October 2008


Monica Guzman

Monica Guzman

In the US, newspapers have struggled to come to grips with both the threat and the opportunity presented by the Internet.  At a recent conference on blogging, I met Monica Guzman, a staff blogger for one of Seattle’s two daily newspapers, the Seattle Post Intelligencer and she shared some of her thoughts about blogging for a newspaper and the future of journalism.  She has worked at a number of newspapers including the Houston Chronicle, the Midland Daily News in Michigan and Foster’s Daily Democrat in New Hampshire.  Monica was the Seattle P-I’s first online reporter and currently writes its most popular blog, The Big Blog

In addition to her work on The Big Blog, Mónica gives a weekly radio round-up of the week’s most talked about stories Wednesday afternoons on Seattle’s KOMO 1000 and serves on the advisory board for the University of Washington Information School’s Masters of Science and Information Management Program. 

FPP– How did you become a staff online reporter for the Seattle PI?

MG – I was first hired here as a Hearst Newspapers fellow, to cover youth and tech culture in Seattle through a blog and weekly column. When that was finishing up, the paper decided they wanted to launch a news and conversation blog that appealed to younger people and had a younger vibe. So they hired me to stay on.

FPP – How do you choose the stories to blog about?

MG – First, it’s got to be interesting. I look at what stories are getting people talking, scan local blogs, local news, reader comments, Google Trends, national news and my own inbox, then make my choices based on what could spark interest and conversation among my readers.

FPP – Does the newspaper put any restrictions on what you blog about or how you blog?

MG – The newspaper demands that I be journalistic, that I be held to the same standards as any other reporter in the newsroom. Beyond that, I have a lot of flexibility with form and content. I’ve been able to develop a voice and style.

FPP – Do your blog posts go through the same editorial review process as stories in the print version of the newspaper?

MG – All my blog posts get edited, but often at a faster pace than stories meant for print.

FPP – You have a number of other contributors to The Big Blog; what do you look for in a guest blogger?

MG – All the contributing bloggers are members of the P-I staff. I’m open to including guest bloggers from the public, though. I think it would be a wonderful way to bring new voices in.

FPP– How would you characterize your blog’s readership in terms of size, demographics, and / or interests?

MG – Can’t really go into size, except to say it’s one of our most read blogs. Demographically, readers tend to be young and tech savvy.

FPP – From your perspective of reader reaction, what have been your most interesting or controversial posts?

Bristol Palin

Bristol Palin

MG  – Last November I wrote a post about the beginning of the Amanda Knox casethat became the most commented item in seattlepi.com history. This year I wrote one about Bristol Palinthat also sparked strong conversation. On the local side, earlier this year I wrote a series of posts about the videos a woman in Belltown [a Seattle neighborhood] took of allegedly criminal activities in her alley and then posted on YouTube to highlight the problem. It was a dense story with lots of angles and got intense reaction, too. In general, though, posts about strong local symbols — like the viaduct, Starbucks and the Sonics — especially those in which I analyze conversations going on in other parts of the site — tend to get strong reaction.

FPP – How do you (and the newspaper) measure success for The Big Blog?

MG – I measure it by the quality of the conversation. We have our ups and downs on that front, but I’m confident that despite the sometimes vitriolic comments we get, the conversation is steadily improving. Readership and content value is also, of course, critical.

FPP – What types of stories would you like to write about, but haven’t tackled yet?

MG – When you write a blog, it can be tough to tackle stories that take a lot of time to report and develop. I sometimes miss writing those longer kinds of stories, but am learning how to achieve depth in chunks.

FPP – Which journalists – in any media – do you admire most and why?

Ben Smith

Ben Smith

MG – I LOVE Ben Smith at Politico.com. I think he’s a great model for neutral yet personable blog journalism. He’s thorough but not longwinded, he puts content above form and he’s managed to write an interesting political blog without coming down on one side or the other. When he speaks out, it’s to make an observation about the interplay of politics or how aspects of the campaign are being perceived. The strength of his content and his choices in picking what to write about and how give him extraordinary authority.

FPP – How do you think newspapers could best use the Internet in the future to build readership and generate new sources of advertising revenue?

MG– I think it’s important to enable reporters to engage with readers online and in person, to show their human side in their work and to make it as easy as possible for them to use whatever media they deem most appropriate for their work. The Internet makes all these things possible in ways we’re still just beginning to explore. As for ad revenue, that’s a toughie. I’ll leave that to the experts.

