Why bloggers aren’t always great at selling books

During my interviews with lit bloggers, one of my most consistent questions had to do with a blog’s power to promote books. For some reason I’m really fascinated with this discussion, probably because I one day hope to promote a book of my own. There’s something fantastic about the idea of using your blog to have market influence, either on your own stuff or others. You’re essentially a trend-setter, and everyone wants to be a trend-setter.

So John Scalzi links to this Boston Herald article that says that the publishing industry has been too optimistic about a blogger’s ability to sell books. Publishers assumed that thousands of blog readers would turn into thousands of book buyers, but that’s not always the case:

Bloggers, buoyed by site meter numbers and Internet buzz, were the darling of the publishing world about two years ago. But when books hit the shelves, sales fizzled, and now it takes a lot more than a laptop and a blogspot account to make it onto Amazon’s top 100.

“They haven’t performed as well as publishers hoped,” said Boston-based literary agent Jill Kneerim. “It is still a phenomenon that people are hopeful about, but in many cases, people who are fans of the blog have already read the content. So what’s the point in buying the book?”

John Scalzi puts it well when he says:

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.

This should be obvious, though I’d argue that even though the percentage would be small, the blogger would count on that small percentage being a good word-of-mouth campaign for his book. In other words, when bloggers promote their books, they shouldn’t expect to make a ton of money just on their own readers, but use their readers as a seed to gain more readers.

But I think it definitely goes further than that. To me, there are two kinds of blogs I read: Blogs that I read for information and/or breaking news, and blogs that I read for writing skill. The best blogs provide both. But needless to say, both are valuable in their own way. It doesn’t take much thought to figure out which kind of blogger I’d be more willing to buy a book from, though.

Let’s take two recent blogger books as examples. On the one hand, we have Crashing the Gate, by Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, who owns Daily Kos (I assume you guys don’t need a link?). A lot of reports showed that even though Kos is the most-visited political blog, its sales didn’t exactly shoot through the roof, though there was some actual dispute over the book sales. Still, it wasn’t a huge best-seller, like Kos had predicted it would be on his blog.

On the other hand, we have Glenn Greenwald‘s How Would A Patriot Act?. It quickly jumped to #1 on Amazon right away and also made it onto the New York Times’ Bestseller List.

Why did one book perform better than the other? Especially when Daily Kos has a lot more readers? Well, look at the two sites. For Daily Kos, Markos is only one of several bloggers. In fact, if you count all the Kos diaries, he’s one of several hundred bloggers who work together to bring in the readers. Though the front page is probably what gets the most hits, I’m sure there’s a lot of draw to the diaries as well, especially for search engine love. How many of those readers are coming in to specifically hear what Markos has to say?

Glenn Greenwald’s blog, on the other hand, is only written by one person. When you visit his blog, you’re visiting to find out what he has to say. This is probably key for developing reader-loyalty that will transform into book sales.

Now, let’s look at the posts themselves. Most Daily Kos posts look like this one. As you can see, it’s heavy on block-quotes, in other words, Kos likes to spend a lot of time quoting other people without offering much analysis to it. Kos also has a lot of posts that are full of outgoing links, like this one.

Compare this to the meaty, wordy posts of Glenn Greenwald like this one. Glenn isn’t afraid to use blockquotes or outbound links, but he uses them to provide futher reading outside of his own content. He’s a much more prose-oriented blogger who spends a lot of time on his posts.

Though I haven’t purchased either books, I would definitely put down money for Glenn’s book before I bought Kos’. And apparently this was true for a lot of other people too, because a lot more people bought How Would A Patriot Act?

So I’m still a firm believer in a blog’s power to sell books. It’s the ultimate word-of-mouth on steroids. Studies show that word-of-mouth advertising is the most powerful, so rather than being able to spread good vibes about a book to three or four people, a blogger can spread it to thousands, as long as they trust his tastes.

So if you’re a publisher who’s looking to give a blogger a book deal, look for bloggers who are big on content, because it’s not just the readership that’s the key, but rather why the readers are going to the site.


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One Comment

  1. James Aach Says:


    One thing the Boston Herald article didn’t mention was the “blook”, — posting an entire book on a blog. This is a way to demonstrate both writing quality and marketability. Especially in fiction, there aren’t that many gatekeepers one can interest in a book, and evidence (and their own blogs) suggest they tend to focus on what interests them, versus the public at large. (I suspect their recognition of that was one reason they were hooking onto popular blogs.) Posting a blook may not ultimately result in mainstream publication, but it can bring some satisfaction to the writer, and some good reading to those who find it. Mine has worked out quite well (“Rad Decision” is a thriller written about my profession of nuclear power) and another example would be Ian Hocking’s technothriller “Deja Vu”. ( ianhocking.com/thiswritinglife.html )

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