Bemusings (Bemoanings) Of A Failed Writer

I was talking to one of my students last weekend (I teach adults English in Japan) and he was telling me that he wanted to set up a blog to make some extra money on the side. Knowing that there is no money in writing but wanting to be nice, I chuckled and asked him how he expected to monetize it.

In broken yet understandable English he explained to me that he was going to set up a free blog, get a Google AdSense account and write about whatever topics were most popular at the time. Having had a Google AdSense account at one point (and never making money from it) I wished him luck.

Yesterday the student came back and I asked him how his blog was doing.

“Oh, not bad” he said without looking up from his notes, “I got a few thousand hits the first few days.”

“Excuse me what?”  I said, half-suspecting he was confusing his numbers again and actually meant that he got a few hundred visitors.

“My first article got a couple thousand hits, I hope the next one gets more,” he confirmed.

I put the lesson on the back-burner for a moment, I needed to know more. I pressed him to explain exactly what he did. Still without thinking much of it nor looking up at me he casually said that he went to Google Trends, found a popular topic, and wrote a quick article about it. In no time he was pulling in the hits.

“But what did you write about?” I asked, knowing this guy’s interests are limited to oblique science journals and personal training.

“I wrote about the VW crisis,” he explained. “I went online, grabbed a few articles, reworded them into one article and put it on my site.”

“Well, did you cite your sources?” I asked, my fuming hatred for society and new media reaching a crescendo.

“No. I didn’t cut and paste. I reworded so I don’t have to,” he, rather incorrectly, stated.

I informed him that he did in fact have to cite his sources, and that not doing so is plagiarism and a violation of Google AdSense policy. He didn’t seem to care.

I knew my “career” as a journalist had burst a long time ago and that any chance to make it as a writer had long since passed. But this still stung, and it reaffirmed two sad truths I’ve long suspected.

One is that original content is dead. Ninety percent of what we read online is zombified news, articles taken from a cornucopia of other sites, cut up, re-arranged so it’s not technically plagiarism anymore, and then awoken like Frankenstein’s monster, ready to attack us with clickbait headlines and meme-driven content about “one trick you won’t believe.” But whatever, I’m not the first person to bemoan such a thing, and long drawn out thinkpieces about the death of original content are as easy to find as Buzzfeed Top 10 Lists on Facebook.

The second truth it painfully exposed me to, and another that I long expected, is that no one gives a shit about anything I write about. This student, whose English knowledge is more than a little bit lacking, could cobble together a story about VW based entirely on existing content and completely devoid of original thought, and he got more hits in two days than either of my sites will in one month.

And he’ll probably get some modicum of money for it too because why the fuck not.

Recently I wrote a guide of sorts to Yellow Magic Orchestra’s studio albums. It was something I felt compelled to write, as I thought it would help spread information about a band who to this date is disgustingly underrepresented in Western media. I spent about a week on it, writing and editing it when I could get the chance between classes and on my few days off. I put a lot of work into it. I’m pretty proud of it.

As of this writing less than 300 people have clicked on it. God know how many people actually read it when they found out it had words and wasn’t just a list.

A few weeks ago I went to the Mario 30th Anniversary Celebration Festival. As far as I know I was the only English speaking writer in attendance. I took exclusive photos of the event, which included a presentation by Mario creator Shigero Miyamoto. To the best of my knowledge, my article is the only English language in-depth coverage of the event.

It has less than 100 hits.

And I hype my shit the best I can. I go on Twitter and send links out. I share it on Facebook (despite how much I utterly loathe Facebook). I do my best to get the word out. But nope. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Zero. I certainly didn’t expect either post to set the world aflame, but I would’ve thought that both of them combined might outperformed a plagiarized hack job written solely for hits by someone who doesn’t even care about the topic and is doing it only for the money.

I’ve never thought the things I write about (obscure music, how prog rock can affect my mental disorders) would garner me fame or fortune. Ever since I more or less gave up on magazine writing I knew that my predilection for prose would be a hobby at most. But, y’know, it’d be nice to be a niche interest to more than a handful of people sometimes.

Do I have a point in writing this? I don’t know. Probably not. I’m not begging for attention, I’m really not. I’m just trying to figure out why more people who share my interests don’t seek out original content anymore.

To the few dedicated readers I have out there, thanks. I’ll probably write about Silverchair sometime next month. Because someone has to give forgotten grunge bands the retrospective they certainly don’t deserve, and it might as well be me.

