The Author's Dilemma: To Blog or Not to Blog
by Claire E. WhiteThe business of being an author has changed considerably over the last ten years. No longer is it sufficient to write a brilliant manuscript and manage to get it published. Authors now need to be excellent promoters of their own work. And for the intrinsically shy, that can be problematic. But an Internet trend has the potential to revolutionize author marketing, even for those who despise public speaking: blogging.
If you're considering taking the plunge and starting an author blog, there are several considerations: the type of blog, what makes a great author blog, the pros and cons of blogging, the level of interactivity of the blog, and how blogging can energize your book publicity plan.
Types of Author Blogs: Daily Diary
There are a number of different types or styles of blogs. The most basic type of blog is the Daily Diary blog. It's easy to get started. Just remember when you were a kid and kept a diary. (If you didn't keep a diary, use your imagination. You're a writer, after all.) Sit down at your computer and start typing "Dear Diary, today I ....." and fill in the blanks. Then remove the "Dear Diary" intro and you're set. The goal here is to create entries which are more exciting than the ones you wrote when you were eight, but considerably less embarrassing than the ones you wrote when you were seventeen. Some authors seem surprised that readers would like to hear about their daily battles with the cable company, their root canal or their impending hot date. An entire industry is founded on the fact that people love to read about celebrities' lives. If a reader has read your book and enjoyed your writing style, many times she'd like to read more of your writing while she's waiting for your next book to come out. But because of the slowness of print, your new fan may have to wait an entire year to see what happens next to your characters. Keep her interested with your blog entries so that when the next book comes out she hasn't forgotten all about you and your characters. Of course, some authors are better at blogging than their peers. One author can make a trip to the grocery store sound interesting, while another might have flown to the International Space Station as a space tourist and manage to make a dull story of it. It's not what you blog about, it's how you blog. Write from the heart, write about what interests you and chances are it will interest your readers as well.
The Weekly Update
This format is for those who just can't commit to the grind of a daily blog. So, every Friday, give a sum-up of what happened the week before, and what exciting events you have planned for the week ahead. If nothing exciting happened to you the week before, then comment on something in the news. Surely something happened to you? How's that new book coming? What books did you read this week? What did you watch on TV? Share.
The Issue-Oriented Blog
The issue-oriented blog is the way to go if you're a nonfiction author who covers a particular topic or set of related topics. Filmmaker and political activist Michael Moore runs an issue-oriented blog. He talks about political issues, makes fun of politicians and makes impassioned pleas to his supporters to take certain actions, such as turning out to vote or attending rallies. University of Michigan History Professor and author Juan Cole writes a blog called Informed Comment: Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion, in which he discusses and comments on serious international issues from a Progressive political viewpoint.
On the opposite end of the political spectrum is conservative author and activist Michelle Malkin. Ms. Malkin comments on many of the same issues as does Mr. Moore; however, her opinions could not be more different than his. Each of these bloggers/authors has a substantial following fueled in large part by their continuing blogs which keeps their readership happy (or furious, as the case may be) in between books.
The issue-oriented blog is a magnet for hate mail and controversy. This can actually be a good thing if a) you have a thick skin and b) you want to be invited to give commentary on CNN or Fox News. The more controversial the political topic you write about, the more hate mail you can expect to get, and the more avid followers you'll line up. Caveat Blogger. If you decide to go this route, you should probably look into getting an unlisted phone number.
Feel like starting a blog but can't make the commitment to exciting posts every day? Track down three authors who write similar books as yours and convince them to start a group blog. Set the ground rules in advance: how many posts each member is responsible for, posting deadlines, planning for vacations, who pays for which expenses etc. The Whine Sisters is a successful (and very funny) group blog started by author Julia London. "The Ramblings of the Whiney Author, Julia London, and her Whiney Author Pals, Kathleen Givens and Sherri Browning" has an interesting format: one author brings up a topic for a week or so, then each author chimes in with her take on the issue. Issues have included favorite wines, Kevin Federline's new rap career, Madonna's new flippy hairdo and unfortunate celebrity fashion choices.
