Bloggers to Authors

October 15 2006 | arielmstallings

I've been chewing over publishing trends, the Dooce suit, my own book coming out in a few months, and the emails I've gotten with book questions … this is to say, chewing over bloggers becoming authors. I'm hardly an expert on the subject other than my own personal experiences (my book and Columbia Publishing Course), but still … I've got some thought about bloggers becoming non-fiction authors. (Fiction is a whole different beast that I know nothing about.)

Heather's recent suit may be the nail in the coffin of the publishing industry's affair with blogging. There were a few years there when publishers got super excited about turning blogs into books, but a recent article in the Boston Herald talks about blog books performing weaker than expected:

"A book has to be bigger and last longer than a blog," Kneerim said. "It has to be more than gossiping or talking about yourself."

I think my lit agents saw this coming several years ago. When I first pitched them at the height of the blog frenzy in 2003 with an idea that was basically my blog in book form, they quickly shot it down. They were smart. Unless you're a blogger with an enormous following, it just doesn't really make sense. I'm confident that Heather Armstrong will indeed eventually write her books, and they will indeed do well. She's got a devoted, enthusiastic reader-base who will buy her books if for no other reason than to support Heather and her (very good) writing, and her topics and writing style are universal enough to effectively be marketed to a mainstream, non-blog readership.

Hell, I bought Mimi Smartypants' book because I love her writing and wanted to support her, but then I didn't actually read the book. I mean, I'd already read most of it on her blog! Mimi herself seemed somewhat stumped by the whole book concept herself. (God, that's part of what I love about her.)

It's not surprising, really … the blog in book form is basically memoir, and as James Frey is evidence of, the memoir is on slightly shaky ground these days. Used to be anyone who survived an abusive childhood/weird schooling/anal sex could write their semi-truth and sell a bazillion books. But methinks those tides are turning.

This certainly isn't to say that publishers won't sign bloggers to write books. It's just that the book can't just be your blog, and the fact that you have a blog can't be your main selling point as a writer. Sarah Brown's book deal for instance: It's not Queserasera.com: Now Even Better in Trade Paperback! It's a Cringe-themed anthology. Sarah's blog obviously stood as a great portfolio for her writing and proves that she's got a readership base, but it's not like the book is just her blog.

And look at Maggie Mason. She's another writer with a blog filled with awesome little quips and quotes from her day-to-day life, but did she write a memoir? Did she write Mightygirl: Now It's $12 Instead of Free? Nope. Despite the fact that stories about her life are cute and compelling, she wrote a service book about blogging.

Obviously, Offbeat Bride is another example of this. Sure, it's got a component of memoir, telling the story of our wedding. But it's really just a service book. It's full of tips and advice and sidebars about how to do things. My story is in there, but the hope is that people (besides my friends and blog readers) will buy it because they need to get something from it other than just reading about me. It's not like I'm Liberace or Elvis or something with legions of mainstream fans just DIEING to read about me.

This certainly wasn't my idea — when trying to find a book idea to pitch, I wanted to do what I normally do, which is, well, write about myself. But the reality of the book business is that unless you're really fascinating or titillating or well-known, most people don't want to spend money to read about you. Oh, it breaks my little blogger-heart to say, but it's true. As the memoir genre comes back down from a few years of extreme trendiness, bloggers who want to get published have to adapt.

So, I guess my advice to bloggers who want to be authors is the same as to anyone else who wants to write a book: Who would buy your book? What can you write that people need that they can't get elsewhere? What can you write that no-one else can? These are the questions publishers will ask you, and that you should have answers for. Good luck, brave bloggers!

  1. Well said–wise, and true. It just ain't easy to write a book. Let me rephrase that: it's not all that difficult to fill a ream or so of paper with typescript. It can be agonizing to create a manuscript that someone will see as publishable because what it contains is, for one of several reasons, worthwhile.

  2. I'll be interested to see if Heather Armstrong does, actually, write a book. I'm wondering if, maybe, that ship has sailed already.

    Not that her existing audience wouldn't buy her book, because I believe they would.

