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Interview with Judi Clark of MostlyFiction.com

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Started in 1998, MostlyFiction.com is an online review site with about 16 staff reviewers who review an average of 20 books a month. One thing that is of interest to authors is that each review is linked to the author's website and includes the author's complete bibliograpy with links to Amazon. If you'd like to become a reviewer for MostlyFiction.com, please read the submission guidelines. In this interview, founder Judi Clark talks about the challenges of maintaining a review site and also discusses various aspects of reviewing, among other things. 

Thanks for being my guest today, Judi. Please tell us about your book review site. How and when did it get started?

MostlyFiction.com was started about ten years ago. I decided to teach myself how to build web pages, so it started as an HTML exercise. I had just sent a friend an extensive list of recently read books each with a paragraph about the book. It seemed like a good thing to stick on a web page. As I made my way through the HTML exercises, I expanded the list into individual author pages (researching the authors and books turned out to be fun) and placed the pages on virtual bookshelves. Amazon.com had recently started the associates program and it seemed like a good fit; family and friends agreed it was convenient. Shortly after I signed up with Amazon.com (and got my letter from Jeff Bezos!) I decided to rename my site to MostlyFiction.com. I also found myself writing better reviews, so much so that I started to attract the attention of publicists, publishers and authors.

I was amazed that I was getting free books just because I decided to pursue this hobby. Of course, it opened up soul-searching questions on whether or not I should accept the books (yes, but no promises) and if I was obligated to review if I did accept them (no). Thus, early on I had to establish answers to these questions. Meanwhile, the site did accomplish my main goal – I landed a new job, though the job itself had nothing to do with building websites. Just the fact that I had the site going proved something, I guess. It also helped to land subsequent jobs, of which web skills came in handy.

I did not bring in other reviewers until 2002. I was nervous because I wanted to keep the site’s voice (i.e. my voice), yet I wanted to cover more books. So I had to find a way to convey what I wanted others to write in a review. I suppose that at heart I am a control freak (no! all those who live and work with me are saying) and it was a bit hard opening up to other styles and thoughts. But I’m glad I tried it because I have made some great friends and have learned so much working with other people and accepting their review suggestions and styles. I’ve been lucky that most of our reviewers are better writers than I am. And for those that are not, I have learned that I have a passion for editing.

What makes MostlyFiction.com stand out among so many other online review sites?

Good question! Do we stand out? I think we have good reviewers and I feel that we try to go a little deeper with our reviews. I hope that we convey how much we love to read. There are many good review sites out there, which I am glad about because it says people are reading.

MostlyFiction.com is a bit unique in that we link to other sites from our review page. Every author page has a “Bookmarks” section in which I add links to interviews, reading guides and other people’s reviews. Most sites do not do this because they don’t want the traffic leaving their site. Of course, I don’t want people to leave MostlyFiction.com either but I like helping people learn more about the author or book. I also include a complete bibliography for each author (with links to amazon.com). So it is more than just reading a review, it is sharing an enthusiasm for the author. This is the format that I settled on when I started the site and I have maintained it ever since. I do it for selfish reasons – I love learning about the authors and reading other people’s reviews as much as our own. I just hope that MF visitors get as much out of these links as I do.

I should also mention that since all our reviewers are volunteers and I maintain the site in my spare time, you can trust that we are just making recommendations and have no hidden agendas. We love discovering new authors, we love reading new books by our favorite authors and we love writing our reviews. I hope that when people visit our site that this is what they take away – as well as few good reading suggestions.

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

Mainly, having enough time to do everything that I want to do with it; settling for doing what I can.

A good challenge is matching books to reviewers. Unfortunately, I do not have the time to write reviews much any more so this means when I read a book I want reviewed I search around to see who I think will do a good job with the book. Since reading and reviewing is subjective, I need to find someone who will pretty much see the book the same way I do. Usually, I am rewarded with a better review than I think I would have written. But, there are times when I pass the book on, read the submitted review and realize that the review hardly touches on any of the aspects that I thought they should and more over they say more negative than positive. Do I still post the review? Another side of the same problem is when a submitted review seems shallow – especially in comparison to other reviews out there. I’m torn between publishing the review (with some edits) to get the word out because I want to recommend the book or to not post it at all because the writing is not up to par with my expectations for the site.

Running this website is an interesting form of management because every contact is a virtual relationship. Communications is 100% email. Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way – I could talk to reviewers on the phone — but this style suits me and my limited time and has not failed me yet. The only downside is that every once and awhile a reviewer falls off the face of the virtual earth and I have no idea what happened to them. Fortunately this haunting event is rare. And I hope the explanation, if I ever learn it, is far more mundane than my imagination would have it.

How many books do you review a month?

I try to post at least twenty reviews a month, but when I fall short it has more to do with my “real job” work schedule than the number of reviews available to post. Fortunately, I never run out of reviews. Considering the number of books that are published in a month, to review 200 books a year is just a drop in the literary bucket. I try to mention new releases and forthcoming books for authors who are already featured on the website and for authors that are getting industry buzz, but again, this usually proves to be a more ambitious project than I have time for. My priority is to post book reviews, thus everything else takes a back seat. Despite never catching up, I would still take on more reviewers if there writing style warranted it.