20 Responses to Bemusings (Bemoanings) Of A Failed Writer

  • Brian says:

    Well, I like your writing and check in once a week. I liked the YMO walk-through and I would like you to finish the Madonna list 🙂 So keep it up and have a beautiful day.

  • Noah Scalin says:

    Just letting you know I still read and enjoy your blog and I completely understand and can commiserate with your experience. In the end it’s gotta be about doing what you love and knowing that even if it touches just one person it makes a difference, right?

  • Tim says:

    Hey James, sad but true, people reading zombie stories will be zombies itself over time. So f… it and leave them alone, while you are writing for people, really reading and think over your articles. Altough not every topic is my cup of tea, I appreaciate your “hobby work”!

  • Archaeogeek says:

    There will always be a place for decent writing- not everyone wants or cares about re-hashed buzzfeed bullshit. I love reading both your blogs- and they’ve led me to some great artists/bands that I would never have found out about. Like that crazy Japanese detective series soundtrack- I actually went to discogs and bought a copy based on your article. So please keep it up, we do appreciate you!

  • Brian K. says:

    I don’t think it’s a matter of people not wanting original content; it’s more a matter of having difficulty finding it because of how search engines work these days. I get very frustrated when I’m looking for information about a movie or album and all I get for the first few pages of results are links to stores or sites run by the huge conglomerates. It’s gotten to the point where, if I get lucky and find a great site, I make a point to see if they have a section of links to other sites. That seems to be the best way to find original content by passionate people. It’s sad that it is what is required these days. Click-bait is a disease.

  • Drain says:

    I agree with Noah said. It’s kinda like what happened to μ’s at the beginning of Love Live! (if one has seen that series) where they only performed for 3 people instead of a full auditorium despite hyping it up with passing out flyers and pasting posters to walls. In the end, they decided to perform for those 3 people because they came to see a show. I feel it’s the same with you, you write because you like it and you wanna share your interests and views with others yet you feel disheartened because well your original content gets less clicks than a zombie hack job. But you shouldn’t despair because after time people will eventually tired of those zombie hack jobs and eventually look somewhere else for what they’re looking for in a neverending repeating cycle while people like you (you know, people who take time and care in their craft) will slowly amass a group of loyal readers who will stick with you for a long time (that’s what I think at least).

    Hell, look at me… I’ve been following your stuff since like December ’06 when I found Lost Turntable because you posted a Cyndi Lauper single and I’ve been hanging around for like the past 8 years or so. I may not write a comment on everything you write, but you can be sure that I do read them all. So don’t worry about the kid who regurgitated a multiple VW pieces into a Frankenstein’s Monster story; you’re doing just fine collecting loyal readers and followers like myself while he’ll have to constantly try to figure out how outdo his previous piece in terms of hits and eventually fail when his clickers find somewhere else to go.

  • Anja K. says:

    I think Brian K. above is on to something big. Search engines are definitely and obviously paid to promote certain paid/advertising type links, at the expense of others, like original content blogs like this. So that doesn’t help anyone who is looking for original content as opposed to paid links. I have lost patience and stopped searching for something after wading through 6 pages of “search results” that are nothing more than paid ads.

    And if you’ll forgive me for being really, really negative for a moment, the average human being is… well, average. And pretty much a fool. This average fool isn’t much of a reader in general, which is why book sales are declining and literacy rates aren’t exactly stellar; hence the rise of the easily skimmed and scanned click-bait “listicle.” I learned a long time ago that most people have no interest in anything that is outside of their tiny bubble of daily life. The average fool doesn’t think like people like you (or I daresay people like me, and the others who read your blogs) – by which I mean, we are actively interested in learning about new things, or things we aren’t overly familiar with, and we are happy to do research and find out more info on our own. For example, I had heard of Ryuichi Sakamoto and vaguely of YMO before I started reading your blogs, but after reading what you wrote, I did a bit of research of my own and found out even more info. I was thrilled to hear some of their music (thanks to you) and learn more info/hear more. But all evidence from observing people in the world around me tells me that my behavior is not the norm. I bet you $10 (or 100 yen) I could ask 25 random friends, acquaintances, and coworkers and none of them would have heard of Sakamoto-san or YMO, and few would care enough to ask for more info. I’m widely known as someone who “listens to weird music” because I stray from the US Top 40 and listen to music from other eras and other countries, etc. And you know what mostly happens when other people overhear this “weird music?” I get mocked at best, or asked to turn it off at worst. Do you really want these fools blithely clicking here?

