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By Sara Goldstein
In 2005, I had a well-paid and interesting consulting job. And then, abruptly, I didn't. (I have a chronic medical condition; it flared up badly; and since I wasn't well enough to turn up to work for months, bye-bye job.)
I'm not someone who can do nothing, so by the start of 2006 I'd read a stack of books, spent hours on the phone with all my friends, de-cluttered my messy study, and ignored the language tapes I always say I'll use to learn French next time I'm stuck in bed sick. I needed something else to do, and that's where blogging came in.
I'd been reading some great blogs and had harbored secret fantasies of writing one of my own for a while. I decided I'd blog about something fun because I didn't think the world needed yet another tech consultant's blog; there were plenty already.
So, I wrote about saving money -- a topic especially important when you're on extended sick leave and don't have the income you're used to. I didn't need to think up a pithy name for it; I'd been nicknamed "The Bargain Queen" by many different people over the years, so I stuck with that.
I posted tips for saving money on everything from pants to plants; recipes to returning things to stores. I grew up dirt poor, but in my teens I was the token scholarship kid at the most expensive all-girls school in my state, so I've found a lot of cheap ways to indulge champagne tastes.
At the start I was happy just to write and write, and really didn't care whether anyone read it. Apart from adding the URL when I left comments on the same sites I already visited, I did zero to promote it. But still, the first time I checked (about three weeks after I began), I had a hundred regular readers already.
Back then I thought it was amazing to have a whole 100 people reading my writing, and was encouraged enough to keep blogging. In the next few months, it built up to a readership of thousands, and I still didn't know how to promote a blog post.
I'd been lucky to start my blog at just the right time, when there were lots of people who'd discovered blogs and were looking for good ones to read, but not yet any major corporate efforts with huge funding out there waiting for them, so it was an easier time to build up a readership. I was happy to write about whatever I felt like each day, respond to readers' comments, and periodically check my stats.
But then, the media started calling.
OK, they actually emailed -- I wasn't exactly listing a telephone number for press enquiries on my blog back then. I refused the first two interview requests because they were for huge media outlets, and I was terrified of humiliating myself in front of every newspaper reader in my country. But I got over my publicity-shyness enough to get some media training from a friend, and soon did interviews with smaller, friendlier media outlets, like my area's tiny local newspaper.
That immediately led to a national magazine story, which in turn got me on national TV. Almost overnight, I was one of those "blog stars" -- and since it was 2006, that was still a new and distinctive thing to be.
Some people are made for the spotlight, and would handle something like that well. I'm not, and I didn't. A three-minute TV current affairs story takes a whole day to film, plus prep time beforehand, so I'd lose a couple of days' writing for each one. The interview for a short magazine story takes well over an hour, but it would be scheduled in advance so I'd spend a lot of time trying to guess what they might ask me, and coming up with witty-sounding answers. Ten minutes live on radio is preceded by at least an hour talking to their producer about possible interview topics.
And when you're the current "hot thing" in the media, all sorts of important, powerful behind-the-scenes media types want to meet you, to see if you might be the next big "personality," and whether they can profit by working with you. I took every meeting and followed up every lead, because by then, I knew I wanted my blog to be my full-time job, and that meant figuring out how to monetize it.
I jumped the shark as a blogger pretty soon afterward.
The advertisers most willing to pay for space on the site were apparel companies, so I turned it into a budget fashion blog, even though the original readers liked my "Clothes aren't everything, and personal style trumps fashion" angle. The investors wouldn't stick money in a company that relied so critically on one person (me), so I brought on other writers, some of whom were right for the site, and some really weren't.
I changed the design to make it look more like a lady blog created by a big company, and less like one individual nutty lady's writing project. I joined a major blog network and started linking to their sites a lot, even though most of them, I wouldn't have linked to before.
I had been shown a path to media megabucks, and I followed it willingly; by then, I needed the cash.
I was lucky to have fantastically loyal readers, and they hung around for quite a while. But it was fast becoming a blog about buying clothes, and the old readers were ebbing away in favor of a new crowd of shopaholics. The affiliate commissions began building up, and I could see that good money could indeed be made shilling stuff on the Internet… but my heart was never really in it.
For a thrift-store-shopping, own-produce-growing, Freecycling Zero Waste-r like me, spending my days pimping cheap shoes to people who have plenty of shoes already was grating. Another writer wrote most of the posts, and I spent my days talking to advertisers and promoting the site instead.
A few things piled on all at once: the GFC hit and the advertising money abruptly evaporated; my father died, crippling me with grief; my health flared up and I was back in bed again; plus a couple of other things besides. My now-ex-husband had been telling me daily for years that blogs would never make enough money, were a waste of time, and I should give mine up. I decided I agreed with him and pulled the plug.
I moved back to Australia from New York, and, once a great team of neurologists had figured out what had gone wrong with my health and sorted me out (thank you, public healthcare!), I spent a year taking writing and photography classes, then moved to the country.
Design projects started trickling in, and the freelance work provided much easier income than the blog ever had, so I went with it. I designed some logos, advertisements, books, web sites and things like that that I'd done before, but also took on volunteer projects, first trying to improve Freecycle, then designing a Japanese garden for a high school in rural Australia, then designing the products for an NGO in Peru to teach mothers of children with disabilities to make, to earn extra income to support their children.
I don't miss being on TV and radio, or in newspapers and magazines. I don't miss the meetings with fabulously rich media company founders who wanted to know all about me (for about five minutes). And I certainly don't miss pitching to poe-faced potential investors.
But even though the site's been down for years, I can't yet bring myself to let the domain registration lapse. I remember the comments from readers who said my money-saving tips really helped them, and the camaraderie between those of us who were blogging in Australia in those early days, and I feel a little sad.
So I slink back to one of the dark, secret parts of the Internet where I now share my work anonymously, just for the pure pleasure of writing. There's no danger of me selling out and sucking, there.