July 2007

Shauna James AhernShauna James Ahern is the author of the popular food blog, Gluten Free Girl.  A former schoolteacher, she has been a long time blogger and has recently signed a deal with Wiley to publish her book, Gluten Free Girl.  The book is due to be released in October, but has already become a hot pre-order title on Amazon.  She has now been able to focus full time on her writing.  She has an infectious joy for life that comes through in all of her writing.  We asked Shauna about her experiences with writing her blog, building her readership and going from blog to book. 

FPP:  What is Gluten Free Girl all about and what made you decide to create the blog initially?

Shauna:  On the side of the banner for my website, it says food, stories, recipes, love.  That’s about it.

I choose to write about food, not only because I love it so, but also because great food is the springboard for memories, shared experiences, entry into other cultures, and a belly full of joy. In writing about food, I am really writing about all of life.

I’m always telling stories. Ask anyone who knows me – even a ten-minute drive yields a multitude of human stories. There’s a quote I love from Joan Didion:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I think that the more we tell our own stories, the more we know our own lives. (And if I don’t write down stories, they threaten to bang around the inside of my head.

Recipes is a funny one. Sometimes, I don’t believe in recipes at all. people try to follow them too carefully. But they can be a guide, a finger pointing the way toward true experience. And especially for those readers who come to my site, worried they will never eat well again after they have been diagnosed with celiac disease, the recipes are a balm.

Love?  Ah, well. I write about my love for being alive in the moment, for discovering a new taste, for photogr phing light falling on roasted potatoes, for the possibilities of food and this live, and for my friends and the people who make up my world. For the past year and more, the website has also been a love story with the man who is now my husband, the Chef.

FPP:  You’ve been blogging a long time. How has your blog changed over time?

Shauna:  I started the site almost immediately after realizing I had celiac disease, and thus had to stop eating all gluten. After being violently ill all that spring – and suffering from fatigue and a series of maladies all my life – I was astonished to find that the answer was this simple. I was also angry that I had suffered with this all my life, and I had never heard of it. Since I have been a writer for as long as I could hold a pen, I began writing about this.  I wanted to teach, to help others. And when I realized that my only cure was through food, it became a food blog.

The blog has changed, enormously. Thank goodness for it, or I would be so bored.

When I first started, the blog was intensely personal, full of discoveries and mistakes, and mostly about “What is gluten and what can I do to avoid it.”

Within four or five months of that, I realized this was really a website about food. I began discovering great food and how to make it at home.

Then, it really became a story of a woman finding herself, her voice, and realizing that she was creating a new life, one based on food and writing.

Finally, it took a huge turn when I met the Chef.  Not only did he feed me foie gras for the first time, but he has also taught me the joys of eating seasonally, simply, and in the moment. The blog really became a love affair, told through food.

Now, I’m not sure where it will go next. The love story still continues, of course, even though we finally got married!  I have plans to make it more regularly updated, twice a week, a bit more intentional about what I write, now that I know more and more people will be reading it.

FPP:  What do you think accounts for the popularity of Gluten Free Girl?  Have you seen increased readership as a result of recent concerns about food safety and quality?

Shauna:  Oh, I think there are a number of factors as to why people have been reading the blog in increasing numbers. I’m sure I don’t know them all. But I think I have a handle on a few….

First, more and more people are being diagnosed with celiac disease every day. One out of 100 Americans suffers from this, but only 3% have been diagnosed. Now that awareness is on the rise, for various reasons, more and more people are starting to wake up. When they are first diagnosed, people google “gluten-free” and find my website. You have no idea how many people write to me to say they spent the entire weekend reading every single essay I ever wrote.  Yikes!

yes tattooThe next reason is my attitude toward life, I believe. Whether or not you can eat gluten, you want to be inspired. I have the word “yes” tattooed on my wrist, and that spirit imbues every word I write as well. Given the condition I have, it would be easy to be glum or bitter. Instead, I regard everything as a chance to learn, to embrace the world as fully as I can. This is not in a Pollyanna sense, but in a thoughtful, well-considered decision as to how I want to live my life. I’ve been told by readers that they love that, and keep coming back for more.

People love stories.  And they certainly love love stories. That I can provide. Many readers have mentioned my openness as one of the reasons they return.

