Lowdham Book Festival lecture notes.

Of course, if one cocks up the timing of one’s talk so badly that large chunks of it never get aired, one can always stick one’s lecture notes on one’s blog afterwards. Because, naturally, one abhors waste.

These, then, are the notes for the second half of Saturday talk, which relate to bloggers and book deals, and the differences between blog writing and book writing.

(Most of the first half can be found here.)

Much of what follows was inspired by (and on occasion, directly lifted from) phone conversations which took place last week with Clare Sudbery and Zinnia Cyclamen (“proper” writers both), to whom much gratitude.

There is something which has recently come to be seen (in certain quarters) as the Holy Grail to which every personal blogger must aspire.

Two little words, which have an almost mystical hold over certain sections of the blogosphere…

…and I’m going to say them now…


The first UK blog-to-book: Belle De Jour (2004).
– Scandalised the blogosphere by winning the Guardian “Best British Blog” competition.
– Major national press guessing game re. her true identity, which to this day has never been revealed.
– BdJ to be played by Billie Piper on ITV2 series in the autumn. (The ultimate accolade!)

A couple of blogging compilations in 2005 and 2006, mainly sourced from the “political” wing.

In 2006, the “blogger with a book deal” phenomenon began to emerge in earnest.
Girl with a one-track mind
Petite Anglaise
– Tom Reynolds: Random Acts Of Reality –> “Blood Sweat & Tea”
– David Copperield: The Policeman’s Blog -> “Wasting Police Time”

Reactions to blog-to-book boom.

People are now aware that book deals from blogs can happen.
– some cynical reactions from certain sections of the blogosphere
– introduces a hierarchy into what might have been seen as an egalitarian model (although it basically still is?)
– ramps up the competitive element
– why aren’t I good enough / what’s so great about them / they’re a self-glorifying clique, etc.

Example: Wife In The North.
– £70k deal with Viking Penguin, less than 6 weeks after starting her blog
– shock, horror, had previously worked as Sunday Times journalist
– hence suspicions as to legitimacy of “buzz”, cf. Sandi Thom in 2006
– conspiracy theories: it’s a PR stunt, etc.
– highlights emphasis on perceived “authenticity” and purity of motives

However: there are no blogging equivalents of Jordan!
– the blogosphere is a meritocracy
– you can’t schmooze your way to the top if you’re crap
– although there are scores of overlooked gems, the most popular personal blogs are popular for a good reason
– consistently well written and engaging
– have something which makes people want to come back for more

Emerging outlets for blog-to-book publishing.

The Friday Project.
– niche publishers in blog-to-book market
– much kudos within the blogosphere if TFP picks you up
– can they compete with the majors in terms of PR/marketing/distribution?
– depends on the extent of your hunger for world domination!

– ideal if you’re not into world domination, and not looking to shift mega-units
– sold online only
– you set your own rate of royalties
– though sales will be smaller, your percentage will be higher than going through a normal publisher
– benefit of immediacy: as soon as you submit your Word document or PDF file, the book is ready to order
– no start-up costs; books are printed to order and sold directly by self-publishing website
– you don’t need to pre-order, so no risk of being left with boxes of unsold stock

Leading self-publisher is lulu.com
– have coined the term “blook” (ugh)
– concept is promoted via the annual Lulu Blooker Prize
– I used them for my own venture into self-publishing: Shaggy Blog Stories (see below)

Could we see a rise in self-publishing and a move to grassroots? Lulu.com operating like an indie record label distributor?
– Maybe, but no sign of it yet.
– You can surf Myspace and quickly find a whole host of hot new bands, but you’ll search in vain on Lulu for hot new writers.
– Still in the realm of vanity publishing – no reliable indicators of quality – low volumes of sales. (SBS sold 500 copies and is in the all time top 200 best sellers, if that’s any indication.)
– No distribution network, and no marketing clout outside the Lulu website – you have to do all your promotion yourself.

Shaggy Blog Stories.

Anthology of comic writing from UK blogs.
– to raise money for Comic Relief
– but also “a book deal for all”, to widen the opportunity for bloggers to make it into print
– conceived and executed in seven days flat
book released at midnight on the start of Red Nose Day
– 300 submissions, reviewed by editorial team, 100 selected for publication
– DIY typesetting/editing/proofing – crash course – steep learning curve – great experience – much help offered and gratefully received
– 500 copies sold, c.£2000 raised
– lulu.com supportive, waived their own royalties
– publicity: BBC Radio Five Live, Radio 2, some national press, but overhwelmingly via word-of-mouth and links from other blogs
spin-off podcast (complete and utter flop!)

