General Session: Blogs to Books

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General Session: Blog to Books

Elisa Camahort Page, Co-Founder and COO, BlogHer
Panel: Marian Lizzi, Editor-in-Chief, Perigree Books
Rebecca Hunt, Associate Editor, Penguin
Patrick Mulligan Senior Editor, Gotham Books
Neeti Madan, Agent, Sterling Lord

Question 1

What genre have you typically agented or specialize in and have you done any blog-to-book deals?

Marian Lizzi: We do mostly nonfiction, paperback, a bit of how-to, and parenting here and there, those tend to have to have a lot of personality. We've also done a few blog to book projects.

Rebecca Hunt: At Penguin we do a lot of humor, memoir, self help; really anything unfair the sun. Penguin doesn't do much blog-to-book, although of course Plume did Sex and the Kitty.

Patrick Mulligan: The stuff I work on is mostly pop culture the very first book I did was The Truth About Chuck Norris, a collection of made up facts about Chuck Norris. We've now done four of them. Also Texts From Last Night. We just signed another memoirist who has a blog.

Neeti Madan: I represent books in a wide array of categories, non-fiction books for and by women. I see myself as a generalist. I have a blog-to-book coming out by Jenny Lawson. I am very excited about doing her book called Let's Pretend This Never Happened. I do a lot of pop-culture and lifestyle memoirs, but what I really look to do is represent books that I like to read and writers that I like to help.

Question, tell us about the discovery process. Really, how have blogs changed the discovery process?

Neeti: I did meet Jenny at a BlogHer, I think it was in San Francisco, so, 2008? When a writer has a blog you can really read the breadth of their writing. I feel like bloggers are very accessible. If I am interested in someone and know they have a blog it's a great opportunity. When I met Jenny I read her blog from beginning to end.

Rebecca: I don't use blogs as a slush pile. If I come across a blog and the writing is good and the people seem interesting, then that interests me. The truth is it may not have anything to do with the blog content. I look for interesting people who are good writers. I get submissions from agents almost every day of blog-to-book deals and I end up being more interested in who they are, than I am about the blog that they write.

Elisa: That's true that the blogs are often every different than the novels or memoirs that emerge. The blog become more a flavor that informs the book.

Marian: When we started, we had to fly to conferences to find people. We really had to sort through a lot of stuff, now we can kind of sit at our desks and scour the internet and find these little untapped gems. For bloggers, knowing your audience and having a clear sense of who your are writing for and understanding that is important. The how and why they connect serves up great field testing for authors.

Elisa: What about size of audience?

Rebecca: The size of the online audience doesn't predict selling capacity of book. You can have a huge online audience and not sell books.

Patrick: I basically find two kinds of books- pop culture, Chuck and LOL Cats, I do want to know you have readers and high traffic numbers, if you can't get people to look online for free it will be tough to sell. Also people writing essays and looking at memoirs I am more interested in writing quality.

Elisa: Do you feel you need to publish quickly?

Patrick: I think a lot of blogs have audiences in that 19-25 range, that's a hard group to get to pay for books, so we get some of them, but we know we'll need more.

Rebecca: Books are really expensive to make, it's really challenging to know if you spend a lot of money to produce, you have to be cautious of price point because a young audience may only be able to spend $12, aiming at 19-year-olds you cannot have a $35 book.

Elisa: Is there a wild card factor?

Marian: It's so flukey whats going to be hot and whats not going to be hot. We have some insight if we know a blog is hot, but it's interesting information, but it doesn't say what will happen when we actually publish the book.

Elisa: What is the time frame to publish?

Marian: It varies. Some projects are hard to craft, color photos etc need to look good, which takes time. We can bring something fast, but it's usually 9 months. We can crash it out faster, but hey, maybe the blog grows and that time helps you, you actually benefit from the book taking time and the blogger continuing their thing.

Elisa: Do you think now it is standard for an author to have a blog to promote a book?

Neeti: I know bloggers who've tried and they try to promote and no one reads it. If you want to blog and try to build an audience, if you have an existing blog yes, go for it, use it. Facebook or tweet. But I don't always think it's the best use of someone's time if they aren't already doing it.

