Book Blogging Basics, Part 1: Building a solid base

With Lectito celebrating its first birthday this month, I’m paying it forward and sharing some of the tips and advice, as well as the mistakes I’ve made and answers to the questions I’ve wish I’d known to ask in my first year of book blogging. Over the past few weeks, I’ve also been chatting with fellow book bloggers to find out what advice they have to share as well as the things they’re still trying to figure out.

I’ve collated all our tips and tricks into four posts that cover what I believe are the basics: Building a solid base, nailing your content, getting social, and innovating and expanding. I’ll be delivering one post each week for the month of June. Don’t want to miss a post? Sign up and get ’em delivered straight to your inbox.

Okay, let’s dive in.

Welcome to the community, friend!

On behalf of book bloggers everywhere, hullo!! 😀 Welcome to our little corner of the Internet. We’re by-and-large an enthusiastic bunch, and we’re looking forward to getting to know you both through your blog and in our comments sections! Please don’t be shy.

I’ll get into the nuts and bolts of setting up your blog in a tick, but first, I want to say a few words about community. Because book blogging is all about community.

Before starting Lectito, I was convinced that my book blog was going to be The Shiz. I had a creative writing Ph.D. and a good few years’ magazine experience under my belt, I’d written freelance reviews for a number of reputable publications and I was a chronic bibliophile. Surely, millions of readers would be falling over themselves to gaze adoringly at my critiques, each new post would be met with unbounded squees of excitement around the globe and servers would crash beneath the tidal waves of traffic surging through my site?

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Me, Lectito launch day.

Spoiler alert: none of that happened.

I’d read on other blogs that blogging is all about community. But I figured I was somehow the exception. See above. If you’re thinking the same thing—and I know some of you are—lean in and listen up: there are no exceptions. If I hadn’t changed my attitude quick smart, Lectito would have died without a whimper around the three-month mark, and no amount of sparkly content could have saved it.

See, what I didn’t know back then but quickly discovered is that people who read book blogs tend to write them as well. Which, when you think about it, makes sense: if you love books and reading enough to follow a bunch of book blogs, why not join the conversation and start your own? A large percentage of your readers are fellow book bloggers. If they take the time to read and comment on your posts, it’s not unreasonable for them to expect a little quid pro quo.

Several bloggers I spoke with said they find nothing ruder than bloggers who refuse to share the love. That’s not to say you need to read and respond to every post of every blogger who ever comments on your reviews. However, the bloggers who are fastest to respond to comments, emails, tweets, etc. and who are most generous in offering comments are also the ones who build the strongest and most loyal readerships and squeeze the most out of the blogging experience. There are thousands of incredible book bloggers out there, and we’re all busy. So why would we spend our time continuing to read and comment on the work of someone who refuses to acknowledge our existence, when we might be having meaningful conversations? In short: good content will bring you a lot of short term readers, but if you want them to stick around you need to make them feel welcome and valued. If you’re thinking that sounds like a lot of effort to drive traffic, let me put it another way: if talking with other readers about their reading as well as your own isn’t one of your reasons for starting a book blog, you’re going to find this a hard and lonely slog.

I’ll talk more about how to find and connect with other bloggers in my ‘getting social’ post in week three, but for now, if you’re on board with the idea that your blog is a meeting place, not a soap box, let’s continue.

#GOALS

Before you start designing and building your blog, it’s helpful to consider what you hope to get out of book blogging. Having a clear mission statement and goals will give your blog focus and direction and offer more for both you and your readers.

Lectito’s mission from day one has been to inspire both me and my readers to:

Read widely, read deeply, read often

Everything I do on Lectito stems from that. I read across genres and try to offer informed yet informal reviews on a regular basis. I follow a lot of other bloggers to see what they’re reading and make an effort to read reviews of books that I wouldn’t typically pick up, as well as reviews of those I already want to read. I interview authors when the opportunity arises and use my Book Blogger Q & A and Meet the Bookstagrammers series to introduce readers to other bloggers and their reviews. Even by putting this post together, I’m hoping to help new and aspiring bloggers share their unique reading experiences and in doing so encourage others to read more.

I have secondary goals, too. Here are three examples:

To connect with other readers

I love gasbagging about books almost as much as I love reading them, and I’m lucky enough to have a big group of bookish friends. However, in May last year, my husband was offered an amazing new job. In Perth. Suddenly, all my bookish friends were reeeeaaaallllyyyyyy far away. I’m not the greatest at rocking up to writing/book events full of strangers and leaving with a bunch of business cards and new BFFs, but I needed to find a way to keep talking with fellow bibliophiles. I saw, and still see, Lectito as a perfect way to share what I’ve been reading with far away friends and to befriend other readers.

To improve my writing and contribute to the literary conversation

I’m a writer. And I think the most important thing a writer can do is read. It’s how we improve our understanding of craft. By writing and posting reviews, I force myself to engage critically with my reading. It’s had and continues to have a transformative effect on my fiction. I also believe that authors should contribute to conversations about books, and Lectito is a way for me to have those conversations and actively engage with the book industry while I work on my manuscripts.

