When blogs began to take off in the early 2000s, they were heralded as an affordable, easy tool allowing users to express themselves and later, as a means to potentially build a following or boost your brand. Suddenly, people no longer had to rely on magazines, newspapers or books to get their thoughts and ideas out there. Anyone could start a blog and nearly everyone did.
In early 2005, there were about 7 million blogs and by 2006, the number had jumped to 30 million. This year, different estimates put the number of blogs somewhere between 125 million and 145 million, and the number keeps rising.
Yet over the years, many of the most successful bloggers have taken a leap back into the old world of publishing, releasing books based on their sites.
Back in May 2004, the New Yorker predicted “books by bloggers will be a trend, a cultural phenomenon.” Sure enough, in the years since, dozens more bloggers have seen their content extracted from the Internet and packaged between the covers of a book.
Some point out books based on websites do not tend to sell very well, but from a writer’s perspective, releasing a book can still lead to significant revenue just from the publishing advance as well as getting wider exposure.
We spoke with five bloggers who turned their websites into books. Here’s how they did it, and what effect, if any, publishing a book has had on their writing careers and websites since.
Stuff White People Like: The site makes fun of white culture with posts explaining the affection white people feel about everything from coffee to “black music that black people don’t listen to anymore.“ The site became a book in 2008. Lander is currently finishing up a follow-up book, also based on the site.
MainStreet: How did Stuff White People Like get started?
Lander: I was having an instant message conversation with my Filipino friend and he said he didn’t trust any white person who didn’t watch The Wire. And then we started joking about what white people did instead of watching The Wire. It was really funny, and I decided to turn it into a blog. In no way did I ever think it would get popular. I make the analogy that when you buy a lottery ticket, as a normal human being you usually say you know you won’t win, but it would be nice. I didn’t even think about that.
MS: Did you do much creative writing before the blog?
Lander: I’ve been writing steadily since I was 14. I’m a failed journalist, a failed grad student and a former copywriter. My entire life has been writing. I thought I'd be a comedy writer or a sports writer.
I also had a few blogs before this and nothing happened. They were really stupid blogs. For one of them, I started to write about my EA Sports games, not in a dry way, but by making up back stories of my players and creating weird little dramas and narratives. I thought it was funny and so did my friends.
MS: How did the book deal come about for Stuff White People Like? And how long did it take to happen?
Lander: It was lightning fast. About two and a half months after I started the blog, I got a book deal, and within six months the book was published. Agents reached out to me, starting first with some literary agents in New York City and then the major talent agencies in Los Angeles. The dream I’ve had since I was a little kid was to be a comedy writer, and I wanted to sign with a full service agency that would help me do books, television and films, so I ended up going with William Morris Agency.
MS: Which did you find more gratifying – seeing your first book land on store shelves or watching your website go viral?
Lander: I’d say it was seeing the book on the shelves, that meant a lot to me. I’ve wanted to be in academia all my life and also to be a comedy writer, and to having my book published made me feel like I had actually done it. But with the site getting big - the website looks the same whether one person looks at it or 50 million people look at it. It’s not like being a musician where you immediately feel the jump in crowd numbers. It was fun to watch the web traffic chart go up, but it didn’t feel any different to me.
MS: What effect, if any, do you think the publication of your book has had on your ability to drive traffic to your website?
Lander: When it comes to driving traffic, I literally gave up on trying to do that as soon as I had the book deal. My site was entirely dependent on my producing the content and now I can’t keep up with the demand, and I don't want to reduce the quality of the site by putting up poor content. I still rely on the same four friends to tell me if my posts are up to quality and if they say it’s not, then it doesn’t go up.
MS: What’s your next big project?
Lander: I’m coming out with my second book called Whiter Shades of Pale, about white people from different regions. I just finished writing it last week. I’m also working as a staff writer on a great MTV animated TV show that will come out in January. And my long-term plan is to shift to more television writing and possibly a collection of essays. I can’t write a novel – I’m not smart enough to do it, and I just don’t have the dedication.
MS: Well, whether or not you plan to write novels, you successfully finished writing two books. So do you now consider yourself to be more of a blogger or an author?
Lander: It depends on who I’m talking to. Author sounds more baller, but I’m happy with either title. I do feel closer to blogger right now just because I feel more connected to that world and the people in it than the world of authors.
1001 Rules for My Unborn Son: This site collects lessons from a not-yet father to help teach the child he hopes to have one day (and to entertain friends and family in the meantime.) A book based on the site was released in October of last year.
MainStreet: Why did you decide to start the site?
Lamond: It really was intended to be a personal side project for fun. I had had the content for years, just as a personal diary, stuff that I would write on the back of a bar-room napkin. And just for fun I decided to put it online and to practice making a website. But it was mostly for sharing with friends and family.
MS: Were you surprised by its popularity and how positive the feedback was?
