Book blogs' buzz grows louder

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Just a year ago, screenwriter and aspiring novelist Mark Sarvas had a lot of explaining to do. When he talked up his fledgling book blog at a publishing conference, marketers had just one question for him: Huh?

But this year, Mr. Sarvas returned to the same conference and found that publicists weren't mystified by blogs anymore. Instead, they wanted to know what they could do for him. "We are not the strange, unfamiliar beast we may have been before," says Sarvas, creator of a blog called The Elegant Variation.

Although no one's exactly sure how influential they are, bloggers like Sarvas have become the new darlings of the publishing industry. They're getting free review copies, landing interviews with prestigious authors, and trying to boost obscure writers - especially writers in the literary fiction world where John Irving is a bigger name than John Grisham.

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Still, plenty of sophisticated readers don't know a blog from a podcast. "For people who aren't Internet-savvy, [a blog] sounds like something they'll never understand," sighs Robert Gray, a Vermont bookseller and the creator of a blog called Fresh Eyes.

Blogs (short for "web logs") are online journals that can be updated as often as the blogger likes. What you'll find on a book blog runs the gamut from novel reviews and personal essays to musings and links to news stories. Website visitors typically get to add their own comments, too, creating an ongoing conversation.

If this sounds dry to you, the fact is that book blogs can be vibrant and sharply opinionated, full of odes to favorite authors and jibes at everything from "cheesy" bestsellers to the shrinking book review sections of major newspapers.

Book blogs aren't without their quirks, however. Like readers and reviewers, they can be snobbish or parochial. And they're hardly egalitarian: Most are run by one person with dictatorial powers over what gets reviewed and by whom.

Add to this mix the Internet's inescapable cranks, who might respond to an innocent post about the blueness of the sky with a rant about the stupidity of anybody who doesn't know it's azure.

In the world of book blogs, the anonymity of such "postings" allows for vitriol that can "be somewhat hurtful to an author," says Reagan Arthur, a senior editor at Little, Brown.

"There are a few crazies," admits Jessa Crispin, the Chicago-based creator of a high-profile blog with a risqué name ("book" plus a vulgar term for a woman of loose morals). "I have gotten the odd marriage proposal - four or five," she adds.

On the whole, though, Ms. Crispin said her blog's patrons are a likeable, if geeky, bunch of bookworms. Like her, they're attracted by serious conversations about books. She started the site on a whim while holding down a boring job and spending late nights debating literature with her sister and a friend.

Crispin's blog sells advertising and pays writers for feature stories but not reviews; for those, contributors get free books. In return, reviewers get a chance to spotlight their heroes. "We do make an effort to cover and interview the less-well-known authors," Crispin says. "I really wanted to let the writers write about who they love and interview the authors they love."

As a result, professional book reviewers are losing a bit of their dominance over publishing "buzz." The blogs "democratize and level the playing field," says Peter Handel, an independent book publicist in Berkeley, Calif.

In years past, literary discussions were largely limited to academia and the occasional book club, says Sarvas of The Elegant Variation. "What the blogs have really done is encourage inclusion, encourage people from all walks of life to join the conversation...."

But is anyone listening? Many book bloggers seem to be talking only to themselves, judging by the dearth of postings by outsiders on their sites. And it's hard to tell if bloggers' mash notes translate into sales at Barnes & Noble.

Even when Sarvas and 20 other bloggers combined forces and chose a single novel to promote during the spring ("Case Histories," by British author Kate Atkinson), their impact was unclear. The book's sales remained steady for months after its release last year, said Ms. Arthur, its editor, but it's anyone's guess as to why.

A sample of bookish blogs

Looking for book reviews, publishing gossip, and impassioned debate? Here's a sampling of book blogs. Note: Some of these blogs tackle adult topics.

Beatrice
www.beatrice.com.
Daily literary news and musings by Ron Hogan, a writer and frequent reviewer. Daily literary news and musings by Ron Hogan, a writer and frequent reviewer.

Booksquare
www.booksquare.com.
Stresses "news and views of authors."

Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
www.sarahweinman.com.
Sarah Weinman is the crime fiction editor for The Baltimore Sun.

The Elegant Variation
www.marksarvas.blogs.com/elegvar
Writer Mark Sarvas lives in Los Angeles.

Fresh Eyes
www.publishersmarketplace.com/members/shire15.
Robert Gray is a bookseller in Vermont.

Galleycat
www.mediabistro.com/galleycat.
Natalie Chicha blogs on books and publishing.

Litblog co-op
www.lbc.typepad.com/blog.
Aims to unite literary weblogs to promote the 'best' of contemporary fiction.

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