The Blog-to-Book Fantasy

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.

Photo of blogger Julie Powell

Blogger extraordinaire Julie Powell.

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.

Photo of blogger Jane Friedman

The sensible Jane Friedman.

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.”

Illiustration: Mark Twain and Bret Harte as depicted in Old Crow whiskey ad.

Mark Twain and Bret Harte as depicted in Old Crow whiskey ad.

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.

9 Responses to The Blog-to-Book Fantasy

  1. Interesting post. With Kindles and iPads and eventually Internet connections everywhere you could turn on a radio… what is a “book” now, anyway?

    Up until now it has been a physical object that cost enough to print and ship and market that it needed to successfully sell for at least a certain price. And only thoughts and ideas that promised to be exceptionally appealing to readers were chosen to be published for sale.

    But ideas crystallized into a simple digital file cost nothing to print or ship. Thus the market has become flooded with a million bits of thought and eager ideas, with some absolutely dazzling gems floating unnoticed amid the jumbled mass.

    It’s just like the music business. Fewer albums (books) are sold; we’re back to selling singles (blog posts), and there are more available than anyone has time or inclination to wade through to find the gems.

    Within six or seven years any song will be available to come streaming to your iPhone or iPod on request, no matter where you may be walking or driving. Wherever you have a cell phone or satellite connection.

    The same for a crystallized piece of thought called a blog post.

    So, what *is* a book going to be in this new world?

    • Thanks, Glenn, for such a thoughtful comment. You raise a great question: what is a book anyway these days? In this post I’ve taken a book to be that hallowed talisman and status totem for all writers- a book of the dead-tree variety. But there is much more to be said. Sooner or later, Kaze or I will get to this unless you’d like to try a guest blog post on it.

  2. A blog seems like it ought to be the New Age equivalent of a book, but it’s not. In the old days, reflective types kept journals or sketchbooks whenever they traveled–or, a la Julie Powell, whenever they started out on any kind of adventure that they wished to share. But the new technology allows us to do this in a far more interactive way. When it works, it’s collaboration of the best kind. But it’s still not a “book,” nor does it aspire to be. I have had to reconcile myself to this, but now that I’ve done it, it seems, as a sage once said of Las Vegas, “almost all right.”

    • I like your formulation of “almost all right,” WB. Sort of the story of my life. I did shift the ground in this post from blog posts to the old-school essayist (Updike) or journalist (Twain). But the principle still holds. Currency, a quality found in blog posts and tweets, has a great power that a book inevitably does not. So book authors must compensate in other ways, usually with profundity or style.

  3. And then there is “Marly and Me” which is the story (book/movie) about a newspaper columnist who supposedly made several years’ salary writing his life story with his dog, Marley. Kinda backwards, but that worked!

    • Good point, Barb. I’m not familiar with that particular opus, but I guess “Marley and Me” is one of those many exceptions to the basic principle – that collections are hard to pull off.

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