Last week, I was in New York for the Book Blog Unconference and to spend time with other bloggers who were in town for BEA and the BEA Blogger Conference. As always, it was fun to spend time with blogging friends. Somehow, meeting bloggers is easier than meeting other “strangers” because we already have something in common and in many cases we already know a bit about each other.
I chose to attend the Book Blog Unconference instead of BEA because even though I enjoyed the Blogger Con last year, I felt that the sessions were too large and general in scope and didn’t provide enough time for bloggers to talk together. The unconference design requires interaction and the participants choose the topics on the day. It was just what I wanted from a blogging event. Plus, it was free, so if it was lame, I could leave without feeling I’d wasted my money. But I’m happy to report it wasn’t lame at all. I could have spent several more hours talking blogging and books with the other bloggers there.
About 20 or so bloggers came. (People came and went during the day, so I didn’t get a complete count.) And the bloggers who came represented a variety of segments of the larger blogging community, which I think made the discussions especially rich. Basically, we began by proposing topics, which Jeff (aka The Reading Ape) added to a chalkboard grid. We discussed which topics should be discussed during each time block. Then, we each marked which session we would attend, just so we could be sure there would be enough people at each session to have a viable discussion. In the end, we only split up for one session and spent the rest of the day in one large group.
I’ve already written a bit about the Uncon for the Armchair BEA blog, so if you want to know more about the process and topics discussed take a look at that post. Here, I’d like to share some of my personal reflections on the topics discussed.
One of the more interesting discussions to me was about social media. We talked quite a lot about Twitter, which I have a sort of love/hate relationship with. I love the conversations I have, but I sometimes get frustrated by the noise. I didn’t get any new insights here, because most of the suggestions are ones I already use, but it was good to hear that others sometimes struggle with the constant cocktail party that is Twitter.
The more interesting and illuminating points for me were related to Facebook. A lot of bloggers I know have created Facebook pages, and I’ve wondered if it would be of value to create one for Shelf Love. But my feelings about Facebook are even more conflicted than my feelings about Twitter. Still, if people are starting to follow more blogs on Facebook, I wouldn’t want to rule out making our blog available there. Some of the bloggers who have Facebook pages said that they’ve found that they get a lot of traffic from Facebook, but that the community itself is different. One person remarked that it’s less intimate than Twitter, and I got the impression that Facebook comments tend to be shorter and less thoughtful than actual blog comments. If any of you have Facebook pages for your blog, has that been your experience? What benefits do you see in having a Facebook page for your blog?
One drawback of having a Facebook page was the potential fracturing of comments, with discussions taking place in different venues. One blogger recommended Livefyre as a plug-in that brings all comments together. Since we use WordPress.com, that’s not an option for us, but it does look like a good possibility for others.
There was also some conversation about Google-Plus and how having a Google-Plus account linked to your blog, even if you don’t use it, can improve your Google rank. Even those who don’t have a Google-Plus account can benefit from having a Google-Plus button. We have one hidden under the share button at the bottom of each of our posts, but neither of us has a Google-Plus account. For me, it’s all about avoiding overload. If any of you have an account, what value does it provide? Another Google topic was how the rel=author tag can bring all the content you write together in a single search. (This was over my head technically, but I mention it because it might help some of you.)
The first afternoon session, which was on commenting did not bring me anything new, but it did get me thinking about a few things, most notably the possibility of personal attacks in a comments section. Jenny and I are lucky enough to have a wonderful and vibrant commenting community. There have only been a couple of times in four years that I’ve considered deleting a comment that wasn’t obvious spam. In one case, I did delete and in another I just issued a warning. It’s just not been a problem. But I do wonder what would cross the line.
We also discussed responding to comments and whether people subscribe to comment replies. Jenny and I try to respond to all comments on recent posts (for me, older ones sometimes get lost in the shuffle), and I like to think that’s one reason our commenting community is so vibrant. I would enjoy it if commenters talked among themselves a little more, just because that’s fun to see, but I can’t figure out a way to make that happen. It just doesn’t seem like part of book blogging commenting culture.