Storytellers Unplugged is a group of thirty authors, editors and booksellers who work in horror and dark fantasy who have teamed up to talk about the genre with readers who share their passion. It's an interesting blog where every day of the month a different columnist contributes a post. The format and style varies widely, from funny to serious.
Romancing the Blog is a collaboration of a group of romance authors who have teamed up to create the largest author group blog on the Net. Romancing the Blog features regular author bloggers, as well as guest columnists from the publishing business and reader blogs. On Open Blog Night, a guest blogger can get a shot at being invited to become a regular blogger.
Not Really a Blog at All
Many authors have some kind of newsletter or a letter to fans that they post on their site periodically. These kinds of entries, although valuable, are not true blogs -- even if they are updated daily. A true blog has permalinks, a date of entry, is frequently updated and has several entries to a page in reverse chronological order. Ideally, blogs also have an RSS feed, so readers can subscribe to your blog's feed and know when you have posted a new entry. Remember, if you don't have permalinks, no one can link directly to that insightful post you made about the latest judging scandal at the Man Booker Prize.
What Makes a Great Author Blog
So what makes a great author blog? It is a combination of factors which create a "perfect storm" of blogging. Great author blogs are frequently updated. They are interesting. And they are well-written. Many authors complain that they don't have anything to say, that their lives aren't that interesting on a day to day basis. But that's entirely the point: it's not your life that has to be interesting. But how you write about it must be interesting. And the way to do that is to let you personality shine through. Are you a grump in the morning or most of the time? Then rant and rave about subjects in the news. If you can make it funny, so much the better. But if you're not comfortable writing humor, then don't. If you feel strongly about a serious issue such as the environment, for example, then by all means share that passion with your readers. Before you get too worried about alienating your readers, remember this: You can't please everyone, so don't try. People are attracted to passion in writing. Write with passion and your readership will grow.
Of course, you need to use a little common sense here. If your passion is some activity that Gallup polls show that 90% of Americans find objectionable, perhaps you should keep that passion to yourself -- in the interest of book sales.
Pros of Author Blogging
The most important reason to start an author blog is to gain publicity for your books and to develop a fan base. Legendary publisher Jonathan Karp, who is responsible for numerous bestsellers and who now heads his own imprint at Warner Books called Warner Twelve has quite a bit to say on the subject:
"Writers have to be promoters if they believe in their work. Blogs are a way for authors to communicate directly with readers and establish a personal connection. It's a way to reach readers who may not attend bookstore events, and it's more convenient for authors, too. I haven't met too many writers who were eager to fly to Houston for a day -- though I'm sure Houston is lovely this time of year."Some authors use their blogs as a kind of informal writing critique group. John Battelle, the founder of Wired and The Industry Standard told The New York Times that he used his blog as a sounding board and used reader feedback to help him work on his book, The Search: The Inside Story of How Google and Its Rivals Changed Everything. The New York Times reports:
Authors' blogs also change the solitary mission of writing into something more closely resembling open-source software. Mistakes are corrected before they are eternalized in printed pages, and readers can take satisfaction that they contributed to a book's creation. The blogs can also confer some authority: Aside from drawing on the collective intelligence of its readers, Mr. Battelle's site has become a compendium of Google and search-related issues.Joe Wikert, Vice President and Publisher in the Professional/Trade division of John Wiley & Sons, Inc., blogs about the pros and cons of author blogging.
Authors who have experimented with blogging in this way -- and there are still only a handful -- say they hope to create a sense of community around their work and to keep fans informed when a new book is percolating. The novelist Aaron Hamburger used his blog to write about research techniques he employed to set his coming book in Berlin. Poppy Z. Brite, another novelist, has written about her characters on her blog as though they have a life of their own, not just the one springing from her imagination.
