results from the Book Blogger’s Survey

September 22, 2014

Last month, I concocted a survey for crime fiction book bloggers (which is still open – if you blog about crime fiction and want to contribute your thoughts, feel free). Thanks to the twenty bloggers who took the time to reflect on their experiences. Note, this survey relied on a convenience sample drawn from my Twitter connections, the Crime and Mystery Fiction room at Friendfeed, and bloggers who I follow and contacted personally, inviting them to participate, so it is not a comprehensive analysis by any means.

By the numbers

First, the demographics: twelve of the respondents were women, eight were men. The largest number (11) were from Europe, followed by North America and Australia/New Zealand. As for their ages, none were younger than 25. Six were between 25 and 45, 11 were between 46 and 65, and three were over 65.

Nearly all had blogs focused primarily on crime fiction, with half mixing book reviews with other mystery-related materials and seven who focused on book reviews. All of the bloggers enabled comments, and just slightly over half moderated them. (Of those who didn’t, at least one mentioned removing comments that were obviously spam.) They all found blogging a positive experience, with half selecting “mostly positive” and half choosing “extremely positive.” (I suppose that’s hardly surprising, since if they didn’t enjoy it, they’d stop!)

I asked bloggers to choose the top three ways they obtained books. Getting review copies from publishers and purchasing books were the most commonly chosen options. The third most common source of books was the library, with review copies from authors following close behind. Though these were the bloggers’ most common sources, they weren’t necessarily equally distributed. One blogger added in a comment “I buy nearly all of my books (95%+).” While two in comments mentioned that getting free books from publishers was a plus, another pointed out that it could be a mixed blessing: “once your address is sent to one company, lots of other people seem to have access to it,” resulting in lots of unsolicited books.

I asked about venues in which bloggers frequently discuss crime fiction with other readers. Other blogs topped the list with 18 respondents checking that option, followed by friends, family, or coworkers (14) then (in descending order) online discussion forums or email lists focused on crime fiction (14), Twitter (12), Facebook (11), crime-fiction-focused face-to-face events (10), Friendfeed (9), a face-to-face book group (8), and Goodreads (7). All of the respondents reported participating in at least three of these venues.

Exploring their motivation

I asked bloggers why they maintain a book blog. Several themes emerged from their answers. The two most-often cited reasons were that they found it helpful to track what they read and it provided a sense of community. As one blogger put it, “It 4889471879_ce34dcbd0a_zstarted out as a place to keep track of what I was reading myself in a way that was a little more accountable than personal notes. But it’s turned into a way of being connected to other people with a similar interest. I only know a couple of people in my real world who share my reading interests and none of them want to talk about the books in any in-depth way.” Related to community was a sense of reciprocity. Bloggers were able to promote books and authors who they thought deserved greater notice; in turn, they discovered books that other bloggers recommended. Bloggers also mentioned that it coincided with a professional interest in books (as writers, booksellers, or librarians) and that writing about the books they’d read helped them gain a deeper understanding of them. Finally, many respondents said it was fun: “it brings me joy to discuss books and introduce readers to books and authors they might not have discovered.”

I asked bloggers whether they encouraged interaction with their blogs. One out of four respondents were not particularly interested one way or another in whether their posts were getting responses. Others invited involvement through issuing challenges or posing questions to readers, and many posted links to new blog posts on other social media. One respondent suggested that comment strings were preferable to Twitter interactions, with its 140 character limit leading to less in-depth discussion; another found that readers preferred to take conversation to email or to the blog’s Facebook page. Bloggers often were pleased with interactions they had. One reported that after a conversation online, a reader wrote, “Thank you! This is very, very helpful. I always feel like I can ask you questions. I normally feel like I should know the answer and don’t ask, but you are so understanding and interested in sharing what you know I don’t hesitate.”

“Sharing a Passion”

Many respondents reported that making connections with other passionate readers, being able to influence other readers and being able to discover new authors to try were positive aspects of being a book blogger. There is a curatorial pleasure in finding and writing about what one blogger characterized as “hidden gems.” “Bloggers often discovered affinities with other readers who could help them discover worthwhile books. As one wrote, “I’ve found a group of other bloggers and crime fiction fans who comment whose recommendations I can rely on. That’s invaluable.” An Australian blogger was happy to “promote8314929977_28fd740070_z Australian crime fiction to the wider world – I’m proud of our local authors and it’s great to see them being reviewed/discussed elsewhere.” For another, “supreme satisfaction lies in receiving emails from readers who ecstatically tell me that they liked one of my reviews, got the book, read the book, fell in love, and immediately went out to purchase all that author’s books.” As another put it, satisfaction comes from the “chance to turn on a reader to a great book they might have missed and to introduce them to an author they haven’t read.” One mentioned “the contact it gives me with contemporary writers” was particularly satisfying, and another wrote “because of the blog, I’ve been able to set up several face-to-face interviews with authors who I would otherwise never have met. I use things like Bouchercon to set some of these up to meet several in person at one event. I also will interview via email questions, also interesting.” That said, fellow crime fiction readers seemed the dominant audience bloggers had in mind and community-building was primarily around sharing reading interests..

