In a little less than one year my blog went from bite sized to big, and so did my writing career. I can barely believe it but Broke By Books is officially 1 year old this month with my first post being published exactly one year ago on November 15th, 2014. Since then I’ve drive my traffic from 700 page views over the first 6 months to 900 unique page views a month or more on average over the last 3 months and posted more than 50 pieces of unique content, including a mix of reviews and feature length posts. Starting a book blog has led to coveted (and paid) freelance writing opportunities, has given me access to in-demand advanced review copies, and has established me an authority on the subject of books.
It’s been trial and error for sure, but I’ve learned a lot about book blogging, often the hard or circuitous way. When I first started Broke By Books I googled “Tips for starting a book blog” and “Advice for becoming a book blog” and the like. For the most part I didn’t find the information I wanted, so now I’m writing the article I wish I had stumbled across, an introduction to book blogging tips, one that I hope will give real-talk, honest advice for starting a book blog reaching across the screen to someone passionate about books and reading and writing about both. Although no two book bloggers will agree with the same tips, these are the ones that have worked for me and helped me learn how to become a successful book blogger and freelance book journalist. Read on for my secrets to book blogging. (Note: This is a looong but hopefully useful post.)
PS: You can check out my Epic List of 52 Book Blogging Ideas for more fun ideas on what to post about.
The Path to Freelance Success: Treat every post as if it’s a writing sample
Last winter I decided I wanted to write for Book Riot, a site I admired. They were accepting contributor applications and encouraged book bloggers to apply. For the application I submitted two links. The ones I chose did not get me through to the next round, probably because they weren’t especially compelling and mainly just didn’t fit with Book Riot’s mission. I applied a few months later, which they recommended, went through the hiring process, and started as a contributing writer in August 2015.
How did I do it?
I treated every piece of content I published on Broke By Books (BBB) as if it was a writing sample. I wrote the kind of posts—no, articles in my mind—that I would want to read on a major magazine website or bookish website. I transformed my mindset away from writing just reviews and started writing “feature articles,” you know, listicles and personal essays about books and call-to-action posts and the like.
Your blog is your living, breathing portfolio, and when you’re just starting out and you don’t have a ton of clips, your blog is a live, 24/7 magazine of your own showing off your work. Kind of intimidating, but kind of thrilling, right? You have the opportunity there to transform yourself into exactly the kind of writer you want to be. Plus you get to work out the kinks in your writing, tinker with Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and see what kind of book topics people really want to read.
If you want to use your blog as leverage to start writing for prestigious sites, start acting like the one platform you always have at your disposal, the one site that will always accept your work—your blog—is already a prestigious go-to destination for the kind of book content you would click on.
Essentially, if you write the kind of pieces you would write for a major website your writing will turn into a portfolio of clips ready to send as writing samples. People are respecting book blogs more and more, and some of that stigma is gone. Make your blog your portfolio. Own it. You have credibility to talk about books and you have an original voice that no one else has. Use it to your advantage. I would suggest having a close friend or fellow blogger read a post every so often to get some free feedback. Be open to it and it can really help.
A Revelation: Learn how to talk about books you haven’t read
Let me tell you a dirty little secret: you don’t have to have read a book to talk about it with conviction. You don’t have to read every book you recommend or blog about. I haven’t read 90% of the books I talk about on this blog, nor have I read even 20% of the books on my shelves. You can write about books in a compelling, authoritative voice a few different ways.
When I write for EBSCO’s NoveList reading recommendation database for libraries I talk about things in terms of “appeal characteristics,” a fancy reader’s advisory term championed by reader’s advisor Joyce Saricks. Essentially appeal characteristics are what qualities a book has that people enjoy or would enjoy.
For example, Gone Girl is plot-driven (the narrative is action-packed with plenty of twists) and book club-friendly (the story lends itself well to differing opinions and generates many discussion questions). What about Andy Weir’s The Martian? Well, it’s an science fiction novel and survival story with a relatable, resourceful hero who has a comical and amusing voice. The book has crossover appeal (people who don’t normally like sci-fi would like it) and is unputdownable. Guess what, I’ve read 15 pages of that novel.
The next time you’re on Goodreads checking out books, pay attention to the book’s description, the lists the book appears on, and take a cursory glance at the user reviews, both the positive and negative ones. What are people saying about it? How are they describing it? What do the reveiws share? If you can figure out what books people recommend alongside this (from lists the book appears in) and mentally file away the language people use to describe books, you’ll quickly learn appeal characteristics and won’t have to read every book you talk about. Once you release that idea from your mind—the belief that you can only talk about or write about or recommend books you’ve read—you’ll take some pressure off and also get quite good at picking up on how people talk about books. This broadens your frame of reference and expands your vocabulary for talking about books.
Disclaimer: I never offer judgment on books I haven’t read, and I never said I’ve read them if I haven’t. So I don’t say “This is a horrible book that is convoluted and pretentious” if I haven’t read it. I might link to some non-Goodreads reviews that say that, but I wouldn’t claim that I’ve read it or that that’s my opinion. Likewise, I don’t talk about the experience of reading a book as if I’ve read it, so I never write, “I devoured this book in one evening, staying up past midnight because I just had to know the end,” if I haven’t read the book. That’s misleading.
