Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Essay: On Book Review Blogs

Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!

To anyone who's starting a book review blog, here's one piece of unsolicited advice: the challenge isn't in putting up your first book review, but rather sustaining those book reviews. Despite being a book review blog, I don't read a lot of book review blogs myself, but the few that I do read have significantly changed over the past few years. (And my blog has changed over the months as well. Tabletop RPG Podcasts links used to be a core feature here but I eventually had to drop it.)

For example, one of the blogs I'm envious when it comes to the number of visitors is Pat's Fantasy Hotlist. A few years ago, I did find it an interesting site to visit, especially with all the interviews and book reviews Pat has been conducting. These past few months, it's not as appetizing to me as it's transformed into a glorified catalog, with majority of the content being contest giveaways and novel excerpts. Not that the "blog-catalog" is a bad thing (there's certainly a market for it), but it's a stark contrast from what Pat was previously doing. There's still the occasional book review and interview, as well as personal blog entries, but they're the exception rather than the norm.

Compare that to Fantasy Book Critic, which while also having this "catalog" vibe to it, has for the most part transitioned more seamlessly. I attribute the catalog-vibe to Liviu Suciu's review format, which notes down where to buy books from the author, as well the occasional notes from the publisher/author. This format however is an evolution of the initial review template and retains an editorial slant. While the site also runs contests and giveaways, editorial content is still the dominant aspect of the site.

Another site I like to bring up is OF Blog of the Fallen. Like Pat's Fantasy Hotlist, digging through the archives, you'd run across lots of interviews and book reviews. Larry's current content however is anything but (although there is still the occasional review and interview). What makes me come back to his site however is that he's made his site appealing to me via the new content he's posting (and this is subjective--there are obviously people who enjoy the catalog-blog evolution of some sites). It's transformed from a book review blog to more of a column, where Larry writes his opinions, throws a question to readers, reacts to a news bit on the Internet, etc. What both Pat's Fantasy Hotlist and OF Blog of the Fallen proves is how you can gradually change the type of content you're showcasing and still retain your existing audience.

I started taking notice of Grasping for the Wind when it carved for itself a unique niche: catering to the book reviewer audience. John did this late last year by creating the Book Reviewers Linkup Meme, listing all the book review blogs in the genre. Currently, along with Diana Pharaoh Francis, they're assembling The Speculative Fiction Book Reviewer's Database. These aren't innovative features (other industries certainly have similar services) but somebody had to make the effort to start them and in this case, it was John. One might think of it as a niche within a niche, but it's a niche that has a sustainable audience (there'll always be new book bloggers popping up). For example, while the number of successful self-published authors using print-on-demand are few, print-on-demand services continue to thrive because of the sheer number of people (other aspiring authors) utilizing their services. That was also the case with the California Gold Rush, where the ones making the most money tended to be the merchants rather than the gold diggers themselves. And while I focus on this fact, that's not to say John doesn't maintain consistent editorial content.

Why all this change? Well, there's honestly few barriers to entry in the blog book reviewing field, and majority of us don't get compensated. For some people, the book review blog is just a phase, perhaps something that initially caught their fancy and later find out that it's actually work. For others, developments in real life get in the way (family, work, finances, etc.) which can cause an abrupt shift. What I really dislike however was this period of whining, with excuses thrown around "I'm not getting paid for this" or "I do it just for fun of it." Which is true, mind you, but in the case of the former, did you really think book review blogs would be profitable? While there are certainly attempts to monetize blogs (BSC Review and SF Signal for example), most book review blogs aren't set-up that way (where's your metrics, advertising rates, and advertising pitch? Solely depending on Google Ad Sense is folly). And while there's nothing wrong with reviewing books "for the fun of it," don't expect to have a consistent audience if your output is inconsistent (SF Signal for example similarly does it for the fun but they're as consistent as a daily newspaper).

As for my own blog, I honestly don't know what the future has in store for me. I certainly plan on delivering consistent content and I've changed the blog features over the past few months (the daily Links & Plugs wasn't there a year ago for example) but who knows what monkey wrench (or opportunity!) I'll run into?

20 comments:

Larry said...

Fair comment about my blog, although I'd note that much of that shift is due in large part to working a soul-draining job. That job ends tomorrow and I start a teaching position (my old one, actually) at a residential treatment center that should leave me with more energy to do things like write reviews and interviews (by the way, nearing the home stretch on a certain one).

But I also do like the column format and engaging with my readers. It's more personal and I think keeps me more focused on blogging on a near-daily basis.

Might write a bit more in a moment on my blog, since conversations like this do deserve to be broadened, no? ;)

Joe Sherry said...

