Bookninja began as an online forum for a bunch of writers to kibitz and argue about the state of the book world but has since evolved into…an online form for a bunch of writers to kibitz and argue about the book world. The difference? Now thousands of other people—including other writers, publishing folk, and many intrigued readers—are listening in and even joining the chat. The conductor, head vocalist, and stage hand for this bookish choir is George Murray, who co-founded Bookninja with fellow author Peter Darbyshire back in 2003, when the phrase “book blog” still had to qualified with some form of descriptor for the web-challenged.
Books@Torontoist editor James Grainger spoke with Murray about the past, present, and future of the pioneering books blog.
Torontoist: Why did you decide to start a books blog in those bygone days of yore? What did you want the site to be?
George Murray: I started the blog with my friend (The Warhol Gang novelist) Peter Darbyshire in August of 2003 in order to help keep what had been a tightly knit group of friends from Toronto in touch. We were a group of young writers and editors who used to hang out at the Victory Café in Mirvish Village back when it wasn’t such a yuppie paradise. We’d spend long evenings pounding the table debating literary issues and talking books, but with adulthood and ambition slowly bearing down on us like the hand of an oppressive god, we started moving all over the place (New York, Winnipeg, Vancouver, etc). So the evenings got thinner and we tried to keep the discussions going via email, but it was confusing and burdensome to have so many messages flying back and forth. That was when Pete and I started Bookninja as a place we could each pop into when we had time and drop a comment or two.
We started by hand-editing an html webpage daily, Pete and I emailing each other to make sure we weren’t accidentally overwriting each others’ posts, and occasionally mounting discussion reviews (which we called “inverse omnibus reviews”—the opposite of what the Globe was doing, wherein three or four books were reviewed by one reviewer—in our system one book was reviewed by three or four reviewers, roundtable-style), and interviews, etc.
We really wanted the site to be a chatty place for a few friends (and perhaps anyone new who stumbled on to us) to discuss books the way we used to at the pub—fast, loose, and intelligent. Very little editing, sharp opinion, and a no-bullshit policy. I would say the initial email announcing the site only went out to about 20 or so people. Within a couple months there were 200 attending, then 500, 1,000, 2,000, etc. until we are where we are today, around 5,000 daily users with peaks of 10,000, and a total unique user base of about 25,000 over the course of a month. People attend from all over the world, but it’s really concentrated in Canada, the UK, America, and Australia. And all that growth was “word-of-mouth” or “word-of-link” as it were. I think people appreciate the humourous, no-BS tone (or lots of BS tone, depending), and the fact that I write for the internet, instead of the newspaper.
Pete left the site a few years ago to concentrate on his novel (and it’s great, by the way), so it’s been just me and some guest editors since then.
Torontoist: Did your conception of the site change over the years? Do you try out things that just didn’t work?
GM: Not really. One of the things that has sustained Bookninja with its readership is, I think, the consistency of the voice. The character I play is a combination of a cynical bookseller, sassy publicist, beleaguered editor, and depressed author. It’s a caricature of the industry that hits all the stereotypes and neurotic high and low points in delivering the news as a sort of textual stand-up comedy. News item, sassy/funny comment, next news item. It’s been a pretty successful strategy so far. I’ve had some hate mail here and there from people who didn’t dig the vibe or were tone deaf enough to not get the jokes, but it’s a big internet, so I’ve politely (mostly) pointed them toward other venues.
Another thing driving the success of the blog is the consistency of commentary. I don’t feel the need to pull punches or spare companies or people. I think that would compromise the integrity of the site. It’s half-joking, half-serious, and the commentary sometimes takes the unpopular issues on. For instance, we rag on Chapters/Indigo quite a bit, in part because most people who would like to do the same are bound from doing so by business concerns. Authors don’t want to get blackballed, publishers the same, booksellers feel oppressed and don’t want to appear whiny, etc. Bookninja can be a voice for those people, at times, and do the complaining no one else is willing to do. Sometimes it gets me into trouble, but what can they do to me? I’m a poet. They don’t sell my books anyway. I try not to be mean to individual people, though, except those cushioned from my barbs by their millions and millions of dollars (I’m looking at you, Mr.-Black-Turtle-Neck-and-Tan-Jacket Dan Brown).
