Category Archives: Business of Writing

Six Places to Find Free Images for your Blog


Images make your blog more interesting and inviting to readers.  They give your content management system (CMS) something to display as a thumbnail in the “related posts” and similar widgets.  They can even get you more hits if users are searching images on Google and decide to click through to your page.  If you’re like me, though, you don’t usually have the time or the budget to take your own pictures.  What’s the best way to find high quality images to use on your blog?

First, lets talk about what you shouldn’t do.  You should never just download an image off someone’s website and use it, unless you know the license terms.  The same goes for scanning anything out of a book or magazine.  Despite the currently prevailing “wild west” mentality in the blogosphere, it is illegal to use images unless you have a license.  Besides the fact that we all want to be good citizens, someone who catches you using their copyrighted media without permission can usually, depending on the country where your host is based, get your website shut down for a few weeks while your lawyers sort things out.  It’s rare for this to actually happen, but rare is not the same thing as never.  Personally, I try to stick to public domain and CC licensed images.  When I have to use a copyrighted image–usually because I am blogging about a television show–I write a justification of why my usage falls under “fair use” and put it in the alt text of the image.  Better safe than sorry.

Luckily in the past few years a number of excellent sources have emerged for high quality, free images with known licenses.  The six on this list are some of my personal favorites.

1)  Wikimedia Commons – Usually the first place I try. This site not only contains all the images used in Wikipedia, but they keep uploading other public domain image collections as they become available.  Every image in their database has a page which gives you the license type and other meta-information and has links to download the image in various sizes.  The only drawback I’ve found is that sometimes when I find a really good picture for a topic, it turns out that Wikipedia has already used it, which makes me look like I use Wikipedia for all my research.  Also, be aware that some of their images have noncommercial licenses, which are fine for use by a nonprofit like Wikimedia, but do not allow the image to be used on a monetized blog.

Screenshot from Wikimedia

Screenshot from Wikimedia

2)  Flickr – The mother-lode of free images.  Not only do individuals share their images on Flickr, but museums and archives, from the Smithsonian to the British Library, are increasingly using the site to serve their image collections.  Many image are covered by a free license, and the license type is clearly notated.  As long as you know what you’re looking for, you can usually find it on Flickr.

Screenshot from Flickr

Screenshot from Flickr


3)  The US Government – Under US copyright law, most images created by government employees “in the regular course of their jobs” are automatically in the public domain.  Many agencies maintain large image collections, most of which are listed on the link above.  If you are looking for pictures of animals or landscapes, the National Park Service is a particularly good bet.  And, of course, the military loves to post pictures of ships, planes, and tanks.

Screenshot from

Screenshot from

4)  Morguefile – The name of this site comes from the collections maintained by newspapers of old images that hadn’t been used for their original purpose, but were too good to throw away.  Civic minded people upload their old images to the site which, under the terms of use, automatically puts them in the public domain.  The selection is a bit eccentric, but most of the images are magazine quality or better and can be used anywhere without restrictions.  The image of the photographer at the top of this post came from Morguefile.


Screenshot from Morguefile

Screenshot from Morguefile

5)  Many Art Museums are in the process of digitizing their holdings and making them available online.  Any 2-dimensional representation of a work of art produced prior to 1923 is definitely in the public domain, but its still good manners to credit the museum from whose site you downloaded it.  Rijksmuseum (in Amsterdam) and The Norton Simon (in Pasadena) are two examples of museums with large searchable collections online.


Screenshot from Rijksmuseum

Screenshot from Rijksmuseum

6)   Pond5 sells stock media, especially things like backgrounds, music, and sound effects for film makers.  Recently, though, they have added a free section which contains public domain images and other media, mainly gleaned from US government agencies.  Because they mirror the NASA image collection, they are particularly useful if you need pictures of airplanes, astronauts, or celestial objects.  While you’re there, create a Pond5 account so you can get on their mailing list.  A few times a year they e-mail out links to download free samples.

