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Wednesday, February 22,2012

In publishing, money makes the words go around

Blogs and newspaper columns can sometimes turn into profitable books — if they manage to survive

by Bill Castanier
The literary world is full of books that began as diaries, journals or caches of letters. “Marley & Me,” the best-selling memoir by former newspaper columnist John Grogan, comes immediately to mind. Grogan told me in a 2005 interview that it took him a couple of weeks to turn his weekly columns and journal entries about his dog Marley into a book. Not a bad gig — and one that turned into a literary franchise, which spawned a successful movie and dog food sponsorships.

In publishing, blogs and tweets are becoming the next big thing. Who can forget that cute “FU Penguin” by Matthew Gasteier, who turned a viral photo blog into a book? Then there’s “Rules for My Unborn Son” by Walker Lamond, which was reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s letters to his son about love. 

And let’s not forget the phenoms like “Julie & Julia,” “Stuff White People Like,” Chelsea Handler and her vodka thing and the never-ending string of cookbook and recipe blogs that have proven profitable on bookshelves.

Turning blogs into books has launched a whole Internet industry of self-help blogs that give advice on how to turn a blog into a book. 

Blogs, by their nature, are easy fodder for books. When I asked Michigan State University blogger Dennis Corsi if he and his fellow bloggers had ever considered turning their new “Loud and Queer” blog (www.allianceloudandqueer.wordpress.com) into a book in the future, he said, “I didn’t before — but I am thinking about it now.”

Corsi and four fellow bloggers have started the blog to stimulate what Corsi calls “important conversations” about issues relating to the LGBT community. 

Corsi, a fifth-year senior from Shelby Township, said that Loud and Clear decided to take a different approach from typical gay blogs that focus on one person’s issues by recruiting a number of bloggers with different points of view.

“I dream that the blog starts discussions,” Corsi said. “We can post all we want, but if people don’t have discussions, it’s a failure.”

Corsi said that sort of dialogue is sorely needed on MSU’s campus. “People have things to say and don’t know how to be heard. It’s easy to feel you don’t have a voice and that what you think doesn’t count.”

The blog launched earlier this month, and posts have covered a gamut of LGBT issues from a student point of view.

Corsi said the bloggers are not holding back or censoring themselves; in the future, he and his fellow bloggers feel it is necessary to take political stands on the actions being taken by Michigan’s legislature.

Corsi said the idea to blog grew out of regular e-mail alerts that were being sent out by a student organization known as the Alliance of Queer and Ally Students. 

Topics have included a look at the Ellen DeGeneres/J.C. Penney/Million Moms controversy, a post by an MSU alumna on bisexuality, an analysis of why “Trans People Don’t Pass,” a critical look at the “It Gets Better” campaign and a posting headlined “Labeling Sexuality: For Better of For Worse.”

MSU Journalism School Specialist Bonnie Bucqueroux, who has been following the internet closely since it began as a populous form of communication, said the Loud and Queer bloggers “have more than enough to keep them busy,” but cautions them to “see how they are doing after mid-terms.”

Bucqueroux said she has seen scores of student blogs come and go, and that 90 percent of first-time bloggers don’t last long. She added that it definitely helps that there are five bloggers posting content. 

Bucqueroux is a serial blogger and often has several blogs going at one time. One of her most popular is on sustainable agriculture (www.sustainablefarmer.com). She has also had more than one and a half million downloads of her 500 videos on YouTube; one video on raising chickens in your backyard has over 30,000 views.

One recommendation she makes for the Loud and Clear bloggers is that “they do some investigative reporting on the issues.”

One practical problem caused by the many upstart blogs is keeping track of them for archival purposes. 

Peter Berg, director of the MSU Special Collections, which holds one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of radical literature, recently said that his operation has started collecting digital communications and cited the recent Occupy movement as an example. He said Special Collections is making an effort to collect e-mails and digital flyers and blogs from that organization for future researchers.

One thing digital and paper communications have in common is that oftentimes their authors think “who would want this?” and dispose of the message.

A case in point: A MSU alumna recently donated her small collection of the MSU student publication The Urinal to the MSU Archives and Special Collections. The Urinal, a weekly gossip sheet in the 1950s and 1960s, was written by a group of fraternity and sorority men and women. It was cheaply mimeographed and was meant to be tossed out.

A potential best seller? Probably not, but in many ways The Urinal was a print precursor to Facebook; even though only a dozen or so of the weekly newsletters have ever turned up they provide an interesting look at the social life of MSU students, offering wry comments on everything from the draft to who was sleeping with whom.

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