My preference as a reader is probably half columns / half reviews of stuff I'm interested in.

It's weird. I would generally prefer more reviews, but I find myself reading fewer and fewer of them and frequently only books that I already want to read / have read.

What I'm least interested in, though, is the publicity-blog - which is pretty much what Pat's blog has turned into. And a few others.

banzai cat said...

Larry's blog is a bit like a good book you're reading that's tucked in beside your favorite seat. You may forget to check in every now and then but when you've got time, it's like welcoming an old friend. :-)

Liviu said...

That's a very interesting article and I appreciate mentioning FBC, though one thing I would like to add is that Robert suggested the format I use (and he used) in reviews and I cannot take credit for it. I like it since I find it well suited for two things - talk about the author especially if he/she has not appeared before on FBC and talk about the universe of the book which for sff is sometimes the main character of the book so to speak or at least one of its main attractions - *the thing* that differentiates sff from other genres and made it my main interest for 20 years now.

Regarding content, we did 85+ reviews for 09 so far, 36 fully by me with 2 co-reviews with Robert - my goal for 09 is about 200 with 90 done by me - plus a bunch of interviews, author posts, some essays, but the main focus is still on reviews for now.

Jonathan M said...

I predicted this a while back and posted about it on SFDiplomat. My concerns were mostly met with scorn and jibes about me wanting to make money out of my blog.

The problem is that review blogging isn't really sustainable. The mainstream litblogosphere found that out a little while back and I think the genre 'sphere is starting to discover that now.

In order to keep those numbers up you have to not only output a lot of reviews, they also have to be reviews of new books. That's fun at first but after a while it starts to resemble a job and once that feeling takes hold it is far too easy to find reasons to do something else.

Also problematic is that I think the genre blogosphere is less interconnected than it once was :

Unless you have a rock solid readership people probably won't leave comments on your reviews. This is one feedback mechanism that helps book bloggers sustain the idea that they're not crazy in deciding to effectively work a second job.

Also problematic is the lack of review round-ups. A couple of years back if you wrote something interesting then SF Signal would most likely link to it and boost your stats for the day and encourage you to write more. nowadays SF Signal rarely links to reviews at all.

A third problem is that there's very little discussion of actual reviews between blogs. A couple of years ago it was a lot more common for people to react between blogs to each others' opinions and you'd sometimes get blogstorms which, while occasionally unpleasant, did reinforce the feeling that you were part of a community.

With these three feedback loops largely out of order, it can feel very lonely indeed writing reviews.

You put work into forging a careful critical opinion and you're met with the internet's complete disinterest. Frankly, unless you're getting paid nobody puts up with that for long.


So you're starting to see mission creep. People are writing more columns, moving from a review-based structure to a more personalised structure. What you might also start seeing are more literary group blogs (Like Eve's Alexandria) where a group of people can take turns pushing out the reviews and writing about other stuff. Alternately you'll get people stepping off the reviews conveyorbelt and writing about what they want to write about regardless of their audience's preferences (which is what I did, I haven't posted to SFDiplomat for over 6 months and it still gets more hits than my new blog).

Dark Wolf said...

I believe that we are changing as humans and learn new things each day. So therefore those changes are reflecting on the blogs sometimes (I think).
Jonathan makes a very valuable point in his comment and something to learn from.

Grasping for the Wind said...

Thank you for mentioning GFTW and the unique things I am doing there. You give me high praise I don't feel I deserve.

This was a fascinating article, and I am sorry I have not been the regular reader of your blog I should have been. That problem is now rectified!

Best on your continued endeavours and see you aroung the internetz.

Kat @ Fantasy Literature said...

Interesting article -- I have noticed the same sorts of changes in review blogs. You are right that when you do something for the love of it and you feel it sucking out your soul, you've got to slow down. Also, impersonal reviews do not generate the discussion that most bloggers are looking for.

At Fantasy Literature, we have 14 reviewers (who have applied and been voted in) who work together to create our "catalog" or database. That way, we've got constant reviews coming in in all sub-genres of fantasy and when someone is burning out an needs a break, our readership doesn't notice. We only use the blog portion for posting review teasers and other news that will be automatically sent to Twitter and Facebook. It's not as personal this way (though we do get comments on the reviews), but it makes for consistent content.

Blue Tyson said...

John O'Neill's latest Black Gate issue editorial talks about this sort of thing when starting SF Site and ending up with heaps and heaps to do etc.

So you could take a lot at that, too, Charles.

macfantasie said...

I'm hoping that the advice to 'not taking oneself too seriously,' which I received recently as I fired up my own corner of the net, will hopefully go a long way in determining how my own humble little blog evolves over time. I did appreciate the candid nature of the article (and the responses) and will gladly take some of this to heart in an effort to (always) improve.

