September
6th 2012
Blogs to books: an opportunity or a big mistake? You decide.

Posted under: local news, publication

Blogging in my dressing gown again!

From time to time, I’ve been encouraged to consider publishing a book comprised of blog posts at Historiann, plus (presumably!) some new, not-published-on-the-blog material.  While I’m always terribly flattered by the suggestion, I have real problems with this idea on a number of levels.

Maybe some (or most?) bloggers hope they’ll be the next Julie Powell of Julie and Julia fame–the book about the blog that begat the book that begat the Nora Ephron movie starring Amy Adams and Meryl Streep–I don’t know of too many books-from-blogs or Twitter feeds that are all that impressive or successful.  Most of them seem to me to be (like most blogs, perhaps) disposable celebutainment, “lifestyle” books in the Martha Stewart style, books about weird diets, or baby blogs turned into baby books.  Even  Julie and Julia was a pretty bad book–entertaining, but poorly written in large sections and only lightly edited, if at all, and it only made me wish I had followed the blog in real time.  (Ephron’s movie was the product of a larger and more mature imagination.)

In the main, my problems with the book-to-blog concept revolve around the fact that blogs are a particular genre of communication that I don’t think translate particularly well to other media, and maybe to print media in particular:

  • Blogs are not just about the blog author’s ideas, they’re about her audience’s reaction to her ideas and the interplay between and among the author and commenters.  How would a book capture the freshness of an ongoing conversation or debate?  (Even if it published the comments on each post, I don’t think it would!  If yesterday’s news is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip papers, then maybe it’s OK for old blog conversations to go down the memory hole.)
  • What about the links to other blog posts or articles?  What about the images that accompany most blog posts?
  • Blogs are not peer-reviewed or edited, and many books-from-blogs appear never to have been edited or revised for clarity.
  • On the other hand:  thank goodness blogs aren’t peer reviewed or edited–not everyone can be sparklingly fabulous and brilliant in every post!  An editor would probably have advised me not to threaten readers with contamination in this recent post.  I try to keep in mind my brother-in-law’s advice that “content is king” in the blogosphere, but music and fluff are sometimes what get us through busy teaching days.  I’m sorry–that’s just the way it is, kids.
  • I get it why publishers love blogs-to-books:  the audience is already there, and the social media marketing platform is built right in!  But don’t the blog readers and commenters resent it if the blog kind of becomes all about selling the books rather than the ongoing bloggy conversations  (Are books blog-killers, like the greedy farmer who kills the goose who lays the golden eggs?  Not that I’m making any golden eggs off of this blog, of course, but I wouldn’t want to kill my blog.)
  • Codex is a superior form of information storage, at least since fire has become less of an issue in libraries and homes.  But who knows what will happen to blogs if their authors or host publications choose not to pay for server space?  Speaking of libraries:  the Schlesinger Library asked my permission a few years ago to periodically capture and preserve shots from this blog in their effort to create an archive of digital media, so there’s that, but who knows how successful their effort will be 20 or 50 years from now?  (I’m sorry:  that’s rather grandiose, isn’t it?  Who will give a crap about this blog 50 years from now?  As George W. Bush once said:  History?  We won’t know.  We’ll all be dead.)
  • Maybe books-from-blogs are the best argument I’ve heard for e-books so far?  Then it would be technologically much more feasible to embed videos and links, and to take better advantage of the bloggy format.  (But if you’re on a tablet anyway, why would you buy a copy of a book about a blog when you could just read the blog, for free?  Duh.)
  • This is an objection perhaps particular to me:  wouldn’t a book turn the blog into work?  When of course, although this ain’t a blog about celebutainment, it is for the most part my daily fun.  (Is that just too sad?)

I’d like to take advantage of the blog platform to hear from you all.  Do you know of any successful non-disposable non-celebutainment blogs-to-books?  What in your view is the benefit (if any), and what is lost in the transfer to a book?

26 Comments »

26 Responses to “Blogs to books: an opportunity or a big mistake? You decide.”

  1. Western Dave on 06 Sep 2012 at 11:38 am #

    The one person who this really worked for is Jenny Lawson aka The Bloggess http://thebloggess.com/. I read Let’s Pretend This Never Happened and really enjoyed it although it was more like expanded blog entries stuff that was too long for the blog rather than a collection of blog entries. Plus she curses as much as you do. Maybe more. Maybe more than Comrade Physioprof, but without the cute e at the end.

