BookCamp T.O. Wrap-Up Pt. II: “Online Communities” « Once & Future

Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

May 19, 2010

BookCamp T.O. Wrap-Up Pt. II: “Online Communities”

BookCamp T.O. seemed to me to be peopled by three types of people: 1) representatives from publishing houses (often, publicists) 2) technology/new media geeks and 3) commenters and critics – i.e. bloggers.  I certainly felt I was there in my capacity as the latter, and so the sessions I chose were those I thought would speak to me and my vocation best.

So I was disappointed, to say the least, in the final session of the day, “Building and Sustaining a Community of Readers Online”.  Far from being concerned with community-building or readership, this session wound up being about leveraging existing community in order to generate sales.  Tan Light of Random House pointed out to us that social media, while “free”, is extremely time consuming and thus requires a lot of man hours.  So, by building (or finding) self-sustaining communities, you basically have an engine that will generate that labour for you.

Needless to say, from this “community as marketing tool” standpoint, most of the discussion focused around what to do when the community is saying bad things about your company or product; how to manage or minimize the things you don’t want the “community” to be saying.  Customer service!  Transparency!  Smiley emoticons!  Okay, that last bit is mine.

I’m sure the publicists in the room were thrilled.

But for my part, the session left a bad taste in my mouth.  Is that what I am?  An unpaid publicist?  Is that what we’re building all these “communities” for?  To sell books?

This has been an issue with “free knowledge” rhetoric all along.  The “knowledge economy” is supposed to save us from economic collapse, but who along the knowledge production chain gets paid?  If I am participating in a critical community which is hashing out important issues in, say, bookselling and then a media giant comes along, scoops up the buzz and the discourse and the leads we’ve worked up and prints it in their for-profit newspaper, we (the critical community) have produced the bulk of the knowledge to be sold by a third party.  This is part of the problem with copyright in general: What right has anyone other than the content producer have to make money off of an intellectual property?

But someone should make money – I don’t advocate reducing people whose talent is for knowledge production to slaves or hobbyists.  If what you do is write or make music or draw or think, you should have the right to make your living off of it.  You don’t owe it to “society” to give away your product for free.  And you certainly should be annoyed if you do give something away for free and someone else capitalizes off of it.

So I wonder how the blogger model fits into the new economy.  Blogging is almost always done for free. The Quill & Quire profiles a number of “big” book bloggers in their latest issue and we learn that among them are only two who actually make money from it – BookNinja and GalleyCat.  So what’s in it for the rest them?  I hate to be so crass, but let’s be honest: sure, there’s an element of fun and community to it, but most bloggers have some back-of-the-brain idea that blogging will net them something in the long run.  Money?  Legitimacy?  Popularity?  A job?

“Hits” are a big deal.  We let our stuff be quoted, linked and promoted elsewhere, often by companies who use our influence to promote a product of theirs that we’re lauding, because there’s an expectation we’ll get traffic in return.  The Quill’s article suggests the legitimacy of blogs like BookNinja and Maud Newton comes from being cited by “real” news sources like the Washington Post or the New York Times.  Great publicity for the bloggers, right?  But Maud Newton isn’t underwritten by a media conglomerate and she doesn’t run ads.  Major media sources use her work, and in return she gets…

On the one hand, it’s nice to imagine that most of us are blogging for the altruistic purpose of “contributing to public dialogue” or “making a difference”.  Maybe we really love Canadian Literature and want to see it succeed, or we feel strongly that new transmedia projects will make the world a more equitable place.  But fact is, this is a time-consuming practice.  Blogging as a form of philanthropy is, like all philanthropy, the privilege of the already-underwritten-by-someone-else.  As we move into a future where blogging is an increasingly legitimized form on journalism, and “real” newspapers are dropping like flies, there’s really nothing just about a blogging model that expects the new journalism to come from generously employed hobbyists with a bit of an obsessive compulsive streak.  If we as a society value the knowledge production they’re engaged in, we’ll find a way to make this their full-time job.

I sort of wish I’d gone to mesh  ’10 because I think there might have been more opportunity for me to learn about these issues.  But then, I have a job I had to attend, and a toddler to take care of.  My exploration of media issues isn’t being underwritten by anyone, so I’m left musing to myself in my “spare” time.  Hopefully I haven’t fired way off the mark this time – what do y’all think?  How do you reconcile your status as unpaid publicist; dharma bum?

