To supplement the book reviews I offer on Active Garage.com under the category of Thought Readership (not a typo!), I like to — where possible — interview the authors.
Brand strategist Olivier Blanchard’s Social Media ROI: Managing and Measuring Social Media Efforts in Your Organization (Que – an imprint of Pearson Education, 2011) is due to appear on that site on April 30th. Before then, here’s the first of a three-parter with Blanchard, talking about — among other things — the differences between writing a blog and writing a book.
Liz: Olivier, probably the first thing that struck (and impressed) me about your book was your conversational writing style. I know that you do a lot of blogging but since this is your first book, how come you were able to write so engagingly? Is this a gift you were born with or something you’ve honed and refined over time?
Well… first, thank you. I appreciate that. I don’t know, really. I used to draw and write a lot even when I was little; that’s probably where it started. Every year until ninth grade, some random essay question that I’d answered on an exam invariably ended up getting published in the annual student “literary” publication. It was just a horrible little collection of poems and vacation stories, but it made my parents terribly proud. Naturally, it encouraged me to keep writing; that and a few of my teachers who told me I should focus on doing a lot more of it.
But there’s another piece to this: I think that writers are naturally drawn to write the sorts of things they read. Before I started blogging, I spent a lot of time reading magazine editorials and feature news stories; short stuff. I wasn’t reading a lot of books but Fast Company, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Vanity Fair, and Newsweek. I loved the kind of writing I found in those publications. It was crisp and fresh and had an easy style to it. When I started blogging, I sort of went with that. It seemed a natural fit. If I had been fonder of books, perhaps things would have moved in a different direction.
Let’s talk about the difference between writing a book and writing a blog. A lot of folks think writing a blog is a way of collecting material they’ll then turn into a book…is that wise, in your opinion? What are the key differences, if any, between those two writing formats?
Until Pearson’s Katherine Bull came along and suggested I write Social Media ROI, I had pretty much given up on ever writing a book. I didn’t think I had either the talent or the brains for it. When I first started I thought it would be a lot like writing a hundred or so blog posts and putting them together in some sort of logical order that would more or less fit the Table of Contents. I actually tried that for about a week. It didn’t work at all. So yes, there is a very big difference between writing for a blog and writing a book. I think that people need to be aware of that.
The thing about writing a book is that you need to build into it a thread of continuity. Let’s forget about structure for a minute. A book, whether it’s a business book or a novel, always tells a story. It takes a reader from point A to point B, then from point B to point C, and so on. Just throwing together blog posts won’t work. Your book will come across as disjointed; it won’t be whole. So as a writer, you have to figure out what the story is. You have to find the narrative thread that will take the reader from the introduction to the conclusion and will give every topic and every chapter some measure of context. In that sense, you have to think “bigger” than when you write a three-page blog post or an editorial. You need much higher ceilings inside your own head. When it comes to managing your thoughts, books require scale.
Then there’s structure. A blog post can be about one thing, even if it fits into a ten-part series. A book is more like a Russian nesting doll: it has layers. Its structure is a lot more three-dimensional. You don’t just have a beginning, middle, and an end. Chapters reference each other; they build on concepts, ideas and anecdotes thqt you introduced in earlier chapters.
A book is a much bigger enterprise than a blog post. If I had to compare the two, I would say that writing a blog post is at best like building a tree house while writing a book is like building a working train station. I’ve gotten pretty decent at building tree houses. When it comes to building working train stations, I’m at best a novice and a dangerous one at that. It’s a very different animal.
How long did the whole process take…from idea to manuscript, then manuscript to published book? And what surprised you most along the way?
I want to say it took about six months for my part to be done, four of which were devoted to writing. Then there was the production and printing, the stuff that I didn’t have a hand in. So all in all, maybe 8 months from the time I started writing to the release date?
The start was pretty easy. I spent a few weeks working with Pearson on the proposal itself. It seems trivial because there wasn’t a lot of heavy lifting involved, but in hindsight it was the most crucial part of the process. It was then that we put together the Table of Contents and what turned out to be the book’s DNA. That early in the process, you can’t really know what the book’s personality is going to be, but you do know what it is going to be about, what it is going to cover, in what order, etc.
I didn’t know it at the time, but it is one of the most important aspects of writing a book – or rather, to make it possible to finish a book. I don’t think that starting books is a problem for anyone who likes to write. Actually finishing one is the real challenge.
Having a Table of Contents and a detailed proposal gives you a road map for the book. That’s crucial, vital. I don’t think that the majority of books – business or otherwise – would actually get written without one. Think about it: you’re going to be writing a book for three, five, maybe eight months. That’s a long time to be wrestling with one project. The thing about working on something for that long is that you’re going to lose your way at some point, and probably more than once. You’re going to go off on a tangent. You’re going to take a wrong turn. If you don’t have that road map to get you back on track, you could be stuck in the weeds for a really long time. That’s how books don’t get finished. It isn’t for lack of will or talent or ability. It’s just that writers go a little crazy; they get a little lost. They end up going off course and can’t find their way back. Having a strong Table of Contents right from the start — a solid road map for the book — makes sure you can always find your way again, and sooner rather than later. It takes most of the dangerous guesswork out of the equation.
The writing itself didn’t take that long for me. I’m a pretty prolific writer. I can write fifteen, twenty pages a day if I know ahead of time what it is I want to write about.
And that’s the other thing: Having a schedule and a process in place that ensures that the schedule is the schedule. In my case, the project had been divided by Pearson into four simple due dates. Every four weeks, I owed them twenty-five percent of the manuscript. That kept the momentum going. The schedule wasn’t random or vague, it was set. Meeting that schedule was a job like any other. That kept things rolling. If my publisher hadn’t set those deadlines or incentivized me to stick to them, I would probably still be working on the book. It would have never gotten written. So deadlines matter.
Aside from those types of practical insights, I was surprised by two more things.
The first was how much more work the editing took. I don’t know if other writers have the same experience, but I found the editing portion of the project a lot more difficult and time-consuming than the actual writing. I swear I must have spent three times more energy reworking chapters than writing them in the first place.
The second thing was how important it is to feel that you have someone in the trenches with you during the entire process, especially when you’re going through tough spells (and every writer does). The relationship between a writer and an acquisitions editor is far more important than people realize. The two have to get along. They have to work together, build a rapport, build trust and mutual respect and even some measure of affection. That human element is key. If you don’t have that, I think you’re going to end up with a pretty lifeless book.
In Part Two of this interview, Blanchard explains why he went with a commercial publisher rather than self-publishing his book, how well it’s selling, and his aspirations as an author.
If you have written a book or have a particular favorite (recently published) title that you’d like me to review for the Thought Readership series, email me the details and I’ll see what I can do!