Tips for bookish bloggers

I spoke recently at the Australian Booksellers Association Conference in Sydney on blogging and social reading and have been meaning to share my presentation more widely ever since.

Below is an outline of my tips for booksellers on writing blog posts. You can check out my social reading presentation (think Readmill, GoodReads etc) on Prezi here.

BLOGGING TIPS

How do you decide what to post about? I’d recommend you keep a list somewhere – perhaps in notes in your phone or in a notebook or diary – of ideas as they pop into your head.

You might be inspired by a conversation, a news report on television, another blog post or an article you read in a magazine like Bookseller+Publisher. Ideally in this case you’d look for a new angle on what you’ve read.

So for example, a couple of weeks back Pan Macmillan digital first imprint Momentum announced it would be the first major Australian publisher to ditch DRM.

I wanted to write about this – and to applaud it – but given it had already been announced had to find a way to take the story a step further.

I did some more reading on DRM and thought about it for a couple of days then wrote a note to Joel Naoum at Momentum to ask whether retailers had agreed to support the move, or whether it was only Momentum titles sold on the publisher’s own website that would be DRM-free.

Naoum wrote back acknowledging there were some issues with retailers, so I then contacted several key retailers and suppliers via Twitter and email to find out whether they would in future or were already set up to sell DRM free. All responded that they either already were or would soon be doing so, which I felt was sufficiently newsworthy to work into a blog post.

Some types of blog posts are:

  • Posts inspired by other blog/social media posts or media reports
  • Reviews (of books, online and bricks and mortar bookshops, other blogs and book-related platforms, a TV program/film/plays with book tie-ins, apps or YouTube videos)
  • Interviews with authors or experts in the industry
  • Descriptions of what you’ve been doing/thinking about books and the industry lately
  • A calendar of events related to your store and books and writing generally
  • An opinion piece on an issue in the industry
  • A discussion about such an issue
  • A news story – in the rare case that Bookseller+Publisher don’t beat you to it!
  • A campaign to achieve something
  • Information/how-to
  • Guest post from an expert/fellow blogger/staff member/visiting author/publisher/personality who loves your store
  • Your response to a guest post
  • A public letter to someone in a position of power
  • A list – of useful stuff eg people to follow on Twitter

Whatever you choose to write about, make sure it’s on topic and thus relevant to your niche audience. So for example, for me to post a vegetarian restaurant review on ebookish wouldn’t work at all.

Structure

No matter what type of blog post you’re writing, remember to write it so that the reader will be drawn in from the first paragraph. If that means cutting and pasting the most interesting or well written paragraph from further down in your post, or opening with a quote, great.

Try to keep your posts short – under 500 words is ideal. If you must write something that is much longer than that, consider writing a summary at the top so that readers get the general idea even if they don’t read on.

Style

Be yourself. Write the way you’d speak during an intelligent, but informal conversation. If you’re not sure whether a post is working, try reading it aloud to yourself or to a family member or friend. The clunky sentences will leap out at you that way.

Finally

Write about what you know and be passionate about it. Your enthusiasm will win readers over.

A viable model for journalism + the Longform app

I can’t pretend to be unbiased when it comes to longform journalism ebooks (see previous post on Fairfax Media’s move into ebook publishing).

I’m a journalist who always writes more than she needs to (and feels frustrated at the waste when precious sentences, and even entire interviews forming part of a feature, are cut to fit arbitrary spaces).

I’m an avid reader who loves to consume long features in magazines and newspapers (or better yet, online via my iPhone or iPad).

I’m a publisher with a passion for books, tablets and ereaders who intends to publish longform journalism ebooks (written by others as well as myself) and short fiction – good reads in short bites.

I’m also a part-time student working on a Masters research project entitled “Social reading, longform journalism and the connected ebook”. Over the next four years, I’ll be investigating the processes behind and consumer reaction to publications just like Fairfax Media’s Framed. I’ll be experimenting myself with similar processes, but incorporating subscription updates to journalistic ebooks; links, multimedia and reader feedback within the works themselves; the trail that such works create in social media channels; and the question of which of these connected pieces of content can be considered part of the works themselves.

So, I reckon Stephen Hutcheon is onto something, and I’m putting lots of time and effort – and even some cash – into finding out for sure.

Given the opportunity, journalists will want to delve more deeply into certain stories, and publish longer works that reflect those efforts, rather than the needs of the daily and weekly news cycles.

