Tim Manley, author of Alice in Tumblr-land: And Other Fairy Tales for a New Generation, is living the Tumblr dream right now — his blog, Fairy Tales for Twenty-Somethings, was published by Penguin this fall. Here, we discuss his blog's momentum, his creative process, and the nitty-gritty details of how blogs become books.
Steph: So you had this idea to create mini-fairytales for 20-somethings (which kind of apply to anyone who uses the internet), started posting captions and images on your blog, then began illustrating the fairytales yourself, right? And then Penguin eventually offered you a book deal, which is fantastic! Yay! But I think what most people who want to be in your position wonder about is, what was your growth like in the beginning? How'd you get your initial group of readers? I can't remember how I found your blog, were you mentioned on Huffington Post? I vaguely remember finding you via Huffington Post.
Tim: You likely found the tumblr because of this Huffington Post article. That was kind of the turning point moment for the tumblr.
The first day I started Fairy Tales for Twenty-Somethings, sometime in late July 2012, thirty people liked or shared it almost immediately. I was ecstatic. Thirty! I was making myself a sandwich in the kitchen and ran into my bedroom halfway through to reload the page and see if the number had gone up. I remember thinking, This could be something.
This is somewhat embarrassing, but those people had found the Tumblr because I'd tagged the very first post with "feminism."
I updated it regularly for the next two months, maybe five times a week, and it gained a bit more readership but nothing huge. At moments, I felt demoralized that it wasn't catching on more.
Steph: Did you ever develop a strategy for boosting the amount of readers?
Tim: Sometimes, I'd end up making this enormous list of tags on each post, hoping someone would happen to search for those words or phrases. I have no idea if this helped or hurt. I'm not certain if new people were finding me from searching for tags or from seeing the fairytales reblogged by their friends. I do know that there was always a spike in new followers after I posted a new fairytale. It makes sense: New, quality content led to more followers.
In early October, I shared the three Tortoise and the Hare stories on my Facebook page, with a link to the Tumblr, and kind of thought of it as a goodbye to the project. I'd been enjoying making it, but my doubts were taking over and I thought it maybe wasn't worth other people's time.
But then my friends really responded to the Facebook post. Some people were asking why I'd never shared this project before. They were reading the older posts and enjoying them. It gave me this boost of enthusiasm. One friend made a BuzzFeed "Community" post with the stories, though it didn't catch on much there. I think it got maybe fifteen shares. Maybe less.
The next morning, I saw a big jump in traffic to the site. After sleuthing around on the Internet — obsessed, of course, with what was happening, trying my best to understand it — I found that a literary agent with a big following had tweeted a link to the project and a number of others retweeted it.
Steph: Ooh, a literary agent. Do go on.
Tim: Well the next day, a different literary agent emailed me. She said she thought it could become a book and wanted to talk about it. We talked on the phone, maybe even that day, and she gave me two pieces of important advice: add social media buttons to the posts, and start doing your own illustrations.
So I did.
Steph: Did they make a difference?
Tim: The Twitter and Facebook buttons definitely led to the page getting shared more. Within a day or two, I made a Twitter handle for the fairytales, and a Facebook page. I'm guessing that these allowed for a little more reach to people who are scared of Tumblrs, but they didn't get huge followings on their own. They were really just another way to get the stories out to people.
Within a few days of instituting these changes, the Huffington Post wrote an article about the Tumblr, and that article went big on reddit with a link to the Tumblr. I have absolutely no idea why that HuffPo article caught on as it did, or why the reddit link did so well. A number of other places began writing articles or reposting some of the fairy tales after that. And that's when you reached out about putting some of the fairy tales on Thought Catalog.
Steph: Aside from using social media and tagging, why do you think the blog was so successful?
Tim: As nuts as I could get about tagging posts certain ways, or posting at specific times, I do think the only thing that really mattered was creating a lot of good content. Instead of over-thinking the numbers, or scouring Twitter for any mention of the tumblr's name, it was always a better use of my time to just keep writing new stories.
Steph: So you had this literary agent telling you to do add the social buttons, which helped, and then she advised you to create your own illustrations — how did adding custom illustrations into the mix change your creative process?
