Friday, April 4, 2014

The not-so-ugly truth about running a book blog

I entered another essay into a contest for Ladies Home Journal. The topic was "Tell Us About the Best Decision You've Ever Made." I didn't win the contest, but that frees me up to finally post this here, so you can see what it's like to run a book blog (or a blog for any kind of interest/hobby, for that matter!)

Whenever a package arrives in the mail, it’s greeted with groans from my sons when they realize it’s yet another book for me. Of course, I’m delighted by its arrival, especially if it’s coming to my house before it even reaches the bookstore shelves. My own shelves are stuffed two rows deep (on four levels) with books waiting to be read…and reviewed on my blog, Chick Lit Central.

I have always been a reader, ever since I memorized books at the age of three. In my mid-20s, I came across a genre that I fell in love with almost immediately— chick lit. From Marian Keyes to Jennifer Weiner, I just couldn’t get enough of stories about women my age making their way in the world, dealing with self-image, career, friendship, and—of course—love. I read countless amounts of chick lit novels, starting in the late 90s. In 2010, I won my first chick lit novel from a book blog (Novel Escapes). I thought it was cool to win a book but didn’t give it much thought past that. However, I was also e-mailing with a few girlfriends about chick lit novels and thought that I should look for other women online who also shared this interest. I knew other fans existed and would be fun to chat with. I started a group on Facebook called Chick Lit Central and began reaching out to friends and women who were fans of my favorite authors, inviting them to join.

I also started an accompanying blog to review the books I was currently reading. You know the Field of Dreams quote, “If you build it, they will come?” That happened almost immediately when an author, Sarah Pekkanen, asked me to review her debut novel, The Opposite of Me. She then sent it to me in the mail. I devoured it in a matter of days; it was that wonderful! In the meantime, I came across two professional and wonderful blogs that were running book giveaways and featuring authors— Manic Mommy (who is only doing giveaways on Facebook now) and Chick Lit is Not Dead (now Liz and Lisa). From them, I learned about a lot of new chick lit authors and novels.

At this point, I figured that I could also do interviews and giveaways at Chick Lit Central, as well as review books that authors and publishers sent me. My first interview was with Allie Larkin, another author with a debut novel that year, Stay. I also got to interview Allison Winn Scotch, whose novel, The One that I Want, was publishing soon. It felt so cool to be able to e-mail with authors, like I was getting to know new friends. Both interviews featured giveaways, but the entries were slow-going. I thought I’d take matters into my own hands and share my blog wherever possible, in hopes of putting the word out. I had been corresponding with a book publicist around this time, and she sent me a message telling me to curb my enthusiasm, meaning I should just let things happen naturally and not try to force my blog down everyone’s throats. She was worried that I would be upset by this advice, but being a newbie, I took it to heart and did exactly what she told me. Believe it or not, this worked well!

While I was embarrassed at how I’d handled things initially, I learned how to tone down my approach. Instead of posting my blog link on every single author’s wall, I instead sent them a personal, friendly message inviting them to see what my blog was all about and asking if they’d be interested in having their book featured. Several authors jumped at this opportunity, which outweighed the ones who ignored me. Can’t win ‘em all, right? I got the opportunity to feature Carole Matthews and Jane Green, two authors whose books I love. Receiving Jennifer Weiner’s new novel to review (at the time it was Fly Away Home) was a huge accomplishment on my part. When I went to Jennifer’s book signing shortly after I had reviewed it (positively of course, as it was a great book), she knew who I was because of my blog and was really friendly to me. I definitely had an adrenaline rush from the experience.

Two other things happened around this time. The first was bringing on a partner. I had reconnected via Facebook with a girl who was my neighbor when we were growing up. We discovered a mutual love for chick lit, and I invited her to help me do interviews and review books. It brought us even closer together. And while I was nurturing the baby known as my new blog, I was also pregnant with my third child. Sometimes, sitting at the computer for long periods of time added to my first trimester nausea, but it didn’t stop me from reading. I was excited about the new life growing inside me while Chick Lit Central was taking on a life of its own.

As my blog started growing, I realized I couldn’t do this by myself anymore. There’s a lot of work and time commitment involved on the back end of things…the posts don’t write themselves! I was also receiving an abundance of books and not enough time to read them all, especially with a third child demanding my attention (and depriving me of sleep).  During the summer of 2011, I decided to have auditions to bring on review associates. I held these auditions two years in a row, bringing in some great reviewers with whom I’ve also become friends. Some of them are even authors with their own books. In 2011, I met a woman who was just as enthusiastic about chick lit as I was. She now handles a lot of our social media needs and brings in new authors. In 2012, I invited my best friend to be part of the team, as well. She has been incredible with interviews and feature posts, as well as also helping out on certain social media aspects. 

A day in the life of running Chick Lit Central involves sharing posts on social media sites (basically Facebook and Twitter), making sure all the posts are ready to go on the day they’re scheduled, coordinating interviews, processing review requests, reading books and writing reviews. In the past, we had multiple posts each day. With my newest partner’s guidance, I was able to balance the schedule so we’re less overwhelmed. Even so, there is still a lot to be done. I tried to step away for a short time to see if it could run without my help, but while I’m pretty lenient with my children, I tend to be a “Helicopter Mom” when it comes to my blog.  Aside from running Chick Lit Central, I have a full-time job, am raising three young children and observe the Jewish Sabbath, which means no technology from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. When there are religious holidays going on, I’m offline on a given week sometimes more than I’m online!

