Backstories Literary analysis

Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your website grow? Growth factors in a book blog (part 1)

The statistics for 2018 for the Seven Circumstances book blog, released just before New Year, illustrate some basics about the world of  book writing, publishing and reviews. Many factors impact how many “hits” (views and visitors), likes and comments a site like this gets. Some of those factors are proof of how Search Engine Optimization works, but also proof of the way Social Media communications influence readers, writers and people working in the publishing industry. The lessons I’ve learned from looking at my own stats are:

  1. Search Engine Optimization is a real thing and it matters
  2. The world around books is as interesting as the books themselves
  3. Everything is about timing
  4. Don’t let it go to your head

I’ll explain what I mean by each point in two posts.

1. Search Engine Optimization is a real thing that you need to pay attention to

Cartoon illustrating the basic principle of PageRank. The size of each face is proportional to the total size of the other faces which are pointing to it. (Source: Wikipedia)

The rise in the numbers of clicks on this website (a sharp curve since 2016) proves the principle of “the more people search for you or your site, the more you or your site can be found, the more people search for you or your site, the more  you or your site can be found…” and so on.

Leaving out other search engines for now, and just looking at Google, Google uses the “PageRank” algorithm (one of many algorithms) to display search results which directs users to specific sites. PageRank works by counting the number and quality of links to a page on a website, to determine a rough estimate of how important the website is.

When users link up to a website, they drive traffic (other users) to the website and increase the website’s popularity. (A case of the more popular you are, the more popular you are.) The underlying assumption is that more important websites are likely to receive more links from other websites. So, it is all about the (hyper)links in and out of your website. Increasing these in a meaningful way is part of Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

What did I do?

In 2016, I switched from one WordPress template to another. The original template was clunky-looking and not up to date with the features that make a website “findable” by Google, or enjoyable for users.

  1. One of the things I did – with trepidation – was to start properly tagging (adding a # to specific search terms) the contents of posts;
  2. I started using the WordPress style sheet to organize contents instead of inventing my own code (another thing you do to be more “findable”);
  3. I changed the settings on my site to allow people linking to the website to comment and give “likes”. (Not that I believe in “likes”.)

Allowing people to “like” posts and post comments was done with even more trepidation because I had no wish to be caught in a firestorm of literary controversy.

  • This meant I had to be careful what I said
  • and not write stuff that might get me sued. So far, this has meant that not only has the obvious levels of spam links and comments dropped from a deluge to a manageable level, but I have not had any problems with comments.
  • Doing this also had two good, unintended consequences:
    • it made me write more balanced reviews
    • and stopped me ranting about books that I thought are bad. No more panning of bad novels!

2. The world around books is as interesting as the books themselves

There are more types of Literary Theories than you can shake a textbook at, but the one I was taught at university is “Deconstruction”, which was developed by the philosopher Jacques Derrida, in the 1960s. When applied to literature it is also called “close reading”. Deconstruction generally tries to demonstrate that any text is not a discrete whole, but contains several irreconcilable and contradictory meanings; that any text therefore has more than one interpretation; that the text itself links these interpretations inextricably.

More than just the words

So, as I have understood the process of Deconstruction, you look at the words on the page only, the sentences, and what they mean, and how they relate to other words. You do not look beyond the actual words, at the author, their life, the social context of the book, or the possible mythological, scientific, psychological, or historical implications and meanings of the words.

This works fine with poetry, which is mainly about the words, but in fiction many other factors play a role in the meaning of the writing – the plot, setting, characterization, themes, the age in which it was written, the conventions of the genre, etc.

As the world becomes more connected and more socially integrated, so too are the ways we look at art, including literature. A film is no longer just a film – it has meaning, but part of that meaning is derived from how the rest of the world, and the viewer, interact with the film. The same goes for books – they have meaning as the author had intended, but a large part of that meaning is conferred on them by the context or wider world, and the way the readers interact  with the text.

What did I do?

  • During 2014 I stopped writing close-reading type of reviews and moved to include a far wider range of factors or criteria – basically the old, Journalistic way of writing by focusing on the 6Ws and 1H: what, who, when, where, why, with what and how.

Hence the name of this site. This has led to me being able to connect or link with many more, different types of blogs and sites (“outbound links”), and to use a much wider frame of reference, which in turn has led to many more inbound links or back links from other sites – which has increased the traffic to Seven Circumstances.

Longer reviews with more to say

The catch is that doing reviews based on close reading is fine if you are going to write a brief “blurb” type review – 200 words or less. In those cases all you can do is to give the general impression with a few adjectives – marvellous, interesting, shocking, awful, boring, etc. – and that’s it. You need to do close reading to distill your impression down to those few ideas – and the distillation or shortening process is a lot of work.

A review which includes all the facets of a novel is much longer, no matter how compactly you write. Since I no longer do Deconstruction, my reviews have become longer and longer, more than 1,700 words on average. These types of posts are called “long posts” or “long reads”.

What did I do?

  • I have therefore had to go full circle and “deconstruct” – ha-ha! – those long reviews into video clips of less than a minute each in length, and very much less than 200 words.
  • And sometimes, I have to cut up one review into shorter segments.
Analytics of Twitter “tweets”. (Source: Wikipedia)

(Have you ever considered that composing a tweet of just 140 characters is a form of Deconstruction? The fact that the process mostly results in “pointless babble” – refer to the graph, above – is kind of depressing.)

Consider the authors

Lately I have found another factor to consider: – the author, and the way the reader interacts with the author. This is anathema in close reading and there’s the risk that reviews that discuss the author rather than the book can be seen as slanderous.

However, the author, their life, their persona, style, the influences that they have been exposed to – all of that – accumulate and form the “sub-strata” on which their creative process is based. Ultimately, they produce something out of what they are. It is a rare thing for authors to have a pseudonym and divorce their writing style, reasoning and sense of aesthetics from themselves and write nothing like themselves. Usually, the “ghost in the machine” is perfectly visible and cannot be disconnected.

What did I do?

  • I expanded the factors to consider in each review to include different contexts,
  • I wrote (carefully!) about authors as well as about their books,
  • I interviewed authors,
  • I got interested in the publishing process and the “auteurs” behind the books I have read, and wrote about that.

The unintended consequence of all this? More hits on Seven Circumstances, and for me personally, a fascinating new world – the minds of authors!

Next weel: Part 2 of this article about Growing a Book Blog.

About the header

The background image is of the Internet, as seen by art director of environments Matthias Lechner, Disney Environment Art Director at Walt Disney Animation Studios, for the just released film Wreck-It-Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet (Source: Ashley Esqueda, Ralph Breaks the Internet tackles modern online life – A behind-the-scenes look at just how Ralph and Vanellope head to the big (internet) city, on, Sept. 20, 2018, rtvd. 2018-12-29)

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