You can just about sense the delight dripping off the words of this article from the Boston Herald: “Publishers say few hits on blog books”. Apparently all those bloggers out there have been striking out when it comes to turning their blog celebrity into book celebrity, or at best hitting singles when they should have hit home runs. Case in point, for the story anyway, is Stephanie Klein, who was reportedly paid half a million for two books, but whose first book, Straight Up and Dirty, isn’t justifying that sort of moolah in the sales department.
Yes, well. Let’s have a moment of bracing honesty here and ask: How many books and authors could? If one is going to evenly distribute this advance across two books, Ms. Klein would need to sell 100,000 copies of both books in hardcover to get back that kind of advance money, or some other even larger number of the books in paperback (the publisher needs to sell rather fewer to make back its money, but isn’t that how it always is). I don’t think you can blame Ms. Klein for taking that sort of money if it was offered to her (I’d find it hard to pass up myself), but whoever offered her half a mil was having a true moment of fiscal brainfreeze. Likewise the person who ended up paying Ana Marie Cox $275,000 for Dog Days. In both cases, the issue is not the quality of the writing or even the sales, but that someone on the publishing end started shoveling money before engaging his or her brain.
This is something I’ve mentioned before, of course: Outside of genre, publishers get idiotic with their money. It makes perfectly good sense for an author to hold out for a lot of money, since then they can eat for a nice long time, and then the publishing company is obliged to spend a nice amount of money promoting the work in a desperate attempt to get back all the cash it’s just thrown out a window. But honestly, I’m still mystified at the publisher who looks at the proposal from a first-time writer who is not already appallingly famous and thinks to himself, well, I just happen to have five hundred large burning a hole in my pocket, might as well spend it here. I try to model this sort of thinking in my head and it simply doesn’t compute. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for publishers giving their writers a decent amount; eating is fun. But at a certain point things get silly, and giving an untried writer half a million for two books is way beyond that certain point.
Of course, a publisher could have this excuse: We thought being blog famous was the same as actually being famous. This is understandable, I suppose. If bloggers are good at anything, it’s self-promotion and self-aggrandizement, and giving the impression that we’re fighting above our weight class. But, look. Being a blogger is a bit like being that lady in the supermarket who hands out free samples. You see her, you stop and have the tiny piece of sausage she’s got speared on a toothpick, you might chat for a second, and then you move on. You like the sample lady — she’s giving you free sausage! — and you may even seek her out (“I could use some free tiny sausage right about now”). But no matter how much you or anyone else likes the sample lady and are glad to see her and her tiny sausage chunks, the number of people who actually reach behind the sample lady to buy the product she’s offering you a taste of is a pretty low percentage.
Now, a really successful blog pulls in a couple thousand visitors a day. How many sales can you genuinely expect from that? You can expect some, to be sure — I happily stand as testimony of that (thanks, guys!) — and certainly having a popular blog is a plus in the long run. But expecting every visitor to a site, or even a significant proportion, to pick up a blogger’s book seems to be wishful thinking to me.
Indeed, if you want to sell books online, converting your own audience into book buyers is a secondary tactic — you want to have other bloggers recommend you to their readers. The person who moved the most copies of Old Man’s War online was not me — it was Glenn Reynolds, who the Instapundit readers saw as a trusted recommender, giving a thumbs up to something he really liked. A secondary cascade of recommendations came from other bloggers who picked up the book from his thumbs-up. My own readers were in the mix as well, of course, but I don’t kid myself as to who sold more of my book, me or Glenn.
Going back to the article I’m linking to, one of the things I find interesting is that in all the gleeful whacking on bloggers’ books going stiff, there’s no mention at all about the fact that there are indeed bloggers whose books are doing pretty damn well — and those bloggers are science fiction and fantasy writers. To roll out the (to us) usual names here, you’ve got Scott Lynch, whose Lies of Locke Lamora has been optioned for a movie and has been translated into scads of languages, Cherie Priest, whose fabulous new book Wings to the Kingdom is only a couple of weeks away now, and, uh, me. I’d also personally lump Jo Walton in here, because she came to the attention of editors through her online writing. Chris Roberson just sold a book he’d put up online. I know there are at least a few more now as well.
These authors and these books are doing perfectly well, thanks, but I suppose they’re not on the radar because a) they’re working in genre and b) their publishers didn’t offer them incredibly stupid amounts of money for their books. And why let the skiffy geeks get in the way of a good story?
What we can say is this: Offer any first-time author a ridiculous amount of money for a novel or two, don’t be surprised when you take a bath, regardless of what their writing experience was beforehand. Don’t blame it on blogs; blame it on the bad business sense of the publishers.