I thought I’d share my totally subjective and anecdotal impressions of how book blogging has changed over the past few years. My views are formed mainly from my own blogging experience and my observations of blogs I read, mainly genre fiction blogs, especially romance.
For readers who have no idea who I am, I started a book blog, Racy Romance Reviews, in August 2008. I changed its name in 2010 to Read React Review. In August 2012, I stopped blogging there altogether. I started blogging irregularly here in January of this year. I would say I am in the second or third cohort of book bloggers, at least in the romance genre. I can think of several romance blogs that began around 2002-3, but I can’t think of any that are much older than that (and I mean blogs, not review sites).
[Once I began writing this, I realized it's too long for one post. Consider this part one. I cover awards and contests, ARCs, cross-platform blogging, and sponsored blogs.]
1. Awards and conferences
When I started blogging, some kind person gave me an award. Remember those? People would put these cute homemade little blog awards on their sidebars, thank the giver, and then have to pass it on. Or as Carolyn Crane’s alter ego, Little CJ put it:
If it was a real award, it would have a little something called a PRIZE that goes with it. Instead, it has a chore. Like, hey here’s a digital picture made by some freak I don’t know who probably lives in their parent’s basement and has nothing better to do than make awards. Woo-hoo! Now go ahead and copy it off my blog do a post about it and bug some people with it. And if they don’t happen to read your blog every day – there’s a shocker – then you have to email them.
Then from 2008-2012, there was the Book Blogger Appreciation Week with its corresponding awards. This was a little more official, with committees, nomination forms, and prizes donated by authors and publishers (I was a finalist one year for romance). There was usually some disagreement, like whether a blogger who charged cash for reviews should be eligible, or whether a blogger had to agree to be nominated, but overall it seemed like a positive event. Then in 2012, Goodreads and the American Association of Publishers began to sponsor the Independent Book Blogger Awards, with the winners getting a free trip to Book Expo America in New York. Some bloggers disagreed with the restrictions placed on these awards by Goodreads.
With respect to conferences, although book bloggers have attended conferences and met informally for years, the first “official” book blogger conferences in 2010 and 2011 were hosted by a small group of bloggers in conjunction with the annual Book Expo America event in NYC. In 2012 and 2013, the book blogger con was sold to BEA and became an official part of that massive publishing event. In recent years, this event has been criticized by attendees (including me) for being too focused on publishers and authors.
In the romance community, there have always been a number of fan events, but it was not until this year, coinciding with RT ’13 that there has been a one day bloggers event sponsored by bloggers. If online chatter is any indication, it did not seem to garner much interest its first year, but these events usually take a few years to get up to speed.
Partly I’m a little sad that there is less of the homegrown type of award, and I worry that this means that the community has possibly become less cooperative and more competitive, but on balance I am pleased bloggers do get recognition, one way or another.
I think a challenge remains with any blogging conference to accommodate the many diverse book blogs out there. Some bloggers have a vision of a book blog as a kind of reading journal and discussion forum with other readers, while others are hoping it can become a hobby that pays for itself ,or even more, a career that allows for the end of the dreaded day job. Some reviewers think a reprint of the book blurb and a couple of lines of reaction constitute a review, while others take days and 2000 words to analyze a book. Some bloggers, especially those with a more visually creative bent, want to have complete technical control over every aspect of their blogs, while others are happy in the safe but limited environment of Blogger or WordPress.com. Some bloggers have been doing this for a decade and have a ”been there, done that” attitude about many topics that fascinate or mystify newbie bloggers. Those challenges aside, I do hope conference organizers continue to try to find a balance that works.
Back in the day, only certain bloggers got advance reader copies of forthcoming titles. I know that when I started blogging in 2008, I thought (probably not accurately) a blogger had to be very famous or influential to get ARCs. Then two things changed. First, digital books made distribution cheaper and easier. Second, there was a recognition by authors and publishers of the value of blogger reviews, especially for titles that don’t get reviewed in major media outlets. Netgalley launched in 2008 and Edelweiss (already well known among publishers for its e-catalogs) began offering e-galleys to bloggers soon after. I was on Netgalley for about a year (20011-12), and also accepted paper ARCs offered to me email by publicists during the time period I now refer to as “my failed experiment.”