    But if publishers are wising up about Books By Bloggers needing to be more than Blog Redux, what exactly does Armstrong have to write about? Her life is her blog, at this point – she's a professional and supports herself with it, so more power to her. But my best guess is she'd have to go dark for a year and actually get out of the house and, you know, do something so she can write it.

    I might be wrong, but I never got the impression that she's a writer who blogs. She's a blog writer. There's a difference. The former, like Sarah Brown, will continue to be attractive to publishers. The latter, maybe not so much?

  3. eek, I stand behind the prediction that Heather's books could be quite successful for her publisher, assuming the advances are modest. I think there's a lot of sequential narrative that doesn't make it onto her blog, and her books would have the potential to almost be like Dooce, Behind The Website.

    That said, you bring up an interesting point — there is a distinction between writers who blog and blog writers.

    Also a quick note here: I'm totally not interested in this becoming the "let's talk about Heather" thread. My comment-delete trigger finger is feeling itchy, so don't nobody test me.

  4. i love you 🙂 for writing this post. don't delete me.

    and i personally think heather is a writer who blogs. i am a blog writer, if that. what do you call someone who relies heavily on bulleted lists?

  5. A writer is a writer is a writer. But is she? If fiction is a totally different animal from non-fiction, then is blogging equally different? I have some experience with all three, and I think the answer is no, my first sentence is correct. The difference, it seems to me, is first of all in the amount of–what shall we call it?–writing talent of the person involved. Blogging, being the ultimate in democratic media, allows anyone with access to a computer to be a Blogger. That doesn't mean they have a way with words or an interesting perspective or, really, anything more than a desire to play the game. You may have a different definition, but for me talent is mandatory before you get to call yourself a writer.

    Then that talent has to be honed, worked at, propped up and ironed out. The best of bloggers write well-crafted essays; they don't just vomit on the page.

    The issue of publishers being over blogging as the next big thing is moot, in my opinion. Publishers, being the canny capitalists that they are, always want the easy-to-find, the cheap-to-acquire, the sure-to-be big. What blogging does is give them a greater selection of talented writers to chose from. What blogging does is give us a place to practice our craft.

  6. I'd definitely agree that even if you write about your life on your blog, there's about 90% of what goes on that never makes it to the internet, so it's not like a talented writer like Heather would be at any loss for material.

  7. here's an interesting wrinkle, at least for me. i come from the world of print and web journalism, creative nonfiction, and humor essay. and now i'm blogging a bit to support my upcoming book (an alt career guide). and i'm finding myself not wanting to give away too much because (a) i don't want to repeat the book (blow my wad before the book even arrives), and (b) i don't want to give away any riffs/ideas that might go in my next book or a future published essay. so i'm very much censoring myself. anyone else feel this way? or is this just the divide between blogging and writing to assignment/traditional publication?

  8. Oh Ariel. I was about to send you my book pitch. Now I'm a little bit discouraged. But not too much. 🙂

    Don't believe everything "they" say though. You *will* get to write a book about yourself. And people are going to be all over it. Just because somebody rejected that idea once, doesn't mean it's not going to happen in the future.

  9. Strangely, I'm not sure that I want to write a book that's just all about myself any more … I'm just not sure a book is the best format for my story. That said, I do hope to write more books, but I don't think writing a memoir is my goal.

  10. I think you are 100% correct. My agent is fantastic and a much bigger name than I ever expected to sign with, but she is also very Old Skool, not a big internet junkie at all. She had never read my blog, and signed me based on my proposal alone. One of the first things she did was to (wisely) veto my original idea to use excerpts from the blog, instead opting for an entirely original and traditional narrative. Obviously the journal and blog play into that, serving as almost a first draft in maybe half a dozen short instances, but mostly I use the blog merely to refresh my memory.

    Ironically, St. Marrtin's Press is using the blog as part of its promotional materials; my blurb in Publishers Weekly is titled "Blog to Book". In the actual article, however, they get it right.

    I think the blogger brings a built-in reader base to start with, but the book has to bring something unique to the market. Think about the numbers of readers that even the most popular bloggers enjoy, and ask yourself if those numbers would be considered succcessful if they were the only ones who bought a book. Publication means a much bigger pond, and blog popularity isn't enough to guarantee survival.

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