To Blog or Not to Blog?

What a vexing question. It’s also a pressing one, which all authors should consider carefully.

What’s not at issue is whether blogging is one of the most effective methods authors can use for building a promotional “platform.” That’s industry lingo for an author’s combined capabilities to contribute to marketing, which all publishers factor seriously into their decisions about whether to bid on projects. In a number of high-profile cases, blogs have become the basis for a book or have played a major role in propelling books to bestsellerdom, such as Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project and Chris Guillebeau’s The $100 Startup. In many more, less well-known cases, authors have built substantial followings and attracted the attention of media gatekeepers through their blogs.

But blogging—at least blogging well—takes considerable time. Authors also worry that if they blog about the subjects they’re writing books about, they may cannibalize their books with the blogs.I recently discussed these issues with two industry professionals who offered keen insights about why taking the time to blog well is worthwhile and the best ways to do it.

Annie Murphy Paul, a contributor to Time and other magazines and the author of two critically acclaimed books (Origins and The Cult of Personality), has been writing a wonderful blog for several years. It’s aptly named The Brilliant Blog (http://anniemurphypaul.com/blog/), and it’s one of the best author blogs I’ve encountered. She started writing it when she began researching her next book, on the science of learning, and she has drawn on that research for her posts. The two projects are synergistic, which is the best approach.

She told me that writing the blog has indeed taken considerable time, but that it’s been valuable in many ways, not only in building up a following for the forthcoming book but also in the book writing process: “It’s very different from how I wrote my first two books, which was that I went into my writer’s cave and didn’t come out until three weeks before publication, so I didn’t know who my readers were. I really know who they are now, almost personally, and that’s even shaping how I’m writing the book, which is an interesting experience. Writing a book is like a guessing game; you have your own vision for the book, but you want to make sure that you are addressing things people are interested in, and it’s hard to know what they already know and what they don’t. By working out some of our ideas and getting feedback in public, you have a lot more to go on about what the reader reaction will be when you ultimately publish the book.”

The relationship building goes both ways, as highlighted by Suzanne Donahue, associate publisher at Simon & Schuster, who has crafted the marketing campaigns for many bestselling books. She’s worked with a number of authors who have substantial blog followings. One of them is Erin Gates, who runs an eponymous interior design and event styling firm and writes the popular The Elements of Style blog: http://www.elementsofstyleblog.com. Her book of the same name was published this month. Suzanne emphasized that readers want to feel a connection with authors, and writing a blog is one of the best ways to offer them that. A key value of this is that many of them will then become evangelists for your book, even before publication. “One of the things that is really important to a publisher now,” she told me, “is if authors can activate their followers. If people trust you and they’ve come to know you and they like your blog, they believe in you, and then they will go and pre-order your book or read an article you’re asking them to read. So the size of the audience is important, but so is the engagement of the audience.” Annie Murphy Paul echoed this point in commenting on the great success author Gretchen Rubin has achieved in building her following: “She has a way of getting readers to feel they know her, in a very genuine and warm way.”

Suzanne Donahue addressed another concern I hear authors express: Will they really be able to develop a substantial following? As she pointed out, while the number of readers is for sure an important metric of the success of a blog, even a more modest following can be instrumental in building widespread awareness of your project by forwarding your posts on social media. She told me, “We launched a business site called 250 Words, and though at first it didn’t have that many subscribers, it was getting picked up and shared by them. After one Twitter post, the traffic to the site quadrupled. A blog itself may not get that much traffic, but the people who share the information can actually exponentially increase the spread of your ideas.” A blog can also catch the eye of media producers and magazine and ezine editors, who are constantly looking for new talent and who book speakers, which can not only help to raise awareness about a book but bring in some additional money while writing it.

Another value for writers I talked about with Murphy Paul is that writing posts provides good practice for discussing what the book is about and the key themes or findings when it comes time to promote it. As she told me, “I’ve heard many writers say that the first time they tried to encapsulate their book in a concise way to communicate about it to someone else was when they filled out their author questionnaire, which usually happens late in the process. And I’ve heard so many writers say they wished they’d been asked to do that before or while they wrote the book.”

What about giving away too much of your book before publication? It’s important not to post many actual verbatim pages from your book manuscript. Books composed simply of collected blog posts have been tried many times and almost all of them failed—though, of course, there are striking exceptions, such as the runaway bestselling PostSecret. Generally, your posts should draw from your work on the book but be crafted specifically for the blog, and the book should be much more than the sum of those parts. Writing chapters is quite different from writing pieces of 750 to 1,500 words, and in the book you should be synthesizing and significantly augmenting the material you’ve covered in the blog. As Annie Murphy Paul said, “I hear that people are worried about scooping themselves and revealing too much so that no one will want to buy the book, but I don’t worry about that part at all. It actually makes people more eager to read what you produce.”

Finally, regarding the time issue, which is perhaps the biggest hurdle (something I can empathize with, being some weeks late with this post!), I wholeheartedly endorse the advice of Murphy Paul: “Lots of authors are writing a book on top of also working a job, so to add one more thing seems impossible, but what I always say to my writer friends is that you spend so much time and put so much effort and love into writing your book, and then it comes out and it just doesn’t reach the readership that it should. So I think you have to put at least as much effort into building that readership as you do to writing the book itself.”

So how do you get started? I’ll cover that in my next post.

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