24 thoughts on “BookCamp T.O. Wrap-Up Pt. II: “Online Communities””

  1. B.Kienapple says:

    Charlotte, this is a really interesting question and one I grapple with both as a publicist and blogger. As I publicist I am keenly aware balancing my need for bloggers to cover my books and their need to be independent content providers. That’s why I don’t try to control the outcome. I provide books and the conversation can evolve from there, whether negative or positive. Honestly, most blogging IS a hobby and that’s why I respect that I cannot expect a blogger to review my book within a timeline or provide anything else except for a review, whether negative or positive. Related to this, it’s important to develop relationships with bloggers that are honest and respectful.
    As a blogger, I am all too aware of the free work that I am doing publicizing books. That is why I have very strict guidelines about how my blog can be approached by publicists etc. I don’t appreciate publicists trying to push their products in the comments and I say yes to very few books. It is almost impossible to make money from blogging, the same way it is almost impossible to start a successful magazine. However, publicists can drive traffic to your site to get you in a better place to host advertising etc. So as long as you establish a respectful relationship, a blogger can stand to gain something.
    Sorry this is so long and rant-y!
    -Bronwyn

    1. Charlotte says:

      Thanks B! Long and rant-y replies are meat and potatoes to the discourse. 😉

      I totally applaud your stance! I can’t “blame” publicists for looking to social media – this is where the future of publicity lies. And on the bloggers’ side, most of us are hobbyists and aren’t (yet) producing a product that’s up to the same standard as a good literary review, so they’re probably making exactly what they deserve right now. 😉

      But I wonder how far we can take this model. Increasingly I turn to online sources for my book news & reviews because there are no other options. There are few book sections left in newspapers and, frankly, the quality of reviews on some blogs is higher than the web content offered to replace the book sections. A shift from print literary discourse to digital literary discourse also seems to be a shift from a model subsidized by publishers to one offered gratis by online content producers. The Globe’s book section was financed by advertising: a blog like Pickle Me This is financed by no one.

      I suppose advertising is the ultimate endgame for a blogger that wants to dedicate themselves to the practice full-time. So does that make the blog ecosystem one where lots of little blogs compete for traffic, and the most successful ones win financing through ads? I suppose that’s the web model elsewhere. Though with the exception of tastefully placed ads like those on BookNinja or the Quillblog, I think we tend to pooh-pooh sites that “sell out” to include GoogleAds. And are publishers willing to pay similar rates to those they used to offer the Globe?

      Now I’m ranting… this isn’t even directed at you, I’m just full of ideas!

  2. Kerry says:

    The whole reason I have been remotely successful as a blogger (which is relative, I realize, and of course I don’t mean financially successful) is because I haven’t regarded myself as an agent of publicity. From the outset, my blog has been about tracing my own path as a reader, and if nobody else ever read it, the blog would still be important to me. I responded a bit to your initial twitter post on my blog where I address how blogging has helped me to grow as a reader, and how that in itself has been worthwhile.

    That said, through blogging I have been able to get some really excellent paid writing gigs. I have made some really fascinating friends (who in turn have helped me grow as a reader). Because I am a blogger, I got to experience the highlight of my life– three days at Rideau Hall and an invitation to the GGs in 2008. I feel like my ideas are taken seriously by some people in the publishing industry (though I’m not sure how much of that is terrible genuine, but I’d like to think a little bit) and I can command a certain authority based upon that (once again, that authority being very relative. I am a very humble beast, I promise).

    Of course, there have been times when I’ve wondered what the point of my effort is, but then experiences and opportunities such as those I’ve described above make clear to me that I’ve gotten back as much as I’ve put in. And even without them, I love my little blog. It’s a scrapbook of the stuff I’ve found along the way, what I want to keep and remember, and the questions (and answers) I’ve been discovering because of the wonderful books I read.

    *I do wish, however, that instead of publicists trying to figure out how to “leverage” bloggers to be overwhelmingly positive about their product, as much effort could be extended by someone in the editorial capacity ensuring that the product (which are BOOKS after all) was actually *good*. There are so many appallingly awful books, and we are such clever creatures, people, so I can’t quite figure out why this is so.

    1. Charlotte says:

      That would be a wonderful positive effect of blogging / social media as a publicity tool – if the conversation were genuinely two-way! I certainly would go out of my way to write more reviews if I felt critical reviews were being seriously taken as advice by someone, rather than negative criticism to be hidden away. I think what irked me about the session was the emphasis on communities as something to be *used* rather than something to be participated in.

