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.
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.