Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Interview with Susan Hill: The Art of Blogging

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After a recent piece on her blog declaring all blog reviews should be positive, we approached Susan Hill to see if she would comment for our upcoming feature “Fox in the City”. Her question-and-answer interview was so interesting we decided to publish it in its entirety.

Susan Hill is a well-known author of novels such as “I’m the King of the Castle”, “The Woman in Black” and the Simon Serrailler series, as well as children’s books such as her recent “The Battle for Gullywith”. She runs the publisher Long Barn Books, and writes a very popular blog.

Why do you run a blog? What’s the main motivation and what is its main focus?

It began as a sidekick to my website. I get hundreds of e-mails, especially from students doing my books for GCSE and A level and I decided to have a central place to answer and do posts about these. It is really an adjunct of my author publicity and marketing. These days authors should not – cannot – expect their publishers to do everything and indeed if they do they will be disappointed. I tell the people who read me round the world about my books and writing and keep them up to date. But it also went sideways into some book talk as these are things the readers ask too.

How do you see the role of the bookblogger versus the role of the newspaper reviewer. Is there is a difference? Do you see them as having different responsibilities?

I was a professional book reviewer weekly with not many breaks for 35 years. I reviewed for just about every national newspaper and many magazines and journals. It was my bread and butter income. Hard work. I stopped because I`d had enough. But I wanted to write more about books – NOT just newly published ones. I had a monthly column called The World of Books for ten years in the Daily Telegraph and the pleasure of writing about any books I loved was something I wanted to continue to have.

It is very different. Some bloggers see themselves as the same as book reviewers in the papers but they are not. You are unedited. You are uncut. You write about what you want not what they ask you to; you are writing in a more relaxed way. You do not stick to publication dates etc. or only new books. The main thing is that you are unedited and many book bloggers have never BEEN so they have no discipline. Many ramble on for yards relating the plot which any good sub would excise; others just tell you books are ‘simply wonderful’ and they ‘adore’ them. Which is sloppy. You can say and do what you like on your blog but you should not expect to be taken as seriously as if you were writing in a national newspaper. The standard is lower. But the enthusiasm is greater and the word of mouth power is enormous.

Do you think blogging can (or should?) be more personal and subjective than newspaper reviewing.

It just IS. It is not so much whether a book blog should be personal and subjective as that a professional review in a newspaper should definitely NOT be. Though of course in the end all reviews other than the purely academic are subjective to an extent.

You said recently that bloggers should only publish positive reviews. Could you explain why?

This is something I do feel strongly about. You do not have a remit from anyone to be negative. If you are paid for a paper review you have to be honest. But on a blog you are not being paid and it is far far better to say nothing . It comes down, again, to being unedited. If you say something nasty or unpleasant in a paper your sub will tone it down – or they should. No one will do that on your blog and there is enough negativity and nastiness around the internet. Also, by being invited by a literary editor and to do a review in a newspaper you are being given a certain credibility – it is assumed you have an authority to write what you are writing or you would not be asked. Your blog has no such given authority – you give it to yourself, so you have to be even more careful. People have spent many weeks and months writing books and if you do not like what you read that is fine – but you do not have any authority to say so publicly and sometimes hurtfully. So better stay schtumm. In the middle of an enthusiastic and positive review you can say ‘though perhaps the descriptions are rather long and slow down the narrative’ say….
Gush is no good to anyone and there is a lot of undisciplined gush around the book blogging world. The main problem is length though.. again, no editing so everyone goes on for far too long.

Is good criticism (whether positive or negative) not an important thing to promote as well as books, in order to have more debate and conversation and engagement? Is there not a danger that if all blogs are positive they become viewed as promoting sites rather than reviewing sites?

I’ve answered this really. I think they should be promoting sites .. as in ‘word of mouth recommendation’.

Related to that: Do you think the role of the blogger in terms of promoting books is an important one?

Yes. Though HOW important none of us will ever know. I think it is rather overestimated actually. It`s a useful extra.