Occasional Aggravations

I asked if anything was aggravating, if anything, about blogging. Some bloggers reported no particular aggravations. Others mentioned that it was a significant time commitment, including meeting self-imposed expectations of frequency. One regretted that all available time went into writing posts, leaving too little to interact with other bloggers “which makes me feel a bit of an ingrate.” Commenting created some stresses. Getting few comments or posting comments on others’ blogs that met with no response was a disappointment to some respondents. Interestingly, one blogger who also reviews books professionally, found that there was much less negative commenting on her personal blog than on other media websites.

This points to an interesting tension between developing community through blogging and maintaining a certain amount of critical distance. Several respondents noted that some book blogs provide overenthusiastic promotion of new books rather than thoughtful, honest, informed criticism, noting a proliferation of blogs whose authors substituted enthusiasm for knowledge about the genre or even strong writing and analytical skills. That said, only one respondent mentioned facing a quandary about whether to review a book that wasn’t enjoyable or was simply not very good. There seemed to be an ethos of being scrupulously civil yet honest among the bloggers. A couple of respondents mentioned that authors who take issue with a review, expecting nothing but a five-star rave, and self-published authors pleading for reviews could be tiresome.

I thought I’d close this round-up of responses with a few quotes volunteered by participants:

  • I never went into blogging to make money or build an audience to enormous numbers. I continue to enjoy it because it gives me an opportunity to talk about books.
  • I just do it for fun and hope anyone who reads it enjoys and finds it interesting.
  • I do occasionally feel overwhelmed by the amount that here available to read.
  • Maxine Clarke’s early comments on my blog an invitation to FriendFeed played a crucial role in my blogging: she introduced me to lots of bloggers and lots of books I hadn’t read.

This last comment and a related one (“book blogging can be a sad experience”) resonated with me. As many people in the crime fiction community know, Maxine Clarke was both an expert at emerging social media platforms (something that benefitted the innovative online presence of the premier science journal, Nature, where she was a renowned editor) and a fine and prolific reviewer of crime fiction for Euro Crime and at her own blog, Petrona. She did a great deal to promote high quality book conversations online and almost single-handedly knitted together a vast network of crime fiction readers, so we felt her loss terribly. She is still missed, but a Scandinavian crime fiction prize is awarded in her name annually and many bloggers have contributed to Petrona Remembered to carry on her work discovering and sharing good mysteries.

I want to thank the participants in this survey and mention those who gave me permission to acknowledge them here.

photos courtesy of  Abhi Sharma  and Jain Basil Allyas

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September Pick: Tana French’s The Secret Place

September 14, 2014

I’ve been writing reviews for Reviewing the Evidence for a few years; I’ve been a fan of the website for much longer and am happy to have the chance to contribute to it. In the latest issue, I wrote about a couple of good books, including Tana French’s latest, and am reposting that review here with RTE’s permission. It’s an interesting exploration of how much pressure girls feel to perform a certain kind of sexuality and has a really interesting narrative structure that manages to unfold the mystery twice over. I have found novels about the fraught relationships among adolescent girls really irritating (largely because I found it irritating in real life) but French’s focus on the pressure girls feel turned out to be quite interesting.

The Secret PlaceTHE SECRET PLACE
by Tana French
Viking, September 2014
464 pages
$27.95
ISBN: 0670026328

Tana French has won praise for her loosely-linked Dublin Murder Squad series, starting with IN THE WOODS, which swept awards, including the Edgar. Each volume in the series has a different narrator and a different tone, though all of them feature passages that are gorgeously descriptive and protagonists who make acute observations of other characters (while sometimes failing to understand themselves).

The story begins when Holly Mackey, the teenaged daughter of a homicide squad detective, brings a message to Stephen Moran, an officer she met six years earlier when she was a child witness in a murder case. She’s found a card pinned to a bulletin board in the posh girls’ boarding school she attends with three close friends. The board is “the secret place,” a localized imitation of the Post Secret website, where the girls can say whatever is on their minds anonymously. The head of the school believes it gives the students an outlet for secrets they can’t otherwise share, though it also becomes a site where rumors and accusations are shared anonymously. Holly’s card bears the photo of a handsome young man who Moran recognizes. Chris Harper attended the adjoining boys’ school and had been found bludgeoned to death on the grounds of Holly’s school the previous year. Though the crime went unsolved, whoever pinned the note to the board glued cut-out letters to the card that read I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.

