Blogging: the new word of mouth

<p>Alison Bone</p><p>The ponderous gaze of UK publishing has shifted to cyberspace as the spiralling costs of consumer marketing campaigns--a week's Tube advertising now tops &#163;50,000--deny all but a few titles the megabucks treatment. So what happens to the other 100,000 or so books published a year? The answer, publishers are starting to believe, could lie in targeted marketing to online communities such as blogs.</p><p>Of an estimated 70 million blogs around the world, there are about 2.5 million in the UK. Specialist book blogs have as many as 5,000 unique visitors a day, and these are people who are already interested in books--prime audiences for publishers to reach. Book bloggers might be individuals but they are often part of sizeable online communities. They can generate excitement around a new title if it takes their fancy, review backlist, and even talent-spot new authors.</p><p>One of the UK's largest literary blogs, ReadySteadyBook, gets around 5,000 unique visitors a day and reviews serious literary fiction, history and philosophy. "My biggest concern at the moment is Herman Broch, who I suspect is not many people's concern," says site editor and blogger Mark Thwaite.</p><p>"The advantage of literary blogs is that they often discuss authors and books the mainstream press prefers to ignore," says This Space blogger Steve Mitchelmore. "Whereas [the mainstream press] give innumerable reviews to the latest Philip Roth or Ian McEwan, the literary blogs will be discussing extraordinary novels like Tom McCarthy's Remainder [Alma Books]."</p><p>At the smaller end of the scale, crime site Mystery Women sends out a regular e-newsletter to more than 200 members, including reviews and author interviews with lesser known female crime writers.</p><p>Word of mouth, bloggers say, starts here. And publishers are beginning to listen. Lee Rourke, who blogs at highbrow book blog Scarecrow, says that just a year ago every publisher who contacted him was American. "They do seem more savvy when it comes to the internet. We are still a bit stuffy and like printed reviews, but I've seen a marked increase in the past six months in contact from sizeable British publishers."</p><p>Sales shift</p><p>Both bloggers and publishers say anecdotal evidence suggests mentions or reviews of books on blogs do lead to increased sales.</p><p>Sarah Weinman, who has a following of up to 3,000 visitors daily on her crime fiction blog Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, uses an Amazon affiliate programme which earns her "small change" every quarter, so she imagines people are buying books based on her recommendations.</p><p>"I know readers go and buy books," says Thwaite. "It's only on a small level, but that's fine. I don't push these books to make people buy them, but I do bring attention to different books, and lots of readers are thirsty to find better literature. Going into Waterstone's there is always the same stuff, but there are lots of good books out there."</p><p>Darren Turpin, who runs one of the UK's largest sci-fi sites, The Alien Online, with around 15,000 visitors a month, has anecdotal evidence of sales increases: "People at conventions have said to me they found new authors because of reviews on the site. The blogging medium is extraordinarily influential and part of the whole word of mouth marketing boom."</p><p>Rourke relates the story behind the success of Tom McCarthy's Remainder. "Tom tried four years ago to get Remainder published. Editors liked it but marketing departments told them it wasn't commercially viable." Small French publisher Metronome picked it up, and printed 500 copies.</p><p>"The book got no coverage and so Tom contacted the blogs--me, 3AM, and ReadySteadyBook. I reviewed it on a few sites and it generated a lot of interest very quickly. Before we knew it there were reviews in the Times Literary Supplement, London Review of Books, and Independent. The print run sold out and Metronome will always say it was because of the blogs." Remainder has now been picked up by Random House US and is re-released by Alma Books in the UK this month. </p><p>Penguin published Nick Stone's d&eacute;but crime novel Mr Clarinet earlier this year, and editor Beverley Cousins says the buzz which built around it started in the online crime community. "Mr Clarinet was taken up by Ali Karim, who reviews for a number of crime sites. He said it was the best thing since Thomas Harris and fired emails off to all the sites. He wrote reviews for them all and I just watched Mr Clarinet go up and up on Amazon. We definitely saw an uplift in it. And then collectors got in on it--Goldsborough Books ordered 300 copies, which is pretty unheard of for a d&eacute;but author."</p><p>Crime publishers are clawing back ground from science fiction and fantasy publishers, who have been interacting with readers online for some time. "I think we are ahead of the game, largely because our readers are unusually computer literate," says Gollancz publisher Simon Spanton.</p><p>Spanton actually picked up one of Gollancz's lead 2006 titles, Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora, from a blog. Lynch posted some of his novel on his blog; The Alien Online noted it, Spanton checked it out, and ended up buying the book.</p><p>Darren Nash, editorial director at Orbit, says he and Orbit business manager George Walkley are known by the sf community and will comment on blogs as publishers. It's important to engage with blogging communities, agrees Paul Carr, editor-in-chief of web-to-book publisher The Friday Project. "We spend a lot of time reading book blogs and will often post comments if people have commented about our books. As we've engaged with the community, if we have a book coming out it is natural to let them know about it."