Reading Matters turns 13

Happy 13th birthdayDear Blog,

Happy belated 13th birthday. Now that you’re a grumpy teenager I wanted to share some of the highlights (and lowlights) of your life.

You had a long gestation. It was about four years. You were a kind of half-blog, half-website to begin, but then I discovered a blogging platform called Typepad in 2004 and you were born!

I don’t want to demean you in any way, but you weren’t really my priority back then. You were just a place I dumped my book thoughts and where I posted the odd (woefully written) “review”. But within a year I had decided to refocus my efforts on you: to create a place where I could keep track of all the books I read (back then it was around 12 a year; more than a decade on and it’s 70 or more), as well as celebrate the books I bought, the book shops I loved, the literary articles I discovered online.

By mid-2005 I realised that I wasn’t the only person in the world doing this. I had discovered there were other people in the UK and the US writing book blogs a bit like you. Connecting with them — leaving comments and having great conversations on their blogs — was a newfound joy! None of my friends or work colleagues were readers: now here was a whole community of like-minded people I could converse with about the thing I liked best in the world — books!

The arrival of review copies

Interestingly, the first publicist to take notice of you was an American. (British publishers took years to cotton on.) I still remember the thrill of being approached by email: would I like to review a book if it was sent to me for free? Well, yes, please. And so, in the post, all the way from New York, came a self-published book that really wasn’t my thing but I read it regardless because I’d made a commitment to do so. (Later I learned to be much more choosy about what I agreed to review.)

More books followed; not great avalanches, but a couple here or there and always from the US. One author kindly agreed to be interviewed by email and I remember being delighted at her carefully considered responses. With all due respect, to both you and her, I don’t think anyone read it. The sum total of your readership back then was probably 20 or 30 hardcore bloggers.

Dare I say you were in a very select group — Dovegrey Reader, A Work in Progress and Magnifcent Octopus are the three blogs that stick in my mind the most from back then and I’m delighted to see that all are still going to this day — and it felt good to be part of a new emerging community.

We certainly rattled both the mainstream media and the literary critics, which dismissed our efforts as a threat to the standards of journalism and professional reviewing. I’m sad to say that you came in for real drubbing in a Guardian article dated 26 November 2006:

Finally, to Reading Matters by ‘kimbofo’, an Australian in London. Do we really need to know that Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go has been on her TBR (To Be Read) pile for a year, or that she bought it as part of a discounted set of Booker novels? Pooter lives!

Looking back, I see Ms Cooke’s article as a badge of honour. No, it wasn’t nice being called “Pooter” and having your efforts dismissed in such an offhand manner, but it did thrust book bloggers into the spotlight. We — or should I say YOU — were beginning to make y/our mark.

Ethical issues

Of course, when any new “industry” — and let’s face it, more than a decade on, that’s what blogging has become — comes into being it takes awhile for the ground rules to be established. By late 2006 the blogging world was facing its first real challenge: the ethics of receiving free books without being transparent about it.

It seems naive now, right? Every book blog today has a review policy as standard and most bloggers flag up the source of all the books they review.

But in 2006 when I happened to mention the need for one in a blog post written while I was ill in bed with pneumonia the wrath of the internet rained down on you. This was your first post that went viral. (This was in the days before Twitter or Facebook.) The comments came thick and fast. People agreed, people disagreed, one person even called me a “slattern” and then wondered why I took offence. The “shitstorm” rumbled on for weeks, but I like to think it had a lasting legacy: being transparent in blog reviews is pretty much the normal state of play these days (though interestingly many other ethical dilemmas have since arisen, such as when do you disclose you are friends with the author? Should you ever accept payment for reviews? Are you obliged to review everything you receive?)

Being “discovered”

In the years that followed you went from strength to strength. British publishers finally discovered you. Faber & Faber, which just so happened to be my favourite publisher, were the first to get in touch. It was a generous offer: look at our brochure and let us know what you’d like. In typically tentative style I chose one book —Paul Auster’s Man in the Dark — simply because I was overwhelmed by the choice and didn’t want to appear greedy.

