On January 18, Christian Lander posted the first entry of his self-explanatory (not to mention self-effacing) blog Stuff White People Like. Less than two months later, The New York Times was writing about his book deal with Random House that included a rumored advance of $300,000.
The internet has made it possible for almost anyone to start a business. But beyond that, the proliferation of blogs means that now, more than ever, an idea in and of itself can become a business. And done right, a blog can become much more than a book deal--it can become the cornerstone of a web-based empire.
"It all boils down to whether the writer is very good," says Ron Hogan, another blogger-turned-author who's been running beatrice.com, a website about the publishing industry, since 1995. "Plenty of people can get a one-book deal based on buzz, but if they don't have the chops to make a good book out of the concept, it's going to fall flat on its face. I've come to think the blogging sensation is not all that radical a sensation. I think back to the days before the internet, when syndicated newspaper columnists got book deals. Some of them could hack it and some of them couldn't."
Hogan explains that, even in its relative infancy, the blog-to-book phenomenon has occurred in two distinct eras. The first involved publishers scooping up popular blogs in their purest form and publishing them as the authors' memoirs. The latest involves using blogs as platforms for concepts, and Hogan says the underlying cause of the most recent flood is fairly mundane.
"Certain websites get passed around in publishing all the time," he says. "Like any office, we're chained to our computers for eight hours a day, and a lot of that time is spent surfing the web. Stuff gets passed around, and I'm sure hungry editors and agents have some section of their brain dedicated to keeping their eye out for the next big thing."
The Secret to His Success
By the time he was in college, Frank Warren says he'd already failed at more businesses than most people have attempted. But by the time he started the blog-based art project PostSecret he had also already succeeded, something he says was one of the keys to his blog's success.
"Here's the paradox: I don't think of PostSecret as a business," says Warren, 44, who lives in Germantown, Maryland, with his wife and daughter. "I feel like the project found me at a point in my life where, financially, I had reached a certain degree of independence. That meant I could make decisions based on the best interests of the project itself."
PostSecret started in 2004 as an art project that invited people to create anonymous postcards bearing personal secrets and mail them to Warren, who publishes them once a week as a blog. The project has since spawned four compilation books, all of which have been New York Times bestsellers, for a total of more than a million copies in print. As part of PostSecret, Warren also visits seven or eight college campuses every month, speaking to students and allowing them to share their secrets publicly. He says it's a great way to combine the technological aspect of his blog with the basic human need to connect with others.
"Blogs are these new forms of communication that allow us to have conversations we could never have before," he says. "A million people can share parts of their lives anonymously. This technology is so democratic. It's open for students, artists and entrepreneurs to play with. It allows us to uncover and recognize the beauty, humor and poetry that's underneath the surface and helps us understand that there's this unity under the surface that we forget in our everyday lives."
For Warren, who has no artistic background, having created something so successful out of something so personal presents its share of moral and ethical dilemmas. He's refused advertising in favor of maintaining the site's strong philanthropic element. But he says his entrepreneurial background has allowed him to do so by structuring the site in a way that it can support itself financially while still staying true to the people who make it work.
"I try to make these decisions in the best interest of the PostSecret community," he says. "It makes people feel like they can trust you. I never want to make people feel like I'm exploiting their secrets. Sometimes that means saying no to advertisers offering a lot of money. It's funny how you say no and it doesn't discourage them. It makes the property more valuable."
So for Warren and PostSecret, the proof is in the paradox--the less he treats it like a business, the more successful it becomes.
"When I was a kid, my greatest ambition was to make a million dollars," he says. "But as an adult, I've reached this surprising point in my life where the greatest satisfaction is being able to say no and know it's the right reason. That's better than making a million dollars for me."