Earlier this month, Simon & Schuster literally rolled out a red carpet for 29 influential writers. If they had business cards, they did not say “The New York Times.” Instead, these scribes came from publications with names like glamamom.com, mommypoppins.com, mommyologist.com, and macaronikid.com.
Meet the new word-of-mouth publishing powerhouses: mom bloggers who share their online personal journals about motherhood. They post their thoughts and help sell books. And publishers are enthusiastically reaching out to them.
At its much-tweeted-about October 12 event, Simon & Schuster hosted 29 of these mom bloggers at a luncheon featuring Doreen Cronin and Laura Cornell, who together created this fall’s M.O.M. (Mom Operating Manual). Ten of the bloggers’ kids came, too. The writers listened to a PowerPoint presentation from Cronin and Cornell and got bags stuffed with books. “I don’t gush about every event,” says Randomhandprints.com blogger Anna Sandler, mother of kids ages two, five, and eight, and the raffle winner of a signed limited-edition piece of art from William Joyce’s The Man in the Moon. “[But] I did actually witness a child complaining about having to leave.”
Increasingly, publishers are realizing that mom (and dad and aunty) bloggers build buzz. “It’s the immeasurable word of mouth—the same that would be spreading on a playground,” says Jennifer Roberts, executive director of marketing, publicity, and events at Candlewick. Even mainstream publications—from the Wall Street Journal, with The Juggle to the New York Times, with Motherlode—recognize that clout. “That so many very heavy-hitting publications have their own mommy blogs shows how wide and important that stretch is,” Roberts says.
Unlike traditional critics, mom bloggers typically don’t care about the literary merits of a story or the history of an author’s body of work. They simply say why they (and their kids) like a book. “Teens listen to other teens. Mothers listen to other mothers,” says Lucille Rettino, director of marketing for Simon & Schuster’s children’s publishing group. “That’s why mommy bloggers have become so influential.”
Publishers see their relationships with mom bloggers as win-win. “For us, especially with fewer and fewer places for us to be able to sell picture books in terms of bricks-and-mortar, we really need to look to other sources,” says Rettino.
And as publishers increasingly turn to social media and the Internet to promote their titles, they see the merits of courting mom bloggers. “We’re a digital publishing company, and they’re digital natives,” says Rick Richter, CEO of Ruckus Media Group, which develops original apps for kids to use on mobile devices. He is careful to respectfully call them “mom bloggers” rather than “mommy bloggers,” a term many of them view as derogatory. “You may be working out of your spare bedroom, but you have a lot of influence,” he says.
Publishers are also discovering talent through blogs. On January 3, HarperCollins’s Balzer + Bray imprint is publishing Adele Enerson’s When My Baby Dreams. Her agent found her on Facebook after a friend from high school posted a link to one of her images. Alessandra Balzer, v-p and co-publisher of Balzer + Bray, describes the photos by Enerson—who only started blogging in May 2010, after the birth of her first baby, Mila—as warm and whimsical, with a DIY element.
And of course, Ree Drummond (aka The Pioneer Woman) became a blogging sensation, then author of The Pioneer Woman Cooks, and then author of the bestselling picture book Charlie the Ranch Dog. When she blogged about how she wrote the story, she got more than 800 comments. Kate Jackson, senior v-p, associate publisher, and editor-in-chief of HarperCollins Children’s Books, found Drummond’s blog, and the two decided the family’s colorful pooch would make an ideal picture book star. “I’m always looking everywhere I can think of for new great picture book characters,” says Jackson.
Jackson “dips into” at least five or 10 blogs (and not always the same ones) every day, she says. (Some of her favorites: ScaryMommy.com, ExtraordinaryMommy.com, TheBigMamaBlog.com, BooMama.net). She often learns about new blogs from links on the sites of her favorite writers, such as Drummond. “Your antenna is always up,” she says. “Where is the next great children’s book coming from?”
The mom bloggers know that, at least collectively, they carry clout. “Not only are we influencing people who are buying books but also other editors from magazines or TV shows who feature the books on their shows,” says Liz Gumbinner, publisher and editor-in-chief of CoolMomPicks.com. “We’re kind of like the influencers of the influencers.”