Though Moran has hopes that this lead will help him get a foot in the murder squad door and out of the professional backwater he’s in, he knows he runs a risk. The detective who handled the case, Antoinette Conway, has no patience with her male colleagues’ sexist banter and has consequently been ostracized and sabotaged. The fact that she didn’t chalk up a solve for this high-class, high-profile murder has left her in a precarious situation. If Moran aligns his fortunes with hers, he could take a tumble. As she reluctantly agrees to let him go with her to find out what they can, he begins to think she’s all too likely to kick him down the stairs herself.

The novel is told in two timeframes, skillfully intertwined. One is the 24-hour period within which Moran and Conway try to crack the case before it can be taken away from them, a ticking clock that lends to their narrative a claustrophobic sense of increasing pressure. The other is a series of scenes in the school, counting down the months and days until the murder. Though we learn a great deal about Holly and her three close friends, about Joanne, the imperious leader of a terrorized yet devoted pack, and about the hothouse culture of an elite boarding school where the students speak in a weirdly American patios, we’re solving the case along with the detectives. We also learn a lot about the pressure the girls feel to perform a certain kind of sexuality. The bond between Holly and her three friends, forged out of the realization that they don’t have to conform, gives them a heady sense of power that spills over into other unusual skills that seem to have be conjured up out other girls’ accusation that they are witches. Though some readers may object to these small touches of the supernatural, they signify both the four girls’ shared power in choosing their own identities and the fragile magic of adolescent friendship among girls.

As usual, there’s some brilliant writing. As the girls leave the local shopping mall, where the teens negotiate their public roles, consuming and offering themselves for consumption, one of them observes “their faces on the way home afterwards look older and strained, smeared with the scraps of leftover expressions that were pressed on too hard and won’t lift away.” French conveys the feeling of being that age very well. One of the friends remembers being told as a child “don’t be scared,” a very different message than the commanding voice she hears now. “Be scared you’re fat, be scared your books are too big and be scared they’re too small. Be scared to walk on your own, especially anywhere quiet enough that you can hear yourself think. . . . Be scared terrified petrified that everything you are is every kind of wrong. Good girl.” French is very good at conjuring up the emotional maelstroms of adolescence and sharp in her observations of the roles we impose on the young.

The only drawback to this feverishly evocative writing is that, as the murder approaches in the one narrative strand and the two detectives grow desperate to solve the crime in the other, the sheer length of the book weighs it down. Trimming it by 150 pages would have let the pace twist tighter and the writing burn brighter.

Apart from that quibble, it’s a virtuoso exploration of the pressure girls feel in adolescence, the intensity of friendship, and the ways that closeness between girls is threatened by the gender roles they are required to play.


activism ahead

August 29, 2014

On September 10th at midnight some of us who support network neutrality will have sporty widgets on our website that show what it would be like if big corporations could buy Internet access while the rest of us are stuck in the slow lane. Meanwhile, Fight for the Future has some comix-style images to dramatize the issue. 

You can read about why network neutrality matters from the ACLU or the American Library Association. Or listen to John Oliver, who pretty much nails it.


activism ahead

February 7, 2014

fightback

It’s time to fight back – mass surveillance does not keep us safe.

Read more about it at ProPublica, The Guardian, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the National Security Archive or in the news.


the paranoid style in American literature

December 15, 2013

One of the reasons I enjoy crime fiction as a genre is that it serves as a mirror of our times through exploring the things that frighten us. These are not, of course, always the things we should be worried about, but it’s still interesting to know what gets our attention. I like to ponder what’s going on in society from a safe distance, and the crime fiction I enjoy most helps me figure difficult things out while also telling entertaining stories about people who I come to care about. George Pelecanos, Denise Mina, David Corbett, Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis – they write these kinds of stories. There’s also the satisfaction of resolution. Not all crime stories have happy endings, but they do have endings, unlike most social problems. Some readers prefer to avoid stories “ripped from the headlines” – if they want news, they’ll pick up a newspaper, thanks all the same – but instead seek The Circleout stories about good and evil in more enduring (or even mythic) forms, without a lot of moral ambiguity. Bad guys do bad things, but good guys can show us how we wish we could be.

Whether you see the genre as a place where social issues get a workout or as a (for the most part) reassuring morality play, or even, in the case of noir, a stylish slalom toward a nasty end, fear is one of its pleasures. We get a kick out of being anxious: what will happen next? Wow, I didn’t see that coming! How will the hero get out of this scrape? No, really, you shouldn’t go down to the basement in your nightie to investigate that noise, bad idea, really bad idea. Fear is the crankshaft of the narrative.