With circulations of newspapers going down, do you think that bloggers have changed the role of the newspaper reviewer? And if the newspapers take to blogging (which some of them have) do you think there is/should be a big difference in terms of how they approach blogging?

A newspaper blog is not a real blog because the writers are paid for it. Simply that. It is not independent and the one thing about a blog is that it is and should be independent. No, bloggers haven`t changed the way newspapers review.

Should bloggers receive review copies from publishers and in which case does this alter the blogger’s responsibility?

No reason why not. I get dozens of free books a week and have for years from publishers wanting quotes, wanting me to read and recommend.. this has been the way for many years, long long before I blogged. Now, I sometimes write about a few of them if I like them, more often I do not as my blog is not primarily a new-book-comment one.
There is no reason not to get books from publishers. It`s just a free sample. It doesn`t mean you have to do anything with it or feel under any obligation whatsoever. But if you read it and like it and think others would, why not ? All the publishers are trying to do is get the author some attention.. what`s wrong with that ?

As a publisher yourself, what is your expectation from bookbloggers? How are they viewed by the publishing world in general?

I send out very very few of our books to bloggers and I select them carefully. In general publishers feel bloggers have some small extra importance – or rather, a few do. But they don`t overrate it. They ignore it at their peril though. A very few book bloggers worldwide are quite influential.. Bluestalking Reader in Chicago for example. I often buy books on her say-so.

Do you think that bloggers should have policies towards small or independent publishers? Should blogs be championing books that don’t get highlighted for example?

No, There is no ‘should’ in the blogging world and if a publisher is professional they should not expect special favours just because they are small. Or indeed big.

As a publisher, do you find it hard to get reviews in newspapers (as some smaller and independent publishers have complained about the difficulty of getting this coverage).

No, we get a fair share. It is never easy for any publisher to get reviews for first time and unknown authors.

Do you think newspapers should have policies towards small or independent publishers in terms of reviews? What would you like to see?

I think there should be no reverse discrimination… but I do think there should be a level playing field. There has been the sense that some lit eds have assumed if it comes from a small publisher it can`t be much good because it must have been rejected by big publishers first. That is simply not true and a few lit eds make a major effort to look at books from small and big publishers with no difference between them. As they should. But they are the conscientious and hard working lit eds. They care more about the books and their readers than their own reputations and how they are perceived by the big publishers. As a small publisher I want the best for my authors… which means to be considered for review on the same terms as every other book sent in.

I don`t see myself primarily as a book blogger. I am an author who has a blog which is sometimes about new books but more often about the whole huge subject of books and reading. And the blog is a bit of a service to my readers too… as well as a good way of answering hundreds of letters and e-mails by killing many of the same birds with one stone.

Many thanks to Susan Hill for taking the time to speak to us about blogging and reviewing. We hope to open up discussion on this subject. Look out for the feature “Fox in the City” on blogging and print reviewing later today.

More info can be found at:

Susan Hill’s website

Long Barn Books

15 comments on “Interview with Susan Hill: The Art of Blogging

  1. Stewart
    February 7, 2008

    Psst! Rosyb – the first comment is spam, taking advantage of the URL option to get links to his site. It’s a generic comment that, if you Google it, has appeared on other blogs indiscriminately.

    Anyway:

    You can say and do what you like on your blog but you should not expect to be taken as seriously as if you were writing in a national newspaper.

    It’s good to know that since I’m not expecting to be taken as seriously as print reviewers that I’m able to say and do what I like on my blog, and that includes the occasional negative review. My blog is pretty much my reading diary with my thoughts on the books I read organised after some reflection, and some of the books I’ve read (Coelho’s The Alchemist and Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, amongst others) were, without doubt, extremely bad. I felt compelled to review them to cut through the hype.

  2. RosyB
    February 7, 2008

    Oh Stewart – how disappointing! And here I was welcoming the spam with cheer! Thanks for letting us know.

