Wednesday 3 September 2014

Turning Your Blog Into A Book

Many people who start a blog do it for their own enjoyment, or to document a personal journey, or to share news and photos with family and friends. Others set out to create a popular website, gain followers and become viewed as an expert on their subject, perhaps in the hope of using their blog as a stepping stone to a career as a writer, or a photographer, or other professional in their field.

I fell into the first category and started this blog partly to show my mum pictures of the cakes I was making! I never expected to get so many blog hits, win any awards or become part of such a vibrant blogging community.

As my blog has developed I've spent more time thinking about the kind of posts I write, going on photography courses and generally absorbing tips about blogging. I realised how much I envied certain bloggers who have big followings and are real 'names' within the food blogging community. I can be quite competitive sometimes (sometimes?!) and would love to do something that marks my blog out and shows it's a success - and I suppose the ultimate goal for many a food blogger is to publish their own cookery book.

That was never really my aim but when I saw the Guardian was running another Masterclass - I've already been to one on food writing and photography - on turning your blog into a book, I thought it would be interesting from an almost academic point of view, and I might pick up some tips about blogging, even though I obviously didn't have such lofty ambitions as turning my humble (and fairly rambling) little blog into a book. But by the end of the three-hour masterclass, I had a pitch and a plan to find an agent!

The masterclass featured three speakers with very different types of blogs, one of which was a food blog so that was very helpful. Less helpful however was the fact that all three had been approached by publishers who had stumbled across their blogs, rather than the other way around - it would have been interesting to hear from someone who actively sought out an agent and publisher and pitched their blog. Even so, I jotted down plenty of useful tips, some of which I will share with you lucky people!

Tom Jones had been living in London a few years and was getting bored of visiting the same places; as his friends started to emigrate to Australia he wondered about leaving the capital. When instead he decided to stay, Tom resolved to find new and unusual things to do in the city he thouight he knew. He started the blog for himself to catalogue the things he did or wanted to do; that was in 2008 and now Tom's blog is a popular guide for things to do in London and has spun off two books: Tired of London, Tired of Life: One Thing to Do A Day in London, and Mad Dogs & Englishmen: A Year Of Things To See And Do in England.

Tom's blog posts are short and succinct, often just two paragraphs and a photo, and a new post about something to do is published every day. This was one of Tom's first pieces of advice: readers need to know what they are getting and how regularly. I also try to publish a blog post every day (which are usually written in bulk in advance, as I can't access my blog on my lunchbreak and often don't have time in the evening). I mix up my posts with a regular feature to start the week - Meal Planning Monday - and then try to balance the types of posts between dinner recipes, cakes, restaurant reviews, product reviews etc. So you won't know exactly what kind of post I will be publishing that day, which I think keeps it fresh - and I know not all posts will be of interest to all readers, and most won't come to my blog every day (apart from my mum!) but for those who want to dip in and out, they will hopefully find something they like.

This blog is more factual than opinion, and is not self-indulgent: he tells people useful information and gives them ideas of things they can do that day. I try not to make my food blog too self-indulgent, and write about things that I think will be of interest and helpful to other people, rather than just things I am interested in. But at the same time I want my blog to have a personality and voice, and will only write about things that genuinely interest me - I have to enjoy writing my blog after all.

It can take a long time to see your book in print- Tom said it took three and a half years from starting the blog to releasing the book, and he emphasised that he didn't make much money from it at all (a sentiment that was echoed by the second speaker).

He advised that there is no set formula for book proposals, but it's important to be convincing; send a short-ish document of 10-20 pages (which didn't sound very short to me!) including sample chapters, a description of the format the book will take and why you think it will sell.

The second speaker was Helen Graves, who started the Food Stories blog as "a bit of everything"- food, recipes, restaurant reviews, with a focus on Peckham where she lives. She then decided to narrow the focus and settled on recipes, and started a spin-off blog where she reviewed sandwiches and shared sandwich recipes. It was this blog that attracted the attention of a publisher, and Helen was asked to write a book of sandwich recipes called 101 Sandwiches.
She was then asked to write a second book called Cook Your Date Into Bed, a collection of recipes for lovebirds (after all if the way to a man's heart is through his stomach...) but admitted that it was a bit "off brand" in that it wasn't directly related to her blog. She now has a third book in the pipeline.
Helen recommends making sure your blog has a focus - which is definitely somewhere that I fall down. Still, I like to think my readers want a bit of everything food-related, and I throw in the occasional craft post as well, on the basis that this blog is called Caroline Makes. And occasionally (though rarely, due to lack of time) I make a gift for friends, decorative item or a birthday card, as well as cakes. "Find your voice" was Helen's second point, and I think that what my blog lacks in focus, it does make up for in voice. 
Part and parcel of this is, when pitching your idea to a publisher, is to define your potential reader, identify the competition and promote yourself. At the same time, it is annoying for other people (both on social media and in real life) if you tirelessly self promote. 
On the technical side, Helen advises using Google Analytics to find out where your readers are coming from (both geographically and what they are searching for) so you can offer them what they want, and build on your most popular posts. Good navigation around your blog is important to make it user-friendly and to get people to read other posts. 
Most importantly, carry on with your blog for enjoyment, not just as an end to getting a book deal. Even if that's your ultimate ambition, blogging should be fun.
Patrick Dalton is a real rags to riches (well, success rather than wealth perhaps) story. After being made redundant he sat in the British Library every day trying to write a novel, but spent more time on Facebook. He spent his lunchtimes wandering around taking photos of misspelled signs, bad puns, anything that grabbed his attention and made him laugh. One Friday night in response to a facebook group called "Secret London", which encouraged users to share recommendations for hidden gems, he set up a group called "Shit London" and posted some of his photos. By Monday, the group had hundreds of followers and it snowballed from there. Britons love to moan and poke fun at themselves so his site really caught on- and also caught the attention of a publisher. A few years later, Patrick has had five books - Shit London, Shit London 2, Rude London, Shit New York, and Greetings from Oz (I think the Australian publishers were missing the point slightly). He has also had an exhibition in a gallery of photographs from the books.
Patrick's presentation was mostly going through slides of photos from the books, which were hilarious, than giving advice for getting published. Still, a lot of information came across in terms of how to develop an idea and the kind of work that needs to go into maintaining a successful blog. While I probably gained least useful information about getting published from Patrick, I did enjoy his session the most.
So there you have it - how to turn your blog into a book, as told by three people who had done just that. It was a shame all three had been approached by publishers rather than actively pitching their blogs, but nonetheless they had a lot of good advice and it was a really enjoyable evening. And if you'll excuse me, I just need to write my pitch to that publisher....


  1. Wow. Thanks for sharing Caroline. As I've always said when people ask me if if want to write a book.. " you've gotta have a gimmick " What is it that hooks people to your blog and to you?

  2. Thank you very much for posting this Caroline- I'd booked on this course but had to pull out last minute so it's really valuable to hear your thoughts and summary of the talks. I doubt any publisher would find my little blog and I don't think I'm in a position, either good enough or time-wise, to approach publishers but maybe in a few years time. Thanks again!

  3. Interesting - maybe you need to suggest your idea for How to Pitch your Blog-Based Book to the Guardian as an idea for a course! thanks for sharing some of the talks


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