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.