Dear Blog: Today I Worked on My Book
By TANIA RALLI
New York Times
Published: July 4, 2005
Jan Stürmann for The New York Times: John Battelle, who is writing a
book about Google, likes the immediate feedback that his Web blog
When he has writer's block, John Battelle, author of the forthcoming
book "The Search: The Inside Story of How Google and Its Rivals
Changed Everything," keeps on writing. But not his book manuscript.
Instead, he goes straight to his blog (http://battellemedia.com).
Mr. Battelle, a founder of Wired and The Industry Standard magazines,
sometimes makes quick notes on the blog about a topic related to his
book, and other times posts longer essays. "Writing for the blog is
more like having a conversation," Mr. Battelle said.
For years, book authors have used the Internet to publicize their
work and to keep in touch with readers. Several, like Mr. Battelle,
are now experimenting with maintaining blogs while still in the act
of writing their books.
"It is very satisfying to write something and get an immediate
response to it," said Mr. Battelle, who calculated that last year he
wrote 74,000 words for his book, and 125,000 words on his blog. "It
is less satisfying to write a chapter and let it sit on the shelf for
Instead of simply being a relief from writerly solitude, these blogs
have turned into part of the process. Mr. Battelle said that he was
surprised by the number of people who read his journal and offered
feedback, correcting mistakes, making suggestions of people to
interview or articles to read and contributing ideas that are finding
their way into his finished manuscript.
"It has provided such a wealth of sources," he said. "The readers
pointed me to things I might not have paid much attention to."
Authors' blogs also change the solitary mission of writing into
something more closely resembling open-source software. Mistakes are
corrected before they are eternalized in printed pages, and readers
can take satisfaction that they contributed to a book's creation. The
blogs can also confer some authority: Aside from drawing on the
collective intelligence of its readers, Mr. Battelle's site has
become a compendium of Google- and search-related issues.
Authors who have experimented with blogging in this way - and there
are still only a handful - say they hope to create a sense of
community around their work and to keep fans informed when a new book
is percolating. The novelist Aaron Hamburger used his blog to write
about research techniques he employed to set his coming book in
Berlin (http://www.aaronhamburger.com). Poppy Z. Brite, another
novelist, has written about her characters on her blog as though they
have a life of their own, not just the one springing from her
Despite the encouragement some authors receive from their online
readers, the steady stream of feedback can be paralyzing. For some,
the open process invites criticism and self-doubt when there is
research to be done.
David Weinberger, the author of "Small Pieces Loosely Joined," a
nonfiction book about the Internet, posted his daily progress online
while writing that book. But as he frequently rewrote each section,
Mr. Weinberger found it was not the best way to capture readers'
advice. For his new book - "Everything Is Miscellaneous," about how
information is organized in daily life - he is posting chapters only
when they are complete, rather than in fragments (http://
www.hyperorg.com). "And then I will beg for comments," he said.
Chris Anderson, who is writing "The Long Tail," a nonfiction book to
be published next year by Hyperion, freely posts his ideas on his
blog to solicit responses (http://longtail.typepad.com). His book
grew out of an influential article he wrote - by the same title -
last year for Wired magazine, where he is editor in chief.
"The Long Tail" examines the shift from mass markets to niche
markets. Taking a cue from Mr. Battelle, Mr. Anderson has made his
blog a source for anything related to the topic, whether written by
him or someone else. The blog charts new applications for Mr.
Anderson's theory since the publication of his article, and helps him
collect ideas for the book.
"The conversation is happening whether you like it or not," he
said. "To hope that it will pause for 18 months is unrealistic."
By introducing new ideas through his blog and inviting responses, Mr.
Anderson is operating on the notion that if you give something away,
you will get more in return. "I very much want people to take the
ideas and improve on them," he said.
The question for these authors is this: By feeding and engaging their
readers' curiosity, are they destroying the market for the books that
they, after all, are paid to write?
"Blogs are a way to listen in and find out what people find funny and
respond to," said Marion Maneker, editorial director at
HarperCollins's HarperBusiness unit, who said it was too early to
determine whether blogs would affect sales.
Michael Cader, who is the editor of two industry publications,
Publishers Marketplace and Publishers Lunch, said he believed that,
based on the limited examples, authors could build a much bigger
audience for their work through blogging. While there is no evidence
yet that blogs affect books sales, Mr. Cader said, anything an author
could do to create a readership was beneficial.
Since the publication of their book "Freakonomics," an economic lens
onto human behavior, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner have
fielded questions about the book with their blog (http://
www.freakonomics.com/blog.php), debated topics with readers (anything
baseball-related strikes a nerve), and contemplated readers'
suggestions (one reader suggested that fluoride in the water may be
the root of all evil).
While saying that he was impressed by the depth and complexity of
readers' responses, Mr. Levitt added that it was unlikely he would
float his book ideas for mass consideration on the blog.
"The concern we have is about having our stuff sound fresh," he said.
In addition to the conversation it engenders, the blog is mostly a
receptacle for the ideas not spun into magazine articles.
Steven Johnson has used his blog (http://www.stevenberlinjohnson.com)
to keep readers informed of his appearances and readings of
"Everything Bad Is Good for You," his thesis on how pop culture
strengthens, not erodes, intellect nonfiction. He has also rebutted
his critics, chronicled his book tour, and responded to reader
feedback. Mr. Johnson decided not to blog about the book while
writing it, however,
Mr. Johnson said that many people who seek out the blog have read his
earlier books and are interested in reading about, or commenting on,
how his work has evolved. The readers get a behind-the-scenes look at
the author's thoughts on the book's reception and other topics.
"There is only so much you can get out of a book signing," he said.
"I feel like people don't really go to promotional book sites. They
want the live feeling of the author who's out there fending off the
critics and confessing his sins."