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Bookslut: A Q&A with Jessa Crispin

Way back in 2002 Jessa Crispin began Bookslut while living in Austin as a way of chatting with far-flung friends about books. She had more friends than she thought and now Bookslut is one of the most influential literary blogs. She's an upcoming guest at the Melbourne Writers' Festival so I wanted to know about her workshop and I ended up finding out that there is space for longer form content on the web, why it's better to graze the field than be a Trojan Horse and advice on how avoid stabbing your boss.

Hackpacker: Bookslut has been insanely successful scoring more than 1500 unique hits a day just six months after it started in 2002 (and even more today) plus it recently won a Weblog Award in 2008. What’s made it so successful?
Jessa Crispin: I really wish I knew how to answer this question, because I get it alot. I have no idea. We never did any marketing, and I never do anything that you're supposed to do to create a successful blog: I don't have comments open on the site, etc. I think a lot of the success we've had has to do with timing, actually. Pure luck. Bookslut was one of the very first literary websites. I think the only one worth mentioning was Mobylives.com, which is now Melville House Publishing. We got a lot of attention fast because there was nothing quite like us online. Now I can't even imagine how you would launch something like Bookslut and draw enough attention to yourself.

HP: It’s been said that getting traffic for a blog is like trying to get your message in a bottle found in a sea of bottles - how did you get your ‘bottle’ found?
JC: Again... I always just assume that if I'm interested in something, someone else will be, too. And that is my entire driving philosophy behind Bookslut.

HP: You went ‘professional’ with Bookslut in 2003 and made it your sole job – did people think you were insane? How did you explain this 'career move' to your mother?
JC: I didn't really tell anyone, I don't think. It was such an act of desperation. I was working for a magazine, and the editor-in-chief would ask the managing editor to fetch his coffee because, you know, she was a woman and so therefore that was part of her duties. We would butt heads, and eventually I found myself in the kitchenette, eyeing the knives, thinking I had to quit or I would end up stabbing this man. So I quit. I thought I would eventually run out of money and would have to find a new job, but luckily that never happened.

HP: At what point did you decide you needed to get other writers involved to help out with Bookslut? And how big does a blog have to be to sustain that?
JC: The magazine has always been a collaboration, and that part ofBookslut started about three months after the blog. As far as writers on the blog, I asked my friend Michael Schaub to co-blog with me for awhile, and we both liked it so much we kept him as a permanent fixture. He left for a while, so it was just me again, and I got lonely. So I asked people like Nina MacLaughlin, Margaret Howie, and Jason Jones to cover certain angles. Then there are the guest bloggers, Jen Howard and Michael, who fill in when, say, I move to another country.

HP: In the States there’s been a dramatic change for print reviewers and you’ve been described as ‘re-writing the rules’ for online writing. What change do you perceive has happened? And how much of that has been down to Bookslut?
JC: Bookslut is occasionally credited with things, and I always think it's nonsense. But then, when you're in the middle of it, it's hard to look outside and see, oh right, this is how things changed. For a while,the only writing about literature you could find online was short, highly opinionated blogs. I remember being told that people don't want to read things of length online, you can never publish quality original content online. I thought, bullshit. I went ahead with publishing 5,000 word interviews with authors, 15-minute videos, etc. I've been proven right, because more lengthy content gets posted online all the time: podcasts, videos, long form essays. Even from the same people who said no one would care.

HP: There has been talk of Bookslut becoming a print publication at various stages. What happened with that?
JC: I mean, I could see the writing on the wall: print is expensive, it's time consuming, it's a static thing. I've always funded Bookslut out of my own pocket, even during years when it made no money, so risking my own livelihood for a very risky print experiment seemed foolish at best. And then when you bring in a collaborator with money, they have ultimate control. I'm not great with compromise. So yeah, I'd flirt with someone with money, and then I would come to my senses. Not that it wouldn't be fun, either to be a print magazine or to go into publishing. But I like the fluidity of the online world, and I like how cheap it is, especially. (And not that I would never do it. It's just that circumstances have never been perfect.)