  2. Western Dave on 06 Sep 2012 at 11:39 am #

    Strange Maps made a nice book too. Although it’s more coffee-tablish.

  3. sophiabrooks on 06 Sep 2012 at 11:41 am #

    I was about to mention The Bloggess as well. I think that book would work as a memoir even without the blog, so I am glad the blog gave her the attention and audience needed to be published.

  4. annajcook on 06 Sep 2012 at 11:41 am #

    I know a number of bloggers who have used blogging as a sort of brainstorming space for ideas that later turned into books … but not straight “blog-post-to-anthology” collections. I wonder if we’re looking for precedent if books that collect previously-published pieces of journalism (for example Katha Pollitt’s periodical anthologies that collect her columns for The Nation? Cheryl Strayed’s recent book of columns she wrote as Dear Sugar?) might be an apt analogy? Those are often pieces of writing that feel ephemeral and immediate, in reference to specific events or conversations that disappear from cultural memory in short order.

  5. Indyanna on 06 Sep 2012 at 11:44 am #

    God knows, I loves me some books, and the idea of books, which are under assault from the insides of libraries on out, and–like that cowboy song says of a certain bar–I love this blog. But I guess I lean to the view that the crossover utility is not likely to be incredibly high. I don’t really know why, though. I like the idea of the Schlesinger screen-caps as an archival enterprise. I guess I just enjoy the self-contradicted position of being online all the time yet against online education. Of demanding my daily “paper” on actual *paper* and then cursing every time I can’t get the crease to lie flat, or when a free-standing page slides to the floor. Everything in its own channel or on its own platform. (A ruggedly-bound paper version of the whole archive that was only available to longtime commentators would be a very nice badge of honor, but I’m still trying to figure out how to get a screen-cap onto a t-shirt).

    NB: what would be gained, perhaps, would be a long introductory essay by the blogger addressing what it’s all about anyway, plus any other ideas that may pertain. That might end up looking like simply another post, but maybe not; rather a trompe l’oeuil exemplar of the difference between the two voices, laid end-to-end.

  6. Susan on 06 Sep 2012 at 11:46 am #

    I thought Lawson’s book worked pretty well as a blog-to-book; she’s a rather essayistic blogger and that carried over well to memoir chapters. Another blog-to-book that worked well is Food In Jars, a cookbook based on the blog of the same name. I like the cookbook for the browsing it promotes (it is a gorgeous book: high quality paper and photos, so it’s easy to want to just sit and flip through it and dream of things to can). The blog is great for the random stories/tips/recipes that appear, but I”m not likely to browse the archives. A cookbook isn’t an apt comparison for you, of course, but it’s the best carryover from a blog I’ve found.

  7. Canuck Down South on 06 Sep 2012 at 12:38 pm #

    The most successful blog-to-print example that I’m aware of is also a food blog–a childhood friend of mine recently got a food column in a national newspaper based of off her successful blog. Now she posts once a week on her blog and writes a column (on a different, but food-related, topic), in the newspaper. I could also see her doing something like writing a cookbook, eventually. Maybe that’s one way to look at this–blogs-to-books are the most successful when they’re focused on a particular topic, and the book is an offshoot of the blog rather than a simple printing of it. I would love to read a book by Historiann that was on, say, the state of academia in the US from the point of view of a Colarado state school prof, or a memoir of being a woman historian in the west, or a reflection on being an academic blogger, or any number of topics that may have been addressed or inspired by the blog, but I think if I was going to sit down and read a book about it I’d be looking for something longer and meatier than the blog, or just something that I couldn’t get from the blog itself–and I do occasionally wander through the archives, usually when they’re linked from a current post on a similar topic.

  8. Canuck Down South on 06 Sep 2012 at 12:42 pm #

    I just thought of one more example–”Ms. Mentor,” (Emily Toth) the agony aunt from the Chronicle, has published two books in her persona as Ms. Mentor. I find I enjoy the books more than the column itself, largely because she organizes the chapters by theme or academic life stage, and she’s able to give longer and more expansive reflections on different topics (the books say they’re a combination of popular column posts and things that didn’t make it onto the column)–plus, there are very entertaining introductions and general overviews for each chapter. That’s not quite the same thing as a blog-to-book, I suppose–more like a journalist’s columns-to-book–though perhaps because academia has only changed so much in the past 15-20 years, I find her insight far more relevant than when I’ve read collections of columns by popular journalists.

