Making a blog-book: some preliminary conclusions

Someone in the WordPress.com help forums asks about the nuts and bolts of writing a book on his blog. I’d been meaning to share some of the lessons I’ve learned from my experience blogging three different books, so I thought I’d post about it here and leave the link in the forum.

If you want to have a book as part of your blog, then the logical thing to do, I guess, is make the book title a category (or “topic,” for you Blogger users) and put the category link in the sidebar. The category pages will of course display however your blog’s theme (template, skin) dictates — many themes only show excerpts — and with whatever number of posts per page that you have as your global setting. You can hand-code a clickable table of contents (hereafter, TOC) to include in the sidebar (use a text widget in WordPress.com) or on a dedicated page. If the book has already been written and you want people to read the contents in order, you can of course put the entire text within a single page or post. But if you really want people to read it, I’d advise serializing it whether or not you already have it written. In WordPress, each category has its own RSS feed, so people can subscribe to your book whether or not it is on a separate blog. But putting it on its own blog gives you much more freedom to format it however you wish. You can display links to its latest posts in the sidebar of your main blog using the RSS feed, with an RSS widget in WordPress.com, or a customizable display from Feed Digest for other platforms (the “New at Qarrtsiluni” section of my sidebar here uses code from Feed Digest).

I’ve blogged three books, the latter two at WordPress.com (not to be confused with the open-source blogging software I use here, available at WordPress.org). The first was an epic, integrated with this blog (then at Blogspot). It had a couple dozen enthusiastic readers at first, but they gradually dwindled as the months wore on, leading me to wonder if in fact the blog form was a good fit for longer books — at least the kind that demand sustained attention to plot. I put the finished document into a PDF and haven’t pursued further publication options, such as Lulu.com, basically because I just don’t like it that much anymore.

The other two blog-books are both collections of lyric poems, one drawn from this blog, Shadow Cabinet; the other, called Spoil, a selection of older stuff. I originally set up Shadow Cabinet using exclusively non-chronological pages for the poems, and a sidebar TOC. I included a blog in which I wrote about the process of putting it together, and allowed comments there but not on the poem pages, because I felt that a book would look better without readers’ remarks — and after all, people had the chance to comment the first time around, when they appeared here. But when WP.com introduced a Random Post feature last month, I decided to move all the poems from pages to posts so I could take advantage of it: I’m a big believer in opening collections of poems at random, and reading backwards or forwards from that point. With a single post-page displaying at a time, I wanted readers to be able to easily find the links to the preceding and following pages so they could move through it the same way they’d turn the pages in a real book. The sidebar TOC wasn’t as handy, I decided, and besides, it distracted from the main content. But as I tried all the different themes on offer at WP.com — currently around 70, I guess — I was shocked by how few included post-to-post links. (This is the sort of feature you can’t change from the stylesheet, and WP.com doesn’t give access to the main template code because of the way it’s set up, as a multi-user community — a change in any theme’s PHP would show up in every blog currently using that theme.) After a lot of fussing around with fancier themes, I found that good old Kubrick — the default WordPress 1.5 theme — did the trick (see detailed theme review here). Not only does it have previous and next post links right up top, but the sidebar disappears on the post pages: perfect!

The Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin famously declared that the urge to destroy is also a creative urge, and I repeated that to myself as I eliminated, one-by-one, all the posts in the writing blog originally included at Shadow Cabinet in order to make room for the poems. I input them in their TOC order and assigned a fictional date to each post, starting with January 1. (I apologize to the handful of souls who’d subscribed to the feed, and must’ve suddenly wondered at the 83 new posts that appeared overnight!) I amended the stylesheet to suppress post metadata (date, time, etc.) and other irrelevancies, but — in a switch of policy — decided to allow comments. My original focus with Shadow Cabinet had been simply to put together a manuscript for print publication, so I was trying to make it resemble a conventional book as much as possible. But I gradually realized I like online publication as well or better: no trees are killed; costs are minimal; world-wide distribution is automatic; and the potential for reader-author interaction adds a whole new dimension. The trick, I think, is just to add a lot of white space between the poem and the comment form or comments. I’m still working on uploading audio versions of the contents, which I think is one other way to make an online book more compelling than one in print. For an extra, one-time payment of $20, WP.com lets me store up to 1 gigabyte of mp3 files on-site.

