Love that that sweet serendipity.
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This will be brief, too, as the word-count-ometer is already, I fear, in the red. This post is linked by title and tags to three others — each interviews I conducted with writers who are prolific bloggers and published authors. Two of the three are Canadian-born but based in the USA (make of that what you will), the third is straight-up American. This wasn’t a deliberate bias, it simply seems the American publishing market is much quicker on the draw with pursuing talent through new technology and I didn’t have an example of a British published book that originated in blog-land to hand.
I chose to interview Jessica Morgan, co-writer of Go Fug Yourself, and Christian Lander of Stuff White People Like because I have read the blogs on and off for a couple of years. Caitlin Kelly of Broadside posted a comment on my blog, Irresponsibility, and after exchanging emails kindly agreed to be interviewed. Each of the three has a different approach to, interest in, and aspirations regarding blogging and publishing. Taken together, the interviews provide a wide-ranging and, I trust, informative overview of an evolving niche in publishing.
Caitlin Kelly is a Canadian-born writer who lives and works in Tarrytown, New York. She is the author of two books Blown Away: American Women and Guns (Pocket Books, 2004) and Malled – My Unintentional Career in Retail (Portfolio/Penguin, 2011). Her journalism appears in publications including the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Glamour, and The Smithsonian. As a result of her extensive print portfolio Ms Kelly has written blogs for both social and corporate blogging communities. Her personal blog is Broadside. In our interview she gave her views on the relationship between blogs and print media, the changing face of publishing, and what bloggers should know about writing books.
How has blogging influenced your work as a writer and journalist?
People like me who always made money from print journalism are struggling. I did get paid well for blogging about arthritis for a pharmaceutical company [it paid] more money than I’d made in print in years. But a lot of online writing doesn’t pay well, or at all. [Maintaining a personal blog] is a constant job to keep my name visible and make my work accessible to people around the world.
What is the relationship between blogging and print publishing?
Blogging is terrible money compared to classic journalism. I didn’t want to do it, but I wanted to write another book. Unless you’re John Grisham you have to be visible, you have to be blogging.
Has blogging changed your approach to writing?
Blogging made my writing more conversational, now when I do journalism it’s chattier and more casual. When you’re blogging you can say anything. It taught me to write more quickly and expanded my idea of what makes a story.
Do you know if agents and publishers talent-scout blogs?
They absolutely do. [As a blogger] you’ve proven you can write, you’ve proven you’re consistent, you’ve proven your productive and you’ve proven you’ve got an audience. You can have the sexiest credentials in the world, but if you can’t say ‘I have a huge potential audience’ no agent and especially no publisher is going to touch you. Blogging is an interesting way to prove yourself, it gives you verifiable numbers. There is no question that agents are reading blogs, editors are reading blogs. That’s been going on [in the States] for five or six years.
What challenges face a blogger who wants to get into print?
As an author I can’t tell you the pressure I feel when I sit down to write the first sentence of a book. We’re in a world of short attention spans. The blog feeds our addiction to a shortened attention span. We can sit down for a few minutes and read it. If a blogger can write a good book, and I enjoy it, then I’ll praise it to the skies. But to write a book you need to do research, you need to do interviews, you need to create the interest. It’s not simple and it’s not easy. It’s a huge amount of work, it’s intellectually ambitious. A book is a big canvas. You have to conceptualise things differently. With a book the barrier to entry, intellectually, is that much higher. You, as the writer, must bring a much higher level of skill – you have to up your game. You can’t just be cute, or moving. There are wonderful [blog] writers I read but I wouldn’t necessarily reach for their book. I wouldn’t have the confidence they could sustain me through a narrative.
So you want to write a book? How are you going to write a chapter of 5000 words if you’ve never written 5000 words? It’s not 500 words times 10. It’s a different animal. When I think about writing a chapter it’s like thinking about soup: you need the right ingredients. In just one chapter I have all kinds of sources, document research, and interviews. If you’ve not done that before, you’re not going to be able to do it. Otherwise, all you have is one person’s perspective. That’s so limited. I am just one voice, and I see things in a particular way. Truly great writers of non-fiction say ‘what am I missing in the way that I’m thinking? And how can fill in those gaps?’
Do you think blogging effects the way people read books?
Quite possibly. The blog feeds our addiction to a shortened attention span. We can sit down for a few minutes and read it. I think maybe younger readers bring a different set of eyes to the material. It may be changing. It probably is. Do people look at footnotes anymore? I don’t know if they do.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of blogs?
