Dirty Money: Interview with Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books

Written by David on March 23rd, 2009

This is not a story of struggle.  This is a story of a labor of love, natural growth, unexpected-but-not-life-altering revenue and, ultimately, contentment.

When Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan started a site called “Smart Bitches who Love Trashy Books” in 2005, they just wanted to have some fun.  They wanted a place where they could throw down some truly critical romance novel reviews, tell some filthy jokes and, most importantly, make each other laugh.

Four years later, they’ve managed to make a lot of other people laugh, too, and what is now called “Smart Bitches, Trashy Books” gets over 4,000 unique visitors a day and is one of the most highly respected and most fun romance novel-focused blogs in the universe.  The site is very prolific (usually between one and three posts per day) and is almost certainly one of the most well-designed blogs anywhere.

Along with picking up more than a few advertisers along the way, Sarah and Candy have also managed to use the site as a springboard to a book deal, and Beyond Heaving Bosoms:  The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels will be published by Fireside (Simon and Schuster) on April 14.  All of this, of course, makes them ideal candidates for the Moriah Jovan/David Nygren series on writers and money.

Sarah Wendell kindly agreed to answer a longer-than-reasonable list of my most challenging, mostly money-related questions, and I didn’t even have to trade her a book for the privilege.  In fact, for any future interview candidate who tries to demand some equivalent to the Tao Lin trade-an-interview-for-a-book model, Sarah wisely counseled that I “keep my pimp hand strong.”  I’m working on on that.

Interview with Sarah Wendell

David Nygren:  I’ve read the story of how you and Candy started Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. But was it simply a labor of love, or was it a labor of love with a profit motive? Even if the profit potential seemed very distant at the start, was the sense of purpose there?

Sarah Wendell: It was definitely a labor of love. We never expected to create the community we did of intelligent women who adore romance and want to discuss it intellectually. And really, that’s the biggest payoff of the site: any time either of us receives an email from someone that says, “I just found your site, I had no idea you existed and I finally have people to talk about romance with who are smart and proud of reading it. Thank you!” That totally makes our day. Hell, our entire year.

We never aimed for profit. In the beginning we had 4 readers and this random person who kept searching for “Dominican bitches” and then kept returning to the site day after day (Hi Dominican Bitches Google person!). We figured we’d never grow much larger than that. There were so many websites, and so many blogs when we started Smart Bitches that starting ours with an eye on revenue - when we were really just trying to crack each other up - didn’t even enter our minds.

DN:  The site now has a very active community, and all of the multi-directional communication that happens really makes the site what it is. How did you help grow this community?

SW:  I don’t have a list of conscious decisions that I’ve made, or that Candy’s made to examine the community in terms of fostering growth. We have a few guidelines that we follow, but we don’t plot the growth of the site or examine it deliberately. The interesting thing about the community that reads our site, and the part of that community I am the most in awe of and most impressed by, is the fact that the people who read and comment value the community as much as we do.

DN: SBTB is one of the better looking blogs out there. To me, the design very clearly conveys what the blog is all about. How important do you feel SBTB’s design is to its success?

SW:  Thank you! The current design was created by Joelle Reeder from Moxie Design Studios, but it’s a version 2.0 of our first design, which was a lot simpler. Both designs use exceptionally bright colors and retro styling to match The Ladies at the top. The original design was done by Candy and her goal was: screaming colors! Hot pink! Holy crap not work safe! We definitely met that goal.

DN:  At what point did you introduce advertisements to the site? What level of traffic do you feel is necessary to make ad sales feasible on a site like yours?

SW:  We introduced advertisements when we received multiple, by which I mean freaking piles, of requests for adspace. We originally had one spot, and it was sold out within a few weeks once we opened it. We didn’t make the decision to host advertisements based on traffic or statistics, but on demand from our readers and authors who wanted to advertise with us.

DN:  It seems you are selling your ad space yourself, rather than using Blogads or some other intermediary. What drove this decision?

SW:  We sell the adspace, and we design a good number of the ads ourselves. We also host and run our own adserver (OpenAds - an open source advertisement management software that is so powerful I’m totally wary of it) and manage the content of the advertising column ourselves. We’re entirely self-sufficient in the advertising department for a couple of reasons. Three, to be specific.

First, we have a No Fug clause. If the ad is fugly, we won’t run it. This can get tricky, since sometimes there’s fug caused by a bad cover, and authors are not in control of their covers. Sometimes the files animate too fast and we have to slow them down. But since we’re running the ad service, we wanted as much control as possible over what the ads look like, and what our site looks like.

Two: services like BlogAds are great, but I don’t always like the way the ads look, or in one case couldn’t figure out WHAT they were for. Not only did we want to control the look of the ads, but we also wanted a say in the content. We were honestly afraid that our penchant for cussing and our topics of discussion would yield some very outlandish and revolting Google Ads as well.

Three: We continue to run the adserver (even though it is a lot of work) because the larger ad brokers we spoke with declined to work with us because in their opinion, “Book sites don’t sell.” I think they are unequivocally wrong on that one, and our traffic and our clickthroughs prove it. Nothing is more motivating than being told it’s not going to work. Screw you, it totally works.

And really, the attitude toward book sites matches the attitude people have toward romance novels. It’s a billion dollar industry written by women for women, yet it’s dismissed and denigrated constantly. WE know there’s an active audience of book shoppers reading our site, and we certainly know that romance fans are devoted to the genre, so to be told that “book sites don’t sell” is just yet another example of the short-sighted attitude that affects romance and literature created and consumed by women. We know better, so we’re doing it ourselves.

DN:  I assume you’ve explored other advertising and affiliate program options. Why do you think your current advertising model is the best one?

