A Philosopher's Blog

Blogs & Books

Posted in Business, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on May 29, 2008

One fond dream of most bloggers is that a major publisher will recognize their snarky wit or their witty snark and offer a substantial cash advance on a book. The publishers also seem to believe that blogs are potential mines for book gold.

One major success was the Hipster Handbook. This book, by Robert Lanham has sold about 40,000 copies since 2003. Recently, Christian Lander’s Stuff White People Like blog garnered him a $350,000 advance from Random House. Not a bad chunk of change for humorous stereotypes. The book will have to sell about 100,000 copies in order for Random House to make back what it paid out in the advance. That would be an amazingly successful book.

While publishers are willing to hand out such piles of money, it is not without its risk. For example, the Gawker blog racks up major hits, but the book has apparently sold less than 1,000 copies in a year. The bloggers were allegedly paid $250,000 for the deal. Making $250 per copy is a rather amazing profit (assuming that the publisher does not take back the advance).

Nielsen. The fashion and lifestyle news- letter DailyCandy was another flop: its highly anticipated 2006 release has sold 11,000 copies. For Random House to earn back its advance on “Stuff White People Like,” it’ll have to sell 100,000 copies—a figure that would likely land the book on the best-seller lists. Next up on the reading list: how to get a book deal by blogging—and get people to buy it.

In some ways, the publishers’ approach to books based on blogs feels just a bit like internet investments of the 1990s. People see something cool and popular and then throw cash it in the hopes that it will spit back even more cash. In some cases this has worked. In some cases it has not.

Naturally, every book is something of a risk. A first book can be extremely risky since there is no track record of sales. One must estimate and guess how well the book will do based on other factors. In the case of blogs, the publishers most likely estimate sales based on similar books, the blog hits and the buzz about the book deal. While these factors do provide a guide, they can be very misleading.

First, blogs are (in general) free to read. The publisher must make money by selling books, so going from the popularity of a free product to the success of a paid product can be problematic.

Second, blogs tend to be rather short. A long blog typically is little more than a short essay. While books can, of course, be made up of short parts (like collections of essays or cartoons) going from the success of the blog to the success of the book can be problematic. After all, one must wonder whether the blog will transfer well to the book medium. In the case of newer blogs, there is the obvious question of whether there will be enough material to actually create a book. If there is not, there is the question of whether the blogger can create enough material of the same quality for the book. To use an analogy, think of the popular YouTube videos of cats doing funny things. While these videos get many views, the market for a full length DVD movie of cats doing funny things is most likely not very large.

Third, blogs are read online and are mostly visited by the sort of people who spend time online. These are not always the same people who buy books. Hence, the fact that a blog site is getting swamped with hits does not mean that most of the readers are book buyers.

Fourth, blog books are often just printed versions of existing blog posts. While there is an appeal to having a printed book to read, it can be difficult to sell people something they can get for free and probably already have read. Of course, many successful books are based on material that has already been released and people buy books that they could get online for free. For example, books that are out of copyright such as Dracula, Frankenstein and Alice in Wonderland still sell quite well in bookstores. The publisher just has to be sure that the blog book is something that people will want in print.

Although I already have had book deals, I’m always looking for a another one. So, if you are a publisher with a few hundred thousand dollars lying around, I’d be happy to give the bills a new home. I’ll even put a funny cat clawing something white people like on the cover.

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