  9. LadyProf on 06 Sep 2012 at 1:03 pm #

    @Canuck, not saying anything you don’t already know but food and cooking are exceptional topics in publishing. They make money when no other subject will sell. No coincidence that the successful examples we’re talking about here are your friend’s blog and Julie and Julia.

    On what you’d like to read about in a book by Historiann, seconded.

  10. Shadow Boxer on 06 Sep 2012 at 1:09 pm #

    Chime on The Bloggess and Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. The book format provided a proper platform for her bigger ideas. The short, random posts about her day-to-day life are much more suited to a blog, and were not really included in the book.

    Another good transfer is Lessons From the Fat-O-Sphere, by Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby. The book is based on comments and interactions with readers from their respective blogs, Shapely Prose (now an archive, Kate still posts at KateHarding.net) and The Rotund. This book was an expansion of the conversations they had, and a way for them to expand on their ideas and arguments in a way that just wasn’t feasible in a blog format.

    tl;dr – Straight blog-to-book with minimal editing doesn’t work. Working with the different pros and cons of books and blogs makes for a successful transition.

  11. Contingent Cassandra on 06 Sep 2012 at 2:08 pm #

    It sounds like we’re talking about general-interest blog to general-interest book here, so perhaps it’s not relevant, but I know the agreement I signed recently with a university press as part of the process of publishing an article in an academic journal included a promise that I *hadn’t* published any of the content elsewhere, including (perhaps especially) in electronic format. Blogs were, if I’m remembering correctly, specifically mentioned.

    So that may be an argument against blogging (or blogging too much) about one’s ongoing research, though that strikes me as one potentially-fruitful academic blog genre (see, for instance, Leigh Fought’s Frederick Douglass’s Women: In Progress, especially her rationale for blogging. Presumably Oxford University Press is okay with her approach, and maybe even hopes it will help sell books; in my case, at least, that strategy is likely to prove effective; the only question is whether I would have heard of and bought the book anyway). There are, of course, others, including the more general blog, the reflections-on-the-discipline/profession blog, and the pedagogically-oriented one. All, I think, could potentially provide material for good books, and could create sale-producing synergy, but would also require significant revision that takes into account the differing natures of the two forms.

    What about Marc Bousquet and Cathy Davidson? Both have, I believe, blogged and booked on similar subjects, but I’m not sure which came first, or how closely the two are related.

  12. koshembos on 06 Sep 2012 at 2:44 pm #

    Starting from the end: most food blogs publish terrible recipes and most cookbook are not much better. That’s the opinion of a guy who has cooked for 40 years and still does.

    Blogs can turn into great books for the simple reason that good writing, although rare, can perform miracles. Since I read less than 10 blogs, two German and two British among them, I don’t have successful examples.

    Book writing is sweat of your brow, but it doesn’t have to affect this great blog. Easier said …

    Getting commentators involved in writing is a great challenge but might be rewarding. In the comments above there are some regulars I would gladly listen to.

  13. Flavia on 06 Sep 2012 at 3:18 pm #

    I agree with you and others that I’m not terribly interested seeing most blogs as books. However, blogs are a great opportunity to get to know a writer, to fall in love with his or her voice, or to get interested in the issues that preoccupy him or her. There are blogs that have made me really want more, and I’ve been eager to get the blogger’s take on a particular subject in a longer format and/or in print. (The prime example for me is Ta-Nehisi Coates, but there are others who are less well-known.)

    So as a chance to launch, or to speed up, the process of getting a regular column, or freelance work, or a book contract, blogs are excellent. But they’re usually different beasts than books.

  14. Notorious Ph.D. on 06 Sep 2012 at 3:58 pm #

    Blogging lets me be all over the map with my blog, or have a month where I write 20 posts and one where I write three. For a book, I’d have to have a theme, and a work ethic, etc.

