The Blooker Prize for books which began life as online ramblings has been won by My War: Killing Time in Iraq, by Colby Buzzell.
Buzzell began blogging during a 2004 combat tour in Iraq with the US Army, which he had joined at 26 after tiring of "doing data entry for twelve bucks an hour" and living on pot noodles. Life as a machine-gunner in the Sunni Triangle turned out to be more interesting, but not so great that Buzzell cared to repeat the experience.
Meanwhile, the blog swiftly drew massive media attention, and by the time it was shut down by the military brass after running for eight weeks Buzzell was being hotly pursued by publishers. My War came out in the States in 2005 and is still selling well in paperback. Buzzell now writes freelance for Esquire magazine, among others.
The Blooker Prize, which named My War as its winner this year, is sponsored by Lulu.com, the online publishing platform which offers aspiring writers an alternative route to recognition and revenue.
Rather than blogging, a user can write a conventional book and upload it to Lulu. Design and formatting are done automatically or by the author, keeping Lulu's costs down. When a customer decides to purchase such a book, a copy is printed and shipped to order. Provided that the author doesn't insist on a large payment per book, the per-copy cost is similar to bookshop retail prices.
Thus far the most successful Lulu books have tended to be highly-specialised non-fiction selling to a small audience willing to pay a high-ish price. The top ten sellers as of writing included three programming manuals, two web marketing books, a treatise on keeping a rare breed of dog, the "Ultimate Tattoo Guide"... you get the picture.
Of course, the lack of mass-appeal writing on Lulu may be due to conventional publishers trawling the site and snapping up any potential winners.
Still, at least Lulu content appeals to some. Blogging is arguably more inconsistent by far, with its undeniable gems sometimes hard to find amid piles of online dross.
Certainly, if the Blooker Prize is an attempt to boost the reputation of the blogosphere as a place where the top scribblers of tomorrow may be found, it has arguably backfired at least to some extent. Nick Cohen, a Guardian columnist recruited as Blooker judge, characterised all the blooks on the shortlist apart from Buzzell's as "dreadful and derivative".
"In journalism as in publishing," he wrote in the Guardian before the Blooker was even announced, "fine writers and commentators have broken through from the blogs to the mainstream...But, dear God, there are too few of them, far too few: tiny islands of talent in a roaring, foam-flecked sea."
It could be argued, of course, that the mainstream media's low opinion of Web 2.0 content in general is the result of two factors. First, paid writers/camerafolk/artists etc are terrified of having their livelihoods undercut by hordes of hobbyist creatives who work for nothing. Second, whenever a blogger, Lulu self-publisher, DIY YouTube auteur, etc shows any talent, he or she immediate gets snorked up by hungry content providers and becomes part of the establishment - like Buzzell.
Watch this space... ®