Books and Blogs

by John Quiggin on April 20, 2006

Brian’s post raises the question of blogs turning into books, and commenters give lots of examples. However, any addition to the supply of books generated in this way needs to be offset by the books that would have been written if their potential authors weren’t writing blogs instead.

Update Sarah Hepola makes exactly the same point, announcing in Slate that she is shutting down her blog to write a book. Coincidence, or the mysterious workings of the BlogGeist?

I’ve been blogging for four years and have maintained a pretty good output of journal articles, book chapters newspaper articles, and so on.On the whole, the blog is a useful complement to this work. But my last book came out in 2000, and I can’t see myself finding the time to do another one any time soon. The time that I might put aside for a long-term project like a book is now devoted to blogs.

This may be discipline-specific. There’s no great professional payoff for books in economics (I once read a study estimating the relationship between academic salary and publications that found that one page in the Journal of Political Economy was worth the same as a book published by Cambridge University Press. Things are presumably different in other disciplines, where books count for more.

Similarly there’s no real financial payoff either. In fact, in financial terms, I would have done better to review my policy-oriented books (newspapers pay a reasonable rate) than to write them. There’s money in undergraduate textbooks, I’m told, but I’ve never looked into that.

The seminars we’ve run here suggest possibilities for useful interactions between blogs and books.

Still, I suspect that on balance books and blogs are substitutes rather than complements both in production (more time writing blogs means less time writing books) and consumption (more time reading blogs means less time reading books).

{ 18 comments }

1

Tim Worstall 04.20.06 at 5:28 am

Reviewing makes more than writing books. Ain’t that the truth. UK papers, 300 quid for an 800 word review: more than most novels earn their author.

One thing I’ve noted is that haveg a book published (on anything at all, like that anthology of blogs I did) makes people more likely to hire you to do the newspaper reviews. Advertising more than anything else, perhaps validation of competence is a better phrase?

2

John Quiggin 04.20.06 at 6:23 am

I should write for the UK papers, obviously! The rate is a lot higher than in Oz. But the relative return for Oz book authors is probably even lower.

3

harry b 04.20.06 at 6:32 am

And it doesn’t matter much which paper — even the specialist press (TES, THES etc) pay that rate. Fantastic when the dollar is down, as it seems to be permanently now.

4

Matt Weiner 04.20.06 at 8:12 am

Reviewing makes more than writing books.

Naturally enough, since more people read the reviews. (Fortunately, I’m not committed to saying that that means the reviewers should get paid more.)

5

joel turnipseed 04.20.06 at 9:19 am

Hmmm… writing reviews a better deal than writing books? Maybe.

I get $150 for my ~600 word reviews. That would be, what–$15,000 for a ~60,000 word book? Sounds about like the low-to-middle-end of a commercial first novel deal. And very low-end for commercial non-fiction. Of course, university presses don’t give anything like that kind of advance to most of their authors, so–there’s a point here. (The big “however” with books is: you have a lot more potential upside, both financially and professionally.)

Still, having written 25 reviews in a year before, it’s not something I’d likely do again–especially if I want to finish my next book this year(-ish).

I guess the other way to look at the question, w/r/t blogging is (and we’ll assume a baseline of, say, 12 books a year), would you give up a couple grand a year (or so) to have the freedom to write at any length you liked, change/clarify your position in comments, etcetera? If you’re content to make the paltry sums we’re talking about here, you must have some other form of income anyway, so that’s an attractive reason to blog rather than write formal reviews.

Meantime, John, there’s money to be made in more than textbooks–my grandfather made a fair penny on this book: though substantially less than he made in consulting (which amounted to more, most years, than his dean’s salary at Southern Connecticut State).

6

JR 04.20.06 at 9:20 am

I’ve broken myself of the habit of reading reviews of books that I’m not going to read. Life is too short. My one exception is the NY Review of Books, where the “reviews” are usually free-standing articles.

7

Tim Worstall 04.20.06 at 11:22 am

Joel T. Yes, I take your points. I rather started blogging so as to try and make a living from freelancing. Do the practice of actually writing some serious amount each day, establish something of a reputation (even if it is as a right-wing loon) and then see what happens. I do have another job which is what allowed me to try this of course.

I’m certainly not at the point of being able to claim victory but the last three months the freelancing has certainly been paying an acceptable only income. Not making a living by blogging but by having blogged perhaps?

8

joel turnipseed 04.20.06 at 12:15 pm

Tim,

Well, if you’re market-friendly, then it will do you no harm for me to agree with (and recommend to you) Ben Yagoda’s depressingly funny piece on freelancing published not too long ago in Slate.