    On the other hand, I’ve recently seen something like a blog (actually a discussion thread, but it was bloglike in format) where it was obvious that the OP was throwing up the longer posts as a way of workshopping ideas, and getting input from other commenters about what they’d like to hear more about (she had spent a stint as a party princess for hire, and it was actually really interesting. Plus, she was a freelance illustrator, so her drawings to go with it were hilarious). That seems like a really interesting way to approach pre-publication work.

  15. Dame Eleanor Hull on 06 Sep 2012 at 4:07 pm #

    Does anyone remember the blogger Petite Anglaise, who ultimately came out as Catherine Sanderson and published a book that was based on her blog, or at least the early chunks of it? I read the blog with considerable, though guilty, interest, as it was the chronicle of a relationship train-wreck (actually a couple of them in close succession). But the immediacy of it was compelling. I pounced on the book when it appeared, but at that point—with more distance—the story just seemed sordid, and the not-on-the-blog filling in of biographical detail didn’t really add anything or make the author seem more sympathetic. That is, I was reluctantly sympathetic to the blogger, who had a very appealing voice, and whose daily life apart from the relationship stuff was interesting (living in Paris: what’s not to like?), but the book author seemed less sympathetic because of deliberately capitalizing on other people’s unhappiness, which she caused.

    I guess this is a long way of saying that the immediacy of blogs is an important part of their appeal which may not translate well to print.

  16. Dr. Crazy on 06 Sep 2012 at 6:17 pm #

    In general: the thing that I love about blogs (writing mine, but also reading others’) is the immediacy. The lack of lag-time from idea to printed word to response, and the feeling of spontaneity that comes from that. It’s worth noting that this is one reason why I’ve tended not to read blogs that have a more “polished” feel to them, or a more specific focus or “theme.”

    In general: the thing that I love about books (writing mine, but also reading others’) is that they signify (or should) a kind of deliberate, careful, deep thinking over months and years. The *point* is that they aren’t spontaneous or immediate – they are “fully formed” (or, at least, they aim to be). There is a careful attention to prose, and a careful attention to filling in gaps.

    The very “sloppiness” that I love in the blogs I read I would hate if I encountered in a book or published journal article. Conversely, I hate blog posts that are too “neat” and that don’t feel like there is at least some “thinking out loud” going on.

    For me, turning a blog into a book in some respects takes away the magic of the original, however fine or successful the final product turns out to be. And you couldn’t pay me to read a blog that sounds like a book.

  17. Evan on 06 Sep 2012 at 6:24 pm #

    There is one blog-to-book kind of thing that I’ve seen done well, which is the works by Richard Seymour (of Lenin’s Tomb blog). But he was often posting draft material for the book online to get feedback, I think, rather than writing a bunch of blogposts and then compiling them into a book.

    Is there a difference between the book that is a compilation of blogposts and the book that is a compilation of columns? I have read quite a few of the latter and found that when the columns were reproduced for the book, they lost a lot of the original context and thought that there should an up-to-date complimentary text explaining the original piece. (I can’t remember whose book of columns did that now!) I think a blog-to-book would suffer from the same and may be helped by a more recent commentary on the original posts.

  18. Nicoleandmaggie on 07 Sep 2012 at 5:24 am #

    Scalzi has a couple of good ones.

  19. Tony Grafton on 07 Sep 2012 at 5:34 am #

    Mary Beard has published two enjoyable book length compendia of her blog posts, with selected comments. I enjoyed them, but like her unedited blog and the full discussions better.I agree with Canuck down South: a book on pretty much any aspect of academe by Historiann would be a winner,

  20. Sweet Sue on 07 Sep 2012 at 7:00 am #

    I guess this is a long way of saying that the immediacy of blogs is an important part of their appeal which may not translate well to print

    Agreed. I used to get up every morning at six and, trust me, I’m a late riser, to read Julie Powell’s blog at Salon.
    Her continuing adventures-especially the mishaps-were funny and interesting and I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. I came to feel I knew Julie, Eric (sob), the cat and their awful yet spacious apartment.
    As her self imposed deadline drew near, the blog developed some real, edge of your seat suspense.
    Silly, but true.

