By Rachel Aydt
Blogger. Vlogger. Tweeter. Author. Journalist. These words aren’t synonymous, and yet they all have one thing in common: behind these terms are people who are jockeying in the media world for your attention. They could be selling something (whether novel or life insurance), cooking something, “curating” something, or actually reporting something. No matter what their goals are, their media platforms differ as much as their topics.
Many of the books crowding bookstore shelves nowadays are, of course, born from blogs, and more and more from Tweets, for example the Tweet-to-Book-to-TV phenomenon, Sh#t my Dad Says. Readers seem to be supporting these new projects that are lifted from the depths of the short attention span world, but short attention spans aside, what’s ultimately to become of the Blog-to-Book craze? Is the honeymoon over, or are we in it for a long, prosperous marriage? The answer to this question should make traditional publishers reach for their technology teams and give them a raise, or at least, prepare to pay them for overtime — they’re going to need to.
Frank Warren, author of the book Post Secret, has recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of his wildly successful blog of the same name. When I asked Warren whether or not he thought publishers were as interested in bloggers as they used to be, he said, “You’re asking the wrong question. What you need to be asking is whether or not bloggers are as interested in publishers as they used to be. Bloggers are asking whether or not they need publishers, because they’ve found their own audience, and publishers are acutely aware that they’re losing their audiences. So if publishers seek out a popular blogger, essentially it’s the blogger who’s sharing their readership and their conversation.”
Warren’s passion around the strength of a good blog is born from the belief that bloggers are often the tellers of authentic stories. Like his blog, the latest book in his ongoing series, published by William Morrow, is a collection of secrets that strangers have (snail) mailed to him over the last decade on postcards. The fact that these are real-life, as in 3-D, postcards makes them hugely more fascinating than emailed confessions would be. For many of PostSecret’s contributors, the postcard is treated like a carefully executed artwork — they’re absolutely beautiful objects worked over and over, apparently like their demons themselves. “Authentic secrets are coming from strangers, and these have a strong narrative,” says Warren, who has adapted PostSecret’s online presence to include new platforms to keep the project vital, such as a chat room. The result is that his PostSecret.com website has morphed from a showcase for anonymous secrets into a vibrant community (which he assures me is very, very real), despite its online home. This is now a community engaging in a larger conversation; something that a book can’t do on its own. “The end result of this conversation is what’s important. It has to be more meaningful. People think the digital world is abstract, but that’s not true. The digital world is actually crashing into the real world, for me translating sometimes into audiences at PostSecret events of up to 1,000 people.”
The Blog Frenzy May Be Over, But Editors Still Need Writers
Bloggers seem to understand that they’re leading the pack in terms of utilizing the internet buzzword of the year, Transmedia. “From my perspective, I’ve never seen more exciting and interesting blogs go to book deals and beyond. And now you’re seeing them go to films, and even stage adaptations, something PostSecret is doing that I’m thrilled about,” says Warren. The ironic twist here is that the relationship between bloggers and publishers can still be hugely in synch behind the scenes, at least by those publishers who are investing in keeping up. Warren stressed to me that HarperCollins has been instrumentally successful in helping him with new innovative technology by making short films around Post Secret, creating a tablet application, and putting out an e-book.
As an aside, the two that most rocked his world over the years (I had to ask) were 1) a postcard of a Starbucks cup that had written across it, “When people are mean, I give them decaf”, and in a completely different vein, 2) a picture of the Twin Towers that had written on it “Everyone who knew me before 9/11 thinks that I’m dead.”
Of course, not every successful blog to book is going to be so heavy; take The Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking, a recently published blog to book project, published by Harper Design and edited by Julia Abramoff. “The blog frenzy has subsided, so the bloggers who continue to compel readers with their expertise and their voices are the ones us editors are always looking out for. I’m an active blog reader, but The Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking is the first blog-to-book I’ve edited. Editing this was all about preserving Kate’s [the blogger-to-author] voice. She has the expertise to explain her subject and her wit and charm is what makes her book (and blog!) so compelling,” Abramoff explained via email. “With blogs, writers can only share a bit of information in each post. In book form, a writer has the room to elaborate on his or her subject. If a blogger’s voice is charismatic and his or her subject is compelling, a reader will want more than post-by-posts allow,” says Abramoff. “…I don’t have more book-to-blogs in the works at the moment, but I’m open to it.”