Survival Strategy: Learn how to speed read
My father taught a speed reading class for years at the high school where he was on the English faculty. Somewhere along the way, long about when I started as a freelance book reviewer for Kirkus Reviews, I picked up a bastardized method of speed reading mixing personal techniques with those from dear old dad.
One article that helps is Tim Ferriss’ method of speed reading, which I first read about in his 4-Hour Work Week, a life changing book for me. This WikiHow article on “How to Learn Speed Reading” is another good one. But honestly at some point you’ll just pick it up on your own whether out of do-or-die necessity or getting to the point where you read so much that you make up your speed reading strategy as you go. One way is to pay attention to the next time you’re tearing through a book that you literally cannot stop reading, the pages flip themselves, you just “inhale” the book. When that happens, take note of how you really are consuming the books: how are you reading this with superhero powers, where are your eyes looking, how are you better able to concentrate. If you’re actively thinking about your reading behavior you might be able to pick up notes on how you cognitively process the consumption of text when you’re focused and in the zone. Then you can apply it the next time you read a book. Trust me, at the rate that you want to be reading, you’ll want to take this into account.
Essential Tips for Growing Your Book Blog Audience:
Invest Time in Evergreen
“Evergreen” is the kind of content that is perpetually being searched for on the Internet. It is timeless and not dependent upon a current event. So, “10 authors to read if you like Jonathan Franzen” versus “My feelings on Jonathan Franzen’s racist comments” (and by the way, I’ve written the latter kind of post).
Some of my most successful evergreen articles are:
- Brothers and Sisters in Fiction
- How to Read More Books: Read Shorter Books
- The Bipolar Male Character in Fiction
Book reviews, especially of books that don’t get a ton of press, are also reliable evergreen.
(Bonus article: Check out my Epic List of 52 Book Blogging Ideas for boatloads of evergreen content ideas.)
Some good ideas for coming up with evergreen topics specific to book content are:
- Write what you would want to read…write what you look for when you search the web for something (e.g. “What are some contemporary diary or epistolary novels?” becomes “Contemporary Diary and Epistolary Novels”)
- Turn those Goodreads lists into articles
- Book reviews with discussion questions, or even a mini-reading group guide or discussion guide for books
- Write a guide to something (a guide to a genre or subgenre, a history of a certain literary movement, a journal-style or feature-style article about an issue or trope)
Be Proactive: Budget for burnout
It’s going to happen. You’re going to get sick of blogging. You’re going to get sick of reading, and you’re going to hit a reading and blogging slump. Whether it’s because you concentrated so much energy on a flight of enthusiasm, posting 3 posts of longish content a week for a month. Or whether it’s because you tore through five books in a matter of weeks with a book hangover or two in there. Either way, burnout is inevitable. You’re going to want nothing more than to avoid the blogging login page, never look at a book again, and run far, far away (or binge watch TV).
In summer 2015 I experienced blogging burnout, and I am still at the tail-end of 2015 going through a crushing reading slump. But still, the show must go on. In the first year of your blog while you’re growing your audience, it’s okay to take some time off and disappear for a week or two (or two and a half, but never more than three weeks).
When this happens, it’s good to have a backup plan. Regina Anaejionu over at ByRegina.com is a genius on blogging and offers tons and tons of free worksheets, lessons, and lists for book bloggers (also a kick-ass Epic Blog editorial calendar that I could not live without). Her “51 Types of Blog Posts to Help Grow Your Audience” is exactly that–51 types of content you can produce when you’re feeling stuck. This is a goldmine for ideas that you can fall back on when you cannot come up with anything for your blog (or want to grow your community and audience, always something to be mindful of).
Another thing to do is to resist the urge to over-post and instead schedule a post you were going to publish for a later time. WordPress lets you do this and other blog platforms do as well. This can keep the blog going when you feel disheartened or have writer’s block.
As for reading slumps? Read on to the final point for my advice.
The Golden Rule:
Understand the reading vs. writing about reading paradigm
Of those first few articles I read about book blogging tips for new bloggers, the single piece of advice that stuck out in my mind and has stayed with me the most is the reading vs. writing about reading paradigm. At times I prioritized my blog and writing about reading over my reading practice. But in general, whenever I weighed the cost of “What should I do right now? Blog or read?” I always went for reading.
Young book blogger, you now have the legitimate excuse to read all the time for professional development (and buy books, though that’s a dangerous slippery slope). The lifeblood of your blog is reading. Yes, like I said earlier, you can talk about books you haven’t read. But if you lean on that too much it’s not going to feel authentic. That’s why you should opt for reading over writing about reading, in order to keep appraised of why you love reading so much, to experience yet again the pleasures of reading, and to always have fresh material. Your passion is reading, and that will keep you motivated to keep writing.