But that’s not just a quality of mysteries. For whatever reason, I chose something other than crime fiction last month to crank my fear. I read The Circle, Dave Egger’s new dystopia about what our socially networked, data-mined world could look like if we aren’t careful, and two young adult books by Cory Doctorow, Little Brother and Homeland, which tackle technology and surveillance from another angle. They got me thinking about a lot of things, including the difference between calling out a warning and doing something about it, or perhaps a difference in genres – one of these dystopian worlds is not like the other.

Thinking about these books, I was moved to read Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay, published in Harper’s back in November of 1964, reflecting on political rhetoric leading up to the 1964 election which at the time was associated with a far-right minority but which, he pointed out, could also be also found in late-19th-century populist rhetoric and by anti-Catholics of the mid-19th century. This paranoid style is a kind of story-telling that pulls together disparate things into evidence of a vast conspiracy of which only the minority is aware. It thrives on ethnic, religious, and class conflict and is particularly likely to flourish when a group of people feel shut out of the political process. “Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions,” he writes, “they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power—and this through distorting lenses—and have no chance to observe its actual machinery.” Being shut out of the system is a feeling familiar to members of both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. And, let’s be real: in an era when those elected to office spend most of their time raising money for the next election, which will cost millions, hardly any of us feel truly enfranchised. In these situations, it’s weirdly comforting to find a narrative that explores what’s going on and which suggests good guys are those who see what others don’t, who are fighting to preserve something enduring that is threatened. They can also tell us what we have to lose.

That partly explains the pleasure I took in reading these three books. In The Circle, Dave Eggers gives us a story about a very recognizable near-future in which a Silicon Valley powerhouse (a cross between Google and Facebook) offers a worker’s paradise to a young, desperate woman who needs a job and who wants to help her parents, who are frazzled over medical bills they can’t pay. A friend gets her a position in everyone’s dream company, where all the cool kids work, where the perks are amazing. She’s grateful for the job and willing to work gruelling hours in what amounts to a tech sweatshop, one that expects here to keep up with an unendingly increasing workload, her performance constantly measured, her private life never private, never off the clock. She also is seduced by the company’s benevolent desire to make everything transparent, every thought shared, every impulse metered and tallied for the good of society. It’s a disturbing, funny, all-too-recognizable near future that extrapolates the way we live now into a society that is controlled by those who want to have ALL the data.

I wonder how Eggers felt about Edward Snowden’s bombshell – that everything we give to Google (and pretty much everything we share with other technology corporations, including where we go and who we communicate with) is rendered unto Caesar just in case the state decides it needs to investigate us. It’s like Google and Facebook and every other data-sucking tech company bureaucratized and made monolithic, incredibly arrogant in its ambition to have every piece of data captured and programs that can mine it in a variety of ways. In Egger’s dystopian vision the corporation essentially takes over the role of the state, but as things have unfolded since he turned his manuscript in, the state has embraced everything tech companies collect and, if thwarted, simply taps directly into the arteries of the Internet to suck out everything it wants – which seems to be everything. The NSA embraces the logic that infected the Internet – providing platforms for sharing that seem free but are actually fed by constant micropayments of personal information which can be aggregated, mined, used and sold – in order to know everything about anyone. It also can use these algorithms to predict, like targeted advertising’s evil twin, who might be a threat and should be stopped in advance of a crime. (This is a variation of an FBI practice of coaxing naive and gullible people into terrorist plots that they can foil.) I found Egger’s vision of a society that reduces itself to the insecure infantilism of middle school as a way of life incredibly disturbing, but what we’re learning about how all that personal information is being used by the state is far more worrying.

A lot of readers and critics have  faulted the book for being propaganda, treating social media with a lack of nuance, having shallow characters who are hard to sympathize with, and particularly for using as its primary narrator a young woman who not only doesn’t grow, but gets less and less reflective as time goes on. The other characters don’t get to provide much ballast, either, but it’s a cautionary tale rather than a realistic or novel or character study. And this is a deliberate choice. In terms of narrative arc, it’s backward – instead of self-discovery, we start with a naive narrator who like kayaking in the dark and is eager to join the culture of her workplace, but as she does that Eggers begins erasing the lines, making her less and less distinct, less a person with her own identity. The Circle will do that to you, he seems to be saying. His vision of the future is not optimistic.

