a guy who made six-figures with an ebook about beards. Beards! I know, beards are a thing … but still. Another story I’ve told frequently was about a guy who made multiple six-figures writing about guinea pigs. I am not making this up.
I remember the early days of eBay and other online auctions. In some cases it was possible to buy items from the store and then immediately resell them online for a higher price. That’s the kind of thing that happens in a gold rush, and there was one for online publishing, too.
The novelty has faded, and skepticism—which is normal consumer behavior for most markets—has set in. These days, it’s much harder for most people to reap a substantial profit on a new digital product without putting in a lot more work on both the development side and the marketing side.
Note that I’m not saying “information should be free.” Information has always been both free and for sale. I’m pretty sure you’ll always be able to buy a newspaper, in one form or another. I just mean that people are more skeptical in the first place and less willing to be persuaded even if you do capture their attention.
3. The “rules of engagement” for social media have changed.
I’m not a social media commentator and have only done fairly well on one network that is now on the defensive for lots of valid reasons. But you don’t need to be a futurist to see that the way the kids are using social is a lot different than five years ago, or even two years ago.
For one, people expect native engagement these days. Look at Humans of New York—does that guy even have a website? His social pages with millions of followers link straight to an Amazon listing. Presumably there’s something else floating around somewhere, but I’d guess that more than 99% of people who are huge fans and have helped the project become a massive success (with hundreds of thousands of books sold, by the way) have never been to his own website.
Instead, they engage almost entirely through social feeds. The story lives and grows through social. If there’s a hub somewhere, the hub supports the networks and not the other way around. This is the exact opposite of what you have been taught.
I used to say that there was no benefit to social networks unless you were able to “capture” that value elsewhere, like on your email list or through some other platform of your own. This is still the prevailing wisdom of most marketers. But I think the prevailing wisdom falls in the department of “nice work if you can get it.” Yes, it’s great to amass an email list. But if you want to truly amass a following or start a movement, you have to be thinking much differently about social.
In other words, I don’t think it’s fair to tell people to pursue business as usual, when it’s clear that business as usual no longer works.
4. On its own, blogging is no longer perceived as valuable and interesting.
Don’t get me wrong: I love blogging. If the world conformed to my whims and I could choose only one medium and platform—no social media, no email list, nothing else—I’d pick blogging.
Alas, just as blogs have changed, so too has the way that people engage with blogs. For example, I don’t have comments on my blog anymore, but that wasn’t entirely my choice. I didn’t change; the culture changed. User preferences changed.
There are exceptions to this pattern too, of course. Some people are still doing great with traditional blogs. So what’s different about those? From what I can tell, the exceptions are largely segmented along gender lines (meaning that those blogs are largely read by women or men, not both) and often focused on a specific industry or topic.
The point is that I don’t think you should look at the exceptions. You should look at the normal experience for most people, especially if you’re just starting out and are looking to find your way.
Personality still matters. There’s still hope. But the point is that you can’t just blog your way to stardom or wealth or whatever your goal is.
Here’s a real-world example. Giveaway posts used to be a sure-fire way of gaining attention and engagement. In a typical giveaway post, bloggers offer something for free and readers compete to win, usually in the form of posting a comment. Hopefully the “something” is something of value, not just a promotional item, and the goal is to get more people talking about and participating on the blog.
But even giving away free stuff isn’t working so great these days. I recently received an email pitch from a well-known travel blogger who was giving away a free trip. Understand that: a free trip! Not everyone can pack up and leave for an international excursion, but the point is that this was a valuable, legitimate offer.
The email pitch said something like:
“We all know how hard it is to get people to pay attention to giveaways these days, so I need your help. Will you spread the word?”
Think about this. What used to be the means of getting attention, i.e. something that would draw people in to something greater, now fails to attract much attention on its own, at least not without greasing the wheels a little. Wow.
I remember the days when popular blogs would sometimes get tens of thousands of comments for free stuff. And maybe some still do, but they are few and far between.
When Andrew Sullivan, the king of real-time, medium-form blogging, decided to quit, we should have known something had changed. I read Andrew’s blog for years and even found myself writing in “his” style more frequently, especially toward the end of 2014. But then he decided to pack it in, and I think he was ahead of his time, just as he was more than a decade earlier when he started.
If you want to predict when a social network will die, watch for how much discussion on the network is about the network itself. So too with blogging, I think. The abundance of blogging about blogging is a clear sign of blogging’s demise.
(And for the record, I’ve contributed to this too. Looking back I can sometimes see a lack of focus and an all-too-willingness to go along with the crowd.)
In Sum: What Worked Before Won’t Work Now
I could present more arguments and examples like the ones above, and maybe you can think of additional ones. Or maybe you might quibble with the thesis or present a counter-example. That’s fine, but the point is that things have changed. Because it’s a different world now, we need new models. And of course, let’s not forget:
If you look to the past to guide the future, you’ll just end up recreating the past.
If this were the old way of doing things, I’d feature a WordPress plugin here that encouraged people to “Click to Tweet” that phrase. But thankfully, though I’m a flawed human and have made many mistakes in life, I can go to my grave with the knowledge that I’ve never said “Click to Tweet” in anything other than an ironic manner.
You can safely consider that whole thing a sign of the demise of both Twitter and blogs.
The Future Is Already Here (“But as always, young Jedi, there’s still hope”)
This isn’t a warning that things are changing; it’s a statement that things have changed. The future is already here. What worked before won’t work now, friends. But that’s okay, because change is the only constant. The real winners will understand and grow.
The real winners won’t abandon the principles we started with years ago: make something, be helpful. If you want your values to lead the way, better have the right values.
But the goals and strategies and certainly the tactics will change. They have to. You’ll also be forced to do better work, and that’s good for all of us.
When I speak at events, there’s usually a tech person or assistant helping out backstage before the lights go on and the music starts playing. At some point, they’ll ask, “How are you feeling? Are you ready?”
I always have the same answer: “Ready or not, it’s time.”
Because that’s how it is. If you have to go on stage at a certain time, it doesn’t matter if you’re ready. You could stall for a minute or two, but not for long. And that’s exactly what’s happening with these changes. Are you ready? Ready or not, here we go.
The only choice you face is if you’ll try to live in the past or if you’ll adapt to a new reality.
I read this in someone else’s post (about a totally different topic) a while back:
“What I didn’t know then: wanting something badly wasn’t enough. There was no causal link between effort and success. It was possible to work extremely hard and not get the desired results. I needed direction, focus and business nous.”
I liked that because I too can work extremely hard. And in the past, when I’ve worked extremely hard, I’ve received “desired results.” But now it’s not just about working hard, it’s about working differently. For those on a quest for relevance and impact, something must change.
So if you’re just getting started over there, preparing to follow an old plan, I just wanted you to know before you did a ton of work. You now have to do it differently.
How so? Well, that’s what we’re all figuring out in real time. Ready or not.
*There are no comments here, because, well, it isn’t 2008 anymore. But if you’d like to share this post, I’d be just as grateful as I was back then.