I am in this for the joy books bring, and will hopefully find that to be the best motivator for determining my content in the months/years to come. Whatever the case, thanks for the food for thought.

Terry Weyna said...

My blog -- Reading the Leaves -- is pretty much all reviews. I've had a few big gaps while I fight a chronic illness, but I've been there with a vengeance this year. I don't expect to ever make money on this project unless it leads me to a reviewing job with some sort of paying publication -- that is, I don't expect to make money on the blog itself. I do it purely out of love, I guess, silly as that sounds.

I also don't stick only to new books. I review whatever I've been reading -- including, sometimes, books that have been around for quite some time. For instance, I reviewed Doris Lessing's The Fifth Child after she won the Nobel Prize, just because I happened to read it and it seemed interesting. I don't know why we have this fascination with the new -- and only the new -- when there's so much out there that we may have missed. I'd just as soon send someone to the library or ABE for a book that's out of print as convince them to read something new that isn't as good.

My only real wish is for more readers and for comments on my reviews. Note to Jonathan: in my latest review, of John Langan's Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters, I specifically take on Abigail Nussbaum's review from Strange Horizons. I agree with you that correspondence between reviews can be very interesting!

Larry said...

Jonathan,

While I agree to an extent with most of your points, I think the issue is a bit more cloudy than what you describe above. I've noticed that my audience has continued to grow at a steady pace over the past few years and between RSS feeds and direct clicks, I probably get close to 1K page views/day now, much more than I did when I was writing 2-3 reviews a week compared to the 3-4/month that I do these days. But I tend to get spikes when I review certain "older" books. I certainly got that when I reviewed Tolkien's LotR books or MJH's Viriconium stories. Neither one is exactly "new" and I have found myself more interested lately in older works or in works that are "lit fiction" more than "genre lit." Blogging what interests me tends to lead to more interesting comments (and responses from readers).

But I still do reviews (and interviews) of recent authors/books. I plan on reviewing Thomas Glavinic's 2008 novel (well, the English translation), Night Work. MiƩville's latest and the latest Ligotti reissue will be reviewed shortly as well. But I have little to no desire to review a book just because a publisher thinks it's hot stuff. I'll do that on my own time and when I think I have something to say that won't parrot what a dozen or more blogs in my blogroll will say in a 2-3 tsunami wave of posts.

All I know is that I prefer change whenever the sense of stagnation hits.

Banzai Cat,

Thanks for the compliment!


Others,

Interesting comments. I'll try to be more active in commenting now that I'm free from that horrendous HS teaching job of the past 10 months!

Kat @ Fantasy Literature said...

In agreement with Larry: We get plenty of readers looking for reviews of older books. I recently reviewed Jack Vance, for example, and got lots of good feedback. Our goal is to review all fantasy authors (dead or alive) and, in my experience, readers still want to read the old stuff. :)

Charles said...

Thanks for all the comments. Some points:

1) I don't think going the "personal" route is a bad thing. Just a comment on a trend, especially from blogs that started out as exclusively book reviews. (This blog started out as personal.)

2) I don't think book reviews are really designed to receive comments or conversation starters. I mean you don't see much people commenting on my link round-ups. Partially because they're opinions and readers understand that. (The opposite end of the spectrum is that you get trolls... or what happened with Larry and Pat's Fantasy Hotlist fans when the former was talking about the latter's review) So expecting feedback from them for me is an unrealistic expectation. A better feedback mechanism for that is probably to look at your stats/tracker and see where the hits are coming from (i.e. an author's blog).

3) Pssst, review round-up is a good "link list" idea. Anyone up for it? (John?)

4) Yes, people still want to read the old stuff.

5) There's a certain sense of navel-gazing here in the sense that my blog post is generating a lot of comments from fellow book reviewers. Which re-emphasizes, in my opinion, that there's a market for a blog or two catering to the book review crowd, which is what Grasping the Wind is doing.

ediFanoB said...

First of all this was the first time I read a post on your blog. Thanks to OF Blog of the Fallen. I added your blog to my google reader.