Pond5 Screenshot

Screenshot from Pond5

A New Trailer for My Side Project

As I have mentioned before, I host a how-to show on YouTube.  I’m not in the habit of publicizing it on this site, mainly because it has its own dedicated blog.  The new teaser for next season dropped over the weekend, though, and I’m too excited not to share it.

Handyman Kevin started life nearly two years ago as a low risk way for my publisher and I to learn about video production and play with some transmedia techniques.  It has since taken on a bit of a life of its own.  If you enjoy my other writing, you may also want to subscribe to the Handyman Kevin blog, YouTube channel, or both.

Why Reading Level Matters for a Writer

This morning I read a fascinating blog article by Shane Snow in which he used two measures of reading level to rank a large number of books, both fiction and non fiction.  His main contention was that many of the most successful books, at least in modern times, are comparatively easy to read.  This makes sense; not many people are going to slog through a novel if the reading level is too challenging for them.  He also drew the inference that blog articles with a lower reading level are much more likely to be shared on social media.  Obviously, these insights are of great interest to me as a writer.  Because the article piqued my interest, and because I’m at the point in writing my own book where I am happy to jump at any distraction, I decided to extend his analysis a bit on my own.

It only took a minute or two to find an open source Java app that calculates the Flesh-Kinkaid Grade Level and Flesh Reading Ease Level of any text or PDF file.  The former gives the number of years of education required to comprehend the writing.  The later is a similar measure, in which a higher score indicates that the work is easier to read.

The first thing I did was to run it on several manuscripts which I have on my laptop.  These included my recently published monograph, the current draft of the nonfiction book I’m writing, and a novel manuscript and three short stories which I am currently trying to sell.  I also ran it on all four of my blogs.

My Own Writing
Nonfiction Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level Flesh Reading Ease Level
Current Book Project(1) 12.91 43.67
Monograph (2) 19.10 1.87
Book Average 16.01 22.77
This Blog 10.18 56.95
Handyman Kevin Companion Blog 7.97 70.46
Angry Transportation Rants (Dormant) 7.69 68.43
Old School Essays (Dormant) 8.26 60.16
Blog Average 8.53 64.00
Nonfiction Average 11.02 50.26
Fiction (3)
Novel 4.99 80.60
Short Story 5.03 82.03
Short Story 5.67 75.15
Short Story 5.46 76.62
Fiction Average 5.29 78.60
Overall Average 8.73 61.59
(1) First draft, about 6% complete
(2) Body text is nearly identical to my MBA thesis
(3) Unpublished manuscripts from my current “slush pile”

Since raw numbers aren’t that intuitive, I plotted a chart.  Notice how the different pieces of writing cluster quite neatly by type.

Reading level scores of several pieces of my owned writing

I was happy to see that both my fiction and my current nonfiction project are in same zones that  Snow found for these types of writing.  This is quite important from a marketability standpoint, since any editor I send them to would be instantly turned off if the reading level were too high or low.

My blogs fall in the middle, which makes sense since they are basically nonfiction, but are written more casually than a nonfiction book.  However, going by Snow’s article, they are probably written at too high a reading level to be shared much.  In fact, I don’t get many shares compared to other bloggers.  I think I can live with that, since I tend to target my blogging towards my fellow writers.  I suspect that you people are comfortable reading at a higher level than the general public.

My monograph, Freight Forwarding Cost Estimation: An Analogy Based Approach, appears to be nearly unreadable to anyone without a graduate degree in operations research.  I suppose that explains why sales haven’t exactly skyrocketed.  It is what it is, though–an adaptation of my master’s thesis.  My committee loved it.

I think there is real benefit to a writer knowing that the reading level of his work is appropriate to the target audience.

Of course, being a Great Books fan, my next move was to run the app on all the Great Books that I have written about so far on this blog, as well as the next few I plan to cover.

