As I’ve explored elsewhere, blogs and books published from those blogs (sometimes referred to as blooks) grant new visibility to the complexity of authorship in an increasingly digital and participatory culture. Notably, authors such as Julie Powell, Colby Buzzell and Tucker Max transformed their blogs into books and, in the case of Powell and Max, feature films. While most of the theory on this move tends to be focused on how the publishing industry capitalizes on ready-made audiences in order to maximize profits, I believe it makes evident a more pressing question concerning how this publishing move rests on a problematic assumption of the authorial status of the blogger. A destabilization of this status works to further unsettle notions of sole authorship in general.
A while back, I had the pleasure of reading Madeleine Roux’s engaging zombie narrative Allison Hewitt is Trapped. The story, hosted on her blog, was updated every few days with new chapter installments. In the story, Roux blogged anonymously as Allison, posing as a survivor in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by zombies. Readers responded favorably to this gimmick, expanding the fictional story world in the comments section and taking on their own identities as well. Some commenters forged connections in the comment section, arranging fictional meet ups to swap resources. Roux incorporated a lot of their suggestions into future blog posts as the story world expanded. I discovered this blog a couple years after its inception and consumed all the chapters in a giant gulp. That is, until I got to the last entry and the story simply… stopped, leaving readers concerned and flailing.
Roux finally pipes in a couple months later to tell them that she received a book deal and they could finish Allison’s story in hard copy when her book hits the market. I ordered the book to finish the story and was astonished with what I found. While she claims that only the first half will reflect the blog content, an overwhelming 264 pages of the 340 page novel derive directly from the blog, mostly copying slightly re-written content. In this re-write she replicates the form of the blog throughout the novel as the chapters reflect the form of blog posts with comment sections at the end. The most notable changes occur in terms of what comments she has chosen to include, exclude, re-write or fabricate. These changes prove problematic for the way Roux claims ownership over the comments. This claim places the intellectual work of her readers at her disposable to re-cast as she deems necessary.
In a larger work on this project, I play a painstaking fact-finding game, pinning down exactly which comments she casts out, re-writes, or duplicates. While I won’t re-copy my findings here, what I found was informative and made clear the incredibly vexed nature of authorship in collaborative spaces. The movement from a digital environment to the physical page involves some pretty serious power grabs on Roux’s part as she asserts authority over the entirety of her blog. Roux isn’t necessarily the bad guy here, though, nor is she alone in her tactics.
Just as Roux uses Allison Hewitt is Trapped to jump start a series of zombie novels, one can observe similar commodification of fan interaction with other blog books. Julie Powell has received two book deals as well as a feature film deal which, according to IMDb grossed almost 120 million dollars worldwide. Brooke Magnanti, who anonymously blogged about her experiences as a London sex worker at her blog, published five successive books as well as released the rights to Showtime, which ran four seasons of Secret Diary of a Call Girl and expects a film adaptation. Zoe Margolis, who blogged about her experience as a sex addict, published two books from the blog. Jennette Fulda published a memoir from her weight-loss blog as well as received a second non-related book deal. The list goes on.
As bloggers turn their blogs into television shows and movies, notions of ownership over content and claims to authorship become even more convoluted as producers, directors, studio systems and broadcasting companies become involved in the process. Within this mix, the rights of the blog commenters become further obscured. The commenters begin to exist as a helpful fan base that does little more than encourage the blogger and consume the product. As such, one must consider the role of the blog reader with regard to intellectual property. In an age that increasingly thrives on interactivity and fan participation, serious questions must be asked about the role of the author in terms of ownership. The visible influence of readers on a blogger’s work brings new clarity to the issue at hand. With this in mind, readers must become more conscientious about their investment in collaborative spaces as well as their consumption of products derived from those spaces. Furthermore, intellectual property right and definitions of co-authorship must be redefined and re-evaluated with the proliferation of the blogosphere and spaces of collaborative writing.
*This post results from an evolving line of questioning which began during work on my undergraduate honors thesis with Dr. Gwen Tarbox at Western Michigan University and continued through a graduate seminar with Dr. Chris Hanson on Theories of New Media and a graduate seminar with Dr. Crystal Bartolovich on Politics and Poetics of the Commons at Syracuse University.