Following part Has also been posted at
First of all thanks for the link. I didn't know Bibliophile Stalker before. I read the post and will leave a comment. I like such posts because as a reader I'm interested in your reflections about blogs and their future development. One interesting thing is that most of the time the majority of the comments are written by other blogger.
I follow blogs and leave comments since May 2008. And I can tell you not only blogs have changed. My blog reading habits changed too. In the beginning I just followed a few blogs. I was "hungry" to read reviews. Next step was to write comments. Then I read also interviews and other postings. After few month I had a list of 15 bookmarks which I tried to visit daily. I didn't want to miss an entry. But the biggest change started when I discovered google reader.Suddenly I could easily follow a lot more blogs without missing a post. This was great as long as I came to realize that I couldn't follow all the blogs within one day. Nowadays I'm happy to check blogs for interesting posts every two or three days except my favorite ones which I check daily. That means also that I write comments with a delay.
Anyway I agree that some blogs are changing. For me it is fine because I like to have a variety. That makes each blog unique. I think it is quite natural that blogs are changing because they are created and written by human beings. And fortunately we change within in our life - not all of us. Most people don't like changes because they like routine. The older you get the less you like changes. But changes are the salt of life - sometimes changes are too salty. In the end it is the question for whom do you write your blog and why do you read blogs by yourself. Based on the answer you will develop your blog in this or that direction. That is exciting because I'm curious how this will influence my blog reading habits...

Jonathan M said...

Larry --

You've paid your dues though. You have spent years pushing out loads of reviews and click-friendly short pieces and you have links to popular forums.

You've built up your audience and they're happy to follow you. You've paid your dues.

But other people will have different experiences. Without links to a forum it might take them weeks to get their first comment. Months to move past 100 hits per day. They might well struggle to keep building their audiences with frequent reviews of popular titles.

All of these things contribute to the feeling that nobody cares and so people burn out and give up.

The fact that you didn't burn out doesn't really prove anything as you did everything right and didn't give up. Not everyone is like you.

Charles said...

Jonathan M (re: your response to Larry):

But isn't that the case with a lot of things? Just because you start a book review blog doesn't mean people are entitled to read it, or that book reviewers should be compensated for them (whether in finances or attention).

I started blogging in November 2001 and I didn't get hits in the 3 digits until a few years later. Either be persistent at it in the long term or stop now.

Sturgeon's law also applies here. I don't think every book review blog deserves to succeed, nor do the various review blog cater to everyone.

Also, it's been my experience that you don't need to review new books. Review consistently, yes (however frequent that is although hopefully a minimum of one book a week), but that's basic blogging principles (posting content on a regular schedule).

I think there's a big discrepancy between what book reviewers want and what they deserve, or what their expectations are and what the reality is.

Adam Whitehead said...

I was ruminating on this a while back after starting to get a lot more offers of doing competitions and interviews and decided to say no. Whilst I appreciate what Pat's done for the profile of SF&F bloggers everywhere (particularly those of us he links to), I agree his blog has become a bit too dependent on competitions and excerpts recently. I started my blog to focus on reviews (not just of books though) and that's what I like to concentrate on, even though a few more news and link items now crop up than they used to, the natural result of me being currently unemployed and able to spend more time working on the blog.

I think it's important to maintain perspective though. If maintaining your blog becomes too much of a chore and feels like a job, that's a bad thing, and we have lost some interesting bloggers that way (most notably William 'Stego' Lexner of I Hope I Didn't Give Away the Ending). But since I'd be reading books, watching DVDs or playing computer games regardless of whether I had a blog or not, it's then not too onerous to write up a brief review afterwards and get some feedback :-)

On the subject of new versus old reviews, I find that old reviews generate more discussion as people are more likely to have read the book and be able to share a point of view, whilst with new books that is not so much the case.

Larry said...

Jonathan,

Good point, although I would amend that slightly, as I have been burnt out before (albeit due to grad school reviews and not fiction reviews), which led to me taking pretty much a ten year break (1997-2007) from writing much in the way of a formal review on anything. In fact, I've noticed that as my reviews drop in quantity, there tends to be a corresponding rise in formal critique structures in the reviews. I don't think that's an accident.

As for my paying of "dues," well, I suppose, although my forum activities dealt with different matters than on a blog. But yes, it did help create an initial audience (one that I think has dissipated quite a bit since my focus has shifted a bit, but that has been replaced and then augmented by people who visit me from seeing my comments on other blogs, especially author blogs).

Perhaps that has helped keep my activity level high and a lack of it could have led to despondency, but who knows? "Keep pluggin' away" is a bit of advice given to struggling athletes; it also can apply in most arenas of one's life, I guess.

Grasping for the Wind said...

Charles,

Pssst, review round-up is a good "link list" idea. Anyone up for it? (John?)

I tried this once before with limited success. I think it was because bloggers didn't want to be seen picking a favorite review.

http://otter.covblogs.com/archives/2009/02/the-book-review-meme.html

However, I would be willing to do it again.

PS, soon as I gt a chance, the 2nd edition of the Linkup meme is going to be published. i've added lots recently.

John