Tim: The process itself didn't change immediately. I still wrote all the stories first, using more or less the same method. ("Method" being a very kind way of saying that I would stare at a blank TextEdit document until I thought of something). The illustrations always came second.
In my early illustrations on the Tumblr, you can see me fumbling for a style. I loved the classic fairytale illustrations, and wished mine could look like them, but I didn't know how to do it. I'd really only ever drawn cartoons. So a big part of my process, before the book was sold, was experimenting with different styles of drawing. Thankfully, I live with my older brother, who is an incredible artist. He was able to advise me on the drawings, even if sometimes the advice was, "It looks fine, you're being crazy."
After we sold the book, the illustration process changed. Basically, I realized I had to hold myself to a higher standard. And there was no choice but to believe that I could. I learned more in those few months than in years of casually drawing. And though the images still fall far short of the classic fairy tale illustrations they strived to be, I think that is correct. It's part of the story of the book.
Steph: That's awesome. It sounds like this agent's advice was pretty sound. Is that who you ended up working with?
Tim: We kept in touch, and she was very supportive, but I ended up speaking with several agents. With each one, I was upfront with my indecision, and asked for their advice on how best to move forward, how they could see the Tumblr working as a book, and so on. A part of me felt I should be attempting to represent myself in a more business-like manner, be more detached, but I didn't really have the energy to worry about that. I decided then that whatever happened, I'd just always speak honestly as myself. That was the only way I'd be able to do this kind of work in a way that kept me sane.
And it worked out. When I met up with the woman who ultimately became my agent, I knew almost immediately I wanted to work with her. She enjoyed the silliness of the Tumblr, but also took it seriously as a project that could become something more. It also felt correct that it was my agent's assistant, a woman in her twenties, who found the Tumblr. So, speaking with both of them that day, there was this lovely combination of experiences in the room. The three of us clicked. And I don't think the book would've ended up with such a fantastic editor and publisher if I hadn't met these two people with whom I felt understood and could communicate easily with. They elevated the project to another level.
Steph: And the awesome publisher — how did that come about? Was there a bidding war?
Tim: Three publishers made offers on the book. My agent then called me and said, "Here's what they're offering, and here's their vision for what the book should look like." Then I called everyone in my life, asked for their advice, and argued against whatever they said. The next day, I spoke with the individual editors on the phone. Again, this was a process of finding the person I felt most comfortable with. I told myself not to pretend to be someone I wasn't. The truth was, I wasn't certain what the book should look or feel like. I had ideas, but I hadn't yet learned to trust my own instincts.
When I spoke with the man who became my editor, I was certain almost immediately he was who I wanted to work with.
Steph: And what was the process of turning your blog into a book like? What surprised you about it?
Tim: It wasn't too strange, actually. All of the characters and plots had been started on Tumblr, so when I set to work officially writing the book, I was already in mid-run.
There are things a Tumblr can do that a book can't, and things a book can do that a Tumblr can't. The main thing the book allowed for was extending the narratives I'd created and giving them conclusions. On the Tumblr, I could never be certain if someone had read every previous post, and I had to work accordingly. With the book, you're able to build more emotional momentum before that final page.
The most surprising thing was probably how much freedom I had. I think I'd feared that I'd be forced to change the stories to fit the vision of an editor, but that didn't end up being true. My editor trusted my ideas, and then made all of them better.
Steph: And the burning question on everyone's mind: what'd you do to celebrate after you signed the contract?
Tim: My mom had a bunch of our family over her house for pizza. She'd tacked this poster board to the wall that said "Happy 1st Book, Tim!" written in those sticker-letters. It was a weekday night, so it felt particularly exciting to all be getting together. Like we didn't want to wait until the weekend.
I had maybe one other night out with friends to celebrate, but then it was kind of like, "Oh, crap! I actually have to write this book now!"
Tim Manley is a writer and illustrator. His first book, Alice in Tumblr-land: And Other Fairy Tales for a New Generation, is now out from Penguin. It's based on his tumblr, Fairy Tales for Twenty-Somethings. Tim has officiated eight weddings, one of which was Beatles-themed.