Selected Great Books
Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level Flesh Reading Ease Level
Iliad 4.48 78.58
Odyssey 3.93 80.98
Average 4.21 79.78
Hebrew Bible (1) 7.57 76.51
House of Atreus 2.23 90.86
Other Plays 3.24 85.18
Average 2.81 87.61
Sophocles 1.86 90.83
Herodotus 11.75 60.37
Hippolytus; Bacchae 4.73 83.72
Medea 4.98 81.14
Average 4.81 82.86
Thucydides 13.34 49.67
Clouds 2.05 86.65
Birds 5.47 74.76
Frogs 2.67 84.57
Average 3.40 81.99
Apology, Crito & Phaedo 8.03 70.01
Gorgias 9.15 63.57
Meno 8.51 64.49
Phaedrus 10.05 60.85
Protagoras 9.11 64.30
Republic 8.78 65.42
Sophist 9.32 59.56
Symposium 10.36 60.59
Theaetetus 9.54 61.07
Average 8.99 64.53
Ethics 12.21 55.34
Poetics 10.48 54.32
Politics 11.34 56.35
Average 11.34 55.34
Walt Whitman
Leaves of Grass 12.26 58.00
Overall Average 7.49 71.59
(1) King James Version

Again, when I plotted the points, they clustered nicely by type.

Reading levels of selected Great Books (as English translations)

These results held a few surprises.  First was the fact that Homer and the Greek dramas are actually written at a very low reading level, at least in terms of sentence and word length.  I believe this is because these works were intended to be recited or performed orally.  Spoken language is always simpler than written language.  Also, these reading level metrics don’t take vocabulary into account.  Epic poetry and Greek drama tend to use a much wider range of words than a novel, for example.  Examining this factor would require some sort of word frequency analysis.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have an “off the shelf” app to conduct a frequency analysis.  I’m sure I could have kludged up a Python script in a couple hours, but that would have been more time than I wanted to spend.

Another surprise was that Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which I would have expected to show up close to Homer’s epics, is actually a much tougher read.  It graphs down closer to the serious Greek philosophical works.  As I’ve stated before, though, Leaves of Grass is a rather unique work.

The biggest surprise, however, is that the Great Books are written at a lower reading level, on average, than my own work.  Granted, these sample sizes are pretty small.  I suspect, however, that I have stumbled upon another of the factors that contribute to a book being Great:  the authors manage to convey complicated ideas in simple, readable language.

So, besides being a good way to check the appropriateness of my manuscripts for the target audience, does any of this have a practical application?  Well, the fact that books cluster by type means that reading level could be a good way to sort them.  It would be quite simple to modify the Java app into a data mining tool to sort a collection of books into categories like fiction, nonfiction, plays, etc.  I can easily see situations where this could be useful for anyone who has a large collection of e-books with incomplete meta-information.  Project Gutenberg and Internet Archive, I’m looking at you.

Five Giveaways that a Book is Self-Published

“This looks really nice for a self-published book,” said my friend as she handed me a novel.  Looking down at it, I too knew immediately that is was self published.  How was it so obvious to both of us?  The cover was professionally done with a well composed photograph and good use of color.  The bar code was in the right place, and the page and cover stock were normal commercial grade.  But to people who knew what they were looking at, the book screamed “self-published”.  We talked about it, and came up with a list of the top five tip-offs that give away a self published book.

Lots of books in a book case
The good news is that most readers are probably not sophisticated enough to pick up on these tells.  My friend is a librarian and I am a writer and sometime editor.  Between us we have handled many thousands of books.  Unfortunately, if you are a writer, we are exactly the sort of people who you need to impress to get your book reviewed or have it added to the order sheet for a major library system.  If serious “book people” read your book you don’t want them to think “this is pretty good for a self published book”, but just “this is good book.”

