The Art of Commerce sits on the corner of literature & the marketplace, asking the age old question: Who's got the right of way?
We talk with writers, editors & entrepreneurs about, really, anything. All conversations are 'manuscript-first', meaning they were typed as you see them. Small edits have been made for structure.
Episode XLIX: "Flawed female characters who are allowed to have feelings"
In this installment, I speak with Amanda Nelson. Topics include snobbery, gender and genre, YA-shaming, Book Riot’s readership, the line between editorial and sales & more.
Today I’m with Amanda Nelson, the Managing Editor of Book Riot, the judge of the 2016 Best Translated Book Award, and a writer (Madame Ovary: A Parenting TinyLetter). Start us off with the montage of your path to the Managing Editor of Book Riot.
Sure thing. I started a book blog about five years ago when I noticed that no one I could find was writing about classic literature in a funny, irreverent way. So I decided to fill what I saw as a void in the book blogosphere. Through blogging, I met ("met"?) Jeff O'Neal and Rebecca Schinsky, who were both book bloggers as well. After about a year and half of getting to know them both, Jeff had the idea for Book Riot: a place for book bloggers to come together on a larger platform where we could draw in advertisers and actually pay bloggers for their work.
He asked me to come on as one of the original contributors, and I wrote for the site for awhile and was eventually made a contributing editor. And then a part-time social media manager, and then a full-time social media manager, and now I run the daily operations of the site. I guess I climbed the ladder, though we're such a new thing it was more like inventing the ladder. And that's that!
For those who are somehow reading this interview but don’t know Book Riot, how would you put it?
The elevator pitch! We're the largest independent book site in North America, and our focus is discussing every aspect of the reading life. We create a mix of content on the site every day designed so that there's something there for every reader of every genre. We also have podcasts, subscriptions services, a store, and in-person events large and small.
That's what always surprises me every time I go on the site: how resolutely non-genre specific you are. That can be (and has been) a barrier for other sites to grow. Why do you think Book Riot has (meteorically) succeeded where others have faltered?
Because we're readers first—both the staff and the stable of contributors. We write about the books we want to read, and we write about them in a way we would want to read. We all read very widely across genre boundaries and think most readers are like that, so that's what we try to reflect. There's no room for snobbishness here, and we make that pretty clear to our writers from the start. We don't try to tell people that there's one right way to be a reader. Our readers seem to appreciate that.
How would you describe book snobbishness?
Using your personal taste or literary standards to dictate to other people what they should spend their time or money on. It's not just about looking down on someone for reading romance or science fiction (though that's part of it, of course), but also about shaming readers for where they spend money or the format in which they read. We (the book world at large) see a lot of non-genre snobbery around digital reading, for example. It's not "real" reading, those aren't "real" books, that sort of thing.
Where do you think that snobbery comes from?
A few places. The book world can be both extremely progressive and frustratingly conservative. New things and changes make us nervous for some reason, so we react by holding onto the familiar: we teach the same classic novels over and over, put them on lists over and over, talk about how much we love the smell of books over and over. And tastes are dictated by taste-makers, of course, which up until very recently and the rise of book blogging has consisted of mostly white men. Bookish things that cater to women (hey-o, romance) or people of color either don't get the same attention or they get derided. So there's an element of privilege, sexism, and racism in a lot of snobbery in books.
I agree with you, though I think there's some conflating when we look at readerships and genre. For example, it’s possible readers of science fiction are traditionally more white and male than readers of literary fiction. Do you think the make-up of a genre's readers is directly responsible for the respect given to that genre?
Not exactly—most readers of literary fiction and fiction in general are women. I think the make-up of a genre's authors probably has more to do with it. Obviously romance is mostly written by women. And more recently with the success of The Hunger Games and Divergent and the scores of YA novels that came after that did well and were written by women, we get all these think pieces about how awful it is that people (especially adults, gasp) are reading only YA.
You feel as though the YA-shaming (for lack of a better word) has to do with the gender makeup of that genre then?
Well with YA specifically, that's even more granular: the authors of these huge blockbuster series are women, they're writing about complicated and fascinating and flawed female characters who are allowed to have feelings, and they're being read by teenage girls (the group of people whose tastes we most love to mock). So it's a kind of trifecta. And I don't think it's purposeful, I don't think most cultural critics are sitting down and thinking, ugh, I'm so tired of all these GIRLS and their FEELINGS on the best-seller lists. But at the bottom of YA "shaming," that's basically what it is.
Occasionally I use the metric ‘Facebook followers divided by Twitter followers’ in no professional way to assess an organization. The higher it is, usually the more mainstream and/or older their audience. O, The Oprah Magazine has a metric of 2. Literary Hub’s is 0.7. Book Riot’s is 4. The idea has limits. Is it any way accurate in describing your readership? How do you imagine your composite reader?