</p><p>Author space</p><p>There are huge opportunities for authors to create communities of potential readers online. Lynch says: "There's definitely a sizeable group of people who might not have bought my book and read it so quickly, or promoted it so vigorously, had they not been reading my blog. And while that group isn't huge in 'absolute' terms at the moment, what sane writer would scoff at that?"</p><p>HarperCollins' Voyager's sf d&eacute;but for 2007 is Stephen Hunt, who has been running the website and blog www.sfcrowsnest.co.uk for years. "When we publish Court of the Air in April 2007, there will already be a ready-made community and forum through which we can get exposure for the book," says press officer Rebecca Fincham.</p><p>Turpin works with some sf and fantasy authors to develop their websites and is trying to get as many as possible to blog. He is currently developing a blog-based microsite for Mark Chadbourn to promote Jack of Ravens (Gollancz).</p><p>Again, sf is ahead of the game. Cousins says that, at the moment, the only one of her authors to blog is John Rickards. "Blogs are a fantastic way of spreading the word. And self-promotion by authors is so important these days."</p><p>Orbit has sponsored The Alien Online for the last couple of years. It currently has a banner ad on the site for Mike Carey's d&eacute;but The Devil You Know. Voyager is also looking into the opportunities of advertising on these sites: "It's so much cheaper," says Fincham. "We just don't have the budget for something like the Tube. Online, your audience is specific and targeted." </p><p>Blog advertising is increasing--Mike Stotter, who runs crime site ShotsMag, is featuring advertising from new publisher Quercus, and Headline is about to run a banner ad.</p><p>Cheryl Morgan, who runs sf site www.emeraldcity.com, is offering a different sort of opportunity to publishers. She has just opened up a blog, giving user names and passwords to sf publishers to enable them to make announcements about new acquisitions and author signings.</p><p>Nash says: "For all the fact that some parts of the publishing world are snide about genre publishing, they will come to respect and envy what we have--a genuine relationship with readers, writers, reviewers and opinion formers." </p><p>No pushovers</p><p>But despite the clear opportunities, publishers can see that there are pitfalls in online communities. Bloggers are adamant that publishers cannot force their way into perceived gaps in the online space. Bloggers' reviews work because they are not influenced by corporates. "The idea that blogs can be influenced needs to be nipped in the bud," Thwaite says. "We won't go to the publisher and say 'we want money off you'--we push a book because we believe in it," says Stotter.</p><p>"One of the biggest mistakes a business can make is to think that as blogs are influential, they can just dive in and post comments about their products," Carr says. The Friday Project found a record company executive sitting on a forum pretending to be a 14-year-old girl, trying to hype a band. "All the users immediately spotted it. Bloggers are by nature incredibly cynical. If you tell them you've got a book they might like, their natural default position is to write a post saying they've just got approached by a publisher trying to sell them something."</p><p>Walkley agrees that publishers should not rush into the blogosphere all guns blazing: "The web community has existing rules, for all it is perceived by some as the Wild West. There is an etiquette, and you ignore or flout it at your peril. It exists for a reason and keeps things going. We don't send books to bloggers and then complain if we get bad reviews--we play by the numbers."</p><p>Nash concludes: "Blogging is the 21st-century's word of mouth--the key difference being that geography no longer limits how far or how fast the word can spread. And the currency is trust. Those reading and writing blogs need to trust the publishers giving them books, and publishers need to trust that their books are good enough that bloggers will want to discuss them."</p><p>Eight book blogs that matter
www.readysteadybook.com gets 5,000 unique visitors a day. Blogger Mark Thwaite says: "A lot of the time we aren't reviewing frontlist, we don't have to react to publishers' timetables. We don't do it for the money, we do it because of our passion for books."
Scarecrow (hodmandod.blogspot.com) gets 1,000 to 2,000 visitors a week. Blogger Lee Rourke says: "Most people I speak to in the blogosphere have the same attitude as me. We are not interested in the marketability of books, we are interested in the books."
This Space (this-space.blogspot.com) gets 150 visitors a day. Blogger Steve Mitchelmore says: "The unique thing about book reviews online is that they rarely disappear. I still get people writing to me about a review I wrote 10 years ago."
www.thealienonline.net gets 15,000 visitors a month. Site manager Darren Turpin says: "Blogging is inherently geared towards the sf community, which is generally a bit nerdy but understands technology."
www.sfcrowsnest.com, run by author Stephen Hunt, got a huge 335,762 unique user sessions in June, downloading 902,291 pages of book reviews, interviews and more.
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind (www.sarahweinman.com/confessions) gets 2,000-3,000 visitors a day. Blogger Sarah Weinman says: "I think those who are newer to the publishing business are more cognisant of blogging's power."
www.mysterywomen.co.uk sends out a newsletter six times a year to 200 members. "We try to say to our members that Ruth Rendell and P D James are excellent, but there are other writers who don't get big marketing budgets but are writing just as well," says editor Ayo Onatade.
www.shotsmag.co.uk gets up to 950 visitors a day and sends out a weekly newsletter with reviews, interviews and more to 21,500 people. Editor Michael Stotter says: "We can push people towards a book we're enthusiastic about."</p>