How many staff reviewers do you have?

Currently, we have sixteen volunteer reviewers for MostlyFiction.com. Some frequently contribute, others are more sporadic. I manage the group very loosely because I understand that people get busy in their lives and can’t always commit to a deadline. But I do have some guidelines to help people stick to their commitments. Regardless, it is a big time commitment to say that you want to be a regular reviewer. If someone just wants free books, I recommend that they visit their local library.

From the start I have been amazed that people want to review for no pay, except maybe a free book. What motivates them? For some, it is a stepping stone to getting a “real” job writing. Others are already writing books and reviewing is both a way to study other people’s writing and to get their name out there. Many of the reviewers, especially the more prolific ones, are top Amazon.com reviewers. For them, MostlyFiction.com gives them an opportunity to write longer, more in depth reviews or if not that, at least a chance for the review to “stay.” I never take down a review/author page – and every reviewer has a list of the books that they have reviewed on the site if they need to send a link of their reviews. And finally, some people have discovered that reviewing does let them enjoy reading more.

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

We always need more reviewers.

Those interested in reviewing are requested to complete a questionnaire that helps me learn about their reading interests. I also request that they submit an “audition” review. I prefer the “audition” review to be written for MostlyFiction.com rather than the “resumé” approach because I think every site has something different that they are looking for in a review. And I want to know if this reviewer gets what MostlyFiction.com is about.

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

We have information on our website on how to submit requests for book reviews. But I don’t want to give false hope. I am overloaded with book requests and do not get back to the majority of people who are good enough to take the time to send an email with all the perquisite information. I feel bad about this but I just do not have enough reviewers to cover all the books that need to be reviewed. But anyone who wants to try me, then just follow the submission guidelines. I guess it is like the lottery because I do accept some of these books for review.

How do you select the books you review?

I let the reviewers select the books that they want to review. MostlyFiction.com exists to recommend books, therefore, it makes sense for the reviewers to want to read the books that they review. When I receive unsolicited books, I post the ones that I am interested in having reviewed on a “TBR” (to be reviewed) page. Reviewers can then claim any of these books. I also make suggestions to reviewers to help them discover some authors that they might not have read before. It is my job to know which books will appeal to which reviewers. I also request books from publishers on behalf of the reviewers. Many of the reviewers also visit their local library (some even work in libraries) and get their books this way and yes, we do buy books as well. I try to keep track of who is reviewing which book on the “TBR” page. Overall there are enough books that we do not have too many conflicts and the reviewers often work out conflicts amongst themselves. And when they can’t, I publish multiple reviews of the same book since it usually means the book is really worth recommending.

How do you determine which reviews to post on your site?

The books “laydown” or release date is the first criteria. We never publish ahead of the laydown date, but if a review is ready on the day it releases then I try to post it. Anyway, recently released books get priority. Though I do mix in the “older” books because I need to be fair to all reviewers and some prefer to review books that have been out for awhile. I do say that a good book doesn’t go out of style, so “older” books are just as welcome, especially if the review is well written. I stress a little bit making sure that I’m being fair to all reviewers. Since the books that we read range from prize winning literature to sleuths and mysteries, and even some nonfiction, I try to mix it up.

The final criteria is the time factor: If I don’t have much time, then I choose a review of a book that already has an author page so that I only have to refresh the bibliography and bookmark links when I post the review. If I have sufficient time, I will tackle one of the more prolific writers since I know the research will take longer. The well written review always has a better chance of getting published. Reviews that need a lot of editing sometimes never make it since by the time I can do the edit, the review is often no longer freshly written and it is too late to ask the reviewer to rewrite it.

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?

I tell reviewers that they must finish a book to review it. If they don’t like a book, then let me know, but move on and find a book that they like. (Life is too short and we absolutely do not have time to read every book, so be choosy!) On the other hand, if they finish a book and by the last page decide that they do not like the book yet feel obligated to write a review to warn others away from it or to just want to air their disappointment, then I recommend that they tell the reader why they were compelled to finish the book (i.e. what is good about the book) and then say why the book disappointed.

When I am choosing the next review to post, I find that I tend to skip over the negative reviews that don’t meet this criteria and go for the ones in which the reviewer is recommending the book. However, when it is a well written review, then I do willingly post it, even if it is a negative review. If I read the book and agree with the reviewers comments, then I am more apt to post the negative review.

I basically believe that reading is subjective and one reviewer’s experience does not reflect all readers’ experience. I like a review that let’s me decide if I will like the book, whether I agree or disagree with the reviewer’s opinion of the book.

Do I think there is a lot of facile praise out there? Not among the bloggers and the ordinary people that like to write reviews. Because MostlyFiction.com links to other site reviews, I do read reviews from a lot of different sites. Certainly we all know that the Amazon.com system breeds “friends” of the authors – and sometimes I and the other reviewers are fooled. But, most people are sincere about their comments and reviews. Or maybe, I just have learned how to avoid the unhelpful reviews.

There was a lot of controversy last year between print publication reviewers and online bloggers. In your opinion, what defines a ‘legitimate’ reviewer?

