Interview by Richard Davies
George Murray runs Bookninja.com and is one of North America’s leading book bloggers. Based in Canada, Bookninja is actually a literary Web site containing original articles and reviews, but its lively and often irreverent book blog attracts visitors from around the globe on a daily basis. He is the author of several books, including The Hunter and The Cottage Builder’s Letter.
When did you start blogging?
August 11, 2003. I had just moved away from New York City after three years in Manhattan. I guess the small town I ended up in didn't fill me with enough frenetic dread.
What is your day job?
I used to be in communications, but now I mostly do Bookninja and write freelance.
Why did you start blogging?
I started the blog with a friend who has since quit work on his new novel. Our entire gang of pals - a group of poets, novelists, editors, and journalists - had experienced something of a yuppie diaspora, all moving from Toronto to various other cities and towns. We tried to put together a mailing list, but participation was low and sporadic. One pal and I settled on a weblog format with discussion forums as a place to ‘gather’ as a group. The initial readership consisted of about 20 close friends. Word got out slowly and we now have thousands and thousands of visitors every day.
Like diaries, some bloggers start off well and then the posts tail off - does posting every day or at least regularly ever become a problem?
Not thanks to my handy-dandy Obsessive Compulsive Disorder condition. Seriously though, it can get tiring at times, and there are days I wonder about selling the damn thing and moving on, but then I'd just start filling my friends' e-mail boxes with notes about interesting articles I read, and we don't want to go back to that. Most people who try blogging will know fairly quickly whether or not they can sustain it. Other than a few vacations, I've had pretty good attendance this last three years.
What's the very essence of blogging - are you all would-be journalists or something else?
I think in the flash flood of people jumping on the blogging bandwagon, we've lost sight of what the term ‘blog’ means. It's a short form for ‘weblog’, which is a diary of where you've been on the Internet. There's a big difference between writing an extensive daily narrative and writing a ‘blog’. At Bookninja, we oscillate between these two, keeping a magazine element that delves more deeply, and less frequently, into literary issues (interviews, essays, articles, stories, etc.) and then the blog element, which covers the day's news with some brief commentary.
I also write journalism in mainstream markets such as the (Toronto-based) Globe & Mail newspaper and the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). It's a different muscle I'm using there. I'm crafting a piece of journalism that follows a distinct set of rules I didn't make up, like a piece of classical music. On the blog, I am riffing, freestyle, on whatever is on my mind. (Yes, I know there are rules in jazz, but you see my point.) A blog post takes me moments to write. An article might take several hours. This isn't to say that one is less valuable than the other, but that they are intrinsically different, at least in how they manifest themselves in my life. But if the phenomenon that is The Blog were to be reduce to one word, I would have to say ‘voice’. You can blog your ass off day and night, but if people don't like, believe or trust your voice, they won't come back.
Is blogging addictive?
Yes. In fact, it can be hard not to post if good news becomes available on Christmas morning.
What impact do you think book blogs are having on the mainstream publishing and bookselling industries?
I know blogs are having some significant impact. I know this because advertisers are lined up around the block for space on Bookninja. I know it because Bookninja has inspired international publishing houses to read and purchase Canadian authors they might not otherwise have come in contact with. I know because every day another publishing company starts its own blog, hoping to cash in on what it perceives to be a direct line to consumers' buy button. I know because thousands of my readers are involved in the publishing industry and take the entire endeavour very seriously. Thousands more are what I call savvy readers - those who have an almost voyeuristic interest in the workings of the publishing world. These people are heavily invested in both the news we link to, and the voice create to write commentary. I get emails from them all the time. Generally they are positive, but they'll let you know when they don't like something. Further, they stick around because they not only dig the insouciance and happy cynicism, but because they trust the recommendations and enjoy the way we cut through the spin.
Bookninja has been mentioned or cited in the Arts and Books pages of many major newspapers and magazines around the world. Does that count as influence? I think it may influence some people's perception of influence.
Are you 'courted' by publishers keen to influence you?
Yes. Many publishers have approached Bookninja about ‘partnerships’, which we've turned down. They can advertise if they want, but they can't buy opinion. More often publishers send me review books and packages. Sometimes I find things I like and I mention them, sometimes they go on "The Pile".
As I've said before, publishers who take the time to individualize their approach and research a blog's interests and scope (much like writers must do before approaching them) will likely be more successful placing books in the right hands than those that simply mass email press releases to everyone on their lists.
I get about 100+ e-mails a day. I'd say about 25 to 40 per cent of those are from publishers, publicists, editors, authors, etc., wanting attention for books. It's very difficult to answer them all. Sometimes it feels like being an aid worker in a famine-struck country. Everyone has worked very hard on the book and they just want some attention. But of course, you can't give it to everyone, or else it would a bulletin board, wouldn't it.
Has blogging ever got you into trouble?
Surprisingly, no. Though I doubt it's done much for my future-self, who may want to run for office.
What blogs do you visit regularly and why?
I read a small, but significant, number of other main lit/publishing blogs, including Maud Newton, Bookslut, Ed Rants, and The Literary Saloon. I used to read more of them, but I just don't have the time or interest anymore. I also read some book-related blogs like Seen Reading and SFSignal. I read a couple of tech blogs like BoingBoing.net and then after that, it's mostly the blogs of individuals I like, whether they are writers or not. Compelling personalities.
Does your blog have any high profile readers?
Anecdotally, I have learned at various lit parties and through various grapevines that Bookninja is read by some seriously connected and powerful people. I do know that a few publishing gurus and CEOs are reading, and that a few very (VERY) famous novelists and poets are reading. Other than that, it's hard to tell. If you're famous, e-mail me. One very famous Irish author told me that he had to monitor his reading of the site because it was taking up too much of his day. That's nice to hear, in a selfish way.
What are your thoughts on authors who blog? Neil Gaiman's blog seems incredibly influential...
Neil's blog is one I read, on occasion. But most author blogs are boring or ghost towns. I think authors should try blogging. If they like it, they should stick with it. If not, then just let it go. It's no magic potion for success. In Canada we had this one dork who blew up at people on his blog. It was so bad and embarrassing, his publisher made him take it down. You're either cut out for it or not. You'll either stop after a couple months on your own, or after a couple years when there's still under 100 people reading you daily. I think authors should try it, especially as a means to disseminate news about their tours, etc., but not get their feelings hurt/knickers in a twist if things don't work out.
What books are piled up by your computer?
I'll just take a random glance. My office is quickly becoming one of those locales you most often encounter in the "Offbeat" news section of the paper in which you read about tragic, but slightly comical, deaths.
Did you know that AbeBooks has its very own blog? [Visit the AbeBooks Blog]
Read an interview with a Grumpy Old Bookman. [Read Now]