This time last year, I was on the verge of publishing my first novel. It was a period of huge anxiety: I was convinced the notoriously litigious Joyce estate would sue me. The Beckett estate had already demanded that I remove the character of Samuel Beckett from my novel. I’d spent hours on the ‘phone to lawyers and libel insurers, and I’d barely slept. What if all my work was in vain? What if no one liked my book? It was a book blogger who saved my life … but I’ll come to that later.
It wasn’t only a time of anxiety. It was also a time of learning. I learnt how a book is printed, published, launched, reviewed and promoted. For years, I’d existed only as a reader and buyer of books. Like most people, I scanned the review sections of the national press or hurriedly grabbed a book from a Waterstones table. I had no idea how difficult it is to have a book reviewed in the national press, nor did I know that most bookshops charge a fee for being on a table or in a window display. In the weeks surrounding my launch, I was introduced to the truth about publishing and to the realities of working with a small independent publisher.
Three months later, I was published by the world’s largest publishing company (Hachette, in Australia). This served to illustrate, even more vividly, the huge difference between being published by a giant and being published by an indie. I learnt still more about the commercial realities of publishing – the shrinking margins, the fight for shelf space and readers, the dwindling space devoted to books in the media – and I saw what a huge difference a big marketing budget can make.
But not everything I uncovered was about the hard realities of publishing. My most wonderful finding was the presence of a huge and vigorous book blogging community. I’ll confess: I had no idea about book bloggers before the launch of my own novel. I’m rather ashamed of this now. But while working, bringing up four children, trying to write a novel and running my own blog (nothing to do with reading or writing), I chose books by dashing into a bookshop and snatching the first thing that caught my fancy (yes, invariably from the tables).
My publisher suggested I follow some book bloggers. I started scrolling through various blogs and it was as if I’d stumbled into a book-lined room full of my favourite people. I berated myself: Why hadn’t I found them before? Their dedication to reading and writing (and their frequently large and loyal followings) convinced me that reading is very much alive. In the run-up to publication, I’d read hundreds of articles on the decline of reading. I’d seen it in my own children. As they hit ‘teenagehood’, they read less and less. Social media and school work had sucked up their reading time. I’d seen it in my husband. He worked ever-longer hours, with any free time spent clearing emails. For me, discovering book bloggers meant discovering that thousands of people still feel passionately about books. For anyone who believes books can make the world a more humane and compassionate place, that’s a very cheering discovery.
The book bloggers I follow dedicate hours and hours of their time to reading and blogging about their reading experiences. For free. For the sheer love of books. Discovering this was also hugely inspiring. As a seasoned blogger (on my other passions,cooking and research), I know how time-consuming good blogging is. Photographs of a reasonable quality have to be taken, edited, up-loaded. Posts have to be researched, written, edited, checked – and checked again. Then there’s the tweeting, the FaceBook sharing, answering all the comments, the regular software upgrades, the financial investment. Anyone whose blogged seriously knows it takes more time than the reader will ever know. Book bloggers work particularly hard because they also (obviously) have to read the books they’re writing about.
I was astounded at the quantity of reading that many bloggers do. Some read tens (even hundreds) of books a year. This volume of reading ensures that book bloggers are particularly well-placed to write excellent reviews. There can be no better training for a writer and reviewer than constant reading. Who better to review a crime (for example) novel than someone with a wide and deep experience of reading that genre? There is no commercial imperative for a book blogger. The fact that they’re neither paid nor expected to write in a house-style or to a formula adds to their legitimacy. While authors are often put in the insidious position of having to review a fellow author (with all the political ramifications this brings) for the national press, bloggers are free to say exactly as they please.
Small publishers, debut writers, authors with indies are all reliant on book bloggers now. This is partly because the national media is devoting less and less space to books and partly because the big names (both writers and publishers) dominate the little space that still exists. I can’t put it better than my publicist, Natalie Clark, at Impress: ‘Book bloggers are one of the best things to happen to the book industry….Nothing beats real readers talking about books.’
Natalie has become personal friends with many book bloggers and this brings me to my last point. Because I follow so many book bloggers, I’m sometimes witness to their Twitter chats. Although they span counties and, sometimes, countries, they communicate between themselves constantly. Even with their enormous TBR piles, they find time to look after each other. While the world today seems rife with competitiveness, there is none of that in this community. Book bloggers would appear to be some of the kindest, politest and most generous people I’ve ever come across. They cheer each other up, they support each other, they make each other (and me) laugh. Fellow writer, Louisa Treger, had the same experience: ‘I found them to be a generous, supportive group of people who are passionate about reading and writing.’
Book bloggers have changed the way I buy books. The last few books I’ve selected for my book group have all been discovered on book blogs. I like to think this has helped both indie publishers and lesser known authors. But more importantly, it’s introduced me and my seven book clubbers to novels and worlds we might otherwise not have found.
When my first blog review came out (and she knows who she is), I cried. With relief, with gratitude, with shock. Debut writers (perhaps all writers) never know if their book is any good, if anyone will like it, if it’s worth the RRP printed on the back, if our years of labour were all in vain. I had my first full night of sleep for a very long time after that blog review. Debut author, Lyn Farrell, had a similar experience: ‘My book dealt with a very difficult subject and I was very worried about how it would be received. When bloggers’ reviews started coming in, I cried with relief and joy. It made my ten years of writing worth every minute.’
The Joyce Girl is about to go into its third re-print. The opening pages will contain several review quotes from book blogs and I’ll be sending signed copies to each of the bloggers quoted. To see your names alongside authors and reviewers from the national press will make me very happy.
Book bloggers everywhere – I salute you!