Little Brother

Cory Doctorow’s two novels deal with surveillance in the context of post-9/11 America, but in a way that is equally disturbing but oddly much more enheartening. In Little Brother, he imagines how the state would react to terrorist attack on San Francisco and sees it through the eyes of a teenager who understands better than the adults around him what we have to lose when we give up privacy. He also has the tech skills to set up an alternative to the Internet using linked Xbox consoles, create a way to jam the GPS signals being used to track people’s movements, and launch a youthful resistance movement.

The power of the state is vast and blind. The narrator is picked up for no discernible reason, tortured, and scared out of his wits. He’s been issued a gag order, so can’t tell his parents what has happened to him. He’s impassioned, playful, absolutely sure of the importance of privacy and the Bill of Rights – but also frightened and traumatized. Overcoming his own terror (something all of his friends have to negotiate for themselves) is nicely depicted (and probably necessary, as without these moments of sheer terror and self-doubt, he might be a talented, overconfident and obnoxiously self-congratulatory geek). Homeland takes the story further. The fight isn’t over. The economy has collapsed. College is out of reach and debt is crippling young people before they start their lives. Our young hero gets a tech job for the campaign of an independent candidate he believes in, but he faces an ethical dilemma when he is given a trove of extraordinary documents about one of the contractors who detained and extracted confessions from teens during the events of the first book. The young woman who gave it to him asked him to release it if she is captured. When she is, he needs to weigh his own safety, the future of his promising candidate, and the need to get the truth out. It’s compelling stuff, and full of though-provoking dilemmas as well as high-tech adventure and a dash of YA romance, the kind that is as much about discovering one’s identity as it is about love.

These are not subtle books, and they don’t go out of their way to accommodate opinions that the authors don’t share. Eggers paints a frighteningly possible extension of the way we live now, and it’s a bleak place. Doctorow offers a dystopian take on our present political and legal situation and a spirited call to activism. Unlike Egger’s critique of our tech-saturated lives, in Doctorow’s world technology can be used for oppression, but also can be the hand-tools for building liberation. It’s an empowering, geeky, fun vision about how ordinary people can stand up to totalitarian impulses.

Homeland

I do worry a bit when I read this kind of story about Hofstadter’s “paranoid style.” It’s so satisfying to see patterns in what otherwise seems disordered, to attach a narrative complete with good guys and bad guys to a series of troubling events. Eggers addresses this problem by making us think. Isn’t transparency in government a good thing? Isn’t sharing valuable? I found the book most interesting when it engaged my critical faculties, not just my already pretty well-established anxiety about the collection of personal information as a business model and my reservations about making ourselves into brands, always anxious for more attention. Doctorow’s books don’t hold back on the fear factor – the bad guys are really bad, and really powerful – but he adds enough food for thought to make it interesting. His hero is on a journey to becoming an activist, but he has to keep overcoming obstacles. What’s the moral thing to do when there’s no obvious right path? What if something you do hurts someone you care about? How can you avoid the trap of making your activism an ego-trip? Where do you get your courage?

These three books do appeal to my paranoid style of reading – but in a manner that I found both thought-provoking and entertaining.


happy independence day

July 4, 2013

Like independence? Do something about it.

fourth amendment


sabbatical dreams

March 9, 2013

socialcollider_003

So, if my sabbatical proposal is accepted, it won’t happen until the 2014-15 academic year, but I had fun outlining a project that I’m actually excited about (and think I may still be excited about 18 months from now). I want to immerse myself in online reading communities.

But you already do that, you say? Yes, I do. But this would be my excuse to do more of it, and to look a bit more closely at how readers talk about books on a variety of platforms and think about what this means for readers, authors, libraries, and publishers in a world where reading is global (and publishing contracts remain local). It ties into my resistance to algorithmic marketing messages and the commodification of our identities in a socially networked, hyper-commercialized world. It’s also my opportunity to highlight how savvy crime fiction readers are and how that deep communal knowledge base can tell scholars something wise about literature and the reading experience.

Also, I want to experiment with the ways scholars could communicate now that we don’t have to rely on traditional mechanisms. I think scholarship is valuable, and not just of interest to a tiny sliver of like-minded specialists (or, if it is only that, those specialists shouldn’t expect the rest of us to foot the bill for their inward-gazing research written up for an audience of six or ten; you all can hash it out amongst yourselves, okay?) So fair warning: I’m going to be all exhibitionist and post stuff here and elsewhere in case anyone else is interested. If you aren’t – no worries. I am not in this for the “likes.”

One thing that makes me sad is that I originally imagined flying over to the UK to meet Maxine Clarke, because what she did to promote online discussion of mysteries was one of the inspirations for this project, and her extraordinary background in scientific publishing would have made her a terrific cultural informant. Unhappily, I waited too long – but her presence in our global reading community has been a major influence on this project of mine.