I feel sure that readers, when confronted with a story of national importance that grabs their attention, as McDonald’s does, or piques their personal interest due to its very localised or specialised subject matter, will enthusiastically spend the odd dollar or two here and there to buy a longform ebook.

That being the case, the ebook also offers (at last) that holy grail for newspapers – a way to make their customers pay for digital content. Just as we’re used to paying for apps, we’re happy to pay for ebooks. Its a business model that works, which is more than can be said for those of most newspaper websites.

Internationally, there are plenty of examples of longform journalism taking off. The Longform app for iPad (from Longform.org) is another recent launch, and worth a look if you’re into in-depth news and analysis. It offers a curated selection of the world’s best feature writing, from sources like the New York Review of Books, Slate and Mother Jones.

I dipped in this week and discovered some quirky pieces I’ll read over the weekend – one on depictions of the librarian in erotic fiction (evidently boys do make passes at girls in glasses), another comparing JRR Tolkien with Christopher Paolini (did you know the former was a terrible uni lecturer?) and a couple looking at the power of Google and Facebook.

The app allows you to read either in the original online format, or in the Longform format either on or offline, with a choice of fonts, adjustible font size and column width. You can read what’s already on offer in the app, adding and removing feeder publications as you go, and saving stories to read later via your onboard Readability account. You can also send articles you find elsewhere in your travels to Longform via Readability, Instapaper and Read It Later, and share any story via email or social media.

Read up. With the rise of the long form, the future of journalism has finally arrived.

Innovative Vox worth a look

I so wanted to love the Kobo Vox, but it hasn’t quite won me over.

As a colour ereading device, it’s got a lot going for it. The market is, I reckon, ripe for a 7″ colour ereader like the Kindle Fire, which is not available here in Australia, or the occasionally rumoured iPad Nano, which would be my dream device. The ReadCloud-powered indie booksellers’ Cumulus is an option, especially for those who want to support our literary culture, but it’s cheaper for a reason (see my earlier post).

The Vox is brought to us by multinational ebook retailer Kobo, which partners in this country with Collins and what remains of REDgroup (the Borders and Angus & Robertson digital businesses) as well as retailing direct via its own website and apps.

Kobo is an ereading innovator. For most of its titles it uses the industry standard ePub format, meaning they can be read on any ereading device. In turn, if you buy a Kobo e-ink ereader, like the Kobo Touch, you can read ePub books purchased from other stores, including Booku.com.

It’s greatest strength, though, is found in its apps for Apple and Android gadgets (the Vox is customised version of the latter). Kobo customers reading via these apps can distract themselves with all sorts of nifty social media and award add-ons. Kobo Pulse allows you to see at a glance how many other Kobo users are reading a particular book and page at the same time as you. Swiping the pulsating semi-circle indicator takes you away from the narrative and immerses you in all sorts of data on the book and its readers – how many are reading it now, how many have read it, what they thought of it, and which of your Facebook friends have read it. You can select text extracts to share via Twitter or Facebook too.

For further distracting ereading interactivity, close a book and check out Kobo’s Reading Life. This section of the Kobo app is a personalised hub of information about you and your books. See a book cover mosaic of all your library titles. See which awards you’ve won (and isn’t it about time we grown-ups were given some recognition for starting a new book, for reading all night long, for using the in-built dictionary, and for finishing a title). Check out stats on your reading habits: what time of day do you do most of your reading? How many pages do you read an hour? How many hours per book?

It’s all very cute and intriguing, but did I mention distracting? And if I posted on Facebook every time I won an award my friends would rapidly get sick of hearing about it, I’m sure. Also, most of the reader comments I’ve seen while using the Kobo app have been a waste of space. I reckon this is a technology whose time has not quite come.

Still, the Kobo Vox makes the most of social reading. When you switch it on, it takes you straight into the Kobo app (the first time via a groovy welcome to Kobo animation/jingle). If you’re a big Kobo fan, and happy to stick with Kobo from now to eternity, that might be a good thing. There’s an intro video clip, and a quick set-up wizard, both of which appear as soon as the device is switched on. It takes a couple of minutes to be up and reading (you can sign in via an existing Kobo password or via Facebook).

