This article is the first in an ongoing irregular series of articles on the joys and trials of book blogging. Future topics include a more in depth look at useful technology, the emotional effects of book blogging, and tips for working with authors and publishers.
- 1. Purchase a dedicated website address.
In my own history, I have had two web addresses. The first was hosted by a friend’s hosting agency and it was at otter.covblogs.com. When I first got the site, I was new to blogging, had no idea what I was doing or where I planned to take my blog so it served me just fine. But once my readership began to increase, it became clear that having a dedicated web address would be a good idea, though I still waffled about for some time, something I still regret.
Don’t make my mistake. Transfer was a bear, and some of my posts are still only partially transferred due to compatibility problems and I had to learn an almost entirely new Content Management System (CMS). This was time spent away from the important things, like reading, reviewing, and family – not necessarily in that order of course.
You already know you want to be a book blogger. If you are truly serious about it, the only way you are going to get the traffic you need is if you purchase a dedicated web address. It will cost a bit of cash, but it is an investment in your future. Like any business venture it carries the potential risk of loss, but purchasing a domain name is not excessively expensive and will be worth it in the end.
I recommend using the WordPress CMS with BlueHost, which is who I use. They are great, responsive to my questions, and don’t assume that I am a computer savvy – but neither do they treat me like an idiot.
- 2. Decide what you plan to review.
If you are planning on writing reviews – which should be your bread and butter –then you need to decide if you are going to focus on a specific genre or subgenre. I chose to be rather broad and I cover just about anything in the science fiction and fantasy category, though I avoid horror and read only select stories of the paranormal subgenre. Some bloggers, like Jeff at Fantasy Book News and Reviews, focus on epic fantasy and the eBook market, or you could be like Tia at Debuts and Reviews – who covers new authors breaking into the market, and whose reviews are primarily coverage of paranormal, romance, and some general fantasy. Aidan at A Dribble of Ink rarely even write reviews, but has found readership by always being on top of the latest goings on in the SF/F field and writing responsive essays to other’s ideas that are cogent and entertaining.
Whatever you decide, be clear on what you do and don’t read in your about page. If you can, set up a dedicated email address where authors and publishers interested in getting reviews can query you. I did not do this when I was starting out and now my personal emails are all jumbled up with my reviewing ones. I’ve gotten this to work for me over time, but I recommend that new book bloggers keep the two separate, as it gives you a differentiation between your second job (and it will be, if you are any good!) and your home life.
- 3. Stats matter, but only to a certain extent.
When first breaking into book blogging, your traffic stats are going to matter. For one, you are going to get excited every time you get a new reader. (I recommend using Google’s Feedburner to help you keep track of your subscribers – it’s free and easy to use.) You need that reminder that this is fun and worth doing. I still get a little thrill every time I see a jump in my readership. Stats are great for motivation, but obsession with them leads into dangerous territory and bad publicity practices.
Be sure to install a tracking plug-in onto your website like WordPress Stats or Google Analytics. There are lots of options out there, choose the one that tells you want you want to know. Pay attention to your stats; realize where the traffic is coming from. In the early days, be sure to go thank those who link to your posts. (This is good practice always, but as you get bigger, you will find you have less and less time to devote to this, even though you wish you could comment everywhere.)
Go look at what others are doing. Look at the big dogs and see what they are doing right. A word of caution – be sure that you are comparing apples to apples. Comparing a blog with a single author to a group blog like SF Signal (with its thousands of readers) or Fantasy Book Critic (with its thousands) is a waste of time and effort. You might be able to come away with some neat ideas on what you could do at your site, but there is no way a single author blog can compare to the sheer number of posts that those folks produce. Look at the single author or one or two author blogs that are more in your range. Obviously, I myself would be a comparable, and perhaps am some evidence of what four years of consistent blogging can bring you.
Ultimately though, stats are a tool. Too many new bloggers get so wrapped up in their stats they forget that no one but they actually care. Truth is, if you are producing interesting or original content – or at least finding and commenting on same – then people will read your blog for that, not because you have topped a certain number of subscribers. Letting people know with badges and such never hurts, but we are an internet generation now, and readers are becoming sophisticated and selective in their reading choices.