Today, to get access to ARCs, you don’t even have to be a blogger. Different publishers have varied and often obscure criteria, but many people can get ARCs just on the basis of Twitter followers, Amazon reviews, and/or Goodreads friends. I think there is probably still a hierarchy among bloggers, especially in YA and SFF, related to access to highly-coveted ARCs (this has never been much of an issue in the romance community), but I’m guessing the greater access to ARCs has minimized the competition over them.
While old school bloggers still say there is a consensus that a new blogger should wait for six months to request an ARC, I personally don’t think this holds true anymore, at least not for e-ARCs (aka AREs). This has led to a lot of discussion over which comes first, the desire to blog or the desire for ARCs. In the old days I would see posts that referred to ARCs as a way to grow your blog. These days, the advice is as likely to be that blogs are a way to get ARCs. I think this is true for some genres more than others.
Another change related to ARCs is the 2009 FCC rule that bloggers disclose “freebies.” This was very controversial in book blog land, with many bloggers rejecting the idea that books are “freebies.”
I don’t see ARCs alone as affecting the practice of book blogging very much, at least in the romance community, in the last five years. Some bloggers admit that they seek ARCs for their own ego boost, for the goodies that come with the books, and to be “first”. I wouldn’t put any of those on my personal list of blogging goals. But I’m not even sure the availability of ARCs has encouraged more “sham blogs” since anyone with enough Twitter followers or Goodreads friends can get at least some e-ARCs. I do think their wide availability has led to the crystallization of some new norms in the community, such as not selling them on eBay, not posting reviews too early, and trying to avoid spoilers on Twitter, which of course, like any norms, some people ignore. I see ARCs as just one subset of a larger trend I would describe as the professionalization of blogging. and I *do* think that larger trend has had an impact on blogs. I’ll have more to say about that in a later post.
From what I have seen, disclosure has not been burdensome to bloggers. Mommy bloggers have to disclose every free product from a pair of sport socks to a jar of baby food. I realize that book reviewing is a vaunted practice, an art form, related to another art form, the novel, and that reading and discussing books is vital to democracy, to community, indeed, to our very humanity. But publishing is also a business and books are also a product, and viewed from that perspective, disclosure is not a problem for me.
One of the biggest changes in book blogging is not related directly to the book blog: it’s the increasing importance to book blogging of non-blog platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr (ok, that last is “micro-blogging”). And even Goodreads and Amazon. Back when I started blogging, RSS readers were still a mystery to many people. It seemed like a giant leap to be able to read all your favorite blogs in one space.
Just a few years later, the feed reader is practically antique. More and more, bloggers are spreading their content and presence across multiple platforms. Reviews, or links to reviews, can be posted in several places, allowing the blogger to go where the readers are instead of asking the reader to come to her blog.
The evolution of the Twitter widget is a good example of how integrated these platforms are with blogging today. Back in the day, it was a feat just to get a “Follow Me on Twitter” icon with a link to your Twitter account placed on your blog sidebar. Then, we had the widget that actually showed your recent tweets. Now, blog readers can actually go into the Twitter widget and tweet from the blog itself (just look on the right side of this page).
I used to think Twitter was one factor in the oft-noted diminishing blog comment threads, and I do still believe that. But these days I view RTs and Twitter replies as just a different way of interacting with a blog post.
Facebook is another platform bloggers are using more and more. I think in the romance world, authors were kind of out in front on this one. But in recent years, I have seen romance blogs really utilizing Facebook to connect with readers. I have no idea how they manage to be in all of these places all of the time, although I know there is integration between services such as Twitter and Facebook, or Goodreads and Facebook, or Amazon and Twitter, such that a post to one shows up on the others automatically.
Several bloggers have tried out newsletters (another way the bloggers are following an author innovation) and a couple have podcasts. I do not recall anyone, at least in romance, doing these in 2008. Vlogs, on the other hand, have not been embraced at all by book bloggers, except for some in the YA crowd.
