Social commentator Ellen Goodman said writing a newspaper column is like being married to a nymphomaniac: “The first two weeks, it's fun.” If that's true, being a blogger is like going to a never-ending orgy. It can take more stamina, or so I learned when I created One-Minute Book Reviews after 11 years as the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.
Like Meg Ryan logging onto AOL in You've Got Mail, I had no idea what I was getting into in late 2006 when I launched a site that this year had its first day with more than 10,000 visitors. I had planned to post occasional reviews whenever I found books that seemed over- or underappreciated. But within six weeks, One-Minute Book Reviews had become one of WordPress's 10 fastest-growing blogs—the result of a National Book Critics Circle director linking to one of my posts from the NBCC site, which set in motion a cascade of attention.
I knew that if I stuck to my plan of sporadic blogging, I'd lose the traffic. And because newspapers were beginning to make the book review cuts that went into high gear in 2008, I thought people might be looking for new sources of reviews. So I stumbled into more-or-less daily blogging. Among the things I've learned from it:
Critics don't need all those free books. At the Plain Dealer, I got more than 400 books a week from publishers, a landslide hard to handle even with another person helping me. So from the start I've had a policy of not accepting books or galleys for my blog from publishers. How can you run a book review site that way? It's easy if you live near a good public library that can get you any new book in a few days on interlibrary loan. The trick is to keep up with what's coming out through sources like PW and IndieBound, and then be the first to reserve a book at the library. If you request a title before anyone else does, you can review some books before newspapers do.
Short is tall in online reviewing. I knew before launching my site that research had shown people have more trouble retaining what they read when online content extends more than a screen or two. So I decided to write mostly short reviews that you could read in about a minute. I've found that visitors never penalize you for brevity: some of my most popular posts have consisted of just a few sentences.
Adding value helps to sustain growth. The average blog lasts less than three months, a study by Gartner Consulting found. Why do so many bloggers fade? Perhaps partly because a blog needs unique and continually refreshed content. And many bloggers—particularly literary ones—don't realize that unless you have a platform or a ready-made following, unique opinions alone won't usually sustain growth. You need to add value by giving people more than your thoughts on a new bestseller. I learned this quickly and began to offer more than just book reviews. For three years, I've given out Delete Key Awards for the year's worst writing in books. I also offer free original reading group guides I write myself that book clubs can use instead of or in addition to publishers' guides. And after posting full-length reviews, I condense them into a sentence for readers who have too little time to read a page or two.
You're going to miss those copy editors when they're gone. There used to be debates about whether bloggers should ever change posted content or should publish corrections instead. My response to the corrections-for-everything camp was: Are you crazy? I called the public library the “pubic library” in a post I put up bleary-eyed at 2 a.m., and I'm not supposed to change it immediately? I fix problems right away and add notes about substantive changes. Even so, I wish I didn't have to fix them at all. Copy editors, I miss you.
Despite their differences, blogs and newspaper book sections have a hair-raising similarity: you can't assume that any of them will be here tomorrow. All the recent upheavals in publishing have made clear that many literary blogs may go the way of hot type. So I'm not taking chances. Besides posting on my blog, I've begun also to distill some of my views into 140 characters or fewer. Welcome to my orgy, Twitter.
|Janice Harayda writes the One-Minute Book Reviews blog at http://oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com.