5 Things Writers Must Do To Survive Online

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

Almost twenty years ago, the Web became available to the public, to utilize in ways limited only by our imaginations.  By the late 1990’s software made it easy for writers to create their own websites and blogs.  Coupled with the self-publishing revolution, 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.

fas typing at keyboardIt was an exhilarating time as the volume and variety of stories and ideas that were 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 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 very powerful corporations.  These powerful corporate entities hinder 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, is seemingly of no concern.

In the relentless pursuit of more revenue, these powerful corporations are killing independent websites using a number of 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, just to reach an audience they are no longer able to reach with their own websites.  Ironically, these writers are giving their content to the very same powers that are colluding to thwarting their own independent efforts, further exacerbating.  The barriers to entry are back up.

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

1 – Establish Your Own Website
Every writer should have their 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. [Editor’s Note: We can link your domain name to your AALBC.com pages for free.]

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.

2 – Link to an Independent Book Store’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 a independent store for online sales you also increase the potential for in store sales and promotion.  You will also help promote the store, increase 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 our site 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 not linking to any independent stores while maintaining a link to Amazon just hurts the independents and enriches Amazon even more.

save revolution booksIt 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 book stores 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.

3 – NEVER Link to Amazon Without Using an Affiliate Code
AmazonI get information on books every single day with links directing me to Amazon.  Amazingly, 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% on books from Amazon.  This excludes authors residing in Arkansas, Louisiana, Maine, Missouri, Rhode Island, or Vermont (as of August 2016 read Amazon’s operating agreement for more information).

Failing to use an affiliate code is simply leaving money on the table.  If you can’t, because you live in one of the previously mentioned states, or don’t want to join Amazon’s affiliate program.  You can very easily use AALBC.com affiliate code.  Just substitute your book’s ISBN-10 in the following URL: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0385535988/ref=nosim/aalbccom-20

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 book seller 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.

4 – Link to Other Independent Websites
When individuals began creating websites in the mid 1990’s, 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 has 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.

5 – Stop Writing for Wealthy Websites for Free
I recently wrote an article called, “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.

coporations want information for freeThe 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 a often quoted slogan floating around the Internet, “Information Wants to be Free”.  It is almost a cliche, but it also 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 ”, so that they may exploit it for monetary again.

Social media sites can thrive fueled solely on user generated content.  Content written by everyday folks, just being… social, and that is fine.   Those contributors get to exchange rumors, celebrity gossip, jokes, 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 engaged in high tech sharecropping.  Where are writer’s unions when you need them?

Sharecroppers pick cotton in Georgia in 1898 (Library of Congress) - Sharecroppers on Wessyngton Plantation
Sharecroppers pick cotton in Georgia in 1898 (Library of Congress)      –       Sharecroppers on Wessyngton Plantation

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 D. Johnson is the President, founder and webmaster of AALBC.com, LLC (The African American Literature Book Club). Launched in March of 1998, AALBC.com has grown to become the largest and most frequently visited website dedicated to books and films by and about people of African descent.

  • Carlos Marcus

    ” It (information wants to be free) is almost a cliche, but it also utter nonsense in the context of our capitalist system.”
    No, what is nonsense is the capitalist system.

  • Christina Bristol

    Hi Troy, I totally agree with your thoughts here, and you made me feel glad I bought my domain name for my wordpress website. I was starting to wonder if it was worth it and if I should be doing more on Facebook. Thanks a million for these useful tips!

    • Christina congratulations and good luck with the website! Email me a link when it is ready.

  • Lisa Loving

    This article is great, it inspired me to start looking up business articles about Amazon.com, through which I learned that Amazon is considered a de facto monopoly now. So in my home town, which is Portland, OR, at my newspaper http://www.TheSkanner.com, we are beginning to build a special relationship with our local biggest independent bookstore, http://www.Powells.com , and we are going to start linking to books on THEIR website instead of the monopoly website. It turns out that Powell’s has a special program for websites that do that, offering a profit-sharing deal. I would have never known that if I hadn’t reached out to them. It really matters that we reach out to the other INDEPENDENT websites and businesses in building our own, THANK YOU TROY.

    • Sarah

      Thank you so much Troy for sharing this! As a new freelance writer and content manager, I never thought about publishing exposure and access in this way, and now I will make sure I do in everything I write or publish. It is truly important, ESPECIALLY for African Americans and other marginalized populations to OWN your own image and resources as MUCH as possible! (Thanks Azzizi Books of Matteson, IL for pointing us to this article and resource!) And by the way, Amazon discontinued signing up affiliates in Illinois and other states due to their respective tax laws. So…Borders Books (Nook, etc.) is where I’ll link, and I will surely also check out Powells and my local outlets as well (thanks Lisa Loving)!