[A] blog is a great way for an author to extend their book with additional information, points of view, examples, etc. -- all things that either (a) didn't make it into the original book or (b) are better discussed on a dynamic forum rather than in a static book.
This is a core element for the future of book publishing: I feel it will become more important to truly augment and extend the original product with other types of content delivery including blogs, RSS feed updates, etc. OK, maybe this doesn't add a lot of value for the novel you read on the beach but there are plenty of books where it does make sense.
The best example of the power of an author blog is Neil Gaiman's journal. Neil started his blog in 2001 to give readers a backstage peek into the post-publication process of the New York Times bestselling novel American Gods. In a 2001 interview in The IWJ, he discussed when a blog can be a drain on a writer's creative energy:
The only time it actually does drain off creative energy is when I sit there and do a really good blogger entry and then some terrible technical accident happens -- and no one ever sees it. The saddest of them was the time that I sat and wrote one of the best entries I've ever done. It was funny, it was cool, and it had great bits in it. It was early one Saturday morning. I had awakened really early, and I really felt inspired to write all the things in my journal that I had been meaning to write. Just get it all out of my head. So I wrote this incredibly long entry, ending up with an essay on how to pronounce my last name (it's gay´- mn), which was kind of fun. I finished it proudly, sent it off to be posted and went to make myself a cup of tea. As I walked out of the door of my office, my daughter Holly -- like a character in a bad French farce -- walked over to the computer, saw that there was a window with an error message up, and promptly closed the message, closed the main window, then went to my site to see what I had written in my journal that day. She saw that there wasn't anything new (because she had just deleted it) and wandered off again. I walked back in to my office, sat down at the computer, and immediately began swearing quite a bit. Holly walked past me and said, "You really shouldn't swear, you know. It sets a bad example."Neil's Journal was really ahead of its time in many ways. Although it was supposed to have a finite life, it appears to be heading towards immortality. The mere threat of the cessation of the blog prompted a frantic response from the readers, to which he replied in a September, 2005 post:
The fun of the journal for me is getting to try to explain what goes on backstage of an author tour. It's kind of funny; If you went back and read the original Sandman scripts, there's an awful lot of the kinds of things in them that now turn up in my weblog. Of course, no one ever read those original scripts except the artist and the editor. There are all kinds of odd things in there, perhaps even a minor diversionary essay on gardening. What I wanted to do with the journal was to try to show what happens to an author after he finishes a book. Most people have a very vague idea of what happens then. Most people think that it goes like this. You write a book. You hand in the book. You put it in the post to the publisher. Then, six months later, they phone you to say, "Hey, you'll never believe this! Your book has hit the New York Times list!" Or, "You'll never believe this! I just saw your book on a remainder table." Most people probably don't even think about the second option. I really wanted to try to show the great amount of stuff that is happening behind the scenes when a new book comes out. There is so much that is being done, that is being created, and being built. There is an enormous amount of work going on.
I started blogging in Feb 2001, certain that I'd do it until September 2001, but I've enjoyed having a soapbox, not to mention somewhere to witter on about writing and socks and things too much to stop. Still, one day the wind will change, and I'll either stop or take a break or something, probably as an initial step towards becoming a mysterious recluse rumoured to have tissue-boxes on my feet and a long scraggy beard. Mostly what I was trying to stress was the oddness of realising that there are A Lot Of People Reading This, and the weird feeling that gives -- the knowledge that something small I do for fun somehow matters, and that if I stopped people would care.So his blog continues, for now. Over the years, his blog has evolved into something rather different from when it began. He now discusses everything from the joys of fatherhood, the trials and tribulations of author tours, interesting websites he's discovered, the status of his feature film projects and many other interesting things. He initially had a submission form for questions, the most frequent of which were to become a brief FAQ. But so many people wrote in with unusual comments and questions that he began answering selected emails in his blog posts. As an author to whom the concept of writer's block is an alien concept, it is unlikely that he'll ever run out of interesting things to say in his blog, which is fortunate, given the extremely unhappy reaction his fans had even to the suggestion of his stopping. He also has message boards on the site.
