October 31, 2013 § 4 Comments
Apologies for not embedding it, I didn’t realise until too late that this would require an upgrade on the WordPress blog, or I’d have used Blogger for this project.
A little background about book review sites
The traditional stereotype of a book reviewer is of a quiet unassuming type, curled up in a corner with a book. On the internet, however, many book reviewers are more likely to be crusading knights waving big swords at even bigger dragons. Book publishing is a huge business, and reviews are a huge part of that. Book reviews get books in front of readers, and can make or break a book.
Until recently the book publishing industry was highly controlled, with “the big 6” publishers more or less responsible for 90% of books available in the US. The situation in Europe is only slightly more fragmented. As of this year, the big 6 is down to the big 5, and independent publishers have captured 25% of the e-book market and are making inroads into paperbacks too.
Book discussions and reviewers have existed as long as books have, and book clubs from the literary salons of a century ago, to the more recent living room coffee parties have been important in the book industry. Outside the bestsellers, in what is called “the mid list”, word of mouth is the most powerful promotional tool. With the rise of internet storefronts, places like Amazon were the natural gathering point for book reviews. However, Amazon has also become a major player in the independent publishing market – you can publish a book directly through amazon in both e-book and print format, at no cost. This put two sets of Amazon customers on a crash course for each other: Authors out to promote their new books began taking on reviewers in the review space, replying to negative reviews and trying to get them removed or gathering “posses” to mark negative reviews as “not helpful”, and reviewers feeling their ability to give an honest opinion was in jeopardy.
Many of the top reviewers moved on, looking for a new home. While there were several alternatives, GoodReads was the most successful, recently topping 20 million users. Forbes magazine credits GoodReads reviewers with the ability to “break” a new book into a best seller, noting that this is where the buzz for 50 Shades of Grey began. Amazon’s forums meanwhile became effectively a wasteland of mostly positive reviews and authors attempting to sell to each other.
And all was happy in book review land until Amazon bought GoodReads and the site began re-targetting itself as a platform for authors to make sales. After a few scuffles between authors and reviewers, a major scandal broke out over the summer of 2013 which reached the pages of the New York Post and Salon magazine, and garnered GoodReads a lot of bad publicity.
So by the end of September, a new policy was put in place outlawing any mention of author behavior in reviews, and as happened at Amazon before, a vocal group of the most prolific reviewers left the site in protest over censorship.
This time around, many left to review on their own blogs, and the diaspora is a lot more splintered than the last few mass migrations, but a fairly large subset decided to settle on BookLikes, making it a particularly interesting place to investigate just now.
BookLikes users are almost exclusively book lovers, primarily heavy readers who like to write reviews and/or keep a record of their reading. The major feature that differentiates BookLikes from other blogging or micro-blogging platforms, particularly Tumblr, is the bookshelf feature; Without the bookshelves, this would be more or less a Tumblr clone, and there wouldn’t be much point choosing it over the original. This feature provides a comprehensive reading record for anyone who wants to make use of it, and guarantees a focused audience of other book-lovers for posts.
The site is very active, primarily during US daytime hours, despite being based in Europe, but there is traffic at all hours of the day (and the traffic I see is different than what others see, based on who we each follow). Some of the busiest posts can receive dozens of comments, and seeing interesting comments on a friends posts is a prime way to find more people to follow, creating a friend of a friend network.
As a fairly new site, the possibilities are endless. New features are being added every Thursday, some of them major; Last week were added discussion groups, which i didn’t take up in the video as they are very bare bones yet, effectively comment threads that belong to a group and it’s administrators rather than a specific blogger. However the possibilities to run formal book clubs via these groups is certainly there, as more features are added. These also give the possibility of interaction with more people you don’t already know, further extending your network. It’s also possible to view a book blog externally, without being a member, allowing a BookLikes blog to replace standard blog platforms, so users can take advantage of the book categorization features while still having a publicly accessible platform. (You can see mine here, for instance). One can also create widgets and buttons to use in other websites, (WordPress requires an upgrade to use these, or I would add one here), driving traffic from other platforms back to BookLikes. That said, as a new site and with features being added rapidly, there are occasional glitches and bugs, and users have a limited amount of patience with these when it leads to content going missing.
