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Six Places to Find Free Images for your Blog

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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 USA.gov

Screenshot from USA.gov

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

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Book Review: The Vintage Mencken

Cover image of The Vintage Mencken

My partner and I just returned from a rather lovely holiday up the Oregon coast. While I was gone, this website was migrated from the WordPress.com server to a self hosted server. If you are a subscriber, the transition should have been nearly seamless. My first day and half back was spent fixing bad links and tweaking my setup (I’m a writer, not a web master, so I’m slow at that sort thing). It seems like I have things in order now, but if you run into any missing pages or bad links, please let me know in the comments or by sending a quick email to longhunt at yahoo dot com.

During the part of my holiday when I wasn’t birdwatching or eating sea food, I had time to get some reading in. One of the books that I finished was The Vintage Mencken, which is a collection of essays from H.L. Mencken’s newspaper columns and books. Mencken (1880-1956) was a prolific journalist and author throughout the first half of the 20th century. He is particularly known for deflating the literary and political figures of his day with stiletto-like wit and criticism. In his later career he also translated Nietzsche and wrote books on philology. Many of his works are now available either from Project Gutenberg or in various online archives. For those who have never read him, however, The Vintage Mencken, edited by Alistair Cooke, is an excellent sampling of the best pieces over his entire writing career.

Mencken came up in the golden age of newspaper journalism, when print was nearly the only form of mass media. In his later writings he evidences a distaste for radio and motion pictures, which he obviously felt were hopelessly low-brow. Had he lived a century later, however (which would, coincidentally have made him about my age) he would surely have been a blogger. His mature style would have been perfect for it–compact, yet thoughtful, incisive, and relentlessly snarky. I think that any modern blogger could learn a great deal from reading his columns and essays. While doing so, however, it is hard not to be struck by how many issues have changed little in a century: education is still going down hill, Americans are still boorish when it comes to culture, letters, and foreign policy, and politicians are still far too influenced by money and lobbying groups. As bloggers in the 21st century we tend to assume that we are breaking new ground and that the issues we confront are new an unique. It does us well to remember that, while the names and media have changed, the nature of our work really hasn’t.

H.L. Mencken, Oliver Richard Reid [public domain via Wikimedia]

H.L. Mencken, Oliver Richard Reid [public domain via Wikimedia]

Nothing and no one were safe from Mencken’s iconoclasty. His favorite targets were populism, plutocracy, modern art, religious fundamentalism, and especially the bourgeoisie. Mencken himself came from a comfortable upper-middle-class background, he decided early to pursue the unpredictable life of a writer. While he never hesitated to poke fun at artists, there is no question that he considered himself one of their number. Like most of us who reject the comfort and stability of our bourgeois roots, he had little or no respect for the middle class. His true admiration was for an aristocracy that did not exist in the United States. He repeatedly warns against confusing plutocrats with true aristocrats,

…[P]lutocracy, in a democratic state, tends inevitably, despite its theoretical infamy, to take the place of the missing aristocracy, and even be mistaken for it.  It is, of course, something quite different.

Bourgeoisie of “the country club and interior decorator stage of culture”  have no understanding of art, fear new ideas, and are hopelessly conformist. True aristocrats, on the other hand, protect culture and tradition, yet are willing to accept eccentricity. Most importantly of all, according to Mencken, the bourgeoisie are cowardly. Personal courage is the highest virtue to an aristocrat but the middle class idolizes stability and security,

The one permanent emotion of inferior man, as of all the simpler mammals, is fear–fear of the unknown, the complex, the inexplicable.  What he wants beyond anything else is safety.  His instincts incline him toward a society so organized that it will protect him from all hazards, and not only against perils to his hide but also against assaults upon his mind–against the need to grapple with unaccustomed problems, to weigh ideas, to think things out for himself, to scrutinize the platitudes upon which his everyday thinking is based. (p. 105)

Me may or may not agree with Mencken’s views. Those of you who have been reading my blog know that I tend to agree with him. Even if you don’t buy into his platform, this book is a delightful view into the events and idiosyncrasies if early twentieth century life, and an excellent all-around example of expository writing.

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
Books
Current Book Project(1) 12.91 43.67
Monograph (2) 19.10 1.87
Book Average 16.01 22.77
Blogs
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
NOTES
(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
Homer
Iliad 4.48 78.58
Odyssey 3.93 80.98
Average 4.21 79.78
Hebrew Bible (1) 7.57 76.51
Aeschylus
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
Euripides
Hippolytus; Bacchae 4.73 83.72
Medea 4.98 81.14
Average 4.81 82.86
Thucydides 13.34 49.67
Aristophanes
Clouds 2.05 86.65
Birds 5.47 74.76
Frogs 2.67 84.57
Average 3.40 81.99
Plato
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
Aristotle
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
NOTES
(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.

2015 Preview

As the year winds down, I thought I would give you a preview of what’s to come on this blog.

I’ve mentioned in the past how much I enjoy being able to download free books from Project Gutenberg.  Given a choice, though, I do prefer physical books.  This month I received some holiday cash from relatives and I went a bit mad at the used books stores and library friends’ sales.  It’s easy to justify buying classics when you have a blog about the Great Books.

Picture of a pile of used books

In the picture:  A complete set of the Durants’ The Story of Civilization, both volumes of Somervell’s abridgement of Toynbee’s A Study of History, plus Toynbee’s essay collection Civilization on Trial, The Federalist Papers, Herodotus’ The Persian War, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Other Poems, Virgil’s Aeneid, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Thoreau’s Walden and Civil Disobedience, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Allan Bloom‘s translation of Plato’s Republic, de Sade’s Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom and Other Writings, three tragedies of Sophocles, Joyce’s Dubliners, Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Hesse’s Siddhartha.  Not shown is a collection of Aeschylus’ plays that I have momentarily misplaced.

And of course I still have 36 more books of the Hebrew Bible to cover.

I plan to read and blog about all of these over the next two years.  I must offer the caveat, however, that as I get closer to my own book deadline my blogging projects may be pushed to the back burner.

In regards to my next book, I am still in a very early phase of the writing and I don’t want to give many details.  I will say, however, that it deals mainly with modern American history.  I can also confidently promise you it will be a much more enjoyable read than my last book–though I suppose that is faint praise, considering that my last book started life as an operations management thesis.  Speaking of the operations/data science end of things, I’m sure I’ll be writing a few more of those posts too.  I also have some ideas for a couple of posts about the business side of writing which some of you should find interesting, since most of you are writers like me.

I’d like to wish a hearty “thank you” to everyone who has read and subscribed to my blog in 2014.  See you next year!

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.