Then, somewhere around 2008 or 2009 (I can’t be sure), you received your first invite to an official book bloggers event. I won’t name the publisher, but I came away from it feeling disappointed — the types of books being promoted weren’t a good fit for you — and patronised (we had to play a childish quiz). But I did meet some great people: the faces behind other blogs I’d been following. And it taught me a valuable lesson: it’s nice to be invited but be selective about what invitations you accept.

By 2010 your heyday had arrived. I was feeding you up to five times a week. Dozens of books were arriving unsolicited for potential review. You had a loyal following — up to 7,000 hits a week and your site metre hit ONE MILLION page views. There were lots of comments on a daily basis.

Through you I even got asked to host a literary event: I was “in conversation with” German author Friedrich Christian Delius (and his translator Jamie Bulloch) about his book Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman in front of a small audience at the Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green. It was exciting and scary and nerve-wracking all at the same time. But I was beginning to feel like you (and me) might have “arrived”.

Social media impact

A month later I was made redundant from my day job. It was a blessing in disguise. I spent three months travelling and then devoted most of my time to you.

I set up a Facebook page to support you and I spent a lot of time on Twitter promoting you. The efforts paid off, but there was a downside to the arrival of social media: the conversations that would normally be held in your comment section now switched to Twitter. You still attracted a lot of traffic, but the lifeblood seemed to be draining away. I firmly believe that comments make the blog world go round: when they dry up it can feel isolating. But once the genie is out of the bottle, there is no going back.

If I was to choose a date where you reached your pinnacle it would be 17 March 2011. Through you I was invited on a press trip to Dublin. Some clever soul had seen all the Irish literature reviews I fed you. What resulted was three days of blissful courting by the Irish Tourism Board, the highlight of which was sailing down O’Connell Street in an open-deck bus leading the official St Patrick’s Day parade, which had a literary theme that year. The next day I was in the audience at Dublinswell, still the best literary event I’ve ever attended (could someone bring it back, please?)

A few months later you were invited back to Dublin to attend Bloomsday festivities and I, as your representative, had a magnificently authentic Bloomsday breakfast, went on a James Joyce literary walk and later attended a “how to read Ulysses” seminar. It was such a terrific experience.

In fact, through you I was presented with lots of terrific literary opportunities*  over the next few years:

  • I had face-to-face interviews with Joseph O’Connor (in Dublin) and Tim Winton (in London);
  • The late KevinfromCanada invited me to participate in the Shadow Giller (and I had dinner with his lovely wife Sheila in Toronto), something I’ve done every year between 2011 and 2016;
  • I chaired a Q&A session with Australian author Fiona MacFarlane on the occasion of her book launch in the UK, an event staged by the Australian Women’s Club and the Australia & New Zealand Festival of Literature & Art; and
  • I received a rare invite to Sebastian Barry’s in-house book launch (and swooned when I realised he knew who I was).

Taking a step back

But by 2014 I was feeling burned out. I was making my living as a freelance sub-editor for specialist publications, which meant I was spending my days intensely focused on complicated copy trying to make it “reader friendly”. I no longer had the energy to come home and write copy to feed you.

It didn’t help that too many books were coming through the door. Too many self-published authors were sending me PDFs of their books uninvited (and then getting stroppy when I replied to say I didn’t review self-published books). Too many publishers were starting to demand reviews to which I just couldn’t commit or asking me to take part in blog tours I had no interest in. Too much of my time and energy was being wasted on feeding you posts that nobody was reading.

I decided to take a step back.

I had a massive clear out of all my books and donated more than 500 to my local Oxfam, which sent a taxi around to collect them. I emailed all the publishers who were sending me books unsolicited and asked them to stop.

Starting afresh

I then transferred you from Typepad to WordPress, purchased a new URL and stripped you back to the bare minimum: book reviews and book lists only. I even took out my star rating system when I realised people thought books I’d awarded three stars weren’t worth reading. This process took three months, done in between freelance editing shifts, and then I launched you back into the world in September 2014.

Cue tumble weeds.

Your traffic fell off a cliff. The 1,000+ followers I had on Typepad dropped to 200 or so. My long-suffering postman no longer turned up at the door burdened by parcels of books.

Now just a couple of books a week came through the door, but they were books I wanted. I created a new blogging regime: I would feed you just once a week and I wouldn’t bother with trying to compete with everyone else. I would plough my own furrow and rediscover the joy of reading and reviewing to my own schedule rather than someone else’s. I no longer wanted to be an “influencer”. I wanted to be someone who loved books and liked sharing that love with others.