Sometimes, I make them laugh.

I also love taking pictures of food. Some people just come to look at those and be inspired in what to make for dinner that night!

I think that the recent issues of food safety and quality are just part of the reason people want to investigate their food more carefully. After decades of living in a processed-foods coma, people are starting to wake up. The ideas of eating locally and seasonally seem revolutionary at the moment, but maybe we can make them a little more mainstream.

FPP:  Are there specific things you have done to increase readership or has it grown more or less organically on its own?

Shauna:  My readership really grew organically, at first. I didn’t start the blog to find readers, believe it or not. I really wrote from passion and that urgency that says, “Write it down!” I was astonished when people started leaving comments. I’d look at their sites, and then I’d leave comments, and this web of readers began forming.

Now, I do a few things to increase readership. Updating regularly and trying to keep the post lengths down a bit (although not with the piece i put up about our wedding, of course!), mostly. Some blogger friends have suggested that I create titles for pieces that include the recipe in them, and some other formulaic suggestions. But I just want to keep what I am doing and let people come to me.

FPP:  How did you come to work with Wiley & Sons on your book? Were there specific metrics or other characteristics of your audience that they were interested in?

Shauna:  I started working with Wiley because my agent connected me to them. When she (Stacey Glick at Dystel and Goderich) sent out my book proposal, she sent one of the first copies to Wiley. There were other offers, but I just loved the way they looked at my book.  Afterwards, I found out how lucky I was – my editor is a dream.  I would work with them again, and again.

They were interested in how many readers I had, how regularly they came back, and the loyalty they seemed to have. It’s pretty clear to me that publishers are just starting to understand the power of the blog.  I’m lucky I got my book deal when I did. I have a lot of readers, and very very loyal readers especially. But there are plenty of blogs out there that have more readers than I do.  I’m willing to bet that in two years or so, publishers will have a minimum monthly readership before they will even consider blogs.  But they were impressed by my stats, because this is all so new!

In the end, though, publishers still want a great story, a strong voice, and a persuasive passion to publish a book.

FPP:  How have your readers responded to the news of your forthcoming book?

Shauna:  Wow. That’s all I can say about that one.

Gluten Free Girl book coverThey have been fantastic. When I announced that I had a book deal – and could quit my teaching job to write it – they flooded me with comments. Readers have been fascinated by every step of the process, and especially kind in not emailing me with questions the last couple of weeks before the book was due. I have felt fully supported and firmly held by this community.

Now, the book is on pre-order on Amazon. That has been amazing, as well. For the past month, it has been on the top ten list of popular pre-orders for mind, body, and health. That makes me gasp with delight.

I run into people on the street who recognize me from the website (now that’s weird!) and they always say, “I ordered your book! I ordered three copies!”  People feel a really personal connection with me because of the website.

FPP:  How much of the blog content went into your book? Did you have a process for selecting blog content for the book? Did you have to alter your writing for the book vs. the blog?  And what difficulties, if any, did you encounter in converting content from the blog into the book?

Shauna:  I tried to use as little from the blog as possible, actually.

Even though I had done a year and a half of writing on the blog by the time I was given the book deal, and essays every day for much of that time, I didn’t want to repeat myself in the book.

I’m aware that writing for a website is temporal.  When I first started writing, I would eat something great for dinner and blog about it that night! There’s something marvelously immediate about a website. (When my husband and I were married, fans were terribly impatient and wondered why it took me nine days to put up a post about it. “We want to see your wedding dress!” they wrote.)  I love that rush and play, the feedback from readers, the immediacy.

However, as someone who has loved (and venerated) the book all my life, I know that books are an entirely different medium.  I wanted my book to be more enduring, something that people could pick up ten years later and still find relevant.  I wanted every word to be considered and consciously chosen.

Also, on the website, the story is constantly unfolding. I didn’t really know the story line of it until I had written for a year and could see what I had done. With the book, I used the knowledge that came from stepping back a bit and created a story arc that worked throughout the entire book. Events that I make glancing reference to in my website – such as the near-death experience I had in a car accident three years ago – became entire chapters.

In that way, the readers of my website will still have something new to read.

