The proliferation of reader blogs even as newspaper book reviews across the country are eliminated has been a topic of great conversation lately. Should we save the book review sections or are they old fashion? Or does the increase in online critics, Fuse# 8 asks, “cheapen the notion of criticism itself or democratize it?”
The answers to the questions are as individual as the tastes of every reader. Personally I find the growing reader blog phenomena a sign that reading has not died in the face of more visual options such as online chatting, video games, and Tivo, but has instead adapted to the internet medium where readers can connect across state and country lines to find others who share similar reading tastes. It is this need to connect that reader blogs and sites build upon in an effort to gain a following. How large that following grows and how those blogs/sites maintain their growing numbers is a source of interest to me both as a reader and as a blogger. In an effort to discover what makes a successful reader blog or site, I’ve interviewed the two Ja(y)nes of Dear Author.
Combining a compelling voice, opinionated reviews and news on a wide variety of topics in the romance genre Dear Author (started in April 2006) has grown to become a well known name in the Romance community, averaging approximately 3500 visitors a day. Heading each review with the salutation Dear (fill in the author’s name), DA’s reviews follow a letter format that covers both the positive and negative points that the Ja(y)nes (or Jan, Janet or Janine) found in the book. The posted reviews are then open to reader commentary so others can share their feelings about the author or title. In addition they also post Romance news and scandals, host a book club, and offer a new feature called “My First Sale” where famous authors talk about what brought about their first book.
The main ladies of Dear Author were kind enough to sit down and my questions about their site, their growing appeal, and where the future might take them.
Bookseller Chick: What led to the creation of Dear Author? Where there any reader blogs or boards that affected the creation process?
Jane: Well, like everything else – word of mouth. LOL. Some of my online reader friends had started blogs years before mine: Keishon, Yapaway Jay, Maili and Rosario. I loved reading their opinions of books more so than the established places. I think blogging is a form of affirmation that someone is listening to you, even if they don't agree. I had read two hotly anticipated but ultimately disappointing books and these two books spurred me to create my own blog. I love the technical side of it as well and enjoy tinkering with behind the scenes.
B.S. Chick: In Laura Florand's blog interview with you, she put Dear Author at average of 1600 visitors a day. Have you seen that number climb since February or are you starting to experience a plateau effect?
Jane: We are fortunate that we keep growing. It's a bit hard to understand the stats of a website, at least to me. We've moved to a new server and the reports state that we average close to 3500 visitors each day. I don't know if the new stats program is capturing new people or we are actually getting more people. I attached a stats report for the last week of April as opposed to last week when we had an increase of visits that might not be representative. Some people have asked why we don't make our stats open and the reason for that is stats programs always contain personal IP information and I think that should be private. Further, we don't plan on ever having ads so I don't know that the stats would be useful for anyone.
B.S. Chick: I have some serious envy when it comes to your ability to update with new book content daily. How much work goes into y'all keeping up this rate?
Jane: A lot it seems. An opinion article will take almost 3 hours to write and research. Reviews, depending on my feelings, can be as easy as 30 minutes and as hard as an hour or more. It really is a labor of love. Even a simple news piece, if I include a graphic, will take 10-15 minutes.
Jayne: Yes, it does take a lot of time. I don't do op/ed pieces but book and ebook site reviews can take anywhere from half an hour to 2-3 hours each.
B.S. Chick: You've recently added several new features to the website ("My first sale," the international author series, and the Dear Author Book club) in addition to your reviews, book news, and your investigations into various ebook sellers. What made you add these to the site and how have your readers responded?
Jane: The first sale series was inspired by Ilona Andrews account of her first sale. I had read these before and they show such a breadth of human drama. Despair, Struggle, and Overwhelming Joy. It’s like a little slice of HEA. The Book News came about because I wanted to share interesting news items I’ve read about books and didn’t know where to put them so I made up a sort of side blog. I enjoy doing those news pieces.
Jayne: I love reading the first sale stories because I know so little about agents, shopping books or contracts. It's fun to learn and I enjoy hearing the excitement in the author's recollection of the sale, even years after it occurred.
Jane: The e bookstore reviews. I can’t remember how that started. Maybe Jayne remembers.
Jayne: IIRC, we started those after a piece trying to list the different ebook publishing sites. We'd both had some problems in buying ebooks from various sites for our series that ran last summer (those reviews are listed with CB (Contest Book) in front of the title). Jane, I think you had the idea to review sites to pass on what we'd learned from those experiences.
Jane: The book club is an attempt to have a more interactive experience, to make the readers feel more of a part of the blog. I don’t know how successful it has been. I think that readers like the new features as our numbers continue to grow and I guess that is the only source of affirmation that we have other than the
Jayne: Since the book club only started a few months ago, it's hard to tell if it will remain popular.
B.S. Chick: Have any of the authors featured in your book club shown a spike in sales or become aware of increased word of mouth?
Jane: I don’t think so. It’s possible that it increases word of mouth but I don’t know how much we influence sales. I think the most that we can do is bring notice to a book that might not otherwise have gotten notice.
Jayne: No one's told me that we've had any influence on sales numbers.
B.S. Chick: I really love the "My first sale" columns and while I know it's greedy to ask, who do we have to look forward to in future editions of "my first sale"? How about the international author series?
Jane: We have a whole slew of authors, from ebook authors to new authors to established authors. Jenna Black, Madeline Hunter, Caroline Linden, Ryan Ruth Lanagan (an author of over 100! Books) are just a few. I hope to run a new “story” each week until the end of the year.
(Editor’s Note: This just in: Dear Author will also have a first sale column from Meg Cabot as well!)
B.S. Chick: How has the message board (if it has at all) added or changed the community dynamic of Dear Author?
Jane: I think its just another reader resource. I don’t know whether it will be useful or not but right now it doesn’t take much to monitor (for spam) and so even if it is a quiet place, it will still be there.
B. S. Chick: You've interviewed the senior editors of publishing houses and investigated ebook sellers. Are there any other areas of Romance publishing that you would like to/plan on highlighting in the future?
Jane: Actually, yes. I want to start a series with agents about that side of the business and I have contacted some cover artists about their very important role in making romances sell. We also still have interviews for editors coming from Pocket and another from Tor . Basically, I am blogging for myself. If there is a topic that I think is interesting or that I would like to know about, I explore it and hope that others share my interest. I run the blog the same way. I don’t want to register to comment and I hate having to type in a verification word. So I don’t have those barriers. I recognize that I am pretty lazy and try to make everything easy for people. So far that works.
Someday in 2007, we are going to roll out a sortable table of our reviews. I hope. LOL
B.S. Chick: In mid-March I asked my readers what they thought made a good reader blog and answers ranged from the enjoyment found in the inclusion of give aways to the strength to be found in an honest and well thought out reader opinion. Obviously Dear Author delivers on the opinion, but what else do you think has contributed to your success?
Jane: I can't really say. I think we put up new content on a regular basis. We haven't missed a day, even during the holidays. Ironically, during Thanksgiving, I thought there would be a real lull but it proved to have approximately the same traffic as any other day so when Christmas rolled around, we made sure to put up content and while traffic was lower, it wasn't dramatically slower.
Jayne: We have a variety of opinions and we really try to make the blog open to any comment. I think we have enough people to offer some diversity of opinion and style but not too many people in the blog that readers lose track of us. Someone once said that when you think of DA, you think of the Ja(y)nes (and Janine and Jan).
Thank you, Jane and Jayne.
Now it's your turn readers. Do you have any questions for the ladies of DA or insight into how their site grew so quickly? Do you know of any comparative websites in other genres?
Share your thoughts and questions in the comments if you have time.