I am frequently asked at readings/visiting writer gigs, usually prefaced by a very nice mention of my own publications in places like Granta, GQ, New York Times Magazine, and Salon.com, “How can I make a living freelancing.” Well, the short answer is: “I don’t. Maybe you can–I hope so, if that’s your dream–but do you want to?” For the plain fact of the matter is: writing, as a money-maker, is a horseshit occupation. Money is also a terrible reason to write. So, you’re screwing both sides of the donkey here.

A further market-based analogy, if I may. Some years ago I started a software company. I had a few years’ background in software and had managed a team at a large company. I had a great idea. Heh. We got lucky with some very large early contracts (including one from Lucent), got some outside investment and a board. One of the first things our most enthusiastic board member said to us was, “You need to get rid of all your small custom-programming jobs.” Now, “small” meant anywhere from $10K-$50K. We only had a half-million or so in the bank and a run-rate of another half-million. Our burn-rate was about $120K a month. So, we were going to run out of money in about a year–and I expressed this as a concern to the board. “Doesn’t matter. You aren’t throwing off enough cash on those jobs to fund a separate professional services group, they eat up executive time, and you’ve got to get your product done. Growing a company,” he continued, “is like taking a jet past the speed of sound: the longer you hover at the threshold, the more likely you are to break up–and if you’re not going to make it past that barrier… well, you’re not going to make it.” In the event, we took his advice & we completed the 1.0 version of our software the following summer, had a few early-adopter customers–and ran out of cash (this was summer 2002, when software venture capital was scarce). Luckily, we were able to do an M&A on more-or-less favorable terms (several of my employees are still working on our software four years later). Now, had we not finished our software, we would not have had a deal. And, given the grim state of custom-software development in the U.S., we might only have prolonged our agony for a year or so–and probably still not finished a product, leaving us nothing.

So, to come back to blogging, software, etcetera–and John’s original question: If you have a book in you, one which you have a clear sense of and a passion to write, you should drop everything else you can and just write your damned book (and if you’re not saying that about it now, you will, sooner or later!). Finishing (in all the senses of that word) a book is one of the most grueling things you can do: it takes a lot of discipline, focus, editing, and so on. But it is all worth it (and then some: I added a chapter and forty-pages of line edits to the paperback/foreign editions of my book, so dissatisfied was I with the hardcover). A good book will get you prestigious pubs (either from first-serial rights or in follow-up articles/submission requests). And that book will last you the rest of your life (though it may be out of print in a few years).

In sum: if your ambition is to write, write. If your ambition is to contribute short pieces here and there, blogging is, given the ecology/economics of publishing, one of the best ways of breaking in. If you want to write a book, drop everything and write a book (you won’t get it done, or half as well, if you don’t). And if you want to make money, do almost anything else.

9

Wax Banks 04.20.06 at 3:09 pm

Tangentially related: William Gibson gave up his (very popular and interesting) blog to work on his last novel, claiming that for fiction writers the kind of instant-gratification approach of blogging isn’t conducive to worrying over dramatic construction (which might be defined as ‘convincing the reader/viewer of the value of delayed gratification’ now that I think about it). Neil Gaiman has, I believe, said similar things.

As for the consumption point John makes, I find that my blog-reading and book-reading styles differ far more than I’d realized; it’s easier to flit about on a blog grabbing eye-catching bits of prose than in a book, and since the majority of bloggers possess no remarkable talent for creating what John Gardner called the ‘vivid and continuous dream’ (blogs make writers appear more skilled than they are by demanding less of them in terms of endurance and clever construction – unless of course you’re working at Holbonic length and cleverness), you can generally be sure you’re not missing too much substance. It’s a matter in part of stylistic standards: novelists (and long-form nonfiction writers) are tasked with large-scale structuring of desire and empathy, but yer typical blogger already has your (political, fannish, professional/gossipy) sympathies, and need only keep you in the club.

One wonders whether someone like Stephen King wouldn’t benefit from the standards-raising of a blog: he’d only write a quarter-million words of fiction a day rather than an even half, perhaps, and could get his worse first-thing-in-the-morning instincts out of the way, inflicting them instead upon the Trackbacking horde.

10

Doug 04.20.06 at 4:15 pm

I thought the canonical adjective was Holbovian.

My experience is that blog reading is not a substitute for books, but rather for periodicals. And for writing, a blog entry is a good way to warm up. The trick is not to spend all morning perfecting one, particularly if there is something remunerative waiting.

I’m also finding that the blog is a good place to review books for which there is no market for reviews: anything published more than, say, three months ago. I’ve written about The Fatal Shore, a book on France, and I’ll probably put together something on a couple of Orhan Pamuk’s books soon. With or without Tarkan soundtrack I can’t yet say.

At any rate, they’re bits that I want to write but no editor on the face of the earth is going to buy. So into the blog they go. Plus, not only can I write at whatever length moves me, I can actually own up to not having read the whole book I’m writing about.