That being said, after I stayed away from the blog for awhile during writing, I finally did go back and use some of it. After all, there are great stories, phrases I loved, references that still made me laugh.  So I would say that about 1/3 of the final book came from the blog.  Sometimes, I just stole a single sentence from myself (that’s how it felt!). no use in re-inventing the wheel for everything!

FPP:  Where would you like to go with your blogging and publishing in the future?

Shauna:  I want to do this for the rest of my life.

Unlike teaching high school (which I did, off and on, for ten years), there is no schedule with this.  When I was a teacher, late August always meant the gearing up for school.  Sometimes, my body felt on autopilot.  But now, I hear back to school ads, and it feels like a story from a different country.

Writing excites me.  It also scares me, and it keeps me on my toes.  I feel alive when I write every day. That it connects with other people and gives them some joy is one of my greatest places of gratitude.

I have a solid sense that I am helping people with my writing, in a way more direct than teaching could ever be. That means the world to me.

So, I have plans for a second book (it’s hush for now, but it’s in definite formation).  I would like to be writing about food and the stories it inspires, for the rest of my life.

I would also love to explore the world with my husband, going to the cultures where the food is naturally gluten-free, and spending time there, imbibing the culture, living stories, eating great food, and then coming home to write it all up.

Other than that, I have no idea. That’s why it’s so exciting!

FPP:  What advice could you give other prospective blogger / authors?

Shauna:  Ah, some people are not going to like this answer…

Please don’t start a blog just to get a book deal.  It isn’t the way.

Everyone I know (including me) who has gotten a book deal out of a blog was, in some way, surprised by it.  Sure, by the time I wrote my book proposal, I was more intentional about it.  But when I started the blog,  I had no idea it would lead to a book.  Honestly.

Instead, I wrote from passion and urgency, in my own voice, with a story I felt had to be told.

And in the end, that’s where all great literature begins.

Blogging to make money or get a book? It’s pretty empty.

Telling your own story? It’s endlessly fulfilling.

The proto book widget was probably Amazon’s Inside the Book tool.   It doesn’t quite qualify as a widget since ordinary users couldn’t drag and drop it on their own web pages or blogs.  But it showed the way:  access to certain parts of the book -e.g. the table of contents – and the ability to view excerpted content.  Google extended this with its Reader technology.  But now there are true book widgets coming to market – from pubishers as well as software developers. 

Random House Insight book widgetMost notable is the Ramdom House Insight widget.  It features the ability to search and preview book contents, display the book cover, link to a purchase ssite and add the widget to a web page.  For audiobooks, it has an embedded audio player.   The widget’s functionality is made possible by a set of web services developed by the company.  These services will allow independent widget developers to expose and use the company’s proprietary book data in innovative ways.  Alex Iskold (Read / Write Web blog) gives a nice writeup on the Random Hosue widget in his article “Random House – Widgets and Web Services Done Right.”  Iskold concludes:

Its great to see an older and bigger company that gets widgets and web services. Random House is leveraging its information in a controlled way to businesses and exposes it in a viral way to end users. This is savvy and economical. Their widget implementation nails the user experience, packing the key functions of searching and browsing into the widget. The only thing that would be great to add to the widget is user and expert reviews, but this does not seem to be the information that Random House has.

In February, HarperCollins introduced a book widget, Browse Inside, though its feature set isn’t quite as robust as that of the Insight widget.  It provides the capability to view a book’s front matter and the first few pages, but has no general search or audio capability. 

iPhone book widgetHarry Potter countdown widgetAnother widget called iBookdb from Shelfari.com – allows users to set up a virtual bookshelf on their site or blog.  The “bookshelf” is a set of images linked to a description of the books chosen.  Some widgets even have a finite shelf life.  For example, the multiple Harry Potter countdown widgets which counted down the days to the release of the last book in Harry Potter series.   For mobile book widget lovers, there is the iPhone “This day in history” widget which takes content from MacKiev’s 2007 World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia and displays an historical item each day. 

And should you want to turn your blog into a book, there is now a widget – Blog2Print widget from SharedBook, Inc.  Currently in beta, the product is limited to blogs on Google’s Blogger.com.  In it’s press release, the company said:

Blog2Print is a quick and easy way for blog owners to compile their favorite posts in printed book format. The widget also gives bloggers the ability to monetize their content through the sale of newly created books. Content owners can sign up to receive a 20 percent share of the retail price of all blog books made by others of their content.

