10 January 2007

Cory Doctorow: Blogging Without the Blog

from Locus Magazine, January 2007

When you want to update your website, you should be able to just update it. Set yourself up right, and changing your site will take about as much work as emailing your webmaster to ask her to update it. The big difference is you don't have to pay to update your site by yourself and you don't have to wait for the updates to go live.

The secret is to have the site redesigned around a blogging tool, like Movable Type or WordPress. These run on your ISP's server — most ISPs offer one or both. When set up correctly, they can do more than just serve as a publishing platform for your online journal or blog: they can serve as a powerful content management system comparable to the ones used by newspapers, universities, and online stores like Amazon.

The average auctorial website is pretty much of a muchness: a welcome page with far too little useful information, links to a bio, a bibliography, and maybe a list of upcoming appearances or recent news.

And the average auctorial website management experience is likewise much of a muchness. When something new happens — a new book published, a new signing announced — you edit some html pages and then upload them to a server. This is cumbersome and error-prone — sometimes you drop an angle bracket and your page basically disappears or turns to mud.

Most people use blogging software to maintain a list of chronological snippets of text. Think of a LiveJournal or even the front page of The Onion. Blogs have a familiar two- or three-column layout, familiar "chrome" around the text — a link for comments, a link for an individual entry, a list of other noteworthy sites, and so on. Some of us categorize our blogs (sports, personal, writing), and give our readers the option of reading just one category's worth of posts.

Now, suppose that instead of laying out a blog this way, you laid it out to resemble a classic author's site. For categories, you could have "appearances," "news," "novels," "articles," and so forth. Instead of a blogroll and a calendar for archived posts, you could fill your sidebars with your book-covers, your publicity headshot, whatever graphic junk you've presently got cluttering the site you put up with Dreamweaver five years ago.

It's the kind of thing you can pay someone a couple hundred dollars to do, and it's a near-sure thing that your current webmaster is already maintaining one or more blogs and is familiar with the basics (even if she's never turned them to this end).

Once that's done, you're in self-determination heaven. Just as soon as you have an idea, you can implement it. Got a new story out? Add it to the news page (leave comments on for that post so your readers can have a message-board to discuss it) and add another entry to your short stories bibliography (turn comments off there). List your news postings chronologically and list your novels alphabetically. Or vice-versa.

This is the kind of thing that newspapers used to commission consulting firms to build for them for millions of dollars. You can get it for nothing. The market for blogging software is so vigorous that there's tons of R&D to piggyback off of. Every week, something else cool and useful comes out — live spell-checking, a plug-in to convert all your book titles to links to Amazon (along with your affiliate ID, so you get a commission from every reader who you convert to a customer for Jeff Bezos), spam filters, und so weiter. The process of creating a post is about as difficult as sending an email through Hotmail or Gmail. Login to an administrative part of your blog with a password, then fill in the title and body and check off categories as applicable.

This stuff is called "content management" and the software is called a "content management system" (CMS). The tools are monstrously awesome. Take Drupal, a complex, elegant technology that is versatile enough to run the DNC off of. Or The Onion. It might be overkill for you, but if you want to add a shopping-basket for selling your remainders and autographed prayer-hankies, with automatic payment processing over PayPal, it's a bad-ass piece of infrastructure. It's open source and free — anyone can hack it and improve it, but they have to publish their improvements. That means that when The Onion pays a programmer $100 an hour to squash a bug or add a new one, you get to reap the benefit gratis.

The best part of all this is the agency. It sucks to be an information supplicant who has to get someone else to utter the incantations necessary to move your expressive thoughts from your head to the universal planetwide information resource. It sucks to drop an angle bracket and have to prostrate yourself before a monk who can locate your pitiful error and correct it. It sucks to have to grovel for favors and limit the number of times you add to your site because you don't want to spend your goodwill with your volunteer.

How many telegrams did you send when you had to dictate them over the phone to a Western Union operator? How many emails do you send now that you can clatter them off your WiFi laptop in your living room?

You don't have to use a blog to blog, in other words. But you can. Using a blog as a back-end for your website is a gun on the mantelpiece — it's going to go off before the Singularity. Adding a blog to your site in this universe is as simple as adding another category with its own page: the "blog" category. Assign your blog-posts to the blog category and hey-presto, you're blogging.

Why blog? Giving your readers a sense of who you are and what you're up to can foster a sense of personal connection, that elusive sense that you're not just buying a book, you're buying a book by your buddy.

Unless, that is, you're the kind of writer whose personality needs to be locked up — a negative-charisma type who is better off if your readers know as little as possible about the warm body behind the dead words. If that's the case, stick to content management, and stay indoors.

Cory Doctorow's website is Craphound.com, and he is co-editor of Boing Boing: A Directory of Wonderful Things.

Cory Doctorow is one of a dozen Locus columnists and reviewers. Every issue, we review over 50 books and magazines, most before they appear in print. A subscription will get you all those as well as the rest of the magazine -- news, People & Publishing, commentary, reports on events, and a list of all books and magazines published that month.

Previous Cory Doctorow columns posted on Locus Online:

Comments are welcome, but are moderated. Anonymous comments will not be posted.


At Wednesday, January 24, 2007 10:31:00 AM, Anonymous said...

"And the average auctorial website management experience is likewise much of a muchness."

Should that be "mess" instead of "muchness"?

At Wednesday, January 24, 2007 5:00:00 PM, Simon Haynes said...

Thanks for this - I decided to implement a news sidebar on my website when I first read your post, and it worked really well.

I already have three blogs, but the site was a bit too static and the sidebar & associated news pages have really livened it up.


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