By ALLEN SALKIN
THIS is how it happens.
A guy starts a clever blog in January and calls it Stuff White People Like. The site contains a list of cultural totems, including gifted children, marathons and writers’ workshops, that a certain type of moneyed and liberal American might be expected to like.
“The No. 1 reason why white people like not having a TV,” reads the explanation under entry No. 28, Not Having a TV, “is so that they can tell you that they don’t have a TV.”
Readers discover stuffwhitepeoplelike.wordpress.com, like it and forward links to their friends, who forward them to lots more friends. Newspaper columnists mention it, stealing — er, quoting — some of the better jokes. By the end of February, the NPR program “Talk of the Nation” runs a report on it, debating whether the site is racist or satire.
And then on March 20 Random House announces that it has purchased the rights to a book by the blog’s founder, Christian Lander, an Internet copy writer. The price, according to a source familiar with the deal but not authorized to discuss the total, was about $300,000, a sum that many in the publishing and blogging communities believe is an astronomical amount for a book spawned from a blog, written by a previously unpublished author.
“I was shocked and amazed that they got that much money for a concept that Martin Mull had written a book on back in 1985,” said Ron Hogan, who writes GalleyCat, a blog about the publishing industry. He was referring to “The History of White People in America,” by Mr. Mull and Allen Rucker, which mined its comedy from stereotypes about WASPs, noting that the term “white sex” was a contradiction akin to “towering miniseries.”
Mr. Lander’s more yuppified targets presumably like sex just fine — especially if sex is with Asian women, whom 95 percent of white men have dated or wanted to date at some point, he notes in No. 11, Asian Girls.
There was an innocent time, oh, about four years ago, when the idea of turning a blog into a book seemed novel, a fresh path for unknown writers to break into the big time.
The outcry over Mr. Lander’s book deal suggests the trend that has been building for a half decade may have finally reached apogee.
One of the first literary agents to troll the Web for talent was Kate Lee, who in 2003 was an assistant at International Creative Management, the sprawling talent agency, looking for a way to make her name.
When she started contacting bloggers and talking to them about book deals, many were stunned that a real literary agent was interested in their midnight typings. Her roster was so rich with bloggers, including Matt Welch from Hit & Run and Glenn Reynolds from Instapundit, that the New Yorker profiled her in 2004. Two years from now, the magazine noted, “Books by bloggers will be a trend, a cultural phenomenon.”
And two years after that?
“If I contact someone or someone is put in touch with me, chances are they’ve already been contacted by another agent,” Ms. Lee said. “Or they’ve at least thought about turning their blog into a book or some kind of film or TV project.”
Mr. Lander, for one, was scooped up by Erin Malone, an agent with William Morris.
On March 7, the daily e-mail newsletter Very Short List lauded his site.
That same day, Ms. Malone contacted Kurt Andersen, a founder of Very Short List who is also represented by the William Morris agency and who is an adviser to Random House. He had seen Stuff White People Like and liked it.
Ms. Malone told Mr. Andersen she was planning to circulate a White People book proposal for bids the next day, he said. The agent asked him to bring it to the attention of Gina Centrello, the president and publisher of Random House.
“I sent an e-mail to Gina saying, ‘I think this thing is smart and good. Just letting you know they’re sending out a book proposal tomorrow,’ ” Mr. Andersen said.
Mr. Andersen is a good friend to have. Although there were many bidders, Random House prevailed and announced the deal on March 20.
Mr. Andersen said what impressed him about White People’s prospects as a book is that it was already sort of unbloglike. The site is not chockablock with links to other material, but with what amounts to a series of daily essays. “It’s more like a book he’s putting out serially on the Web,” Mr. Andersen said. On his blog, Mr. Lander pledged that the book will be mostly new material not on the Web site.
Barbara Fillon, a Random House spokeswoman, said her office mates were laughing about the content on White People for weeks before they heard there was a book proposal in the offing.
Mr. Lander, who has given interviews to Wired, The Houston Chronicle and The Los Angeles Times, is taking a hiatus from speaking to the news media because he is busy writing, Ms. Fillon said. The book is scheduled to be released in August as a paperback original.
It will be difficult for the publisher to make a profit, said Sara Nelson, editor of Publishers Weekly. Doing some back-of-the-envelope math, she figured Random House would have to sell about 75,000 copies, a total that would likely land the book on best-seller lists, to earn back its $300,000 advance.
The publishing house is not worried about any accusations about the book being racist because it’s not really about white people, Ms. Fillon said.
“A lot of different people are relating to this,” she said. “It exposes pop culture in general on a level everyone can relate to no matter what their race is.”
Racist or not, others are not such fans. The site’s satire does not hit the scathing heights of irony, but wallows in the simple scorched-earth attack of snarkiness, said Jon Winokur, the author of “The Big Book of Irony.”
“Snarkiness is contempt before investigation,” he said. “It’s just a pose that rejects everything in its path, and that’s what I take this to be.”
But can 1.5 million hits, the number Random House says Mr. Lander’s site has attracted, be wrong? If a blog has lured that many eyeballs in the freewheeling terrain of the Internet, publishers are willing to take a chance it will attract attention in the bookstore, said Kate McKean, a literary agent with the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency, who is one of those now scouring the Web for new clients.
The site I Can Has Cheezburger (icanhascheezburger.com), which features lolcats, photos of animals with humorous, ungrammatical captions, debuted in January 2007. Three months later, Ms. McKean contacted the founders; by last August, they had chosen her over other agents, she said. The site has 1.6 million page views a day, she said, a fact noted in the book proposal she helped prepare.
After a bidding war among several publishers, Gotham Books signed her clients. Come this November, expect the I Can Has Cheezburger book on shelves. “It’s going to be predominantly photos but also will enlighten readers on the key memes of lolcats,” Ms. McKean said, referring to strange rules of grammar unique to the form.
Another client, Noah Scalin, the creator of the Skull-A-Day blog (skulladay.blogspot.com), has a deal for an October release, by Lark Books, of his tome that features images of the skulls he makes from candy, sparklers and other bric-a-brac.
How long has his blog been running?
“Let’s see,” Ms. McKean said on Thursday, clicking onto the site. “He’s on skull No. 298, so it started 298 days ago.”
Blog books are far from a sure thing at the cash register.
Gawker.com spawned the book, “The Gawker Guide to Conquering All Media,” which has sold fewer than 1,000 copies since its release in October 2007. A book based on a popular Web site focused on fashion disasters has sold 2,000 copies in its first seven weeks of release, according to Nielsen BookScan.
But there are successes. On the nonhumor front, the best seller “Julie and Julia,” about a woman who cooked one Julia Child recipe a day, started as a blog, and “The Hipster Handbook,” spawned from freewilliamsburg.com in 2003, has sold 39,000, according to Nielsen BookScan.
Even the snarky can retain a bit of wonder. On Wednesday, Mr. Lander, who is white, added his 92nd entry to Stuff White People Like: Book Deals.
“White people,” he wrote, “like having their dreams come true when they least expected it.”