 All of this widget ware is opening up a potential new viral distribution channel for books publishers.  These software snippets, combined with widespread social networking on the web, may one day pose a serious challenge to the more established book distribution channels.

raining moneyBlog to book success stories are inspiring, but not every writer will have the good fortune to be signed by a major publisher and go directly from blog to book.  It takes time, hard work and a little bit of luck to get the book deal.  The path may be convoluted – life may intervene.  But there are other ways for writers to be rewarded for their blogging while waiting to be discovered.  Here are some examples.

Businesses both large and small are discovering the power of blogging.  For writers who have the discipline and writing skills to blog, opportunities abound.  To see some examples of blogging and blog related jobs available these days, visit BloggerJobs.biz.  Jobs include writing, editorial, marketing / PR and some more technical positions.  The range of topics is quite broad:  music, home design and architecture, asian food, baking, search engine news, celebrity gossip, beds and mattress products, politics, frugal living, interior design, weddings.  You get the picture – pretty much the universe.  Many of these jobs are at blog networks – the new magazines of the Internet.  But many are also at traditional media outlets.  Blogger pay has been the subject of controversy.   Pay is often a base salary with bonuses for increased traffic.  To get a feel for how this discussion has evolved over time check out the 2005 post “Advertising, editorial lines blur as bloggers’ salaries tied to traffic” by Mark Glaser on the USC Online Annenberg Journalism Review and the recent post “What’s the perfect formula for blogger payouts” by Abe Olandres on the Blog Herald. 

In an article “How to Launch a Career With Your Blog,” Fast Company highlighted several different approaches.  A popoular blog, related to a business area, can lead to consulting and speaking engagements that require the particular knowledge or expertise of the blogger.   It can also lead to conventional, (non-blogging) employment with a company that is impressed by what the blogger has to say.

How about advertising?  This can provide a blogger some incremental monthly income, but it is clearly tied to the level of traffic on the blog and the topic area.  For most bloggers, it won’t pay the mortgage.  Darren Rowse of ProBlogger.net periodically surveys his readers who use advertising on their blogs to determine the level of income they earn from it.  The pie chart below shows the distribution of monthly advertising revenue from his November 2006 spot survey.

Nov 2006 ad revenue survey result

The lesson here is that there are many ways to turn your blog writing passion into cash.  Not all of them will allow you to quit your day job.  And perhaps none of them is yet as sweet as that big book deal with a major publisher.

The word “blook” is a contraction of “blog  book.”  It is a book created when an authro uses his / her  blog as the basis to build an audience and ultimately publish a title.  Traditional publishers have begun mining the blogosphere for new writers.  From all over the world, more evidence is accumulating that blog to book can be a winning strategy for authors.  Here are a few samples for your consideration.

anya-peters.jpgFor instance, consider this story from BBC News about Anya Peters – a woman who was homeless and lived in her car for nine months.   She started a blog in 2006 called the Wandering Scribe.  In the summer of 2005, financial and emotional difficulties left Peters living in her car.  In February 2006 she began writing her blog . A month later she was featured in a New York Times article.  This in turn was picked up by other media and more attention followed.  A literary agent who read about her soon had Peters signed up to a book deal with HarperCollins.  Her book is “Abandoned: The true story of a girl who didn’t belong.”

Clotilde DusoulierShauna JamesThe Seattle Times featured a story “Blog to Book deal for two food writers” about two women – Shauna James and Clotilde Dusoulier – in opposite parts of the world who were passionate about food and blogged about it.  James is a teacher and a gourmet cook who resides in Seattle.  Her blog is glutenfreegirl.com.  Her blog receives about 60,000 – 80,000 hits per month.  Last August, James signed a book deal with Wiley & Sons to write a food memoir about her transition from eating the prepackaged food she grew up with to becoming a gourmet when she went gluten-free. The book, “Gluten-Free Girl: How I Found the Food That Loves Me Back … And How You Can Too” will headline Wiley’s book list for the fall.  Dusoulier grew up in Paris, then transplanted to Silicon Valley where she worked as a software engineer.  Her blog,Chocolateandzucchini.com is a recounting of Dusoulier’s life in Paris and an international success. After just 3 ½ years, it receives an astonishing 4.9 million hits a month and was recently featured in The Wall Street Journal as one of the world’s top-five food blogs.  She recently publshed her first cookbook, Chocolate & Zucchini: Daily Adventures in a Parisian Kitchen,” with Broadway Books and has another due out in 2008. 

