When is it OK to Blog Your Book?

What? Blog a book?  Sez you. You're always hammering us NOT to put our WIPs on our blogs!

True. And I continue to do so—if you're a beginning novelist hoping to get a traditional book contract.

Tiny snippets of fiction for blog hops and other writing-community bonding exercises are OK, but blogging the rough draft of your novel in order to get critique or attract an agent is a bad idea.

For one thing, agents say you're ruining your chances with traditional publishers by giving away your first rights.

And the simple truth is they are about as likely to go looking for new clients on blogs as Hollywood producers are to cast their next film from a drug store lunch counter. Yes, it has happened, but that doesn't mean it's likely. Agents look for new clients in their slush piles. Which is why writing a good query is the best way to attract them.

Also, for some reason, most people don't read fiction on blogs. A popular author I know put some of her short stories on her blog and got only a handful of hits in six months. She decided to self-publish the stories in an ebook and they're now making her hundreds of dollars a month.

The thing to keep in mind is that people generally read blogs for information. They want to skim for nuggets of data, not admire your deathless prose or read an episode in the middle of an ongoing saga.

And very few want to read first drafts and provide you with free editing.

If you're a new writer and want critique, I advise you use a password-protected site like CritiqueCircle.com where you aren't "in public." You'll get more trustworthy advice and you'll avoid hanging your fledgling fiction out there in cyberspace at the mercy of any passing grammar nazi who's having a bad day. Rough drafts are supposed to be s***ty, according to Anne LaMotte. Asking people to read them is asking for a favor. You want your blog to OFFER something, not try to GET something (like free editing.)

Besides, your more mature writer-self will thank you. Trust me on this.

If you want to post samples of work that's polished and ready for the marketplace, you can do it on Wattpad, where 17-year old Beth Reekles got discovered and made a 3-book deal with Random House this week. (Yeah. A big congrats to her.) There's also a new site called ReadWave for sampling short fiction, nicely categorized by genre.

But if you write nonfiction, it's a different story. 

A blog can be a nonfiction writer's best friend. It showcases your skills and gets your name out there where the search engines can find you.

More than half the new writers I meet at conferences and seminars are working on a nonfiction book. Mostly memoirs. And by far the majority of clients who contacted me when I did professional editing wrote memoir or nonfiction as well.

I foresee even more in the pipeline. Many Boomers plan to write a memoir when they retire. And according to the Social Security Administration, every day 10,000 US Boomers hit age 65.

That’s a whole lot of memoirs.

Unfortunately, memoirs are the hardest books to write well. Almost no beginning memoir writer I’ve worked with knows how to mold a lifetime of experiences into a novelistic story arc that will make a compelling read. Instead they write autobiography: a series of episodes from birth until now. Or a series of personal essays.

These authors face years of learning to craft their episodic writings into narrative—or shelling out a ton of cash hiring an editor to do it for them.

So ask yourself: does your project have to be a book-length work at all? Why not a series of short pieces?

Like posts on a blog.

Instead of shoehorning your memories into an 80K-100K word narrative, you can take advantage of the contemporary reader’s short attention span and serialize them on a blog.

The goal of many memoirists is to share their experiences, bear witness to history and make a difference, not establish a long-term career churning out two or three books a year.

A lot of memoirists I've met are working on the following:
If you’re writing any of the above, and your primary goal is to reach a lot of people with your message, not establish a long-term writing career. I’m going to suggest you let go of the big-book goal—at least for a while. You'll save yourself a lot of money and grief.

Yes, even a self-published book. Of course you can self-publish these days for not a whole lot of upfront money. But here’s the problem with the indie revolution:  the competition has become crazy-fierce. Which makes it very, very hard to sell a singleton ebook—as demonstrated in a recent article in Salon.

Indie authors don’t generally get traction in the big online retailers like Amazon until they’ve built a hefty inventory.

So I’m going to break from traditional advice and suggest you consider blogging your memoiric essays and advice rather than spending years conference-going, workshopping and learning to craft your memories into a book that may not have a market.

Another plus: posting your own photos on a blog costs nothing. Self-publishing a book that contains pictures is expensive and problematic. (At least in the age of the black and white Kindle)

Not me! Sez you. I want an agent. A book deal. And a big advance! Besides, I've heard blogs are totally over.

Actually blogs aren’t over. They’re just not the darlings of New York publishing any more.

But it’s not likely your memoir, travel, or self-help book will be either.

And that's OK. New York publishing is probably not a place you want to be.