I took that to extreme in 2016 when I devoted an entire year to reading nothing but Australian literature. It was one of the best reading years of my life. I loved it.

And thanks to you, wonderful you, some great opportunities came my way last year, too:

Now, here we are in 2017. We’ve had our ups and downs, you and me, but I love you. I love the opportunities you’ve presented me with and I love the people — authors, publishers, fellow bloggers and literary lovers — you’ve introduced me to. I think we’ve both matured into something that is confident (if contrary), likes to do our own thing and knows our own mind. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve tried to raise you to be individual, original, respectful, mindful of others and with integrity as your guiding force.

I can’t wait to see what your teenage years hold in store!

Happy birthday.

Love, kimbofo x

* Despite all that, no one in the mainstream media has ever asked me to review a book in an official capacity, nor asked me to judge a literary prize — there’s hope yet!

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71 thoughts on “Reading Matters turns 13

  1. What a pioneer you were Kim. I think 13 years ago I was only beginning to hear this odd word Blog but had little idea what it actually meant. And there you were already getting sleeves rolled up. Congratulations on sticking it with this when so many others fell by the wayside. Loved your ‘history of the blog’ too and the reflections on how much the whole concept of blogging has changed.

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    • Thank you, Karen. Have wanted to write about the history of blogging for a long while, so a 13th blog birthday seemed an appropriate thing to hang it on. The whole concept of book blogging has become so much more professional these days, but I do fear that bloggers are seen only for their “marketing influence” which is why it’s so important to remain true to yourself and your values.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. 13 years Kim? That’s amazing! I love your blog and you’ve been an inspiration to me. I thought that by not reviewing new releases no one would read my blog but your enthusiasm struck a chord. Long may you continue x

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    • Thanks for such lovely words, Cathy. It’s been a labour of love. A constant diet of new releases makes me ill. I know what I like, so why read the stuff everyone else is reviewing anyway? I’d rather shine a light on the stuff that misses out on the “buzz”.

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  3. I was just chatting on Twitter about the state of book blogging, and I said I felt like 2011 was the peak year. Also the year I started, so I feel like I missed the boat. In my 6 years, I’ve had a similar journey of 1) not knowing what book blogging even is 2)figuring it out, finding publishers 3)TOO MUCH and cutting back 4) small following, doing what I want. Just, an order or two less magnitude than your blog 🙂 Thanks for looking back and writing this up.

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    • Cheers, Laura. Book blogging (as I know it) did peak in 2011/2012 before Twitter sapped everyone’s time, energy and conversation. Now everyone’s a vlogger or a bookstagrammer. Those two media don’t play to my strengths so you will find me blogging here for the foreseeable future. Thanks so much for your support.

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  4. I am just an avid reader but I love your blog and wish you great congratulations on your anniversary. When I wake up early and reach for my iPad, with my golden retriever snoring lengthwise by my side, I check out your blog and it’s a great start to my day. Many thanks.

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  5. Happy birthday to your blog!! I can’t remember when I started following you, but just wanted you to know I love reading your blog. You have introduced me to many new authors, my favourite being Jennifer Johnston. Looking forward to many more years of reading your blog.

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    • Thanks, Antoinette. Chuffed to hear you love Jennifer Johnston. I really ought to read another one of hers soon, as it’s been too long between books. I think I have 3 or 4 left in my TBR.

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  6. Goodness, gracious, I had no idea you had been at it for so long! And what a rollercoaster of a ride you’ve had. I’m happy to see that you’ve reached a balance that you can be happy with, as it can get all far too much, but so glad that you’ve had such wonderful opportunities!

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    • I’m ancient, Marina. I’ve been quietly furrowing this little corner of the internet for, well, 13 years now, though sometimes it actually feels like a lot longer!

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  7. Happy blog birthday! I really enjoyed this post, its fascinating to read about your journey. I blog because, like you, my colleagues and friends don’t read the same books as me and I like having a little corner to connect with like-minded people. I’m definitely not on the new release treadmill or harbouring any dreams of being an ‘influencer’! I wish you many more happy blogging years 🙂

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    • In some respects blogging has turned into marketing and too many are doing the job that publicists should be doing (which is why many publicists love blogs). That saddens me because bloggers should carve out their own niche and be true to themselves (as you have done and continue to do). But I do think bloggers are now taken much more seriously than they were in those early days, which is a good thing.

