Time to give up on a noble cause?

October 24, 2010 at 4:07 PM 3 comments

Back to www.bookpod.org

In my impressionable twenties, I read a novel by Margaret Drabble called The Needle’s Eye. I do not remember the plot except for a segment in which the female protagonist donates all of her inherited wealth to an African school. By novel’s end, the school burns to the ground and the protagonist, and author too, conclude that the spirit in which the donation was made matters more than the longevity of the project.

I myself never exactly figured out what Drabble’s protagonist ought to have felt about her donation. Should she have taken pride in supporting a noble cause that ultimately failed or had she thrown good money after bad?

I ponder this bit of The Needle’s Eye in light of Bookpod, my digital interview series with book authors. Unlike the do-gooding soul in Drabble’s novel, I do not see the point of investing money and time into a noble cause that ultimately fails. Maybe I should thank my years at IBM for making me take seriously the idea of sustainability: Does your project have the legs to matter to people? If it limps along, why bother with it?

A profit of eleven bucks
I am a compulsive follower of metrics. Several times a day, I go into my Google Analytics account, as well as my web hosting service’s analytics account, to see how much traffic Bookpod and the related blog get. I study how many total and unique hits I get on each day of the week; how this week’s numbers compare to last week’s, and this month’s to last; if people came to the website through a browser search, a social collaboration site or some other referring website, and which countries send the sites traffic.

I am also able to see which episodes draw the most traffic — an important metric because I am more and more inclined to take readers’ and listeners’ tastes into account. The most popular author interview to date is Brenda Rickman Vantrease’s Freedom of Speech in Tudor England. Because most of the traffic to this episode came directly from Ms. Vantrease’s website, I reason that her many fans or fans of historical fiction in general contributed to my hits. In fact, I trace the September 22 spike in Bookpod traffic back to the episode link Ms. Vantrease added to her website.

The episode by Risa Miller called When parents go countercultural pushed some people to Amazon, where I have an associates account. Thanks to this link, I made $11 in sales.

In short, I have spent a couple thousand dollars on website design and maintenance, about the same on audio-to-paper transcriptions, and many hours reading books, preparing for interviews, traveling to author locations, editing the audio and preparing the final mp3 files. Scoring the interview and even going to great lengths to record the authors has had its satisfactions, but at the end of the day, I think to myself, “You could be doing something more valuable — more sustainable — with your time.”

Brilliant but marginal

Considering that I am not a celebrity who can promise a big, book-buying audience, I am amazed at how easy it has been to get writers to talk to me. To find Bookpod participants, I searched for their personal e-mail address on their author websites or university departments. The majority of writers I found agreed to an interview. A publicist who discovered Backlist, the pilot predecessor to Bookpod, also has been a terrific source of writers published by Viking Penguin and Algonquin. Now and then I even have received requests from writers who heard about Bookpod from friends.

I am not selling my interviewing skills short when I say that the book industry is in pretty dire straits if an unknown like me can gain access to some of this country’s best writers. If this were the 1960s, I doubt I would have gotten near Andre Schwarz-Bart, Mary McCarthy, Saul Bellow, William Styron and John Updike — and certainly not J.D. Salinger. These writers were celebrities in their day and literate people knew who they were. Mention a Philip Gourevitch or a Doris Betts or even a Nobel Prize-worthy writer like T. Coraghessan Boyle to a typical college graduate today, even to somebody with a graduate degree, and you will be met with a blank stare. A lot of great writers were accessible to me simply because they are becoming more and more irrelevant in our culture.

Malicious tracking

Perhaps the biggest problem in publishing Bookpod is the ubiquity of tracking software. Admittedly, some of those trackers are helpful. Googlebot.com, for example, collects documents from the web to build a searchable index for the Google search engine. Crawl.yahoo.net does the same for the Yahoo search engine. But what can I make of hits coming form americantowns dot trulila dot com or kmutnbitclub dot com? And of what good use is a hit from Germany’s saugnapf dot piracy-insi dot de, or Russia’s spider34 dot yandex dot ru? (Note that I spell out the web address because I don’t actually want you to visit these sites, at least not from Bookpod!) And what do you think about the activity of a Chinese Baidu crawl? Are hits coming from people like Liu Xiaobo, from pirates or malware?

And while we’re on the subject of global traffic, what do stray hits from Iran, Kuwait, Slovenia, Kuwait and Malaysia mean? At first I thought some book-loving individual in a far-flung, oppressed country was seeking out Western ideas and finding them amply in Bookpod. If that were the case, why weren’t those individuals sharing Bookpod links with their like-minded friends? I have come to suspect that these hits from from the Middle East and Asia come from bad bots, that is, spamming machines.

Even my blog, which WordPress has been good about protecting, has started to spew spam. I mean, really. What’s the point of loanfinances dot info paying me a visit? And what could possibly account for the weird spike in traffic from a post I wrote in May called Lost in Manhattan again? I bet the traffic is coming from an incidental link to Best Parking, a website that tells you where to find parking garages in NYC — and that doesn’t actually have a whole lot to do with the matters that occupy my mind.

And for this I have given up going to the theater, movies, hiking and biking upstate, hanging out with friends and reading books by dead people whom I cannot interview — not to mention looking for more paid work?

The fact is that we are not living in the time of Austen or Dickens or even Faulkner when people loved books. Dear readers, it’s time to face reality. The dog barked and the caravan moved on.

For fun: Awesomely bad spam

Back to www.bookpod.org

The Bookpod audio podcast ended on December 13, 2010.


Entry filed under: Bookpod, Corporate communications, Internet. Tags: , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Sara Bennett  |  October 25, 2010 at 4:33 PM

    I don’t know this expression, “The dog barked and the caravan moved on!” So I’m not sure whether you’re calling it quits. I hope not.

  • 2. UrbanRenaissance  |  October 26, 2010 at 12:32 PM

    I know all about ventures that never take off the ground. But don’t be discouraged, and don’t feel that your time has been spent in vain.

    It was, to begin with, as you know, an unsure thing. I don’t really understand the business model of most websites, and I can’t figure out why some succeed and some don’t. How could you?

    When I was in college, I spent much time editing a small newspaper. I gave up sleep; I gave up the opportunity to work more hours at my part-time job; I gave up my social life. Ultimately, the newspaper failed. And yes, I felt bitter.

    But the time wasn’t wasted. I honed my writing skills, something that has always stood me in good stead. I learned how to interview people, and that skill has been one of the most useful skills for my career: good knowledge engineering rests on a foundation of thorough interviews.

    And the issues of the newspaper were read by people on campus, and somehow, someway, they affected people’s consciousness. What more can any author ask than that?

    You’ve created a wonderful collection of informative interviews and poignant and entertaining blog posts. And unlike the issues of my newspaper, which disappeared, except for a few tattered copies moldering in my closet, your posts can remain on the web forever.

    You’ve done good things, even if this hasn’t worked financially. Rejoice in that.

    • 3. Bookpod  |  October 26, 2010 at 1:42 PM

      Hi Urban Renaissance,
      It’s said that a sign of intelligence is knowing when to stop doing something that holds you back intellectually or emotionally.

      Bookpod was a worthwhile project for 2010, and, as you suggest, I learned a lot about the Web that I couldn’t have known without having created this website.

      But given my small audience, I would be running in place if I persisted in publishing the audio interviews and blog.

      I don’t consciously feel bitter about having put so much effort into Bookpod. On to the next labor of love!


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