Blog to Book: 7 Lessons from “I Love Charts”

By Theresa Braun

In 2009, Jason Oberholtzer and Cody Westphal created personal Tumblr accounts, used to keep in touch post-college. That September, both found themselves either unemployed or underemployed, and so to help cope with the recession and their financial woes, the two friends began taking turns posting charts about the job market. After having some fun outdoing each other, they joked they should collaborate on a side project entirely devoted to their love of charts. The Tumblr “I Love Charts” was born and quickly grew in popularity; in one day, it had a whopping 1,000 followers.

Three years later, Jason and Cody have now published I Love Charts: The Book. But this blog-turned-book is much more than a curation of their Tumblr; it’s a success story filled with gems of wisdom for any blogger, author, or social media user. Here are 7 particular lessons I learned after speaking with Jason:

1. Numbers don’t lie.

When Jason and Cody talk, 100,000 people listen. As it turns out, publishers like that. “I got my book deal because of my numbers online,” Jason explained to me bluntly. “I had no writing to my name. Literary agents wouldn’t have been able to find me without my blog following.” He gave me the hard facts: publishers’ decisions come down to the numbers. When you have an established following, you’re given more opportunities to say what you want to say. So find your audience, lead your tribe, and amplify your voice.

2. Charts have meaning.

When you hear that 100,000 people  follow a blog called, “I Love Charts,” the first question that probably comes to mind is: What’s so great about charts? Well, that’s essentially the thesis of the book. Said Jason: “Charts can tell stories in compact ways, in ways that language can't get across.” Take a look at some of Jason's favorite charts, the series from Mother Jones on income inequality around the Occupy movement. Data visualization has the power to make bold statements and have a broad, societal impact.

In their book, Jason and Cody pair insightful musings and anecdotes in essay form with a selection of relevant charts, the juxtaposition proving that charts are not only a powerful form of communication, but a form of art itself. With a book, they were able to take their love of charts and prove why anyone else should love them too.

3. There’s no rubric for popularity.

Before Jason and Cody launched their Tumblr, they had no idea they’d attract such a large audience. It was started for amusement; the friends were just trying to have fun with those that showed up and help people get their charts out there. Simply put: there are no guarantees. As much as popularity can matter to success, there’s no way to predict it, so don’t set out aiming for it.

4. Understand the difference in platforms.

With social media, each platform serves a different purpose, and in order to get the most out of each one, you must fully understand their differences. You wouldn’t run your Twitter the same way you would your Tumblr. As Jason said, “The book is the ultimate different platform.” It might be a no-brainer, but blogs and books function very differently. “If you don’t respect that, you’re going to have a bad book.” The biggest challenge of turning a blog into a book is realizing this fact: “You have to actually write a book, not put your blog into a binder.” Before writing, Jason and Cody sat down and  asked themselves: Why, exactly, do we have a book deal? Why is our blog worthy of a book? By asking those important questions, they were able to ensure creating something of value.

5. Ask yourself what your blog is really about.

While planning and creating this publication, the authors came to find the true “meat” of their blog, realizing what it was truly about. The initial idea pitched to them was a coffee table book. It was hard to muster up some enthusiasm around that, but they figured they should suck it up and just be grateful for the opportunity. During the process of acquiring the rights to use the charts, they became discouraged and unmotivated. After a few months had gone by, and the deadline had been pushed back, they began thinking they should feature original work by the blog’s more popular contributors, rather than create a comprehensive collection of charts they liked. They realized: if we’re going to do this, we should have the book be about what we’re really all about: the Tumblr community.

By getting to the root of who they were and inserting that personality into their work, Jason and Cody were able to create not a coffee table book, but something worth reading and revisiting, something to be proud of.

6. Take advantage of opportunities.

Social media brings greater opportunities to writers/authors (shameless plug to check out what else Jason has been up to thanks to such opportunities). In fact, social media, and the transparency it demands, have brought greater opportunities to us all. But the only way to reap the benefits is to put in the effort. So embrace greater accessibility, and find those professionals you’d like to connect with or learn from. Specifically for writers, social media allows hopeful authors the opportunity to see what others are doing and gain feedback. When you can reach out  to your favorite author, chart artist, or charts enthusiasts, there’s no excuse not to. Remember: the opportunities are there, but they won’t be knocking down your door.

7. Don’t be afraid to be yourself.

Jason told me, “The older I'm getting the more I'm experiencing this: the opportunities where I let my personality shine, those are the ones that work out.” No matter if you’re a blogger, author, or none-of-the-above, the more you share an unfiltered version of yourself, the happier and more successful you’ll ultimately be.

So as I told Jason when signing off: Keep doing what you’re doing, and I’ll see you on the internet!