We did try a few things that either faded away or didn’t work. The comics I drew a few years ago were fun and popular, and are still up on the site, but I stopped at around 100 issues. People keep asking for those back, but I just can’t be bothered. I also wanted to do something I called “BookninjaTV”, which was a series of little episodes (unfortunately called “webisodes” these days) on book-related subjects, professionally produced and podcasted to the site. We did make a couple little pilot-ish things for this and I had ideas for a few small series within the series, but then I moved away from Toronto (where I’d had access to generous film people willing to donate time and materials, and also the centre of the publishing industry), so it was difficult to manage the projects from St. John’s and the whole thing was lost. I’d still like to try it some time.
Torontoist: Has the site pissed a lot of people off over the years or do you find the majority of people understand your sense of humour?
GM: As I mentioned above, it sure has. There are people small and large that probably think I’m a total jerk, but this is the line you tread in both humour and honest commentary. Put the two together and you’re failing if you’re not pissing off some people. I think most people get the sense of humour, in part because the character I play on the site is modeled after people we all know in the industry. It’s the kind of conversation you’d hear around the water cooler in a publishing house (when the boss isn’t listening), or the witty chatter you’d hear at book parties, or, even better, the childish glee of the well-timed insult. It’s harmless fun, mostly. I won’t commit libel and I won’t allow libel to be posted in the comments. That’s pretty much the extent of my editing and self-editing. I go for the joke over the essay, the laugh over the news, and truth over the corporate spin many mainstream outlets seem to buy into (for some reason).
I’m sure I’ve made a few enemies here and there, but I think a few in 25,000 readers is probably pretty good odds. And thankfully, I’ll probably never cross paths with them. I know, from bumping into them at industry events, etc., that a lot of powerful people read the blog. Editors and publishers of major houses, bookstore brass, major authors (I have great stories about both Margaret Atwood and Roddy Doyle that I’ll share sometime), all tune in daily. If they don’t like what I’m saying, I can’t help it. It’s not journalism, in the old sense of the word. It’s as much entertainment now. And I think reasonable people understand that.
Torontoist: You’re a veteran of the books blog scene. What’s your take on the scene now and the proliferation of the book blog? Good thing? Bad thing?
GM: I like that there are lots of blogs now, and even better that they specialize. The more the merrier. When Maud (maudnewton.com) and Jessa (Bookslut) and I started (they started a year before me), there had only been a handful of blogs available, including my model/mentor Dennis Johnson’s MobyLives. (Part of the reason the site is called “Bookninja” is because when we were looking for a name “Bookslut” came up and that’s how we found Jessa. Damn, it’s taken. Let’s try Bookninja. Bingo.) But back then, we were pretty much the only game in town, at least in Canada. There were very few book blogs anywhere, much less here. And no one at all was doing what we decided to do, or at the level we were doing it—international news with a Canadian focus, a magazine element for longer pieces, interviews, etc. The mainstream outlets didn’t have blogs or comments pages at all and there wasn’t a lot of specialization among the 2.0 enabled sites.
Now everyone has as a site, from the personal record of reading, to poetry blogs, to YA blogs, to news blogs at the major papers. Some write in long form (more like traditional journalism), some aggregate links, some just ramble. Some link out to others, while some keep themselves hermetically sealed away. Some are better than others, but one thing is common to all of them: readers. And those readers will always find the tone and format they like best. (It’s great because it takes some of the pressure off me. In around the third year of doing this, if I missed a day of posting the news, I used to get worried emails from people wondering where I was and complaining that they didn’t get their news fix for the day.) If a reader doesn’t like what I’m saying, or how I’m saying it, they can just “change the channel” and find something else out there. It’s a golden time for readers on the internet. And I support this.
Torontoist: Any regrets?
GM: I regret the hours gone to blogging that could have gone to poetry. But I also regret the hours gone to sleep that could have gone there as well. It’s what I’m doing and it’s fine. I wish it had made me rich, but alas…
Torontoist: Where is Bookninja going?
GM: To Hell in a hand-basket. Not sure really. It’s going to keep doing what it’s doing until either someone buys me out or I finally run out of steam. I have no plans to change it, but I would like to get the Magazine re-established (I lost longtime mag editor Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer last year to this “writing” thing she’s doing… sheesh), and I wouldn’t mind seeing it become more of a community-based endeavour, but that’s about it. I’m working on a redesign now, so we’ll see what new elements arise during that process. The great thing about the internet and blogs is, you can have the idea today and realize it tomorrow. And if it doesn’t work, you can wipe it out and start over. So growth is organic, which is what makes it appealing to many people, I think.