My totally subjective and anecdotal impressions of how book blogging has changed over the past few years. My views are formed from my own blogging experience and my observations of blogs I read, mainly genre fiction blogs, especially romance, but also some SFF, YA, and general fiction blogs.
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.
[Once I began writing this, I realized it's too long for one post. In Part One, I discuss awards and contests, ARCs, cross-platform blogging, and sponsored blogs.]
Here is another set of opinions, mostly having to do with content. I spent a decent amount of time looking at older blogs that have been around 5-10 years, and to my surprise, I found the content, especially when it comes to reviews, hasn’t changed much.
It always amazes me that the book blog review format is so uniform. The vast majority of reviews begin with the book cover and a blurb or summary (some reviewers specify publisher, year of publication, etc.), followed by the blogger’s opinion of the book. Looking beyond that relatively fixed form, reviews can be long or short, more analytical or more focused on the reviewer’s own feelings. Reviews, especially in romance, often focus on the characters and whether their actions and motivations are believable or sympathetic. Reviewers often talk about characters as if they were real people (I am one of these). A smaller group of reviewers, many of them either trained in literature or students of the craft, spend more time on language and structure. But despite these differences, I think someone who knew little about books or book blogging could learn to identify a review by being exposed to just a few.
There are, of course, outliers. For example, the conversational or dueling or joint review is a recognized alternate format.
I could not find any obvious differences in reviews posted 10 or 5 years ago and today. At first I thought today’s reviewers might write with more assurance and savvy, because the importance of online book blogs is more recognized. But I found that early book bloggers tended to be incredibly well versed in their genres, and started out with a tremendous amount of confidence. If anything, now that “everybody has a blog” (and, I, for one, started a romance book blog within months of discovering the genre), newer bloggers are more likely to write reviews in a tentative and less assured way.
There isn’t much open discussion of what counts as a review. In my opinion, it has to include more than a basic expression of approval or disapproval (“I liked it” “The hero was hot.”), but alas, I don’t get to march around the internet with my mallet of Stop Saying You’re a Review Site.
Many reviewers use a grading system. The most common is letters or numbers. Sometimes bloggers use stand-ins for numbers, like teacups, roses, books, pairs of pants, ice cream scoops, etc. Other reviewers eschew grades, but offer a quick and dirty summary at the beginning or end of their review. With the rise of Amazon and Goodreads, there has been much discussion about what grades mean in different contexts, the most obvious case being the difference in what a 3 star review (“I liked it”) actually means. Especially given that some bloggers will downgrade a book on factors not related to the book itself (for example, author’s online behavior, price of book, etc.), most bloggers recognize that what a reviewer means by a grade or rating is so subjective as to be almost worthless without some text explaining the grade.
When I started this post, I planned to say something about the decline of the snarky review. I also planned to say something — separately — about the rise of the visual review post, i.e. the GIF-laden reviews that populate Goodreads. But then I realized that GIF-laden reviews are typically snarky reviews. So snarky reviews haven’t gone away, they’ve just migrated formats.
Also, snarky reviews just don’t stand out as much as they once did because no one is shocked by them, and so while they are still around, they just aren’t as noticeable.
I do think there is less snark overall, though. And so here’s another theory (I am now up to three in this bullet alone!). One thing snarky reviews rely on is a strong authorial voice (because the snarky review, more than most others, relies on a funny description of the reviewer’s reaction to the book to be effective), and as more and more blogs publish more reviews by more contributors, we are less likely to get that strong reviewer’s voice in the review.
My fourth and final theory on the decline of snark is that like any writing style, people have gotten tired of it.
4. Sexy times
It’s no surprise to me that two of the oldest romance review sites, All About Romance and The Romance Reader, signify a book’s level of sensuality in their reviews. At AAR, this used to be called the “blush factor”, which says something about how far the community has come in terms of its acceptance of sexuality (or of certain kinds of sexuality) in books. I think that in romance, as well as in other genres, like YA, the books have become sexier and more explicit and in many cases, so have the blogs, with pictures of “man candy”, sexy excerpts, etc. Some blogs even combine book reviewing with reviews of sex toys, free pornography, etc. But bloggers today, while they may mention the sex in the review, are less likely to view the heat level as so important that it needs to be singled out up front.
Arguably, the fact that, in the old days, sexier books could only be purchased in digital format from independent online publishers gave rise to book blogs. And vice versa, of course.
Also, m/m romance was, at one time, dominated by erotic story lines. The growing popularity of m/m romance is a piece in the puzzle when it comes to the embrace of sexier books by romance readers.
So, in sum, I would say the books are sexier and readers have a greater comfort level in discussing them on blogs.