FPP – What would you like to do next in your career?

MG– I’d like to keep working in online journalism. It’s got so much promise and it’s so exciting. I’m not sure what form that would take in my career — two years ago I never would have imagined I’d be doing what I’m doing today — so I’m just going to keep going and see what’s next.

 


 

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Whether authors like it or not, more publishers now expect them to shoulder a significant portion of the marketing and publicity for their books.  A variety of useful tools is now available to ease the burden.  We’ll talk briefly about one of them – Booktour.com.   The site was founded by Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine and author of The Long Tail who wanted to provide a way for authors to publicize their work and help readers find them.  The tool is simple to use for both readers and authors.

Here is how Booktour.com works. 

  • Set up your basic profile – Authors provide some basic information about themselves and their books, including: name, e-mail, publicist e-mail, home zip code, biography and author picture.
  • Add online media– These can be links to your book or author homepage, blog or other website, as well as audio, video (e.g. book trailer), online press releases and interviews.
  • Add your book titles– Type in the ISBN for each of your books.  Booktour automatically pulls in your book cover and title.
  • Add tour events– Booktour.com lets you select 5 different kinds of events:  in-person events, virtual events, radio, TV, virtual (e.g. blog tour) or one selection for “just visiting town.”
  • Add book tour commentary – The commentary can be anything relating to people or happenings at your tour events.

Authors can also ask Booktour.com to suggest places to have events.  The site uses the author’s zip code information to craft recommendations for physical venues close to the author, as well as virtual venues.  Once you’ve done this modest amount of set up work, readers can find you, your books and your events via the site’s search function.  Users can search by author, title, or location.  They can view your profile and see events where you are speaking.  The site also adds links to Amazon and retailers who carry your books.

Another useful feature of Booktour.com are the multiple ways it lets readers follow your tour.  For example, readers can keep in touch with what you’re up to via e-mail, RSS feed or a customizable widget they add to their web page which displays speaking events of authors they are following.  You can add the widget to your own book or author site to make all your events available there with no extra data entry work.  Readers with a standards based calendar programs can have events added directly to their calendar.

Chris Anderson

In summary, Booktour.com is one of a new generation of online pubicity tools that simplifies the work of getting the word out about your book.  It aggregates all of your events, interviews, signings, etc. in one convenient place and makes it available to readers most likely to be interested in your book.  In doing so, it makes life a little easier for authors living at the narrow end of the long tail of book sales.


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Declan Burke

Declan Burke

Despite commentator hand wringing over the advisability and viability of blog to book projects, the practice continues to grow and evolve.  An example of the blog novel was reported in the Sigla blog and featured the writings of Declan Burke, an Irish crime story writer who has both online and offline.  His current crime novel, Gonzo Noir, can be found at its own site or excerpted on his site.  His second novel, The Big O, has recently been published by Harcourt in the United States. 

Beckett Gladney

Beckett Gladney

Debbie Ridpath Ohi

Debbie Ridpath Ohi

A different sort of blog novel project is a graphic novel being developed by Beckett Gladney and Deborah Ridpath Ohi.  The originated after Ms. Ridpath Ohi, who had written some young adult novels that took place in a town called Curiosity, decided to turn these into graphic novels instead.  She recruited Ms. Gladney to create the artwork.  Their blog, named Curiosity, features sketches, plot synopsis, writing samples, and a running commentary about the novel’s progress as well as research about the comic / graphic novel industry.

Some writers use their blog not only to publish sample book content, but also as a research vehicle for the book that is based on the blog.  An article in Computerworld describes a project by two authors, Gregg Taylor and Lori Thiessen, writing about the new group of nomadic workers operating from venues like Starbucks.  The book and the blog are both called Coffee Shop Office.  The blog site will data for both blog and book.

And some blog to book projects are the stuff of Hollywood.  Consider the recent New York Times article, Why Blog? Reason No. 92: Book Deal, about a book deal between Random House and Christian Lander.  In January, Lander started a blog called Stuff White People Like.  Here is the description of how the deal progressed:

Readers discover stuffwhitepeoplelike.wordpress.com, like it and forward links to their friends, who forward them to lots more friends. Newspaper columnists mention it, stealing – er, quoting – some of the better jokes. By the end of February, the NPR program “Talk of the Nation” runs a report on it, debating whether the site is racist or satire.