Ha, well I definitely don't think our average reader is older than Oprah's. Our readership is a little more than half women, and is mostly under the age of 35. Though I suppose it could be accurate for the "mainstream" part of that. Our readers are also the people who buy the most books, who read the most books. Our coverage reflects their tastes because we are our own first readers. If there is a mainstream book audience, it would make sense that it's ours.
Your mainstream audience is the reason for your success, in the conversational definition, but also in the way of financials. To be sustainable in this industry, you need to bring in serious sponsors. I find it admirable that ads aren't intrusive on the site, and I really can't find anything in the way of sponsored content. I imagine those opportunities have presented themselves, and it's taken laser focus to deflect them.
We have a VERY hard line between editorial and sales. I don't talk to the advertisers, no one on the editorial staff does. They have to always go through the sales staff, and when editorial says no to something that isn't good for our readers, the sales staff backs us up. We only do sponsored content that will serve our readers, that they would be interested in even without the sponsorship information. That's actually something I'm very proud of.
We’re talking a lot about Book Riot as a whole, but let’s focus in on you, if that’s alright. What does the Managing Editor do, without using the words manage or edit?
I'm the voice of the site across our social media channels: I write the tweets and the Facebook pushes. I also handle our contributors (we have about 100 at any given time)—answering their questions, helping them flesh out ideas, bouncing stuff back when necessary, making sure all our content abides by our editorial guidelines (we have guidelines for not publishing lists of all white authors, or all men, things like that). I also schedule every day's content. I touch every single thing that goes up on the site. And then there's the less time-consuming stuff: working with sales when necessary, recording podcasts, coming up with content ideas, dealing with publicists, moderating comments. It's a long day!
You've been with the site since 2013. How have you seen the content shift? How do you anticipate it shifting in the next three years?
Our content has definitely gotten more diverse, both in genre coverage—we have much more romance, sci-fi, horror, and children's coverage than we did when I started—and in terms of racial and LGBTQ and ableness of our contributors and the authors we cover, and both of those changes have been purposeful. And in the next three years, we're going to continue to do that. We don't have a great track record for covering works in translation, for example. I'd like to focus more on that in the upcoming years.
3% is the number everyone sources—that's the proportion of the books we read that are translations. The problem, of course, is partly coverage. Book Riot can change that. What's your battle plan?
I don't know how it is at other media outlets, but at Book Riot changes like that start with the personal reading of the editorial staff. We make a decision to read more of a certain thing, discover excellent books within that framework, and tell our contributors about those titles. They trust us, they read them, they talk about them. Things go buzzy with our internal community and then it spills over into the readership.
When we decided we needed to change how few books by people of color we covered, for example, the editorial staff made clear personal goals about our own personal reading, and told the contributors what we were doing. Those who wanted to get on board did, and it just naturally changed our content. It's the same approach I'll take for international diversity.
How rigorously do you track clicks, and how much of that affects what you publish?
I look at the data every day, and do some deep dives into what's going on with our traffic with some regularity. Our contributors come up with their own content ideas and aren't required to pitch me before they write something, so what goes up on the site in general doesn't have anything to do with the traffic it will or won't get.
But if I think something will be interesting or popular, I'll toss it up on our internal social network and see if anyone wants to write it. Sometimes they do, sometimes not. It's up to them.
The site rarely has book reviews. What’s the reasoning?
They're so fucking boring. There's a reason book review sections of major publications are going away. They're not helpful to readers, and I don't really know anyone who likes reading them, us included.
Why do you think that is? (Feel free to answer as a member of Book Riot or as a reader.)
I think traditional book review publications aren't reviewing books people are really reading, first of all. The Washington Post JUST got a romance reviewer—the genre has billions of dollars in sales every year.
And you're not going to see a review of the new Patrick Rothfuss or John Scalzi in the New York Times, probably. Or the new Jennifer Weiner, as she likes to point out herself. And now that the internet is a thing, and Twitter is a thing, you can go find a blogger or BookTuber whose tastes are similar to yours, who you know you can trust, who you know isn't reviewing a book just because the author blurbed their last literary fiction novel, and get a real opinion. Usually in a more fun package.
We're nearly out of time, so I'll send you off with this: What is the most satisfying part of your day?
Watching the contributors interact on Slack. They are so helpful and supportive of each other, coming up with new ideas, shouting from their rooftops about books, being there for each other for their real life stuff. It's an amazing community and I am so privileged to be able to watch it all happen.
Thank you for your time Amanda, and your words.
Thanks for having me!