Rebecca: I work with a woman who is doing 9 million things, but at this point I don't want her on her blog. Tweeting takes 1 second, so that's fine, but spending time blogging takes time from writing the next book. its great if you already do it, but I have tried to force others to do it and it's a waste of time.

Neeti: I encourage bloggers to have posts in the can so they don't lose time.

Elisa: Some of you said you talked to bloggers and they said no to a book deal.

Rebecca: I had a book idea to tell you how long you should keep food in your fridge etc. There is a woman out there with a blog who had this very thing and when I approached her she said I have the readers, I don't want to waste time on a book. I haven't given up on her yet.

Elisa: I perceive that most of us would be thrilled.

Marian: I have had the reaction, "I am so flattered what would the book be?" It's true you do look at some blogs and wonder how it would translate. I loved the question because the blogger knew that a book is separate. It isn't the same as the blog it has to be something different.

Elisa: Patrick I have the LOL Cats book, how is it different from the blog?

Patrick: You have to ask, should it have essays? Content? In this case, no, we thought it has to just be pictures of cats. The core of it has to be the same as what hit online. As to content, we pay someone to write a book so we don't want them re-purposing a blog.

Rebecca: Retailers are the ones who say if it is already online, then they won't buy it from us. They steer some of the content in that respect. We need to listen to their concerns, so it does tend to need to be new content.

Elisa: Interesting point, the business of book selling, you as publishers don't get user data, correct?

Marian: We do get some data, but we don't have as much as we'd like. I think its great that bloggers understand data and present it in a knowledgeable way. Analyze and break it down for us to show you us that you know your audience.

Elisa: We put ourselves out there, how do we best position ourselves as a voice and as a potential business opportunity? What catches your eye?

Neeti: Depends on the type of book- it can be about platform and numbers, readership showing people love what you do. I do a lot more writerly books, books that readers read beginning to end. Yes numbers are great, 2 million page views are great, but it is about what is on the page. You have to think outside of your blog and consider the book experience.

Patrick: I agree with Neeti, the way we package and present the book, we don't publish because of a blog we publish because of what the writer has to say.

Rebecca: I am looking for someone who is passionate, who knows that they have to do their own self marketing. If it's humor or visual I want to know there are page views, if not I hope they are ready to push themselves and make themselves seen. Even if it's fiction, that's really tough.

Marian: I would say one thing that hasn't been touched on is understanding what is out there in your book theme. What are the others things your readers are reading? You have to read and compare and contrast title to title. Go look at similar bloggers/writers -- how did they translate? How will your book be different? Don't pretend there isn't competition. Use the existence of competition to position your book.

Elisa: So much of this advice is like what our entrepreneurs looking to start a business heard at another conference -- your book is your start up, you are the co founder, the ceo, treat it like a business, that appeals to those making it their business.

Question from Amy Turn Sharp: I have written a book, in today's landscape of traditional publishing, beyond social media, how is it promoted? What is expected? Will they just say go promote your own book?

Marian: Go take care of it! It's a partnership, we work with our authors, like making a book trailer, considering what makes that effective. We wont make it in our offices without you. It's working together, definitely a lot of it comes from the author. Hopefully you are tweeting, tumbling whatever the words are. Get the word out to your readership, then we do the traditional things to get media coverage.

Elisa: For most books, the publisher participates in the book tour investment wise for a while, right?

Marian: Penguin has a book that randomly hit the bestseller list 2 years after publishing because Bill Clinton became a vegan. Did we do publicity 2 years later, of course. But publishers have to focus on new stuff so yeah, 6-8 weeks post-publish date, we'll give you intense focus then it shifts to an as-needed basis.

Elisa: Neeti, I want to ask you, a friend had a book, got help, then his agent said get a publicist. He paid out of pocket.

Neeti: I rarely recommend a publicist. The money they (the author) pay for it may not come back in royalty dollars. You have to go into it with eyes open. Authors often say they do not get enough support from publishers. Publishers are over-assigned and don't have a ton of time. Know what they are going to do for you. You'll pick each others brains to see what contacts you have that might benefit the promotion of book, they can use that to support you.