It's good to be aware that as Big Publishing scrambles to keep profits up in the e-age, they only want what they consider “sure things.” That means they’re not interested in books—especially nonfiction—written by people who are not already household names.

These days, if you want to appeal to the Big Five nonfiction editors and their marketing departments, you pretty much need to be involved in a reality TV show and/or humiliating sex scandal, be the victim of a major disaster, or run for President. Better still—all of the above. (Unusual hairstyle choices are a plus.)

Being well-known in the literary world means nothing. You have to be über-famous:  Donald Trump-famous; Snooki-famous; I-Had-Justin-Beiber’s-love-child famous.

Or be willing to buy your place on the bestseller list.

Yes. You read that right.

I recently heard from a very successful fiction author with an engaged, enthusiastic fan base who had decided to shop around a nonfiction book proposal. Because her long-time agent didn’t handle nonfiction, she had to go the query route.

She was stunned by what she found. To be considered for representation, she was told by an agent that she’d be expected to—
In other words, to get an agent to represent a nonfiction book, she’d need a private fortune or a SuperPAC.

And a very flexible set of ethics.

I don’t know if all agents require this kind of upfront promise to bankroll your own project these days, but it does explain why so many piles of political doo-doo make it to the top of the NYT Bestseller list.

Apparently those big advances you hear about are more likely to be what nonfiction authors PAY to have a bestseller, not the other way around. Nobody could break even with those expenses unless there was a truly epic advance. Which you’re not going to get unless you’re already a superstar.

It helped explain to me why Simon and Schuster thinks they can get away with selling a $25,000 “self-publishing” package through the vanity press AuthorHouse/Archway.

That’s because ALL Big Five nonfiction publishing seems to have become vanity publishing.

The famous author’s reaction was the same as the one I’m sure you’re having: “If I had the money for all that, why the %&@! would I need a publisher?”

Why indeed? This is the era of indie publishing.

Hey! didn’t you say if you’re not a career author with a big inventory, your self-pubbed book doesn’t have great odds of selling? 

Yes, but remember that blogging is publishing, which is why agents won’t represent something that’s been partially blogged: once it’s on the Interwebz, you’re officially published.

Once you start building an audience, you can think about self-publishing ebooks—maybe a series of shorts. One of the great things about ebooks is they can be any length. More on that in a minute.

And of course, if your blog takes off and you get millions of followers and somebody wants to make the blog into a big book and movie like Julie/Julia, it’s funny how their rules evaporate.

I'm not the first one to suggest this. Nina Amir has been urging people to blog their books for a long time on her blog, How to Blog a Book.

It's true that Jane Friedman, one of the most knowledgeable bloggers in publishing, has advised authors "Please Don't Blog your Book." But she says blogging your book is fine if: "you’re blogging in a nonfiction category, especially if your blog focuses on how to do something or solves a problem for people." And "you’re focused on your blog for the joy of blogging."

That's what I'm suggesting: Blogging for its own sake. For community. For reaching an audience.

If you need to make a little money in order to justify the time you’re spending, you might want to start off right away with the kind of blog that allows advertising. Free WordPress blogs do not. Free Blogger blogs feature AdSense, which can monetize your blog as soon as you establish a readership. But a montetizable WordPress blog is not terribly expensive and I’ve heard it’s better for long term expansion. If you want more info on how to choose the right blogging platform, Jamie Gold wrote a great guest post for Kristen Lamb this week on WordPress.com vs WordPress.org.

You can also serialize your blog through Kindle and charge for the subscription. That way, your blog is listed on Amazon.

You can even put a donation button on the blog that works with PayPal. I think donation buttons are mildly tacky—and I definitely don't recommend installing one if you're bragging about how much money you're making with your business methods or you're chronicling your glamourous world travels. But if you've got a medical or caretaker blog that offers helpful advice and you're hard up financially, people can be amazingly generous. Funny how they're more likely to donate $5 to a blogger than they are to buy a $2.99 book.

I’m not pretending any of these methods will make you rich. But you won’t have to re-mortgage your house to bribe people to make your book into a fake bestseller, either. Or spend your golden years getting weekly agent rejections in your inbox.

Even the few bucks you might get from Ad Sense would be more than major newspapers pay most bloggers these days. The majority of newspaper bloggers are paid NOTHING—yes, I’m talking about professional journalists. Plus they have to sign away the rights to all their work forever—including their own photographs.

You’re way ahead of things with your own free blog. At least nobody’s making you pay to play.

But who’s going to read it? Sez you. How do I get traffic? 

It’s not going to happen overnight, and it especially won’t happen if you sit on your own little blog and wait for people to find you. You need to go out and meet your potential readers.