  21. Madwoman with a Laptop on 07 Sep 2012 at 11:08 am #

    Fascinated by this discussion on a number of levels — as blogger, as teacher of blogging, as a literary critic interested in the generic differences between blogs and books and what happens when one “becomes” the other. In my class, I’ve taught Julie/Julia and Baghdad Burning (by the pseudonymous Riverbend) as examples of different paths from blog to book. In book form, Julie/Julia became a memoir. The blog was foundation or springboard for something that was much longer and, as Historiann suggests, clunkily written, lacking in the immediacy and suspense readers of the blog found so appealing. Baghdad Burning is, by contrast, just a print facsimile of the first year of the blog. You lose hyperlinks and comments (crucial aspects of what makes a blog a blog, of course), but you retain more of the sense of suspense. That might have a lot to do with the fact that Riverbend is an appealing character and, as writer, has a flair for the dramatic. She’s telling a very suspenseful story, and she tells it well.

    No one is knocking down my door with book (or film!) offers, but I’ve thought a lot about designing a book that would be some kind of hybrid — a mix of blog posts and analysis (of a lit critical/cultural studies sort) of blogging as a writing practice and a world-building practice. Not sure if a “book” is exactly what I have in mind, because I’d hate to give up the richness and dynamism of electronic publication, but I’d also like for my hybrid critter to be peer-reviewable and permanent. Because, you know, I’m trying not to die as an associate professor.

  22. Matt_L on 07 Sep 2012 at 11:49 am #

    Hey, didn’t that Montaigne guy have the first blog to book deal back in the 16th century?

    Blog posts can serve as an early draft for a book of essays. I think every good blog post has both immediacy and a kernel of the timeless. I think you could take the “whig of history” posts and turn them into a series of essays that highlight the immediate spark and then dwell on the nature of patriarchy.

    But that would sound an awful lot like work!

  23. Janice on 07 Sep 2012 at 2:44 pm #

    Hah, Matt! I totally agree – Montaigne would have SO been a blogger!

    I wouldn’t want to make a book out of my blog, although sometimes I try bits of work out on my blog that make their way into a book chapter or article. More often, what goes into the blog is the process of creating the book or, on occasion, the cast-offs.

    As well as a book on academia, I’d go for a Historiann channel on Youtube – maybe recommend all your favourites for those late-night grading marathons?

  24. undine on 07 Sep 2012 at 4:30 pm #

    Like Dr. Crazy and a lot of others, I’m hooked on the immediacy of blogs and also the visual medium. If I’m looking at a blog, I want diversion and I want it on a shiny screen with all the comments appended; if I’m looking at or listening to a book, I want something like history, biography, or a novel. (Incidentally, H’ann, can’t you persuade Audible to make Abraham in Arms into an audiobook? Or as Janice says, a Historiann channel on Youtube or a podcast? We would all love that!)

  25. Historiann on 07 Sep 2012 at 6:40 pm #

    OMG. I think me reading my posts here out loud would be more entertaining. Then I could be sassy and sarcastic. Most of the subject matter in A in A would have to be read straight, no attitude, because it contains scenes of actual and verbal violence.

    I just wanted to say THANKS to everyone who commented here yesterday and today. I had too much stuff to do to participate in the conversation, but I really appreciate the references to other blogs-to-books (successful and not so successful), and to your perspective as readers (many of whom are also bloggers.)

    I guess I wouldn’t particularly want to publish just a clip mash-up of what I’ve written already, although I am fond of some of my posts–I really have enjoyed the food blogging, especially in the posts in which I’ve done some historical work too. (As someone pointed out upthread, maybe it’s no coincidence that a number of the bigger blogs-to-books started as food blogs.) But–as several of you have pointed out–writing a substantially new book would mean actual work! And as others of you have pointed out, blogs are perhaps most effective as online workbooks in which ideas are sketched and explored through dialog with others.

    It’s losing the commenters, and the possibility of someone chiming in with yet another brilliant take on whatever we’re talking about, that makes blogging fresh and fun (and not coincidentally, sometimes vulgar, offensive, or just weird, and full of fun images for which I don’t pay royalties.) I really appreciate the comments by Dr. Crazy and Undine on the aesthetics of reading blogs v. books. I feel very much the same way, but you both articulated it much better than I could have.

    Finally, I appreciated the Madwoman’s comment about not wanting to die as an Associate Professor. Of course, that’s underlining all of my thinking on these issues, too.

  26. Comradde PhysioProffe on 09 Sep 2012 at 4:54 pm #

    If you’re gonna read your posts out loud, you should definitely do it while smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey!

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply