What follows are the unedited notes I made in preparation for my Q&A as guest speaker at Novel Nights in Bristol, which I wrote about here. The questions were sent to me in advance of the event and these answers were intended as prompts that I could talk around, depending on how the evening went.
Much of what I include in this longer than usual post was covered in my talk, albeit in slightly different form. The rest will, I hope, be of interest to some.
Thank you for inviting me. My name is Jackie Law and I run the Never Imitate book blog. I created the blog a little over six years ago and have been a book blogger for the past five years. I post regular book reviews, write-ups of literary events, author and publisher interviews, and the occasional opinion piece.
I created my blog as a space to write. Within a year I realised that the short fiction pieces I was creating were weak and lacking in originality. Feedback suggested I was better when writing about events and facts, sharing my opinion, so I started to write about the books I was reading. It was only then that I realised book blogging was a thing.
This made me think about where I wanted to go with my writing and I decided that the world did not need my stories but would benefit from discovering some of the fabulous stories already created by others.
My blog has grown and developed from there.
It has opened up to me the world of publishing and the challenges faced by authors who need to get their books on the radars of readers. I am not a publishing insider but my efforts have led to some interesting invitations and glimpses of the workings within that world.
Process and getting started as a blogger / how it works.
How do you get started as a book blogger?
Have a think about what you want to achieve. There are many, many book blogs out there. Decide what you wish to offer your readers.
For example, the Shots blog fashions itself as an ezine and promotes crime fiction and thrillers.
The Tripfiction site features books with a strong sense of place. If you’re planning a holiday you can search their reviews for books set in your destination.
Most book blogs feature reviews, event write-ups and author interviews. Some author run blogs also offer advice and information for writers.
Go online and familiarise yourself with what is out there. Note what you like and dislike – about the way a blog looks, ease of navigation and writing style.
The mechanics of setting up a blog requires a few decisions such as:
- Which platform do you wish to use – the most common are WordPress or Blogger;
- What theme do you want to use – page structure, colours, font, use of photographs, widgets (sidebar links);
- Your blog needs a unique name. You may wish to open a Twitter account, Instagram and Facebook page to match this – creating a brand.
These things are not essential. My online presence grew organically over time so I have used a variety of names – Jackie Law and Never Imitate, my twitter handle @followthehens, my email name zeudytigre – and I have coped with the mix. If I had known at the beginning what I know now I would have stuck with one name to help build recognition.
Once your blog is set up you need to start sharing your posts across social media. Follow other book blogs that you enjoy reading and share their posts too. Interact with them, perhaps commenting on their blog or on Twitter. Growing a following takes time, effort and patience – like making friends.
Don’t get hung up on the stats – follower numbers, blog hits and so on. Produce good content, be supportive to others, and growth will happen
Do you buy the books to review – if you’re sent them does this impact on what you choose to read?
I still buy books but far fewer than before I was added to publicists’ lists as a reviewer. I currently have well over 100 unread books on the floor by my desk, at least half of which I have purchased.
Even with this backlog, I use the library if there is a book I want to read that I haven’t been sent. I am a reader first.
On how I choose what to read next, if I have asked for or agreed to take a book then I will do my best to review it before publication. If I am sent a surprise book because a publicist thinks I will enjoy it then it goes on a separate pile and I dip into that when I have time and inclination.
The books I agree to take I expect to enjoy so am eager to read them all. The remainder I will filter based on what I feel like reading at the time.
What is your selection process? How do you choose what goes onto your blog?
I have favoured publishers – mainly the small presses that put out maybe 3 to a dozen books a year such as Galley Beggar, Influx, Dead Ink, Charco, Peirene, Bluemoose, Belgravia, Salt. I read any book they send. This list is growing as I discover more small presses – special thanks here to the Republic of Consciousness Prize lists.
There are also authors I favour. I currently have early proofs of the new Joanne Harris (The Strawberry Thief, a sequel to her best seller, Chocolat), Polly Clark (Tiger) and Alison Weir (Six Tudor Queens series). I’m hoping that I will be sent copies of the new Jan Carson (The Fire Starters), Sinéad Gleeson (Constellations) and Anna Hope (Expectation). Later in the year I would love to receive the new Erin Morgenstern (The Starless Sea) but expect there will be high demand for this.
These are all new publications. Sometimes I simply want to read a particular book so will do so.
There are times when I feel guilty at the length of time I have had a title waiting to be reviewed so will read that. It is disappointing if I finally get to a book and don’t enjoy it. Maybe that was why it languished for so long.
How do you find out what books are coming out?
