In Print We Trustby Sarah Hromack
Historically speaking, those of us who embraced the Web long ago have suffered the summary dismissal that tends to accompany all major cultural paradigm shifts. This all-too-familiar feeling of resistance toward the Web (hide your daughters, the Internet is coming!) has only been exacerbated by the current economic climate, where newsroom vets are gripped by terror as “The Youngs” hack their way into a system formerly reserved for J-school initiates. As the mainstream media embrace the Web, that dialectic tension already feels a bit tedious. Bloggers are getting their due—or making progress at, least—and that is that. We are and always have been evangelists for the Web, devoted to a platform that provides us with a degree of agency that the print bureaucracy simply does not. The curious part, however, is that we’ve never stopped wanting to see our words in print, even when editors have refused to look at them.
Enter the Book Deal, a harbinger of fame (and hopefully, fortune) that for many now serves as a strategic reason to begin blogging in the first place. The most lucrative deals tend to be awarded to those whose sites function as durational book proposals, where an author’s thesis coalesces through a succession of topical, short-form posts. These one-offs lend themselves naturally to publication in print, where the narrative has more room to develop. (A great irony, yes, given the Web’s indexical capacity. Yet a couple hundred thousand words simply do not read the same online as they do on the page.) Political pundits tend to score publishing contracts, as do other subject-specific authors. Being “Internet famous” never hurts, either: Minds reeled around this time last year when former Gawker editor Emily Gould spun her now-seminal New York Times Magazine account of her tendency to “overshare” into a full-on memoir deal. Her take was initially said to be $1 million, a rumor that has since been debunked.
Newer publishing platforms and social networking applications—namely, Tumblr and Twitter—have ushered in a new kind of blog-to-book deal: The user generated model. Look at this Fucking Hipster is the Internet brainchild of one Joe Mande, a standup comedian with his own show at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater and, as of early June, a soon-to-be published author. LATFH is his chronicle of hipsterdom at its sartorial best, posted anonymously to a Tumblr account that caught the attention of editors at Penguin’s Gotham Books imprint, publisher of blog-to-book luminaries Barack Obama is Your New Bicycle and I Can Haz Cheeseburger—not to mention the rest of the Internet, where Gawker gleefully outed Mande as the site’s author. LATFH The Book will likely take the form of its analog predecessor, Vice Magazine’s “Dos and Don’ts”, a dorm room cooler-cum-coffee table-worthy collection of the magazine’s brutal fashion critiques based on photographs of dubious origin. Reader-submitted or “found” content is perfectly suited to Tumblr, a one-click publishing platform whose users tend to favor rapid-fire, image-heavy posts over longer missives. As with Twitter, bloggers can “follow” one another’s Tumblr accounts, re-publishing posts at will in a free-and-easy exchange of authorship, a Deconstructivist’s dream made manifest through the Web.
While media watchdogs fixate on the actual book deals—namely, on the dollar sum of the advance, as this is one form of online commerce that still amazes us—few pause to consider the books themselves. How strangely anachronistic is it (and yet, extraordinarily telling) that those who participate in perhaps the most monumental democratic exercise ever—and who do so daily, often for a living—would seek to tame the great, unbridled, immaterial beast that is the Internet with some high-gloss stock and two binding boards? How thoroughly odd it is that one would attempt to translate the particular digital reading experience of the Tumblr blog, or Twitter feed, or Facebook update into an analog one. What about the Kindle?
When asked why he felt compelled to select 600 tweets for Twitter Wit, his forthcoming book from Harper Collins, former Valleywag editor and Internet wunderkind Nick Douglas cited Postcards from Yo Momma, another blog-to-book phenomenon written by Jessica Grose and Gawker alum Doree Shafrir.
To make a book out of these submissions is to fix what PFYM is about, or to create an entity intentionally different than PFYM in certain ways. This is not the mere regurgitation of web content: The different balance of reader attention, standards of quality, intended audience, and writer-reader relationship (the reader, for example, can no longer comment, and a mediocre submission no longer encourages similar but better submissions) turns the book into something new. Of course many bloggers with book deals start saving “the good stuff” for the printed version.
The possible pitfall with the blog-to-book translation has as much to do with form as it does content: Sneaking a tweet during a lecture or a film, followed by a quick checkup on my friends’ updates with a flick of my iPhone’s screen, is a much different tactical and cognitive experience than settling in with a piece of printed matter (a veritable luxury given the good, solid twelve-to-fourteen hours a day I spend online as a writer and editor). While I appreciate the convenience of a published compendium of essays culled from a favorite website—again, I’m talking about long-form writing here—the Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook experience depends as much on looking as it does on reading. Why else would Facebook users revolt when the site launched its new interface several months back? Would the Twitter’s infamous Fail Whale, the jovial cartoon that delivers a pop-up apology when the system is over capacity, hold its charm in print? Here, I am doubtful. (To be fair though, perhaps we will surprise ourselves in casting a backwards glance from the Internet to print. One can hope.)
By that token, this hybrid identity between blogger and author wouldn’t exist to begin with if a few chaps in Cambridge and San Francisco hadn’t taken a gamble on the Internet’s ability to summon our most deeply rooted needs and desires. Most powerful amongst these is validation: Everyone wants to feel wanted. And it’s hard to deny an opportunity to see our names memorialized in a tangible, keepsake form. We can’t literally hand the Internet down to our children, after all.
Or, as writer and Gawker contributor, Melissa Gira Grant, who is also working on a book proposal about sex and the Internet, puts it: “People will sign over their proprietary rights to a post or an image because they don’t see a picture of a hamburger as having cultural value unless it’s published in a book alongside 300 other hamburgers. They can’t see the aggregate form.” Ultimately, the blog-to-book deal constitutes a leap of faith on the part of the author (and publisher!)—an attempt to traverse genres while certain of others’ willingness to come along for the ride. “Publishing is still a healthy industry,” Douglas insists, “and this will be the biggest audience some of my contributors have ever reached.” Spoken like a true believer.
Sarah Hromack is a writer living in Brooklyn.