#BEABloggerCon: Rights and Wrongs and Missed Opportunities

I signed up for the bloggers-convention portion of Book Expo America 2012 insanely early–months in advance, even before it officially became the BEA Bloggers Conference–but I waffled for weeks over whether I’d actually attend. The Book Blogger Conventions in 2010 and 2011 were volunteer projects developed and planned by book bloggers. Purchase of the event by Reed Exhibitions/BEA early in 2012 held the potential for a more professionally-produced event, but the plans and programming announcements were raising more questions about what kind of event it would be–and who it was being produced for–than they answered. With just a few weeks to go until Book Expo, I’d decided that I’d most likely spend conference day at the Book Blog UNCON instead, which was clearly intended as a “for bloggers, by bloggers” gathering.

Bowling Green subway station, NYC
Not related to the conference at all (but I like the open-door symbolism)

Then I was invited to be part of a panel at the Bloggers Conference, and in the interest of adding one more blogger–as opposed to an author or publishing-industry pro–to the program, I accepted. Although I didn’t know any of the other panelists, the topic “Critical Reviews: Fine-Tuning Your Craft” sounded like one that belonged at a book-blogging conference. And I honestly was curious about how the whole event would go; although the BEA team seemed to be trying to make up for some early missteps with bloggers, it still wasn’t clear they had a handle on us.

Now that it’s all over, I think it’s safe to say that the BEA team would really like to have a handle on book bloggers–but this year, it felt like they just wanted to “handle” us. Book bloggers are diverse in their interests and methods, but I think that one thing we have in common is that we don’t really want to be “handled.”

I skipped the “Author Speed Dating” session at the 2011 BBC because I’m just not comfortable with face-to-face pitching, so I was less than thrilled with the fact that breakfast and lunch at the Bloggers Conference were constructed as “networking” meals featuring authors rotating among the tables. And I skipped them both. Candace alerted Jennifer and me to the “green room” for speakers and authors; as we were all panelists that day, we qualified, so we took our muffins and coffee back there and chatted until the morning keynote. Later, Sassymonkey and I ate our box lunches out in the hallway (as did quite a few other attendees).

There was a keynote and a general session in between those meals. Jennifer Weiner’s announcement as the morning keynote speaker hadn’t been entirely well-received, but she was one of the first authors to blog and is pretty social-media savvy, so I was cautiously optimistic about what she’d say to a group of bloggers. Unfortunately, too much of what she had to say didn’t really connect with the crowd, as it mostly concerned Jennifer Weiner. Although she stressed social media as a conversation, what she delivered was essentially a monologue.

The “Blogging Today” panel followed the keynote. The group of speakers was well composed: the moderator was Zoë Triska, books editor for the Huffington Post, and the panelists came from publishing (Erica Barmash, editor at HarperCollins), social media (Patrick Brown, community manager of Goodreads), writing (Jen Lancaster, one of the first blog-to-book successes), and grassroots book blogging (Candace Levy, freelance writer/editor blogging at Beth Fish Reads). The discussion was lively, covering such topics as relationships between bloggers and publishers; blogger/bookstore partnerships and book blogs’ influence on book sales; diversifying and getting exposure for blog content; and social media channels. Plagiarism and ethics came up in response to an audience question. And although I can’t remember the question that preceded it, something Patrick Brown said continues to stick with me: book bloggers need to be careful about not just writing for each other. That’s something I talk about, but I probably don’t execute as well as I’d like to, and–aside from “inside-baseball” posts like this one–I want to do better. Community is one thing; an echo chamber is very much another, less desirable one.

The breakout sessions were scheduled after lunch, and if my panel hadn’t been at the same time, I probably would have been at the one discussing monetization. I run ads here, and I do freelance work on other sites, so I’m not opposed to making blogging-related money. Based on what I’ve heard from those who did go to that session, some money-making options seem to be more controversial than others, but I’ll leave it at that since I wasn’t there.

I chose the session on “building community” over the one on “demystifying the blogger/publisher relationship” in the second breakout slot. It was fine, but as someone who’s been doing this for over five years, I really didn’t get anything new from it. One concern prior to the conference was that the programming might not offer much to “veteran” bloggers who have been at it for three years or more; I’m not sure that was true across the board, but I do think this particular session might have been more valuable for less-experienced bloggers.