The Vox comes in a range of colours, and while it’s a little bulky compared to its e-ink siblings (two heavy for one-handed reading), looks pretty racy. Its colour screen is bright and clear – images sparkle. Other pluses include its built-in WiFi for instant book downloading and size and weight (much smaller and lighter than the iPad). Kobo provides some full colour children’s, travel and cookery titles to make the most of this. These are fairly standard and PDF-like in appearance. We also bought another, a Peppa Pig story, for my toddler son. He was surprised that he couldn’t click on the words or pictures to hear sounds or inspire movement. Apple still owns the children’s book space with clever interactive apps like Nosy Crow’s Cinderella, Hairy Maclary and Paddington Bear.

But if you want to be able to easily buy and read ebooks from other retailers, like Booku.com, Google eBooks or one of the ReadCloud-powered independents, that’ll be trickier. To read an ebook I’d borrowed from my local library, I had to download the Overdrive app (not available in the device’s limited appstore, but via the Overdrive website), connect the device to my desktop computer and fiddle around for ages to transfer it across. I was unable to open some of the other ePubs in my library, and couldn’t find any simple explanation in the instruction manual or online. No doubt there would be a way, but after spending three or four hours trying, I gave up and went back to my Sony Reader and iPad.

That said, Booki.sh books (Booki.sh powers Gleebooks and Readings ebookstores among others), look terrific on the Vox. Being browser-based, they’re easy to import onto the device.

The lack of the standard Android appstore is a disappointment. The selection of apps in the onboard appstore is poor, and finding the apps via the web browser and downloading that way clunky. If you’re primarily after a tablet for email, internet and social media, I’d go for a standard Android tablet or an iPad.

The Vox currently retails for $269.99 and comes with 8GB of storage. It offers no camera. In contrast, the bottom of the range iPad 2 is $579, but comes with 16GB of storage and a built-in camera. The iPad is the only device that allows you to read ebooks from just about anywhere: Apple’s own iBookstore, Booku.com and your local library via the Overdrive app, Amazon via the Kindle app, Kobo, Google and ReadCloud via their apps, and finally, from Booki.sh, using the web browser. If you want it all, I’d save up the extra $300, and hold out till March, when we’re likely to see the iPad 3.

If you want a no-frills option with some flexibility (ie not the locked-into-buying-from-Amazon Kindle), the e-ink touchscreen devices like the Sony Reader ($178 – my review is still coming, but in short, I’m loving it) and Kobo Touch ($129-$150) are great. They support all ePub formats, are easy on the eye and handbag, and are suitable for poolside reading in bright sunlight.

If you’re enticed by the combination of Kobo’s social reading technology and a colour tablet, but don’t want to fork out for an iPad, then consider the Vox. You never know, while you ponder your options, they might even drop the price some more (it originally launched here at $299, and retails for $199 in the US).

It’s hip to be @BookSquare

Drop by @booksquare and check out the number of Twitter followers US book industry blogger and digital publishing consultant Kassia Kroszer has. More than 90,000 when I last checked. Wow.

Though perhaps it’s not so surprising given she has been writing about the impact of the digital revolution on the book industry since 1998, and blogging about it at Booksquare since 2004.

Kroszer is at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival this week as a guest of if:book, appeared at Bookcamp today at the Wheeler Centre and will be on the panel for a session called The Connected Book tomorrow at 5.30pm, before flying to Canberra for an ACT Writers Centre-organised event in Canberra on Tuesday morning (I’ll be there to introduce her in my capacity as a board member of the centre).

She’s usually based in Pasadena, California, just east of Los Angeles, and works in rights in the film industry to pay non-Booksquare bills.

Kassia Kroszer.

Kroszer is a young-looking 48 – “oy! old!” – proof that youth is no prerequisite for being a digital guru.

She led a panel at today’s Bookcamp unconference (the “un” means free-flowing, audience driven and Power Point presentation-free – attendees had a say in the event’s structure and an opportunity to lead a session themselves) along with if:book’s other special guest speakers, Kate Pullinger (UK) and Hugh McGuire (Canada).

You can scan the day’s Twitter stream via the hashtag #bookcampaus. The highlights for me were Kroszer’s opening session on the definition of the word publisher (little consensus here, other than that it’s about connecting readers with writing and that boundaries are shifting), and Kate Eltham’s discussion on social reading (bring it on – as I tweeted today, I found myself in tears on the bus from the airport over a heartbreaking passage in David Nicholls’ One Day, and would’ve loved to discuss with someone nearby instantly rather than looking around sheepishly as I pretended I had something in my eye).
Meanwhile, Kroszer answered some questions for me via email earlier this week.

How did you get into digital publishing consulting and blogging on the industry?

