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.
“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, amazon.com‘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 amazon.com. “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.
Publishers aren’t just leaving it to the bloggers themselves: A few are trying to generate buzz by any means necessary. At the far end of the spectrum is viral-marketing company BzzAgent, which uses volunteers to covertly make recommendations to friends and create warm fuzzy feelings about literary novels like Meghan Daum’s The Quality of Life Report and Adam Davies’s The Frog King. Then there are some recent ads running on blogs, paid for by publishers, that try to tap into good word of mouth by linking to other blogs that have said positive things about a book (as in a recent blog ad for Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore) or to good reviews in print media.
Everyone has drawn his or her own ethical line in the sand. Bookslut declined to join either the Litblog Co-op or Virtual Book Tours, but it is one of the few litblogs with ads, many of them for small-press books. Crispin says she briefly panicked when she realized she wanted to write about a book that has an ad on her site, but then shrugged it off. “If people think I’m going to hawk a book in return for a $90 ad, they should probably read another blog! I’m glad we waited to take ads until now, though, because at first, we were so thrilled that someone sent us a free book that our choices were dictated by that.” It can be a heady experience for a publishing outsider to be showered with advance copies, courted by publicists, and offered paid work in print media.
So many litbloggers are now writing book reviews in mainstream newspapers that Hogan jokingly suggests these sites now act as a farm team, just as fanzines once did. It’s an idea that irritates Sarvas immensely: “I hope the Co-op can challenge the supremacy of print.” He points out the positive effects of widespread blog admiration for a quirky novel such as Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land, which became a darling of the realm earlier this year. “Its Amazon rating climbed through the roof while the blogs were covering it,” says Sarvas, though he admits that “it also got reviews in some places like The New York Times, so it’s hard to tell the direct influence of the blogs.”
Lipsyte became aware of this blog love for Home Land during his book tour. “Bloggers in different cities showed up at readings and then wrote about it. I kept calling my publisher from the road excitedly and telling them all these people were writing about me, but I think the publicist thought I was crazy.” He sees it as a case of good timing: “Bloggers started realizing that they could connect to each other and create a momentum”—just what the Litblog Co-op hopes to crystallize.
Several of the most established book sites—Maud Newton, Bookslut, and MobyLives—are not participating in the Co-op. Newton says she declined because she’s already juggling a full load among her blog, a novel in progress, freelance book reviewing, and her day job. But she also argues that “the Co-op does something like what the media do—it creates a big push for a book. If their goal is to prove the influence of blogs to publishers, I think they’ll succeed—but it’s not a goal I share myself.” Instead, she says she prefers the way ideas slowly percolate down to the reader, independent of publishing dates and industry agendas.
Crispin, who expanded Bookslut into a full-fledged webzine with 40 contributors, says she’s not even sure what all the fuss is about. She describes the litblogs as a kind of parasite, feeding off the mainstream media. “They aren’t generally about content—they just link to it. So if something is dominating the print book reviews, that’s what the blogs have to work with.” This creates the danger of a catch-22 scenario: Newspapers attribute decreasing book sections to shrinking ad sales. And if publishers begin to funnel more of their marketing budget toward the Internet, print media coverage could decline further, leaving the bloggers with even fewer book reviews to comment on.
An editor at feed.com back in the Internet boom days of the ’90s, Lipsyte believes the new wave has a very different agenda from the Web pioneers who founded content-heavy sites like Feed and Suck. “These bloggers are not so evangelistic about the medium,” he says. “For them, it’s not about using technology to create a new world. It’s about creating a space that isn’t available elsewhere to talk about the thing they care about—which happens to be books.”
We read the best of the litblogs for the way they sift through the media ether, make interesting juxtapositions, provoke intelligent conversation, and connect lesser-known writers with an eager audience. In an era when books have been pushed to the margins of the cultural conversation, maybe that’s more than enough. But as Lipsyte warned in a recent e-mail to Sarvas, bloggers “need to remember the eternal draw, too: a cranky individual with smart idiosyncratic tastes and a good bullshit detector.”