From Barbara Fister’s Place, September 22, 2014

In August, 2014, I concocted a small survey for crime fiction book bloggers. This survey relied on a convenience sample drawn from my Twitter connections, the Crime and Mystery Fiction room at Friendfeed, and bloggers who I follow and contacted personally, inviting them to participate, so it is not a comprehensive analysis by any means. I should note that book bloggers are numerous, with 1,458 book review blogs listed on the Blog Nation directory. There’s even a book for authors who want to court them – The Author’s Guide to Working With Book Bloggers by Barb Drozdowich – which mentions querying bloggers as if they are literary agents. Most of the bloggers who I follow regularly and who took this survey are serious about their reviews, but are largely indifferent to page views and influence. They love to read mysteries and they enjoy sharing their thoughts about them. Some focus on writing reviews; others engage in contests, book giveaways, and guest posts from authors as well as sharing their reading experiences. Though I doubt they would consider themselves cultural gatekeepers, bloggers play an increasing role in the marketing and discovery of new books as the space for book reviews shrinks in traditional print publications.

By the numbers

First, the demographics: of the twenty respondents, twelve were women, eight were men. The largest number (11) were from Europe, followed by North America and Australia/New Zealand. As for their ages, none were younger than 25. Six were between 25 and 45, 11 were between 46 and 65, and three were over 65.

Nearly all had blogs focused primarily on crime fiction, with half mixing book reviews with other mystery-related materials and seven who focused on book reviews. All of the bloggers enabled comments, and just slightly over half moderated them. (Of those who didn’t, at least one mentioned removing comments that were obviously spam.) They all found blogging a positive experience, with half selecting “mostly positive” and half choosing “extremely positive.” (I suppose that’s hardly surprising, since if they didn’t enjoy it, they’d stop!)

I asked bloggers to choose the top three ways they obtained books. Getting review copies from publishers and purchasing books were the most commonly chosen options. The third most common source of books was the library, with review copies from authors following close behind. Though these were the bloggers’ most common sources, they weren’t necessarily equally distributed. One blogger added in a comment “I buy nearly all of my books (95%+).” While two in comments mentioned that getting free books from publishers was a plus, another pointed out that it could be a mixed blessing: “once your address is sent to one company, lots of other people seem to have access to it,” resulting in lots of unsolicited books.

I asked about venues in which bloggers frequently discuss crime fiction with other readers. Other blogs topped the list with 18 respondents checking that option, followed by friends, family, or coworkers (14) then (in descending order) online discussion forums or email lists focused on crime fiction (14), Twitter (12), Facebook (11), crime-fiction-focused face-to-face events (10), Friendfeed (9), a face-to-face book group (8), and Goodreads (7). All of the respondents reported participating in at least three of these venues.

Exploring their motivation

I asked bloggers why they maintain a book blog. Several themes emerged from their answers. The two most-often cited reasons were that they found it helpful to track what they read and it provided a sense of community. As one blogger put it, “It started out as a place to keep track of what I was reading myself in a way that was a little more accountable than personal notes. But it’s turned into a way of being connected to other people with a similar interest. I only know a couple of people in my real world who share my reading interests and none of them want to talk about the books in any in-depth way.” Related to community was a sense of reciprocity. Bloggers were able to promote books and authors who they thought deserved greater notice; in turn, they discovered books that other bloggers recommended. Bloggers also mentioned that it coincided with a professional interest in books (as writers, booksellers, or librarians) and that writing about the books they’d read helped them gain a deeper understanding of them. Finally, many respondents said it was fun: “it brings me joy to discuss books and introduce readers to books and authors they might not have discovered.”

I asked bloggers whether they encouraged interaction with their blogs. One out of four respondents were not particularly interested one way or another in whether their posts were getting responses. Others invited involvement through issuing challenges or posing questions to readers, and many posted links to new blog posts on other social media. One respondent suggested that comment strings were preferable to Twitter interactions, with its 140 character limit leading to less in-depth discussion; another found that readers preferred to take conversation to email or to the blog’s Facebook page. Bloggers often were pleased with interactions they had. One reported that after a conversation online, a reader wrote, “Thank you! This is very, very helpful. I always feel like I can ask you questions. I normally feel like I should know the answer and don’t ask, but you are so understanding and interested in sharing what you know I don’t hesitate.”