    I agree with you actually, both as a “reviewer” (if I were to call myself that) and as a reader. I look at the net all the time for reviews and I want an honest reaction, not promotion. I feel as a reader of blogs that I don’t just want to be “promoted at” either. I also think that good criticism comes about by everyone engaging with and promoting good criticism, whether that is literary criticism or just good word-of-mouth criticism. I read Amazon reviews (mostly by friends and family as everyone knows) but occasionally a really good review (I mean informative and interesting and saying why it thinks as it does rather than just saying a book is good) will pop up there, in which case I’m far more likely to take it and the book seriously.

    But more on this…We have a big feature going up this afternoon with even more issues to be debated, in which you feature. So I hope you’ll come along and join the debate after it is posted. Thanks for the comment! :)

  3. Pingback: Feature: Fox in the City « Vulpes Libris

  4. Nik
    February 7, 2008

    What an interesting and intelligent interview. Thanks both.

    Nik.

  5. Lisa Guidarini
    February 7, 2008

    Gosh, Susan, you’ve made me blush! I’m so honored you mentioned me in this interview.

    Oh, and re: positive reviews, in all the time I’ve been blogging I can only recall one genuine negative review I’ve written. I’ve had some lukewarm, but the only truly negative one was about a book I found so offensive and reprehensible, especially after finding out more on the background of the author (who was a total sham). But otherwise I try to pass on books if I can’t find something redeeming to write about, aside from “It was typed in a very nice font.”

    !!

    Lisa Guidarini/Bluestalking Reader

  6. sequinonsea
    February 8, 2008

    Welcome Lisa/Bluestalking Reader!

    “It was typed in a very nice font.” Teehee.

    Actually, I shall hyperlink you, while I think of it!

    Thanks for visiting and commenting.

    Lisa/Sequinonsea/CheekyBlighterFox ;-)

  7. Emma King-Farlow
    February 8, 2008

    A very interesting and thought-provoking interview. Many thanks!

    Emma

  8. rosyb
    February 10, 2008

    Thanks for the comments everyone. :)

  9. Jackie
    February 12, 2008

    This person is filled with contradicting statements. First she says blogers are claiming everything is “simply wonderful”, then she says they shouldn’t be negative. After pointing out that publishers’ review copies are “free samples…to get the author some attention” she says her own publishing house sends out “few copies” to bloggers. And bloggers oughtn’t be taken as seriously as newspaper reviewers, yet others such as Bluestalking Reader is “quite influential”. Such inconsistancies.

  10. sequinonsea
    February 12, 2008

    “These days authors should not – cannot – expect their publishers to do everything and indeed if they do they will be disappointed.”

    I thought this was particularly interesting. Not about expecting publishers to do *everything* but it made me start thinking about what authors can expect of their publishers. Oh, I feel another feature approaching…

    Thanks so much to Susan Hill for coming on to Vulpes. Lots of food for thought in there.

  11. rosyb
    February 12, 2008

    Yes, the writer as blogger. Not something we were covering in the feature but really interesting area altogether and something we should maybe look at. I wonder what publishers attitudes to blogs are? Do they want their authors to keep blogs? Is it something on the rise as a marketing tool or is it still quite a separate activity as there as so many? As Susan says “I don’t see myself primarily as a blogger” and I think this the thing. That so many bloggers are also primarily other things or even other professional writers or reviewers. Indeed, it would be a bit dull if bloggers were only bloggers without other lives. But whether it is to share enthusiasm, find like-minded people, join a debate about something, or keep in touch with a reading audience if you are an established writer – these are all different motivations which lead blogs to have different attitudes to some of the issues we are discussing (perhaps.)

    As Stewart said in “Fox in The City”, it probably depends on which of all these worlds you are part of as to what position you take on some of the issues “Fox in the City” was looking at.

    Maybe we should explore this further in relation to writers.

    It’s been a great discussion and thanks again to Susan Hill for answering those questions so fully and giving us so much to talk about here.

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  14. Pingback: An Interview with Jill Mansell: Part II « Vulpes Libris

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This entry was posted on February 7, 2008 by in Entries by Rosy, Interviews: authors, Interviews: publishers and tagged , , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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