  3. B.Kienapple says:

    Kerry – that’s another thing, a blogger can use their site to enhance their own career. There may not be a direct monetary correlation, but close to it. As for leveraging bloggers to spread the (positive) word, any publicist worth their salt tries to stimulate conversation, not promote a message. With so many books floating about these days, conversation is key, not messaging. But I agree, there must be something worth talking about.
    Charlotte – I don’t think blogging will ever replace traditional media online as trad media have more resources (and time!) at their disposal to deliver top shelf content. Some bloggers are very top shelf themselves and to be totally honest with you, if they’re not making money off this content then they need to revisit their marketing strategies. Because bloggers deliver the ultimate handsell, I think companies are aware of their power and are willing to pay well for advertising, as long as the blogger is aggressive in negotiating rates.

  4. Kerry says:

    One more thing– that for me, the question “What do you get out of blogging” is akin to asking somebody, “What do you get out of watching TV”.

    And the other is that while I think newspapers in general have suffered under the rise of online culture, I think that suffering has been an *excuse* for diminishing book coverage rather than the reason for it.

    1. Charlotte says:

      I think “getting something” out of blogging is something to be considered *if* we consider blogs/forums to be the upcoming replacement for traditional outlets. Blogging as the hobby-level supplementation of a healthy critical environment is fine. But I get the feeling that as blogging becomes more legitimized, and as it is increasingly seen as a valid replacement for traditional critical venues (and, indeed, as traditional critical venues give up or go bankrupt or whatever), then it’s worth asking if it’s being treated with the same consideration (and budgets) by publishing houses.

      This weekend I definitely heard a lot of variations of “how to get authors/blogs/twitter to advertise the product for you” without much discussion about how this fit into their publicity budget. They feel they need unpaid man hours from other people in the book world: is this because there’s more publicity required these days? Or are they just trying to trim publicity budgets at our expense?

  5. B.Kienapple says:

    There is no publicity budget for reviewers, whether traditional or otherwise, unless you’re talking about review copies. Do you mean marketing dollars i.e. advertising on blogs? I think this is possible, especially where traffic warrants it.

    What I heard this weekend was not “what can publicists get out of communities” but “how can we interact with these communities”? They already exist, we just provide the books. There should be no editorial direction or messaging associated with it.

    1. Charlotte says:

      I think I meant marketing – to be honest, I’m not clear on where marketing ends and publicity begins. 0_o I am thinking of a “blog” – especially big ones like Maud Newton or Book Slut, say – as an online journal rather than just a series of reviews. Marketing budgets have traditionally earmarked funds for advertising in print literary reviews, but as we lose print journals, where do these funds go? The new model of reviews is less centralized – so how are those marketing budgets spent now?

      Definitely agreed on the latter! I don’t mean to paint the industry as a bunch of lampreys, I think on both ends of the chain (producer -> reception) there are a lot of questions about how future readers will choose books, how literary discourse will be shaped, and who will underwrite the whole process. I’d like to hope we aren’t going in the direction of replacing old advertising budgets with ten thousand review copies instead. 😉

      1. B.Kienapple says:

        Marketing budgets still seem to be allocated to traditional outlets – outdoor, transit, print etc. They still get the most eyeballs and if a blogger has awesome traffic, budget could be allocated there too. It’s all about the eyeballs.

  6. Kerry says:

    But wasn’t this the same funds for advertising whose lack made for the loss of print journals in the first place?

    1. Charlotte says:

      Ah, very true. I’d forgotten about that! It was related to circulation, wasn’t it? Declining circulation meant less advertising revenue, and a less viable publication. I’ll have to do my homework and jog my memory as to why this happened – was there less advertising money coming out of the publishing houses, or just less being directed at these publications in particular?

  7. JK says:

    Like Bronwyn, I’m in the unique position of being someone who is a “hobbyist” blogger and as a professional, also communicates with bloggers who review ECW titles. My approach as a professional is very similar to Bronwyn’s. When we created our reader review program, we deliberately set the standards quite low, because we knew that people are not really compensated for the work they do.

    It IS unfortunate that bloggers can’t make a living and it certainly requires a lot of work to keep up a blog. But because I started my blog for personal reasons (to join the conversation and to make myself think harder about the books I read), I find as long as I stay true to those motivations, everything else is just gravy. I have relationships with several publicists, and I only review the books I want to. And the resulting traffic and free books are compensation enough for me, because, like the millions of people on LibraryThing and GoodReads, I really just want to talk about books. Not being on someone’s payroll also affords you the freedom to talk about what you want. Would money be nice? Of course. But I find that for the time being, there are enough benefits to maintaining the KIRBC to keep me going for some time.

