I very much understand James Enge’s grounds for advising writers to avoid blogging. If one hopes to appeal to the widest possible audience, it is completely logical to assume that avoiding causing direct offense to anyone will tend to increase a writer’s sales by preserving the potential market size for his books.
There’s just one problem with this perfectly sensible logic. Its conclusion is flawed, because it confuses the potential market with the probable market. In theory, every writer has a potential market of around six billion. But, the vast majority of those six billion can be safely discounted because they are children with no money, they don’t read the language in which the book is written, or most importantly, they have no interest in the subject of the book. Three months ago, a good friend of mine insisted on taking home a copy of my latest novel against my advice; I told her not to feel bad when she returned it to me unread because I know her literary tastes don’t run to intellectual fantasy. Last week, she brought the book back and admitted that running into a page of untranslated Latin was enough to make her put down the book with alacrity. Which is fine, she was a potential reader but she was never a probable reader.
Now, Mr. Enge is entirely correct to point out that readers can be turned off by exposure to the writer’s personality and opinions. But that’s not really much of a problem, because the biggest problem facing most books is not negative reactions, but rather a complete lack of awareness that the book even exists. Therefore, the number of probable readers that are lost through heightened knowledge of the author must be weighed against the probable readers who are gained as a direct result of their heightened awareness of not only the author, but also his books. Obviously, if someone is reading an author’s blog, they are far more likely to know about his new book than someone who is not.
And controversy is not necessarily a bad thing anyhow. Bad press is still press. Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin are massively disliked by many on the Left, but their books are usually #1 bestsellers. Hilary Clinton is loathed by nearly the entire right-wing half of the country and the books with her name on them were bestsellers. (NB: No politician writes his own books except for Newt Gingrich, who really should use a ghostwriter himself. In fact, you’d be surprised at how few newspaper columnists actually write their own books.) It clearly doesn’t matter if half the country hates you so long as everyone has heard of your book. The number of people who insist that Ann Coulter would be more successful if she just toned it down a notch or two is really remarkable since from a book-selling perspective, there really isn’t any additional upside.
But there is one area where Mr. Enge is entirely correct. Blogging very much risks upsetting the gatekeepers. Even if you don’t blog, you’d better assume that you’ll be Googled and those hilarious pictures from Tijuana that your friend tagged on his Facebook page will be discussed. These days, I would no more dream of submitting my fiction to certain publishing houses than I would send a non-fiction book extolling Marxian economics to the Mises Institute. Because the gatekeepers at certain publishing houses tend to hew towards one political ideology or another, those who are known to have insufficient enthusiasm for that ideology will not be published there. That’s their prerogative, and while it is of no concern to a sufficiently established writer, it can be a potentially career-killing one to a writer looking to break into the ranks of the professionally published. Fortunately, technology is fast shattering the ability of the gatekeepers to control what is and what is not published; in 20 years the distinction between “professionally published” and “self-published” will have all but vanished.
But the gatekeepers are merely an obstacle; the gates are not impregnable. Despite being heartily despised in numerous publishing circles for my idiosyncratic philosophies, I’ve published three books in two years and have more publishing offers on the table than I can possibly accept. So, my feeling is that the price of holding yourself back in the interest of safety is too high, because it will not only affect how you feel about your work, but it will probably have a negative effect on your writing as well. Writing, and writing well, is difficult enough, so adding a degree of difficulty to the challenge strikes me as problematic.
The real problem of blogging is this: when one is blogging, one is not really writing.