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.