Monday, July 04, 2005

Dear Blog: Today I Worked on My Book

When he has writer's block, John Battelle, author of the forthcoming book "The Search: The Inside Story of How Google and Its Rivals Changed Everything," keeps on writing. But not his book manuscript. Instead, he goes straight to his blog (

Mr. Battelle, a founder of Wired and The Industry Standard magazines, sometimes makes quick notes on the blog about a topic related to his book, and other times posts longer essays. "Writing for the blog is more like having a conversation," Mr. Battelle said.

For years, book authors have used the Internet to publicize their work and to keep in touch with readers. Several, like Mr. Battelle, are now experimenting with maintaining blogs while still in the act of writing their books.

"It is very satisfying to write something and get an immediate response to it," said Mr. Battelle, who calculated that last year he wrote 74,000 words for his book, and 125,000 words on his blog. "It is less satisfying to write a chapter and let it sit on the shelf for six months."

Instead of simply being a relief from writerly solitude, these blogs have turned into part of the process. Mr. Battelle said that he was surprised by the number of people who read his journal and offered feedback, correcting mistakes, making suggestions of people to interview or articles to read and contributing ideas that are finding their way into his finished manuscript.

"It has provided such a wealth of sources," he said. "The readers pointed me to things I might not have paid much attention to."

Authors' blogs also change the solitary mission of writing into something more closely resembling open-source software. Mistakes are corrected before they are eternalized in printed pages, and readers can take satisfaction that they contributed to a book's creation. The blogs can also confer some authority: Aside from drawing on the collective intelligence of its readers, Mr. Battelle's site has become a compendium of Google- and search-related issues.

Authors who have experimented with blogging in this way - and there are still only a handful - say they hope to create a sense of community around their work and to keep fans informed when a new book is percolating. The novelist Aaron Hamburger used his blog to write about research techniques he employed to set his coming book in Berlin ( Poppy Z. Brite, another novelist, has written about her characters on her blog as though they have a life of their own, not just the one springing from her imagination (

Despite the encouragement some authors receive from their online readers, the steady stream of feedback can be paralyzing. For some, the open process invites criticism and self-doubt when there is research to be done.

David Weinberger, the author of "Small Pieces Loosely Joined," a nonfiction book about the Internet, posted his daily progress online while writing that book. But as he frequently rewrote each section, Mr. Weinberger found it was not the best way to capture readers' advice. For his new book - "Everything Is Miscellaneous," about how information is organized in daily life - he is posting chapters only when they are complete, rather than in fragments ( "And then I will beg for comments," he said.

Chris Anderson, who is writing "The Long Tail," a nonfiction book to be published next year by Hyperion, freely posts his ideas on his blog to solicit responses ( His book grew out of an influential article he wrote - by the same title - last year for Wired magazine, where he is editor in chief.

"The Long Tail" examines the shift from mass markets to niche markets. Taking a cue from Mr. Battelle, Mr. Anderson has made his blog a source for anything related to the topic, whether written by him or someone else. The blog charts new applications for Mr. Anderson's theory since the publication of his article, and helps him collect ideas for the book.

"The conversation is happening whether you like it or not," he said. "To hope that it will pause for 18 months is unrealistic."

By introducing new ideas through his blog and inviting responses, Mr. Anderson is operating on the notion that if you give something away, you will get more in return. "I very much want people to take the ideas and improve on them," he said.

The question for these authors is this: By feeding and engaging their readers' curiosity, are they destroying the market for the books that they, after all, are paid to write?

"Blogs are a way to listen in and find out what people find funny and respond to," said Marion Maneker, editorial director at HarperCollins's HarperBusiness unit, who said it was too early to determine whether blogs would affect sales.

Michael Cader, who is the editor of two industry publications, Publishers Marketplace and Publishers Lunch, said he believed that, based on the limited examples, authors could build a much bigger audience for their work through blogging. While there is no evidence yet that blogs affect books sales, Mr. Cader said, anything an author could do to create a readership was beneficial.

Since the publication of their book "Freakonomics," an economic lens onto human behavior, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner have fielded questions about the book with their blog (, debated topics with readers (anything baseball-related strikes a nerve), and contemplated readers' suggestions (one reader suggested that fluoride in the water may be the root of all evil).

While saying that he was impressed by the depth and complexity of readers' responses, Mr. Levitt added that it was unlikely he would float his book ideas for mass consideration on the blog.

"The concern we have is about having our stuff sound fresh," he said. In addition to the conversation it engenders, the blog is mostly a receptacle for the ideas not spun into magazine articles.

Steven Johnson has used his blog ( to keep readers informed of his appearances and readings of "Everything Bad Is Good for You," his thesis on how pop culture strengthens, not erodes, intellect nonfiction. He has also rebutted his critics, chronicled his book tour, and responded to reader feedback. Mr. Johnson decided not to blog about the book while writing it, however,

Mr. Johnson said that many people who seek out the blog have read his earlier books and are interested in reading about, or commenting on, how his work has evolved. The readers get a behind-the-scenes look at the author's thoughts on the book's reception and other topics.

"There is only so much you can get out of a book signing," he said. "I feel like people don't really go to promotional book sites. They want the live feeling of the author who's out there fending off the critics and confessing his sins."

The New York Times > Technology > Dear Blog: Today I Worked on My Book

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