Essay, Photography

Few people make real money following their passions, and you probably won’t be one of them

(Originally published 7/26/2016) I’ve been asked a few times if I’ve ever thought about making photography my living.

A portrait of the artist
Nikon D3200, 35mm f/1.8G AF-S DX Nikkor, 2016. Margaret Grey photo.

It sure sounds wonderful to spend my days driving old roads or looking at historic architecture, making photographs as I go — and getting paid for it!

The other question I get asked, a lot, is whether I’ve ever thought about making writing my living.

And my answer is not only yes, but I’ve done it. For many years early in my career, I traded my written words for my supper. There I learned a crucial truth:

The kind of work you do for yourself is very different from the kind of work that pays.

I hadn’t dreamed of being a writer when I landed my first writing job. I wanted to be a software developer. But the country was in a recession then and jobs were scarce. I was willing to do any job I could get in the software field. I wound up writing manuals, and it turned out that I really enjoyed the work. I did it for more than a decade. I even contributed to a few published books on popular software products. It’s a rush to see your name on a book’s spine!

In that field I met a lot of talented people who had dreamed of being writers. They came with degrees in English and poetry and journalism, and extensive portfolios filled with great work. Yet they wound up writing and editing books about software — not remotely their dream. For the kinds of writing they wanted to do, the supply of talent far outstripped demand. And then they found that the software industry paid well. Few of them loved the work, but they were grateful to be writing something, anything for good pay.

It’s much the same in photography. Many of us who shoot probably dream of creating great art and making a living through sales, or maybe patronage if that’s even a thing anymore. But most working photographers shoot things like weddings or consumer products. My first wife is a talented photographer, but when I met her she made her living in the United States Air Force shooting portraits of officers seeking promotions.

Photographers can find this kind of work rewarding, just as I truly enjoyed writing software instructions. But who dreams as children of being technical writers or wedding photographers? We back into these jobs because they leverage our skills and pay our bills.

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Nikon F3, 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor, Foma Fomapan 200, 2016

Those jobs pay because they create clear value. This blog creates value, too — you wouldn’t keep coming back if you didn’t find my words and images to be valuable in some way. But the amount of value that captures your attention is much lower than the amount of value that opens your wallet.

If I were to charge even a nominal fee to read my posts and see my photographs, most, if not all, of you would quit visiting. What I do here isn’t that kind of valuable. Even the big players struggle to make online content pay.

There was a golden time when personal blogging could be lucrative: approximately 2004. Several talented early bloggers found large followings and made good money with online ads.

But in about 2011 online ad revenue dropped off a cliff. The bloggers that didn’t have to find day jobs again created other revenue sources: writing sponsored posts (where the blogger writes an ad and tries to make it sound like it’s about them or their interests), creating product lines, and offering services such as personal coaching and workshops in an area of skill or expertise they have.

These are great, legitimate ways to make money. But notice how these things aren’t personal blogging. They’re not the passion that made the blogger start blogging.

If your passion is something like managing hedge funds or starting tech companies, and there are really people with passions like that, well heck yes those passions can pay, and handsomely. But for most of us, we just want to make something that represents us or showcases our talents, and put it out into the world and hope people come to see.

Is that you? That’s me. And so I persist. I’m very happy that my work creates enough value to keep capturing your attention. I’ve dabbled in ways to generate a little passive income and hope to pay this blog’s costs and maybe some of my photography. But I have no delusions that this will ever let me quit my day job. The same almost certainly goes for you.

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Personal, Photography

The well is never truly dry

This isn’t a post about being a Christian, but I’m going to start with a story related to my Christian faith. Bear with me, it sets up my point.

Early after I started following Jesus a preacher talked to me about prayer, which is a foundation of the relationship we Christians build with Christ. He said, “People come to me all the time and say, ‘I’ve been praying, but I’ve lost the feeling. I feel like I’m just going through the motions. What do I do?’ I tell them to just keep on praying. If you keep praying, sooner or later you’ll find that connection with God again.”

It’s been good advice. But the underlying principle has also been good advice in my two main hobbies, writing and photography.