      • Marlene Lee

        Excellent essay. Political realities aside, I simply dislike FaceBook and especially Linked-In (which contacts people I know and tells them I want to be linked-in with them when I made no such claim). I have said more than once that I want a divorce from FaceBook but I’m afraid to live alone. Now I can add another line of yours, Troy: I don’t want to be a high-tech sharecropper.

        • Marlene issue is control quite real the rules change, the way the software works changes frequently. Even sophisticated used (which I consider myself) can encounter problem and do things they never intended.

          Lately I’ve been getting a lot of endorsements from people on LinkedIn I rarely use the system and have NEVER asked any one for an endorsement, so I know they system is promoting people to endorse me — without my knowledge or approval — and I don;t have the time to try to figure out how to do anything abou it

      • Sarah the folks at Azizi are terrific I shot a video of one of the owners, Kevin Roberts, last year: http://aalbc.it/azizibooks

  • Nathalie Mvondo

    Such insight! A big thank you for this article.

  • Denise Bolds

    This is awesome Troy and thanks! I’m almost ready to drop my first work of fiction!

  • Raynetta Manees

    Thanks for this article. I do own my own website (www.RManees.com), but do not yet have an Amazon affiliate code. I’ve lost hundreds of dollars this year alone. Thanks for this tip. I will be sure to rectify this ASAP! Author Raynetta Manees

  • Author G D Grace

    Great information! Thanks, Troy!

  • Idellah Ashlie

    This article is a work of art! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and helping your fellow writers. This is great universal advice for us all.

    • HI @idellahashlie:disqus, I missed your reply when you first posted it. Thanks for the kinds words. I have a follow up article planned soon.

  • Guest

    I do and have always done all of these except for #2…. as soon as independent book stores embrace more eBooks and indie author books I’ll consider it. Great post.

  • Great post Troy. I do and have always done all of these except for #2…. as soon as independent book stores embrace more eBooks and indie author books I’ll consider it.

    • Hi @shawnedamarks:disqus, for the sake of clarity, what specifically do you suggest indie brick and mortar stores do to better embrace eBooks?

      • Welcome eBook authors for events, introduce readers to eBooks your store recommends, sell Kobo a viable competitor to the Kindle instead of bemoaning existence Kindle and all eReader’s existence, create affiliate links to the NYT or other bestsellers to eBook distributors with affiliate options like Amazon, BN.com and Smashwords OR be exclusive to Kobo which is a pretty wicked operation and a major eBook player outside of the United States. 1)Contact IndieBound to become a distributor of the Kobo ereader to become more familiar with the device as well as ereading in general as a book format. 2) Consider how offering KoboBooks as an indie bookstore seller will generate a revenue stream in addition to in-store book sells. (People buy eBooks at all times of the day and night even when the store is closed…) 3)Invite eBook authors to do readings and signings (there is an app for that… several now and many of them are free.) 4) Engage readers online (GoodReads, Twitter, Facebook, Shelfari, Pinterest and LinkedIn… yes LinkedIn too) OR hire someone to do it who loves books on behalf of your bookstore. 5) Establish a YouTube channel and do Google Hangouts with authors whose eBooks and hardback books are selling well if they can’t afford to travel to your location bring the readers from your venue and them together online IT’S FREE. The hangouts become part of your channel and help you build an online presence… or use another online platform. Back in 2008 I used what is now called Mogulus to do a show called Faithful Folios and interviewed brave authors using live video and chat… so I have a soft place in my heart for online video author chats. 6.) Post and run blogs and be part of blogtours… for eBooks… bookstores are a great spot for blogtours. Don’t be afraid to put your special spin on it and try something new. While revolting against social media and internet based communication may feel nobly nostalgic what’s more important to the health of the literary industry is maximizing all literary formats, creating relationships with a new generation of readers and writers and generating more revenue. I’ll admit there are no absolutes so it is possible there are communities where eBooks and social media engagement aren’t detrimental to the bottomline of a bookstore. Any business owner hoping their store will outlive them must consider todays youth. They are tomorrow’s book buyers and some of them may like paperback books but some will prefer only eBooks, or audible downloads and being positioned to offer content in paper and electronic formats offers an opportunity to continue to provide reading opportunities for readers of all mediums and continue to support the literary industry.

        • Wow @shawnedamarks:disqus, that was much more than I expected. I really appreciate your in depth and thoughtful response. I’ll link to this comment from you AALBC.com page I just started: http://aalbc.it/Shawneda In fact, with your permission I’d like to permanently archive your reply, but format it so that more people can read it.

          I think it can certainly be a starting point for a more meaningful conversation and perhaps some practical strategies or longer term solutions for book sellers. Thanks for sharing!

  • You know I’m sharing this!!!!!

  • Chevdove

    Thank you for this article. It was very informative. I often write on social media and shared much of my research, but now, I believe I need to be published.

  • Danielle Carin Davis

    Great tips! Interesting enough, I was having a discussion about #2 this weekend. We must support and continue to build our institutions. Independent bookstores offer so much support. Lastly, I would rather share profit with them, than Amazon.

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