Catherine SandersonAnother story of blog to book success was reported by London’s Daily Telegraph in an aritcle “Petite Anglaise moves from Blog to Book.”  It features Catherine Sanderson who wrote a blog known Petite Anglaise – a kind of online diary of her life.  She gained fame after being fired for writing a blog on her life as a “Bridget Jones in Paris.”  She is finalizing her first book in a publishing deal with Penguin worth almost £500,000 (approximately $1 million).  She could earn even more from film rights after the book appears early next year.

Tertia AlbertynA South African publisher, Oshun, published its first title adapted from a blog.  The publisher gives a good account of the thinking that led them to the decision to publish.  The blog – at http://www.tertia.org is authored by Tertia Albertyn and is focused on South African issues.   It is one of the top blogs in the country, counting 3,000 unique visitors per day.  The book that resulted from the blog was “So Close.”    

In most of these cases, the author’s story is as intersting as the blooks they created.

Press release RIPThere has been no stronger advocate for rethinking the venerable press release than Steve Rubel, author of the marketing blog Micro Persuasion (see the picture he had on his post “Everything’s a Press Release at right).  In a 2005 post, “Blogs are the New Press Release,” he declared “the press release is dead” and hailed the blog as its replacement.  Why?  He listed three reasons:

  • RSS syndication – news can travel everywhere quickly. 
  • Human voice – None of the “royal we.”  There is a human talking to other humans.
  • Conversation – People reading the news could give their feedback through comments and trackbacks.

Blogs as the new press release – RSS, tagging, two way conversation?.  Can this be what God and Madison Avenue intended a press release to be?  Shouldn’t a press release be a carefully crafted message to gain the attention of the media?  Perhaps in the days of the Organizaiton Man and Mass Everything. 

But today we live in an age of limited attention – what Rubel refers to “Attention Crash.”  We are over messaged.  Filters have become more important than messages.  RSS is a kind of filter, as are social networks.   So what to do if you’re a pubisher who wants to get the word out.  Provide information and let the crowd interact with it, tag it and share it through sites like Digg.

The New Rules of PRPerhaps we should also reconsider who we’re talking to.  David Meerman Scott suggested in his revolutionary e-book “The New Rules of PR” that we should consider a direct-to-consumer press release.  What might this look like in the Web 2.0 world?  Edelman, the world’s larget PR firm has been experimenting with an interactive press release – called StoryCrafter.  Here is a suggestion for a book press release, combining traditional and new elements:

  • Book title
  • Book cover image
  • Author name, picture & short bio
  • Book description
  • Price
  • ISBN
  • Contact information
  • Podcast book excerpts
  • Podcast author interviews
  • Links to author blog and social networking pages
  • Book trailer
  • Links to relevant sites that add interesting background information
  • LInk to site(s) where book can be purchased
  • Area for comments and trackbacks
  • Widgets to allow users to subscribce, tag and share the news

The blog functions as a continuously operating online press room and news archive at the same time.  Expect great things of the Web 2.0 press release.  Just not the same things of days gone by.  The press release is dead!  Long live the press release!

Grammar GirlWant to know what the most popular podcast on the Internet is lately?  It’s not about celebrities, politics or even the latest, coolest tech gadgets.  It’s called “Grammar Girl” and it’s all about – well, grammar and writing.  The standard reference on grammar, Strunk and White’ss Elements of Style, remains a perennial bestseller on Amazon.  Perhaps both of these are a sign of the times.  Our society’s declining investment in spelling and grammar education is catching up with us.  People have discovered that much of the digital culture is text based – e-mails, instant messaging, blogs – and others may judge us by how we write. 