Marnie Cochran, an executive editor of Ballantine Books who specializes in commercial non-fiction, shares both Abramoff and Warren’s perspective that bloggers are lending conversations to publishers, though she’s quick to suggest that bloggers can’t always lay full claim on every conversation that’s happening. “Sometimes you can be looking first at an issue, and then find a blog that supports that. If you think of it that way, publishers are being opportunistic. We’re cruising around online to see what’s resonating among readers. Our natural first step would be to contact the blogger and find out if they have an interest in writing a book. Some won’t want their blog to transcend into a book.”
Cochran edited one blog to book that came out last year called Formerly Hot, Dispatches from the Other Side of Young, by Stephanie Dolgoff. The book, as does the blog, examines what it means for women to be hitting their mid-life point. “This is certainly not something that is a new idea; people have been thinking about this issue forever. But Stephanie is a pro: she writes with her audience in mind, not just to amuse herself like many other bloggers do. She’s very funny and pithy, and her work translated well from one medium to the other.” Keep in mind, Dolgoff was already deeply established first and foremost as a magazine writer and editor. “Just a few days after the blog went up, I started getting calls from agents. Many of my friends were in media, of course.”
Are Blogs Still Viable After Books?
What happens once the books are stamped with their ISBN numbers; will the blog live on? In Warren’s case, without a doubt. In Dolgoff’s case? “I am keeping it up, but not as well as before. Mainly, I’ve said a lot of what I want to say in the book, so I don’t have quite as much to write about anymore. I didn’t do it for the followers so much as because I had something to say, which was about a particular life transition. Now I’m pretty much through with the discovery part of that transition, so there’s less to discuss.” Despite that sentiment, apparently there is much more discuss; Dolgoff’s book has since been optioned for a TV show, not surprising, says Cochran, if you look at the recent shows on television with similar themes like Adventures of New Christine and Cougar Town. One can only imagine that a TV show will help boost Amazon rankings.
For Senior Publicist at HarperCollins, Kendra Newton, the art of selling the blog to book goes beyond reaching out to an already loyal following. “It helps that books from pre-existing blogs have a built-in fan base that can help spread the word about a book’s release, but in regards to promoting the book, we want to give it the opportunity to have a wider appeal and expand to a larger audience.” The audiences won’t always be receptive to the jump, though. “We quickly got hip to the fact that all blogs don’t made good books, and in fact, most don’t,” says Abramoff. The doubts about the blog to book crossover do seem to be percolating across the board. You could say that editors are cautiously optimistic, at best. Says Cochran, “I am a little more careful about thinking that tremendous traffic translates into book sales. It’s been proven to be an unpredictable thing.” But does it at least make it easier to get the marketing ball rolling? For Newton, her publicity strategies for these projects will never be black and white. “I wouldn’t say it’s easier than promoting more traditional projects, as there are many authors who also have a large, devoted fan base. It really depends on the topic and how relevant it is to what people are interested in at that moment. For The Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking, I’ve discovered that many people are interested in learning more about Kate and her book, even if they weren’t regular visitors to her blog before.”
It’s admirable for a publicist like Newton to convey that they’re out there drawing in new readers, but make no mistake, all publicists are well aware that they’re dipping into bloggers’ online audiences (as are brand expanders who are tapping into, say, fashion bloggers, but that’s for another day). The obvious synergy here is that marketing strategies can flow somewhat seamlessly from the publisher’s online marketing into the blogger’s online spaces, in the form of social media. I asked Warren, though, what he felt the right way to engage social media was, and he laughed and said, “If you’re in a meeting and they say ‘let’s find a way to engage social media, that’s the wrong way. The right way is say, ‘I have an idea for a great conversation, and then maybe people will respond.” Point taken — but at the end of the day, not all of the blog-to-book hits are based on deep, interactive conversations and compelling narratives.
More ubiquitous are the more visual blogs that are turned into books, such as I Can Haz Cheezburger, a funny cat book, or Sh*t My Kids Ruined, a collection of photographs from the best of the best of the blog of the same name. “Blogs and books are two different formats, and they need to be. The writing is different,” says Cochran. “There are some visual blogs that take to books, even if the idea doesn’t transcend the blog. Sh*t My Kids Ruined is a site that people check into every day to get a chuckle. They get it for free. So we were wondering, will they pay $10 to get it? Turns out, a lot did. It’s safe to say it was a popular Christmas stocking stuffer.”