Sometimes the words don’t flow easily. Sometimes I just don’t feel like making photographs. The best thing to do at those times is, paradoxically, to write or to make photographs.

Doing these things primes the well’s pump. The well of creativity is never truly dry. When you keep trying, the good words and photographs eventually come back.

As you know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, my family is living through some difficult challenges. I haven’t usually felt like writing or making photographs.

Allied Appliances
From the last time I shot my Nikomat FTn. 50/2 Nikkor H-C on Arista Premium 400.

But I’ve been making myself do it. I just finished a roll in my Nikomat FTn and I have film in my Olympus XA now. I have pushed myself through a few photo walks of my usual subjects, things and places easily reached. I feel sure that there will be no portfolio-worthy shots on those rolls, one of Kodak Portra 400 and one of Ilford FP4 Plus. What matters is that I’m shooting.

And I’ve been making myself write. That’s where the recent post about my grandmother (read it here) came from. It was hard to write, not because of any emotional impact of the content, but because I strain to find the words.

Have you ever been “in the zone” with anything you do? Where you act with easy fluidity? Where good results materialize easily from your efforts?

I know that if I keep at it, soon enough I’ll be in the zone again.

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Blogosphere

A blog update and a question for you

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This blog’s author at his desk, replying to your comments. Damion Grey photo.

Today, a rare update on some things going on with this blog.

Changes to tags

I’ve reworked this blog’s tag scheme and I think you’ll find it to be useful. Tags are a way of categorizing posts, and they appear on every post. They’re under the title on the right, below the date and my name. This post has two tags: blogging and writing. Click either tag to see everything I’ve ever written about that topic. (The categories that appear above each post title work the same way.)

That has always existed. What used to also exist was a bunch of related tags I created to help searches find my posts. But I see no evidence after more than a decade of doing it that it worked in any significant way. So I’ve deleted all of those tags — about a thousand in all.

I am also adding tags for common topics and tags for cameras and films I use a lot. That way, when you’re on a post where I shot Kodak Tri-X film, clicking the Tri-X tag will show you everything else I’ve shared from that film. I’ll complete this in my idle time over the next several months. But one tag is fully in: the one for my delightful Pentax ME camera. Try it: click here to go to that tag.

I’m behind

I have just two posts in the queue right now. I normally have two or three weeks’ worth written and ready to go. I feel behind.

I just haven’t had as much time lately for the blog. And the considerable stress I’ve been under has left me with little to say. Fortunately, I know some techniques for priming the pump, if you will, when the well runs dry. I hope I can make enough time to use those techniques soon.

The question for you

Being behind makes me ask you something I’ve been wondering about: do I post too often? Do you find it too hard to keep up?

I’ve kept up this six-posts-a-week schedule since late 2014, and it correlates exactly with a giant jump in readership that has grown slowly but steadily since. That enabled me to make a little money off advertising, enough to pay for this site and for some of my film and processing costs. And I love the process of making the photographs and writing the words that I share here. All of this has been wonderful for me.

I’m thinking about the experience I have reading other blogs. When I’m very busy I skim and skip posts in my feed reader — especially from blogs that post frequently.

Yet I never skip or skim some blogs, even if I have to bookmark a post to read much later. One characteristic most of them share: they post only when they have something really good to say. Their posts feel like morsels to savor.

I want to publish a blog that you savor. I know that, given this blog’s eclectic nature, you don’t connect with every topic. But I try hard to make every post be interesting in some way so you don’t skim or skip them.

Please share your thoughts in the comments. No need to couch your thoughts; just tell me straight. I’ll weigh everything you say as I consider this blog’s ongoing posting schedule. I plan to find that right balance that keeps readership growing, fits the reduced time I can give to blogging right now, and consistently delivers photos and stories that you find to be interesting.

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Photography

More lessons learned in self-publishing

My book, Exceptional Ordinary, has been on sale for a couple months now. And it’s just not selling.

BookPromoI’ve managed to sell nine paper copies and two PDFs. Which isn’t bad, considering that I’ve barely marketed the book.