The Five Giveaways

1. (Lack of) Editing.  I couldn’t finish three of the last five self-published books I read because the editing was so poor.  Being an editor myself, my hand kept jerking uncontrollably towards the cup where I keep my red pens.  It took me completely out of the plot and ruined the books for me.  Nearly all new writers underestimate the role that editors play in a finished book.  In fact, editing is at least as important as writing, and it’s hard to edit your own writing effectively.  If you truly can’t afford to hire an editor, then at least find a fellow writer and trade editing services with them.  Usually, however, hiring a real freelance editor is worth the investment.  If you go this route, be aware that a legitimate editor will be able to provide references from former clients, will have some sort of free trial plan (in which you send them a few pages to edit so you can evaluate their work).  You should also try to hire someone with experience in your genre.  Also, be aware that there are different types of editors:  line editors tell you how to improve your plot, what you should cut out, and how you can improve your style.  Copy editors catch mistakes in grammar, punctuation, and usage (and no, your word processor’s grammar checker is no substitute).  Technical editors (also called technical consultants) will catch mistakes you make in facts and details.  For instance, if you are writing a book about the military and you were never in the military, you absolutely need a military person to read your manuscript and tell you where you screwed up.  Otherwise your readers will point it out–brutally–in your Amazon reviews.  Few people are good at all three kinds of editing, so you may need to find more than one editor.

old time print shop
2. “Typeset” in Microsoft Word.   Many printers these days require a “print ready” .pdf file.  Most self-publishing authors generate it by exporting from the same word processor they use for writing.  Unfortunately, word processors do a horrible job of spacing and justifying text.  True, you can often fix badly spaced lines by manually moving hyphens and adjusting kerning, but its easier just to use software that’s actually designed for the job.  There are plenty of good, relatively affordable, desktop publishing packages available.  Or be like the real power users and typeset in LaTex, a free computer language designed for creating publication-ready documents.  The learning curve in LaTex is a bit steep; expect to spend two or three weeks doing tutorials before you can create anything useful.  I don’t know anyone who has invested the time who has regretted it afterwards, however.

3.  Fonts.  Most writers are sophisticated enough to stay away from tacky and hard to read fonts.  In fact, most seem to be too conservative and opt for Times New Roman (TNR) for their body text.  TNR is a decent all-purpose font, but I would never use it for a self-published book.  First of all, it was designed and optimized for newspaper text, not book text.  It is narrower than most serif fonts, because newspaper columns are relatively narrow.  A font designed for books, such as Minion or Palatino, is more likely to give you an optimum column count for comfortable reading.  More important, however, is that TNR is the default font in most word processing programs.  As soon as I see it I think “word processor = amateur job”.  If you are interested in learning more about typography, you may want to download Peter Wilson’s free, incredibly detailed e-book.

4.  Cheap Binding.  Larger printers use a large, automated “perfect binding” machine which uses hot glue to attach book covers to the pages.  Hardbacks and higher quality trade paperbacks also have each folded signature of pages stitched together before the gluing step, resulting in an extremely durable book. In contrast, smaller print shops and most print on demand (POD) operations rely on a small desktop thermal binding machine to attach covers.  Unfortunately, bindings produced on the smaller machines have a reputation for being less durable and shedding pages.  Pros can usually look at the glue strip of a binding and tell which kind it is.  Public librarians in particular tend to avoid ordering books with cheap bindings, because they worry about pages coming out.  Ask ahead of time about the binding technology a printer uses.  If possible, try to examine another book from the same printer to make sure it’s a quality product.

old time lead type and composing stick
5.  Bad Blurb.  The blurb or summary on the back of your book is one of your most critical pieces of marketing communication.  Imagine that your potential reader is about to get on an air plane and has only a few minutes to pick out a book.  Is she going to read a boring full-page blurb?  Is she going to read at all if the first sentence doesn’t grab her attention?  Actually, if your book is already being sold in an airport then you don’t need any advice from me, but its still useful to visualize the airport scenario. The back covers of many self published books are covered with text that reads like the review the author hopes someone will write.  No one is going to read that. Write three of four good sentences that command attention and say what the book is actually about, and go with that.  My theory about why authors write such long blurbs is because they are self conscious about not having any review excerpts, and they try to fill white space.  They aren’t fooling anyone.

There are other giveaways which I could mention, but I think these are the five biggest red flags.  You’ve worked hard to write your book, maybe for years.  It is worth taking a little more time to attend to the details and publish a professional product that will make a good impression on the people who matter.