For my third experiment, Spoil [now no longer on WordPress.com – 3/10/09], I used chronological posts from the outset, and rather quickly settled on the Day Dream theme (review here) — one of only two one-column themes at WP.com (three if you count the one-column skin for the Sandbox theme). But as I got near the end and started thinking about navigation through the finished book, I decided to switch to another theme, White as Milk, and import all the styles that I liked from Day Dream, because in the latter, the navigation links appear down below the comment form, and I couldn’t see any way to change that without changing themes. The vestigial sidebar I retained from the White as Milk stylesheet gives readers the option of going to a random page at any point, rather than merely from the home page as with the other book. The current front page setting — just the TOC — is very boring, I think, and I should probably put together some sort of preface page instead. On Shadow Cabinet, by contrast, the TOC is split into three different pages and isn’t even displayed on the home page sidebar. I’m really not sure what the best way is, I guess, because I really don’t know how the average reader prefers to navigate, and the visitor statistics aren’t detailed enough to tell me. For both books, it might be helpful if I introduced separate title pages for each section right into the chronological loop, so readers paging through in order will know when they switch from one section to another. In Spoil, especially, the five sections are thematically quite distinct.

I’d be interested in feedback, positive or negative, from anyone who has spent time with either book: not so much what you thought about the contents (though that’s fine, too), but whether the presentation and navigation worked, and how it might be improved. And if you’ve experimented with book-blogs yourself, I’d be very interested in seeing examples and hearing how you went about it. Several literary magazines publish “online chapbooks” now, so I’m clearly not the only one thinking that this is a good way to present collections of lyric poetry, at least.

13 Comments


  1. I adore the “random” function in Shadow Cabinet — I wish you could click it from the poem pages themselves, and just wander from poem to poem that way.

    I really like having the poems threaded together in sequence authorized by the poet, which you can follow if you’re feeling docile, but ignore if you’re feeling cranky.

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  2. So, more like the way Spoil is set up, then? Great, I’m glad you like that. (Lord preserve us from docile readers!)

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  3. Oops, I guess I made obvious that I hadn’t yet visited Spoil. Yeah, like Spoil :-)

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  4. I’ve poked around both sites, and I like the overall “look and feel.” They’re both attractive and legible.

    I don’t feel as if I read well enough on a computer screen to really appreciate poetry, or literary prose. I read text on a screen much the same way newspapers are meant to be read. A lot of skimming, skipping around. Even when I try to attend closely, I find myself mis-reading significant words.

    I’ve been playing around with this problem using Project Gutenberg texts, trying to find a way to “really” read. Laptops and hand-helds are a little better than desktop screens.

    I wish I could get this to work. A complete set of Dickens doesn’t take up much hard drive space, but it really fills up the bookshelf, where it’s bound to get dusty. Plus, I’d love a “string search” capability in every book I read.

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  5. I’m still not persuaded that the internet can be made slow enough to foster the kind of reading you and I are interested in. I hope it can, but I’m not yet persuaded.

    It’s an interesting subsitute for now, especially with the large potential audience, but the problem of the audience’s reading habits seems to me an intractable one.

    My priority when writing a book online–“open city” is my second such–is to make the site simple. I want the reader to have the presence of mind for something that isn’t written at newspaper level. I employ a minimum of bells and whistles. I’m obsessed with lowering the level of visual noise.

    If I only end up with two or three real readers, that’s fine by me.