I’ve pitched it here four or five times. I mentioned it a couple times on Twitter. I shared images from it, plus a link to buy it, on Instagram a handful of times.

That was my entire marketing push. Holy wow, does this stuff ever take time. And that’s the lesson learned: marketing takes creativity, effort, and persistence.

It probably also hurts that I chose such a niche topic with no obvious market beyond people who already know and like my work, and perhaps other film photographers and Pentaxians.

It certainly also hurt that I gave away the PDF for two days after announcing the book. But I knew that would hurt. About 50 of you took me up on it. And I figured this book wouldn’t sell well as a result of it.

It doesn’t matter to me. I actually achieved my goals with this book: to experience the self-publishing process. Win!

I have ideas for a future books. I’d like to re-survey the Michigan Road in 2018, which will be ten years after I did it last time, and publish a book of interesting photos from the tour. The market there is people interested in Indiana history, and people who live or have lived on or near the road. I’d also like to do a book about the many farms that lie inside the city of Indianapolis. It’s surprising to many just how many farms have an Indianapolis address! That market could include people who live in Indiana, and people who have an affinity to farms, and people who enjoy landscape photography. And maybe there’s a book in photographs of the repurposed stores of the defunct Roselyn Bakeries of Indianapolis. Their buildings and signs were distinctive; the dozens of them that remain are easy to recognize. Some of them went on to good, noble uses; others not so much. It’s a study in urban architectural reuse, and people interested in that might buy such a book.

So my refinement for my next book is to have an addressable market in mind, and a plan for addressing it, before I publish.

Thanks to on-demand printing, it’s never too late to buy my book. It’s reasonably priced at $15.99 for the paper copy or $8.49 for the PDF. I’d love for you to hold a copy of my work in your hands. You can do that by clicking the cover below.

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Ten Years of Down the Road

What’s the point of blogging if nobody reads what you write?

This blog had the best February in its history. Readership is usually down in February, but not this year!

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But so what? Who cares?

Some bloggers say that it’s folly to follow your stats, that it just creates a better-faster-more mentality around your blog — everything you do has to gain lots of views or it’s not worth it.

I’m not so sure. What is the point of writing and clicking Publish for your words to go into the infinite bit bucket, never to be read?

If you don’t care about being read, you don’t need a blogging platform, you need a journal. If you’re putting it out there, some part of you wants someone else to see it. Your stats show you that your work is being viewed.

And so: why not write to be read? Draw readers in with strong titles and sparkling opening paragraphs, as I described in this post? Write with good flow to keep readers engaged?

When this blog was young I wrote several stories from my life, stories that I still love. I used to think it was because I had few, if any, regular readers when I first published them that they got so few views. So when this blog had caught on (to the extent it’s done that) I reran them all, hoping they’d get more attention. They didn’t, not to the extent of my normal posts, anyway. I’m thinking about Restored in Bridgeton, and A Place to Start, and Re-Integrating Joy. And Holding Up My Hand. Especially that one. Please go read it.

While I could edit a few of them to make them stronger, I think they all still stand pretty well on their own. Yet every last one of them ignores my tips for drawing readers in.

Especially Holding Up My Hand. That one could be in a magazine about the Christian faith, I think. It might be well read there, well liked. A faith magazine brings an audience primed and ready to read stories like that. But even then, it wouldn’t just present it as I did. It would almost certainly at least subtitle the story: “How a young boy’s first walk to school with his mother became a metaphor for his faith journey.” There. Now you know what it is about and why you should read it.

My blog has become more about photography since those early days. I’m more likely to write a camera review or a how-to post now. But I still like to tell stories from my life. Once in a while, I might write one like those I mentioned above, ones where you have to just take it on faith that it’s going to be good. I hope I’ve built up enough goodwill with you that you’ll read it anyway.

But I’ve also rewritten a couple stories with titles that tell you better what you’re going to get, and with opening paragraphs that draw you in better. And they have done well. I’m thinking of A Good Icing, which I rewrote as What the Ice Storm Could Have Taught Me About Myself. The rewritten story got way more views and comments than the original, more views and comments than the time I reran the original. My retelling is a better story, and it connected with many readers.