Book reviews are often given in return for a free copy of the book, and US FCC regulations require reviewers to acknowledge this in their posts, which most are happy to do, however there is really no way to enforce this. The EU does not appear to have any such regulations I can find, but I do notice that most reviewers do acknowledge free books in any case. This has been a regular issue on other book sites, particularly Amazon, where paid reviews are a big problem. At this point, BookLikes only partially aggregates the reviews for specific books into a single place, for instance reviews of the hardback, paperback and e-book editions may not be listed together, but this is noted as a future feature. When that happens, it’s to be expected that some of the issues present on other book sites with authors demanding negative reviews are removed may occur, but at present the site has not seen any of this, and the site owners have publicly stated they will not remove honest reviews no matter how negative they are. At present the site tends to provide a wide range of views on most books, from avid fans to negative opinions, allowing the reader to make their own decision on whether to read a book or not. The commenting function tends to encourage longer, more in depth reviews, as these are the ones that engender follower engagement, and some posts create a lengthy discussion. As a reader, it provides exposure to a vast range of genres, including those that I’m not habitually a reader of, with the downside that my “to read” shelf is now ridiculously large and growing daily.
Picture Credits: Books as doors to other worlds: Freeware wallpaper from http://wallls.com/wallpaper/26456/
Wall of Books by Mr T. in DC from http://www.flickr.com/photos/mr_t_in_dc/5323104963/ CC-by-NC-ND 2.0
Booklikes logo from Booklikes.com, screenshot of BookLikes taken by me.
September 30, 2013 § 4 Comments
For this assignment, I chose to look at book review blogs.
While I am a voracious reader, I tend to find books through word of mouth and social media recommendations, rather than following blogs, so as a niche book blogs was new to me, as were both the sites discussed below.
I chose these two blogs by quite different methods: Firstly by searching for a list of the top book blogs on google, and arbitrarily selecting a list of recommendations from the top of the search results, then choosing the first non-commercial site from that list. By non-commercial, I mean not affiliated with a commercial entity such as a publisher or magazine. The other I chose from the booklovers social network Booklikes.com, using a method best described as “the first post I came across that mentioned a personal book blog”. My two sites were then the slightly unfortunately named http://www.insatiablebooksluts.com (who I will be referring to as “The Insatiables”) and author and reviewer Nenia Campbells blog at http://neniacampbell.blogspot.se, aka “The Armchair Librarian”.
Before I began any kind of analysis, I read a few posts, and immediately noticed that the posts were on average rather longer than what is common on personal blogs. I thought this was interesting, so I looked up recommended word counts for blog posts and averaged out the first few recommendations I found, coming up with a target of between 400 and 750 words as considered “ideal”. The most recent ten posts from the Insatiables in fact averaged 950 words, or well past the recommendation, and while Armchair Librarian posts averaged out to only 650 words, they are still on the longer side. This makes sense to me, as the target audience for book reviews would naturally be people who like to read, and are in the habit of reading, thus likely to stick around for longer posts. On both sites there is heavy use of images in the posts, at a minimum an image of the cover of the book under discussion, but also “reaction gifs”, or animated images showing reactions, often humourous, and more typical of social networks such as tumblr than blogs.
The Insatiables blog is multi-author blog, and recipient of the 2012 Independent Book Blogger awards, a fairly large competition run by the social media site Goodreads and the Association of American Publishers. That would seem to indicate that despite being a “civilian” site, it has some industry attention and influence. While not affiliated with a commercial entity, they do earn some revenue through books sold by clicks on their site, and have some advertising. They review primarily adult fiction, including romances, and seem to review primarily women authors and books targetted at women, although there are some male contributors to the blog. All the posts are heavily linked to outside posts, other review sites and to stores – this site probably drives a lot of traffic to other places.
While book reviews are the main content, there is also some discussion about well known characters, authors, and even meta-discussion about being a book-lover, the publishing industry and book-blogging itself. The writing style is highly unmoderated, which given the subject matter of adult fiction, is fitting. The writing is equally adult oriented, there is occasional profanity and not-safe-for-work topics, although images on the site itself tend to be more toned down. The tone is irreverent and quite sarcastic, and the reviews are quite in depth and not always positive. The reviewers often point out socially and politically incorrect depictions in fiction and sometimes use their site as something of a social justice platform, but it doesn’t appear to be an explicit goal.
In comparison, the Armchair Librarian takes a similar tone, one of irreverence and sarcasm, and thoughtful considered reviews, however the language is a little more formal (but only a little). The audience is similar, adult fiction readers, although with a slightly different mix of genres, leaning more towards the fantasy and horror than straight fiction or romances of the Insatiables. The Armchair Librarian also makes reccomendations as to what kind of reader would enjoy the book in question, even if she didn’t.
Appearance wise, both sites use a quite normal blog layout, and both have opted for light, bright colours with plenty of whitespace. I suspect this choice is somewhat related to the tendency for the posts themselves on both blogs to be both longer than average, and well illustrated – an overly “busy” blog theme as well, and the entirety would probably feel uncomfortably cluttered.
I think both blogs are successful in creating an engaging reader experience, and also in pitching their writing at the target audience of adult fiction readers, primarily female.