Book to Blog and Back Again at BlogHer 07

Blog to Book and Back Again

Day Two of BlogHer 07 began with a standing-room-only panel, Book to Blog and Back Again. The panel included Gina Trapani, whose blog and book lifehacker.com is a huge hit; Ariel Meadow Stallings, author of the cool book and blog Offbeat Bride; and literary agent Kate Lee offering a publisher's perspective. Denise Wakeman of the Blog Squad moderated the panel.

The morning started with brief introductions of the star panelists:

  • Gina Trapani had been writing her Lifehacker blog for about a year when she was approached by an agent. Shortly thereafter she signed a contract with Wiley publishing to write the Lifehacker book—a compendium of the best material from the blog.
  • Ariel Meadow Stallings' book/blog deal went the other way. She started her popular blog offbeat brides, after writing her book of the same name, which was published in 2007 by Seal Press. Ariel went to a publishing course at Columbia University. One of her classmates there became a book agent and got her thinking about writing a book. Within a couple of years she'd written the book Offbeat Bride, offering alternatives for independent brides planning their weddings. She started the offbeat bride blog to support the book. Interestingly, the web site has almost eclipsed the book, although both have done well.
  • Kate Lee is a literary agent who represents a number of bloggers. She had started as an assistant at a large talent agency, looking for clients for the agency. No one else was looking at bloggers, so that became her niche. When she looks for clients, she is looking for a unique and compelling voice, in some cases blog traffic, and fresh, new ideas and concept. She thinks that today it's expected for a would-be author to have a blog. That blog can be a way to communicate with your audience, rather than just a bulletin board of links to online bookstores that carry the book.

After the introductions, there was a lively discussion between the panelists and the audience. One question that came up is whether you need to use exclusive content in a book, or whether you can use content that's already on your blog. Kate mentioned that a publisher might ask if there is new material in the book that is not already available for free on line. But Gina's book is selling well even though the material in the book all comes from her blog.

One issue that came up is how you find an agent. An audience member mentioned that some literary agents, unlike Kate Lee, don't seem to get the "blog thing." Kate said that may be a function of her age.Ariel suggested finding an agent who may have less experience and therefore needs you as much as you need her. Kate suggested looking for a website called everyone whos anyone in publishing, which has email addresses of (and rejection letters from) many literary agents at agencies. Or just find a book you like and read the acknowledgment section, which usually names the agent.

The audience asked whether a book tour to promote a book is worth it. Ariel doesn't think so. She says the cost of the book tour is on the author's shoulders. She had some ego-crumbling events with an audience of only 8 people, 7 of whom were her friends, along with the one homeless guy who came for the food. She had more luck selling her book at events in bars than in bookstores. The upshot for her was that bookstore events were not the best. She recommends not doing a book tour, but if you do, make the venues nontraditional. Denise Wakeman brought up the idea of doing a virtual book tour, using other people's sites to get out the word about your book. An audience member suggested looking at the virtual book tour site.

An audience member asked about self-publishing. She self-published a mommy book, and thinks she has a large audience. She wonders whether to try to shop that first book to a publisher, and whether she should self-publish a sequel or send it to agents. Kate said a self-published book could get picked up by a publisher, but that whether it does is entirely dependent on numbers—the size of the audience. Ariel commented that the one thing that self-publishing doesn't get you is distribution and promotion. She paid out of pocket for the "legitimacy" of self-publishing through her contract terms, and it was a high price. But she thinks that if you have marketing skills you might think about self-publishing. Gina adds that you also get copy editing, book design, and other related services if you go with a traditional publisher.

Marketing your book is another important issue. Ariel suggests coming up with a hook to market your book. Service books are one way to package a niche concept. For example, rather than writing poetry, offer tips and tricks for writing poetry. For example, she says she's not a wedding expert, just a weird chick who happened to get married. But she was able to write a popular book by offering it as a service book.

Another issue is how to get published. Kate says publishers love to publish "experts." But if only your friends consider you an expert or a great advice-giver, you're less likely to get published. You need some credential that attests to your expertise in the area you're writing about. For example, you might write articles for magazines. What about subject matter? Kate says there's not much life left in the idea of writing a book about a woman at a big company who is secretly keeping a blog. Ariel says we're in the heyday of the memoir trend, but that may be declining too. An audience member says there may also be a sense of saturation in the area of books about mommy subjects too.

Ellen Gerstein of Wiley Publishing suggested looking at publishing industry blogs, agent blogs, and author blogs that will help you decide whether you need an agent or not, whether you need a publisher or not. She says that Gina was a dream partner for a publisher to work with because she has such a strong audience and brings so much to the table. But she warns that a blogger also may face the problem of being an echo chamber, in that she is just talking to her own audience. It's important to consider how to break out of that audience, making it attractive to an audience in a bookstore who may not read your blog. She mentioned Robert Scoble's book, Naked Conversations, as an example of that.

On the issue of whether you really need an agent, Kate mentioned that agents do more than what you may see on the surface. She says her agency has the best boilerplate contracts in the business, lawyers your contract, works with authors to shape a proposal, helps with movie rights.

Gina wrote a couple of great posts about how to write a book proposal.

Finally, why write a book, particularly if you already have a successful site. Gina says you do it for ego, you do it for love. But you don't do it for money.

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