On your blog, write what you want how you want. But my experience has been that if you want readers, you need to show them value. They have so much to read that you have to draw them in and keep them interested. Your writing must relate to them. If you ever become deeply established, or a celebrity where people would read anything you write because it’s you, then maybe you’ll be off the hook. Until then, get on with this.

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Ten Years of Down the Road

How to blog more often

As I’ve been celebrating this blog’s tenth anniversary with posts about blogging, a few of you have asked me how I blog so often.

I haven’t always published six days a week. At first I published sporadically, as little as twice a month. In 2010 I committed to three days a week. In 2014 I bumped up to six days a week.

The benefits have been clear: the more often I publish, the more pageviews I get. That’s because frequent publishing makes your blog look more serious to the search engines. And when you publish regularly and write compelling posts, your readers come to look forward to it. You gain regular readers.

But publishing frequently takes time. At present I give this blog as much as ten hours a week. I’d like to produce the same output in no more than six hours. I recently took a nonfiction writing workshop that gave me some solid techniques that should help me get there. But when I started posting six days a week, it took me far more than ten hours a week to deliver the goods. I’ve figured out how to write more in less time.

Here, then, is how I do it.

blogideas

My sticky note of ideas for this series

Write down ideas as they come. You’ll always find two or three sticky notes on my desk filled with blog post ideas. I write down potential titles, which is usually enough for me to remember what I was thinking. When I sit down to write, I have plenty of ideas ready to go.

Brainstorm ideas. Sometimes I make time to imagine a series of posts I might like to write and just think up (and write down) titles.

Set aside specific regular times to write. I write 30 minutes to an hour (almost) every morning over breakfast. I also set aside at least a couple hours on Saturday morning. Writing regularly is important because it helps keep your pump primed. The more you write, the more you have to say. Make a regular writing schedule that you can stick with.

Freewrite in 15-30 minute time boxes. I’ve only recently started practicing this technique, and it is allowing me to write more posts in less time. I’ve always edited as I go, which slows me down, gets me stuck in the word-choice weeds, and blocks the free flow of thinking about my topic. Perfectionism kills creativity and can lead to writer’s block. I start by writing down my high-level ideas about what I want to say, and then I write about each idea without judging the words I type. I allow myself to move sentences, paragraphs, and sections around for better logical flow, but I do not let myself change or rearrange words. If I’m struggling to write, I make myself keep going for 15 minutes and then stop. If I’m able to freewrite easily, I’ll use all 30 minutes. I generally stop at 30, but if I still have time and I know a whole bunch of things I still want to say, I’ll write until either those words or my time are exhausted.

Let unfinished posts stay unfinished until the next time you write. An unfinished post will frequently keep percolating in the back of your mind until you come back to it. I’m astonished by how often I return to an unfinished post I had been struggling to write to find that I now have plenty of good things to say.

When the words come to you, make time to write them down. Sometimes post ideas and the words that go with them just come to me in a flood. I make every effort to set aside a block of time as soon as I can to write them. I love it when this happens, and when it does I can suddenly find myself with a month of posts queued up.

When the well is dry, choose a photograph you took and like and write a paragraph about it. Sometimes you just can’t think of anything to write about. Write about a photograph to prime your pump. If you’re not a photographer, write about a song or a book or a favorite possession. Tell something about it, or what was happening in your life when you photographed it/first heard it/first read it/first got it, or how it makes you feel now. It hardly matters what you write, just write it and publish it.

Edit separately, lightly. After you’ve written a post, set it aside for a while. I often use a future 15-30 minute time box for editing. And I generally edit lightly. This is a blog, not high literature. But my freewriting lets my personality shine through and I hate to edit that away. I start by making sure I like the way the post is organized; if I don’t, I move things around until I’m happy. Then I tweak the words, sentences, and paragraphs to make them flow better.

This is what works for me. Take what works for you from this and leave the rest. But if you try any of this and it works for you, I’d love it if you’d come back to this post and say so in the comments!

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