And then on March 20 Random House announces that it has purchased the rights to a book by the blog’s founder, Christian Lander, an Internet copy writer. The price, according to a source familiar with the deal but not authorized to discuss the total, was about $300,000, a sum that many in the publishing and blogging communities believe is an astronomical amount for a book spawned from a blog, written by a previously unpublished author.

Gina Trapani

Gina Trapani

One of the early pioneers of blog to book writing was Gina Trapani of the popular LIfehackerblog.  In chrnoicling her own experience of writing the book Lifehacker, based in part upon her blog, she encouraged both bloggers and book authors to explore this new form of book writing: 

There’s a world of difference between being a blogger and a book author, but more writers are wearing both hats these days. It’s not surprising that pro writers are becoming bloggers, but “amateur” bloggers getting book deals are turning heads online and off.

If you’ve got a book in you, a blog could be just the stepping stone you need toward your first deal. More than ever before, literary agents are paying attention to quality weblogs, and publishers are looking for someone with writing chops and a fresh take on a topic.

More recently, Ms. Trapani blogged about a site called WEBook.  WEBook is a new direction in public writing. which provides a kind of “writers’ ” lounge where authors can showcase their projects and have visitors vote

But the skeptics abound.  Gawkerrecently featured a blog post asserting that people who read blogs, peopole who read books and people who buy books based on blogs are two mostly non-overlapping audiences; thus implying publishers would be foolhardy to project big book sales based solely on a successful blog.  The post features the author’s list of probable wins and probable misses (including Gawker’s own blog to book project). 

The Gawker posts make a good point; blogs are different than books and not all content translates seamlessly betweent these two media.  It seems we are destined to re-learn that lesson with every new medium that comes along.


 

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Lou Aronica

Lou Aronica

Lou Aronica is one of the true innovators in book publishing.  As publisher of Avon Books, Lou launched the Eos imprint, now celebrating its tenth anniversary. Also at Avon , he built publishing programs for Dennis Lehane, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, J.A. Jance, Stephanie Laurens, Lisa Kleypas, Bruce Feiler, and Peter Robin son. Neil Gaiman, whose work Lou acquired, reached #1 on the New York Times Best Sellers list.

He also launched the Bantam Crime Line and Bantam Spectra imprints, has been honored with a World Fantasy Award, and has published more than a dozen award winning-novels. At one point he had acquired five consecutive winners of the Nebula Award.

Authors he’s developed over his career continue to reign over bestseller lists and include Elizabeth George, Diane Mott Davidson, Amanda Quick, Tami Hoag, Iris Johansen and William Gibson. And is there any reader who can’t imagine the thrill of working alongside Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov?

Commercially, his biggest accomplishment is the acquisition and design of the Star Wars book publishing program, which jump-started the Star Wars book franchise and was initiated at a time when others had very little interest in the series.

Now Lou has started The Story Plant with Peter Miller.  The company is dedicated to publishing commercial fiction. Story Plant books will be involving and engaging reading experiences provided by passionate writers who love the stories they’re telling and have several more to tell.  The first two Story Plant books go on sale in the fall of 2008.  American Quest by Sienna Sky is a moving, romantic, and exciting contemporary fantasy. Capitol Reflectionsby Jonathan Javitt is a powerful and frightening medical thriller. 

Lou recently talked with Future Perfect Publishing about starting The Story Plant and also shared his thoughts about trends in book publishing.

FPP:  You have had a very successful career with publishing houses like Avon and Bantam. What motivated to form The Story Plant?

LA:  After Avon, I really thought I was through with this side of the publishing business. I wanted to focus on writing and working with writers to develop their work. While that has been very satisfying, I found that I really missed being able to see a book all the way through to publication. I had stopped using certain skills (like title marketing and list building) that I’d always enjoyed. I felt the need to get back to publishing, but I didn’t want to do it in a corporate setting. The Story Plant was an ideal solution.

FPP:  How did you and Peter Miller come to the decision to team up in the new company?

LA:  Peter and I have known each other a long time and we have worked on several projects together. We found the fiction projects especially challenging because we felt that publishers weren’t investing in author development as they once did. I would ramble on and on about how, when I was a publisher, I always thought in the long term and how I believed that was the only sustainable way to publish fiction. Peter said, “If you really feel that way, we should start our own publishing house.” I thought he was joking, but he kept coming back to it and the idea kept sounding more attractive.

Peter and I make a good team because he loves being out in the world making book deals, translation deals, and film deals. I like working closely with writers, developing publishing plans, and imagining the big picture. We have very complimentary personalities.