Anyway, here’s the proposal I’m sending in, in case anyone is interested. Wish me luck.

—–

Sabbatical Proposal
Barbara Fister
March 11, 2013

I would like to spend my next sabbatical working on a digital humanities project with two purposes: (1) to conduct research into online reading communities and (2) to present my findings in ways that explore alternatives to traditional scholarly publishing.

(1)    Social Reading Practices Online

There hasn’t been much research to date on online communities of avid readers that have formed to discuss books and the reading experience together. Their existence has become more visible with the advent of the GoodReads social network, which currently has over 14 million members, as well as its older, geekier cousin LibraryThing (1.5 million members). The rise of Amazon as a vertically-integrated book industry powerhouse is also an example of a platform that mixes commerce and voluntary book discussion and interaction between readers and authors, though controversies erupt periodically over review sock-puppetry and reviewer rankings (e.g. Pinch & Kessler 2011, Steitfeld 2012).

However, online reading communities date back to the early days of the Internet, with Usenet groups such as rec.arts.mystery (formed in the 1980s), Listserv groups, such as Dorothy-L (founded at Kent State University in 1990), and thousands of Yahoo and Google groups devoted to books that have formed in the past three decades. Such communities provide intriguing sites for researchers to explore what group members get out of reading for pleasure, observe the social aspects of reading, and witness how informal critical communities participate in the formation of cultural tastes around books. They also are places to observe social interactions in a digital space, including the negotiation of difference and the evolution of group social norms. Finally, they provide a vantage point for observing the ways people integrate their online and IRL (in real life) identities and can offer opportunities to consider cultural attitudes about digital versus face to face social interactions.

It will also be interesting to explore the emergence of new social platforms and their effect on online communities. Web 2.0 – the interactive web that includes blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and other media – contains contradictory impulses. On the one hand, these platforms provide “free” spaces for interactivity and self-expression. On the other, they are designed around the self as a commodity. Personal information about habits, tastes, and interpersonal connections becomes valuable raw material platforms gather for data aggregation, mining, and resale. Individuals participating in these networks, in turn, are encouraged to market themselves and measure their social capital through the attraction of friends, likes, comments, retweets, and other quantitative analytics build into the platforms. I am curious about how these built-in analytics, which encourage self-representation in terms of marketing and promotion, influence reader group formation and social regulation. I am also interested in the role authors play in this space which is a mix of social interaction and self-promotional marketing work.

I plan to focus my study on readers of crime fiction, primarily because I am already a long-term participant in a number of online groups focused on that genre. I expect to use interviews, surveys, participant-observation and other primarily qualitative research methods. In addition to submitting my research plans to the IRB, I will refer to the recommendations for ethical research developed by the Association of Internet Researchers (2012) to ensure that I gather and use information ethically. I anticipate addressing an interlocking set of questions which will likely include the following lines of inquiry.

  • What are the social dimensions of reading and how does online reading group participation compare to the groups studied by Elizabeth Long (2003)?
  • Do the experiences of avid readers who participate in online groups confirm or depart from Catherine Sheldrick Ross’s findings (1999)?
  • How does online group participation enhance the reading experience for participants? How do those benefits compare to face-to-face reading groups?
  • What are the demographics of online reading groups? Who participates? How does age and gender figure in group composition? Are there some platforms that younger readers prefer, and if so, why?
  • What social rules emerge within a group? Are they explicit and is the group moderated? If not, how does the group handle trolls or heated disagreements? What kinds of relationship work do members perform to overcome a breach of group norms? How do they welcome new members?
  • How do members of online reading groups learn about new books that might interest them? “Discovery” is a compelling problem for publishers, who in the past relied on physical distribution to reach markets with sales reps and booksellers playing a key role. What can readers online tell us about the discovery process in a world saturated with choices?
  • How do authors and readers interact in these groups and how do readers and authors negotiate  the difference between peer relationships and commercial relationships?
  • Is the author-reader relationship changing authorship itself (as Stephanie Moody has suggested)? How does what Henry Jenkins calls “convergence culture” affect writers who interact regularly with their reading base?
  • How are avid readers reading today? What affordances contribute to the choices they make about print versus e-books or among e-book platforms?  How device-agnostic are they? What do they think about the rights issues articulated by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (2010)?
  • Given that reader communities are borderless, what does membership in these communities contribute to greater understanding of other cultures?
  • How do readers experience rights restrictions, territorial sales, and (in cases such as the Australian book market) protectionist policies that limit access to books across borders? As discovery outpaces access, what are the implications for the book business?How do avid readers tap into local book culture? Does online engagement with books parallel local patronage of bookstores, libraries, author events, and other book-related cultural practices?
  • What are the advantages and constraints facing avid readers in different countries? (I will likely focus primarily on readers in the US, UK, and Australia, but may also study the experience of readers in Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa, since their economic, cultural, linguistic, and social situations make for distinctive book cultures – and they all have a lively presence in online communities.)
  • What roles do brick-and-mortar bookstores, public libraries, and fan conventions play in the lives of genre readers?
  • For readers who engage in multiple social media platforms, what distinctions do they draw between them? What features appeal to them as readers, or are seen as drawbacks?
  • What is the history of discussing books online? How have the platforms for interaction changed, and what impact have those changes had on participants?
  • In an era of dwindling review space in traditional media, how have these reading communities, (including online review sites and book bloggers) provided an alternative? How well do these alternative media work for those making reading choices?
  • How does the kind of criticism performed in these public places intersect with literary criticism, if at all? Do avid readers provide a depth of knowledge about genres that has critical value? What do scholars of literature have to learn from fan culture?
  • What contribution can this work make to the ongoing debates about digital culture enjoined by critics of technophilia such as Nicholas Carr, Jaron Lanier, Sherry Turkle, and Evgeny Morozov, as well as more utopian views of digital networks found in the work of David Weinberger, Yochai Benkler, and Clay Shirky? What can the study of online reading communities contribute to our understanding of the interplay between digital culture and culture in general?