5. Reading across genres
Another anecdotal impression: I sense that genre is less important than it once was, at least for romance bloggers. Romance bloggers will review YA, NA, SFF, and women’s fiction without apologizing for it or explaining it. I sense less willingness of non-romance bloggers to pepper their review roster with romance.
Although I realize that YA and NA don’t have to be romance or even have a romance subplot, romantic NA and YA, written by female authors for a female audience, tend to be what I see getting the hype, and I wonder if at least some of the marketing of those books is intended to sell romance to people who don’t think romance is cool.
6. Blogging across media
Was it always the case that book bloggers would blog TV shows and movies? Especially now that binge watching is possible (thanks Netflix!), posts on Veronica Mars, True Blood, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Switched At Birth are as likely to show up on a book blog as on a film or TV blog.
In addition to the internet changing viewing habits, I think in part this is the influence “geekdom” in general, and speculative fiction in particular. There’s a kind of cool vortex in which Neil Gaiman, Joss Whedon, Star Trek and the Marvel Universe –movies, books, TV, comics — are in a continuous swirl. It’s a model for following your interests across media.
7. Besides reviews
What are bloggers writing besides reviews and how has this changed? I feel that book bloggers are much less likely today to talk about their personal lives on their book blogs. Some book bloggers have separate blogs for that, or they just use Twitter or Facebook to talk about their new haircut or their kids’ grades (I know I do the latter). I think this is due to (a) the increased professionalization of blogging (the subject of part 3), and (2) the fragmentation that we are all experiencing in many aspects of life and especially on the internet.
The bigger and more established a blog or review site is, the more focused it is likely to be on books and book reviews. That said, there have always been non-review posts. And, in my nonscientific study of posts from 1998-2005, it looks like there are some topics that romance bloggers, at least, keep coming back to: strong heroines, unlikeable heroines, TSTL heroines, how alpha is too alpha?, the tortured hero, rape and forced seduction, double standards, sexuality in romance (and abortion, birth control, etc.), the reading slump, disability, race, sexual orientation in romance, historical accuracy, saving the mid-list author, breaking up with an author, the fate of specific authors, publishers, and subgenres, romance covers, the neverending series, etc.
Since the age of the digital book, there is more discussion of editing, formatting, back lists, price, and, of course, piracy, than ever before.
I also feel that, although political aspects have always been a part of the romance community, we are currently in a period of high interest in the political aspects of reading and writing fiction.
As the book blogging community has exploded, and as Goodreads, Twitter, and Facebook has thrown everyone together, there is more discussion of the community itself than ever before. Plagiarism by bloggers and authors, author incursions into reader spaces, civility among bloggers, ARCs, and other topics abound. Recently I have seen people complain that “we used to talk about books, and now we talk about talking about books.”
Another side effect of the growth of the book blogging community is the ubiquitous “links post.” (That sounded critical. I love links posts, actually.)
And finally, as the role of book bloggers in the marketing of books has grown, there are many, many more blog tours, author interviews, cover reveals, and giveaways than there were ten or even five years ago.
8. Blog versus website?
I think of a website as more comprehensive, although the line is not hard and fast. I also think of a website as bigger, in every way: content, contributors, traffic. My thought is that the difference doesn’t really matter, but if you don’t do blog tours, participate in memes, have a blog roll, or generally recognize you are part of a blogging community by linking to other bloggers, you are more likely to be a website.
9. The rise of the self-published book
A major change from the early days of book blogging is that reviewers are more likely than ever to read and review self-published books. I think romance blogs have always reviewed book from independent publishers (like Ellora’s Cave. This is connected to the erotic romance thing.), but the self-pub is a newer phenomenon. As recently as two or three years ago, I was blogging to the effect that I just wasn’t going to read self-published books. But in the past year, some of the best books I’ve read have been self-published. As more and more authors who are currently with traditional publishers choose to self-publish, as more and more established authors self-publish their backlist, as more and more self-published authors get contracts with traditional publishers, and as more savvy self-published authors hire those editors, copy-editors, and publicists who have been fired from or left jobs with traditional publishing houses, the distinction practically vanishes.
I have two comments on this: (1) self-publishing has not, in general, led to a renaissance in publishing, with more daring or experimental or genre busting books. The most popular self-published books, at least in the genres I read, tend to be pretty mainstream. (2) Bloggers and readers in general are even more important to self-published authors, so the rise in self-publishing has had the effect of enhancing the role of the book blog in the marketplace.
Ok, I’ll stop there on this one. I opined a lot. Please feel free to disagree with my opinions or correct me on my facts.