In yesterday's entry on The Writing Life, I told you about Steve Weber's Plug Your Book! Today I take the rare step for these entries. I turn over the bulk of the words to Steve Weber and an excerpt from his book. He answers one of the questions that many writers have asked me, "Is it important for authors to blog?"
I recommend you read this entry carefully and you will discover a wealth of information--and you will see firsthand why I'm enthused about Weber's book. Here's the excerpt:
Blogging for authors
By Steve Weber from Plug Your Book!
Julie Powell moved to New York to become an actress. A few years later, she realized she was 30 years old, working a dead-end job to pay the bills, and still had no acting prospects. Then, on a visit to Texas, she borrowed her mother's copy of Julia Child's landmark 1961 cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1. Back in her cramped kitchen on Long Island, Powell cooked one of the recipes for her husband, who enjoyed it so much he urged her to attend culinary school and become a professional cook.
Instead, Powell decided to teach herself, and let the whole world watch. She vowed to cook each of the book's 524 recipes during the following year, and write a diary about it on a Web log, or blog. Powell wrote about killing lobsters, boiling calves hooves, and making homemade mayonnaise, but she didn't confine herself to cooking. For good measure, she heaped on details of her sex life, recipes for reviving a romance, and snide remarks about her backstabbing coworkers.
As Powell began one entry: "My husband almost divorced me last night, and it was all because of the sauce tartar." Her storytelling was so good, word got around fast and thousands began reading her blog--regardless of whether they cared about French cuisine. A write-up in the New York Times brought thousands more readers.
By the time Powell was winding down her project, publishers were knocking on the door with book contracts, and her blog turned into the bestseller Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen. More than 100,000 copies sold its first year, a monster success for any memoir, let alone a book by an unknown, chronically unemployed actress.
Here's a humorous online trailer featuring Powell chatting about the book and how it happened:
Blogging is a relatively easy way for you to publicize your book and even improve your writing while you're at it. If you can write an e-mail, you can write a blog--it's the easiest, cheapest, and perhaps best way for authors to find an audience and connect with readers. Blogging is an informal, intimate form of communication that inspires trust among your readers.
For the same reasons that traditional advertising is usually ineffective for selling books, a blog can be highly effective for book promotion. People interested in your topic seek out your message.
What is a blog?
Put simply, a blog is a Web site with a few interactive features. You don't have to call it a blog unless you want to. It's possible that within a few years, nearly every Web site will have interactive features, and people simply won't call them blogs anymore.
You needn't know anything about computers to blog. Simply type into a form, and presto--the whole world can see it. Your blog is a content management system--a painless way to build and maintain a platform where readers can discover and enjoy your writing.
A blog can be a part of your Web site, or it can be the Web site. The main thing that distinguishes a blog from a plain old Web site is that a blog is frequently updated with short messages, or posts. Readers often chime in with their own comments at the bottom of each post. This free exchange of ideas is what makes blogs a revolutionary tool for authors: A successful blog is a constant stream of ideas, inspiration, perspective, and advice--it's a real-time, global focus group.
Why blogs are better
Some authors who already have a book for sale resist the idea of blogging and the "extra work" it entails. Their reasoning is, "Why create more deadlines when your book is already finished?" Well, blogging can help you maximize the effectiveness of things you're probably already doing, like answering e-mails from your readers.
Compared with other types of Internet publicity content such as static Web sites or e-mail newsletters, blogs provide three big advantages:
-- Blogs are easy to start and maintain.
-- The short, serialized content of blogs encourages regular readership, repeated exposure to your books, and more sales.
-- Blogs rank high in search-engine results from Google and other providers, making them easy to find.
Why do blogs get so much traffic from search engines? First, blogs are topical. When you're writing about the same topics and ideas day in and day out, your site becomes packed with the keywords your audience is searching for. Stay at it awhile, and it becomes nearly impossible for your target audience to miss you, thanks to Google and the other search engines. Most new visitors will find your site by using a search engine, after looking for words and topics contained in your Web pages.
Another reason blogs are so easy to find is that search engines usually rank them higher than other types of Web sites. Thus your links can show up at the top of search results, which is where most people click.
Google and the other search engines give extra credit to blogs for a couple of reasons:
-- Blogs are updated frequently, and the assumption is "fresh" content is more valuable.
-- Blogs tend to have many links from other Web pages with similar content. The assumption is that because other bloggers and Webmasters have decided to link to your content, it's probably valuable.
Your visibility in search results is key, since about 40 percent of your new visitors will likely arrive via a Web search. If your site ranks highly in Web searches for the keywords related to your book, you'll have a constant source of well-qualified visitors and likely book buyers.
