When I teach introductory courses on blogging, sooner or later a student will always raise a version of this question: what about a book? Can’t you put together a bunch of your blog posts and make a book that publishers will pick up and turn into a best-seller?
This a natural enough fantasy; I’ve even harbored it myself. After all, it was Dr. Johnson who famously said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” And there have been a few famous cases of an unknown blogger vaulting to stardom on the power of her blog.
Perhaps the best-known is Julie Powell, who in 2002 began blogging about her efforts to cook all the recipes in Julia Child’s classic The Art of French Cooking. The blog acquired a following, and the New York publisher Little, Brown and Company turned it into a 2005 book artfully titled Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen. But the real pay-off came with the hit movie version, Julie & Julia starring Meryl Streep as Julia Child.
So it can be done. And so can climbing Mount Everest or swimming the English Channel, feats of approximately equal difficulty. The blogger Jane Friedman reminded me of this fact of life last week in a terrific post titled “Please Don’t Blog Your Book: 4 Reasons Why.”
Friedman, a University of Cincinnati e-media prof with years of experience in traditional publishing, explains the situation beautifully. The greatest obstacle she cites is obvious when you think about it – a book and a blog are different forms of writing.
For me, a blog post is quick and au courant, of the moment. I won’t say my posts at 317am are not serious, but they are a chance for me to play around with ideas. A book, one presumes, is written for the ages. A blog is fresh; a book is eternal. You can’t simply collect your posts, update and edit around the edges, and then expect anybody to buy them.
Many are the great writers before us who have learned this hard lesson. In his constant scheming to get a steady source of income, the young Mark Twain had this persistent fantasy of recycling his newspaper pieces, which had acquired a following in Nevada and San Francisco, as a book. According to Ron Powers’s Mark Twain: A Life, Twain ‘s brother Orion had collected three years’ worth of these in a scrapbook, and Twain wrote him thus, “As soon as this wedding business [of a friend] is over, I believe I will send to you for the files, & begin my book.”
These pieces did eventually turn into Twain’s first book, The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches, but it was a most unhappy experience for Twain. He got some some humiliating turndowns from New York publishers for his idea, and finally a friend, who was an inexperienced businessman, published the collection. According to Andrew Hoffman’s biography, Inventing Mark Twain, it sold only a few hundred copies, mostly to friends. Twain was soon disavowing the book. In a letter to his family, he wrote: “I published it simply to advertize myself & not with the hope of making anything out of it.”
Eventually, Twain did manage to recycle some newspaper pieces he’d written on Hawaii for his book Roughing It, but this came years later, after he’d achieved national fame as a writer with Innocents Abroad. A good basic principle for any literary collection: it helps if you’re famous already as a writer and there’s an audience hungry for work with your name attached.
John Updike was the great recent master of recycling his occasional magazine pieces. After his death, in November 2011, a collection of Updike’s appeared, titled Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism. If anybody could succeed in selling stuff out of the attic, I assumed it would be Updike, a name writer with a reverently reviewed collection. But I checked some Amazon measures of popularity for Higher Gossip. As of this week, Updike’s book has made neither Amazon’s top 100 best-sellers nor the New York Times top 20. Perhaps more to the point in a new-media age, Higher Gossip has generated only three citizen reviews on Amazon three-plus months after publication.
In short, few out there in the Webverse are willing to nibble old cheese after the expiration date – even if it is the product of a master artisanal cheesemaker.
Much to her credit, even as she cools the blog-to-book idea, Friedman also talks about a few blogs that have been successfully turned into books. Here, in Friedman’s view, is the sort of blogger who stands a shot at a book:
You’re focused on your blog for the joy of blogging, and you have the patience, determination, and drive to keep blogging for years. You won’t get recognition overnight, and it takes time to develop a following. Ultimately, it’s the buzz you generate, and the audience you develop (your platform created by the blog), that attracts a publisher to you—not the writing itself (though of course that’s important too!).
Makes sense to me.