Cons of Author Blogging
So much for the Pros, how about the Cons? Some writers feel positively energized after writing a quick blog entry, and enjoy the reader feedback. But if blogging or keeping a journal saps your creative energy, then by all means avoid it. Some authors solve this problem by refusing to blog about works in progress; they only discuss personal matters in their blogs. In an interview with The IWJ, romance author Julie Kenner explains her decision not to blog about the books while she's writing them:
I have a love/hate relationship with blogging. I got started because I ran across www.blogger.com, and my webpage is my favorite form of procrastination. So I thought I'd see what went in to creating a blog. I soon realized, though, that I wasn't really up to or interested in keeping an online journal. If I was going to be at the computer, I wanted to be working on a book, not a blog entry. And there are so many talented bloggers out there that I didn't really feel like I was contributing anything to the noise in cyberspace. So I reformatted my blog to make it simply the News and Announcements page on my website. That worked for a while, but then I would have the urge every once in awhile to post something leaning toward blogginess and utterly unrelated to news or announcements.Other authors dislike blogging for that very reason: it's just too personal. That's a matter of personal choice, but consider this: you are putting your name out there as an author and you want to sell books. Promotion and perhaps fame are the price you pay for success. You could always avoid personal entries and talk about issues or other people. Of course, that leads to another problem: exposing political views that your reader may not agree with. Some authors willingly talk about pet issues, some don't give any clues as to whether they are liberal, conservative, or independent when it comes to politics. Consider your readership and how strongly you feel about your views, and choose accordingly.
So more recently, I've gone back to posting blog entries, life tidbits and the like. I'm also trying to focus a lot on books that I've read or am reading and mommy stuff. I don't feel comfortable blogging about how my current manuscript is going or how I'm developing a plot or a character; that simply doesn't work for me. Mundane life stuff? Sure. That I can handle! I'm still not sure if I'm contributing, but considering the length and breadth of cyberspace, I don't suppose it matters so much. Plus, I do like the feedback I get from folks who visit the blog. That's always lots of fun.
To Comment or Not to Comment
A few bloggers maintain that blogs that don't allow reader comments are not "real" blogs. Most bloggers don't follow that line of thinking and believe that reader comments turn a blog into a message board. The essence of a blog is not the interactivity of the medium: it is the sharing of the thoughts and opinions of the blogger. Adding comments to your blog opens up a host of problems: you will spend a great deal of time policing the posts, weeding out spam and trolls, and answering endless technical questions from registrants. If you have a webmaster on the payroll and long for reader feedback, by all means, add comments to your blog. Otherwise, just set up a message board on your site and designate a moderator to screen out the trolls.
Blog Tours, Ghostblogging and Other Virtual Creations
You've heard of author tours, but have you heard about blog tours? A blog tour happens when the author arranges to be a guest blogger on different blogs over the period of several weeks. She "moves" from one site to the next in a scheduled order. In addition to being a guestblogger on a designated day, the author might agree to take questions from readers, answer a few interview questions from the host site, or talk about a particular subject that is germane to the host site's audience. A blog tour is like a virtual author tour. You become a guest blogger for a number of different blogs which appeal to the demographic you're trying to reach. If you don't feel like you know anyone to host your blog tour, then it's time to do some research. Most of your fellow authors are friendly souls, so find out which blogs are willing to host a guest blogger, then make your pitch. The worst they can say is no. Be sure to mention that you'll be posting the urls (web addresses) of the places you'll be blogging on your own blog, which gives exposure to the host sites. Blogging is all about reciprocity. Be generous with links.
