Making the leap from blog to book is harder than it looks
By Addie Broyles
Austin native Julie Powell's blog-turned-book-turned-movie set the precedent for just how far a little old food blog could go, and even though she wasn't the first blogger to score a book deal, the success of her book almost six years ago has agents and publishers scouring the Web for the next big food blogger to publish.
But for every Powell (and, for now, she's the only one: Columbia Pictures bought the rights to make a movie based on Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond's blog and books, with Reese Witherspoon rumored to play the lead, but production isn't guaranteed), there are thousands of food bloggers who won't make the transition to book author.
But the best - or perhaps luckiest - of that incredibly strong and fast-growing community of food bloggers are people like Molly Wizenberg, who has leveraged her popular blog, Orangette, into a writing career that includes a book ("A Homemade Life," Simon & Schuster, 2009) and articles in magazines including Bon Appetit.
Ten years after "blog" was just another made-up tech word that most Americans snickered at, bloggers are capitalizing on their online success to write everything from memoirs to culinary travel books to cookbooks akin to science textbooks and cookbooks that are traditional except for the fact that the author also took all the photos. (See box for a list of some of the recently published books written by food bloggers.)
At the South by Southwest Interactive Conference, Wizenberg and a handful of those bloggers-turned-authors will talk about the increasing impact of food blogs, including their effect on the book industry.
In many ways, food bloggers are ideal first-time authors. A well-developed blog is like a virtual book whose chapters are spread out over many months. Bloggers not only cook the food and write the posts, they photograph the dishes and market the content through social media streams such as Twitter and Facebook, all without getting paid a cent.
But what some see as earnest enthusiasm, some in the publishing industry see as naivete. Kirsty Melville, president of Andrews McMeel Publishing, says that bloggers often lack experience in creating a longer-form package that feels like a well-thought-out book instead of a series of impromptu, casual blog posts. "A blogger has to be prepared to be edited and critiqued," she wrote in an e-mail. "Some don't like this."
But successful bloggers have already developed a voice, a niche and - most attractive to a potential publisher - a built-in audience. "Bloggers aren't reaching as many people as, say, a TV person, but the audience they have is very engaged, and it's a two-way conversation through comments, e-mails and social media," says Lisa Fain, a Houston native and former Austinite whose blog-turned-book, "Homesick Texan," will come out later this year.
Another advantage of having a dedicated fan base? Readers who are eager to test recipes and give feedback. Steamy Kitchen blogger Jaden Hair says that more than 1,000 readers asked to help test recipes for her book, "The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook" (Tuttle, 2009).
Bloggers also can reach audiences that publishers didn't even know existed. When Fain started her blog in 2005, she thought only Texans or former Texans would want to read about making brisket and beans in a tiny Manhattan kitchen, but through the years, she's drawn readers from around the world who are simply curious about Texas culture.
Neither publishers or regular readers are interested in books that are a replica of a food blog. "Blog readers are going to be your biggest fans, and they won't be happy if it's all reprinted from the blog," Hair says.
But it's inevitable that some of the signature stories, recipes and photos that won over fans will be part of a printed product. For Fain's upcoming book ("The Homesick Texan Cookbook," Hyperion, due out in September), she says she's reusing some of the "greatest hits" from her blog such as migas and chicken-fried steak, but two-thirds of the book will be completely new content, including photographs.
"My pictures are part of the package and the brand," Fain says. Her photos are all shot in her tiny New York kitchen, and if the publisher had insisted on bringing in an outside photographer and a stylist, the book wouldn't feel like her blog. Even the choice of typeface, color palette and design elements are based on what already exists on her blog. (You'll notice a shade close to burnt orange all over Homesick Texan. "Even though I didn't go to UT, I'm a secret Longhorn," she says.)
Most bloggers are self-trained in everything from cooking to photography, but for proof that the best of them are anything but amateurs, look no further than Aki Kamozawa and Alex Talbot. Since 2004, these Pennsylvania chefs have used their blog, Ideas in Food, to document their research and kitchen experiments. "We didn't even know what a blogger was when we started," Talbot says. "This was just a digital notebook ... to record what we were doing." Their book ("Ideas in Food," Clarkson Potter), which came out in December, has already become one of the most well-respected reference books to come out since Harold McGee's 1997 "On Food and Cooking."
It comes down to selling books, Melville says. Publishers make business decisions based on potential sales, no matter if they're dealing with a blogger, a TV star or an award-winning chef.
But it's a crowded field. No one knows for sure how many food blogs exist. A few years ago, the blog search company Technorati estimated that there were more than 30,000 food blogs. (After tracking Austin food blogs for three years, I have found more than 200 active food blogs in Central Texas alone.)
"If you're doing great stuff, you'll get noticed," says Wizenberg, who, when she's not helping her husband run their relatively new Seattle pizzeria, writes full time. "The field is still open. The food blogging bubble has not burst yet, but bloggers starting out have to present a whole package in a way that you didn't have to when I first started."
Even though dozens of publishers are printing books by food bloggers, getting a book deal isn't a good reason to start a food blog, simply because there are only so many authors they can sign on in a year.
For some published bloggers like Hair, books are just a way to help promote the website, which, in her case, will bring in more money over time than sales of her books.
"I love that publishers are recognizing the power of food bloggers," she says. "But what's important is that we own our own platform. We're already publishers."