Breathing the blogosphere
Step 1 in becoming a blogger is to consume some blogs yourself. Reading other blogs gives you a quick feel for what works, what doesn't, and the techniques you'll want to apply to your own blog.
There are millions of blogs, and finding ones that suit you can be like searching for a needle in a haystack. There's no easy way to filter out low-quality blogs--you've just got to sample what's out there.
A good place to begin is by browsing for blogs about your hobbies, pastimes and passions. You can find a list of the most popular blogs here:
You can drill down into niche territory by browsing www.Technorati.com/blogs, where you'll find a menu of subjects on the left. You can also search blogs by keyword at these sites:
Once you've found a few blogs of interest, it's easy to find more. Bloggers tend to link to one another, both within their blog posts, and often within a side menu of links known as a blogroll.
A handy tool for keeping track of all your blogs is a newsreader or aggregator, which saves you the trouble of poking around the Web, looking for new blog posts. Instead, your newsreader gathers and displays updates for you. One free, easy-to-use reader is:
You'll quickly learn which blogs you've subscribed to are must-reads, and which can be ignored or deleted.
Connecting with readers
It's natural to be apprehensive about starting a blog. When you first begin, it may feels like being on stage without a script or a view of the audience. Don't worry, feedback will come soon enough. Remember, there's no right or wrong way to blog. The only rule is your target audience must find something worthwhile.
One way to ease into blogging is to start with a temporary practice blog at http://www.blogger.com/, where you can set up a free practice blog in five minutes. Take a dry run for a week or two, then make your blog public when you're ready.
Good blogs are addictive, which is one reason they're so effective for authors. Many book buyers must be exposed to a title six or seven times before deciding to buy. With a good blog, getting repeated exposure won't be a problem.
A lively blog is like a focus group and writing laboratory rolled into one: It provides you with constant feedback, criticism, and new ideas. Your blog readers will pepper you with comments and e-mails. When you've struck a chord, you'll know immediately from the response. When you lay an egg, you'll know that too, from the silence.
Just as theater companies try out new productions in the hinterlands before storming Broadway, authors can fine tune their material on their blog, says technology writer Clive Thompson:
"Ask writers who blog regularly--like me--and they'll tell you how exciting it is to be wired in directly to your audience. They correspond with you, pass you tips, correct your factual blunders, and introduce you to brilliant new ideas and people. The Internet isn't just an audience, it's an auxiliary brain. But you have to turn it on, and it takes work. You can't fake participation and authenticity online."
Indeed, the true power of blogging is the momentum created by your audience. Once your blog has 100 frequent readers, it has critical mass. It may take six months or a year to get there, but from there it's all downhill. Members of your core audience begin competing to hand you the most useful, compelling ideas--by writing comments on your blog and e-mailing you directly. That's when your blog becomes electric, a magnet attracting new readers. Your core audience swells as word of mouth goes viral.
Blog comments: pros and cons
Most blogs include space below the author's posts for readers to add their own views. These comments can take the conversation in a totally new direction, and become the most interesting material on your blog, thanks purely to your readers' efforts.
For the blogger, comments bring three key benefits:
-- Instant feedback on your ideas and writing, and a sense of what your audience finds valuable.
-- Feeling of participation and loyalty among your audience.
-- Adding valuable keyword density to your site, making it much more visible in search-engine results.
Like any tool, however, comments can be abused. It's not unusual to see rude or off-topic comments on some blogs, and even "spam comments" written solely to plant links back to the spammer's site. The worst spammers even use software robots, which scour the Web for target blogs and insert their junk links. Spam comments are usually along the lines of, "Hey, great blog. Come see us at http://www.cheap-viagra.com/."
Fortunately, most problem comments can be prevented by using countermeasures like comment moderation: you review and approve new comments before they appear on your blog. Another option is to allow readers to post comments immediately, and you review them later. The advantage is your readers get immediate gratification in seeing their comments posted as they submit them.
Most spam comments can be prevented by using word verification, requiring comment writers to type a short series of characters displayed in an image. This stops spam comments from software robots.
To be sure, some popular authors don't allow blog comments at all, such as marketing guru Seth Godin. Simply because they're well known, famous writers attract a certain number of crackpots and sycophants, and perhaps it's easier to avoid them by allowing no comments.
Just as every book and author is unique, there's an endless variety of blog styles and flavors. All the blogging services have page templates, allowing you to start with a basic design and add a few personal elements.
Don't get bogged down looking for the "perfect" design. You'll always be free to tweak your design later, or do a complete overhaul. The most important thing is to get started adding content and building your audience.
The main design requirement is readability. Plain vanilla blogs are fine, and are actually preferred by most readers--it's the words that count. Black text on a white background might seem uninspired, but it's much easier on the eyes than white text on a black background or some other color. A plain masthead, simply your blog title in capital letters, is fine to start. The important thing is to get started.
