When Trish Collins gets done with her job working as an administrative assistant for Santa Rosa County, she might have dinner with her husband or take her poodle for a walk — but most other times she'll have her nose in a book. A soft-spoken redhead with a sweet smile, the 31-year-old Collins' love of reading led her to start blogging about books. And online, Collins has quietly emerged as one of the de facto leaders of the book blogging community, a community publishers are beginning to see as vital.
"As 'traditional' venues for book promotion shrink and online avenues open up, it's important for publishers to take all possible places that books can be reviewed seriously," says Miriam Parker, marketing director for Mulholland Books, a new imprint of Little, Brown. "They are a community of true readers and book lovers who maintain their sites for the sheer love of it. So if they get behind a particular author or title, readers, Googlers, other bloggers will feel the genuine enthusiasm."
Of course, people have been blogging about books since the first creaky blog software rolled out in 1999, but when a handful of bloggers formed the LitBlog Co-Op in 2005, only 20 were serious enough to make the grade. (I was later a member and the Co-Op has since disbanded.) The numbers have exploded: Today there are around 300 book blogs actively participating in an online community notable for its inclusiveness. The new world of book blogging is more book club than book criticism, warm and interconnected.
Bloggers collaborate on a wide variety of online book-related projects. These can include a challenge to simultaneously read a certain book, or for a 24-hour stretch. On a recent weekend, many took part in "Bloggiesta!," tackling a common to-do list to spruce up blog designs and social networking profiles. Sometimes this gives the community the feel of a quilting bee, everyone working together. Privately, some said that the hominess can be a bit cloying, but many find the empowerment that brings the far-flung bloggers together worthwhile.
All this online collaboration led to a desire by some to spend time together offline. "I really believe there's a difference between talking about things online and talking about them in person; there's a different dynamic that happens," says Collins, who is prone to drop words like "anyhoodle" into her blog, Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin'?
At first, explains Rebecca Joines Schinsky, they wanted "to get together and have a slumber party and talk about blogging." Schinsky, a 27-year-old with a master's degree in clinical psychology, lives in Richmond, Va., and blogs at the Book Lady's Blog, which she has given the whimsical subtitle of "Literary Adventures of a Panty-Throwing, Book-Loving Wild Woman." As things started to come together, six emerging leaders — including Schinsky and Collins — realized they could organize a formal event.
The result was the first-ever Book Blogger Convention, held in May, with the empowering tagline "read. blog. learn." The one-day convention was held immediately on the heels of publishing's annual convention, BookExpo America, in a pair of meeting rooms in the same location, New York's Javits Center. Though it didn't come close to BookExpo's crowd of 20,000 industry professionals, the Book Blogger Convention was at capacity, attended by more than 100 bloggers from 27 states and five countries.
"I made plans to attend the book blogger convention as soon as it was announced," says Lenore Appelhans, a 34-year-old American expatriate living in Germany who also attended BookExpo. "It was quite amazing though to see just how authentic book bloggers are — their 'real-life' personalities were incredibly similar to their online personas."
Amy Riley, a 30-year-old from Corona, reinforces the theme of inclusion at her blog My Friend Amy. "We have a common goal, and a common passion, which is books," she said on a panel at the convention. "To make books more of a community event." Like most bloggers, Riley writes about books she likes to read — in her case, popular fiction, young adult novels and Christian fiction.
Blogs like Riley's, because of the genres they focus on, have caught the eye of publishers, who are eager to have a new opportunity to reach readers. "Women's fiction that maybe wouldn't be covered by traditional book sections is being blogged about, talked about," says Jennifer Hart, vice president and associate publisher at HarperCollins for its paperback imprints. "There are books blogs for every niche of publishing — from literary and commercial fiction to young adult, to sci-fi, to cookbooks. This offers publishers an incredible opportunity — we can reach the audience for all of our books, no matter the genre."
Some of this diversity was reflected in the Book Blogger Convention's attendees. Joan Pantsios, a public defender from Chicago just getting started with book blogging, has a fondness for literature. Carrie Brownell, whose Christianity is important to her blogging, is a stay-at-home mom from Oregon. Monica Shroeder, a 23-year-old military service member, devours books with incredible speed — especially those with vampires. Yet despite their different backgrounds, world views and tastes in books, these women — most book bloggers are women — were all incredibly friendly, eager to connect.
But for all their enthusiasm, can a group of dedicated amateurs really make a difference in the success of a book? Publishers think they can. Mulholland's Parker points to Kathleen Kent and her novel "The Heretic's Daughter," set in 17th century Salem, Mass. "As a debut author with a historical fiction novel that had a connection to her personal story, she really struck a chord with bloggers," she says, adding that Kent "really benefitted from blogger outreach."
"I have friends who read my blog, and if I love a book enough, they will buy it," says Collins. "I think bloggers can have the relationship with their readers that a good bookseller has with loyal clients." But whereas booksellers can show how many books they've sold, it's impossible for a blogger to show the connection between reader and buyer. So as publishers grow committed to sharing advance galleys and free books with bloggers, they're seeking to find ways to quantify what they're getting in return. "We want to know that the blogger has reach," says HarperCollins' Hart, "especially out to other online platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads," the last of which is a social networking site centered around books.
Up until now, getting hard numbers has been a bit catch as catch can. There is no book blog box office report, no Nielsen ratings for book blog traffic. This spring, Schinsky partnered with Brett Sandusky, digital marketing manager for Kaplan Publishing, to organize a statistics survey for book bloggers, with the explicit goal of sharing it with publishers.
Overall, book bloggers reported an average of more than 5,000 pageviews a month; Schinsky's blog gets about a thousand visits per day. This doesn't compare with an author appearance on the "Today" show, a review on NPR or a feature in a newspaper, but it's reaching thousands of readers, and connecting to them in a new way. "Bloggers are readers," says Hart. "Given the number of books they buy or check out of their local library, and then read and discuss in a given year, they're the readers to whom we should be paying the most attention."
Kellogg is a reviewer and lead blogger for Jacket Copy, The Times' book blog.