From publicists and Twitter mainly. I follow and interact with those producing the books I am likely to want to read. I am sent catalogues and newsletters but mostly ask for proofs offered by email or on social media.
I am a contributor on another book blog – Bookmunch. They get books I may not hear about elsewhere and have different contacts within the publishing industry. I get quite a few of the non fiction titles I review through them.
Do you get paid for your time?
No. Be aware that, as an author, you do not need to pay for book reviews. There are people out there who offer that service – to link authors with book bloggers for a fee – but by interacting on social media you can find plenty of bloggers willing to review for free.
Another thing I will mention is the blog tour. This is a popular way of ensuring a succession of reviews will be posted each day over a week or even a month. Publicists organise blog tours for new releases or outsource the organisation of tours to freelancers. Authors can also contact these freelancers direct – this is a service you would need to pay for.
Blog tour organisers hold lists of bloggers willing to take part in tours along with the genres of books they enjoy. A tour will typically include reviews, interviews, guest posts and extracts from the book being promoted. Bloggers on the tour will share each other’s work.
Whilst this may sound great – and I know of many publishers who believe tours have value, which is why they pay for them – I also know of readers who ignore blog posts on a tour as they are publicity vehicles and therefore likely to be overwhelmingly positive. Readers – buyers of books – want balanced opinions.
I used to take part in blog tours but stopped when they became ubiquitous. I prefer to carve out my own space – I named my blog Never Imitate for a reason – and decided to regain autonomy over what I was reading, to recapture the pleasure and remove the stress of reading to a schedule.
Many book bloggers enjoy being a part of tours as it is a way of bringing them, the authors and publicists together. It helps raise their profile as well as that of the book.
What benefits have you found to being a book blogger?
Mainly personal satisfaction as a writer. I feel I can offer readers more value as a reviewer than I could as a novelist – I can draw attention to a good book that already exists.
I also enjoy the social side – going to author events at bookshops, attending publishing events, writing these up on my blog, feeling a sense of belonging in my small corner of the literary world.
Although I do not know them personally I am often recognised by authors or publicists when I introduce myself – by my name, blog name or twitter handle. It feels good to be welcomed.
Also, of course, there are the books. I get sent proofs, sometimes months in advance. I have been quoted on covers and inside which is always pleasing. I am one of many but it is still satisfying to be told our work is appreciated.
The context of book blogging within publishing – how important is it? What is the situation at the moment? What influence do bloggers have?
The audience for print media – newspapers and magazines – is shrinking as more people turn to the internet for news and features. Bloggers share their work on social media and it pops up in search engines – my blog gets a lot of hits this way. We are growing in influence. There are, of course, a huge number of blogs of varying quality but many offer content at least as good as in traditional media.
The important thing is to find your niche. I tend to concentrate my efforts on strong literary fiction and non-fiction from the edges. I have attracted an interested audience for that product. When I recommend something my regular readers will consider if it could be for them.
Other bloggers read best sellers, romance, crime fiction – and have found their audience for these genres.
We are told by publicists that we have influence – parties are held from time to time where we are offered wine, access to authors, and advance reader copies of their books. I can provide no figures but publishing is a business and I don’t imagine I would be sent books and invited to parties if publishers did not see this as financially worthwhile.
At a prize event I attended last year, Elly from Galley Beggar Press mentioned that reviews are hugely useful and that she sees spikes in sales when these appear in key publications. When asked if reviews were really so important in driving sales the consensus amongst the publishers present was that what is required is visibility. It is to do with readers spreading the word, such as happens on Twitter when reviews are shared by the wider book reading community.
I was told by a journalist on the Guardian books desk that they receive more books each week than the pared down staff numbers can unpack. Many remain in their jiffy bags. The reach of the book blogging community – who share each other’s work – is being increasingly harnessed.
Questions aimed at authors
For authors wanting books to be reviewed what advice can you offer?
Make contact with book bloggers on social media – although don’t go straight to direct message. It is irritating when following back a writer on Twitter results in them pitching their book within a day.
Share posts. Comment on blogs. Follow widely, not just the blogs with many followers but those whose reviewing style you admire.
Observe the sort of books the blogger enjoys – for example crime fiction bloggers may not want to review your romance. Find bloggers who give positive reviews to books like yours.
Once a blogger knows who you are, that you are willing to support their work and that of other authors, quietly offer your book for review. No response probably means they are busy so don’t chase.
There are Facebook groups that link authors with bloggers such as Book Connectors. I am no longer a member but believe it is still a place to seek out connections.
You don’t review e-books. In your opinion, is it harder for authors who are digital first to get reviewed?
There are plenty of bloggers who read digital. Netgalley is a popular publishers’ resource. It depends on the reviewer.