Have also set up Post of the Week
– to promote great writing on personal blogs
– to draw wider attention to blogs which might otherwise have been overlooked
– one guaranteed humdinger of a blog post, once a week, every week

The curious isolation of the blogger-turned-writer.

Once a blogger lands a book deal, they face a new set of pressures/problems/bewilderments, a lot of which can’t be blogged about.
– not wanting to brag / to bore / to jinx things before “going public”
– “all your dreams have come true, stop whinging!”
– issues can be stressful and scary

Writers don’t tend to meet each other
– not introduced via agents/publishers etc
– there’s no club, but you do want to talk to people

Other sources of info/help:
– blogs which deal with the creative process (eg. struggling author, real e fun)
– people are approaching each other out of the blue with messages of appreciation/support, and some acts of real generosity take place
– but if you can’t blog and you can’t talk, maybe you need a support network?

“Bloggers with book deals”
– private discussion group
– enthusiastic responses when set up – active and busy group
– divides between pre-existing authors with blogs, and bloggers who have landed deals – mostly first time writers (or at least first time fiction writers)

“The Novel Racers”
– informal support group
– international
– has its own group blog, where writers post on the progress they are making, and generally cheer each other on
– pre-existing book deals not required!
– started as a “race” to see who completed their novel first, but since has widened its reach

Issues confronting the blogger-turned-author.

One big shock might be the sheer amount of hard work that has to be put in.
– not a simple matter of copy/pasting standalone blog posts into a Word document
– need for a unifying narrative arc / structure / start, middle and end

You’ll also need to work through various drafts.
– the idea of a draft is anathema to most bloggers
– after all, the vast majority of blog posts are first drafts!

Then you’ll need to edit yourself. You can’t be flabby, and you can’t waffle on.
– This was a problem I noticed time after time when editing Shaggy Blog Stories.
– Potentially strong pieces bogged down by acres of excess verbiage.
– Many digressions, which might be important to the author – and maybe to the author’s immediate circle – but not to the wider readership.
– Shut up and get on with the story!
– The clearest indication that once you transfer online writing to the printed page, that different standards automatically apply – it highlights the weaknesses in the prose quite mercilessly.

Similar issues are faced when moving into journalism.
– tightening up of writing style
– can’t use the first person
– have to stick to a word count
– involves ruthless paring down, which can initially hurt if you’re precious about each word
– your prose might then be hacked around by sub-editors

I welcomed the imposition of this kind of discipline.
– have learned to love the editing process, though painful at first
– made it much easier to swing the axe when editing Shaggy Blog Stories
– but also makes it much harder to return to the freedom of blog writing
– my voice has changed; can feel like a retrograde step to return to my old voice, where I can ramble/digress/parenthesise/stuff my sentences full with too many adverbs etc.
– maybe I’ve finally exhausted myself as a subject… who’d have thought it!
– maybe some bloggers-turned-authors will end up feeling the same way?

Another big issue: bloggers-turned-authors are generally writing about their own lives: memoir.
– Big worry is not breaching the confidentiality of others, but the fact that you’re exposing yourself.
– It’s the “getting caught naked in public” dream.
(NB: I only started having this dream when I started blogging!)

Also: potential exposure to a new level of criticism which they’re not used to.
– Readers will accept a lower quality of writing from a blog than a book.
– In a blog, roughness & immediacy is part of the charm – you can feel the heat of the moment. This won’t wash on the printed page.
– People will criticise books in a way that they generally don’t with blogs.
– You no longer have the safety of the fluffy comment box support group, which does have a tendency to over-praise.
– Put material onto the printed page, and it automatically raises the bar.
– Have to deal with resentment… “I could do that”…
– …or “you’ve only been published because [insert snarky theory here]”

Comments box politics.

Wider exposure opens up the comments box.
– petite & girl now get large numbers of comments from strangers all over the world
– that feeling of a semi-closed community is lost forever
– introduces an unprecedented new level of direct public communication between author and readers
– too many comments for readers to follow – makes the “conversation” too unwieldy
– not all comments will be supportive or welcome!
– sycophancy/abuse/self-promotion/various other dodgy motives
– introduces a need to hold comments for moderation, and to delete the worst (which can in itself generate more problems)
– you have to question what value you’re getting from the process
– plenty of reasons to retain comments, but it takes time/effort/courage

Rachel North/Felicity Lowde – extreme cautionary tale of a commenter turned stalker/harrasser.

