The blogosphere seemed vast in 2010 when young adult author Maureen Johnson gave the keynote at the first-ever Book Bloggers Conference, observing that, “with so many blogs, publishers don’t know what to make of all the noise.” Four years later, as she once again prepares to take the stage at what’s now known as the BEA Bloggers Conference, there are countless more blogs, more channels, and, by extension, more noise. The difference may be that it now sounds more like a conversation.
"Readers have expectations now and they are clearly voiced,” says Johnson, who speaks on Wednesday, May 28, at the Javits Center. “Anyone can participate, and everyone does.” She sees a shift in blogger book coverage, away from straightforward reviews on single sites and toward discussions that begin with a new release but quickly divert into real-time political, societal, and cultural dialogue. “Authors are calling out other authors, saying, ‘Why haven’t you responded to this?’ “ she says. “There’s more conversation, more pushback… it’s exciting and overwhelming.”
Last May, Johnson tweeted, “I do wish I had a dime for every email I get that says, ‘Please put a non-girly cover on your book so I can read it—signed, A Guy,’ “ and then challenged her followers to reimagine well-known books “reclassified as by and for women.” The contest, dubbed #Coverflip, inspired hundreds of entries, thousands of Tweets, and wide press coverage both here and in the U.K.
Today, most book bloggers don’t live on blogs alone. “We now talk about the complete social media footprint of something in the educator space, the consumer space, the author space, the bookseller space”,” says Tracy van Straaten, vice-president of trade book publicity at Scholastic. “The collective conversation is immensely important.”
Many spend just as much time on social media, using the networks to tease their own writing and tip their hats to colleagues. “I’m almost entirely on Twitter and Tumblr,” says Johnson. “I don’t have to go anywhere, the stories just float up to the surface.”
The lines between writing for love and writing for money have blurred. For example, Maud Newton, well-known for her eponymous blog, wrote the cover story for the current issue of Harper’s and contributes regularly to in the New York Times Magazine, among others, and Carolyn Kellogg, formerly of the blog and podcast Pinky’s Paper Haus, is now a staff writer covering books and publishing at the L.A. Times. Craft- and food stylist–turned–blogger Paul Lowe, who launched the quarterly print edition of Sweet Paul Magazine in 2009 (which is now stocked by the retailer Anthropologie) published his first cookbook with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt earlier this month.
“Many writers with distinctive voices have gone on to pursue paid bylines, and shifted daily reflections to social media,” says independent publicist Lauren Cerand. “I still think of a blog, as distinguished from a digital outlet with staff and significant resources, as any passion project that is regularly updated.”
Whether a well-established website or a grassroots blog, digital brands are being engaged by publishers. “As much as we love coverage on the site, bloggers’ social media reach is just as important or even more important,” says Ecco Press marketing manager Ben Tomek. The HarperCollins imprint maintains a list of close to 200 outlets—everything from emerging voices to online literary magazines like The Millions and Electric Literature, which each have Twitter followings around 175,000. “I like to reach out to this group just as much as I do our superstar booksellers,” he says. “They are superstar booksellers.”
Approaches range from author “blog book tours” to giveaways to other exclusives: “More publishers are open to sharing content—excerpts and modified pieces from books—that bloggers are able to feature,” says Jeremy Wang-Iverson at Oxford University Press. “While the difficult question is exactly how it leads to sales, the first step is to generate a certain kind of enthusiasm.”
The arrival of advance reading copies of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Goldfinch last year primed the social media pump, says Miriam Parker, online marketing director at Little, Brown: “We saw the ‘galley brag’ thing started to happen right away.” Close to a year later, The Goldfinch is still part of the conversation.
Launch parties can also broaden a publisher’s audience, both in person and online, says Ecco’s Tomek, who cites Electric Literature-sponsored events as an example: “They plug into a young, urban, literary culture [through] a lot of different entry points.”
One of Stewart, Tabori & Chang’s key publicity strategies around new cookbooks is inviting bloggers to in-person media events that feature an author appearance and food samples, says Abrams director of publicity and brand strategy Claire Bamundo. “We get some nice tweets about the event, and we can often secure large features online as well as plant seeds for larger thoughts in future holiday issues,” she says. “In this frenetically paced world, it’s more important than ever to introduce author experts, who [the bloggers] know are dependable and available in a moment’s notice.”
The definition of a go-to blogger depends not just on the publisher but on the particular book, audience, news cycle and more—as is illustrated in the list of publicists’ selections below. “Sometimes people forget that there is a world of blogs out there—people blogging just about water, or about eggs,” says Parker. For the launch of Dr. Mark Hyman’s The Blood Sugar Solution 10-Day Detox Diet earlier this year, they enlisted what she calls a “wide swath” of bloggers (including those at Mom Central, Fit Journey, and The Blender Girl) in a pre-publication beta test.