I am certainly not alone in requiring hard copy. This is another aspect to check when getting to know a blogger on social media.
Do you distinguish between self-published, indie published and traditionally published authors?
Yes, I no longer review self published books or any book published by a press that asks for a financial contribution from the author – if I can find that information, it is often kept opaque.
Around 120,000 titles are published each year in hard copy – 10,000 each month. I can’t read them all, I need a filter and use publishers as gate keepers.
In the past I have accepted books from self published authors. Many, not all, felt raw, lacking in a final polish to remove snags, enabling the reading experience to flow.
This is not just a problem with self published work. Traditionally published does not necessarily mean that the book has been edited, proof read and produced to make it the best it can possibly be.
I’d add that some books from the big publishers have been so highly polished that they appear to have lost their edge, become generic. This suits many readers but I look for innovation, perhaps some experimentation, as well as depth and a damn good read.
I have got to know the publishers who release only books whose quality and content I expect to enjoy. This is important as I don’t want to spend time reading a book I’m not going to then want to encourage others to pick up. Neither author nor publisher benefits from a negative review.
I am writing reviews for readers, they are my key audience. It is the reader who may spend their money buying the book.
How you work with publishers and how you work with individual authors.
I try to avoid working directly with authors. Their book is their baby and if I don’t fully enjoy it, any criticism may be taken personally.
Sending me a book costs money. When I have accepted a book from a self published author there is a cost to them and then an expectation that I will read it in a timely manner. I still have books on my TBR pile that I thought I would get to a year ago.
Last year I received an irate message from an author. I had told them I would likely review their book within a given timescale and had failed to achieve this. No publisher has ever chased me in this way for a review. Sometimes life intervenes and, as a reader, I don’t always want to pick up a particular book – it is not right for me at that time. This can affect enjoyment and therefore what I write about the book.
Of course, I understand why the author felt let down. I want to avoid the pressure and guilt of failing to read or disliking an author’s work. Working with publishers feels less personal.
Other book bloggers I know do work directly with authors and enjoy the personal interaction. We each run our blogs in different ways. We are not paid so it has to be enjoyed or why do it?
Check out a blogger’s review policy and read their posts to see if they could be a good fit for your book.
How I work with publishers is I ask to be put on their lists for a particular book or perhaps any book they think I might enjoy. Sometimes the book has been offered to bloggers on Twitter, sometimes I am emailed by a publicist. I am known by my favourite publishers and by some of the publicists at the bigger presses. I feel privileged to be sent a lot of books.
Questions aimed at bloggers
Remaining independent. How do you balance the line between saying what you think and being diplomatic.
I write for readers – my reviews are not academic literary criticism. I will always try to explain why if I don’t like an aspect of a book.
One benefit of having written fiction myself is that I understand how difficult it is, the time and effort involved. I admire anyone who can produce a novel. Even if I don’t happen to enjoy reading it I will bear in mind that getting a book as far as publication is an achievement.
Remember, all reviews are subjective – they say as much about the reviewer as the writing style or story.
I have a review policy on my blog. Its purpose is to try to avoid being sent books I am unlikely to enjoy.
I post a review of every book I read so not all are positive. No reader will like every book they read and no book will be liked by every reader. When I do like a book I continue to recommend it, not just around publication. I do monthly and annual roundups. I share anything positive about the book I find on line. I become its advocate.
Any writing tips for blogs?
Decide what you want your blog to say and who your target audience is. Are you offering advice for writers, reviews for readers, pitfalls on the road to publication, interviews with those involved in bringing books to readers?
Find your niche. Seek out interesting content. Provide variety.
Write each post well. Pay attention to spelling, grammar, structure, flow. My posts are typically 500-1000 words long and take 2-3 hours to write. Blogging is a commitment – decide if it is for you.
To maintain momentum write what interests you in a style that you enjoy. Book bloggers come and go because their initial enthusiasm wanes when they do not feel appreciated after 6 months, even a year or two. It can take longer to build a following and initial expectations of numbers and engagement may be unrealistic.
I enjoy what I do and the world it has introduced me to so I make a conscious effort not to get hung up on the numbers, the stats that show site hits and followers. I do this for readers, authors and publishers but also for myself.
How do you build an audience for it?
Share widely on multiple social media platforms. Interact with other bloggers – share their work too. Let the publisher know when a post goes up and hope that they share.
Only tag an author if the review is very positive!
I use Twitter, Instagram, Facebook reluctantly. I put my reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. I am in a group on Goodreads who like the same sorts of books as I do and sometimes share my content.
Find your tribe and nurture contacts. Be yourself.