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  8. Congratulations, Kim! I’ve been trying to remember how long I’ve been following you and had to go to Whispering Gums to see when I started following her, as she was the one who put me on to you – it was May, 2010. Although I don’t comment often, I am a loyal follower. I’ve lost count of the number of authors you’ve put me on to I might otherwise have missed. Many of my book group reads have come from you and when I was teaching we added a number of books to our literature circles after I read your reviews (one off the top of my head was We Are Liars). As a book blog reader, one of my highlights was meeting you at the inaugural (has there been another one?) Australia and New Zealand Festival in London. Congratulations again on a brilliant blog!

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    • Cheers, Glenda. Glad to hear I’ve been an influence on your reading life and helped you decide what books to read. And it was lovely to meet you at the festival all those years ago, too. There was one other festival (I only went to one session) and then they called it quits. It has now morphed into FANZA (Friends of Australia and New Zealand Arts), which holds events — theatre shows, gigs, readings etc — across the year rather than all squeezed into one weekend.

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    • Thanks, Kaggsy! 🙂 And no, I never review all the books I receive. If I accept something, after it’s been pitched to me, I always make it clear that I never promise to review everything that I receive because real life usually gets in the way.

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  9. A huge congratulations Kim! It’s such an achievement to write a really good blog never mind keeping it going for 13 years! I love your blog and look forward to many more years of your opinions and reviews!

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  10. Oh, this was a fascinating read – having come to you relatively late, I had no idea of your back-story! I have quite often been glad that I’ve never really been discovered so I don’t get deluges of books – I get a few and that’s lovely, and review for Shiny New Books and that’s under control. I especially understand the editor / blogger pull – do I work or do something for the blog, oh, gosh it’s all words, argh!

    My blog is 12 now, so we’re about the same age – what different paths we’ve trodden! Here’s to the next decade and a bit.

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    • Thanks, Liz, I hadn’t realised you’ve been blogging for about the same amount of time. Funnily enough, now I’ve left journalism/editing and moved into a different industry I still struggle to find the energy to blog. I guess it’s all about priorities.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Happy 13th birthday to your blog! I really enjoy reading your reviews and I hope that Reading Matters continues for many more years.

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  12. My little blog will only be 10 next year, but I share the feeling of it being part of my life that I could never surrender.
    How did we ever get by without people who shared our love of books??
    Thank you for all the books I’ve read because of your reviews, (and for all the ones still waiting patiently on the TBR!)
    Happy, happy birthday and may there be many more:)
    Lisa

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    • Thank you, Lisa. Meeting you several times on both sides of the planet would never have happened without this blog. I feel we are kindred spirits and your own blog has been responsible for many purchases and an enriched reading life x

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  13. Many congratulations, Kim. Thirteen years, that’s an amazing achievement – well done! I really enjoyed reading about the history of your blogging experiences, complete with all the ups and downs. I’m glad to hear that you’re in a good place now, all set for the next phase of your literary life. Wishing you all the best for the years ahead.

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    • Many thanks, Jacqui, it’s certainly been a rollercoaster but I’ve loved (almost all of) it. It’s introduced me to many fine books and many fine readers.

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  14. I remember the exact moment when I discovered your blog and the fact that there were people blogging about books. It was in April 2011 and I had just been bowled over by Room by Emma Donoghue. I googled the name of the book which led me to your blog and I haven’t looked back. I started reading a selection of the books you had reviewed including books by authors like Sebastian Barry, John McGahern and Jennifer Johnson. I have followed you ever since and have read lots of lovely books as a result of reading your reviews. You are probably the person who has had the most influence on my reading choices (followed very closely by Lisa from ANZlitlovers) since 2011. So, thank you for your blog, for those well-thought-out-reviews and for your friendship over the years – you are an inspiration. Happy 13th blog-birthday.