The advantages of a Blog Tour or virtual book tour is the low cost and wide exposure. Arranging a virtual blog tour could take some time, but generally it could be done by email. Readers of the host blog benefit by having a new poster with a different perspective. Everyone is happy. And your publisher hasn't had to shell out a dime on airfare.
Ghostblogging -- the idea of hiring a ghostwriter to blog for you -- goes against the very concept of blogging, which is to give a forum to one person's views, thoughts and feelings on a variety of subjects. But what if you can't type? Perhaps you're ill. Or you never learned how. Or you're a Luddite who opposes the digital revolution, yet still wishes to sell books. In that case, you should take a cue from celebrities. Many celebrities have fan clubs, newsletters and blogs. And many of them have lots of opinions that they want to share with fans. In that case, do what they do: get a digital voice recorder and record your thoughts, hand it to an assistant to transcribe and get it into the proper format. What, you thought that Britney Spears knew HTML and the ins and outs of permalinks? She doesn't. But she knows how to pick up the phone and tell her webmaster what she wants to say to her fans.
If you have access to teenagers, take advantage of their digital expertise. Any 17 year-old worth his salt can set you up a free account on Blogger and show you the basics. Or, for a nominal fee, no doubt he'll dutifully transcribe and upload your fascinating musings about the Quill Awards. You should probably disclose the arrangement to your fans so they know what's going on and who typed the words. But if they are your words, you're blogging. There are also voice recognition programs you can try if you're feeling technologically bold. And, of course, you'll blog about your thrilling adventures with Dragon NaturallySpeaking and IBM ViaVoice.
Blogging Your Way to a Publishing Contract
It's clear that there are substantial benefits for the published author who decides to embrace blogging. But what about the bloggers who want to be published authors? Interestingly enough, there is a growing trend of bloggers who have been offered book deals. The Book Standard reports:
Is there anyone left who doesn't have a blog? From top corporate executives to indie rock stars, everyone seems to have a weblog chronicling his or her adventures. And now, as the publishing industry has taken notice, it feels as if all those bloggers have landed blockbuster book deals. In the past two years, Wonkette's Ana Marie Cox, Julie Powell and Jessica Cutler (whose blog is now defunct) have parlayed their popular online ruminations/rants/reports into big-money contracts. And the deals keep coming: Riverhead has just signed investment-banker blogger Dana Vachon to a two-book deal that the media website (and Wonkette sister) Gawker reported was worth $650,000. Publishers, intoxicated by the allure of an apparently fervent fan base, are betting that web success will equal print victory-and yet they claim they're drawn to bloggers because of their talent.There is no guarantee that blogging will lead to a book contract. But even if it doesn't, your writing skills and ability to meet a daily deadline will improve over time.
Take, for instance, Judith Regan's recent acquisition of the work of Stephanie Klein: The New York art director, who candidly details her life (cheating ex, painful adolescence, endless dating escapades) at Greek Tragedy, is now enjoying the fruits of her digital labor with an enviable six-figure, two-book deal. ReganBooks director of publicity Paul Crichton says the deal was based on the merits of Klein's proposal -- not the popularity of her blog. And yet, he does acknowledge the potential advantages in marketing the books that are part of Klein's deal; he hopes her titles (she's signed on to write a memoir called Straight Up and Dirty, about her post-divorce dating experiences and another about her childhood experiences at Fat Camp) will find a pre-established audience among fans of her site.
A recent study by Advertising Age reported that in 2005, employees in the United States will spend 551,000 years reading blogs. The study suggests one in four workers will spend about 3.5 hours a week reading blogs. According to numerous reports, instead of working most employees are either surfing the web, doing online shopping or reading blogs. Those figures may be disheartening to corporate employers, but are nothing but good news for authors who blog. Whether you're a published author or just hoping to be one, a well-written blog can be just the thing to increase your readership and your book sales.
**To see the Internet Writing Journal's selection of The Best Author Blogs, click here.
**Claire E. White is the Editor of The Internet Writing Journal.