To be compensated for the time I put into running Lectito

Not everyone will agree with me on this one. Many bloggers are happy to review purely for the love of it. And that’s great. However, it’s not for me. I’m a freelancer, so time spent on Lectito is time I’m not working on paid projects. There has to be some return on investment, even if it’s something small. I decided that the time I put into a review is at least worth a copy of the book. So I’m not shy about reaching out to publishers for ARCs (I’ll talk more on this in later posts). I’m also open to reviewing related products in exchange for the product; however, I always clearly state that I’ve received the book/product in exchange for an honest review (and they are honest) and only agree to review titles and products that genuinely interest me. I also use affiliate marketing. I try not to be spammy about this. At the bottom of my reviews, I include affiliate links to places where readers can purchase the book, should they so choose, and also to Grammarly which I picked because I bought a Grammarly Premium Subscription and it changed my life—I honestly believe it’s one of the most valuable tools available to bloggers.

Your goals and even you mission can, and likely will change over time and it’s good to revisit them now and then. I go back to them when I’m planning my focus and content for each month.

Picking a platform

There are a bunch of blogging platforms out there (WordPress, Blogspot, Tumblr and Squarespace, to name just a few), and many offer both free and premium accounts. Knowing which one to go for can be tricky. Ultimately it comes down to three key factors:

  • What do you hope to achieve through your blog?
  • How much backend work are you willing to put in?
  • What’s your budget?

If you just want to quickly and easily share reviews and other bookish bits and aren’t too fussed about how your blog looks, a Tumblr, Blogspot or free WordPress.com account would be perfect. I’ve blogged on all three in the past and found them all relatively easy to use. When deciding on a platform for Lectito, I also tried Squarespace, but at the end of my free trial, I decided that, while their sites look gorgeous and professional, they were more suited to a website format rather than a blog and didn’t allow for huge amounts of customisation.

Paying for hosting or a premium theme will likely get you a spiffy-looking blog, but before you hand over the cash consider how that will help you achieve your blog’s mission. If the plan is to make oodles of money from your blog, it’s likely a worthwhile investment. However, if you see your blog as more of a hobby, you’re better off saving your pennies. You can make a great looking site for free, and you can always give it a facelift down the track if you decide it’s worth the investment.

For Lectito, I eventually settled on a premium WordPress.com subscription and the custom Hive theme. I chose WordPress for a few reasons:

  • I was already familiar with the platform and find it easy to use.
  • WordPress gives users a fair bit of wiggle room when it comes to customisation.
  • I’ve gone through the process of switching a blog from a WordPress.com site to a self-hosted WordPress.org site and knew I could do that again if I wanted more customisation/control down the line (I wanted to keep it simple in the beginning).
  • WordPress offers great support.
  • WordPress provides relatively detailed stats that help me better understand my readers.
  • There are a relatively large number of book bloggers on WordPress, which makes it easy to follow and keep up with their blogs.

I decided to go Premium and purchase a custom theme because I wanted that added touch of professionalism. If I was going to be approaching publishers and authors to request review copies and interviews, I felt it important to show that I took my role as reader and reviewer seriously, and a slick-looking site is part of that. It says: I’m invested in this. I’m also a control freak and an aesthete, so little touches like having a custom URL and the freedom to choose what, if any, advertising appears on Lectito, were important to me.

Choosing a theme/layout

Once you’ve settled on a platform, it’s time to choose a theme/layout. My best piece of advice? Keep. It. Simple. There’s nothing worse than arriving at a new blog and being bombarded with STUFF. Start with a clear logo or heading to let your reader know where they are, and keep that simplicity flowing. There is a weird and wonderful array of widgets out there, and it can be tempting to go boonta. But if you fill your sidebar(s) with follower counts, tag clouds, labyrinthine archives and other tidbits, it very quickly starts to look cluttered and your readers will find it difficult to focus on what they came for: your content. Think about what widgets are relevant to your readers, and, real talk, no one cares how many followers you have, or what percentage of your Goodreads challenge you’ve completed. My homepage doesn’t have a sidebar, just social icons, a basic menu and a scrolling feed of my posts. The sidebar included with my posts contains one affiliate link (Grammarly) and my social widgets, so you can see my latest Instagram posts, tweets, etc. which I view as an extension of Lectito’s content.

The ‘keep it simple’ philosophy applies to your menus as well. Make it easy for your readers to navigate around your site and find what they’re looking for. Because I post a mix of reviews, writing tips and bits about book blogging, I decided (after a bit of experimentation), to organise my posts into three key categories: ‘for readers’, ‘for writers’ and ‘for reviewers’, and included a single level of sub-categories under each. For example, under ‘for readers’ I have reviews and author interviews sorted by genre.

For the posts themselves, your best bet is a clean layout and an easy to read font so that the design doesn’t distract from your content.

You can change your theme and layout at any time, but I’d advise against switching it up too often. The look of your site is a big part of your blog’s identity, and it’s worth setting aside the time to have a play and get it right from the start.

