101 Books’ Robert Bruce on Growing Your Blog and Building a Readership

We know that growth and traffic are important to you, and you’re interested in ways to grow your blog and build your readership. Today, we’re thrilled to chat with Robert Bruce at 101 Books about the growth and evolution of his popular site and his insights and tips on blogging about books and reading.

Robert is a full-time writer living in Nashville, Tennessee, who originally created his WordPress.com blog to chronicle a big literary challenge: to read Time Magazine‘s top 100 English-speaking novels since 1923 (plus Ulysses). If you haven’t visited his site before, we’re happy to introduce him to you! 

101 Books

When did you create 101 Books? What was your initial goal, and are you happy so far with the result?

I started 101 Books in August 2010 while I was trying to pick some books to take on a Labor Day beach vacation. While researching online, I stumbled across the Time list and the idea came to me.

When I started the blog, I never envisioned it’d become what it is today. Honestly, I thought I’d post every couple of weeks with a review of a book I’d just finished. But, for me, my book reviews are the least enjoyable posts to write. I started digging into the little nuances of each book — picking out passages, writing about the author, discussing the movie version of the book — and those are the posts I really enjoy, and that’s how today’s blog format eventually took shape.

At the time of this writing, you’ve got over 20,000 followers and counting. What’s your secret?

Robert BruceGetting Freshly Pressed and being a recommended book blog on WordPress.com doesn’t hurt! My first Freshly Pressed post in February 2011 really helped jumpstart my blog, and I’ve slowly built off that momentum over the years.

There’s really no secret. It’s just steady, consistent posting over a long period of time. 101 Books is more than three years old now, and I’ve had more than 700 posts. When you post that often, people are bound to find you. Then, the key is to just write content that relates to them. Most people don’t care about what you had for breakfast, but if you can help them learn something new, then they’ll keep coming back.

In your experience, what types of posts perform better?

The funny thing about my blog is that, even though it’s centered on the “101 Books” project, these book reviews don’t perform as well as the quirkier stuff.

One of the most popular posts I’ve had was a post about my two-year-old son judging books by their covers. I put a couple of classic book covers in front of him and asked him what he thought they were about. His answers were hilarious. That post took about 15 minutes to put together, but because it was unique and fresh, it became a hit.

Obviously, list-style posts do well, and I probably tend to overuse them because of that. (I’m not BuzzFeed.) Also, for whatever reason, people gravitate to more negative-sounding titles, like “7 Words That Should Die A Horrible Death.”

There are many blogs about books on the web. Why do you think yours has been so successful?

I think people can easily get behind the idea of someone pursuing a crazy goal and the ups and downs that come with that.

There’s a lot of great book blogs out there, and a lot of bloggers who write incredibly detailed book reviews. My blog is a little different because I review books in small chunks; I take a small passage from a book and write about it. Or I write about some cool, unusual fact from the author’s background. So I think it stands out a bit in the book blogging world.

Plus, I think people can easily get behind the idea of someone pursuing a crazy goal and the ups and downs that come with that. It’s like a literary version of the Julie and Julia book (and movie). Not that I’m near as creative and successful as she was, but you get the point.

On your FAQ page, you mention you don’t really have an organized reading plan. Content-wise, do you just go with the flow?

No, I definitely have an editorial schedule. Generally, I work about a week ahead and have another week of unwritten posts planned after that.

On the FAQ, what I’m referring to is how I select the books. I do go with the flow on that, but I pick five books at a time, so that allows me to build out my blog posts based on those upcoming reads.

Staying a few blog posts ahead is important for me, because it allows me to avoid the pressure of trying to come up with a topic the night before it’s supposed to go live. That’s just too much pressure, and it’s a quick way to burn out on blogging.

What widgets or tools in your dashboard do you use to promote your work?

I love the My Community Widget. I think it’s cool for my blog readers to come to my blog and occasionally see their avatar on the sidebar. It’s a small way to say thanks and maybe even send a little traffic their way.

I also think the Top Posts and Pages Widget is useful. My readers can easily see the ten most popular posts on 101 Books at any given time. This is great for newer readers who wouldn’t otherwise see the older posts that always tend to perform well.

Do you have tips for someone who wants to focus their blog on books?

Sometimes you’ve just got to push the publish button because an almost-perfect blog post is better than no post at all.

Be honest. Don’t feel like you have to like a book or dislike a book because of what the critics say. On my blog, I’m very vocal of my dislike for Mrs. Dalloway, but it’s my honest opinion.

If you want to write a book blog with an academic voice, that’s great. But you’ll probably realize that not many people will read it. I try to write about literature in an approachable way, and that style involves forgetting what my English literature professor taught me.

I think it’s also important to forget about being perfect. Sometimes you’ve just got to push the publish button because an almost-perfect blog post is better than no post at all. Don’t pass over the great in search of the perfect.

You can follow Robert on Twitter (@robertbruce76) and his Facebook fan page.

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  1. It is a great reading and thanks for introducing his blog & himself! As a person loving literature, I will surely enjoy reading the upcoming posts! (Great tips as well)


  2. Thanks for the words of wisdom. I love the ‘Push Publish’ sentiment, in the military we call this the 80% solution now, rather than the 95% solution tomorrow. Really just getting into blogging and using it to inspire my writing for Wars Within. Best, Rob


  3. “Don’t pass over the great in search of the perfect.” Great nugget of wisdom. Thanks!


  4. Thanks for these tips. I’ve recently started my own blog posting content daily and was feeling a little discouraged at how few views and followers I’ve gotten so far. Thanks for the reminder it takes time to build up followers and likes, no matter how good I think my writing is and how quickly I think people should be finding me.


  5. I think it’s partially to strike a good balance of offering blog posts of digestible lengths (which means not too long) but write in a way that respects a broad audience in an engaging, sometimes fun way. Book reviews can be quite serious and lengthy: that can be demanding on regular readers who have non-blogging lives too!


  6. Super. I write non-fiction book reviews in my blog (sometimes) and I have always wondered why people don’t like them much. Now I understand – I have been too literary! I need to make it more pleasing and relatable. Thanks for the tips.

    Destination Infinity


  7. This is great! I may even find myself rereading it because it just has good tips and he feels very real and normal like myself. I love finding regular / relate-able people who’ve found success.


    1. Our team of editors, myself included, looks for posts on WordPress.com each day to feature on Freshly Pressed. This series of posts gives a general idea of the types of posts we’ve been drawn to in the past year — many different topics and voices, for various reasons.

      Freshly Pressed is an evolving space, but ultimately it’s a go-to place in the Reader to see popular posts, great writing, interesting reads, and more.


  8. Great interview with lots of useful information. I especially like the author’s reminder (my interpretation anyway) that a blogger should have fun with what he or she writes and not overly worry about being perfect. Plus, there’s that working hard reminder.


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