    1. JK says:

      Whoa…I started writing that comment before a meeting, came back and the conversation had exploded. Sorry it seems a bit behind!

    2. Charlotte says:

      It’s funny you should mention “resulting traffic”, because it was a comment you made during one of the sessions that got me thinking about this! You mentioned appreciating the traffic from the Canada Reads shout-outs… and after thinking “yah, the traffic was awesome!” I stopped and thought, “but wait… why does the traffic matter to me?” You don’t run ads on your site, and don’t seem likely to start.

      I know I get all giggly when I have high-traffic days, but I can’t quite put my finger on why. I don’t want to run ads either, so it isn’t about money. Is it about legitimacy? Influence? I started the blog determined to write whether anyone was reading or not, as an exercise for myself. It seems like most of us here did (and do) the same – “I do this for me” seems to be the sentiment of my commenters today. But in doing this for ourselves we’re also providing buzz (or links, or more) for publishers. It’s at that point I wonder if this selfless “it’s about the community” attitude on the part of the blog community is a little naive, since the people who’re linking us and encouraging us aren’t interested in the wider community, they’re interested in selling their books. Which, you know, they should be – but then, perhaps we should be more aware of our power in this exchange.

      The idea of “free work” in the service of a knowledge economy has always been problematic for me, whether it’s un-tenured scholarship, artist self-promotion, or blogging. There’s a big place for it, but somewhere in the model has to be some compensation for services rendered by someone who devotes their lives to maintaining key pillars of the communities that are becoming so crucial to the cultural production industry.

      (must not invoke Adorno… must not invoke Adorno…)

      1. JK says:

        Yes, I think it’s about legitimacy and influence. And/or ego. I like your comment about having the power, which I think is important to remember. And I think one way we exercise that power is in turning down books or outreach from publishers that doesn’t fit our own tastes or mandate. But a greater power would be swell. Maybe we need a union…

        And I think your opinions on “free work” are most welcome. Labours of love are still labour!

  8. The point of my book blog has always been to find and promote well-written books and to explore what makes a book well-written. So I guess I’ve always viewed myself as a “publicist” for the books I like. And I work for books. 😉

  9. Julie Wilson says:

    My two cents? Publicists are underpaid publicists who can’t enjoy the freedom of those who can say what they really think. If you love books, that’s the greater cost.

    1. Charlotte says:

      Eek, I suppose in that sense it’s better to be a publicist for all than a publicist slave to just one. 🙂

    2. B.Kienapple says:

      Yeah, I can dig that.

  10. Steph says:

    Hmmm. I have to say that for me, I blog about books because I’m passionate about them and I need an outlet for that passion. I’m desperate to share my thoughts on books and authors and such because I want to engage in what I consider meaningful conversation with like minds.

    If I influence someone, I consider that a huge bonus. Mainly I just want to share something I love and I hope others will get such enjoyment out of it as well. I think, too, I’m eager to promote good literatur

  11. Steph says:

    Okaayyy, somehow I got cut off there. Of course, there’s supposed to be an “e” on the end of literature!

    As I was saying, I’m eager to promote good lit because, well, as I mentioned, it’s something I’m passionate about. I want the culture of it to survive and be appreciated and grow even larger.

    I admit I also struggle to keep my life relevant and so blog about stuff I love so I can spend some time with it. At the same time, I dream about opening a bookshop, and having a book blog is my way of getting started, of growing more as a book person, of learning more from other book people. I do love to “sell” books but for me it’s about the satisfaction of sending someone off happy. I recommend books all the time to people I meet, eager to help them find something they’ll love, perhaps discover a new author, etc. That might come partly from having worked Reader’s Advisory in a library, too.

  12. ruthseeley says:

    I’m really sorry I missed #bcto10 but glad I got one of my authors to attend (Andrew Smith). One of the things I’ve known for years is that serious readers are not only passionate about literature, but that book marketing is – more than any other commodity – reliant on word of mouth, whether that mouth is a mainstream media reviewer, a blogger, staff at a bookstore or a trusted friend who can instinctively do those algorithms the online book etailers do so very badly (yes if I’ve bought one Margaret Atwood I might like more of her work – now surprise me with an author whose work I’m not familiar with, will ya?).

    I also think readers are isolated by the very nature of the activity of reading, and this explains in part why they want to reach out to others by blogging and using other forms of social media. I review books on my personal blog because it helps me think about them a little more deeply – as an avid reader of primarily fiction I find I forget what I liked about a book if I don’t review it. At least if I’ve blogged about it I can refresh my memory. 😉

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