Book Smart

Could cyberspace be the novel's best friend? Litblogs take off—and grow up.

The media have spent so much time gnashing their teeth over the influence of political bloggers that barely anyone has noticed something equally convulsive happening in the book realm. Despite the on-going panic about a contraction in both the audience for serious literature and the amount of mainstream print coverage books receive, literary conversation is erupting all over the Internet in the form of litblogs. Multiplying like the tribbles on Star Trek, these online journals suggest that reading is far from a dying pastime.

Literati are increasingly turning to the blogs for discussion, gossip, analysis, and a sense of community. Inevitably, publishers have noticed the power of these informal networks to generate word-of-mouth buzz—the holy grail of marketing—and are looking for ways to harness it. In turn, many bloggerati are on the verge of becoming that contradiction in terms, the professional enthusiast. So what happens now, when these amateurs are faced with the chance to wield influence and become insiders?

It takes five minutes to create a blog, and even the most successful litbloggers say they embarked on the whole thing casually—a kind of public doodle. Maybe they wanted to alert friends to cool articles and reviews, which is how Jessa Crispin of Bookslut started, or distract themselves from the impending war in Iraq, like Brooklyn blogger Maud Newton. Maybe they were bored or just plain procrastinating. But that non-professionalism is a big part of the appeal to readers—the off-the-cuff intimacy, the ornery opinions, the bloggers' ability to say whatever they think without worrying about editors reining them in.

illustration: Justin Wood

"What people look for in a book blog is someone whose taste aligns with theirs and who can lead them to some good recommendations," says Crispin, a former librarian for Planned Parenthood in Chicago, "and that's where their power lies." Last month, a British survey suggested that nearly a third of those under 35 considered personal word of mouth the most important motivation for buying a book; only 6 percent based their purchase on ads. Over the years there have been plenty of attempts to bottle this transaction—for instance,'s "personalized" suggestions made by a computer. But blogs are much closer to the real thing. Delight and disappointment are transmitted in ways more akin to dinner-table banter than to a verdict delivered from on high.

"Publicists take note—people who love books are making pilgrimages to our sites and they're taking our word for things and buying books we recommend," wrote Mark Sarvas of the Elegant Variation in an online essay last year. An L.A.-based screenwriter with a novel in the works, Sarvas started his blog impulsively in 2003. But he began to see it as a forum for championing unsung writers. Now Sarvas wants to prove that these sites have clout. He has recruited 19 fellow bloggers to launch the Litblog Co-op, a virtual collective stretching across the country that will bestow attention on four books a year—literary books that would not, Sarvas promises, get review attention otherwise.

Sarvas is only one of several entrepreneurial minds eager to channel the power of the litblog. Kevin Smokler, editor of the forthcoming Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times, founded the now defunct site Central Booking in the '90s. His current side project is the Virtual Book Tour, in which authors spend one day making "appearances" on as many as 15 blogs. Sometimes they take over the site as guest bloggers; other times they are interviewed or contribute essays. (Smokler charges $1,500 for a one-day tour.) While he generally gets paid by the publisher or author, he says the host bloggers get no money—"just a free copy of the book, and if they're writers themselves, they get contact with the New York publishing industry. Paying them would open up an ethical hornet's nest, since there's no way we can expect bloggers to be impartial if we're paying them." Although Smokler says bloggers are under no obligation to praise these guests, Crispin chose not to participate because "to me, Virtual Book Tour means saying you give your stamp of approval to this book, even if you don't particularly like it." Sarvas, who met Smokler on a blogging panel, has hosted three tours and sees it as a pretty informal arrangement: "My feeling was, how much damage can someone do to my reputation in one day?"

Inspired by the promotional possibilities of an online book tour, Southern novelist and self-proclaimed "hype hag" Karin Gillespie launched her own informal Girlfriend Cyber Circuit. It consists of 21 female writers with blogs, each of whom agrees to host and publicize two or three fellow Girlfriends a month to bump up sales and name recognition. Gillespie admits that she doesn't always love the books she endorses on her site but says, "I would never say if I didn't like something!"

"Everyone's starting to grapple with those ethical issues," according to Ron Hogan of Beatrice, the literary-zine-turned-blog that started in 1994, way before the current wave. "It's that old punk rock question of authenticity versus assimilation." Hogan has spent a lot of time mulling over this stuff, having worked as a book reviewer in the '90s at the fledgling "With Amazon's increasing corporatization, we effectively became catalog copywriters. We knew we were there to sell books and we were grounded in that reality that even when you're in the media, the marketing and publicity departments are coming to you because they want to get featured. That's part of the equation for me, but it won't control my editorial decisions." He does worry that it's especially hard for litbloggers—almost always one-person operations—to erect a firewall between themselves and those who want something from them.

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