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I Can Has Bookz

The business of turning Tumblr fads into tomes

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ALL YOUR AGENT ARE BELONG TO US Twitter- and meme-based books are easy to harvest, causing a publishing frenzy.
  • ALL YOUR AGENT ARE BELONG TO US Twitter- and meme-based books are easy to harvest, causing a publishing frenzy.

If publishers could collage a portrait of their ideal consumer of novelty gift books, it would probably look something like this: begin with a hapless urban twenty-something whose life is "out of control" (Fuck! I'm in My 20s). She has an iPhone and sends a lot of text messages (Damn You, Autocorrect!). She continues to find the idea of the hipster amusing (Stuff Hipsters Hate; Look at This Fucking Hipster; Hipster Hitler; Hipster Puppies). This imagined reader thinks her parents are darling, whimsical creatures (Dads Are the Original Hipsters; My Mom, Style Icon) worthy of affection on the basis of their ineptitude, outdated tastes and bluntness (When Parents Text; Crap at My Parents' House; Sh*t My Dad Says).

Her sexual desire is infantilized (Hot Guys and Baby Animals; Bangable Dudes in History) but it might be because her male counterparts (Fuck Yeah Menswear; Bike Snob; Total Frat Move) fail to inspire lust, perhaps since they favor lunch food to libidinous interactions (Scanwiches; Insanewiches). She has a knowing love for old-timey things like thank you notes (ThxThxThx) and used books (Forgotten Bookmarks). She cares about grammar enough to make fun of people who don't (The Book of 'Unnecessary' Quotation Marks) and has a well-developed sense of irony (Awkward Family Photos; White Girl Problems; Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater) and sarcasm (Dear Blank Please Blank; Passive Aggressive Notes; Humble Brags). Most important, she shops at Urban Outfitters.

Welcome to the world of the meme-oir.

Once upon a time, back when blogging was about writing long, self-involved posts and sharing feelings and insights, bloggers were offered book deals to write novels or memoirs (ah, the good old days of 2005). Now there's a different formula for web-to-book success: start a Tumblr or Twitter feed with some combination of puppies, fear of protracted adolescence, horrific Americana, text messages from your friends or photos of your parents; add a dose of nostalgia, regret or chagrin; then promote it all over the internet and wait for the literary agents to find you. And they will find you—there's a whole crop of them, growing in number everyday.

In 2004, Byrd Leavell was, in his own words, "this broke 24-year-old agent" who tracked down and signed a Lothario blogger named Tucker Max. "Originally, I couldn't give Tucker Max away," recalls Leavell in a recent phone call. When he finally signed a book deal, Leavell says, "I think it was a $7,000 advance." Since then, Max has sold almost 2 million books, one of the most successful blog-to-book transformations ever.

His bro/new media credentials thus established, Leavell took another risk in September 2009 when he signed a Maxim senior writer named Justin Halpern who had a Twitter feed called Shit My Dad Says. At that time, the first wave of Twitter-based books was just starting to come out. As for Halpern, he had started his feed a month before. He had 500,000 followers.

With Halpern's input, the two decided on a strategy that compiled Halpern's quotes from his father's foul-mouthed observations into a series of David Sedaris–like essays. A long auction ensued. "I was really proud of the cover letter. I had a line that said, 'This will be the book that all other Twitter books are defined by,' or something like that," says Leavell. It turned out he was right. Sh*t My Dad Says, the book, spent months on the bestseller lists and was even made into a short-lived sitcom starring William Shatner.

However, the transformation from Twitter to humorous essays was not without some bumps. "At first, the covers they sent us, they were trying to do 'Here's my Twitter feed book,' like bubble script on coffee cups," Leavell says.

He insisted that the project needed to be presented as a book that people could read, a strategy he's carried over with other Twitter-based clients, such as the authors of another Twitter feed called White Girl Problems. On Jan. 17, Hyperion is releasing White Girl Problems as a novel, complete with the requisite chick-lit stiletto heels on the cover. "You create a fictional protagonist," says Leavell, expanding on his recipe for a successful transformation from Twitter to book.

"I don't think that anyone should print out a Tumblr or a Twitter feed and call it a book proposal, because those things aren't books. They're Tumblrs and they're Twitter feeds," says Kate McKean, an agent who represented the bloggers behind the New York Times bestselling lolcat book I Can Has Cheezburger? "I've always thought since the blog-to-book thing started that it has to be a book as well as a blog."

Some agents prefer to think of the concept and then mine the internet for content. Laurie Abkemeier, a literary agent with DeFiore and Company, decided a couple years ago that the world needed a book about ugly Christmas sweaters. She went on the internet until she found Brian Miller, Adam Paulson and Kevin Wool, three guys in Indiana who sold ugly Christmas sweaters from their website, UglyChristmasSweaterParty.com.

"I literally looked at every site related to ugly Christmas sweaters to see who would have the biggest platform for this book," she remembers.

She proposed they write a book about how to throw an ugly Christmas sweater party, released as the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book from Abrams. It has 152 pages of sweaters and party tips, including how to judge a contest.

The adaptation game can be more difficult with Tumblrs or blogs that involve user-generated content. Monika Verma, the agent who transformed the website Damn You, Autocorrect! into a book, has also sold book versions of the websites Bangable Dudes in History, Things That Suck, Things Younger Than John McCain and Fuck Yeah Menswear. But how does one turn a chronology of images into a book? With Damn You, Autocorrect!, Verma had the blogger, Jillian Madison, add a list of the 10 most common autocorrect mistakes as well as original autocorrects never posted online.

Like the internet memes themselves, these books are likely to serve future generations as not much more than a microcosmic documentation of a blip in time. What will Texts from Last Night be worth to us in 30 years? Yet Hollywood in particular has caught on to mining Twitter for writers, and even for the biggest agents, the competition has gotten fierce.

"All the big Los Angeles agencies have whole divisions of online talent scouts," Leavell says. He recently tried to sign up the author of Your Aunt Diane, a Twitter feed in the persona of a Santa Fe hippie feminist doula/jewelry designer with a mailbox shaped like a clitoris, whose Tweets say things like "Your Aunt Diane's holistic hangover cure: persimmon juice, milk thistle, green tea, 45 minutes cunnilingus." Leavell called, but even though the author had only 20,000 Twitter followers, he arrived too late.

"It's crazy it's so tough now," he laments.

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A version of this article originally appeared in the New York Observer.

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