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Interview: Andrea Sisco, co-founder of Armchair Interviews

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With more than 80 reviewers on their staff, an average of 200 book reviews a month, and close to 2,000,000 visitors a year, Amchair Interviews is currently one of the most successful book review sites on the net. I recently had the opportunity to chat with one of its owners, Andrea Sisco. In this interesting interview, Andrea talks about the challenges of maintaining a book review site and about print publication reviewers vs. online reviewers.

Please tell us about your book review site, Armchair Interviews. How and when did it get started?

My business partner and best friend, Connie Anderson and I reviewed books and interviewed authors on television. We had both retired, but mourned the loss of the richness that format brought to our lives. Connie attended a conference in Los Angeles where she birthed the idea of reviewing books and interviewing authors and posting them on the internet. I picked her up from the airport, she shared the idea with me and I assumed she wanted me to make this journey with her (actually, I said she wasn't going to do it without me).

January 2008 will be Armchair Interviews third anniversary. Wow! I hadn't realized that! And in 2006 and 2007 we were named by Writers Digest as one of the Best 101 Websites for Writers.

What makes Armchair Interviews stand out among so many other online review sites?

Our knowledge of books and our excitement and passion for the idea of Armchair Interviews was the beginning of creating a great site. Andrea SiscoWe placed ourselves in the able hands of Paul Larson of Creative Arc in Minneapolis and he patiently worked with Connie and me to design an attractive, user friendly site. We then began to add other things like audio and written interviews, contests, a reader's page, an author's page, etc. for our visitors.

But it's the reviewers. They're passionate about the written word. They're good writers, responsible people and oh so much fun. They work hard. They work with us, not for us and that's the difference I think. They are Armchair Interviews. And we've gained new friends from around the United States and the world through Armchair Interviews. They simply are the best. Check out our site and then other sites and you'll see what I mean.

What is the most challenging aspect of running a review site?

Time. It's primarily two people (Connie and I) running Armchair Interviews with some help from Paul Larsen (our go-to guy for web help) and Jeff Foster who does some marketing for us. Connie has a business (that pays the bills) and must give that time. I am a writer, I travel a great deal with my husband, we live in MN and AZ (which is a time and logistic challenge) and we have numerous children and grandchildren I want to spend time with. Connie and I always want to do more and wonder where we'll get the time.

But money is another important aspect. It takes money to create a good site and money to maintain and improve a site like ours. Authors often don't like paying for ads, interviews, etc. The problem is, if the site isn't paying for itself, it goes away. They don't understand the number of people we reach and what it costs to maintain a site like ours. Some authors are appalled that sites like ours would charge to promote their titles. Hey, think New York Times, People, USA Today — we may be small, but like them, we have to have revenue to survive. I can never understand why they don't blink an eye at the idea of a magazine, television, or newspaper ad, but believe that the internet should be free. Note: We don't charge to review a title.

How many books do you review a month?

I believe our largest month was 239 books. We average about 200 a month.

How many staff reviewers do you have?

We currently have 87 (not including Connie and I). It's always fluid. People are with us for a time and then circumstances change in their lives and they leave. Several have left and then returned. Other people then apply and come on board to fill the need. We have about 12 reviewers that have been with us since we first took applications.

Are you currently recruiting more reviewers? If so, what are your guidelines?

We're always looking for more reviewers. It seems that when people leave, other people step up and apply. We like to stay around 85-90 reviewers. It's a manageable number for me. There has been one period of time in the last three years that we put new reviewers on hold. If someone is interested in reviewing contact me and I will send our Reviewer FAQ. All they have to do is follow the directions and we can get them started.

How should an author contact you about a review request? Do you review e-books as well?

An author should go to our website and click on our FAQ for review submissions and follow the directions. You'd be amazed how many people don't think the rules apply to them. Often though, they "read" the directions and send me an email and a link to their web site so I can gather the necessary information myself. That will not get an author a review. Time is short; we have about 400 submissions a month and can't fill them all. It's easier to go with the people who follow the directions. So read the FAQ and follow the directions! How to get that review or interview is another Q & A interview and one every author should hear if they want review coverage. But that's for another time.