    So to be more positive, I for one am glad that those of us who are not content with being average fools have great internet places to go and learn about new things (or things that are new to us) like your blogs. I know it’s frustrating as a writer, but you are appreciated, and by a quality audience. So please take pride in being a place that above-average people can come to for high quality writing and that it’s appreciated by people who are truly able to appreciate it and the work that you put into it. 🙂

  • Dan the Man says:

    Proud to be a longtime reader. Each post on both sites is a treat I look forward to. I’m kinda also thinking that student of yours was talking shit. Either lying or gaming it somehow.

  • DJBenW says:

    I find your writing fascinating. Certainly not every article is something I’m compelled to read, but I do because you do it so well. Keep up the good work. And I await your thoughts on Silverchair with bated breath!

  • winston says:

    What you describe can be found in many areas of life. In media, some people make millions with minimal effort on Youtube while others, who put great effort into their videos and have lots of potential are never rewarded.
    Mainstream auditions suck. Sex, violence and cheap thrills is what the average consumer is looking for. You can try competing in that market with well-endowed corporate content providers or keep doing your own thing regardless of reward and appreciation. Try looking at it from a buddhist angle, fame and fortune are transient and eventually meaningless. The select bunch of people reading your blogs however, have a deeper connection to you that will transcend your life.

  • kniterangr says:

    I have been a fan of your sites for years as well and I tell people to go check them out. I do not write on the web much (only my second post to your blogs) but I do read you content and appreciate the work you put into it.

  • Anon says:

    That’s the karmic price you pay for being a dick to Doug TenNapel.

  • Grebo Guru says:

    There’s an awesome little sandwich place near where I live. They seem to be a little family run joint, and always serve a fantastic fresh lunch for a reasonable price anytime I find myself inclined to stop in.
    McDonalds is down the block from them, and apparently that place has served billions and billions.
    Fuck McDonalds.

  • Matyi says:

    I like your blog. Keep up the good work, even though its only for the few of us.
    Thank You James.

  • acidted says:

    what Matyi said

  • Bunny says:

    Ah, dude! I just wrote you a really long reply and then brushed my hand against my Apple Mouse and the page flipped back and I lost everything. I HATE IT WHEN THAT HAPPENS!!!

    The gist of it was… you seem like a solid fellow and I, for one, am glad you do what you do. But you must only do it as long as it is fee-fi-fo-FUN FOR YOU! If it feels like work, then it is work. And if it’s work, then you should be getting paid.

    I am lucky enough to be a professional writer – in a fairly anonymous position / profession – and, most of the time, the only feedback I get is criticism in the shape of rejections and requests for rewrites and edits (sometimes making things better… sometimes not so much). And when something is finally accepted, I get paid. That’s the reward at the end – not creative satisfaction or fulfillment or a warm glow. (Some jobs are better than others, obviously. I’m just saying I don’t have the freedom to write about whatever I feel like.)

    I’ve been doing it a long time and there were times when I had no paid work and got into debt. Even now I don’t know what I’m doing more than about three months ahead and I don’t get holiday pay or sick pay. (I know, wah-wah-boo! But I’m just saying – it’s not necessarily supersunnyfuntimes all the time!) I also work from home and sometimes go nuts through lack of social interaction. I eat out A LOT.

    You are an interesting and interesting person with a lot of energy and drive and insight into things and knowledge about things. Which is ace! You are an ace person. I hope you keep writing – but, more than anything, I hope you are happy!

  • Bunny says:

    I meant “You are an INTERESTED and interesting person”.

    Some Writer I turned out to be…

  • You consistently produce professional level material – and I would guess your audience “engagement” level is off the charts high. So you have that going for you… 😉 There are ways to $$$ that – YouTube, podcasts, sponsorships, etc. – that, unfortunately for a single person “shop” like yourself (and one working in a, uh, “grey area” of intellectual property law) requires a HELL of a lot more work than the effort needed to generate the content…

    This is the conundrum of the digital age.

    Keep up the great work – and know that it IS appreciated, not just now, but for a long time in to the future, as you build out a wonderful music guide – not traditionally, as in a book, but very much of our age – let’s call it linearly, with an asymmetric chronological release…

    All I can do is add my voice to the chorus of appreciation – or, actually, wait, there is one other thing… Where’s that PayPal button again? 😉


  • A V says:

    I just found about this site, although i’ve been frequenting the lost turntable every now and then. Keep doing this thing that you do. I’ve been listening to Madonna remixes from youtube for the last two hours and i should be sleeping but I CAN’T. These things are important to people like me for some reason. You’ve successfully captivated my attention, and you’re doing it in a fun, interesting way.

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