Twelve years ago today I published my first post here at Down the Road!
This didn’t start as a photography blog, but it’s surely become one. More accurately, it’s a personal blog that’s mostly about my film-photography hobby, flavored with some of my other arcane interests: old roads, old buildings, and old cars.
I’ve been pleased with how popular my blog has become. Over the last four years, it’s averaged about a quarter million visits a year.
However, in recent years other film-photography blogs have started, grown — and surpassed mine in popularity and notoriety. I admit to feeling envy.
I would love for this blog to become extremely popular, for me to become a well-known figure in the film-photography community, and for my work to generate a healthy side income. I admire EMULSIVE, Casual Photophile, 35mmc, and Kosmo Foto and their founders for accomplishing some or all of these things.
Not only do I envy their success, but I worry that the evolving online world is rendering my blog, and blogs in general, slowly obsolete. I feel uncertain, discontent on this twelfth blogiversary. Yet I persist, as creating this blog, both words and pictures, is a great joy.
Getting lots of pageviews
Casual Photophile founder James Tocchio admitted in his year-in-review post on Patreon that his blog got 2 million views last year. Wow! In 12 years my blog has cleared just 1.5 million views.
Casual Photophile has earned its pageviews through a combination of hard work, good luck, and deliberately and relentlessly targeting an audience.
Targeting an audience involves deciding exactly who you are writing for and publishing articles that appeal to them. If I were to do that here, I would figure out what gear the broad film-photography audience is interested in, buy it, try it, and write about it. I’d work hard to report film and camera news in realtime, to be a trusted source of valuable information.
That doesn’t sound too bad until you realize that all blogs that do that wind up writing about Leica other luxury gear, because that’s where the money is. Unfortunately, high-end gear doesn’t light my fire. I don’t care to ever own any. I’d rather shoot an old box or an obscure rangefinder. I don’t want to give that up in the name of growing my audience.
Frankly, I’m not willing to give up writing about all of the things that interest me. I want to just be fully myself here, in all my quirky glory. But this eclectic mix of topics fragments the audience. If you come here for film-camera reviews, for example, you probably don’t enjoy my histories of old highway alignments. On any random day, a new visitor to this blog will struggle to know exactly what it is about.
Generating side income
But to get two million visits a year! I fantasize that would make me happier. I’m not sure it’s true, but it’s a nice fantasy. That many visits would dramatically increase advertising income, though. Octuple it, probably.
I can afford the costs associated with the blog and with my photography. But deep down, I feel like what I do has value in the world. If I can find ways of capitalizing on that value, I want to do it. Ways that are reasonably simple for me, and minimally annoying for you, anyway.
It’s why you see ads at the end of every post. They generated $299.25 for me last year. That pays for my jimgrey.net domain, Flickr Pro, and the WordPress.com Premium package each year with a little left over, which paid for some film and processing. It’d be very nice to find ways to cover all of my film and processing so this hobby supports itself.
I’ve considered soliciting patronage through Patreon. But to do Patreon well is a lot of work that would reduce the time I can spend creating this blog. Besides, I don’t want it to feel like I’m constantly rattling my donation cup at you. I think it grates pretty quickly.
I’ve considered shifting off WordPress.com to self-hosted WordPress so I can use more lucrative advertising networks. But that would be a big project, and then I’d have to do my own site maintenance. It’s so nice to just trust the fine people at WordPress.com to keep this thing running well.
I have other fundraising ideas. I’ve published two books of my photographs, in part to put my work into your hands and in part to help fund my photography. The books didn’t sell well, though, I think in part because they cost too much. I need to figure out how to publish at lower cost. I’m also considering learning basic camera repair so I can keep reviewing gear here, but sell the cameras I won’t keep at modest profits. I’ve had good luck selling cameras through my blog.
Hobby vs. business
Some of the best-known film-photography blogs (and their associated businesses) are making a run at being at least a side hustle and maybe even a primary means of supporting their founders. You can see it in how hard they work to promote themselves on social media, create communities around their brands, and/or create a product or service and have a storefront.
I don’t want this to be a full-time job. I have a fulfilling career and don’t want to step away from it. But if I did want it, I’d have to lean a lot harder into promoting my blog.
I like making photographs and writing far more than I like promotion.
I feel like my father. When he was about my age he had been building and selling bespoke wood furniture on the side for several years. The extra money was nice but not life changing. He loved building his skill and knowledge in joinery, and enjoyed the respect and admiration he gathered from the wealthy people who could afford his furniture.
Demand increased enough that he quit his job to do it full time. But he didn’t realize how much promotion and sales he’d have to do to grow his business enough to pay the bills. He just wanted to build furniture and hoped word of mouth would carry him. It didn’t. After a few frighteningly lean years he went back to a regular job.
I feel a pull, similar to what my dad must have, to lean harder into this and make it into something bigger. But I’m just like my dad: far more interested in making the thing than selling it. My promotional efforts have been thin at best.
I expect there are no easy ways to promote this blog that will generate big results. Selling anything is real work. However, I am willing to put a little extra effort into it. I’m not sure everyone who would enjoy this blog is reading it, and I’d like to find more interested souls. I’ve spoken with other photo bloggers who have found some promotional success and am trying what they suggest.
Beyond that, I commit to keeping this blog a hobby, to enjoying the process of making it, and enjoying the response I get from you.
The changing online media landscape
Because we’re in the post-blog era, however, it’s a lot of work to build a blog audience, no matter how intentional you are about it. If you’re looking to reach a big audience and don’t already have a blog that reaches one, I advise you write for an existing popular blog, or start a podcast or a vlog.
Fortunately, I got into blogging while it was still young and readers like you found me. It’s a darned good thing: I am a writer and a photographer. I want to do these things. Blogging is the medium that best supports what I do.
But I’m watching carefully for signs that this blog’s day in the sun is passing, and that blogs in general are dying. If readership were to slow to a trickle, much of the joy would be gone and I’d stop doing it.
I worry a little that I’m like the radio actor who couldn’t or wouldn’t shift to television, and found himself irrelevant in a new age. If I want to retain an audience for my work, I must remain open to trying new ways of reaching it.
I could probably do a podcast. I’ve considered starting one, of interviews with other film photographers. Guests could join me on Skype and I could just record our conversation. I was a radio disk jockey in my 20s; I’m sure it would take me no time to be comfortable behind a mic again.
But video? That’s work. When I worked in radio I could control the entire station by myself through my four-hour airshift. Meanwhile, the TV station down the street needed a crew of 10 to put on a thirty-minute newscast. The effort multiplies similarly from podcasting to vlogging. It scares me off.
Fortunately, this blog is still in its salad days, and I can publish it in the time I have available. Therefore I continue to make photographs, write stories, and share them here. It remains a rich reward that you like what I do enough to keep coming back. Thank you! Every time I post, I hope to see your name among the comments.