Your blog's angle
A nonfiction author's blog can approach the topic from several directions:
-- New developments.
-- New products or services.
-- Hot-button issues of the day.
-- What other blogs or media are saying.
-- Reviews of new books in the field.
You can publish a blog in the style of a perpetual newsletter, an aggregation of interesting tidbits about your book's topic. As you notice new things and write about them, each post is stacked on top, and with each new post added on top, one of the older posts is bumped from the bottom and sent to your archives.
Let's imagine you're writing a blog on the topic Organic Strawberries. Your blog could serve as an information clearinghouse covering every conceivable angle and trend of organic strawberry growing, cooking, and consuming. You'll constantly monitor consumer and trade media for the latest news on organic growing, interpret this material for your audience, and link to the source material, adding your own commentary.
Your blog could include:
-- Questions from your blog readers on organic fruit, along with your answers.
-- Guest articles from experts on organic strawberry gardening.
-- New books and magazines on the topic.
-- Strawberry dessert recipes.
-- The best places to grow organic strawberries.
-- Listings and maps of markets offering organic strawberries.
-- Reviews of cookbooks addressing natural, organic, fruit and dessert preparation.
Fiction authors have even more freedom, but a bigger creative burden. They can write about themselves, or even from the point of view of a fictional character. A story from their book can continue on the blog, veering off in new directions, experimentally, in response to suggestions from readers and other writers.
Raw materials for posts
A free, easy way to find new raw material for your blog is to create a Google Alert, which will automatically scour thousands of media sources for any keywords you specify. You'll be alerted via e-mail when something containing your keywords appears in newspapers, magazines, Web sites, or other sources. Sign up at:
Google Alerts are also a handy way to monitor mentions of your blog title, book titles, and even your name or the names of other authors.
Your blog's title
A blog title usually spans the top portion of each page like a newspaper masthead. Titles are usually short and catchy--perhaps just a couple of nonsense words like Boing Boing, or a made-up compound word like RocketBoom or BuzzMachine. The name could be a non sequitur or double-entendre like PostSecret. Sometimes a title is just a title, like The Official Google Weblog.
Try to include in your title the most critical keyword related to your niche. Joe's Organic Strawberry Growing, Baking and Eating Guide is a good title. A poor title would be Joe's Thoughts and Ideas about Fruit because nobody would search for something like that, and if they saw it, they couldn't guess what it's about. Be obvious. Pick a few words that will be easy for people to remember and to repeat in conversation and e-mails.
Writing your blog posts
The essential ingredient of a blog is its short entries, or posts. They're arranged in reverse chronological order, with the newest at top. Posts can be a few sentences long, or many paragraphs long, and often link to outside information like blogs, newspaper stories, or multimedia clips hosted elsewhere on the Web.
Nearly any tidbit of information relevant to your audience can be spun into a blog post of some type:
-- Informational. A news-oriented blurb. A new development.
-- Question/Answer. Easy to write, and fun to read. Reliable material, even if you have to make up the question.
-- Instructional. Can be a longer post, a tutorial that explains how to do something related to your niche.
-- Link posts. Find an interesting blog post elsewhere. Link to it and add your own spin.
-- Rant. Let off some steam, and let it rip. Interesting blogs don't play it safe, they take sides.
-- Book review. Review a book related to your field. It can be a new book or a classic that newcomers haven't heard of.
-- Product reviews. The word "review" is a popular search term. Give your frank opinion, and encourage your readers to chime in with their own views.
-- Lists. Write about the "Top 5 Ways" to do a task, or the "Top 10 Reasons" for such-and-such. Readers love lists. If someone else publishes a list, you can summarize it or critique it on your own blog.
-- Interviews. Chat with someone in your field. Provide a text summary on your blog. You can also add a transcript or even an audio file.
-- Case studies. Report on how so-and-so does such-and-such. You don't have to call it a "case study," just tell the story.
-- Profiles. Profiles focus on a particular person, a personality. The person profiled can be someone well known in your field, or perhaps a newcomer nobody's heard of.
Most blogs are conversational and informal, but that doesn't give authors a license to be sloppy. Readers expect clear writing from an author, and that requires attention to detail--not to mention beginning your sentences with capital letters and ending them with periods. It's worth proofreading and spell-checking your posts before publishing. Keeping your paragraphs short will minimize your rewriting chores.
One helpful feature for you and your readers is blog categories. Assign each post to one or more categories, such as "technology," "marketing," "features," "reviews," or however you can best divide your material. Category headings can be listed on your blog's margin, and are especially valuable for new readers.
Assigning your posts to category headings can be especially handy later for your own writing tasks -- you'll have material already divided into chapter topics.