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The New Farm System: Scouting Blogs and (Not) Sharing Secrets

by Marian Schembari on February 12, 2010

By most accounts, the 2010 Digital Book World Conference delivered on its promise of “practicality, not punditry”, but that doesn’t mean it was perfect. One notable misstep was “The New Farm System: Scouting Blogs and Self-Publishers for Commercial Books” session. With panelists representing ICM, Simon & Schuster and Gotham Books, expectations were high, but by the end, those expectations weren’t met and attendees were left with incomplete and unsatisfactory answers to many of their questions.

Most attendees went into the session already knowing that popular blogs get book deals; Julie and Julia was even referenced in the session’s description. With so many amazing blogs out there, though, finding one that can be successful offline is as much an art as it is science.

One of the major challenges publishers face in the digital age is that every piece of information you could possibly want is available somewhere online. Many have decided to see this as an opportunity, and according to Gotham Books Editor Patrick Mulligan, more than 50 blogs received book deals in 2009.

ForeWord Reviews publisher, Victoria Sutherland, moderating the panel, noted: “The problem with this session is that these guys don’t want to give away too many of their secrets.”

They were so intent on hoarding those secrets, in fact, that most of their discussion revolved around a few pretty obvious points:

  • Blogs most likely to get a publishing deal have great traffic, are highly regarded in their industry/niche, are linked to frequently, and are well written.

Okay, well…

It’s pretty easy to find a popular blog and give the blogger a book deal. What I was hoping to learn was what some of these blogs were doing that had generated so much traffic; what insights had their writers offered that made them so highly regarded; who was linking to them and why?

“If you’re funny & your voice is unique,” Mulligan offered, “people will come to it.”

“It was a lot easier a few years ago when there were fewer people on the web and fewer people looking,” offered ICM’s Kate Lee, choosing not to discuss her methodology in a room of publishing gurus looking for tips on finding the next bestseller.

I was hoping to learn how the panelists find the little-known gems, like design*sponge, the little blog that could, with its cult following and a forthcoming book (Fall/Winter 2010 – Artisan Books). How do those bloggers get discovered and get book deals?

During the Q&A, the audience had some great questions for the panelists, though many weren’t satisfactorily answered:

Is there a magic number for viewership when looking at blogs?

Mulligan said he usually sees viewership in the millions, but he also talked a lot about working with novelty blogs powered by user-generated-content (eg: Lolcats, Chuck Norris Facts). No one else gave numbers, though. Mulligan also mentioned that it’s hard to determine what the blog will look like when it becomes a book; you “have to judge the staying power.”

How do you make sure a book is not an exact replica of the site?

Simon & Schuster’s Sulay Hernandez noted that, with Smart Bitches Trashy Books, it’s not just the blog in book form, but also the author’s thoughts on the romance industry.

“No publisher wants to reproduce what is available for free online,” said Lee.

How much extra material can a blogger provide?

While the panelists all emphasized that added value is really important, Mulligan warned that you can’t go so far in the editing that it no longer resembles the blog.

When a blog is user submitted, how do you get permission?

For sites featuring user-generated-content, it can be difficult to get permissions, especially with photos where the person who submitted them isn’t the actual photographer. Some sites are easier than others, though; on Texts from Last Night, users give permission before submitting anything. Contractually speaking however, Lee says that it’s the author’s responsibility and that, in terms of plagiarism, it’s not something she’s really had a problem with.

What’s the process for finding blogs and what kind of advances are we looking at?

** Silence. **

I get why editors and agents would want to keep their numbers and sources close, but to be perfectly honest, this kind of attitude is a little disconcerting. Why agree to be a panelist if you’re just going to censor yourself?

According to the DBW website, the conference focused “specifically on the challenges and opportunities facing consumer book publishers… presenting strategies that can be implemented immediately.” With panels on everything from agents to eBooks to social media, I personally feel the conference more than delivered on its promise.

The New Farm System session, though, was an exception. The attendees came to hear how these talented editors and agents scouted new writers and interesting book ideas; what they, too, could do to take advantage of this great opportunity – but as Sutherland noted, the panelists weren’t looking “to give away too many of their secrets.”

Remember folks, we’re all supposed to be in this together.

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  • Marian Schembari

    The New Farm System: Scouting Blogs and (Not) Sharing Secrets

  • Pete Kistler

    @marianschembari: The New Farm System: Scouting Blogs and (Not) Sharing Secrets

  • Pete Kistler

    @marianschembari: The New Farm System: Scouting Blogs and (Not) Sharing Secrets

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