5 Things I've Learned From 5 Years of Book Blogging
[image description: a black and white photo of a person at a coffee shop reading a book that’s open on a long table with light from a nearby window pouring in.]
I’m the worst at remembering birthdays and anniversaries. I always forget my blogiversary until a month or two after, so I promise myself I’ll remember next year, then the cycle repeats. So despite having Off the Beaten Shelf for 5 years, I think this is the first time I’ve actually celebrated. Happy Blogiversary to me!
Throughout the past 5 years, I’ve met some of the most wonderful people. Like Sheree in Australia, Jane in Michigan, emmy in Canada, Katy in Texas, and dozens more book nerds across the US and around the world. I may not have met any of these folks otherwise, but thanks to internet access and a shared love of books, we can be a part of each other’s worlds.
I’ve also learned a lot about books, about my writing and editorial style, and about just how hard it is to blog consistently for 5 straight years, striving to keep content fresh and interesting when you’re a one-woman shop. Off the Beaten Shelf is a labor of love––one that I love wholeheartedly.
So in honor of 5 years of life and love and lessons and books, I want to share a few things I’ve learned. And if you have any questions for me, ask in the comments and I’ll answer. :)
The bonds people form over books will never stop amazing me.
The community built around this blog feels like my extended family. In addition to meeting book lovers around the world, I’ve seen other people in this community become friends with each other. When you love books, word travels fast and meeting other people who are as book obsessed as you is cause for instant friendship. I love this quick connection point, both between me and Off the Beaten Shelf readers and between fans.
Even now, 5 years in, I’m pleasantly surprised and my heart is warm when people meet me and mention the blog or even recognize me as the blogger behind this when they meet me for the first time. It makes me endlessly happy that bibliophiles find this corner of the internet and browsers become regular readers and regular readers become friends. I’m thankful to each and every one.
Numbers don’t matter. People do.
Looking back at when I first started this blog in July 2014, I have to cringe at myself. I would put hours into posts and would get so frustrated when my analytics revealed very few people were reading them. I started wondering if I was wasting my time or if I just wasn’t a good writer. I worried too many other book bloggers were out there doing things better than me so people didn’t have much incentive to read Off the Beaten Shelf.
None of that was true. I was just whiny and impatient.
I’m embarrassed to say how many hours I spent crying over this. I had too much ego attached to my readership. Instead of understanding the mechanics of the internet and that building a community online takes time, I wanted it NOW.
After about the dozenth time cried over my paltry numbers, my then-boyfriend (now husband) asked me, “What are you doing this for? Are you doing it for numbers or are you doing it for books and people? Are you blogging to become some kind of internet celebrity or are you doing it to connect with other people who love the same stuff you do?”
Forcing me to get clear on why I started Off the Beaten Shelf made all the difference. I stopped looking at my analytics and just focused on being authentic, sharing my love of books, and making friends. The process became even more joyful.
The funny thing is, even now that I’m getting thousands of views a month, which is what I so desperately wanted when I started, I still don’t pay close attention to my numbers. Because that’s not the metric for success I set for myself. And if you’re thinking of starting a book blog, or have started one and are frustrated that it’s not where you want it to be, I hope you’ll make people your most important metric too.
I knew words mattered, but now I believe MY words matter.
I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I could hold a pen in my hand. My earliest memory of actively wanting to be a writer was when I was 5 and we were learning how to write with these giant graphite pencils with no erasers and colorful triangle grippers to help us hold them.
You’d think that wanting to be a writer would imply that I thought my words mattered. Specifically mine, otherwise why be a writer? But the truth is I was drawn to writing through reading, so I knew that stories mattered, books mattered, and literature mattered, and of course the people who wrote that mattered. But I didn’t have a book out (still don’t, though I’m working on it), so I still didn’t believe my words mattered.
Not even when I started doing freelance journalism did I believe my words mattered. I believed journalism as a profession mattered and the stories I was telling mattered, but I saw myself as just the vessel that brought the stories to the public, not as a creative force myself. I didn’t think my words mattered in this case because I (wrongly) assumed any writer could do what I was doing. This didn’t change even when I was being paid well. Money had no bearing on it.
