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Don`t be a Woolworths

Many years ago I had a Saturday- and holiday-job in Woolworths. I worked there on-and-off from the age of 15, right through my years at high school and for quite a few years when I was at university too. I finally left when I was perhaps 21 or 22 years old; I can’t be sure, because in the end it sort of fizzled out, as I didn’t have enough time left to fit any hours in. Something to do with studying medicine, I think.

For those unfamiliar with Woolworths (which is not the same as the Australian retail chain of the same name), it was a stalwart of the British high street for decades. Having started out as a grocers, by the end of the 20th century it was a jack of all trades. You went to Woolworths if you were shopping for childrens’ toys, women’s clothing, confectionery – the pick’n’mix was legendary – or music, in the days of vinyl. You could also find gardening equipment and plants, electrical goods, hardware and seasonal wares. On occasion you would find motoring accessories, which would disappear as soon as they were added to the range. It didn’t sell groceries any more, but weirdly there was a delicatessen. It was a one-stop shop, handy if you were popping out for a rake, 30-denier hosiery and some sliced ham.

To say the store lacked focus would be an understatement. Everything in Woolworths was sold by other retailers, usually more specialised retailers that offered greater choice and better prices. These other retailers had in-store expertise, and if you were looking for advice on the hedge trimmer you were considering buying you would probably believe what these specialists told you much more what the Saturday boy (i.e. me) in Woolworths told you. Ultimately Woolworths went bankrupt, an inevitable demise hurried along by the arrival of the internet and more efficient online retailers.

So what?

Well all this came to mind recently when, in discussion, the topic of converting wine words into pennies, in other words how to turn wine writing into a viable money-making exercise, came up. The conversation was prompted by this piece, by Richard Hemming (who writes very well), but to be fair it is an old topic with no great answers. Wine writers and wine bloggers have been chewing it over for years at one conference or another.

I don’t recall ever being asked for advice on this matter, despite having run Winedoctor for 16 years, with a good level of advertising revenue for much of that time, but more significantly having converted to a subscription model for the last three of those years. And so I am apprehensive about the notion of throwing any advice out there; it is almost certain to be flawed, and it will inevitably be limited in scope, applying well to me and my circumstances, my dreams and aspirations, but not necessarily to anyone else and their hopes and plans. There are many behaviours and decisions that engender success in any business or profession, from medicine to law, from plumbing to political reporting, but to keep this simple here is one key piece of advice.

Don’t be a Woolworths.

The problem is, I think, is that many (perhaps all?) wine writers are curious and open-minded folk. They enjoy the diversity of wine, and drift easily from one concept, style or wine region to the next. One week it is all Burgundy and Barossa, the next spice-infused Barolo Chinato and quevri-fermented Saperavi. Writing about all these subjects is a little like Woolworths trying to sell gardening equipment and women’s hosiery and the Top 40 and Christmas decorations and chocolate all in one shop, and somehow expecting to become a ‘go to’ retailer, as if it were Amazon selling books, or Apple selling phones and music, or Tesco selling crap food. Whether a writer who does this adopts an authoritative tone (old school writing), or that of the exploratory traveller taking a reader on a journey (the chummy blogger), the reader can ultimately probably get the same information (or better) elsewhere, on other blogs, social media or even from their mates down the pub (provided it is a pub that sells Barolo Chinato). Unless there is an inherent draw to your writing regardless of the subject matter (i.e. you are Hugh Johnson or Andrew Jefford) readers aren’t being given a reason to come back to you.

I would suggest if a writer wants to improve their earning capacity, one way (note – it is not necessarily the only way – I wouldn’t dare suggest that) is to specialise. Be focused, and become known for a certain region, or a certain wine theme which runs through these regions. Become a recognised voice on Bordeaux, or Georgia, or Oregon. Develop a reputation for knowing everything there is to know about natural wine, biodynamics, wine science or grape varieties. Explore every detail, and do so with passion.

This is what I have tried to do with Winedoctor, although looking back I let my heart rule my head and decided to specialise in two regions, Bordeaux and the Loire. On reflection, I should perhaps have been even more hard-headed, and decided on just one or the other. I enjoyed the contrasts between the two regions, and also the comparisons (there are more similarities than you might at first imagine), perhaps too much to let go of one or the other. Nevertheless, I know some subscribers feel reluctant when they only want Bordeaux scores, or Loire profiles, and feel they are paying for something they won’t use. On the other hand, I have had feedback from Bordeaux-interested readers who have been grateful for finding some Loire values, so perhaps this glitch in my plan (as if I had much of a plan!) wasn’t such a bad thing after all. And the fact that I have managed to successfully sell my words to paying subscribers, with still climbing subscriber numbers I might add, suggests to me that the course of specialisation I have followed is one that is valid.

6 Responses to “Don`t be a Woolworths”

  1. Avatar

    Chris,

    I had actually commented on Richard’s article as well, since it’s an issue I have to address like most everyone in wine who tries to squeeze some form of living out of it.