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    • Cheers, Sharon. I have fond memories of meeting you in the Koonwarra Store (of all places) and chatting about books and finding that we had so much in common, not least the South Gippsland connection! I love that book blogging has made me friends with people all over the world, but I especially love it when it’s people from ‘home’. Thanks for all your support and loads of comments over the years.

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  15. Congratulations! And, as a relative newcomer to the book blogging scene (2014), it’s amazing to hear about how, only a decade ago, things were very different. Hope you and the blog have a glass of something bubbly to celebrate.

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  16. Huge congratulations Kim. I too have been a loyal follower for the last 9-10 years and whilst I don’t comment as often as I should (mainly because I haven’t yet read the book you have reviewed and so don’t feel I have anything useful to contribute), so, so many of the books you review have made it onto my TBR pile. I don’t “do” twitter or instagram and with the decline in broadsheet book reviews, your blog really does expand my reading list and has introduced me to authors I would never otherwise have found. A heartfelt “Thank you”!

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  17. Wow! I loved reading your blog’s history. You are such a pioneer and can be rightly proud of ‘Reading Matters’ – the most perfect blog name – which you got to first! Yours was one of the first blogs I discovered when I was looking to dip my toe into this world back in 2008 and you remain one of the few blogs on my toolbar which I always visit. Sorry I don’t have time to comment more often. It’s been lovely to meet you too at numerous events over the years. Congratulations. xx

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    • What a lovely comment, Annabel. I always look forward to our little chats at book events. I don’t comment enough on your blog either, so we’re probably even 😜

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  18. Is it pathetic that I have tears in my eyes? What a beautiful letter to your blog, and fascinating to hear about all it has led you to! I obviously missed the boat, not starting up until 2013, but I love it anyway. Maybe it’s better that I don’t know what blogging was like in its best days. 🙂
    Congratulations on 13 years and all the work (and love!) you’ve put into it, and I’m happy to hear you’re not going anywhere yet!

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  19. Love your blog, because it highlights a variety of books I usually haven’t (and probably wouldn’t) come across – especially last years initiative! I also love the back story and hearing your journey… helps to appreciate the time and work that goes into it!

    I put my blog on a sabbatical because I was free-falling headlong into many of the pitfalls you mention… I will start up again but this is a great reminder – and inspiration – to get a healthy balance and blog about what I want to read (and write)

    Very Happy Blog Birthday Kim xx

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    • I’m all for a healthy balance, Poppy, but it can be hard to achieve. Glad to hear my reviews have introduced you to books you might not normally come across. I find that one of the most pleasing aspects of blogging: sharing my unusual and diverse tastes!

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  20. Happy birthday!! I’ve been following this blog for about 10 years now. I agree that blogs need comments/discussion. For me blogs beat Twitter for engaging with like minded souls. So I’m going to dive into my favourite blogs again and take part as best I can in the discussions with you and other visitors to the site

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    • Nice to hear from you, Steve. Hadn’t realised you’d been following Reading Matters for so long! Discussion on blogs does seem to have taken a back seat to Twitter, but I also realise that I need to comment on more blogs more often myself. It’s a never-ending cycle of reading reviewing blogging commenting tweeting etc etc. It would be wonderful to see your comments here but I will understand if life gets in the way 😊

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  21. Has it really been 13 years? It doesn’t seem like that long ago when I used to comment and you used to comment on my blog. Happy Birthday to Reading Matters! I’m really happy you’ve kept at it. It’s still my favourite book blog!

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  22. I love this blog! There are many writers I might never have discovered, if not for you. Thank you! 💜

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  23. Wow, what a story! I’m impressed, really.
    I enjoy reading your blog and I hope you’ll continue blogging.
    We are a great and civilized community, we aren’t too many in this world.
    cheers!

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    • You’re right, Emma: the book blogging community is very civilised. Even if some of us might not agree about certain books we do so politely. Thanks for your lovely comment

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  24. Many congratulations in reaching 13 years, I have just gone past my first year. It has been fun so far, and I am already learning to say no; I have to send a polite email to one publicist who was just sending books of the thriller genre, really not my thing…

    Looking forward to your next milestone. Thank you for your considered and interesting posts and for persuading me to widen my scope with regards to fiction

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  25. Happy 13th! I hope that your wishes come true on the literary judge or be interviewed by one of the big newspapers.

    Keep up the great work

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