The New Farm System: From Blog to Book

Iris BlasiBy Iris Blasi, Associate Editor, Union Square Press

“When you’re an editorial assistant, you don’t get lot of great agents coming to you, so you have to scour the web,” Patrick Mulligan explained from his perch on a 2010 Digital Book World Conference panel entitled The New Farm System: Scouting Blogs and Self-Publishers for Commercial Books.

Mulligan, a senior editor at Penguin’s Gotham Books, earned his position on the panel by doing just that—and scoring two blog-to-book hits in the process: 2007’s NYT-bestselling “The Truth about Chuck Norris,”  Mulligan’s very first acquisition at Gotham, and 2008’s “I Can Has Cheezburger,” a collection of over 200 of the best selections from the LOLcat meme. He was joined on the panel by Kate Lee, an ICM agent so well known for ushering authors from the internet to bookshelves that she was the subject of a 2004 New Yorker piece, and Simon & Schuster’s Sulay Hernandez, an editor who brought the romance novel website from web to page with the Touchstone Fireside publication of “Beyond Heaving Bosoms.” The panel was moderated by Foreword Reviews’ publisher, Victoria Sutherland.

The list of blog-to-book successes is now so long that PostSecret and “Julie and Julia” now seem like quaint and distant memories. But from “Stuff White People Like: The Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions” to “F.U., Penguin: Telling Cute Animals What’s What”  to “Cake Wrecks: When Professional Cakes Go Hilariously Wrong,” the phenomenon shows few signs of slowing.  From research done on Publishers Marketplace, Mulligan estimates that more than 50 blogs nabbed book deals in 2009. (Because only announced deals are included in the database, it’s likely that the total number is far higher.)


All three panelists reported feeling pushback from retailers due to market saturation. Still, they said, lack of novelty isn’t a reason to abandon the concept—just to be picky. Not everything from the web works, they cautioned. “It takes more art and timing to get it right than you might think,” Mulligan said.

The three panelists were also unanimous in calibrating authorial expectations, warning would-be bloggers that not every webmaster receives a huge payday for publication. There’s a huge range of advances paid, Kate Lee said, clarifying that figures are easily inflated since that the books most talked about “have had high-profile, mid-six-figure advances and have worked.”

“It comes down to really good editing and keeping a sharp eye out,” she added.

The beauty of mining the web for content is, of course, the built-in audience. The danger is inextricably tied to that same fact: how does one cull content that remains authentic enough to the sensibility of the website while simultaneously being “new” enough to attract a print audience?

Much of that depends on the author, Sulay said. The most desirable combination is an author who is tech-savvy and knows their category, but is malleable. They can’t be so married to their content and design that they will be resistant to the benefits a traditional publisher brings to the table.

Publishers are also seeking authors who will continue to push their product, Sulay added. “When you write a book, that’s not the end,” she said in a sentiment echoed in multiple venues at DBW2010. “You really have to be out there to promote it.”

Particularly with crowd-sourced web books, part of an author’s promotion involves the community that made them a hit in the first place. “What they have done is nurture a community,” Mulligan said. “If we can capture just a portion of that in a bookstore, those are big numbers to publishers.”


Think your blog can be the next bestseller? Here are some tips for aspiring writers:

  1. Consider your category. The web is a goldmine for humor writers in particular. “If you’re funny and your voice is unique, people will come to it,” said Mulligan.
  2. Pay heed to tradition even in a digital environment. The best way to catch the attention of an agent or editor? “A good, old-fashioned, well-written query,” said Lee. “There’s really no substitute for that.”
  3. Think ahead. In standard publishing contracts, the burden of obtaining permissions for reprinted material falls on the author. For sites dependent upon reader submissions, do yourself a favor and have readers surrender rights to their content prior to posting, as smartly does at sign-up.
  4. Don’t show all your cards. Added value is essential to publishers, as they don’t want to reproduce what is already available for free online. Be mindful from the outset about holding back some add-ons that might work best for the book.
  5. Show you can drive traffic. If a blog launches in the forest, does it make a sound? Great content will only get you halfway. Focus on links from other websites, as they act as a kind of endorsement and quality control, demonstrating your proven ability to promote.

The main challenge blog-to-book projects must over come is the initial question: Why even bother to make a website into a book.

It’s simple: When it’s a website, said Mulligan, “you can’t give it to someone as a gift.”

Iris Blasi is an Associate Editor at Union Square Press; she tweets about books past, present, and future.

16 thoughts on “The New Farm System: From Blog to Book

  1. Charles Bohannan

    Very interesting stuff Iris, thanks.

    Seems like many bloggers spend great energy trying to monetizing their site, which is usually difficult and sensitive. Perhaps if they focused more on their content and attracting the interest of book publishers, there would be more blog-to-book success stories.

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  3. Elena

    I was quite happy to read this post as the memoir I’m working on was spawned from readers’ comments on a personal blog I had kept for a couple of years. The blog’s focus turned from “daily musings” into something else when I began using it to document my father’s mysterious death and all the corruption, betrayal, sociopaths and incompetence I encountered. As I posted daily, readers would comment…”This is better than any book I’ve read…If it wasn’t all true, it would be unbelievable…”You got to write a book!” So that’s what I did. The book is not “just the blog” but I did use it as a springboard. I’m on my third rewrite and am hopeful to see it published, not just for myself but for others who find themselves in my predicament.

  4. Eva Ulian

    You mean to say that all those annual dinners and religious procession around my village may one day find themselves between the pages of a book? Have pity! The least the villagers will do to me is lock me up in some obscure basement cell and throw away the key.

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  7. Tina Richardson

    Thank you for this insightful information. I am in the beginning stages of pulling things together for my own blog, so reading this today was timely.

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  9. Ted

    Is anyone familiar with any academic books that are edited collections of blog posts from a range of contributors who grant republishing permission?

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