Thanks to Jenny Lawson’s appearance as the conference’s closing speaker, I was not the most publicly-socially-anxious blogger in the building–but having said that, The Bloggess holds her own impressively well in front of a crowd (although the BEA Editors Buzz panel scheduled at the same time made for a smaller crowd than at the morning keynote). Lawson’s not a book blogger, but she does understand bloggers in general because she’s been one for years, and bloggers from all categories have embraced her emergence as a published author. While her connection to a book-blogging conference may have been a bit tenuous, she charmed most of the audience anyway (f-bombs and all).

inside the New York Public Library
Also not really related to the conference (but it’s in a library!)

All in all, I think BEA’s first effort to pull off a conference for book bloggers missed more marks than it hit, and I think the mindset that it was “a conference for book bloggers” was the source of most of its problems. Although its total attendance was probably less than 10% of that of the Bloggers Conference, this was one thing that the organizers and attendees of the Book Blog UNCON totally understood; they were full participants who drove the content of the day, and not primarily an audience. Granted, it’s harder to do that with a larger crowd, but probably not impossible, as long as you understand your market. When it comes to bloggers, it looks like BEA isn’t there yet.

But I hope they can get better. I like the concept of a blogger gathering affiliated with Book Expo–librarians and booksellers have them, so why not us?–but the execution needs work. Here are my thoughts on where they might start:

  • Programming: I think I was less bothered than some by the fact that most of the panels weren’t completely comprised of bloggers, but there were definitely some sessions where the mix was off. I don’t think they all need to be BOOK bloggers, necessarily–I’m of the belief that despite differences in content, there are plenty of issues common to bloggers across the sphere–but more speakers and leaders from the world of blogging would be a step in the right direction.

I’m also not sure that the panel-on-a-dais, presentation-followed-by-Q&A format is the best setting for all the breakouts, as some topics work better in a small-group discussion or workshop setting, particularly if they’re more technical. This year’s Bloggers Conference didn’t have much tech programming, and it should have. I realize BEA shares a convention space with BlogWorld Expo East, but that’s a very expensive conference that’s not really geared to the small independent hobbyist blogger than most of us book bloggers are–and I believe that a conference for bloggers really should offer some nuts-and-bolts-blogging sessions. Ideally, those would include conversations/presentations concerning both blog content–writing, use of photos/graphics, etc.–and blog mechanics–platforms, SEO, and so on. (The small groups at the UNCON touched on some of those topics.)

As I mentioned earlier, one major complaint about this year’s Bloggers Conference program is that it seemed much more geared to the relatively new book blogger (two years or less), but the bulk of the bloggers attending were more experienced and didn’t get very much out of some offerings. I think the addition of more technical topics could helo address that. At the same time, there are some topics–social media and ethics, for example–that will never be out of place and remain significant to bloggers at all stages.

  • Networking: Yes, we come to conferences to meet others who do what we do and exchange ideas. The people who do what we do are BLOGGERS. Some may be authors as well, but most aren’t. And while I acknowledge my personal dislike for the whole “author speed dating” thing, I do think most book bloggers are excited about meeting authors–that is, authors whose work we know and read and are already interested in. In that respect, the keynoters were decent choices, and some of the authors at the networking meals met those criteria as well…but not all, or not enough, and that made some of the tables feel like uncomfortable pitch sessions. At a bloggers’ conference, bloggers should get more opportunities to talk with each other.
  • Attendance: This is somewhat related to the “networking” thing and probably won’t happen, but I’d like to see a cap on the number of attendees at a Bloggers Conference who are not primarily book bloggers, and perhaps a different pricing structure for them as well.

(Because she really wasn’t happy with how BEA Bloggers answered her question “Where were the bloggers?”, Kim has a few suggestions of her own for the next go-round.)

I hope that a BEA Bloggers Conference in 2013 will be better than the 2012 edition. In order to make that happen, Reed/BEA should solicit and utilize a significant amount of blogger input, and bloggers will have to keep our minds open and expectations reasonable. I think BEA Bloggers deserves a second chance to satisfy more of us–but if next year’s event hits the same wrong notes, I’m not sure it’ll get a third chance with me.

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