Filling up the Word Pool
Have you ever wondered what a writer does when she can’t write? That’s the situationI found myself in when the death of my son took away not just my first born child, but also my main research source for the book I was writing on special effects. The kind people at Scholastic extended the deadline indefinitely so I was under no pressure. But I was left with a huge void. For the first time for years, I had no writing project to work on.
The idea that eventually filled that gap started life extremely small. I found a website offering an ebook on how to run email newsletters and, for the first time for months, my creative side clicked into action. Perhaps I could start a newsletter to promote my books.
The e-book duly arrived, packed with information. One tip stood out from all the others – it suggested starting a website to promote the newsletter. Suddenly my idea grew wings and flew. The original plan quickly vanished as a far more ambitious one took over. I was going to create a website to raise the profile of British children’s books and provide an online meeting place for children’s writers.
At this point, my husband, Steve, caught my enthusiasm. Already an experienced software engineer, he was bored at work and, like me, he needed a project to make him look forwards instead of backwards. Together, we hatched plans for our great idea, talking late into the night as we worked out what information we would include.
We faced a daunting learning curve. Neither of us had ever built a website before and our first contact with a local designer deluged us with jargon that was as incomprehensible as a foreign language. But, with the help of hours surfing the web and some excellent books, we gradually started to make headway. Steve immersed himself in the technical details while I tackled the mysteries of designing for the screen.
We decided to have a cartoon on the home page to give the site a friendly feel. Our daughter suggested a frog reading a book so a friend’s daughter created Reddit for us. At that time, we never guessed we would become known as the people with the frog, nor that he would eventually hop across paper lily pads in an American school to encourage reluctant readers. (They have to read a book before they can move him on.)
Choosing a name for the site was more of a problem - nearly everything with book in it had already been used online. After two weeks of head-scratching, we turned to Reddit for inspiration, thought of ponds and came up with The Word Pool. We didn’t realize until too late that our choice guarantees us a place near the end of any alphabetical list.
Once we started work on the content, we were faced with a chicken and egg situation. We couldn’t run a book review site without books to review but it was hard to ask for them until we had a site for publishers to see. That left us no choice - we had to go online before we had very much material. Our writer friends helped out by filling in questionnaires for our author profiles section while I reviewed a selection of books I already knew and recycled previous articles to make sure there was something was in all the sections.
When the site went live in the autumn of 1999, our children’s writers’ discussion group consisted of exactly three people – a good friend, my son, Matt, and myself. As soon as I spotted someone else had joined, I would let the others know and we would desperately try to get a discussion going. But soon that wasn’t necessary. As the number of people on the list grew, the group took on a life of its own and, to my surprise, its members started calling themselves wordpoolers. We’d succeeded in founding an online community that now has over 200 members.
My first attempts at asking for review copies were very diffident but gradually my confidence grew. I developed a well-rehearsed explanation of how the site worked and found our emphasis on non-fiction and topic based reviews was well received. Soon the postman was asking why he had to deliver so many parcels and I began to realize why so few of my books were ever reviewed. The sheer number of new books published each month is daunting.
With so much competition, I soon learnt that a book needs something special to make it stand out from the crowd. Contrary to the thoughts of one publicity department, this does not mean filling the envelope with silver stars that take hours to vacuum off the carpet. I also learnt that publishers’ differ in the amount of effort they put into getting reviews – something I now take into account when deciding where to send my own manuscripts.
While we continued to add new reviews and articles, we started to tackle our next task – to persuade people to visit to the site. I spent hours online, contacting other sites that might be interested in linking to us. I joined discussion groups for parents and teachers, hoping that people would notice our web address in my email signature, and I registered The Word Pool with every search engine I could find. We checked our site statistics with excitement as the number of visitors grew, slowly at first and then faster and faster.
As the site grew more popular, we started to receive emails from around the world. They come from people who want to sell their stories, find an author or, even in one case, buy the Chinese rights to a successful book. Some of them try to sell us articles, although we can only afford to pay a derisory amount. Others send us manuscripts of their cherished books, thereby showing a certain weakness in their research as we’re not publishers. The result is that I, recipient of countless rejection letters, now have to write them to other people. That has given me much more sympathy with the editors who receive my unsolicited submissions and more forgiveness for those who drop them down the back of the filing cabinet.
Today The Word Pool has grown from its tiny beginning into a site with more than 300 pages. It ranks number one with Google and has around 50,000 page hits a month. Authors queue to be featured in the author profiles section, publishers approach us to ask how they can get their books featured and our commission from Amazon means the site is no longer a drain on the housekeeping.
Creating the site has given me a new insight into the business of publishing. It’s brought me work, filled my office with piles of books and made me many new friends. It’s been great fun and, best of all, it’s changed our lives completely - Steve has now given up the day job and joined me in the world of books, building sites for other authors.
First published in The Author, Summer 2004
PS I did eventually finish Spectacular Special Effects.