One of the greatest benefits to having a book blog is that some of my favorite authors have become familiar with me. I also got to connect with new authors and am still close with some of them. I’ve even appeared at some of their blogs! I still remember when my sister e-mailed me to ask if the Kristin Hannah of Firefly Lane fame congratulated me on Facebook when my daughter was born. And when I went to another of Jennifer Weiner’s book signings, she called me out by name when I raised my hand to ask a question. When my family and I went to Disney World, we met up with Kristin Harmel (The Sweetness of Forgetting) for dinner one night. My parents acted like I’d introduced them to a celebrity. Authors are celebrities in my…um…book! And then there was the dinner that Jane Porter hosted this past spring. It was amazing to finally meet her in person. She treated me like we were old friends. Sarah Pekkanen was also hosting the event, and I felt like we had both come full circle as she was becoming well-known for her books (she was featuring her fourth novel by then), and I had around 1000 followers at Chick Lit Central, which gave me immense pride.

There are also the independent authors, whom I’ve gotten to know really well over the past couple of years. When Samantha Stroh Bailey contacted me about featuring her debut novel, Finding Lucas, I had no idea one e-mail would lead to us talking about our children, religion,  our daily lives and, of course, our favorite books. By this time, I was too biased to review her novel at the blog, so I invited a guest to write a review instead. I did eventually read it for fun and shared my thoughts on Goodreads. I loved it and would have loved it even if I had never met Samantha. In the fall of 2011, Jen Tucker contacted me about featuring her hilarious and heartfelt memoir, The Day I Wore My Panties Inside Out. Based on what she wrote about, I knew we’d get along really well outside of the blog and started e-mailing her with funny stories or gluten-free recipes. We recently met in person, as well! Over the past year, I’ve connected with Meredith Schorr, and she even included me in the acknowledgements for her latest novel, Blogger Girl.

In general, I love how chick lit brings authors together in such a supportive environment. They endorse each other’s books and are so encouraging of one another. They’re also really nice to their readers. It’s truly amazing to see all the camaraderie going on through social media. I like finding ways for readers to learn new things about authors through interviews and have come up with themed months to do this. Some of my favorite themes involved pop culture, such as music, movies and television.

Another wonderful aspect of running Chick Lit Central has been the friends I’ve made with readers and bloggers. To this day, I am still friends with some and have lost touch with others, but still see them around the blogosphere from time-to-time. I’ve also connected with a friend from my neighborhood because of chick lit (we probably would still be casual acquaintances otherwise), who is now a review associate.  At the beginning of 2013, I became close with a woman who e-mailed me to ask about writing guest reviews. She started calling me a “Book Fairy” and even made me a “Book Fairy” doll that my three year-old daughter often kidnaps. This past summer, we merged our blogs (hers being Book Mama Blog) as “sisters,” meaning we’d provide more exposure for books and also increase the publicity for each other’s posts.

Chick Lit Central has enriched my life in so many ways between the friendships and the plethora of free books, as well as a way to express my thoughts and feelings about books, knowing a lot of people will read them. The notoriety has been incredible. I was so touched to find out that someone purchased a book based on my recommendation. I love knowing what my reviews can do for authors and their books. Having an author tell me that my review shows that I really “got” their book means the world to me. It was a huge honor to have Chick Lit Central selected as one of the hosts of International Chick Lit Month, and also to receive a request to interview a celebrity-turned-author.

Overall, I would definitely recommend book blogging as a great outlet for people who like to read and want to share their love of books with others. Even when I’m having a stressful week trying to manage the blog along with everything else going on in my life, receiving an e-mail from an author or reader telling me that Chick Lit Central is their favorite book blog makes it all worthwhile.

Disclosure of Material Connection:
Some of the links in this post are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."


Lydia Laceby said...

Fantastic post, Melissa! It always astounds me just how much work it all is! But fun, too! And I am totally a helicopter mom with Novel Escapes! I've just let go of another layer and am only doing the interviews so I can focus on writing book #2, but I still lurk around making sure my blog baby is okay. Thanks for sharing your journey!

Kate said...

I loved the behind the scenes look, Melissa! Especially the querying authors part. Sometimes I spend huge chunks of my day reading book blogs and querying bloggers to review my books. As a new-ish author this was fascinating. :-)

Allison Smith said...

Greta essay Melissa, I loved reading it. What a story.

JenTucker said...

You are the best, Melissa Amster! So dear to so many, a cheerleader like no other, and one of the dearest people in my life. I'm so proud to be a part of the CLC family, and to call you my curly haired sister (AKA M's doppelganger). XOXO Jen

Dee DeTarsio said...

Congratulations on all the success of your blog, Melissa! You are an awesome Book Fairy!

Meredith said...

What a wonderful insight into the birth of Chick Lit Central and your growth as a blogger. I am so proud to know you! And I loved your blog before I barely knew your name :)

S.Sabia said...

Thank you for sharing this Melissa! I was like you, first discovering chick lit in my 20's and now I devour as many books as I can get my hands on. I was recently thinking about starting a book blog of my own so this post has given me quite a bit to think about as well as some great pointers. I know I've said it before but I am really looking forward to meeting you someday. Maybe at one of Sarah Pekkanen's signings next month. Have a great weekend!

Stephanie said...

Awesome post melissa! Thanks for mentioning Manic Mommy! That was a fin surprise! Xo

Jencey Gortney said...

Thanks for sharing! I know that I am happy to call you friend and colleague. I hope that we can have many more years to work together.

AiringMyDirtyLaundry said...

I think what you do is awesome. I've discovered many fabulous books thanks to you. I would LOVE if I got books to review. I tend to either buy or get them from the library because my bookshelf is running out of space. Sometimes I do get to review books and it's like Christmas when they come.

Awesome essay!!