Think social

Social media platforms, such as Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, etc., are great forums for meeting other bloggers and readers and getting involved with the bookish community. I’m going to talk much, MUCH more about how to get the most out of social media later in this series, but for now, I just want to say this: get around it. Pick the one or two platforms you find most appealing (for me it’s Instagram all the way), set up an account for your blog and start connecting with other readers.

Make a schedule

As many book bloggers will tell you, reviewing can quickly become the equivalent of a full-time job. It’s super fun, but crazy time consuming. Having a schedule can help manage the mayhem, and I really, really wish I’d got on top of this sooner. Before you brazenly commit to posting every day, take a good hard look at your calendar and figure out how much time you have for blogging.

Consider that you’ll need time for reading, writing your reviews, networking on social media, reading and commenting on posts from bloggers you follow and keeping on top of admin. (responding to emails, scheduling blog and social posts, checking out book catalogues and NetGalley to find new titles, liaising with publishers, planning what you’re going to do next, etc.). Maybe daily posts aren’t such a great idea after all.

Once you’ve figured out how much time you have for blogging, you can start thinking about what you post when. I use my Google Calendar and Tasks to keep track of the books I plan to read each month, the books I’ve already read and need to review and when I plan to post those reviews. Because I don’t want to be on social media 24/7, I schedule a lot of my Facebook posts and tweets and make a note of when they’re going up too. If I receive an advance reader’s copy of a book, I’ll also make a note of the publication date so I can share that on social media and (hopefully) have a review ready shortly after. The result looks a little something like this:

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 5.24.36 PM

Because I prepare most of my content ahead of time (and to save yourself buckets of stress I highly recommend you do the same), having a schedule helps me keep track of what’s happening when and to plan my time accordingly.

Decide how you’re going to keep track of the blogs you follow

When starting a blog, it’s easy just to think about your site. But blogging is all about community. I know I’ve said it before, and I will say it again, but, seriously, I can’t stress that enough. You’re going to spend a lot of time reading other people’s blogs, and you need a system in place to manage that.

Unlike tweeting or Instagramming, people blog across multiple platforms, and you’ll probably want to follow people on more than one platform. Which is where it gets tricky. Ideally, you want all the posts collated in one place so you can see what’s new and don’t have to worry about missing posts. There are a few ways to do this. Services, such as Bloglovin’, keep track of the blogs you follow and let you know via email when there are new pieces for you to read.

I prefer to subscribe to all the blogs I follow via email. That way, I get all my blog reading delivered straight to my Lectito inbox and don’t have to remember to log onto a separate service.

Set up a mailing list

I think of the readers on my mailing list as Lectito’s VIPs. If someone likes what you’re doing enough to give you permission to email them directly, that’s kind of a big deal. They don’t want to miss a post or update and they trust that you’re not going to spam them. If you plan to monetise your blog, these readers are the ones who are most likely to become paying customers. Take care of them. And start reaching out to them from day one.

WordPress allows followers to subscribe to your blog via email, but I would recommend keeping your own list instead and using an external mail provider, such as Mail Chimp (which is free until you have 2,000 subscribers and pretty cheap after that). External mail providers also allow you to easily customise your mailouts, so you can send beautifully styled emails containing or linking to your latest posts and letting readers know about updates, giveaways, competitions, blog tours and whatever else you may have happening on your site.

Be prepared

By now your site’s looking amazing, and you’ve got your basic admin. systems in place. But before you go live and start calling readers to your blog you need one more vital thing: content.

Sure, you can just stick up a welcome message and tell readers you’ll have reviews for them… soon. But they’re probably not going to stick around for the wait. And why would they? They don’t know you. They don’t know what you like to read or whether they’re going to connect with your style of reviewing, so why would they follow you?

Better to hold off launching until you’ve got a few posts under your belt, so that when readers first arrive at your site you’re ready with something to show them. It doesn’t have to be dozens and dozens of reviews. Depending on how regularly you plan to post, I’d recommend a fortnight to a month’s worth. That way, when you do go live, there’s enough there to show readers what you’re about and you’re already working a number of weeks ahead, which will come in handy if and when you need to take a break.

Recap

Whelp, this is by far the longest post I’ve ever written here on Lectito! If you only take a few snippets away from this post, then let it be these three things:

  1. Have a good hard think about what you want your blog to achieve. What’s the reason for your blog’s existence? What need or needs does it fulfil for both you and your readers? Everything you put into your blog should somehow serve this vision. If it doesn’t, drop it.
  2. Be organised. Before unleashing your blog on the world, take the time to set up backend systems and schedules that make it easier to manage all the bits and pieces that go into making a great blog.
  3. Be. Community. Minded. Seriously, write this out on an index card, stick it above your desk and look at it every time you sit down to work on your blog. Reach out to other bloggers. Look for opportunities to collaborate. Be an active participant in the bookish community.

If you found this helpful, take a peek at the other posts in the series:

Thanks also to Grammarly for picking up 14 critical issues and 63 advanced issues in my draft of this review. If, like me, you have trouble with typos, do give Grammarly a go!

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