Experiments in Blogging: The Open-Source Model, Write To Done, and Other Tidbits
Today I thought I'd answer a few important questions that readers have asked me in the last few months. If you're not interested in blogging or a slightly behind-the-scenes look at Zen Habits, you can skip this post.
I'd like to start by saying I'm not a blogging expert. I'm simply a blogger who started out with no readers, a mere 18 months ago, and has steadily grown in readership as I've experimented in various ways, finding out what works and what doesn't. So, as with anything I write here at Zen Habits, I will give you some insight into what I've learned, but don't look at it as the final word on anything.
At the beginning of 2008, I made an announcement that soon caused a few waves in the blogging world: I renounced my copyright of the content of Zen Habits and my Zen To Done ebook. It was a move inspired by the open-source software movement, among other things, and the reactions were hugely favorable I think. (Read an interview with me on this topic, just published.)
But I often get asked these days: "How is this open-source blogging experiment going?" The short answer: Simply great.
Even though I've renounced my copyright, I get people who write to me all the time with proposals to reprint my articles, to translate Zen To Done into other languages, to develop websites and software based on ZTD or other content. I just point them to my "Uncopyright" page, and tell them to do as they please.
And yet, it certainly hasn't hurt me a bit. Since January, my traffic and subscriber numbers have only grown. And if anything, the number of people who directly plagiarize my site have gone down (from what I've seen — I don't monitor them).
Reactions have almost all been positive, and some people have actually bought my ebook as a thank-you for uncopyrighting my work.
As an experiment, I have to say that releasing copyright and open-sourcing my blog has been a success. A number of other bloggers also released their copyright soon after I did, and others switched to a Creative Commons license (see the comments of the original post for why I didn't choose a CC license). Of course, the experiment is far from over, but I'm happy to report success so far.
It is my hope that more bloggers will eventually follow this uncopyright path, as they see that the old, protectionist model of publishing is outdated and actually hurts the distribution of their work. If people share my work, I see that as a compliment, and a good thing for the spread of my writing and the marketing of my blog. So far, that's been true, and I would only wish the same kinds of success on other writers, bloggers, artists and musicians.
Out with the restrictions of copyright, in with the freedoms of uncopyright.
Write To Done, my other blog
Other questions have arisen by readers about Write To Done, my blog for writers started earlier this year. It pains me that I haven't been writing for WTD as much as I had planned. I started WTD as an outlet for writing about writing, as I felt I had a lot to say on the topic but couldn't really post those articles here on Zen Habits. It was a good idea, I think, but I just don't have the time that I had hoped I would.
As a result, the blog has been (kinda) inactive in recent months. I've published some good guest posts, but not many by me.
However, I'm excited to announce that Mary Jacksch of Goodlife Zen will be taking over Write To Done as the new Chief Editor. Mary and I have some great plans for WTD and I think you'll be seeing some excellent stuff from both Mary and me in the coming months.
To start with, Mary will get us back into a regular posting schedule, starting with once per week and building up to twice per week very soon. I will also be posting at least monthly, and we'll have some good guest writers and interviews as well.
Mary is a published author, a blogger, and a Zen master, so I think she's pretty much perfect for the job. :)
Please welcome Mary and subscribe to WTD if you're interested in writing or blogging.
How Did You Build Up Zen Habits So Quickly?
One of the most oft-asked questions is about how I grew the readership of Zen Habits in the course of its first year (2007) to become one of the Top 50 blogs in the world. I started from nothing, knowing no bloggers, knowing nothing about blogging — so what's my secret?
There's no secret, really. If I have any secret, it's this: pick topics that I know about that people want to learn about, and then provide as much useful information about those topics as I possibly can — and then write it in a clear, fairly concise, easily scannable (because people are busy) form with a catchy headline.
The catchy headline is simply to draw people into your post, because often they are looking at a list of headlines (in their feed reader, on another blog, on del.icio.us, etc.) and if your headline doesn't catch their attention, they'll never read your stuff. The rest seems like common sense, but it takes awhile to get good at all of it.
I often get criticized for writing list posts, but 1) I think in lists, and 2) people seem to like lists, because they can easily scan through a post to get the info they're looking for. It's convenient for the reader, who is a busy person, and in my opinion making things easier for your readers is a good thing.
Using these "secrets", I applied them in the following ways:
1. I tried to provide as many useful and valuable posts on my blog as possible. The more the better. It won't do to have a good post every few weeks — it has to be several times a week, at least.
2. I wrote as many guest posts on other blogs as possible, using the same "secrets". I made them as useful as possible, with a catchy headline. Those guest posts gained me new readers and exposure to new audiences. If you do this enough times, and you provide really valuable posts each time, you'll find success.
3. Once I had a number of readers, they would share my best posts on social bookmarking sites such as Digg or delicious or StumbleUpon, and thus I would find new readers. (Btw, if you share my posts on these sites, I am very happy, so thank you!)
There's not much more to it than that, other than to try to avoid getting upset by negative comments, and to try to interact with your readers when possible.
Some Zen Habits Q&As
Just a few short answers to other common questions:
Q: What blogging software do you use?
A: I use WordPress, which is free and very flexible. I use phpBB for my forum software, although I am currently making a switch to new forum software. WordPress plugins I use include Askimet, No Self Pings, Optimal Title, Gravatar and Subscribe to Comments.
Q: Where did you get your blog theme?
A: It was custom designed by a friend who is a very good professional designer. It isn't available for others, although I wish I could release it as a free theme. My designer friend is not accepting new work.
Q: Why do you post so infrequently?
A: At one point, I was posting 2-3 times a day. But that was overwhelming for a lot of readers, and for me, so I switched to 6 days a week, once a day. Even then, a lot of readers said I was posting too much for them to read, as many of my posts are long. So I've gradually found a balance, and I think 4-5 times a week has been working well for me and for readers. I try to post quality posts just about every time I post, so that while my posts are less frequent than some blogs (but more frequent than others), they are key posts every time.
Q: What host do you use?
A: I use Slicehost.com … it's not exactly a dedicated server, but it's much better than the cheaper hosts. I used to use Bluehost.com, which works very well except when you hit the front page of Digg. Slicehost has worked extremely well for me.
Q: Do you do paid reviews or in-text ads?
No, not at all. I receive numerous requests for paid reviews, but I don't do them because I want my readers to know that if I review a product, it's because I genuinely like it, not because I'm getting paid. That said, I have done reviews with affiliate links, as I don't have a problem with making money off a product I really like, that I think my readers will benefit from. However, there was a bit of controversy about this recently and my new policy is to state more clearly and up-front that the post contains affiliate links.
I don't allow any advertising to be placed as links within the text of my posts, although I get many, many requests for these kinds of ads. I think it's best if the ads are kept in separate boxes, so that it doesn't confuse readers, and so that they don't think that my posts are just filled with ads. I've visited other blogs with in-text ads, and I can't stand reading through ad-filled text. Sorry, just my preference, but I think many readers agree.
Q: Do you do blog consulting, or life coaching, or seminars, or speaking engagements?
No, not at this point. I just don't have time for consulting right now.
I am thinking of developing a coaching course on some of the life-transformation topics here at Zen Habits, if I get enough interest from readers. More of a hands-on way of implementing the changes and information I provide here. A bunch of readers have asked for that and I'm thinking about it.
Thanks for all of your encouragement, everybody! If you have further questions, feel free to ask. I can't guarantee an answer, but I'll do what I can.
If you liked this article, please share it on del.icio.us, StumbleUpon or Digg. I'd appreciate it. :)