The mood was upbeat and enthusiastic, and everyone's shared love for the written word couldn't have been more apparent. Even in cases where panelists disagreed with one another (not often), they listened respectfully to others' opinions. I expect that more controversial matters and positions will be taken up as the blogging community becomes more established as a group, though I hope the civilized tone remains.
The speakers, like the audience as a whole, were a combination of book bloggers, authors, and members of the publishing industry. All of the author speakers were new to me (I don't read much YA fiction, and that's what most of them seemed to write) but even though I wished for a little more diversity, it was good for me to break out of my genre boundaries and learn about popular reading interests. Refreshingly, all of the authors were bloggers themselves, and even if they don't operate their sites in the same way as book bloggers do, with formal reviews and such, they had firsthand experience with the medium, and the purpose of their talks wasn't self-promotional. Rather, everyone was there to share their viewpoints and explain their roles in the online community of readers.
Arriving on site, each registrant was presented with an oversize swag bag filled with books, postcards, notebooks, and other promo material supplied by publishers and authors.
It was a nice surprise to receive so many other books after three days of galley grabbing at BEA proper, and there were many genres represented among them, including two historical novels (Jill Dawson's The Great Lover, about poet Rupert Brooke, and Jeanine Cummins' The Outside Boy, set in 1959 Ireland). Yes, there is a diet book at the bottom of the pile, which I've been eyeing ruefully, especially after four days of dining in many of NYC's excellent restaurants. Among the handouts, HarperCollins came up with a book blogger contact list for review copy requests, organized by imprint, and I wanted to highlight it because I wish other large publishers would follow suit. It's so simple yet very helpful.
After a delicious breakfast spent chatting with other bloggers, novelist Maureen Johnson started off the formal part of the program with a hilarious keynote speech. She described book bloggers as "activists for books," punctuating her remarks on the Internet's growing influence on book culture with entertaining asides on her experience as a Protestant enrolled in a Catholic girls' high school. A social media aficionado, she described how an impromptu thought posted on Twitter (that she would blog every day in April) can unintentionally start a group movement that others will quickly sign on to. Less time could have been allotted for Q&A, because discussion took a while to get going, but it was an entertaining talk.
Ron Hogan of Beatrice.com (formerly of both GalleyCat and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) was next, with a talk on professionalism and ethics. His main points: book bloggers have established themselves as a viable force in the publishing industry, as exemplified by the fact that many print news sources now have their own blogs. They shouldn't be judged by the professional standards used for print journalism, as there are many different ways of talking about books, and formal book criticism is only one of them. Also, instead of agreeing to adhere to a formal code of ethics, he suggests, bloggers should establish themselves as trustworthy by following their own moral guidelines and acting (and posting) accordingly.
My take: I agree that bloggers will develop their own standards to measure against, and their approach will come across in their blog's presentation and content. At the same time, my own sense of professionalism and ethics in writing about books developed out of my experience with print media. I've seen many questions raised, on the Book Blogs site and elsewhere, about appropriate ways for bloggers to respond in various situations. In this respect, it can benefit them to know what the guidelines used by journalists entail and why they're considered important. For newbie bloggers especially, it can be hard to internalize positions on issues when they don't yet know what the issues are. I'm speaking about things like minimizing conflicts of interest, distinguishing editorial from advertising content, even avoiding plagiarism. There's too much here for a single 60-minute talk, obviously, but even so, I came away feeling that it could have had greater focus and specificity. It gave me a lot to think about. To continue the conversation Ron Hogan started, I'd love to see a panel devoted to best practices next time, with a multiplicity of perspectives offered.
We adjourned for lunch in the next room, where more bookish conversations and business card exchanges ensued. These informal networking opportunities, both at meals and in the hallways between sessions, were actually just as valuable as the panels themselves.
I see I've already typed a lot, so I'll try to summarize the highlights of the after-lunch panels. Listening to "Writing and Building Content" left me both invigorated and tired, given the panelists' extensive efforts in keeping their blogs fresh and current. These well-read and ambitious bloggers had some creative ideas, though I admit that based on the panel's title, I had expected someone would add her thoughts about what makes for a good book review. As an information-swap session, though, it was pretty good.
"Marketing" covered not only methods to get the word out about your blog, but also social marketing tips in general and ways to find balance. I found myself writing down a few ideas. Writing a blog plus commenting on others' sites can be a time-consuming process. This session was an eye-opener in that most of the bloggers (aside from Thea of The Book Smugglers) weren't keen on blog stats. To me they form part of the picture on blog activity, along with comments, followers, and the overall sense of community created, and I have no problem disclosing numbers; I see them as akin to circulation figures for a print mag. I was also bemused by the notion that some publishers want to see e-commerce links on blogs because they have their eye on the bottom line. This is something I deliberately avoid; I figure readers are smart enough to visit their vendor of choice if they want to buy a book, I don't want to affiliate with any one bookstore, I feel uneasy about the concept anyway, and pointing just to Amazon (for example) doesn't do non-US readers any good.
The panelists on "Blogging with Social Responsibility" discussed ways they use their blogs to get the word out about a cause, one related to their blog's topic and/or one with personal meaning. It was an educational and inspiring session, not only because of the diversity of experiences on the panel, but because people were finally getting down and dirty with major issues concerning the industry: book cover whitewashing, raising the awareness of gay characters in fiction, etc. This is one of the areas where the blogosphere truly shows its power.
The final panel, "Author/Blogger Relationships," pleased me because it touched on some issues not covered in the Professionalism/Ethics discussion earlier, such as potential reviewer bias as well as when/if they might recuse themselves from a review. The speakers also discussed the perennially dicey topic of negative reviews in a professional and honest manner. My energy was fading at this point, as I was cold (major a/c blast in the Javits that day) and hungry, and I stepped out halfway through to eat a snack from my bag.
I wish I'd taken along my mini-laptop and camera, not to mention taken better notes, but this is already a super-long post, and many other attendees wrote up their own (better, more detailed) summaries. Cathy of Kittling: Books has an extensive link roundup of all things BEA/BBC related in book blogland. The schedule for BBC made for a long day, and getting a cab out of the Javits at 5pm on Friday was a challenge, but I made it back to the hotel not only with a bag full of books but with a renewed energy for book blogging, and the knowledge that I'd made many new friends. Congratulations to the organizers for a job well done, and I hope to catch many of you in NYC next year.