FPP:  What have been your biggest challenges in starting up a new publishing house?

LA:  Because we’ve dedicated the house to developing novelists from the ground up, the biggest challenge is that we’re starting from the beginning with every book. Every book we’re publishing in the first two seasons is by a new novelist. It’s something like fielding a major league baseball team exclusively with rookies – the only thing that’s certain is the raw talent. I think this will work out well for us, because we’ll be able to establish publishing programs with a clear sense of vision, but it does make getting attention for the books tough at the beginning.

FPP:  What genres will you focus on and who is your primary market for the books you publish at The Story Plant?

LA:  The charter of the house is to publish commercial fiction. Most specifically, we’re focusing on the three most dedicated fiction readerships: romance, sf/fantasy, and mystery. Our intention is to publish books that I call “supergenre” books – books with genre roots and high novelistic qualities.

FPP:  On your website, you say that “The Story Plant is dedicated to developing commercial novelists into bestselling authors.” What do you look for in the books and authors you publish?

LA:  The first thing we’re looking for is a sense of commitment from the writer. We want to work with people who love what they’re writing and who want to be actively involved in bringing their books to the widest possible market. We’re especially keen on books with strong characters and strong character interactions, as I believe that fiction readers care about characters above everything else (I know I do).

FPP:  Who are some of the authors you admire most and would like to publish? And why?

LA:  I’d be happy to tell you some writers I admire, though all of them are too far along in their careers to be published by The Story Plant. I love Neil Gaiman because he has an out-sized imagination but still manages to tell his stories in an entirely relatable way. I love Dennis Lehane because he brings humanity to even his darkest stories. I think Diana Gabaldon is brilliant because she manages to bridge scope and passion. I could go on for quite some time about writers I admire, but these are the first three to come to mind. They all, by the way, represent what I mean by “supergenre.”

FPP:  You and Peter Miller have indicated that you are specifically interested in a book’s film and foreign potential. How much of a factor is that in your publishing decision and how do you judge that?

LA:  It’s an absolute factor because it is a fundamental part of our business model. Given the investments we’re making in writers from an editorial and marketing perspective, we need to be involved in film and foreign.

FPP:  You were a technology innovator at Avon in your development of its Eos imprint. How do you see technologies impacting the way you will publish and market your titles in today’s market?

LA:  I think the internet is the most significant marketing tool that has ever been available to book publishers. One of the biggest challenges we always faced in marketing books was finding the readers. The web allows us to see where the readers are and allows readers new tools for turning each other on to new books. The key is reaching out to these readers without hyping them, as we know readers are especially contemptuous of hype. What we’ve tried to do with the first two books is build worlds around them with original content unavailable in book form. The American Quest site (www.americanquestbook.com) includes a music video, a Flash video, two original short stories, and other materials. The Capitol Reflections site (www.capitolreflections.com) has a variety of nonfiction pieces about the novels primary subject, genetically modified foods.

FPP:  How has book publishing and book readership changed during your tenure in the business?

LA:  The changes in the business have been huge. I’d say the biggest changes are the decline of the independent bookstore (which changed the way readers learned about new books), the decline of the mass market paperback (which changed the way a publisher could develop writers) and the rise of the internet (which changed the relationship between writers/publishers and readers).

I don’t know that the readership has changed that much. They learn about books in different ways now and they buy books in different outlets, but I think dedicated readers are still looking for the same experiences from their books that they were looking for in 1979 when I started. I think the one huge change is that there are fewer casual readers – people who might pick up a book or two a year – than there were. This has had an impact on a certain type of publishing, one that focuses on impulse buying.

FPP:  What do you see as the biggest problems for publishers today and over the next few years? What do you envision as the biggest opportunities?

LA:  I think the biggest problem by far is that the numbers aren’t working right now for the major ublishers. The business overall is flat and it’s difficult to make the kinds of profits you need to make a big rganization when a business isn’t growing. Most of the people I know at major publishing houses are very nervous about this. These conditions could of course wipe out small new companies like The Story Plant at the same time.

I think the opportunity comes out of this, though. I think publishers who dig in, really dedicate themselves to the writers and the readers, and who focus on one thing that they feel they can do as well or better than anyone else will have a chance to make major breakthroughs. The business will continue to morph as new formats and new methods of delivery come on line, but I think the true opportunities will be in forging strong, lasting relationships with readers.


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