Monday. 9 a.m. Bryant Park. New Yorkers wrapped sweaters and scarves around themselves, grumbling that June 1 is a ridiculous time to wear a scarf. I agreed. Two women sat near the fountain, huddled against the cold, and thankfully, I received a tweet telling me to look for a brown sweater and a black jacket.
This was the start of Book Blog Uncon for me last Monday morning. There early, Tara from Book Sexy Review and Lori from TNBBC warmed the day by being so darn sweet, and we enjoyed meeting several others before heading over to the Bank of America lounge across the street and meeting Jeff from The Reading Ape and Book Riot and Rebecca from Book Lady’s Blog and Book Riot. We were joined by several others and headed over to the Center for Fiction at The New School (who so graciously allowed us to use the space for free).
We quickly set up in the beautiful center before Jeff asked us to present our possible session ideas. We tossed ours out, decided which might pair well together, and chose the ones in which the group was most interested. Then we broke the day up into hour-long sessions, with two sessions going at the same time (this ended up devolving into large-group sessions).
Immediately, I enjoyed the format of the Uncon. I liked everyone having input and creating a conference that met our specific needs. I also liked that people took ownership over the various topics. The first session broke into two groups: Close Reading and State of the Industry.
The close reading session was interesting, though Lori, Tara, and I later discussed how we wished we had taken the conversation further into how we could use this in our own blogging as opposed to a simple academic practice alone. At lunch, we brainstormed that taking an opening sentence from a book or chapter and querying readers for possible interpretations might be a more interesting way to discuss it as opposed to only giving our own interpretations, and I really liked that. As a teacher, this is one of the things I encourage my students to do. I don’t want them to tell me what they think I think it means; I want them to delve into it using their own faculties.
After the first time slot, the group seemed interested in the same topics, so we came together in what I envision as basically a Twitter conversation…in person. Ironically, we discussed social media: why have it, how to manage it, and who is on it. Though I wished there was a bit more direction with the conversation, it was still really interesting to see the different perspectives.
For example, I have personally allowed my Twitter account to become much more personal than it used to be. I tweet about random things, not just about books. Amy from Amy Reads said the same thing. Lori from TNBBC doesn’t have time to be on Twitter throughout the day and just wants to see bookish tweets when she gets home. She only follows book people as well. Personally, I enjoy the people I follow on Twitter who aren’t so one dimensional, but obviously that’s a very personal sentiment. We also discussed anonymity and how difficult it is in this era to truly remain anonymous.
Similar to this discussion, we talked about branding, the “four-letter word” some people steer clear from. I jumped in and said that I personally really like the idea of branding and don’t consider it a four-letter word, when someone else pointed out that many people consider “branding” just another word for “marketing.” I can certainly see why some would relate the two in this world of monetization. So what do I mean? Rebecca at Book Lady’s Blog is a perfect example: if you look at her blog, you know you can expect some sauciness. If that’s not your thing, you know to look elsewhere. Rebecca continues this across her platforms, and on Twitter, she’s also pretty saucy. Hopefully, here you know what to expect as well. I’m a picky gal, and I’m not afraid to say it plainly. You guys know I get persnickety, and you know that continues across the board in books, film, design, and on Facebook, Twitter, etc.
Creating Community/Dealing with Conflict in Comments
After lunch, we discussed commenting, creating community, and how to deal with conflict in comments. One of the best things I got out of this, and I honestly can’t remember if anyone said it or if I just dreamt it: What do you want out of your comments? Personally, I want conversation. That’s partially why I switched to disqus because I think it’s easier for other people to respond to anyone’s comment, not just my own. I teach, but having a conversation about a book in class is still very different from having a general conversation about a book or topic. Others mentioned they want comments for affirmation, and I’d say everyone wants that to a certain degree. Lori from TNBBC talked about how she got into blogging “backwards,” starting a Goodreads group that self polices and has spawned multiple groups and boards. Therefore, most of her conversation occurs there and not on her blog. She also mentioned that her Goodreads group feels like a more natural conversation. Others mentioned that they get a lot of response to reviews on Facebook or Twitter and wish it translated back to the blog. Jeff from the podcast Reading and Writing said he uses a plugin called Livefyre, which pulls comments from other platforms (I will definitely be looking into this).
As for harsh comments, almost everyone agreed that there is a difference between constructive and well-said disagreements and personal attacks. Amanda from Dead White Guys asked if anyone disables anonymous comments because most of the issues she has come into play when someone comments anonymously. Lori states she moderates and deletes any personal attacks. Amy from Amy Reads said she has had some backlash in comments from friends of authors but that most are respectful, and she acknowledges that.
Book Reviewing/Future of Book Blogging
Lastly, we discussed book reviewing in general and the future of book blogging. High on everyone’s list was the subject of DNF. Personally, I don’t ever not finish a book. Jeff is the same way. Rachel from A Home Between Pages is quick to abandon a book if it doesn’t feel like the right fit and will tell readers why on her blog. She finds these reviews spawn conversation and that she has even passed on a book to a commenter who expressed interest in it. Most said they enjoy hearing why someone will not finish a book. Again, this is a personal sentiment, but I have read enough books that really turn around for me halfway through or even further that I don’t feel I can accurately review a book without finishing it.
This also led to a conversation about reviewing: Do you review every book you read? I don’t, and I’m honestly not even sure I can articulate why. I just don’t. I review most of what I read but not all. I had an aside with Rachel and Jeff, telling them that at times if I’m not feeling well, I’ll pick up a throwaway book that I don’t expect to be all that good but that I just want something light to read. Jeff said these types of books may be the most interesting reviews. Also, Rachel said she loved dystopian YA novels but doesn’t review them. When I asked her why, she said that she doesn’t feel there is anything constructive for her to say. She just loves them and can’t quite express why and doesn’t feel that is all that helpful to her readers.
As to the future of book blogs, there was much conversation about how many blogs are becoming “niche” blogs. You go to Blog A for romance, Blog B for mysteries, Blog C for YA, Blog D for Paranormal, etcetera, etcetera. This disturbs me as an eclectic reader. This blog will never fit all that neatly into a category, and if that stifles it a bit, I’m ok with that. My reading doesn’t fit neatly into a category. I don’t read because I blog; I blog as an extension of what I read. We also discussed the personality of blogs and why we think our personas are so important to the success of our readership.
One of the things Jeff said that I found most interesting was his comment that the Uncon was really an expression of how effective social media is. What began as an idea on Twitter grew to have its own blog and Twitter account (kudos to Cassandra at Indie Reader Houston) and then to its own meeting in New York City. Like it or not, social media is an incredibly interesting tool that is changing the way we work and communicate.
For its first time out of the gate, I thought the Uncon was really great. As Teresa at Shelf Love mentioned in her post, nothing at Uncon changed the way I will blog; however, it certainly initiated thought and introspection about how and why I blog. In the future, I think it would be helpful to delineate sessions a bit more and to also have the person proposing the idea speak for 5-10 minutes as to the focus of the session before opening comments, perhaps posing questions to the group. However, all in all, this was the conference I wanted to attend, and I’m so glad I did. There are few experts in book blogging, and I enjoyed having all levels of experience participate in this conversation, contributing and querying. This was not the sort of discussion where people asked questions they knew the answer to already. Instead, this was a genuine expression of a group of people interested in books and blogging and readers.