My background is actually motion pictures, an industry that has a lot of overlap with publishing, particularly when you look at the home entertainment business. I started Booksquare in 2004 after thinking long and hard about what I wanted to blog about – the last thing I wanted was a site that focused on the minutiae of my life, and as I looked at the other literary blogs already on the scene, I didn’t want to compete with them (and I am thrilled those bloggers embraced me into their community). Nobody was writing about the business of publishing, particularly the transition to digital at that point.

In 1998, I wrote my article on the digital publishing industry. I focused on a digital-only publisher and their business model. Since then, I have followed the business very closely, and, over the years, have developed strong contacts in the industry. Make no mistake about it: there are some really smart, really savvy, really creative people in this space!

I apply my knowledge of business, my experience in motion pictures (where applicable), and what I learn from my network of resources to what I do.

Do you earn enough from the blog and consulting to live comfortably?

I make enough from my site to pay its bills – my goal is not to make money from Booksquare. My husband (who will be at Bookcamp as well) has been doing web development – a form of digital publishing – full-time since 1998, and I have worked with him on major projects. Obviously, Booksquare is an example of publishing on the web, though other projects have been much larger in scope. My main source of income is consulting for motion picture studios; just as with publishing, this is a really interesting time to be in the business!

Is this ultimately what you want to do, or a stepping stone/part of a grand plan?

Since my high school journalism days, I have been very comfortable with a certain type of opinion-based non-fiction writing, and blogging is the best way for me to continue that type of work. I also write fiction (not as seriously as I should, but perhaps once the husband is done with his current book, I can pull back from consulting a bit and focus again).

I love writing and speaking about the publishing industry, mostly because I love learning about all the amazing things happening, putting them in context, and sharing with others. [Me too!]

How on earth did you attract so many Twitter followers?

That was pure dumb luck. For a while, Twitter was recommending people to follow based on areas of interest. I was lucky enough to be included in the book people section. A lot of people followed those recommendations (many of my good friends in the industry were on that list…we share our amazement at how this played out!). I think, also, there is a tendency for people to follow the people their friends follow.

That being said (and I cannot stress this enough!), having lots and lots of followers means nothing if they’re not engaged. Given the speed with which Twitter moves, I figure a very small number of people are paying attention to what I say at any one point in time (I also assume a lot of the followers I have are bots, spammers, and people who never actually use Twitter). I love it when people talk to me – and they do! The conversation is what makes Twitter great.

I don’t follow a lot of people, relatively speaking, because the people I follow are, well, prolific. I can barely keep up with them. Publishing people can out-tweet any other industry! But I do try to respond as much as possible, and often follow those who engage me in interesting ways, if only because I love fascinating people. One woman I followed because she was continually tweeting funny, pithy things at me. I read her feed, loved her style…and we’ve become good personal friends since she lives in Los Angeles (her first book was just released, and I’m so thrilled for her).

What’s your best tip (or tips) for someone hoping to build a digital community around their work/passion?

The number thing you have to do is work your niche. Identify what you want to do, and stick with it. Oh sure, you can go off-topic once in a while, but people are reading/listening/viewing – you communicate in the manner you feel most comfortable -because you have information they want. The second tip is to see those in your space as colleagues, not competition. Working with your peers expands your community; working against them contracts it.

Don’t assume you know everything, and be really open to feedback and other perspectives. There are some amazingly smart people out there, no matter what you do, and sometimes shutting up and listening is the best thing you can do to build your own name and reputation. You know the old saying about great artists stealing? It works here, as long as you follow through on the intent of that saying: make it your own, not a plagiarism of someone else.

Are publishers, full-time authors and booksellers doomed as per this grim piece in The Guardian?

There were some interesting points in that article, but I think the whole piece was a bit too, um, ill-informed. The mid-list is always dying, and those mid-list authors are rethinking their relationship to the publishing industry. They finally have options, and if publishers want to keep those authors in their develop pipeline, they need to figure out how to entice them back.

Likewise, it’s the job of booksellers to find their way in a changing retail market. I’ve talked with a lot of smart booksellers, and they get the world is changing…and they’re changing their world. There are also booksellers who cross their arms over their chests and say, “No, I won’t participate in ebooks!” They won’t survive the transition. The question for booksellers becomes a question of what they do, and how they can do it best. Ebooks are books, too, you know.

Charlotte’s posts on books, digital publishing and social media also appear on Twitter (@ebookish), Facebook (www.facebook.com/ebookish) and at ebookish.com.au.