This week I’m launching a new blog series called Five Questions with the Expert. Each week we’ll look behind the scenes at how an expert in the field of book and or magazine publishing is bringing his or her work to a wider audience, and hopeful share some insights into how you can, too. Our first expert is blogger and writer Alisa Bowman who has just parlayed her wildly popular blog into a book publishing deal.
Alisa has a gift for creating bestselling books. She has ghostwritten and collaborated on six New York Times bestsellers. Her works have collectively sold more than 2 million copies. A former magazine editor and newspaper reporter, Alisa has written for Better Homes & Gardens, Women’s Health and many other national magazines. The concept behind her blog, Project: Happily Ever After, won her a book deal with Running Press and her book will be published in January 2011.
Five Questions with Expert Alisa Bowman
You have a well-read blog that you’ve been able to spin off into a book deal. What’s different between blogging and crafting a book?
This will sound like a giant, “duh,” but a blog is the short form and a book is the long form. It’s similar to the difference between running a 5-K and running a marathon. For the former, you can probably run the race without any training. For the later, if you try to run it without training and preparation, you’ll end up in the medic tent.
But that’s what many bloggers try to do when they attempt to take the leap from blog to book. Thanks, in part, to online courses and workshops that encourage this, they mine everything from their blog, slap it all together in a logical order, and write a few transitions. Voila, they call this a book. While it might technically be a book — it has 60,000 words sandwiched between two covers — it’s not going to be a book that sells. The best books have a personality (a strong voice) and a hook. They can be summed up in one sentence (the so-called elevator pitch), and they fill a deep need in the reader. They solve a problem–whether that problem is boredom or the need for an escape (for novels and memoir) or something more physical (like diabetes), and they solve this problem in a unique, memorable way.
I have a ghost writing background, so I’ve written many more books than the one that is branded with my blog. (Notice, I said “branded” with the blog and not “based on” the blog). I’ve penned more than 30. For each one of them, I followed a similar process, and that process starts with studying the competition. When I was thinking about the Project: Happily Ever After memoir, I bought and read nearly every memoir that had ever been written. I studied them. I thought about what made some successful and others not so much. More important, I spent quite a bit of time thinking about how mine would be different. How would I tell a story about my marriage in a way that had never been told before? How would I address marriage in a new, refreshing way, one that would resonate with readers? What was the one sentence that would tie the entire book together, the one that I could say on TV, “This book tells the story of ….”? To distinguish Project: Happily Ever After from other relationship books, I wrote about topics that most people don’t write about. I wrote about how I was so unhappily married that I planned my husband’s funeral. I wrote about the fights we had over how to fold the laundry. I wrote about sex, and how I dreaded having it. More important, I wrote about embarrassing things: about the envy and jealousy I felt when my husband was unemployed, because, deep down, I wanted the opportunity to be the person on the recliner who watched TV all day long. In writing about all of that, it’s my hope that I created a book that stands out from the others on the shelf. I hope I wrote the first book that allows unhappily married people to feel normal. It’s also, as far as I know, the first relationship book that uses a true story as a parable that others can learn from, complete with tips and a marriage improvement guide at the end. Oh, and it has a happy ending. Oddly, that’s different, too. Most marriage memoirs either start or end with a divorce
How did you grow your blog following from launch to the kind of following that was attractive to a book publisher?
In the beginning, I told all of my friends about it, and I begged them to read it. That didn’t work so well. So then got depressed. Then I obsessively checked my blog stats, as if doing so would somehow elevate them. That depressed me even more. Then I read about building a following and everything I read said the same thing: write good content and the following will come. I have to say that advice is pretty much spot on. The following doesn’t come overnight, mind you. There are some bloggers who go from zero to a million visitors in one year, and then there are the rest of us who capture a following slowly over time. But great content is definitely the most important part of the equation. You can’t write a half-assed blog (just as you can’t write a half-assed book). If you don’t put your heart and soul into it–if you are not absolutely passionate about it–potential readers will notice, and they will go elsewhere.
Other techniques that helped included:
- Hiring an SEO (search engine optimization) expert to help me make my blog more Google friendly
- Guest posting on larger blogs
- Getting quoted in the media. One quote in a CNN.com article about Jon and Kate sent 10,000 readers to my blog in just one day.
- Networking with other bloggers who have promoted my blog to their following, and I’ve done the same in return. I highly recommend blogging conferences, especially the smaller ones like Blissdom and Type A Mom. They allow you to meet other bloggers who will remember you–and who you will remember. These smaller conferences foster a true camaraderie.
- Writing somewhat viral “list” posts and promoting them through social networking
How often do you post on your blog?
I used to try to post everyday, because I’d read somewhere that all good bloggers do that. You know what? I have a full-time freelance writing career and a family. Posting everyday did one thing: it burned me out. When you are burned out, you don’t produce good content. At least I sure don’t.
So now I try to post 2 to 3 times a week. Some weeks, I get on a roll and feel super inspired, so I post more often. But I don’t smack myself on the butt and force myself to post if I’m having a busy day or if I’m not feeling it. I give myself a break.
What other activities do you engage in, online, to help your blog readership grow?
I have a strong Facebook presence. It could be stronger (I still don’t have a fan page!), but it has definitely allowed me to capture a secondary blog audience. I’ve friended just about everyone I’ve ever known: high school and college classmates, former co-workers, blogging buddies, fellow freelance writers, family members, friends, and people who I don’t really know but who are in the same networking groups I am. I also allow my blog readers to friend me. My blog feeds into Facebook, and this has allowed all of those contacts to stay up with my blog without going to it. It’s a softer sell than emailing my friends and asking them to check out my latest post. And now most of my friends do read my blog. More important, my fellow freelance writers generally keep me in mind when they are writing about sex and marriage, and they call me to get my take.
I’m also on Twitter, but as most people who follow me know, I’m quite sporadic about my presence there.
What’s the #1 piece of advice you’d give to new bloggers?
I have three tips:
- Be you. Too often people try to copy super successful blogs. This doesn’t work. You have something unique to offer the world. Find it and put it out there.
- Be courageous: If a topic scares you, you should definitely write about it. We’re usually scared to write about our weaknesses and our failures, but other people love to read about those topics because it makes them feel stronger and more successful. If you don’t believe me, read Penelope Trunk for a while. She has a huge following, and it’s because she makes her life sound like a daily train wreck.
- Be willing to break the rules: Be a nonconformist. No rule was made to be followed 100 percent of the time. For instance, people will tell you that blog posts should be short. You know what? My most popular post to date was 2000 words long. People will tell you that you should post every day. You know what? Tim Ferris only posts once a week and he has more than a million readers. People will tell you that you need to stick to your niche. You know what? Many successful bloggers don’t do this 100 percent of the time. Again, study Penelope Trunk. Her blog is supposed to be about career advice, but usually it’s about her screwed up relationship with this farmer she’s dating and sort of marrying but also sort of not marrying. (Yep, you’re so going over there now, aren’t you?)
I love hearing how writers are crafting a living from their talent and I hope these insights from Alisa are useful to you. Be sure to visit Alisa on her blog, her Facebook profile, her website and her Twitter Account. Say hi and let her know you met her here. Alisa is a great example of a writer who knows how to Create Conversations about You!