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Questions & Answers
with Charles Hayes

“Sales as a direct result of the Web site are sporadic, and sometimes it’s hard to figure out why I’m all of a sudden getting lots of attention.”

— Charles D. Hayes

Alaska Writers Homestead talks with Wasilla, Alaska author and self-learning advocate Charles Hayes about how he turned his personal passion for what he has dubbed “self-education” into a well-subscribed newsletter, active Web site and self-publishing company that has sold, he says, “thousands” of books. His most recent book was a novel, Portals in a Northern Sky.

AWH: Your newsletter began as a paper publication. Tell me about the jump to e-newsletters. How did you make it happen (did you do yourself, or hire out?) and what has it meant to have an electronic newsletter?

CH: It’s been so long since I began the newsletter that I’m not exactly sure what I had in mind. I suspect I had some expectation of financial compensation. But early on I caught on to the reality that the newsletter is best characterized as something I do for myself, it’s a method of keeping focused and productive.

AWH: Your newsletter is very, very “content rich.” It’s not filled with sales language but with philosophy and commentary and literary review... Did you see it as a way to make money or gain readers, or were you simply seeking a soapbox or community? What role has your newsletter played in promoting your books?

CH: The newsletter helps with book sales, but it’s much more useful for writing books. The subjects I write about in the newsletter are things I really care about, so when I’m working on a book or an idea for a book, I take a little piece of it and ponder it in the newsletter. Then, I dwell on it for months and rewrite and rethink it ad nauseam.

AWH: How many newsletter subscribers do you have?

CH: As of this morning (Dec. 17, 2003) I have 1,747 newsletter subscribers. This figure is available on Yahoo Groups and it changes daily. My subject matter is controversial and is not for people with rigid ideological positions of any stripe. A lot of people subscribe thinking it is something altogether different from what it really is. They subscribe in flocks, and many leave the same way. In a past issue, I described this process of subscribing and unsubscribing as ducks landing on a pond unaware that there are hunters in the blinds. That said, a lot of subscribers have been with me for years, and they complain if an issue is late. What I’ve tried to do is make the newsletter an unending search for the better argument.

AWH: Did you seek outside help in creating/inventing your online presence, newsletter, etc? What mistakes did you make?

CH: I have a Web person who helps me on occasion, and I couldn’t do without her assistance. She is a technological wizard. Sales as a direct result of the Web site are sporadic and sometimes it’s hard to figure out why I’m all of a sudden getting lots of attention. I don’t have any lessons to share about mistakes on the Web, only that it’s important to use filters and try to protect yourself from people who spend their leisure time attacking people with whom they disagree. I have been the target of cyber-attack on several occasions over the years.

AWH: What’s the best thing you did, and why? Seems to me you’ve found some smart ways to keep the “buzz” about your work going and going... For example, there was a great little piece about you and one of your books at About.com, celebrating “Self-University Week,” by lifelong learning champion Ronald Gross. Also, how did you establish Self-University Week in the first place, and how does coverage of it (such as Gross’s article) affect your traffic and sales?

CH: I started Self-University Week right after the publication of my first book (Self University, 1989). It doesn’t seem to have near as much impact as it used to, in part, I think, because there are so many individuals and groups with so much to promote. I’ve been corresponding with Ronald Gross for several years and a number of authors with similar interests. Whenever something like his About piece is published I can tell something is up from newsletter subscriptions, e-mails and book sales etc. But to date nothing has compared to the impact of being on Talk of the Nation on NPR in 1999. I still hear from people who tell me they heard me on NPR (Editor’s note: The show itself still lives on, too; listen to it online at NPR’s online archives.)

AWH: I saw you had an ad on alaska.com, a high-traffic online portal (owned by the Anchorage Daily News) where the typical advertisers seem to be gift basket or tourism-related companies, not independent authors. How did that come about, what did it cost — and was it worth it?

CH: The Anchorage Daily News contacted me about that ad, and I ran it as a test and didn’t renew it. It was pretty inexpensive and might be worthwhile for an Alaskan author site.

— Compiled by Sonya Senkowsky


About Charles Hayes
Charles D. Hayes is a lifelong learning advocate, a self-taught philosopher, and an author and publisher. In 1987 Hayes founded Autodidactic Press, committed to lifelong learning as the lifeblood of democracy and the key to living life to its fullest. He is author of Beyond the American Dream: Lifelong Learning and the Search for Meaning in a Postmodern World; Proving You’re Qualified: Strategies for People without College Degrees; and Self-University — as well as the novel Portals in a Northern Sky. Hayes’ work has been featured in USA Today, Library Journal, Training Magazine, Training and Development Magazine, Utne Reader, and on National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation. For more on Charles, visit his Web site, http://www.autodidactic.com.

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Photos of Sonya Senkowsky © 2004 David Jensen / David Jensen Photography.

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