    Your mention of theme is quite important and indeed blogs that jump around all over the place tend to be unilaterally weak as shown by Wine Folly’s attempts to now be this beacon of accessible wine knowledge yet having no end of poorly-written articles and factual inaccuracies (look in to the Bordeaux and Loire sections and let me know what you think as the Spain sections are atrocious.) If you’re not Jeffords or have MW at the end of your name, it quickly shows…

    That said, most single theme sites tend to fizzle out. I’m not sure if it’s because people inherently want to hear about the latest and greatest or the author gets tired of writing about the same topic. I used to write the only blog, which began the main news sources for the Tenderloin District in San Francisco. It was one of the most successful sites I’ve ever created, but I did start to wear down on it and I think the writing suffered towards the end.

    For this, on my site I try to keep a heavy theme of Catalan wine (which is pretty vast on its own) while talking about other subjects from time to time. My hope is that it’s still focused enough for a core audience but then has a shake of others topics to be interesting.

    Don’t know how you feel about that?

  2. Avatar

    For me as a commissioning editor, I want Woolworths! I want the writer who can go anywhere and find a fresh angle and and then write something that’s highly engaging.

    The point you make about duplication of information is critical. The only way I can keep my subscriber base happy is if I give them articles, topics and opinions that are unique. If a reader can do a quick search and turn up the same information somewhere else, they have no reason to read my magazine.

    The way to stay fresh is to have the ability to spot a unique angle, and there always is one if you look for it. It means doing research before visiting the region, and having a fair idea of what the cliches are. Knowing when a major figure is giving you the same stock answers they gave the last 12 wine writers is important, too.

    If you’re talking about being a wine critic, on the other hand, I’d say specialising is much more important.

    None of the above may apply for people running their own websites, of course.

  3. Avatar

    Hi Miquel

    Thanks for the comment. I think that is a good idea, and it keeps it fresh. I on occasion taste beyond the Bordeaux and the Loire (some South Africans recently, Ridge and other Californians too, Sherry, etc) but I don’t write about them much. I make the occasional Sherry blog post, but fort he articles behind the paywall I find there is always a Bordeaux/Loire article that takes precedence. But if you can squeeze it in, I think it is a good thing, helps to maintain context too.

    I don’t have a problem with returning to the same regions repeatedly; there are always new wine, now cuvées, new vintages, new vignerons to uncover. The only problem I have is a lack of time!

    Chris

  4. Avatar

    Hi Felicity

    Thanks too for your comment. First, I think it is different when viewed from an editor’s point of view compared to independent writers/bloggers, although not totally different.

    For example, you note that you want the writer “who can go anywhere”, so you might have a writer visiting different regions and writing about these regions each week. That’s OK, because that writer is operating with the cushion of your publication, which has an established readership. If he/she were trying to do that for his/her own blog, it would disappear into the melée of other blogging sites with no real focus. There are hundreds of wine blogs out there; how many do any of us know or read daily?

    A second point is that although you have faith in that writer’s ability to spot the angle, the problem is they don’t really know the region. Let’s say you send in a writer to cover new developments in Muscadet. You and your readers are happy (which is what counts I guess) because they read something fresh. I read it and see the factual errors which reflect the writers lack of knowledge of the Muscadet crus communaux. So is it best to stick with the generalist with a knack for an angle and who writes engagingly, or to commission a series of specialists who have the knowledge and context to write something more informative and accurate? I don’t suggest one is right and the other wrong, but I do believe this is the choice editors are making.

  5. Avatar

    Hi Chris,

    Good points. It depends, though, on what the story is trying to achieve. If you want a ‘here’s how the region works, here are the important people to know’, then yes, an expert will always be the first choice of writer. The top experts are always worth listening to – and this, in fact, is what we actually do in practice.

    But there are some real problems to watch. One is that experts tend to lapse into explanatory/educational mode, which can make the final article drier than it needs to be. And, paradoxically, regional specialists often develop a set of biases about their region. At that point, you can predict what they’re going to say. They’re also likely to circle back to the same people again and again for comment, which is another problem.

    But yes, of course expertise is worth listening to and I would never say otherwise.

    To come back to the point about how to monetise all this information, though, I am still going to argue for the Woolworths approach for the person starting out, unless they’ve got good connections and a special talent for the great regions. If you’re a recognised Bordeaux specialist, everybody wants you. If you specialise in Moldova, you’ll be called on once or twice a year.

    But if you can be relied on to do your research, ask interesting questions, uncover the hidden stories, and turn in something that’s different to everybody else, you’ll get work.

    In fact, the professional writers in the wine fraternity – ‘professional’ in the sense that they have the ability to write in different registers, find good interviewees etc – are in constant work.

    None of this is fixed in stone. I have seen, several times, people come out of absolutely nowhere and make a specialist name for themselves very quickly. But they were all talented writers, with a gift for seeing things differently.

    In the end, maybe the old writing advice is still the best – follow your heart.

    Felicity

  6. Avatar

    Felicity,

    I think outside of France and maybe a small handful of other regions, you don’t get called upon that often. France is quite singular in that regard but if you’re going to focus, you need to be an expert.

    But I think your point about the expert being pedantic comes back around to the article you wrote awhile back in that wine writing in general is just bad. Many experts might be great at writing up reports but in making something the least bit titillating to read, they can’t.