The day ended with a discussion of book reviewing and the future of book blogging. A whole lot of topics came up during this conversation. Someone asked what value there is in reviewing everything we read. I review every book I read because I enjoy the process of putting my thoughts together and deciding why I feel the way I do about a book. One blogger said that she doesn’t review the comfort reads she turns to when stressed or sick because these aren’t books she reads with a critical or analytical lens. That makes a lot of sense to me, but I still find it fun to work out what makes a book an effective comfort read. I’m unlikely to review a book I had already reviewed, unless I have some new insight, and there may come a time when my schedule doesn’t allow me to review everything, but right now, I enjoy the process of writing out and sharing my thoughts too much to stop.
And that brings me to the related topic of DNF (did not finish) reviews. Jenny and I both have posted about books we didn’t finish. My general rule is that I’ll post about an abandoned book if I have something to say about it, but most of the time, I don’t bother. I abandon a lot of books because I’m not in the right mood or because they just aren’t interesting to me. I may do a round-up of several DNFs once in a while, but a lot of the time it’s just not worth taking the trouble to write something formal. I do make quick notes in Goodreads of the reasons I abandon a book, but those are largely for my own reference. Some bloggers at the Uncon said they do DNF posts if a book contains content their readers would want to be warned about (such as gratuitous misogynistic violence). I can see that, and I can also see posting about book that’s getting lots of praise all over the place, just to provide an alternate view and a word of possible warning to readers.
We also talked a bit about the future of book blogging. We mulled over whether publishers’ attitudes toward bloggers were changing and how that might affect they way people blog. Would some bloggers get more involved with the industry while others cut themselves off from it entirely? Right now, a lot of bloggers exist in a sort of grey zone of accepting a few review copies but also reading from their own shelves and the library. Will that position become more difficult to maintain? When I hear of publicists and publishers acting as if our job is to promote books rather than to critically review them, I get tempted to avoid review copies altogether. But I’ve never actually received any such pressure from publishers, aside from the clumsy letter William Morrow sent out a while back and almost immediately retracted. So since the pressure isn’t coming from the publicists I’ve dealt with, I see no need to cut out review copies entirely, and keeping review copies to under 1/3 of my reading has worked really well for me. So I guess I’m happily living in that grey area and hope it continues to be a viable place to live.
Another potential area of change that came up was the possibility that more bloggers will focus more intensely on specific genres. Because I like to read a little bit of everything and most of the blogs I read most faithfully do the same, I’m not sure how likely that is to happen. I do wonder whether the new bloggers who read a little bit of everything will find it harder to establish and build community and thus decide to focus on one thing.
One thing that occurred to me throughout the day was how our choices about all of these things will be affected by our own particular purposes for blogging and being on social media. If you’re looking to earn money or make professional contacts, strategies that will bring traffic to your blog or show your knowledge of industry trends might be more important. If you want to advocate for certain books or genres, traffic or a specific focus might be key. If you’re looking for conversation, posting thought-provoking posts and responding to comments might be where you expend your energy. If you want a record of your reading, you might write about everything. If you’re interested in making personal connections, you might regularly go off-topic on your blog or Twitter. All of these choices are valid ones, and it would be wrong to say that someone who chooses to go in one direction over another is not blogging correctly. (Also, it’s perfectly legitimate to focus your blog reading on blogs whose goals and areas of focus that interest you. Choosing blogs to read is not so different from choosing books to read. We’re all going to have preferences in what we like.) One of the great things that I observed at the Uncon was that everyone there seemed to recognize that there are lots of different ways to go about dealing with these issues. Some people had strong opinions, but never once did I get the sense that the participants saw their way as the only right way. Even in areas where there was strong consensus, participants could see reasons why others might make a different choice. When I hear people talk about drama and conflict within the blogging community, experiences like this are heartening.
As for myself, I can’t say that I learned anything at the Uncon that will change my blogging practice. I’m really happy with what Jenny and I are doing and see no desire to change. I just enjoy hearing how others think through these issues, and I think it’s important to revisit them now and then.
I was going to talk about some of my other New York adventures, but this post is getting epically long, so I just posted some random notes on my Tumblr, and you can see all my pictures on Flickr. I only wish I had more of my blogging friends, because it was great to meet so many bloggers for the first time and to spend time with bloggers I’ve met before.
And thanks very much to Jeff and Cassandra, who did a lot of the preliminary work preparing for the Uncon, and to the Center for Fiction, which provided the meeting space free of charge. Part bookstore, part library, and part literary salon, the center is a beautifully bookish space that hosts an impressive array of events. It was a great day, and I hope to see the Uncon become a regular event, perhaps with others held in different cities and at different times.