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Colby Buzzell, 28, didn't expect to end up writing a book. In 2004, he was on a yearlong tour of duty as a machine gunner in Iraq. The skateboarder and hard-rock fan from San Francisco would make a daily dash into the Army tent that housed an Internet café to share snippets of his life: listening to Metallica on his iPod, fellow soldiers surfing the Net for porn, the stress of the latest mission.
After eight weeks, Buzzell's online diary was discovered by his military superiors and the blogging endeavor came to an abrupt end. By then it was too late. Media outlets were quoting from the blog, and offers from publishers were trickling in.
BORN AS A BLOG. The following year, Putnam released a book based partly on those entries. My War: Killing Time in Iraq has been met with critical acclaim by reviewers as varied as Esquire, Rolling Stone, and Buzzell's own literary idol, Kurt Vonnegut, whose congratulatory postcard now hangs, framed, on Buzzell's wall. "This wouldn't have happened without my blog," Buzzell says.
The same could be uttered by a growing number of newly minted book authors who got their start by keeping online journals. Books based on blogs -- dubbed "blooks" by Jeff Jarvis, a journalist and creator of the popular BuzzMachine.com -- are making a big splash in book publishing.
These range from novels to comics to memoirs such as Buzzell's. Some begin as blogs read by hundreds of thousands of loyal fans, land at well-known publishers, and end up sold through huge retailers from Barnes & Noble (BKS) to Amazon.com (AMZN). Others are self-published compilations. All may mean big changes in the way ideas find their way into print.
NEW MARKETS. Just about any blog writer -- there are 36 million blogs out there, with 75,000 new online diaries added daily, according to search engine Technorati -- is a candidate. "We believe there's a market [for book-publishing services] for every single blogger out there," says Eileen Gittins, CEO of online publisher Blurb.com. "Charles Dickens originally serialized his novels in magazines. We are seeing much the same thing happening today, with blogs."
Big-name publishers such as Putnam and Little, Brown & Co. have begun releasing books based on blogs. "I am now more open to blogs than I would have been [before]," says Judy Clain, executive editor at Little, Brown. And a dozen new businesses have sprung up with the intent of helping scribes turn their blogs into books. Blogbasedbooks.com, specializing in blooks, has set up shop on the Net.
Blurb.com has raised $2 million so far and is expected to announce another round of venture funding shortly. It's working on software it calls Slurper, designed to make converting blogs into books a snap. Due out this summer, Slurper will help writers strip blog entries of hyperlinks, comments, or pingbacks, saving hours in manual editing. Blurb.com will then invite bloggers to place their blooks into one of a half-dozen professionally designed templates, such as for a cookbook or a book of poetry. More than 500 people have already signed up for a test version of Slurper, says Gittins, a serial Web entrepreneur.
"BUILT-IN AUDIENCE." Fabrice Gadaud is one of several enthusiasts making it easier for fellow social network users to port their entries into book form. His LJBook.com allows fans of LiveJournal.com to export their entries into a printable PDF file. The service also works with the popular Movable Type blogging software. Gadaud developed the Web service when he discovered that his favorite LiveJournal.com's French blog on society was shutting down. He wanted to save the entries.
But are readers buying blooks? Lulu.com, an online self publisher, estimates that more than 20% of its 100 top sellers are based on Web site and blog entries. In April, the outfit awarded its first annual Lulu Blooker Prize, a play on the Britain's prestigious Booker Prize (see BW Online's slide show, "Blooks Are Booming).
Blooks aren't just for online publishers. Little, Brown published Julie & Julia, an account of a woman's attempts to cook all 524 recipes from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a tiny apartment kitchen in Queens. The book, which got its start as a blog, has sold nearly 100,000 copies. "There was a built-in audience," says Clain, of Little, Brown. She recalls how, at a 2005 New York book fair, a third of the people who came to claim one of 1,000 copies "said they know the blog and have been waiting for the book. Usually, you are handing out a book, and most people have never heard of the author or the book."
AVOIDING REPETITION. The Feminist Press at the City University of New York published Baghdad Burning, recounting experiences of a young woman living in Baghdad. The book has sold nearly 20,000 copies, about five times the volume of an average book sold by a publisher. It was recently nominated for the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize.
BlogRevolt.com, a blog covering the blogosphere, has just published the fourth part of a series listing writers who got blook contracts. The series lists 44 blooks, a few of which have come out and most of which are in the works.
Some publishers worry that blog readers won't want to read the same entries again in book form. Franklin Dennis, publicity director for the Feminist Press, notes that many blooks are only partly comprised of blog entries. "We've sold a lot to universities," Dennis says. "A book is a more desirable reading experience than a blog to a majority of people."
LOST IN TRANSLATION? Another benefit of publishing blooks on paper? Archiving. Warren Meyer, of Paradise Valley, Ariz., first printed out the two volumes -- 400 pages each -- of his blog entries last November as a Christmas gift for his dad, who is 83.
"He refuses to do anything online," says Meyer, who has been blogging for more than two years. Meyer has also kept a copy of his blook, based on Coyoteblog.com, discussing environmental problems, for himself: "Everything I've ever written is online," he says. "I wanted to archive my writing, and I don't trust that electronic media is a good archiving tool, because standards and technology change so much." While few people now use floppy disks, paper is here to stay.
However easy blook publishing becomes, few blooks will become best-sellers. "Most blogs are not going to make very good books," argues Barry Parr, an analyst with consultancy JupiterResearch. "It's a different medium. [The writing] is very rooted in the moment. All those things that make blogging work don't work in a book."
But then, many bloggers don't aspire to The New York Times's best-seller list. Sometimes making a blook for dad is enough.