Blogging milestones

Reading Matters turns 18


Reading Matters is now 18. 

Yea, I can’t believe it either. If this blog was a person, she’d be old enough to vote, drive a car, buy alcohol and get into nightclubs. Where did the time go?

I’ve been doing this malarkey for so long, usually on top of a busy day job (of which I have had many over the years), that I can’t really remember what I used to do in my spare time before it.

Blogging about books has been a much-cherished creative outlet. It’s taught me discipline, helped hone my online skills, improved my writing and editing, and made me a more critical reader. And it’s also introduced me to a supportive community of fellow bloggers, readers, writers and publishers I might not otherwise have met.

I recently had to explain a point of difference about my blog from the millions that now exist, and I summed it up as being “one of the world’s first blogs about books”.

When I started Reading Matters back in early 2004, blogging was a new form of media, the first step in the democratisation of publishing.

Everything about it was amateur. There was no such thing as an “influencer”. Social media didn’t exist. The release of the first iPhone was still three years away. The book industry didn’t know about blogging or hadn’t yet cottoned on to how they could use bloggers to help them spread the word about their wares.

It was a brilliant time of discovery and fun and it was relatively free from commercial agendas, external forces and self-promotion. We were all just figuring it out as we went along.

As a print journalist, I found it a practical way to teach myself new skills that might help me break into the digital world. But back then the print media hated new media, which it viewed as a threat — rightly as it turns out — but I was excited to have a foot in both camps.

Over the years people have occasionally asked me to share tips or expertise on book blogging and I’ve always shied away from it. I don’t see myself as an expert. I’m just a passionate reader who found an outlet for sharing that passion online. I don’t, for instance, have an Arts degree, have never studied English literature and am not well-read in the Classics. And everything I know about blogging (and reviewing books), I just learned along the way, mainly through trial and error.

But the beauty of blogging is that there are no “rules” — except the ones you set yourself.

I’ve always tried to espouse the same kinds of values here in the online world that I do in my real offline life: I do my own thing; I don’t follow fashions or fads; I try to be respectful of other people’s points of view even if I don’t agree with them; I am always aware that any work I review here has taken hours of hard graft by a real person so any criticism should be constructive and non-personal; I am transparent and don’t push agendas because integrity is important; I try to be kind and courteous but I call out bullshit when I see it; I like to encourage and help others and spread the love wherever possible; and I always aim to be fair and balanced.

A few key things I have learned, but which are probably obvious to others, include:

  • it’s not quantity (of content) but the quality that counts;
  • stats don’t make the world go round;
  • having a set schedule isn’t important — you can take a year off if you like, in the grand scheme of things it’s not going to matter — and there’s no need to apologise for an online absence, you don’t owe anyone anything;
  • there’s no need to post every day because some “expert” claims you will lose “traffic” if you don’t, just do it when you feel like it, it’s a hobby NOT a job;
  • if you’re struggling to write a review take a rest, come back later or just quit, you don’t get points for being a masochist;
  • you don’t need to review everything that is sent to you (provided you haven’t made any promises) — feeling guilty about this just eats up energy better devoted elsewhere and genuine publishers understand that real life gets in the way and they’ll just be happy if a certain percentage of books that they send out get reviewed, they’re not expecting a 100 per cent strike-rate;

and *finally*

  • don’t get hung up about how many books are in the TBR or how much money you have spent on books — you could have a far worse habit, like scoring crack cocaine!

I’m sure there are loads more “lessons”, but this post has gone on way too long already. And if you are still reading, thanks for hanging in there.

Thanks, too, to everyone who has followed this blog (and the associated Facebook page), left a comment, sent me an email or a book, invited me to bookish things on the basis of what I do here, or told others about my reviews. It’s all appreciated — and makes the solitary process of tapping out words on a laptop, on the evening or weekend, that little bit more communal.

Finally, I love this quote by American academic Charles W. Eliot, which sums up why I do what I do:

Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.

You could say the same about book blogging, right?

Blogging milestones

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!