- 4. Publicize, publicize, publicize!
You are new to the book blogging game. The hard truth of that is that no one, absolutely no one, is going to find your blog by accident. It is only through using publicity that you are going to find readers. Make sure you add yourself to various blog aggregators. Sign up for services like Goodreads, Librarything, Facebook, Twitter, FriendFeed, etc. and integrate your blog posts into those feeds. Comment on other blogs in your field of interest regularly, and go join forums like SFFWorld or Westeros. Make sure your signature has your web address in it – if allowed by the forum. Join just about anything you can that will help automate your promotion, but at the same time be sure to participate in discussion and not just be a fly by night I-am-only-here-for-promotion-member. Read favorite author blogs regularly and add your commentary. Use Search Engine Optimization services on your self-hosted blog to increase your reach in Google and Bing. Whatever it takes, do it, but enjoy the community that such publicity efforts can bring as well. Some of my best internet friends have been made through joining in discussions on blogs and as a result, we link to one another fairly regularly and so only increase our reach.
- 5. Want to get books to review? Start with the authors.
One of the perks of book blogging is getting books for review. Lots of the more established blogs regularly publicize the books they have received in the mail (Rob of Rob’s Blog of Stuff even goes so far as to write reactions to what arrives each week). I am sure you are salivating at the idea of getting books sent to you. But just hold your horses. Though publishers are generous people when it comes to publicity, you need to do a couple of things first to build an identity and a brand.
First, build a small library of reviews. You don’t need a lot, but start with books you have read recently, bought and plan to read, are favorites, or that exist in your home library. Get some reviews out there, spend some time arriving at your style (this is fluid and will always change – but it is a good idea to think about layout etc. so that readers have a sense of consistency) and developing a voice that may be similar to others but is also uniquely your own. If you look at my Year of Reading 2007, every review on there up until September is books that I purchased and reviewed. I had, at this point, been consistently writing reviews for a year and a half. There are some quite successful bloggers who still refuse to take publisher copies, preferring to buy and read books of their choice so as not to bear the burden of obligation toward the publisher. This may be something worth thinking about, especially if you are doing this solely as a hobby and occasional creative outlet.
Once that is done, start small. Don’t contact publishers just yet. Start with authors, and be willing to read some self-published or small press books. No one needs the promotion more and as long as you are honest, the true professionals will treat you just fine and accept your review whether good or bad. I started out by contacting authors and getting them to send me one of their publisher copies of books for review. They usually have a few left over after handing out copies to family and friends and are often happy and excited to send them to you in exchange for review. Up until quite recently, I was still doing this with authors writing in Wizards of the Coast’s Forgotten Realms mythos. It was the only way to get a copy for review without buying it myself -something I also did on more than one occasion because I felt a certain book needed a review and the author was out of contact or I felt that s/he deserved the royalties.
Be sure to follow an author’s contact policy, if they have one. You will also have more success in getting volumes sent to you if you work with so-called “midlist” writers initially. One of the first authors to ever send me a book was Jim C. Hines whose work (so far) only comes out in mass market paperback form (though I think DAW needs to give him a larger format) and so he fits into that category. Taking me at my word that I was a reputable book blogger, he sent me a copy of Goblin Hero which I promptly read and reviewed. Others who took a chance on me in those early days include people like Bruce Cordell, Paul S. Kemp, E. E. Knight, Karen Miller, Brian Ruckley, Tobias Buckell, Carole McDonnell, Nathalie Mallet, John Joseph Adams, Orbit Books and DAW. All of whom I heartily thank for their risk-taking. I hope it paid off.
If you accept author copies, be timely in writing your reviews. An author has sent one of their special copies at their own expense and the very least they deserve is a timely and thoughtful review. You are taking on significant responsibility if you are planning to write reviews and you should always be aware of the burden you bear.
Book blogging is a rewarding hobby/second job. There is nothing I love more than coming home to a recently received book awaiting a review. Publishers and authors have been kind to me throughout the years and I have found myself in a rewarding venture that I won’t quit anytime soon. You too can have that same feeling of accomplishment with hard work, determination, and a dose of imagination.