Why You Can’t Make a Living by Blogging

How much can you actually make from blogging?  The question is of more than casual interest to me and to every other blogger out there.  At some point we’ve all wondered how many articles we need to write to get rich, or at least to pay our internet bill.

A couple of years ago Nate Silver, blogging for the _New York Times_, did a rather enlightening analysis  of the Huffington Post’s blog business.  He concluded that HuffPost makes about $13 per blog article.  They don’t pay their bloggers, but if they did they would clearly be paying them less than $13.

Go on Fiverr or similar freelancer marketplaces and you will find any number of people offering to “write a 500 word blog article on any subject” for $5.  I have no idea how many of these they actually book.
What about the rest of us, slightly more casual, bloggers?  Many of us write on Blogger or something similar and monetize through Google Adsense.  What sort of revenue can we expect?

I don’t have access to other bloggers’ data.  I do, however, use Blogger for three of my own blogs.  I started the oldest in 2008 and have posted sporadically ever since.  I decided to see what insights I could glean from my own data.
It wasn’t hard to throw the numbers into a spreadsheet and draw a histogram:

Histogram of actual blog hits.
This distribution might be a little misleading, though.  After all, some of these articles are eight years old, while others were posted this week.  Since blog articles stay on the web forever the older ones will tend to have more lifetime hits, and I needed to correct for this.

Blogger’s dashboard doesn’t give week-by-week histories for individual articles, but I was able to model an article’s hits over time by assuming that it gets 50% of its lifetime visits the first year, 50% of its remaining visits the next year, and so on forever.  If you took calculus you will probably recognize this as an infinite series.  Being a basically lazy person, I avoided doing the math and simply built a spreadsheet to work backwards.  (I won’t go into details.  It involves data tables and lookup functions).  The new distribution, of estimated lifetime hits for all my blog articles, is:

Histogram of lifetime blog hits
By now you will have noticed one of the sad truths about blogging:  for every article that gets a respectable number of hits you write several that hardly anyone reads.

I wanted to come up with an expected number of hits per article.  Since this was a small sample size with an irregular distribution, the best way to handle it was with a simple simulation (statistics nerds would call it a bootstrap).  Returning to my spreadsheet I sampled my distribution 10,000 times.  This allowed me to estimate the expected number of lifetime hits for an article as 1,271, with a 95% confidence interval from 1,192 to 1,350.

According to Adsense, my lifetime RPM (revenue per 1,000 impressions) is $0.96.  I’ve talked with other bloggers, and this seems pretty typical.  By simple multiplication, my expected revenue for a blog article is about $1.22.

One hears stories about people who can bang out five articles a day, every day.  I am not one of those people; I doubt many bloggers are.  When I don’t have any other writing projects, I might be able to manage five a week.  If I did this all year long, I would make about $317.31 from selling ads.  If I sold all of my articles on Fiverr, I could rake in $1,300.  Even if I made as much per article as the Huffington Post, that would still only be $3,380.   Better not quit my day job.  Wait, it’s too late for that.

I think that most bloggers out there are more like me than not, which means that none of us are going to be able to support ourselves from blogging alone.

So Why Do it at All?

The blogging itself doesn’t pay, but it can still make economic sense to blog.  One of the main reasons is to build a writing portfolio that will help you get actual, paying freelance work, or maybe even a regular column.  People have managed it.

Then there are the merchandising opportunities:  You could sell swag like t-shirts and stickers.  Your gross revenue on one bumper sticker is probably bigger than on 1,000 advertising hits.  Or you could try crowdfunding.  Your blog followers are the natural people to hit up for a contribution to your next Kickstarter campaign.

A huge reason for nonfiction writers like me to blog is the chance to post and get feedback on material that will later go in a book.  One of my newer blogs was actually designed from the start to be the first draft of a DIY handbook.  As soon as I hit 150,000 words I’m going to download the whole thing and start arranging it into chapters.

The Lesson

You will never make enough from blogging alone to make a financial difference. However as a writer, blogging might fit into your larger career plan, or help you generate revenue from other sources.

This article was published simultaneously on LinkedIn.