11

nick s 04.20.06 at 5:49 pm

Money is also a terrible reason to write.

Corollary: “None but a fool wrote, except for money.” Because Sam J. was saying that if you’re going to be in the silly business of writing, be damn sure you get paid.

That said, two former members of a mailing list to which I belong are now published novelists, and became so after leaving said list.

12

Kenny Easwaran 04.20.06 at 9:23 pm

“I’ve broken myself of the habit of reading reviews of books that I’m not going to read. Life is too short. My one exception is the NY Review of Books, where the “reviews” are usually free-standing articles.”

I was just discussing this with my roommate this morning and said exactly the opposite. I’ve gotten plenty of good out of book reviews for books I’ll probably never read. I was almost willing to suggest that the main point of having someone write a book on something is so that a bunch of other people will write reviews that get at the interesting ideas and show how they fit into various images of the grander scheme of things.

This was actually prompted by my reading the NYRB and noticing an article or two that didn’t claim to be book reviews.

13

Matt Weiner 04.21.06 at 11:15 am

I thought the canonical adjective was Holbovian.

I have argued elsewhere that “Holbonic” is a term of praise and “Holbovian” of criticism. Another proposed theory:

Ah, but “Holbovian” is of the man, while “holbonic” is like the man. All Holbovians are holbonic, but not all holbonics are Holbovian.

14

Doug 04.21.06 at 1:42 pm

How do you figure the praise/criticism split? Holbovian is iambic, thus better suited to blank verse and the best known forms of English metric poetry, though admittedly this is neither here nor there on the praise/criticism spectrum.

I had also thought that the Holbovian length was a unit of measurement, and the current research program was to answer the question of how many Holbovian lengths comprise a sagan. For all I know, the question may already have been answered, though not, I hope, succinctly.

15

Matt Weiner 04.21.06 at 4:31 pm

It was pure intuition. However, someone explained the data by pointing out that “Holobovian” recalls “bloviate.” “Holbonic”/”bionic” is then obvious. I make no particular claims for the accuracy of this theory.

16

Gary Farber 04.21.06 at 5:03 pm

Kind of over-generalizing from academic-books-about-economics to “books.”

The book market is huge, and varied, and as well as including textbooks, and the academic market, also includes trade nonfiction and trade fiction, both general and genre, and other categories besides — cookbooks, say, and puzzle books, and all sorts of other specialities. I know you’re perfectly aware of this, and naturally inclined to write of your own little corner, but it still reads quite oddly to somone not in that corner — say, someone more familiar with the trade market — to read such generalizations about “books.” Certainly of the many hundreds of books I’ve worked on in one minor capacity or another (proofreader, copyeditor, copywriter, editorial assistant, editor, paid reader, whathaveyou), most earned an advance of at least $2K, and more usually $4K-$8K, with quite a few in the $10-30K region, a fair smattering above that, and a few in the 6 and 7 figure overall deal range.

But that was genre fiction, general fiction, and popular trade nonfiction. I only note this in reaction to reading flat statements like “Reviewing makes more than writing books,” since that’s not a true statement, save for an extraordinarily narrow definition of “books,” though understandably appropriate to the books in mind.

I’ll more or less agree with Joel Turnipseed’s “Money is also a terrible reason to write,” though. Most people who try to write what they think will sell write crap, and also are usually unable to correctly determine and produce what will sell, as well. There are exceptions, but the primary motivation for writing usually needs to start elsewhere, nonetheless, and only then does steering around towards commerciality tend to be at all effective.

Tangentially connecting Wax Banks’ comments about Bill Gibson to Joel’s generally well-taken comments, I was a friend of Bill’s for several years before he sold a word of fiction, and Bill was one of the hardest-working writers I’ve ever known. He spent many years learning his craft, and putting in the effort to write every day for hours, and to soak up information and perspective that would help him get there; it’s that kind of hard work that it takes to become a good (“successful” is somewhat orthogonal) writer, in almost all cases.

17

Gary Farber 04.23.06 at 1:44 am

It’s weirdly boring when a thread shuts down after I say something, I must say, no matter how awesome my words are.

Though if everyone would come read my own blog, I’d have no objection.

But, still.

Weird.

18

Doug 04.24.06 at 4:39 am

gf, some of us who would otherwise comment are in far-off time zones, leading to asynchronous replies. (On the longer threads here, I sometimes find myself at comment #137 wanting to reply to #43.)

Your follow-up to Joel’s comment leads me to wonder what you have in mind for writing; specifically, if you aren’t mainly thinking of fiction. Aren’t types of writing such as wire stories, articles in trade publications, news releases, industry presentations and so on generally written because they are part of a job? That is, getting paid is the main motivation for those pieces of writing. They are not meant to be deathless prose; whether or not they are crap is another matter, probably most are simply workmanlike.

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