Most authors continue to subscribe to the “tablets of stone” model.

But one of the big differences between blog writing and novel writing or journalism, is that blog posts are seen as initiating a discussion.
– old media journalists had to learn this when contributing to The Guardian’s Comment Is Free blog
– expected to hang around and participate, after publishing your article

Growing trend for bloggers reply to every comment they receive
– particularly newer bloggers
– becoming expected as a matter of course
– danger of being seen as aloof if you don’t?

Writer to blogger: reversing the flow.

Plenty of established journalists have seen the writing on the wall and set up their own blogs.
– raises their profiles; enhances rather than threatens their published work

However, very few published novelists have gone on to set up their own blogs.
– a growing number have their own websites, but not their own blogs
– even though blogs are easier to keep up to date with fresh new content
– also leads to higher Google rankings

Clare Sudbery
Penelope Farmer (Grannyp) – only recently “came out”
Kate Harrison – blogs about the creative process
David Belbin

Professional sniffiness?

Perhaps professional writers are somewhat sniffy:
– a lot of work for no income
– why would I give my writing away for free?
– is this “mass amateurisation” a dumbing down?
– blogging as distraction / displacement activity
– encourages looser, less structured, more undisciplined writing
– suspicious of the public exposure – why put a diary online?
– a threat to my livelihood?

Problem of perception:
– Blogs to books seen as chick-lit or toilet reading rather than serious literature.
– Perhaps this doesn’t matter – all the most widely read blog writing is populist in nature – maybe it goes with the territory.
– Blog reading is quick-hit, short-attention-span, coffee-break reading – it doesn’t lend itself to extended concentration or complex narrative structures.

Alternatively, and more positively:
– a testbed for new ideas, a play pen, a coffee break, a place to muck around and experiment.
– requires less motivation/commitment, so loosens you up.
– a place to offload all the stuff that won’t fit in your novel, that you might otherwise have tried to shoe-horn in.

Every blogging writer that I’ve spoken to has told me that blogging has been an immense help rather than an awkward hindrance.

“If I want to be noticed as a writer, should I start a blog?”

Don’t start a blog assuming that you’ll be noticed and snapped up.
It has happened – but it’s very much the exception.
Although if you’re good, people will discover you and start reading you.

Be prepared to join a community, as a participating member.
You get out what you put in, so discover your own favourite blogs, link to them, leave comments… the love you send out will return to you.

If a high readership is important to you, then:
– maintain a consistent style & theme
– update regularly, without fail, at least 3 times a week
– reply to your commenters – it makes them feel included
(I break all the above, and this costs me readers.)
– focus on your readership – read the blog through their eyes
– make every word count
– be patient – let your reputation build at its own pace

It can be a distraction; it can be a dead end. But equally it can help you to:
– find a voice
– develop your writing skills
– build an audience and a support group
– give you confidence to move onto larger tasks

Time and again, I’ve observed people whose style has developed and matured over time. You see a raw spark, you latch onto it, and you see it flourish. A rewarding process to observe.

You can treat it as a self-help/self-study creative writing course, with automatic mutual peer review. (But beware the sycophants!)
– Just remember – you can’t expect to be able to run a 5 star restaurant just because you can cook a mean pizza.
– Creative writing courses, Arvon foundation courses, writers’ groups and how-to books are all available, and blogging is no quick & dirty short cut.

Finally, and personally speaking…

You could argue that if you’re a natural writer, you would have found an outlet for your writing anyway…
…but without blogging, I would never have started writing again.
– I used to write for pleasure, but in secret – there seemed something vaguely shameful about it – and stopped at age 17.
– Zero confidence in my abilities – didn’t believe I could do anything useful with it – felt I had to grow up.
– Since starting 5.5 years ago, I’ve reconnected with an ability that might otherwise have lain dormant for the rest of my life – and I’ve had the opportunity to develop that ability, spurred on by the knowledge that everything I write has an audience.
– In fact, I’m so steeped in the culture that I can’t see the point of writing anything without an audience!
– Which would make me a very poor blogger-turned-author. All those months of writing in the dark? No thanks!
– Besides, I’m that fatal combination: a perfectionist and a procrastinator. Hence temperamentally ill-equipped!

Final word: I have it on good authority that the best way to land a book deal remains the same as ever:
Write a book!

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