(2)    New Approaches to Sharing Scholarship

This project, because of its digital focus and its multiple potential audiences, would provide a good opportunity to play with new ways of communicating scholarship. I propose making this a totally open project, with the questions that arise, speculations, dead ends, and conclusions available publicly and open for comment at every step of the way. I see the audience for this work to be not just other scholars (though I hope it will make a contribution to the scholarship around popular literacy, genre fiction, reading, and digital culture) but a cross-section of readers, publishers, writers, fans, and anyone interested in the book and its future.

Toward that end, I want to make this work accessible to these various audiences, both in terms of how I express myself (blending my scholarly interests with more vernacular approaches to genre literature and the act of reading) and in terms of who has actual access. For the past few years, I have been actively involved in the open access movement. In recent years I have only published my scholarship in venues which are open to all, either because there are no fees for access or because the publishers’ contracts allow self-archiving. (In fact, my entire department pledged in 2009 to make our work open access; we were the first liberal arts college to pass a departmental open access mandate.) Free access means more than a low, low price. It is an approach to scholarship that is open to discussion and available for others to repurpose. (See Suber, 2012, for a clear discussion of the distinction between gratis and libre open access.) I have followed and participated in experiments in open peer review such as Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence with interest. I would like to make this project public from the start and invite contributions and comments from members of my multiple communities:  readers, writers, publishers, critics, digital humanists, librarians. I am not sure at this point exactly what form this public work will take, but if this sabbatical project is approved, I envision beginning a series of interactions using social media such as Twitter (which is home to a lively digital humanities community) FriendFeed, old-school online reading networks that use groups and listservs, single-author platforms which invite comments (blogging), a public web archive of any relevant documents, a public bibliography via Zotero, and perhaps ultimately a book-length anthology or compilation of findings. If I create such a culminating document, I will likely use an open source platform such as PressBooks. I plan to use the most open Creative Commons license available for all of this work to invite remixing and reuse.

In many ways, the two parts of this project knit together my various interests in a satisfyingly complementary way. Knowing how communities of readers interact online will have implications for the lifelong learning goals we have for our students, who tend to see research as a set of academic tasks to be completed according to spec rather than as participation in an ongoing conversation. I have been trying, with mixed success, to introduce students to using blogs and other social media for invention, curation, discovery, and expression. I worry that we introduce them to only a piece of what it means to do research. They can find and use sources when needed, but they are not necessarily prepared to follow up on new developments in an area of interest, participate in professional digital communities, or apply their writing skills and intellectual training to public expression using social media. I have used blogs in classes for eight years and have not seen much increase in students’ familiarity with the technological and design capabilities of social platforms or in students’ ability or inclination to keep their eyes open for interesting things going on in the world. They are much happier if given a prompt to respond to rather than being asked to look around for something intriguing to write about. I’m sure time pressures contribute to this aversion for frequent informal and improvisatory invention, but being curious and able to develop personal filters to scan and sort through new information is a skill worth cultivating that is largely neglected in our pedagogy.

