Thirteen years ago, Carol Fitzgerald decided she was tired of reading a book, loving it, getting to the back flap and learning where the author lived and how many children or pets she had—but not why she wrote the book. Fitzgerald could go online to find the information, but the Internet was a different place in 1996. There was no Google, no YouTube, no Facebook, Twitter or Wikipedia. Amazon had just launched, but finding book reviews, in-depth author profiles and interviews, and excerpts of new books required digging—and there wasn't one place that collected all that information. Fitzgerald, who had spent 17 years in marketing and promotion at Mademoiselle, wanted to create such a resource.
Despite the need for what became Bookreporter.com, Fitzgerald and her business partner, Jesse Kornbluth, had to convince publishers of the idea's viability. “They didn't really know what the Internet was,” Fitzgerald, founder and president, says. “Most publishers didn't have e-mail. We would go to somebody's office and gather around the one computer that had Internet access. People were trying to find out if the Internet was going to work or if it was a fad.” Nevertheless, Bookreporter.com launched on AOL on August 27, 1996.
Bookreporter.com received an early boost from Doubleday when it offered the site the first interview with John Grisham for The Partner. Fitzgerald wasn't discouraged by publishers' initial skepticism. “[We realized we needed to] do it first and then ask everybody to support it. It's important to prove yourself before you ask people to spend money,” she notes. As Bookreporter.com created spinoff Web sites for books for kids and teens, more publishers began approaching Fitzgerald to help them promote their books. Bookreporter.com built its first book Web site, for The Witch's Daughter (The Blair Witch Files, Case File 1) in 2000. It went on to build 40 sites for HarperCollins over the next two years and has since created more than 200 Web sites for authors and books under its Authors on the Web initiative, which also offers Internet marketing services.
As the Internet has grown—offering countless options on book recommendations and information—so, too, has Bookreporter.com. In addition to Bookreporter.com and AuthorsontheWeb.com, the Network has six other sites: ReadingGroupGuides.com (which collates reading group guides from various publishers; publishers pay to have their guides included), AuthorYellowPages.com (a searchable directory of author sites; authors pay to be listed) and the subject-specific sites FaithfulReader.com (Christian-themed books), Teenreads.com (ages 12—17), Kidsreads.com (ages 6—12) and GraphicNovelReporter.com, which launched late last year. The Book Report Network has 13 full-time employees and two part-timers, and its network of editorial Web sites draws 1.6 million unique visitors each month.
As publishers search for ways to use the Internet to connect with readers, Fitzgerald believes her company is well positioned to help make that connection. “I feel very strongly right now that readers are so important for trying to sell books. As much as stores continue to be important, and librarians continue to be important, and educators continue to be important, readers also can be fabulous creators of trying to make a book a success.” She points to The Help by Kathryn Stockett as a recent example of word-of-mouth influencing book sales. Putnam released the novel earlier this year (PW's starred review said it had “bestseller written all over it”), and Fitzgerald had “written/raved/obsessed about” it for two months leading up to the book's publication. According to Putnam, The Help has 466,000 copies in print, and a spokesperson for Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam said “hundreds” of book clubs have selected it.
The Book Report Network sites do not publish negative reviews. There are books its editors choose not to write about (“I can't get all gaga about some books, and I'm not going to fake it,” says Fitzgerald). Even advertising and sponsored features are vetted by BPN, and Fitzgerald won't run an ad for a book on any of her sites unless it has looked at the book “and feel like we like it and it has merit. It's a level of endorsement even if it's an ad on our site,” says Fitzgerald. She boils her philosophy down simply: “The readers are everything to us.”