Lamond: I was pleasantly surprised by people’s appreciation for something that wasn’t ironic or snarky. The Internet is a tough audience, and they can usually sniff out anything that is too corny or placating to any trends. And my blog was very earnest, sweet and nostalgic, and sometimes funny. The audience seemed to get it and didn’t hate on it too hard. But it’s a parenting blog. Think of your audience – these people are usually 16-25. I was very shocked to see that people actually appreciated it.
MS: Did you write much creatively before you started the blog?
Lamond: I was a writer and producer for documentary television, and occasionally I’d write a magazine article.
MS: So how did the book deal come about?
Lamond: A couple months after I started the blog, I got two pieces of press, one on an online men’s site and the other on Glamour’s blog. The readership started to grow, and within a couple days of those sites picking it up, I started to field phone calls from a handful of agents in New York who thought that it would make a good book.
MS: Which did you find more gratifying – seeing your first book hit store shelves or watching as your site went viral?
Lamond: I actually did appreciate when other bloggers I respected wrote about it, kind of giving it the stamp of approval. However, you can’t discount the feeling of handing your mother a hardback book that you wrote. It’s a wonderful feeling. And close behind it is actually getting a check for the book.
MS: Has the book helped drive much traffic to the blog?
Lamond: Mainstream press on the book certainly helped the readership of the blog, but I guess that’s not really the point anymore. I don’t sell advertising on the blog and I don’t try to drive traffic to the blog. If anything, the blog serves to drive traffic to the book because the book is where I’m going to make money. The business model is that the blog is essentially free content that will hopefully drive you to want the experience of owning the book.
MS: What is your next big project?
Lamond: I’d like to write another book that may or may not originate online, and also, I’d like to write another book with more words in it. I think I might explore something else. I wrote a book for my unborn son, now it’s time to write a book for my living son. It may take the form of a young adult novel or a throwback adventure story for boys.
MS: Finally, do you consider yourself to be more an author at this point or a blogger?
Lamond: I never considered myself to really be a blogger because other people do it so much better than I do. So maybe a writer. Author never. I don’t think the book is substantial enough to warrant the author title. Let’s save that for people like Jonathan Franzen and others who manage to write a real book.
The Truth About Chuck Norris: The original site, 4q.cc, collected absurd user-generated facts about Chuck Norris (“Chuck Norris’s tears cure cancer. Too bad he never cried.”) and has since been turned into three books, with a fourth in the works.
MainStreet: How did the website get started?
Spector: I never intended to start the website, it was an accident born out of some commotion on a discussion forum making fun of Vin Diesel for starring in The Pacifier in 2005. The banter devolved into these short, one-line, fake facts, which were hilarious. I had a web hosting company at the time and threw together a quick website where anyone could read and submit them and it just sort of took off. After a few months and about a million visits later, I put up a poll to see who the site should cover next. There were about 12 choices as well as a write-in option and more people wrote in Chuck Norris than anyone else. The rest, I suppose is history.
MS: How did the book deal come about?
Spector: As the site grew in popularity, I began receiving requests from publishers to do a book. Eventually I was contacted by an agent who convinced me it was a good idea.
MS: What did you find more gratifying – getting your first book published or having your site blow up into a huge success?
Spector: That's kind of a tricky question. Being a bit of a geek, it is pretty impressive to say that the website has over 200 million impressions. That being said, it's a lot harder to get a book published, especially by a major publisher, so I'll have to go with that.
MS: Has the publication of the books helped drive much traffic to your site?
Spector: It helped at first, but internet memes are very ephemeral.
MS: Do you plan to keep putting out Chuck Norris content or is there another big project in the works?
Spector: The books continue to sell very well. The numbers are hard to pull up but I know for sure that we've sold several hundred thousand copies. I'm a firm believer in the free market, so if people are still craving more, they'll get more. That being said, I graduated in 2009 from Brown with a degree in Cognitive Neuroscience, which really has nothing to do with writing. Right now, in addition to doing web strategy consulting, I'm working on a really fun startup called PostcardsAnywhere and have big plans to develop a property called What is Awesome.
MS: Finally, with three books down and another one potentially on the way, do you consider yourself more of a blogger or an author?
Spector: I never considered myself a blogger and only call myself an author to occasionally impress hot girls (kidding ... sometimes). The front of my business card has the words "I do things" in large print.
Brenna Ehrlich and Andrea Bartz
Stuff Hipsters Hate: This site performs a much needed function and makes fun of hipsters, much in the same way that Lander’s website makes fun of white people in general. Their first book based on the site is scheduled to be released in September.
MainStreet: How did the site get started?
Ehrlich: Basically, Andi and I used to e-mail each other, telling each other about our weekends in Brooklyn, or strange experiences with dudes and other adventures. I had just gone on a date with this guy that we called "I Hate Everything Hipster," because he hated, well, everything. Birthdays, concerts, hugs, bikes, you name it. I just finished telling her about this guy via e-mail, when she suggested that we write a blog about what hipsters hate. (We had discussed writing a blog before, because we were pretty amused by our e-mails and thought others might be as well.) I e-mailed her right back with a Tumblr URL and the words, "It is done." That day I wrote the first entry, "Other Hipsters."
