Writing about serious things online can lead to publishing a serious book

For almost 20 years now writing online has been seen as a good marketing tool for writers. Publishers expect new authors to have an online presence. Some blogs are really books in short installments, just waiting for a publisher: humorous blogs like Stuff white people like and Cake Wrecks fall into this category. But some authors have written serious things online that aren’t as obviously book material, and it has resulted in their first book being published.

Online writing can lead to creative and interesting books

While the blog to book phenomenon tends to favour funny, lighthearted material, there are examples of online writing on serious topics leading to book publishing. This writing can take any form from tweets to comments and allows writers to create different kinds of work.

An online comment results in a book deal

Linda Tirado made a comment on poverty in 2013 on an online forum; it went viral, the comment was then published by the Huffington Post as an article and read by millions. She started a GoFundMe donation fund and raised $60,000, which bought her time to write a whole book on poverty.  Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America was published by Penguin in 2014.

Amy Siskind’s list

Amy Siskind’s book, The List, published in March 2018 by Bloomsbury, is exactly what the name advertises, a list. Since the election of Donald Trump as US President she made a weekly list online of all the changes in her country. She shared the list on Twitter, Facebook and Medium, and by the ninth week her list was getting over two million views.

The list items range from:

“Trump tweeted his apparent displeasure with the ratings of Celebrity Apprentice” (Week Three)


“Trump said, ‘I think there’s blame on both sides’, insinuating that the ‘alt-left’ was just as much to blame as white supremacists and neo-Nazis” (Week 40).

Siskind’s List illustrates a gradual descent into corruption, totalitarianism, and white supremacy over the first year of Trump’s presidency. Each weekly list is preceded by a statement:

“Experts in authoritarianism advise to keep a list of things subtly changing around you, so you’ll remember.”

She continues to add to the list.

Linda Tirado’s insight into poverty

When she wrote her online post about being poor Linda Tirado had been working in two jobs, including as a night-shift cook, raising two children and studying. This “initial, howling essay” explained why she didn’t have any hope, how life in poverty left no time for striving for anything better. She has called it a “simple, fumbling explanation.” Tirado had a number of privileges that helped her be able to write her post, and later her book, such as middle class beginnings, being white and able bodied. But the reaction to her writing was so dramatic because the poor are often voiceless. Poor people are assumed to not be able to write about, or have insight into, their own lives.

An authentic voice of experience

Barbara Ehrenreich, who wrote Nickle and Dimed, a book about pretending to be poor and working in low paid jobs, contacted Tirado and offered her support. When Ehrenreich’s book was published, critics said that she wasn’t able to truly understand being poor as she always had her real, financially stable life to go back to if things went really wrong. Tirado, however, is in the distinctive (but not unique) position of having genuinely lived in poverty and being able to express that experience in writing.

The potential for social justice

Tirado shows the potential that online writing has to create social justice. The poor may be able to articulate their situation, but the barriers to writing about their situation and publishing it are often insurmountable. Online writing can enable more marginalised voices to be heard.  Novelist James Baldwin said:

“The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: he or she has become a threat.”

There is immense power in the writing of those who are more often written about.

Connecting writers to allies and the publishing industry

Connections made online can cross over class lines that usually prevent a marginalised writer getting access to powerful people. Amy Siskind was not marginalised at all, but she also wasn’t a writer. Her online writing gave her access to a different career and the ability to become an activist. For Linda Tirado, it led to funds for further writing and connected her with Barbara Ehrenreich, who became her ally and used her power to support the publishing of Tirado’s work. Online writing is regarded as a way of market testing, and it does test the market for a book’s topic, but it also offers opportunities for networking and experimentation to the author themselves.

New ideas and new voices

Tirado’s internet comment was a direct challenge to the victim blaming narratives that dominate public discussion around poverty. Rather than challenge the idea that the poor make bad decisions, she wrote that the poor do make bad decisions, and then explained why. She wrote that working two jobs, and studying, and caring for two children is tiring, depressing and stressful. Having no time or money to prepare healthy food and having no hope that things will improve, means it feels pointless to buy vegetables. Tirado expressed the internal experience of poverty in a way that Ehrenreich couldn’t. No-one who gets four hours sleep a night has the time or motivation to waft about their kitchen activating almonds, or sprouting bean sprouts.

Soybean Sprouts by Milivanili. Creative Commons Public Domain Image

When online writing becomes books, formats become more creative

Amy Siskind is likely to have eaten plenty of salad: before she started writing her list she had a very successful career as a Wall Street executive. Siskind is a capitalist with institutional power: what is interesting about her progress from online posts to publishing a book is the creativity of the format. Many blog to book successes are also comprised of lists, but items tend to be far closer to full pieces of writing, with quotes, anecdotes, discussion. Siskind’s list really is simply a list, with only a brief summary paragraph before the items.

Week 75, April 21 2018, no.146: “On Friday, the Democratic Party filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the Russian government, the Trump campaign, and the WikiLeaks organization for conspiring to disrupt the 2016 campaign and elect Trump.”

The serious online writing that results in serious book publishing

Writing online creates more possibilities for the voices of marginalised writers to be heard, as well as more possibilities for creativity in books. Whether the writing is on a blog, a forum or social media, the writing that gets noticed tends to address a current concern. It might do this in a creative way, or discuss a topic from a perspective that has been unheard until now.  Serious online writing has the potential to enable more creativity and more diversity in book publishing. It hasn’t removed all the barriers, but writing about serious things online can lead to writing and publishing serious books.

Istanbul book shop.jpg
Serious book shop, Istanbul. Copyright Mike Collins 2016, used with permission.

4 thoughts on “Writing about serious things online can lead to publishing a serious book”

    1. Thanks Cate! It’s a good article- and thanks for telling me about the talk, I just booked a ticket 🙂


    1. Thanks Anita. I had to have another look at your site- it is so full of creative and academic brilliance (and the free e zines are awesome, although I love my hard copy of Stalin’s Mustache, it’s definitely my favourite.)


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