Elisa: To your point about a publicist's cost not being paid back through royalties, but in this case the author was at 30k-40k books and thought that getting to a certain number would help get the next deal. Is that realistic?

Neeti: A book's success is relative to expectations. If they buy it for $10,000 and it makes $40,000 in royalties then that's a success. I think authors hire publicist for many reasons, maybe more about becoming known then selling books. Not saying don't do it.

Question from Britt Reins I am trying to figure out how many books sold is considered a success. How do you know what is successful? I don't want to be embarrassed by thinking x number is great and having someone say no that isn't enough. What is enough to invest in a book?

Rebecca: There are so many factors, depends on imprint of that publisher. If I am buying a book of a complete unknown for a tiny amount, if it sells 10,000 copies, I am happy. You know even if I spend more than $50,000 on a book and it sells ten thousand it may still be a success. Publishing times can effect things, maybe you publish during the election and so you miss a part of the market. There are just so many factors, agents, salespeople they all have different expectations.

Marian: I don't think you as a blogger need to come up with those kind of numbers.

Britt Reins: But should it be in my proposal?

Marian: I think the thing to do is look at comparisons, use that as a guide as opposed to some equation. Book comps in your category are valuable.

I interviewed Terry Walters, author of Clean Food and Clean Start-- she self published, sold 2k copies, then small publishers came sniffing if small publishers are looking lets talk to big ones. Sterling published it.

Rebecca: 2000 copies is great.

Question Susan Avery: I am hearing buzz about bookish.com what is that going to be?

Marian: Good question, it's yet to launch. A few of the big houses are behind it. Hasn't launched yet though so I can't really say.

Question from Elena: I'm a blogger, so if you guys spend 40-80 hours a week reading manuscripts, doubt the last thing you want to do is read blogs at home, right?

Marian: You'd be wrong.

More from Elena: What does a blogger have to do to get someone like you to read our blogs or is it luck of the draw?

Patrick: I use reddit.com, I'm never the first person to find a blog, but may be the 20,000th to find one. If you put your voice out there, editors are looking and if you are putting something out there that people are interested in, it will filter up to editors or agents.

Elisa: It's great to be using tools available to you to get it out, to reach people in new place— twitter, pinterest, different tools reach different audiences, so the more of them you utilize the better.

Question from Mary: In addition to writing I perform. Live theatre now has to have a blog or website to get people to watch them. Do you ever look to solo shows a la Spading Gray?

Marian: Performance will always been a source for certain kinds of books. Social media can help promote those projects.

Question: I've heard a great way to find an agent is to publish in New Yorker, The Atlantic, magazines like that. To what extent do agents read magazines looking for prospects?

Neeti: All the time. A great way is getting published in well read magazines, but by time you've done that, chances are editors have already found you. As to how you get read by us, we read the same way everyone does. I don't read them at home necessarily, but I read blogs like everyone else. I think what you want to do is get anyone at all reading it, get people liking you and then it will travel.

Elisa: I have heard "I am burned out, wary or reserved" about the blog-to-book phenomenon? How can someone make that worse and what should bloggers avoid?

Neeti: Never say, "Neeti I want publish a collection of my blog posts." If I publish someone it does not matter if they have a blog. The way you can publish it may have to do with platform and readership. I want to represent a book because I love it.

Patrick: The reason editors are burned out on blog-to-book is related to industry changes. In many cases the places selling our blog-to-book projects were Borders and they aren't around Barnes and Nobles hides their humor by the bathroom or in the very back. It just isn't supported in the same way. Selling those sorts of book online is hard. There is less and less shelf space for those types of books and tons of them have been published, so we are hesitant.

Rebecca: It's just getting more unpredictable. People get super-duper excited and they think its great, "it's just like other stuff." There have been so many, it makes it harder. Lower success rates. I feel like it's harder to predict what will work.

Elisa: The point is not to say Shit My Dad Says worked so Shit My Mom Says will too, put data behind it, that still works right?

Rebecca: Sure, but saying you have a humor blog and comparing it to other blogs doesn't mean it will work.

Marian: Yes, your comparisons need to be strong, well thought out. We are tired of gimmicks. The gimmicky one note thing is tough.

Please join me in thanking the panel.

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