Perhaps the fear is justified.  Mistakes can echo across the Internet at the speed of light.  For example, Steve Silverman has a very popular blog called Regret The Error which highlights errors by mainstream journalists and book publishing.   

blue pencilPublishers, however, have always prided themselves on the low incidence of spelling errors, mistakes in grammar and sloppy use of language in the titles they release.  But more and more, such errors are turning up, even in works from the most well established publishers.  In the past, a published book went through extensive editing steps:  a developmental edit, copy edit and multiple proofreading cycles.  Changing conditions in the book publishing industry have not been kind to the editorial staffs at many publishers.  Much of this work is contracted out at small and medium sized publishers.  Often these detail oriented, time intensive processes get short circuited.  This is not a new lament.  R.Z. Sheppard wrote – in a 1980 Time magazine article “The Decline of Editing” that: 

. . . the word book may give way in favor of project, package, hot property and blockbuster. Even editors of noncommercial novels and belles-lettres feel the pressures to score with a Merv missile, a work that will get its author on a TV talk show, the most powerful selling medium of all. Smaller implements, like sharp blue pencils, are often disregarded.

HAL 9000New developments in book production and book marketing are making it easier than ever for individuals to publish.  The explosion of self published works, however is also likely lead to an explosion of errors in new titles.   Technology to the rescue?  Spell checkers, grammar checkers and proofreading software based on artificial intelligence have certainly made impressive advances, but still have a long way to go to match up with a professional human editor.  Perhaps, someday there will be a computerized editor – a kinder, gentler HAL 9000 knock-off to save us from embarassing editorial meltdowns.

Until then, new book releases may resemble new software releases.  The first edition may be full of misspellings, errors in grammar, and questionable language.  But all the “bugs” will get smoothed out by the third edition.  Sigh.

father timeIn a world where youth culture is so highly promoted, age is not usually considered a good thing.  However, if you’re an author starting a blog, you should be aware of the importance of age.  Your blog’s age is a potent factor in achieving authority, building traffic and (if it is one of your goals) creating a handsome valuation.  Why is that?  Below are a few reasons why your blog might improve with age.

Quantity of content.  The more posts you create, and the more content in your archives, the more traffic you are likely to attract to your blog.  In part, this is due to how your blog is processed by search engines.  More importantly, it has to do with the value you can deliver to your readers when they visit.  The quality of your posts is also vital if you are to sustain a loyal readership.  In many respects (quality) content is like nectar:  it first attracts search engine crawlers, and this in turn leads to more visitors, more links, etc.  And these enhance the revenue generating potential of your blog. 

Search Engine Optimization.  Generally, earning and sustaining high rankings in search engine results means carefully monitoring and optimizing your blog content over time.  Search engine ranking factors are extensive (see “Search Engine Ranking Factors v2” on seomoz.org).   There are a number of strategies for doing this as Jennifer Grappone and Gradiva Couzin pointed out in their recent interview with this blog

It has been rumored in recent years that Google is putting more weight on the age of a domain when determining search rankings.  This is especially true with commercial sites versus those in the government (.gov) and educational (.edu) domains.  Even with your best efforts at optimization, it may take months before you see your rankings begin to improve and the rules are always subject to change (see for example, “Behind the Scenes of Google Rankings” on Blogoscoped.com).

Reputation.  Establishing your online profile takes the same kind of time to develop as in real (offline) life.  Just as with established commentators in traditional media, people will come to expect consistency and authenticity in your blogging over time. This is perhaps the best way to grow your readership.  And, like content, it contributes to the earning power of your blog.

Network.  Opportunities to learn from and collaborate with other bloggers in your area of the blogosphere, both online and offline, come as a result of the time and energy you have invested in establishing a good reputation.  Networking can be online (commenting on others’ blogs or participating in forums) and offline (meetings, conferences, trade shows). 

Learning Curve.  Like every new endeavor, expect to spend a lot of time learning the basics and finer nuances of things like search engines, blog design, writing techniques, online income models, as well as becoming an expert in your topic area.  The landscape of the blogosphere is constantly changing, so do not expect the learning curve to ever flatten out.  There is little doubt that the best and most useful things you will learn will come as a result of your own experience – the unending cycle of trial, error, and improvement. 

farmersThere are no shortcuts to any of these steps.  In this respect, blogging is like farming.  Building your audience takes careful nurturing, dedication and time.  The good news is that in the blogosphere, the aging process can occur quickly – in just a few years.   Paul Gillin provides a number of examples of this in his book on social media “The New Influencers.”  The loyal readership that results from long term, quality blogging can become a writer’s franchise. 

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