On Sept. 28, 2005, publishing house Little, Brown and Co. put out a book called Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen by Julie Powell.
This ambitious book started out as a blog. “So what?” you ask.
So, every writer who has ever dreamed of having his or her book published is suddenly viewing blogs as the ticket to a big, fat book deal. But has the aforementioned event truly changed the struggling writer to published author ratio?
Here’s how it went down. At a crossroads in her life, Julie Powell decided to start a project. She would cook every recipe out of Julia Child’s classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1—all 524 of the recipes—in 365 days. She would chronicle her kitchen adventures—everything from making homemade aspic to hunting down calves’ hooves and bone marrow in Manhattan—on her blog site, which she titled The Julie/Julia Project.
She had no publishing aspirations for the blog; it was just for self-fulfillment. A large fan base began clicking in on a regular basis, and, before the end of the year-long project, a bidding war to put the blog into book form arose. Powell was interviewed by the likes of NPR, CNN, the Chicago Tribune, and, most notably, The New York Times.
This buzz threw Powell into the spotlight. Almost overnight, she went from disgruntled secretary to literary darling.
For those of us in the writing life, this is explosive. It is akin to Lana Turner being discovered in Schwab’s drugstore. It’s what all artists dream of: to be “discovered.” To be wanted. To be recognized as the brilliant geniuses that we are. To have a gigantic door of opportunity open wide without our having to knock.
Blogs have been around for a while, but they have exploded in the last few years—particularly since the 2000 presidential election, when everyone had an opinion they wanted to voice. And that is the basic premise of a blog: You can say anything you like about whatever topic you want. Some blogs are like personal diaries, wherein the author espouses on a variety of subjects. Other blogs are topic-specific.
Not every blog is worthy of publication, however. Just because someone writes a blog doesn’t make that person a writer. Most blogs are rambling pieces of self-indulgence. The reason the Julie/Julia Project made publishers sit up is the fact that its quirky, unique voice attracted readers. At its height, the blog was getting 7,500 hits per day and her “bleaders” (blog readers) enjoyed her so much they sent donations. In other words, the project had a built-in audience, which is known in the publishing industry as a platform. A platform draws book deals like a flame draws moths, for it isn’t the blogs themselves that publishers drool over, but the buzz they generate.
Powell has been accused of not being a very good writer. Powell herself wrote in her blog entry announcing her deal: “I am, in fact, officially What’s Wrong With Publishing Today.” Her saving grace is her wit, voice, and style. Being interviewed by Amanda Hesser, food journalist at The New YorkTimes, was like being given the key to the executive washroom—all of sudden, Powell was one of the elite. She had the respect and attention of both the food and literary worlds.
Would Powell have been offered a book deal if the blog was extremely well-written but had a very small readership? Probably not.
Reader reviews of Julie/Julia have been overwhelmingly positive. Of Amazon.com’s 50 reader reviews, roughly 80 percent are favorable. Editorial reviews, from Publishers Weekly to Kirkus Reviews, have been positive as well, but not by such a huge margin. The main problem most reviewers had with the book is that Powell seems to veer off into irrelevant topics.
This is perhaps the problem with all blogs. How do you take someone’s ramblings and turn them into a coherent, seamless read? To ensure that the book would not be a dry, verbatim reprint of the blog, Powell (under editorial advisement, no doubt) added information about her life—her marriage, her woes, her wacky friends—and love letters from Paul Child to his wife Julia. This speaks to the validity of blogs as publishable works. In this case, the blog had to be spruced up to make it palatable, a technique that may not always be possible. Another problem is that whatever it is that the author is ranting about in a blog may be irrelevant in and of itself by the time the book is published.
The Julie/Julia Project is not the first blog odyssey to be printed between hard covers: Several others preceded it. A good example is Save Karyn by Karyn Bosnak. Save Karyn began as a blog of Bosnak’s financial situation. Her book has gotten more flack than Powell’s because many people found it offensive that she would rack up a $20,000 debt through her own frivolity and then request donations from complete strangers to help her pay it off (though it worked). Yet, it doesn’t look like Bosnak is suffering from the backlash; not only does she have a published book, but Sony Pictures is set to release Karyn Bosnak Story, based on this hair-brained/brilliant scheme of hers.
In some cases, writers have been offered book deals that have little to do with their blogs, except that the blogs carry with them that golden built-in audience. A case in point is Dana Vachon, who reportedly got a whopping $650,000 advance for two books. The first book, although based on the blog, is actually a novel. Jessica Cutler is another example. Cutler began a blog to dish to friends about her sexual escapades, including a relationship with a White House staffer. Within 2 weeks she’d lost her job but was bombarded with book deal offers, also resulting in a novel.
In an effort to capture the same success, writers have been starting blogs left and right. All these authors are hoping that editors will read their blogs and say, “Hey, this is a really good writer. We’ll give her a book deal.” In reality, it would be more along the lines of “Hey, this person’s blog is drawing lots of readers. We shall capitalize on that and have him write something … anything.” The question now: How long will this go on?
In his Tech Central Station article “The Future of Blogs and the Blogoshere” (http://www.techcentralstation.com/102704E.html), Glenn Harlan Reynolds wrote that blogs are increasing in significance because everyone is joining the parade, from individuals to corporations. But for that very same reason, blogs will become ordinary, hence drawing less attention. Blogs, as Reynolds puts it, will have “more impact, but less definition.”
Since editors have more than enough ordinary material piled on their desks, what does this mean for bloggers hoping to become published authors?
The likelihood is that there will be a glut of blog-to-book projects, and like any other trend that thrives on glitter rather than substance, interest will dwindle. It is also possible that like reality TV, this will become a standard theme in the publishing environment. Keep in mind that only the best reality shows, the ones that demonstrate real creativity and true talent, continue season after season. So it will probably (hopefully) be with blog books.
Julie Powell, by the way, has sold the film rights to Julie and Julia, which opens up the dialogue for screenwriters as well. If you would like to see what the hubbub was about and read the archived Julie/Julia Project, begin the journey at http://blogs.salon.com/0001399/2002/08/25.html.
Roberta Roberti is a freelance writer in NYC. She specializes in food writing is awaiting the publication of her cookbook, What, No Meat? Traditional Italian Cooking, The Vegetarian Way.