“Accessibility to authors and the community has dramatically changed the picture of reading,” says Johnson, who, in addition to her BEA Bloggers Conference keynote, will take part in a panel called “The Worst Social Media Advice Ever.”
“We don’t really just sit by ourselves and read anymore,” says Johnson.
The Go-To Bloggers
Who: Duke Ph.D. student Ainehi Edoro, who is studying African novels.
About: “Brittle Paper is a literary blog that captures the contemporary African literary scene,” says Edoro. “It features topical and provocative essays on African literature, news, book reviews, original works of fiction, including a bit of African literary celebrity lifestyle.”
Why: The site immediately struck me as an essential source of news about new work by writers of color outside of the United States that I wasn’t getting anywhere else,” says Lauren Cerand. “I am a devoted fan.”
Who: San Jose, Calif.–based food writer Cheryl Sternman Rule, author of Ripe: A Fresh, Colorful Approach to Fruits and Vegetables.
About: “5 Second Rule captures small snippets of everyday life, weaves them into relatable stories, and funnels them through a wide food lens,” says Sternman Rule. “I begin with the personal but strive for universal resonance and frequently change up the style and tone of posts to keep my readers engaged.”
Why: “Cheryl has been a supporter since 2009, when she reviewed our New American Olive Oil book, and it’s been wonderful to see her career blossom,” says Claire Bamundo at Stewart, Tabori & Chang. “She is still one of the most interesting voices out there.”
Who: George Mason University economics professors Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, who are also coauthors of the textbook, Modern Principles of Economics.
About: A general-interest economics blog that also covers current affairs, politics, and even television, among other topics, under the header “Small steps toward a much better world.”
Why: “A mention on the blog and you can see a sales spike on Amazon, and [Cowen] will often cover books outside his discipline of economics,” says Jeremy Wang-Iverson at Oxford University Press. “He plugged Daniel Drezner’s new book, The System Worked, when it was in galleys; his quote is on the jacket.”
Who: Nicole Cliffe, formerly books editor for the Awl Network’s women’s site, The Hairpin, and frequent Hairpin contributor Mallory Ortberg, author of Texts from Jane Eyre: And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters, which Henry Holt & Co. will publish in November.
About: Says Cliffe: “The Toast is a humor site with a heavy focus on literary, pop culture, and general nerdy content for a primarily female audience aged 18–35.”
Why: “They’re doing some of the most hilarious commentary on books right now,” says Maureen Johnson, who’s especially fond of Ortberg’s parody, “Dirtbag Little Women.”
Who: Alice Burton, a Chicago-based English lit fan whose other gig is “the delightful audition-a-billion-times stage of being an opera singer.”
About: “A GIF-filled romp through the forests of contemporary and 19th-century literature,” says Burton. It also includes accounts of book signings, in which she asks the author to write in his or her favorite word and then posts the photographic evidence.
Why: Alice’s writing [is] smart, funny, honest, and passionate, nothing canned or lazy about it,” says Meghan Deans, online marketing manager at Little, Brown, who discovered the blog at the end of a long day of research. “When she loves something, you want to love it along with her.”
Who: John Schu is a elementary school librarian, a part of the 2014 Newberry Committee, and an active member of the Nerdy Book Club, a children’s book blog populated by authors, librarians, teachers, and fans.
About: What started as a compendium for children’s book trailers has expanded into what Schu calls “a positive space that highlights book trailers, authors, literacy celebrations, and the best new children’s books.”
Why: His coverage of Chronicle’s Caldecott Award–winning picture book, Flora and the Flamingo, “made a huge impact in our community of people who are very active in children’s books,” says Lara Starr at Chronicle Books. It included an author interview, a book trailer, a giveaway, and coverage on both the Nerdy Bookclub and other partner blogs.
Who: Jen Karsbaek, a Chicago-based literary agent and freelance writer.
About: “I mostly write about women’s fiction, historical fiction, and upmarket/literary fiction,” says Karsbaek, “but occasionally also some mysteries, thrillers, or science fiction and fantasy, especially if we are talking audiobooks—which I do frequently.”
Why: “Jen does a great job creating conversation on social media with authors and writers and publishers beyond the reviews on her blog,” says Simon & Schuster marketing manager Andrea DeWerd. “I hope that she’s someone who might be interested in the speculative fiction program at Simon451 and in helping us create online buzz about our fall list.”
Who: Amy Valentini, an aspiring romance writer and original member of the Avon Addicts, a brand-selected group of bloggers and “super readers” who, for six months, receive free books for review and invitations to Avon-hosted events.
About: Cover reveals, reviews, and author interviews. “Everyone loves and deserves a happily-ever-after,” says Valentini.
Why: Avon’s Spengler-Jaffee calls her the self-appointed “mom” of the Addicts: “She tends to organize the entire group into a cohesive corps on our behalf,” says Avon’s Spengler-Jaffee. “Perhaps it’s that sense of self-directed passion for books that makes her have such great reach, as so much of a blogger-reader’s influence grows via social reach and amplification.”