The gist: I spent 100 hours writing a book that sold 10 copies; you should too.
As I’ve previously written, my biggest project of 2011 was finishing my blog series on Howard County Council redistricting and publishing it as an ebook, Dividing Howard. Viewed from a conventional perspective this was a total waste of time: I likely spent over a hundred hours of my spare time creating a book that thus far has sold a total of ten copies to people other than me. Yet from my perspective it was a great experience and more than exceeded my own goals for the project. If you’re a local blogger on Howard County or other topics, or just someone who likes to write, I suggest you consider following my example.
Why write a book? As implied above, not for money: Based on my experience perhaps at most 5-10% or so of your readers might spring for a low-priced ebook. Even for a fairly popular local blog with one or two thousand readers this might translate into perhaps a hundred or so copies sold and a few hundred in royalties at most. Given that there’s extra work involved in creating an ebook (above and beyond writing your blog posts), from a financial standpoint there’s little point in doing it. (Of course I’m here referring to people writing on purely local topics; if you think you have a potentially profitable take on fantasies or thrillers or self-help tomes or some other popular genre then feel free to go for the gold.)
However if you’re a local blogger writing a book can provide a longer form for topics too big in scope or a single post, preserve worthy posts for posterity, help make you a better writer and raise your public profile. It’s also a lot easier than you might think. The main thing is to have something to say that you want or need to say at length. In my case it was a forty-year history of events that dictated a book-length treatment; in other cases it might be an extended argument that won’t fit comfortably into a 1,000-word post, and that might work better as a short ebook. By way of comparison, my own ebook is about 35,000 words, while Amazon’s Kindle Singles program accepts submissions in the range of 5,000 to 30,000 words. If you spend at least four or five reasonably long blog posts discussing a topic then it may be a good candidate for an ebook.
Books, even digital ones, also have a feeling of permanence and importance not found in a simple blog post or series of them: Ten years from now you may have abandoned your blog or moved it, so that the original URL for a post may not work, but an ebook that you publish today will almost certainly still be available on Amazon or Barnes and Noble for anyone who cares to read it. People take books more seriously as well—you’re no longer “just a blogger,” you’re now an author (albeit only a self-published one). If you’re like me you’ll take your writing more seriously as well, from figuring out how to better craft a sustained argument or narrative down to taking more care with spelling and grammar.
Publishing a book can also be more effective at publicizing your ideas, not to mention yourself. My blog series on redistricting got mentioned in a brief article on the Savage-Guilford Patch online site. That was nice and somewhat unexpected. Even nicer and more unexpected was that once the series was converted into a book it was covered in two lengthy articles in both the paper and online editions of the Baltimore Sun and Howard County Times, along with quotes from me and positive comments from both local politicians and other bloggers. If you’re trying to build a “personal brand” you can leverage in your career or just want to have more visibility and connections within a particular community of interest, publishing a book on an appropriate topic is not a bad way to go.
And, as I mentioned above, creating and publishing a book is easier than ever, especially if you just want to do an ebook and are OK with distributing it just through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Your main task, beyond writing the book itself, is getting it into the proper format, with at least three possible approaches to doing that: If you’re most comfortable with putting the book together in Microsoft Word then consider a service like Smashwords, which can automatically convert your Word document into the most common ebook formats (the proprietary Kindle format used by Amazon and the EPUB format used by almost everyone else) and distribute it to Amazom, Barnes and Noble, and other ebook outlets.
If you’d prefer a more blog-like interface check out PressBooks. The PressBooks site is built on top of the popular WordPress blogging software, so creating a book on PressBooks is very much like blogging a chapter at a time. Unlike Smashwords PressBooks doesn’t support ebook distribution at this time, but you can take the output from PressBooks (in a suitable format) and publish it yourself using Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing service or the equivalent PubIt! service from Barnes and Noble. If you want to publish your book in paper form you can also have PressBooks generate a PDF file and publish it through Lulu or other print-on-demand services.
If you have some experience with web development you can also create your ebook from scratch (which is what I did), since an ebook is at heart nothing more than a set of HTML files combined with some additional metadata and packaged in a zip archive. If you’re interested in seeing how it’s done, check out the complete source code for Dividing Howard on GitHub at github.com/frankhecker/dividing-howard. (If you don’t know what this means then this option is not for you.)
No matter what option you choose, it need not cost you anything: All of the services I mentioned above involve no start-up costs; any expenses incurred will simply result in lower royalties—and since you’re not doing this for money in the first place that shouldn’t stop you.
I’ll close with a list of some hyperlocal Howard County ebooks I’d be interested in reading, in case anyone out there is interested in writing one of them:
An in-depth look at the challenges of growing and evolving Howard County’s economy in the 21st century, with an emphasis on moving beyond dependence on Federal spending. (But, please, no “Silicon Valley of cybersecurity” hand waving!)
A book on development in Howard County that puts together all the different pieces of the puzzle (Columbia Town Center redevelopment, the Howard County General Plan, Plan Maryland, and so on) and helps make sense of it all. (I nominate Sarah for this one.)
A discussion of the future of the Columbia Association and how it might evolve to better serve the needs of Columbians. (This would include a discussion of the CA governance issues that have been exercising Tom Coale and others.)
A history of U.S. 40 in the modern era (1945-on), discussing its role in suburban expansion out of Baltimore and the various abortive attempts to redevelop the Howard County portion of the Route 40 corridor and make it look less like a 1960s-era commercial strip.
An analysis of the future challenges facing the Howard County Public School System and how it might need to evolve in the face of possible future funding cutbacks and technological changes affecting education in general.
A history of immigration to Howard County and how it’s affected the area (a subject I’m reminded of every time I drive down Route 40 and see all the signs in Korean).
Are there any other potential Howard County-centric books you’d like to read?