Blogging for Love (and Maybe Money)

Bloggers Sarah Wendell, Jennifer Hart, David Gutowski, Rachel Deahl and Sarah Weinman at NYU's Summer Publishing Institute

“When it comes to social media, I fly by seat-of-your-pants airlines. I have a lot of miles there,” quipped Sarah Wendell, who runs the well-known book blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.  Wendell was participating in a blogging panel at the NYU-SCPS Summer Publishing Institute.  The moderator was Sarah Weinman, who created the blog Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind (currently on hiatus) and is now a reporter for Publishers Lunch. Under her deft guidance, the conversation turned to the need to change and adapt to a constantly evolving online landscape. Four bloggers, who came from all corners of the publishing and blogging landscape, were eager to share their thoughts.

When asked how publishers’ relationships to bloggers have changed in the last ten years, Jennifer Hart, Vice President and Associate Publisher of HarperCollins and the creator of the blog Book Club Girl, didn’t hesitate with her answer: “Tremendously!” she said, noting that bloggers are invited to parties, author events and receive galley copies. “Publishers really rely on them to be our word of mouth in the world.” David Gutowski’s blog Largehearted Boy covers  both music and literature by inviting authors to create and discuss play lists. He has seen his creation grow from a passion project to a prominent fixture in the publishing community.  In fact, his blog is sponsored by Knopf/Pantheon.  David has posted over 700 entries and is constantly approached by authors interested in appearing in his blog. “I’m famous for turning down Stephanie Meyer…  I had no problem doing that,” he shared with good humor.

Naturally, the talk turned soon to Twitter, as often happens when bloggers get together. “I used to hate it,” said Rachel Deahl, a contributing editor at  the Publishers Weekly blog PWxyz. She’s changed her mind, however, and now has over 2,000 followers. “I used to think Twitter was the dumbest thing it the world,” seconded Wendell.  Wendell now has 13,000 followers.  What changed the bloggers’ minds? “Twitter allowed me access,” explained Deahl. “There are people you should know because they know all this stuff. It’s also a tool of connection.  I’ve used it to literally find people at conferences who didn’t have access to their emails.”

In addition to connecting in real life, sites like Twitter and Facebook have permitted publishers to interact with readers in ways that were impossible a decade ago. The panelists noted that each tool—Facebook, Twitter and blogging— has its unique function.  A tweet and a post will contain different content and require different levels of thought.  In response to moderator Weinman’s question, “With so many ways to express yourself  online, how do you choose?” Hart responded: “With Facebook, I’m much more judicious. My Facebook page has grown organically and through advertising. The audience is consumer.  I ask more questions. With Twitter, I feel like I’m talking to professionals in the game.  Twitter is more about broadcasting information.”

Another recurring topic was how to directly quantify the impact of social media on sales. “It’s a challenge. There is not one formula.  There are a lot of factors,” offered Gutowski. He pondered what matters most: is it the number of Facebook friends? Twitter followers? Page visits? Responded Deahl: “I’m inclined to say there is a difference if you have 5 million or 50,000 users. It has to mean something.”

Wendell reminded the audience that what it does mean is still ambiguous. A key thing, she explained, is that the blog is free and the book costs money. “People were once convinced that x popularity [on a blog site] meant x [book] sales, but it just doesn’t work that way,” she noted. “That isn’t to say online tools don’t have an important social footprint; it just means that our generation will have to grapple with the problem of quantifying it [social media.]”

The takehome points for the students were simple: for bloggers, blog what you love and dream big. “Someone who is small today could be bigger in a month,” advised Hart. And, as to why we need bloggers in the first place, Gutowski had a thoughtful answer: “Blogs are bringing writers together, and creating quality content.” And that’s what matters most.

by Ben Zarov

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