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  6. Rebecca – You raise a key point. It took me a very long time to learn to read stuff on the web; I have neither flat screen nor laptop. I think increasing font size and line space (as i did with both sites) helps a little. I don’t know which style of font, serif or sans-serif, is easier to concentrate on – obviously, I prefer the former, but it is a bit less legible and that may contribute to misread words.

    If you’re right about the magnitude of this problem – and I suspect you are – then one implication is that I ought to get my ass in gear and upload a bunch more audio versions. Another thing I’d like to do is provide a print-on-demand option for each book.

    Teju – I think your first book project was a bit more engaging, I guess because it emerged with greater regularity. I also find lengthy paragraphs and fully justified margins a little daunting. I do think that the key to building readership for literary works on the web is breaking things into bite-sized pieces; lyric poems are often less than 500 words long. On the other hand, I would hate to feel as if I am pandering to an audience, so it’s not like I really disagree with your sentiment about two or three readers.

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  7. As far as lap-tops are concerned, which reads better, a matte or glassy screen? If the reflection could be properly managed, and I think it mostly could, I would expect a glassy screen to give a crisper text rendering. True?

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  8. I do so much reading online now…but my eyes are aging and I find the small type fatiguing. I still really like to curl up with a book in my hands, and suspect I always will; poetry books are among my favorites to take down from the shelf and read at random. So the comfort issue is a big one for me; I’d greatly prefer owning a physical book of Dave Bonta poems. On the other hand, I’ve had no problem with Teju’s recent book – I think it’s a better book than the first one and I’ve really enjoyed the installments.

    Another big advantage on the web, though, is the inclusion of photography as an integral part of a manuscript.

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  9. I think it’s a better book than the first one
    Probably true. I was just whinging about the setup and the infrequency of posts. I think that’s a big factor in building up a readership. (On the other hand, I think my Cibola posts came too fast for most people to keep up with.)

    Good point about photography. And the joy of curling up with a physical book – even if I had a laptop, I probably wouldn’t carry it out to the porch with me when I drink my morning coffee.

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  10. Some handheld devices have good screens, and are more portable than laptops. Sony has a $350 thingy called a “Reader,” sized like a paperback, with a very nice screen designed to be easy on the eyes and easy on batteries. I’ve never had one in my hands, but they get good reviews from sensible tech writers.

    Their fatal flaw is that they use proprietary software, require a computer running Windows to synch with, and are filled with copywrite protection safeguards for current commercial titles. Project Gutenburg texts or your friend’s manuscript won’t “play” on them.

    So it seems that the technology for a usable electronic book already exists, but the computer companies want to control how they are used, and what books are read.

    I have faith that eventually someone will hack some of this equipment to make a good electronic book reader. If there were as many hacker-poets as there are hacker-video-gamers, we’d be all set.

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  11. Heh. Yeah! And thanks for the comment. I didn’t know all that about proprietary software, and had only a vague idea of where things stood with computer book technology.

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  12. “I think my Cibola posts came too fast for most people to keep up with.”

    But it was exhilirating to try anyway, and to know that it would always be worth it–the quality was so consistently high.

    I think part of what this post is pointing out is that there’s no one way to blog a book (of creative writing). Is it written with eventual publication in mind? Does publication happen after the fact? Is it continuous or is it interrupted by other things? Is there a community of regular readers? Is the subject sharply defined, and is it episodic or plot-based? All these things affect what gets written.

    There are those projects that play to the strengths of the medium (brevity, regularity, photographs) and find their success in that. This was true of my first book. Then there are those that play against the medium, curious to see how far things can be pushed, curious to see, even, if the strengths of the medium can be redefined. If something like Cibola garnered relatively little attention, it’s less its fault than that of the readers and what they are prepared for.

    In thinking about my own projects, I have to rely on the cliche of each child being different but equally loved. I definitely feel as if the ongoing book is pushing me and my readers. It is a record of certain risks taken. It has been harder, but I think it will be less “informative” than its sibling and more rewarding.

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