MS: Did you think it would get as big as it did?
Ehrlich: Nah, we didn't think it would get big. We hoped it would, though. However, after someone put a link to an entry, I think "The Dentist," in the comments section of some article, we started getting a ton of hits. At that point, we decided to actually try to promote it. I would wake up before work every day and comment on any article about hipsters, leaving the link.
MS: How did the book deal come about?
Ehrlich: We had a proposal done around September of 2009 and were talking to an agent who was a friend of a friend. Our agent contacted us via e-mail, we met with him, knew he was the guy for us, and signed with him. Around late fall, publishers started e-mailing us. We went out with a proposal, and signed our deal with Ulysses Press in the winter.
MS: What did you find more gratifying – seeing your blog go viral or realizing that you would have a book hit store shelves?
Ehrlich: Ask us again when we're holding the book in our hands! It's extremely gratifying to see the blog go viral. It's even more gratifying to get feedback every day from our readers. We decided to have Meetups via Meetup Everywhere to celebrate the launch, and there's already 28. It's awesome to see the community of people we've built. Still, it will be amazing to have a finished, tangible product that we can put on our shelves and keep forever.
MS: What effect do you hope the book has on your ability to drive traffic to your website?
Ehrlich: I think it will definitely drive traffic. I think the most important thing -- with regard to how we've seen the blog-to-book process affecting others -- is to not abandon your content because you have a book deal. Once you add a new element to your world, you have to keep tending to all previous elements as well. That being said, books do drive another kind of person to a site -- it's just a widening of worlds.
MS: How has the blog helped with your writing careers?
Ehrlich: I got a job at Mashable partly because of the blog, and Andi and I scored a CNN gig writing a column because of the blog as well. It's given us wonderful opportunities and a lot of experience.
MS: So at the moment, do you consider yourselves to be more bloggers or authors?
Ehrlich: We consider ourselves both. Also journalists. The line between blogger/journalist/author is pretty thin. Yeah, we put our content up on Tumblr, but the stuff we write actually takes research (i.e. living) and skill (i.e. that of an author). Why choose one title?
Waiter Rant: This site is exactly what it sounds like: a disgruntled waiter letting it all out. A book based on the site was released in 2008. He is coming out with another book this fall called Keep the Change, which criticizes the way consumers tip.
MainStreet: Why did you decide to start the site and did you think it would blow up the way it did?
Dublanica: I was a waiter and I had a choice – I could start drinking when I got home or write it all down. A lot of the people I dealt with weren’t very nice; they were jerks and I would take my work home with me. That was 2004 and I found writing it all down was cathartic. I realized I enjoyed writing. It was kind of for myself for a while and then it was sort of kaboom. I did not go into it thinking that would happen. It happened organically. The only time I ever plugged my site was to send a link to a website in England, and I soon got a few hundred hits. Then some news outlets called and asked to talk about me being a waiter, and then I got a few hundred thousand hits.
MS: So how did the book deal come about?
Dublanica: An agent first contacted me in 2005, but that didn’t work out because it just didn’t work out. They said they wanted me to write the book first and then they’d try to sell it. I was very leary of that. My gut told me, “don’t do it.” Then in early 2006, someone from the Waxman literary agency in NY got in contact with me and he was serious. He said, “we’re going to put together a proposal, and we’re going to see who wants to pick up on it.” I learned later that getting an agent is a huge, huge problem for people who want to write books and I was lucky to have a very good agent fall into my lap. We started crunching the proposal in August 2006 and the book came out in 2008, four years after my first key stroke on the blog.
MS: Which did you find more gratifying – seeing your book hit store shelves or watching your blog go viral?
Dublanica: The book. Without my blog, the book never would have happened in a million years. When you can hold the book in your hand and it’s being bought by people, there’s nothing like it. Plus when the book came out, there were TV crews and I was on The Today Show the next day. It was a whirlwind of stuff.
MS: Did the book drive much traffic to your website?
Dublanica: The Internet is very fickle and the most traffic I ever had was before the book came out. And now the blog readership is much lower than it was before. But the book sold really well and was a New York Times Bestseller.
One of the things I learned is that it’s very hard to maintain a blog and write a book at the same time. It is extremely difficult. Basically, you are signing a legal contract [with the publishing company]. They gave you money and you’re working for them, and that is where your attention must go. That is difficult because your creative juices are drained. Plus, you’re also not out experiencing the things that made you write the blog in the first place. Instead, you’re holed up in your apartment for hours and hours writing the book.
MS: So now, which do you consider yourself to be: an author or a blogger?
Dublanica: I consider myself to be more of a writer now. I’ve finished two books and am putting together a proposal for a third book of non-fiction. I was never a classical blogger, the kind who writes every day. I wrote twice a week, and now I blog just once or twice a month.
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