Chris Anderson blogged his book The Long Tail into a blockbuster. Flickr image courtesy of user Pop!Tech.
Peruse the New York Times Bestseller List for nonfiction at any moment, and you’ll find several familiar archetypes – celebrity or politician autobiographies, self-help tomes, partisan political mind-candy packaged as cultural commentary, and a smattering of works from popular historians and magazine authors. In recent years, though, you might have noticed a new vanguard taking up more and more space on the list – the blogger-turned-author. (Looking at the list right now, I’d count 4 of the top 35 titles as being blog-driven projects – Dan Pink, Nouriel Roubini, Jen Lancaster, and Simon Johnson / James Kwak.)
The blog-to-book-deal pathway is now so well-trod that there are entire blogs devoted to dreaming up snarky blog-to-book ideas. But there are several reasons these two great tastes taste so great together:
A table of contents is like a taxonomy.
A key part of any nonfiction book proposal is the description of how the book will be organized. Often, even plot-driven books become mostly thematic in their organization. For example, Jonathan Alter’s book The Promise – about President Obama’s first year in office – hews very loosely to a chronological thread from inauguration to the 2010 State of the Union. But if you look at the book’s chapters, they’re all about topics – Cabinet selection, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Rahm Emanuel, the financial crisis, health care reform, Afghanistan and Iraq, etc.
Planning for a nonfiction blog requires similar thinking about what themes and topics you’ll hit on regularly. Like a draft table of contents, the taxonomy helps you determine the scope and emphasis of your site.
Compelling books and blogs often employ a core narrative engine – a unifying objective, big idea, mystery, or argument.
This is what I call the quest. At its most basic, the narrative engine is a gimmick – the author plans to cook all the recipes in Julia Child’s most famous cookbook, or read every entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Done deftly, it transforms messy, pattern-defying reality into a vivid and graspable narrative.
Michael Lewis’ The Big Short lays out the fundamentals behind the financial crisis by focusing on the story of the small club of individuals who made their fortunes betting against the housing market. That framework, while narrow, is flexible enough to allow Lewis to touch on diverse contributors to the crisis – regulatory failures, market failures, foreign investment, individual irresponsibility and fraud – without overwhelming his readers.
Of all the highly-regarded economists qualified to comment about the causes behind the crisis, Simon Johnson might be among the most prominent. He’s appeared all over public media – Fresh Air, This American Life, Bill Moyers’ Journal – and has been ubiquitous in news stories about the disaster. I’m convinced Johnson’s hit blog, The Baseline Scenario, is a key reason he’s become such a key source. And I’m further convinced that what makes the blog really sing is its unifying argument – about the peril of allowing banks to become and remain “too big to fail.” In post after post, and in book chapter after book chapter, Johnson and Kwak explain all the little ways in which megabanks pose the potential to distort our financial and political systems to the point where disastrous crashes become inevitable.
Successful authors tend to write every day.
This is the most consistent detail I recognize in authors’ stories about their processes. They force themselves to write almost every day. Writing creates its own inertia. When you start putting words on a page, and plunge ahead with it no matter what comes, you tend to end up with better material than if you hem and haw over every word. When Chip Scanlan taught reporting and writing at the Poynter Institute, his most constant piece of advice to writers was, “Lower your standards.” Get your words out there before they have the chance to logjam your mind. Then refine.
Blogging demands similar discipline. It requires a rigorous, regular pace, but that pace itself quickly makes you better. The journey from classic long-form reporter to true blogger-at-heart is reflected in posts like this, from James Fallows:
I thought this was — yet again — a “surprisingly” effective Big Speech by Obama, though with a very few revealing lapses. Will take my time on doing the Full Annotated Version tomorrow, ideally by early afternoon.
“Lowering your standards,” when applied to journalistic blogging, doesn’t mean shirking responsibility for what we post and tossing off unverified rumors on a whim. It means exposing our process at moments when we haven’t yet produced a refined result. It means writing posts that begin with, “I’m working on … ” and continue with, “but I’m struggling to …”
Ernest Hemingway often described a technique that strikes me as very bloggy. He actually concluded his writing for the day right as he was hitting his stride. That way, he could plant the seeds for some of his best ideas in the afternoon and reap the bounty the next morning, before he was truly warmed up.
Making a book and a site successful both require a flair for person-to-person marketing and promotion.
You’ve poured your heart into researching and writing a book. Years of missing deadlines, drafting and redrafting, getting coached, paring down extraneous beautiful passages like so many pieces of your soul – it all culminates in the publication of a book. And at last, you get to rest, right?
The book release is the moment when some of the most grueling work comes in – traveling to city after city, conducting readings in whatever bookstore will have you, signing covers, doing interviews. When selling 20,000 copies can launch you onto national bestseller lists, it makes sense to target 100 potential buyers at a book-signing.
This is one of the key reasons successful blogs so often result in successful books. When publishers see hundreds of thousands (or even tens of thousands) of regular visitors on a site, they know that a solid percentage of that audience might convert to buyers upon release, propelling the book onto the charts before the author even practices her signature. The blog becomes a key part of the book’s promotion.
But getting people to the site in the first place is an exercise that can require as much devotion (if not as much travel) as the book tour. It means engaging key conversation-leaders on Twitter and on their own sites, like a hundred little bookstores, getting in front of 100 new potential users every chance you get.