Their strengths are authenticity and immediacy. [Weaknesses are that] bloggers don’t have editors! People who think they’re writers because they THINK they are are in for a shock. Wait till they try to get a book published! Intellectually, if all you’re doing is writing quick, easy stuff that’s all you’re prepared to do. How are you going to do anything more complex? You can’t do things just because you feel like it. To be excellent is really not easy.
Jessica Morgan and Heather Cocks started the blog Go Fug Yourself in 2004, as a side-line to their day jobs as reality TV producers. Inspired by “glaringly ugly” celebrity styling, it grew from an inside joke to word-of-mouth phenomenon thanks to Heather and Jessica’s distinctive, wryly funny writing. Two years later they sold a proposal for the book which became The Fug Awards and quit television to become full time writers. In our interview, Jessica talks about the transition from blogging to books, keeping the audience satisfed, and why they sympathise with celebrities.
Did you start Go Fug Yourself for the hell of it, or did you see a niche in the market and think: “Ah-ha, this is our route to infamy and fortune”?
We started it for the hell of it. Really, it was an inside joke that we brought to life just for kicks, which we never thought anyone outside our immediate circle would read. I don’t even know if we thought we’d do it for very long. But then it turned out to be fun, and readers came, and THEN we realized we’d accidentally filled a niche.
How did you publicise it initially?
We haven’t, and didn’t. We got lucky because we were already part of a blogging community. We and they’d throw links to our site into their recaps, and it blossomed from there.
What were the first steps you took towards commercialising it?
We started selling ads to help fund the rights to photographs, and doing THAT meant we could update more often. And we would try to tweak the layout so that it looked cleaner, and/or offered more fun features.
How long did it take to become the day job?
It was getting that book advance that gave us the psychological cushion to quit our day jobs and do the blog full-time. Once that advance came in, just knowing we had a little nest egg gave us the kick in the pants we needed. So we both ended up quitting our day jobs around July/August 2006.
How has your approach to blogging changed as GFY has grown?
In the beginning we cared a lot less about what we were writing. We wanted it to be funny, but we didn’t stress out about whether we were making racy jokes or whatnot. But then — and this is true — once we did well enough that we were getting invited to do TV appearances, we told our parents about the blog, and I think knowing they were reading made us clean up our acts a bit. We’ve ridden enough highs and lows with enough celebs that we start to root for people to pull it together. We’re a bit more supportive of the celebs than we were at the beginning. It was never a transition we made on purpose; it just came out of us maturing as people and as writers.
Whose idea was the book?
We love to write, obviously, and were always curious about publishing, so it seemed like a great way to get our feet wet and then maybe see what other things we could write. Our agent thought we should strike while the iron was hot with a blog book, and then start pitching fiction, because editors he knew who read GFY were responding to our tone and humor and thought it would mesh well for the YA audience. And indeed, we have our young adult debut coming out in June 2011, and we’re writing the sequel now.
Did you pitch the book or did a publisher approach you?
We came up with the pitch for the book, alongside our agent, and he shopped it to publishers.
What considerations are there in writing a book as opposed to writing a blog?
Blogs don’t have to have the shelf life a book does. In trying to conceive a book proposal, we had to come up with a format that wouldn’t date so much. We came up with a fake-awards format. It felt a little more lasting and we could dip into archival stuff and make it more of an ode to an era.
What is different in terms of getting permissions, photo rights and legal clearance for a book versus a blog?
You have to worry about things like print run and whether it’s international or just domestic. They also charge per photo, whereas our deal for the site itself is a monthly fee for a flat number of downloads. The agency worked to get us a good deal, though, since we were buying so many photos and we’re good customers.
Was the public response to the book what you expected?
We were so proud of the book — it came out beautifully, design-wise and otherwise. We worked hard to make it fresh and fun, so our readers wouldn’t resent supporting us by buying it. We had a feeling that we’d done a good job and every single e-mail we got was positive. Seriously, our haters are not shy about writing us to tell us when they’re mad, and we did not get a single note of disappointment from anyone. Our audience loved it so we felt like we did our job.
Does your publisher or agent work specifically with bloggers?
Are you planning another book?
Not based on the blog. We’re delving into young adult fiction.
Do you feel as if you’re taken more seriously now you’re “proper” authors?
No, because people’s perceptions of writing have changed thanks to blogs. People already saw us as proper writers. I don’t think having a published book changed that. We publish a book’s worth of prose every MONTH on the site.