I’m also invested in the future of trade and scholarly publishing. We’re on the cusp of sweeping changes, and librarians need to step up and be part of the solution. Trade publishing matters because books are a significant record of our culture. Leaving its future in the hands of major publishers or Amazon – corporations more focused market share than on sharing or preserving culture – would be a betrayal of library values and a serious problem for future scholars who may have no public cultural record to consult. Scholarly publishing is ripe for new models and repurposing library resources and skills to help with the transition seems more important than finding yet new ways to wring more temporary licensed access to knowledge out of shrinking budgets. Finally, as the humanities face challenges from public figures who are hostile to education that is not firmly tethered to workforce readiness (and who fail to see how very much the humanities do, in fact, prepare their future hires to think, communicate, organize, and lead), I am committed to making research public and to do what I can to break down the barriers between academia and “the real world.” I’m hoping this project might help me discover some models for sharing and inviting participation in scholarship as it develops that others may find useful.

Though it may seem arcane to study readers’ responses to a particular slice of genre fiction, a case could be made that it’s in these cultural environs that we can find common ground between everyday readers and scholarly approaches to culture. We might even discover that they’re not as separate as we may think.

Works cited

Association of Internet Researchers. (2012). Ethical decision-making and Internet research: Version 2.0. Retrieved from http://aoir.org/reports/ethics2.pdf

Benkler, Y. (2006). The wealth of networks: how social production transforms markets and freedom. New Haven: Yale University Press. This book can be retrieved from http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/wealth_of_networks/

Carr, N. G. (2010). The shallows: what the Internet is doing to our brains. New York: W.W. Norton.

Electronic Frontier Foundation. (2010, February 16). Digital books and your rights: A checklist for readers. Electronic Frontier Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.eff.org/wp/digital-books-and-your-rights

Fitzpatrick, K. (2011). Planned obsolescence. New York: New York University Press. The Media Commons version of the crowd-reviewed manuscript can be retrieved from http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/mcpress/plannedobsolescence/

Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York: New York University Press.

Lanier, J. (2010). You are not a gadget: A manifesto. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Long, E. (2003). Book clubs: Women and the uses of reading in everyday life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Moody, S. (2011) Virtual relations: Exploring the literary practices of ecommunities. Paper presented at the Conference on College Composition and Communication Annual Conference, Atlanta, April 2011.

Morozov, E. (2013). To save everything, click here: The folly of technological solutionism. New York: PublicAffairs.

Pinch, T. & Kesler, F. (2011). How Aunt Ammy got her free lunch. Retrieved from http://www.freelunch.me/filecabinet

Sheldrick Ross, C. (1999). Finding without seeking: The information encounter in the context of reading for pleasure. Information Processing & Management,35(6), 783-799.

Shirky, C. (2010). Cognitive surplus: Creativity and generosity in a connected age. New York: Penguin Press.

Streitfeld, D. (2012, December 22). Giving mom’s book five stars? Amazon may cull your review. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/23/technology/amazon-book-reviews-deleted-in-a-purge-aimed-at-manipulation.html?smid=pl-share

Suber, P. (2012). Open access. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books.

Weinberger, D. (2007). Everything is miscellaneous: The power of the new digital disorder. New York: Times Books.

Selected past publications related to this project

On student learning

The library’s role in learning: Information literacy revisited,” Library Issues  (March 2013): 33.4.

Wikipedia and the challenge of read/write culture.” (2007, January). Library Issues 27.3

The Devil in the Details: Media Representation of ‘Ritual Abuse’ and Evaluation of Sources.” (2003, May). SIMILE: Studies in Media and Information Literacy Education 3.2.

Teaching the rhetorical dimensions of research.” (Fall 1993). Research Strategies 11.4: 211-219.

On reading

Reading, risk, and reality: Undergraduates and reading for pleasure,” with Julie Gilbert, College & Research Libraries 72.5 (September 2011): 474-495.

“‘Reading as a contact sport’: Online book groups and the social dimensions of reading.” Reference and User Services Quarterly, 44.4 (Summer 2005): 303-309.

On publishing

The public versus publishers: How scholars and activists are occupying the library.” Anthropologies 12 (March 2012).

Liberating Knowledge: A Librarian’s Manifesto for Change.” Thought & Action (Fall 2010): 83-90.

Trade publishing: A report from the front.” (2001). portal: Libraries and the Academy 1.4: 509-523.

On crime fiction

The millennium trilogy and the American serial killer narrative: Investigating protagonists of men who write women” (2012). In Rape in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy and Beyond: Contemporary Scandinavian and Anglophone Crime Fiction edited by Berit Åström, Katarina Gregersdotter and Tanya HoreckLondon: Palgrave: 34-50. 

Copycat Crimes: Crime Fiction and the Marketplace of Anxieties.” Clues: A Journal of Detection 23.3 (Spring 2005): 43-56.

image courtesy of Social Collider – a screenshot of some of my Twitter connections in the past month. I’m not sure what it means, but it’s pretty.