Unlike most mainstream publications, mom bloggers tend to be open-minded about self-published titles. In April, CoolMomPicks.com raved about a self-published Passover book called My Haggadah: Made It Myself by Francine Hermelin Levite, saying, “It’s an interactive journey through the story of Passover, ...with a smart, fun tone that never gets silly or patronizing.” Many say they love to champion what they see as hidden treasures. CoolMomPicks.com loved Maria van Lieshout’s Bloom: A Little Book About Finding Love, a Feiwel and Friends title about a pig who finds true romance. “It’s the kind of book that they’re not putting a million-dollar marketing budget behind,” says Gumbinner, who received a thank you note from the author.
Last year the New York Times ran a story with the headline, “Honey, Don’t Bother Mommy. I’m Too Busy Building My Brand.” Mom bloggers hated it, largely because most of them consider blogging a labor of love and earn less than $100 a month—usually just from being in the Amazon or Barnes & Noble “affiliates” programs. (Amazon says affiliates can get up to 15% of the price of items sold through links on their sites, though bloggers say it’s typically more like 4% or 5%. B&N gives affiliates 6% of the price.) Allison McDonald says she makes $30 to $70 a month from the Amazon affiliate program—a small amount considering that her notimeforflashcards.com blog boasts more than 10,000 “likes” on Facebook and gets about 2,000 visitors a day. Many more people click on her links than actually buy the book. When she wrote about “five books I’d save in a fire,” 29 people clicked on Apples, Apples, Apples—but just one purchased it from Amazon.
Given their modest profits from the affiliates’ programs, most mom bloggers hold other day jobs. Gumbinner is a creative director for an ad agency. Amy Kraft, who blogs for Geek Mom and as mediamacaroni.com, is a media producer for kids’ interactive products like apps. Holly Fink, who blogs as theculturemom.com, handles social media for Ruckus Media Group. Jen Robinson, who writes the Growing Bookworms newsletter, holds a Ph.D. in industrial engineering and co-owns a small software company. Jonathan Liu, who blogs for the Wired-affiliated GeekDad, is a stay-at-home father who believes strongly in the role of the parent as book reviewer. Unlike reviews on places like Amazon, bloggers tend to give more in-depth reviews and to write in a more “consistent voice,” says Liu. Like many other bloggers, he actively reaches out to his readers, tweeting new posts, using Facebook, and sending out e-newsletters. Robinson boasts 1,500 subscribers to her newsletter, which she sends out every two weeks, and 3,200 Twitter followers. (She tweets daily.)
A sizable number of writers consider themselves children’s book bloggers who happen to be moms—rather than “mom bloggers.” Robinson, for example, started blogging nearly six years ago—but had her first child just 18 months ago. According to Fuse8 blogger and librarian Betsy Bird, a first-time mom with a four-month-old daughter, mom bloggers are “moms first and they’re into books second.” They also often offer giveaways and enjoy commenting on each other’s sites. “On a mom blog, it really is understood that the conversation is half the fun,” says Bird. The main mom blog she reads: Crooked House. “She’s a great writer. She’s also very funny,” she says. But she notes that the “ultimate mom blogger” is the actress Gwyneth Paltrow.
Many mom blogs, such as 5minutesformom.com, offer giveaways along with reviews and occasional author interviews (though those are not particularly popular). “A mom blogger is a reviewer,” says Richter. “General interest stories are generally not going to be picked up as much.” Candlewick, which reaches out to about 450 mom (and dad) bloggers, offers them review copies and reader prize packs.
But the proliferation of mom bloggers doesn’t mean that old-fashioned methods of finding books have gone out the window. Francine Lucidon of the Voracious Reader in Larchmont, N.Y., says no one has ever come into her store searching for a blogger-recommended title. Instead, she notes, they say, “Here’s my very specific child. What do you have that’s right for them?”
It remains to be seen what will happen to the current crop of mom bloggers—and their book-selling power—as their children age. After all, once kids are older than 10, mom loses influence. “Teens aren’t taking a hell of a lot of advice from their moms—or dads,” says Richter.
But mothers of younger kids definitely take advice from their peers—mom bloggers. So publishers are coming up with new ways to reach these influential writers. Next month Scholastic will bus 10 of them from New York City to the Connecticut studio of I Spy photographer Walter Wick, who just came out with Toyland Express, the latest installment in his Can You See What I See? series. “Instead of a mom telling six people in her neighborhood about a book, she’s telling 600 people,” says Tracy van Straaten, v-p of trade book publicity at Scholastic.
NPR and New York Times stories will never lose their luster—but they’re no longer the only show in town. For advice, moms turn to their peers. After all, mother knows best.