Posted by Cila Warncke
Blogging is like exercise: addictive, once you get the hang of it but dangerously easy to leave aside when life gets hectic. There is little to say about my several weeks’ hiatus apart from: stuff happened. Mexico. London. Ibiza. Plans made and then unmade for journeys to Ireland, the States, Mexico again. There were patches where I was seriously considering going to the nearest airport and buying a one-way ticket on the first flight to someplace I’d never been before. I got a little caught up in the idea of someplace new. A succession of adventures, coincidences, gin & tonics and long conversations with friends nudged me into the realisation that the ‘someplace new’ I need to explore is Ibiza – and my own motivations.
Jumping on planes is A) more fun than jumping off them and B) only very occasionally an antidote to chronic discontent. I tried it with Mexico and couldn’t, at the end of 14 weeks, figure out why the hell I hadn’t learned anything there. Why I had come back as bored and irritable as I’d left. A few weeks rattling around in the Mediterranean sun, making fantastic new friends who kickstarted my brain from its tropic slothfulness into frisky, if somewhat tentative life, suggests that my problem wasn’t where I was but how I was thinking. Somewhere between Ibiza, E17 and Merida, I completely lost my bottle. Not that you’d have noticed, necessarily. I was still walking around spouting opinions, still capable of summoning enough bravado to actually get from E17 to Merida, but there was something missing. The best lack all conviction.
I didn’t know what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go, how I wanted to live or who I wanted to be. I was stumped. Then I got the following advice from a smartarse filmmaker:
Whatever you decide, feel good about it. Feel amazing about it. Feel as if you couldn’t have made any other possible decision. As long as you do that, everything will work out exactly as it should.
When I started to think like that suddenly the stubbornly wedged pieces began to fall into place. The decisions I fight the hardest are usually, in retrospect, as easy as falling over. It’s like standing at the top of a high dive. Turning, fretting, pawing at the board to buy time. Praying for a heavenly waterslide to appear. It never does. So I jumped. And my fear-hazed, pinched-in little world bloomed. There is much to be determined, questions to be posed and answered, work to be done, but it’s okay because life is exciting again.
I suspect my four blog followers are down to one or two now, thanks to my egregious neglect. For once, it’s not wilful laziness on my part. At least not entirely wilful laziness. Right after my last post Britney-blizzard struck and my lovely interlocutor Helen Skyped me a bunch of revision notes. A rush of freelance work (most of it odious) came rushing in at the same time. So I did the usual: panic. Cue 10 days of hyperventilating, staring at my laptop screen until my eyes wouldn’t focus then working more anyway (hurrah for being able to touchtype! It’ll come in double handy when I go blind) and going to bed every night with an unwritten-word tornado churning in my head.
It got done, somehow, in a flurry of strong coffee, biscuits, midnight MSN chats and the odd sneaky drag of a menthol. My last deadline proper was this morning. It was a strangely silent afternoon. Having no pressing work is far worse than having too much. After exhausting the entertainment potential of Facebook (about seven minutes) and a largely unsuccessful bash at making cheesy potato mash patties I decided to start studying for my UK driving theory test. Abandoned it to go running, then spent half an hour reading hostel reviews online.
I have a half-baked lot of short story ideas I want to tackle next but can’t bring myself to put my feet properly under the desk just yet. Hence blog-waffle. Ten days of hard writing-to-order has squished all the creative cells in my brain. They need a little time to ping back into functioning order, I figure. That, or I’m being lazy.
Posted by Cila Warncke
Every once in a while someone hits up one of my blogs with a comment so fantastically stupid I sit and cackle helplessly (and then email it to my friends). Some chap happened across a few comments about sexism and sex appeal in Quantum of Solace and grabbed the wrong end of the stick with both sweaty palms.
My not-quite-coherent interlocutor is under the mistaken impression that my feminism is merely a badly sublimated urge to be swept off my feet into a Mills & Boone romance. I think he thinks I want this. Actually…
Posted by Cila Warncke
I’ve just started doing monthly Ibiza dispatches for the excellent Mr & Mrs Smith blog. My first is on alfresco winter dining…
The holidays are bearing down with freight-train inevitability so naturally, I’ve been thinking about food. My national origins call for turkey-gobbling in November, but here in Ibiza the sun is still shining and the emphasis is on fresh, organic food. Our neighbours have orange trees sporting fruit the size of softballs, a few late figs are ripening and my daily run takes me past fields of flowering potato plants and rows of ruby red peppers.
Among the best places to taste the island’s delicious home-grown vegetables are traditional Ibicenco restaurants like Cami de Balafia…
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