I met Ayo Onatade at Carole Blake’s 50 years in publishing party last year. I was fascinated to hear about her second life as a blogger, and invited her to Kingston to talk to the MA Publishing students. The talk was so enlightening that I followed up the experience by asking if I could extend the talk into this case study:
Ayo Onatade has a day job working as an administrator within the British Courts of Justice. Her second life is as a blogger, writing about thrillers and crime fiction for The Shots ezine. Audience expectations for The Shots are high. The blog gets over 10,049 hits a month (December 2013; 410,601 in its lifetime) but readers will only come back if there is interesting new material to read, and Ayo contributes at least three new posts a week. She has to keep up to date with news from the sector (which authors have been signed up, who has a new book coming out, who has won which prize) as well as finding time to read the crime titles publishers send her for review. The scale of this endeavour may be judged by the fact that she has now persuaded her postie to deliver all the packages from publishers at the weekend rather than during the week, when they will not fit through the letterbox. Most weeks this amounts to at least ten packages and the Royal Mail now sends a van on a Saturday.
But while Ayo’s influence is strong, and growing, this is a role for which she is not paid. Arguably this is the significance of her position; she is free to say what she does. Her readers, used to her style, agreeing with her taste and appreciative of her honesty, respond by buying her recommendations and avoiding those she felt did not work.
Based on Ayo’s experiences, here are five pieces of advice for publishers who want to work well with bloggers:
1. Respect their influence
Bloggers communicate directly and authoritatively with your market in a way that, as a producer with something to sell, you will never be believed. The history of books selling through retailers has meant that publishers have long been isolated from their purchasers. Although they are now building up mechanisms of direct communication (websites offering reading group support materials and guidance on reading journeys; email alerts and direct buying mechanisms) the unbiased blogger who understands and respects the time of readers in search of recommendations, will always be believed more. With the decline of book reviews in the broadsheets the knowledge of the genre blogger is becoming even more important to authors and publishers.
2. Respect their time
Understand that however much commitment bloggers put into this role, it is generally not their day job. Be realistic in what you send them. Ayo tends to hear from publishers by email (with an occasional DM on Twitter) rather than phone calls – which she cannot take during the day anyway (and does not have time to return). Along similar lines, Ayo is regularly contacted by (often first-time) authors who want feedback on their work. With generosity she tends to give it, but it should be noted that this is an assessment by a sector expert on the merits of the writing, not a long-term tutoring opportunity!
3. Understand that most do this job for love
Most bloggers like being at the centre of things and knowing what is being published. They enjoy the feedback they receive from readers and authors, the sense of heavy involvement with a community, and the accompanying sense of value that comes from being listened to, by people who value their judgment. Acknowledging this passion-funded expertise rather than marvelling at how much time it must all take is a good start.
4. Let them get to know your organisation and its plans
Involve bloggers in treats, parties, meetings with authors, new commissioning decisions and ‘cover reveals’ (the first availability of the jacket image for a new title). Provide new information each time you are in touch with them, not just repeated rehashing of the jacket blurb. For bloggers who are particularly important to your list, consider offering an ‘exclusive’ – perhaps access to an author or information that you won’t be making generally available. Bloggers gain satisfaction from making their blog the ‘go to’ destination, so anything that helps them maintain this position is likely to boost your relationship.
5. Understand how they collaborate and communicate
Whereas rivalry among authors can be intense, the atmosphere within the crime writing community is remarkably mutually supportive – one author once commented that they had no need to stick the dagger in each other as they could do this to their characters. The same feeling applies to the associated blogging community; those writing for other crime fiction sites communicate with Ayo, meet her at events, and read and comment on her posts. Some authors handily capitalise on this wider information network by offering to guest blog or to do a blog tour. Of course, offering various sites the same information in the hope it will be posted widely is not a good idea. Ayo insists that while she welcomes guest contributions (500 words for a blog; 1,000 for a website contribution), they must be original and not about to be posted elsewhere.
This is an edited version of a case study from the new edition of How to market books, due from Routledge later this year.