This cross-platform thing makes it harder to figure out a particular blog’s influence or reach, and I have been astounded on more than one occasion to see that some romance blog I have never heard of has 20,000 FB followers. I also think that, unlike blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads are spaces which also serve as author platforms, and this has led to more interactions and sometimes greater opportunity for disagreements between readers and authors over reviews. Sure, authors advertise on many blogs, but the ad is clearly delineated from the blog post. An author is unlikely to come to your blog and take aim at your critical review (although, as we know, anything can happen), but she’s somewhat more likely to feel comfortable dissing it on Twitter or responding to it on Goodreads, or complaining about it to her FB fans, which are, after all, her spaces too. On the other hand, some really great blog posts come of reader-author interaction on all these platforms, too.
I don’t use Tumblr, Goodreads, or Facebook, so my experience here is limited. But I adore Twitter, and absolutely think it has allowed me to have wonderful exchanges with many fellow bloggers, authors, and, most importantly, readers who might never start a blog or ever comment on my blog posts. The idea that whenever I want to, I can dip into the Twitter stream and talk about books is addictive. My sense is that Goodreads has been particularly valuable for avid readers who want to talk books but don’t want to start their own blogs.
On the downside, the comment sections of blogs now have to compete with all these other forms of reaction and response. And the fact that there are so many new platforms means not just duplicated content, but even more new content, with the result that people barely have time to skim the title, let alone read the post, let alone write a considered response. I know I feel much more scattered and overwhelmed and I attribute a lot of it to all of these different places to go and look for content and conversation. That said, on balance, I like the idea of taking the content to the reader, wherever she may be.
4. The rise of the sponsored blog
As I type this, most of the major romance publishers offer some kind of venue for readers, typically reader-bloggers, to write about books. That was not true in 2007. Macmillan has been the most thorough on this front. Tor.com was the first publisher I knew of to host a blog, beginning in December 2008, and to pay contributors. A couple of years later, Heroes & Heartbreakers launched (I contributed three posts in 2011), focusing on romance, and then came Criminal Element. Avon has started syndicating Avon-related blog content on its site (you sign up if you want them to republish your stuff. Leading romance blogs like Dear Author, Fiction Vixen, Smexy Books and Book Binge all syndicate content at Avon). Strangely enough, the leader in publishing romance, Harlequin, only allows authors to blog at its site (although it has a community forum area for readers to discus books).
Booksellers also got into the act. In 2009, Borders set up its True Romance Blog, launched by Sue Grimshaw with the help of the a couple of established bloggers. Grimshaw eventually left the ailing Borders and wound up at Random House, which launched Romance at Random in 2011. Back in 2009 Barnes & Noble started several blogs, including Heart to Heart with former Romanceland denizen Michelle Buonfiglio.
USA Today launched a romance blog in 2011, Happy Ever After, which like most of the other mentioned, hosts both authors, bloggers, and “regular” readers.
These sponsored blogs tend to stick to the tried and true: cover reveals, contests, excerpts, book reviews, TV show recaps, favorites tropes, best of lists, etc. They aren’t particularly edgy or controversial but the content is usually knowledgeable, well-written and well-edited. Despite this, I personally rarely read any of them, unless a friend is posting at H&H. The tone of the posts tends to range from upbeat to relentlessly cheery. I usually get a more authentic feel for a writer’s voice in her own abode.
Has this new kind of blog affected book blogging as a whole? They give folks who don’t want the hassle of hosting their own blogs a voice, and that’s often a good thing. The ones that pay (last I checked it was $20 a post for Macmillan blogs) also do an important service in recognizing that this work — so often women’s work, when it comes to romance blogging — is a skill worth paying for. But as far as I can tell, they haven’t really affected the way blogging happens, and they haven’t really become leaders in content or style.
That concludes part one of my scattered observations on changes in book blogging in the past five years. I know my perspective is just that — *my* perspective. So feel free to correct my “facts” or disagree with me, and stay tuned for part 2!