HP: You’re often described as a ‘publishing outsider’ because you’re not in New York and don’t work in the traditional industry. But now it’s like you’re the Trojan Horse inside the gates. How does that feel? What will you yell when you surprise the Trojans?
JC: I really enjoy being on the outside. You have a much better view from the outside. I think for a while I got out a rope ladder and thought I'd scale the walls and try to blend in, but it's so uncomfortable in New York publishing. Now I feel less like a Trojan Horse (because Ihave no desire to declare war. They're good where they are, and I'm good where I am. I like it out here. Better air quality, more room to stretch out. No laws to follow.) and more like I have a visitors' pass when I want it. Which is surprisingly not very often. I feel like my friends in independent publishing in New York are the Trojan Horses. I'm out in the fields, lying in the grass and talking to the cows.

HP: Email interviews suck don’t they? You lose a whole layer of non-verbal communication. How do you get around it?
JC: I never do e-mail interviews. I mean, conduct them. I answer many of them.

You’ve done a few video interviews recently – how tough was it to change to video?
Not at all. We had Brown Finch handle all the technical stuff, and I don't mind getting gussied up and making an ass of myself on camera. We were going to do more, but then I decided to move to Berlin. Who knows... maybe I'll find a new crew here and we can start it up again. But for now, that's on hold.

HP: I really liked Slut Lessons – your column about the quirkier aspects of reading culture like how to start your own slutty book group or how to get dates with your library. Whatever happened to that section? And what about Cookslut?
JC: I just got bored writing Slut Lessons, and that was aaages ago. I am so old. Columnists come and go. We'll have a new cookbook columnist soon, actually.

HP: You’re about to move Berlin (or possibly just have) – what will this mean for Bookslut? And more importantly for you?
JC: Who the fuck knows. For Bookslut, it means me backing off a bit. Caroline Eick takes over the day to day stuff, the review books and soon. Right now we have guest bloggers so that I can settle in a bit. I just got here a week ago, so it's hard to say how things are going toend up. As for me personally... I always keep my personal life very quiet. I'm not the type of person to post their pap smear results online. I like my privacy, but sometimes this results in people making stuff up about you. There were rumors swirling around Chicago about why I was moving (marriage, pregnancy, the usual), which I found absurd. But I guess you either have to allow for that or be prepared to issue a statement about your motivations. I moved here for specific reasons, but they're my own reasons. People can believe what they want to believe.

HP: You’re coming to Melbourne soon for the Melbourne Writer’s Festival –what can we expect from your workshop? Do you do ‘trust games’ or will there be cake?
JC: I have been studying the Stanford prisoners experiment as a guideline for my workshop. If I haven't broken everyone psychologically by the end of the day, I will have failed.

HP: Finally what advice do you have for new bloggers?
JC: I hate giving advice, because I generally feel like most of my life has been ruled by chance and luck. The most helpful thing I can think to say is don't worry about looking like an idiot. You're going to say the wrong thing, be thought badly of, trash talked, whatever. But you learn as you go. As long as you're willing to try, and educate yourself, and stay open, you'll be fine.

Comments

  1. Great interview, thanks. I definitely agree with Jessa re there being space for long form content online. Gah, how I wish I had the resources to video blog too. Though I may soon with the CBWI...

    Hanging out for the MWF program to see if I can get along to her workshop!

    Angela

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  2. Thank you for this interview. I am glad to know the inspiring story behind Bookslut! I really like Bookslut, especially the Bookslut in Training column. And I really like that Jessa is now in Berlin. There aren't enough literary voices from countries outside the US, the UK, Canada, and Australia being heard online.

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  3. Yeah I think I agree on long form content, but eyeball studies reckon people switch off very quickly...
    See you at the 'shop, LM.

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  4. I know the evidence is that most people switch off quickly from extended content, but maybe with 'the long tail' there are still lots of people to support longer content.

    I'm part of an online short-story writing group that involves listening to or reading one or two lengthy interviews with authors each week and reading their online stories. At first I used to print out the written interviews and the stories but now I read online.

    Given that the Internet is new in terms of human history, I think what will prevail is a mix of content.
    It might take a long time to shake down into place, though.

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