Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, I’m Heather Caliendo, founder, and content creator for Book Club Chat, a website dedicated to book club questions, reviews, book lists, and author Q&As.
My flagship content includes original and unbiased book club questions and book lists that provide lots of book recommendations. Since starting in 2018, Book Club Chat has grown to more than 5,000 visitors a day and it’s been an awesome way to connect with readers and authors around the world.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
My background is in journalism and I have been working in the field for the past 15+ years. I’ve always been a huge reader (I bring books everywhere) and I thought it would be fun to turn my hobby into something more. I’ve combined my love for reading fiction and experience as a journalist to produce all the content for Book Club Chat.
I thought if I grew a huge Instagram presence, that I would in turn receive a ton of site traffic. That never happened.
There’s a ton of book blogs out there. In fact, because there are so many, I was initially hesitant that my site would be able to rise above all the noise out there. But there are a couple of items that worked in my favor. One of the most important was establishing a beautifully designed and easy-to-navigate website.
I mentioned there are a lot of book blogs but to be frank, most of the websites are very much lacking in both of those areas. If I was going to spend time on this, I wanted to make sure it was as polished as possible.
The second item that helped Book Club Chat stand out is my flagstop audience: book clubs! There are so many book clubs across the world. However, there aren’t a lot of book club questions tailored to novels. While some publishers will offer book club questions for specific books, it’s oftentimes biased and doesn’t help grow the conversation as it should. I’ve been part of book clubs and know what it’s like to have the talks stalled because the questions ran out or they weren’t very engaging. So I focus on writing questions that I believe will help jump-start meaningful conversations.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
The nice thing about launching a blog is the very little overhead. I’m lucky that my husband is a software engineer so he designed the website for me (free of charge, of course!). We paid $100 for my logo. To purchase the URL, it was…$9/yr. And hosting is $10/m. I also purchased a DSLR camera to take professional book photos. Although since then, I’ve embraced Canva to now create my images, which saves on time. It also got old trying to find new ways of taking photos of books.
So while there’s not much actual money that goes into starting a website, I had to invest a ton of time. I have to read many, many, many books. I try to read at least one book a week. And then after reading, I have to compose my thoughts to write both a review and book club questions. Unlike other niches, I really have to make sure I dedicate the time to all those areas. And then, for book lists, this also takes a lot of time. I’m so cautious and particular about which books I recommend so I spend plenty of time researching and evaluating the novels.
Again, while it’s not a lot of upfront costs—as you can tell, it takes time!
Describe the process of launching the business.
As far as to launch strategy, the website went live in early April 2018 with several content pieces ready to go. To be honest, I was a bit all over the place with which books to read and recommend. At the time, I was excited to get at least 30 visitors a day - so a lot has changed since then!
I did plenty of research on SEO and organic search. I focused on my keywords, with the main ones being book club questions and book club. I try to become a better photographer but that is still a work in progress (hence the move to Canva).
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I learned so much. One of the biggest lessons was the distraction from social media. I thought if I grew a huge Instagram presence (also known as bookstagram) that I would in turn receive a ton of site traffic. That never happened. In fact, very few people from Instagram made the jump to my website. Once I realized (and accepted that reality), I stopped spending time on social media and focused on growing the website through organic search and SEO.
Another lesson I learned was about which books to read. I initially thought Book Club Chat would be a place where people could find more under-the-radar novels. And while that is true from time to time, I’ve since changed my focus on covering the big mainstream novels. Once I did both items (lessen my social media focus and read big-time books), my site traffic took off.
Research and patience are two things you must have to grow a blog. Making $4,000/m on a hobby didn’t happen overnight.
I focus on my keywords and making sure I read the novels that book clubs want to read. I also started a monthly newsletter that recaps the previous month, which helps give a boost of traffic every time I send it out.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
The site today is going really well. While I do have to worry about copycats and people stealing my questions, I just mark it up as the cost of doing business. Since Google has made Book Club Chat an authority site on the matter, copycats never take the top spot.
As for successes, the most influential person to read and tweet a video answer to one of my book club questions was President Obama. The story behind this is retired NBA player Ekpe Udoh has a book club and used my questions for President Obama’s A Promised Land. Ekpe was tweeting my questions and Obama tweeted a video response to one of my distinct questions.
Moneywise - joining the Mediavine ad network was a game-changer. I’m now making about $4,000 a month in ad revenue alone. I also do Amazon affiliates but since they changed their percentage terms, I only make about $200 a month with them. So ad money is where it’s at!
I want to keep growing the site so I plan to start adding video content this summer and maybe starting a YouTube channel. I also hope to work with more publishers. Right now, publishers will send me copies of books to read and review but I would like to work more directly with them and hopefully one day they’ll use my book club questions in their printed copies.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Research and patience are two things you must have to grow a blog. I’m researching all the time whether it’s book trends or ways to continue to grow the site. Making $4,000/m on a hobby didn’t happen overnight. It took plenty of trial and error, which I mentioned above.
For me, it also helped that I have a background in journalism and content creation. I’m able to take lessons through that and apply them to the site.
I would not get as focused on Instagram or other social media platforms. You have to remember that their goal is to keep users on their platform—not to direct traffic away. There is a time and place for social media but don’t let it overtake your focus on growing a site.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?.
Canva is a big tool that I use to create images for the site and my newsletter. I also used it when I posted on Pinterest but I have since taken a break from posting on there. For my newsletter, I use Mailchimp.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
If you have an idea for a website but are afraid that the market is oversaturated, don’t let that stop you! For example, type in book blogs and you’ll see so many hits. But I’ve since become an authority on the keyword book club.
The key is learning how to stand out and finding a niche within a niche.
Don’t get obsessed with social media followers and instead focus on your own content. The rest will follow. Also, be humble and know that your writing will evolve.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Even though I paused social media, I do realize there is some value in it and I would like to hire a virtual assistant to help with Pinterest and social media efforts in the coming months.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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