E-books: Alas, no. We don't review them. The primary reason is that we all read so much and it's painful to sit at a computer and read, sometimes for hours. My personal thoughts are: I'd love to help out the author and just have them send me an e-book (faster, cheaper) but I really can't tolerate the sitting and I want to hold the book in my hand. I doubt that this 'old' woman will ever change in that respect.

Do you think there’s a lot of ‘facile praise’ among many online review sites? What is your policy when it comes to negative reviews?

Criticism is okay. And we criticize books. But we will never, ever trash a book or an author. We want to celebrate authors and their work. If a book (and unfortunately it's almost always self-published) is so awful (poorly written, edited, etc.) we won't review it at all and inform the author of the issues. But we'd like authors to remember: A review is one person's opinion. 

There was a lot of controversy this year between print publication reviewers and online bloggers. What defines a ‘legitimate’ reviewer?

I'm not sure I can give you a definitive answer. It's like art; I may not know what good art is, but I'll tell you when I see some. Peruse the sites. What do they look like? How many titles have they reviewed? Do they offer anything besides reviews (nice for building traffic and authors want traffic)? If you contact them do they respond in a timely manner and are they professional in their responses? Ask them how long they've been in business and what their stats are. Note: Armchair Interviews is on track to have 2 million views this year.

But the bottom line is: Print publication continues to reduce their coverage of books. Internet is the coming wave and is even now, becoming the place to go for learning about new books. If I had a small promotion budget, I know I'd get more bang for my buck with Armchair Interviews than with a magazine or newspaper. Why? Because other than USA Today, most newspapers are local or regional. And I could never afford USA Today. Magazines? Well most are out of the price range also. Television and radio are usually local (budget restraints). That leaves the internet, and it is huge!

With so many major newspapers getting rid of their book review sections, how do you see the future of online review sites?

I think I ended up answering this question when I answered the previous question. But simply put: It is the place to be seen and it will only become bigger.

What promotional opportunities does your site offer authors?

We offer ads, audio author interviews, and written Q&A interviews. They are really reasonable in cost, given our audience. We can provide an author with tailored packages to fit their needs and pocketbook. Connie and I are very conscious to remember that most authors do not have a huge promotional budgets. Contact us for promotional information. We have authors, publishing houses and publicists that regularly work with us to promote their authors.

Oh, and sometimes, for fun and to help, we'll do a give away for an author we feel strongly about. That's a freebie in conjunction with the author or publishing house.

I understand you’re also a writer. Would you like to tell our readers about your work?

I've written several books that are 'under the bed' and will stay there. I also wrote a humorous mystery and it is currently under consideration at three small houses. I love the mystery genre, but really adore Young Adult. Another friend, author Kathleen Baldwin (she writes romantic comedies for a large house) and I are putting the finishing touches on a Young Adult fantasy (the first in a series). Our advance readers, which include a Broadway actor, children's librarians, and other published authors, have given it two thumbs up. And while I love my mystery and heroine Penelope Santucci, I am passionate about Glitter and Gillyflowers: Memoirs of a Teenage Faerie Godmother. I see this book doing very well.

Is there anything else you would like to say about you or Armchair Interviews?

We'd invite you to check us out. We've got almost 3000 reviews, numerous audio author interviews (they change all the time), contests and a lot of scrumptious information. And the newest thing is: We have a member's only site. For a very small amount of money monthly, we have a place where members can go for 'stuff' that's not on the regular site

Thank you, Andrea!

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About Mayra Calvani

Mayra Calvani writes fiction and nonfiction for children and adults and has authored over a dozen books, some of which have won awards. Her stories, reviews, interviews and articles have appeared on numerous publications such as The Writer, Writer’s Journal, Multicultural Review, and Bloomsbury Review, among many others. Represented by Serendipity Literary.
  • http://www.mybook4you.co.uk Desmond Evans

    I have contacted Andrea and Connie a few times since August of last year 2007 when I first come across this great website. As a Brit I must congratulate these two wonderful ladies for the uniqueness of the site. We have no comparison with it in the UK. It’s a bit late in the day for me to create a sort of sister site over here, but I hope some enterprising person will do so. What I can do is promote the site on my small website that I shall be re-designing over the next few weeks. I hope shortly to take part in the Blogs and hopefully contribute something meanigful.

    My best wishes to all.

    Desmond Evans