Judging a Book by Its Blog

Kevin Nguyen recognizes the growing trend of blog-to-book deals, hoping that publishers pursue more sites like BLDGBLOG and fewer sites like I Can Has Cheezburger.

I scoffed when Random House put up a $300,000 advance to turn Stuff White People Like into a book. I think everyone did. When the deal was announced in March, White People was a three-month-old one-schtick pony, but it jumped to the top of The New York Times Best Seller list after its release last July.

But I find the success of Stuff White People Like discouraging. It’s a clever but gimmicky concept—a formula that garners the most hits on the web but misrepresents what the best blogs have to offer. (Apparently it’s a two-decade-old idea anyway.) While blogs thrive when unrestrained by start-up costs or audience size on the web, I think there are a handful of truly excellent bloggers who are worthy of print.

But publishers aren’t seeking out the well respected bloggers in niche fields; they’re pumping out worthless one-hit-wonders like White People. Gotham Books, an imprint of Penguin Books, pushed out books from Barack Obama is Your New Bicycle and I Can Has Cheezburger earlier this year. Harper Collins turned Passive Aggressive Notes into a paperback in early November. Random House, probably feeling confident after White People’s success, has a Postcards from Yo Mamma book in the works, and Ballantine Books, one of their divisions, picked up Garfield Minus Garfield.

Hopefully that trend is changing.

In May 2007, BLDGBLOG—widely regarded as one of the web’s most versatile and compelling architecture and design blogs—announced that it had struck a deal to publish a book, featuring new and expanded material from the site. The site’s author, Geoff Manaugh, was sought out by Chronicle Books four months earlier. But unlike New York’s big five, Chronicle is an independent, San Francisco-based publisher, and instead rushing to print in three months White People-style, The BLDGBLOG Book has been a year and a half in the making.

But even before he started BLDGBLOG, Manaugh had ambitions to publish in print.

“I definitely didn’t start the blog in order to do a book,” he said. “I think the blog was more of a testing ground for various ideas: to see what ideas worked, what didn’t work, and what would be worth exploring more in the future.”

Similarly, Kate Hopkins, who runs the popular food blog Accidental Hedonist, had print ideas before striking a deal with St. Martin’s Press, one of the U.S.’s largest publishers. While Hedonist covers food and its cultural and historical context, Hopkins’s title—99 Drams of Whiskey—will focus specifically on whiskey.

“The trickiest bit of signing a book deal was coming up with an idea that would allow for more than one book. What I mean is that I didn’t want the book to be about my site. Rather, I was looking for an idea that would support the site, and in which the site could support the book.”

For both Manaugh and Hopkins, their blogs were a launching pad into print. If The BLDGBLOG Book succeeds, Manaugh hopes to expand his work into a series, citing ideas for future titles on architectural history and urban science fiction. Hopkins also said she had dozens of other book ideas.

However, I imagine the barrier between the internet and print isn’t a lack of inspiration, but the risk involved. Simon & Schuster signed a $250,000 deal with Gawker Media. Since its release in October 2007, the ironically titled The Gawker Guide to Conquering All Media has sold a pathetic 1,000 copies total (I guess the book’s subtitle should’ve been Except Print Media). But at least the publishers are curious.

“St. Martin was clearly receptive to printing a book by a blogger, but I’m unsure if it was their primary motivation,” Hopkins said. “If I were to guess, they were intrigued by the numbers that the blog draws and wanted to see if it could translate into book sales.”

I hope that in the near future, we’ll start seeing more small book contracts with venerable bloggers like Manaugh and Hopkins. They’ve proved themselves by garnering a dedicated reader base, and for most bloggers who write in their spare time for free, a modest advance and a small distribution is more than one can dream for.

“[My deal] was enough to do the research for the book,” said Hopkins. “For a first book contract, I expected nothing more.”

I asked Manaugh how his advance compared to Stuff White People Like or Gawker’s.

“Let’s just say it was nowhere near $300,000,” he answered, “but if you add the advance to my full-time salary as a magazine editor, then it wasn’t a bad year.”

• Manaugh’s The BLDGBLOG Book is due out July 2009.
• Hopkins’s 99 Drams of Whiskey is due out May 2009.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.