SW:  We have explored other options, as I explained above, and the services that were interested didn’t seem to look very good on any of the sites that use those services, and the ones that we were hoping for didn’t want to work with us. Our current model is probably not the best one in terms of efficiency, since it’s a one-woman operation at this point (hi there!) with special backup duty performed by Awesome Hubby if need be. But the current model definitely works for the site because it’s the author and host that advertising authors and publishers are dealing with, and that personal attention, I think, makes a difference. I’m as invested in the success of the site that month as they are.

DN:  Despite SBTB’s mad hits and a soon-to-be big seller, you still have a day job. What is it? Do you hope someday to generate enough income with your writing so that you no longer need the day job?

SW:  I do in fact have a day job, but the most I will say is that I’m an administrative assistant in Manhattan. THAT narrows it down, right? Everyone I work for is aware of SBTB, and for the most part they think it’s hilarious, but I have a very strict rule that I follow. I call it the Mafia Rule: If you’re in the Mafia, you never talk about the job, and you never talk about the family. Same thing with blogging: I don’t talk about my children very often or ever by their real names, and I don’t talk about my job because, frankly, I’d like to keep it!

The troublesome thing about the internet is that it doesn’t come with health care - and I will do anything you want as long as I receive health benefits for me and for my family. Health insurance and a 401(k)? I’m putty in your hands. Alas, I think the days of making a living from one’s blog are way over, and even with ad revenue, our site is largely a labor of much, much love.

DN:  You and Candy have managed to use Smart Bitches as a springboard to a book deal, and Beyond Heaving Bosoms will be published by Fireside (Simon and Schuster) on April 14. What sealed the deal for you with Fireside? What can you tell us about the deal?

SW:  Yet another thing we never expected: a book deal. When we were first approached with the idea of writing a guide to the romance genre by Rose Hilliard from St. Martin’s, we laughed outright. When we started writing the proposal, though, we had a lot of fun because it gave us the chance to explore all the ideas we had about the romance genre that wouldn’t necessarily translate well to a blog format. So our book includes games, puzzles, hell - a coloring page, fiction, literary analysis, illustrations and longer, in depth* examinations of the genre. It was terribly fun to do.
*pun totally intended.

DN:  Your agent is the widely-respected Dan Lazar of Writers House. Did you find him, or did he find you? Has the process of working with an agent taught you anything?

SW:  Dan found us, and holy shit, are we fortunate to work with him. Working with an agent has taught me that it is always helpful to have a sounding board for new ideas, especially one who will be honest with you and answer questions you’re not sure about. That’s one of the best things about Secret Agent Dan: he’s honest and frank, which we love.

DN:  What’s next? Another book? Another web site? Anything that might capitalize on the audience and interest you’ve built with SBTB?

SW:  Another book? Nah, we shot our wad with this one. There’s no sequel to a guide to the romance genre. Another website? Only if we can clone ourselves and therefore have time to run it. Honestly, I’m not so much interested in capitalizing on our audience so much as continuing to interact with the smart folks who stop by every day. So what’s next? More of the same, getting better, I hope.

DN:  Do you ever have any crazy ideas about adding a book publishing division to SBTB?

SW:  Oddly enough, you are not the first person to suggest this to me. And my answer: see above re: cloning. Or, perhaps an extended day with more hours in it? That’d be good, too.

DN:  One non-money-related question: now that your book is about to come out, any butterflies about having it laid bare before the world of foul-mouthed, merciless, lacerating-but very fair-blogger-reviewers?

SW:  Nope. Bring it on! We plan to respond to any and all reviews because, well, why not? I’m very curious what people will have to say about it, and I hope it’s as entertaining and fun for them to read as it was for us to write.

End of Interview

Other Reading:

Smart Bitches, Trashy Books

Marta Acosta Interviews Sarah and Candy

Interview with Sarah and Candy at Writer Unboxed

SBTB Discovers Plagiarism (or something very much like it)

Sarah Wendell Quoted in the New York Post (the smartest words to appear in the paper since Pete Hamill wrote there)

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6 Comments so far ↓

  1. Mar
    23
    7:08
    PM
    Marta Acosta

    Thanks for linking my interview with Sarah and Candy on your site! I’m one of the many non-romance readers/writers who go to Smart Bitches every day for the humor and community. I was just thinking about how their site has developed over the years that I’ve been reading it.

  2. Mar
    23
    7:17
    PM
    Angela James

    So what’s next? More of the same, getting better, I hope.

    Sarah, Sarah. You’re too modest! What’s next? You forgot to mention that you’d be a brilliant asset to any conference, meeting, function or other event as a speaker about a variety of topics having to do with publishing.

  3. Mar
    24
    6:31
    AM
    tea

    I, too, don’t read as many traditional romances, but I do love romance in general, and the hilarity and community of Smart Bitches — and the intelligent reviews and commentary (check out what they said about Twilight, people. But seriously) means these guys are a serious cut above. May they live strong and play long.

  4. Mar
    24
    7:49
    AM
    SB Sarah

    Hi Angie! That’s another good thing about the site: I’ve made friends who encourage me to pimp myself when I’m being too modest.

    Yes, I can run my mouth for conferences, workshops, meetings and other events and can speak on a variety of topics from publishing to online promotion.

    Angie, too. She rocks as a conference speaker.

    And hi Marta! I love how many non-romance readers stop by for the discussion - proof that the tropes and elements of romance are found in every genre. Romance is a generous genre, in more ways than one.

  5. Mar
    24
    12:53
    PM
    MoJo

    Sarah, thanks so much for the interview!

  6. Mar
    24
    12:58
    PM
    Bhetti

    I totally did not know about the reference to Dominican bitches (thought you guys WERE Dominican for a while; those illusions got dispelled eventually).

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