“Sharing a Passion”

Many respondents reported that making connections with other passionate readers, being able to influence other readers and being able to discover new authors to try were positive aspects of being a book blogger. There is a curatorial pleasure in finding and writing about what one blogger characterized as “hidden gems.” Bloggers often discovered affinities with other readers who could help them discover worthwhile books. As one wrote, “I’ve found a group of other bloggers and crime fiction fans who comment whose recommendations I can rely on. That’s invaluable.” An Australian blogger was happy to “promote  Australian crime fiction to the wider world – I’m proud of our local authors and it’s great to see them being reviewed/discussed elsewhere.” For another, “supreme satisfaction lies in receiving emails from readers who ecstatically tell me that they liked one of my reviews, got the book, read the book, fell in love, and immediately went out to purchase all that author’s books.” As another put it, satisfaction comes from the “chance to turn on a reader to a great book they might have missed and to introduce them to an author they haven’t read.” One mentioned “the contact it gives me with contemporary writers” was particularly satisfying, and another wrote “because of the blog, I’ve been able to set up several face-to-face interviews with authors who I would otherwise never have met. I use things like Bouchercon to set some of these up to meet several in person at one event. I also will interview via email questions, also interesting.” That said, fellow crime fiction readers seemed the dominant audience bloggers had in mind and community-building was primarily around sharing reading interests.

Occasional Aggravations

I asked if anything was aggravating, if anything, about blogging. Some bloggers reported no particular aggravations. Others mentioned that it was a significant time commitment, including meeting self-imposed expectations of frequency. One regretted that all available time went into writing posts, leaving too little to interact with other bloggers “which makes me feel a bit of an ingrate.” Commenting created some stresses. Getting few comments or posting comments on others’ blogs that met with no response was a disappointment to some respondents. Interestingly, one blogger who also reviews books professionally, found that there was much less negative commenting on her personal blog than on other media websites.

This points to an interesting tension between developing community through blogging and maintaining a certain amount of critical distance. Several respondents noted that some book blogs provide overenthusiastic promotion of new books rather than thoughtful, honest, informed criticism, noting a proliferation of blogs whose authors substituted enthusiasm for knowledge about the genre or even strong writing and analytical skills. That said, only one respondent mentioned facing a quandary about whether to review a book that wasn’t enjoyable or was simply not very good. There seemed to be an ethos of being scrupulously civil yet honest among the bloggers. A couple of respondents mentioned that authors who take issue with a review, expecting nothing but a five-star rave, and self-published authors pleading for reviews could be tiresome.

I thought I’d close this round-up of responses with a few quotes volunteered by participants:

  • I never went into blogging to make money or build an audience to enormous numbers. I continue to enjoy it because it gives me an opportunity to talk about books.
  • I just do it for fun and hope anyone who reads it enjoys and finds it interesting.
  • I do occasionally feel overwhelmed by the amount available to read.
  • Maxine Clarke’s early comments on my blog an invitation to FriendFeed played a crucial role in my blogging: she introduced me to lots of bloggers and lots of books I hadn’t read.

This last comment and a related one (“book blogging can be a sad experience”) resonated with me. As many people in the crime fiction community know, Maxine Clarke was both an expert at emerging social media platforms (something that benefitted the innovative online presence of the premier science journal, Nature, where she was a renowned editor) and a fine and prolific reviewer of crime fiction for Euro Crime and at her own blog, Petrona. She did a great deal to promote high quality book conversations online and almost single-handedly knitted together a vast network of crime fiction readers, so we felt her loss terribly. She is still missed, but the Petrona, a Scandinavian crime fiction prize, is awarded in her name annually and many bloggers have contributed to Petrona Remembered to carry on her work discovering and sharing good mysteries.

I want to thank the participants in this survey and mention those who gave me permission to acknowledge them here.



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