So I’d accepted that I wouldn’t feel like my words mattered until I had a book out. But then I started blogging. Not because it was my job, not because anyone was paying me––simply because I wanted to. And people started telling me they enjoyed reading Off the Beaten Shelf and they’d learned about new books to read that became some of their favorites and that they were reading more than ever. I started seeing that by generating this creative force, even though it wasn’t in the form of a book, my words were positively impacting people’s lives.
In the end, it wasn’t filling notebooks with stories or doing freelance journalism or getting an English degree that showed me I have something to say. It was this blog and all of you who read it.
I don’t know it all, I can’t do it all, and that’s okay.
When I first started Off the Beaten Shelf, I had grand ideas about what I wanted it to be. I kind of imagined it to be People Magazine for the book world, talking about the who’s who and keeping up with gossip and literary scandals. But the truth is, it’s hard to stay on top of things that are happening in the moment and often quietly when you’re just one person. And if there’s one thing I learned from freelance journalism, it’s that I don’t enjoy chasing breaking news.
I also realized that positioning this site as a book news site would mean that, to a degree, I would be expected to remain objective. But I don’t want to do that either. There are some books I think everyone should read and some books I find so reprehensible that I wouldn’t mind if every copy was thrown into a flaming lava hellhole. I didn’t want to have to pretend that all books are worthy of time and attention when that’s not at all how I felt.
On top of that, I had another important realization: you can get breaking book news ANYWHERE. There are newspapers, magazines, and websites galore––both public facing and industry professional targeted––that cover book news and have a larger budget and more staffing resources than me. But there are far fewer places that talk about actual reader culture. Many book blogs only post book reviews, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, I don’t always enjoy doing it.
So I thought about how I could make this space stand out while also carving out space for the particular thing I like to do. I wanted to talk about how book clubs helped women’s suffrage, jerks at book events, authors sending me awkward emails, why it’s not cool to shame people for how they read, and other weird, quirky parts of the bookish world that aren’t necessarily about specific books or writing reviews or keeping up with who just got a book deal from whom. And while I value fact-checking and strive for accuracy, I didn’t want what I wrote to feel reported. I wanted it to feel like it was coming from the heart––because it is.
There’s so much I don’t know and no way for me to do it all, but I’m okay with that. I love what I’ve created here and I hope you do too.
It’s impossible to run out of ideas.
Confession: Off the Beaten Shelf isn’t my first blog. There’s a dead Wordpress blog somewhere and a shell of an inactive Tumblr out there where I got my sea legs in the blogging world. I made a lot of mistakes on those early blogs that I learned from and kept me from repeating those mistakes on Off the Beaten Shelf.
For example, on one of my early Tumblrs, the goal was to post a book review twice a week. But this was before I’d figured out how to read 150 books a year like I do now. At the time I was reading 35-45 books a year. But two book reviews a week means 104 posts a year and if I only wrote book reviews… well, you can see the math doesn’t add up.
I think I defaulted to wanting to write book reviews because that was the majority of what I saw people doing and because I worried I’d run out of ideas for other book-related topics. Sure, I could think of 5 or 10 ideas then that I could write about, but it wasn’t enough to make the blog sustainable so I didn’t even try.
So when I committed to Off the Beaten Shelf, I had to also commit to idea generation. If I was going to consistently post, I also had to consistently come up with things to post about, otherwise y’all would get bored real quick. What I found was the more I wrote, the more ideas I got. The act of generating ideas for posts and sharing those posts sparked more ideas. Writing this blog became a feedback loop that’s self-sustaining.
I post once a week and I’ve got enough drafts in the backend to cover me for nearly 2 years. It’s wild to me that I use to worry I’d run out of ideas. But the truth is, as long as books are being written and as long as I’m still reading them, there’s always more where that came from.
I think that applies to more areas of life than just blogging. You have more abundance than you think and there’s more out there waiting for you than you know. Go find it. Don’t worry about scarcity from the beginning, especially if it stops you from ever getting started.
These are just 5 of the many things I’ve learned from 5 years of book blogging, so if there’s something else you’re wondering about, let me know in the comments below and I’ll get back to you!
Thank you so much for your support. It seriously means the world to me and Off the Beaten Shelf wouldn’t be the global family it is without you.
And if you’re feeling moved to celebrate my blogiversary with me, I’ve got a list of monetary and non-monetary ways to support this site. There’s fun stuff in it for you too, so check it out.