Submit your stories to magazines and online sites that appeal to your audience. (Some of these might even pay you. Look in the "opportunity alerts" below.) And they'll all allow a link to your blog.

Find websites and blogs that cater to your demographic, then—
If you have some stories that are too long to make good blogposts or articles, this is when you should think about publishing some of them as ebooks. As I said above, any length manuscript can be an ebook (although I suggest you don’t try to charge money for anything under ten pages.)

If you have a series of shorter titles, you’ll make much more of a splash than with one book.

And if you have mixed media to present, including poems, photos and essays, you can produce your own literary magazine at a site called Flipboard

I don’t want you to be discouraged by this post. Some memoirs do still sell to big publishing houses. But I’m offering alternatives. And a way to save a lot of editing fees.

If you’re set on seeing your project as a book-length work with a publisher’s name on it, and you’ve been working really hard on that story arc, you can also look to small, niche and regional presses that don’t require agents.

Regional presses will be interested in books about local history, and niche presses that specialize in military history might look at a war memoir (see "opportunity alerts".) A small press that specializes in the occult might like your book on tarot reading. A university press might be interested in your meticulously researched biography of a little-known artist.

These presses are generally a whole lot more author-friendly than the big guys. You won’t get an advance, but you might make a nice royalty.

But they’re going to be more interested if you’ve already established an audience with a blog. If you want step-by-step help in how to start a blog, I've got one in the book I wrote with Catherine Ryan Hyde, HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE…AND KEEP YOUR E-SANITY. 

Agents may not want memoirs or nonfiction by non-celebrities, but there are plenty of readers out there who do.

A number of readers of this blog have started successful memoir/personal essay blogs.
Instead of endlessly chasing that agent dream, these writers are reaching readers.

Right now.

Big publishing’s nonfiction wing may have become a one-percenters’ club for generating expensive, unread pulp for vain billionaires and political manipulators, but that leaves a big market unserved.

Yes, you can keep honing that memoir until the pages turn themselves while socking money away and hoping a sinkhole swallows your house, you become a contestant on the Biggest Loser, and/ or your wife admits to a secret affair with Dick Cheney.

Or, you can think outside the book and start a blog.

How about you, scriveners? Are you working on a memoir or nonfiction book? Are you surprised to hear that nonfiction writers need a private fortune to be considered for Big Five publication? Have you thought of blogging your own book or publishing it as a series of shorts? 


1) FOR THE FEARLESS: The Horatio Nelson Fiction Prize comes from Black Balloon Publishing: "we champion the weird, the unwieldy, and the unclassifiable. We are battle-worn enemies of boredom and we’re looking for books that defy the rules." Prize is $5,000 and a Black Balloon Publishing book deal. They want a sample of your completed, novel-length manuscript. It's a two-tiered process, so make sure you follow the guidelines in the link above. Wait until April 1 to submit.

2) The Saturday Evening Post’s Second Annual Great American Fiction Contest—yes, THAT Saturday Evening Post is holding a short fiction contest. Could you join the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald; William Faulkner; Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.; Ray Bradbury; Louis L’Amour; Sinclair Lewis; Jack London; and Edgar Allan Poe? $10 entry fee Deadline July 1, 2013

3) Inspirational anthology accepting submissions: A "Chicken Soup for the Soul" author is looking for heartwarming inspirational nonfiction pieces. Do You Have a Story on "Staying Sane in the Chaotic 24/7 World"? If you have a great story and would like to be considered for the anthology, 30 Days to Sanity, Send submissions to: 30 Days to Sanity at Box 31453, Santa Fe, NM 87594-1453. Or e-mail stories to stephanie@30daystosanity.com The maximum word count is 1200 words. For each story selected for the program a permission fee of $100 will be offered for one-time rights. There are no limits on the number of submissions. Deadline is May 1, 2013

4) Stanford Story Slam The first ever Stanford Story Slam has opened, a chance for a team of writers to win $500. Anybody can enter the writing contest and the deadline is April 22.To enter, you must collaborate to write about this prompt: “There are over 15,000 bikes used by students, staff, and faculty to get around Stanford campus. Over 300 bikes are stolen each year. Where do they go?” The Stanford Arts Review will publish the winning entry. Here’s more from the organizers You don't have to be a Stanford student to enter.

5) Small Press Seeking Memoirs and other Nonfiction. Yes! See I told you they exist. GrayBooks in New Hampshire says they are always looking for authors. They publish in four categories - Food, Fiction, History, Memoir. They are especially interested in war and historical memoirs. 

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