Getting paid and having deadlines seems like criteria that makes one a “legitimate” reviewer. Or maybe that’s just a professional – which probably can be considered the same as legitimate. I love it when MostlyFiction.com is quoted in book blurbs and by other sites. It doesn’t happen often enough, but somehow that makes me feel our site is more legitimate. So by that criteria, I’d say popularity does lend itself to legitimacy as well. Although we have some very fine writing on MostlyFiction.com, I think most people would classify us as "talented amateurs."

What is your stand on paid reviews?

I assume by “paid reviews” you mean that the newspaper, website or blogsite is paying the writer for a review that they asked them to write and not the publisher paying for the review at the newspaper, website or blogsite. If so, then I think that people who get paid to write reviews have generally earned the right to be compensated. I like to read both professional and amateur reviews when I’m trying to decide on a book. I never think, “oh that person got paid so they must have had to say that.” A well written review will always tell you what works and does not work in a book. Even, if someone is writing a fluff review, the writer knows how to get a “didn’t like it” message out. Again, I think reading is subjective, so I don’t think it matters if someone is paid. A well written review is helpful, regardless.

I think it would be cool if I could pay our reviewers.

What about reviewers or review sites that charge authors and publishers for a review?

Interesting concept, but I would not do this; I think it would change MostlyFiction.com’s purpose. First, it seems that you would have to guarantee a large enough audience that you could ensure that the author or publisher was getting their money’s worth from this stealth form of advertising. The reviewers would then be required to write the review even if they hated the book, turning a passion into a job. And, finally you get into the ethical problem of whether or not to write an honest review. One of my first jobs out of college was to write “puff” articles on seacoast restaurants that bought advertising from the newspaper. As I say, there is always a way to write a review to get your honest opinion out (describing the tacky décor worked in one instance) but it still left me with a queasiness that eventually made me decide that the job wasn’t for me. So I think that ethically, I wouldn’t be up for charging – if I wanted to make more money I’d be more honest and sell ad space. Of course, this also makes me wonder whose reviews can be trusted if this is common practice. I feel so naïve!

Do you think it’s okay for reviewers to resell the books they review?

Yes. Though most people I know (including myself) like to hold onto the good books, so it is not really an issue. Selling books online doesn’t actually make money, but it does pay for shipping the book to the new owner. Also, selling books to brick and mortar bookstores is usually for credit and it often takes three to five books to get enough credit to buy one book (and even then you have to pay some cash). Selling books is usually more of a way to manage the book piles that are getting out of control in the house. For me, I have found that it is much easier to just gather up the books and drop them off at my local library, as I suspect is true for most people who are getting ten or more unsolicited books a week.

Advance review copies (ARCs) are not supposed to be sold and I do not know of any bookstores that will take these. It is a complete mystery to me as to how someone rids themselves of an ARC for money. That said, I have purchased ARCs in used bookstores. This fact only further exacerbates the mystery.

Anyway, my agreement with the reviewers is that when I send them a book it is theirs to keep as it is the only “pay” that I can give them. They can do anything that they want with it, which means they can add it to their bookshelf, donate it to the library, sell it or leave it for someone to find by chance at the Laundromat.

When everyone has an e-reader and ARCs and review copies are sent vie e-mail, then we will not have to worry about managing our paper books. I think this will be a sad day for me, but a happy day for my husband.

What are the most common mistakes amateur reviewers make?

Writing a book report instead of a book review is one thing. But there is also a lot of careless bad writing. Some people do not rewrite and reorganize. They seem to think that the way the words fall out of their heads is perfectly good. They just rattle off their thoughts.

Also, people need to think about what they read. Answer questions like, how does the title relate to the book, if there an unusual chapter structure, how does this affect the book. In other words, answer questions on “how” as well as “what” and “who” and “when.” I am always surprised when a reviewer does not mention a thing about “where” the story is located. If the location is not important, well that is something worth mentioning too but location is often intricately a part of a book. If the reviewer does not like a character, does that make the book good or bad? More readable or less readable? Do you need to relate to this character to be able to enjoy the book? If there is a structural issue, think about how it affects the book, assume that the author chose to do this on purpose, then consider the purpose and its affect on reading the book. No review should just jump to a conclusion that it is faulty without an exploration of the author’s motives. Does the chosen point of view help or hurt the story’s purpose? Usually exploring these deeper questions results in a better reading of the book and better review writing.

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

It’s an interesting question because I think you have to look at which books get reviewed by the newspapers and how these books are chosen. With approximately 10,000 novels published each year it is impossible to cover all new fiction no matter how many review outlets there are. So these newspaper reviews become legitimate filters that help direct our attention to a few worthy books – though I strongly suspect that the chosen books are first filtered by Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. So ultimately the question is, if newspapers stop being a cog in the publishing industry publicity, then what? And what do the paid book reviewers do for a living in the future?

No matter the intention, every book review is publicity. I don’t care what my reasons were for starting MostlyFiction.com, this site quickly became part of the PR cycle. It’s the nature of the beast. If all newspapers were to decide to drop book reviewing from their budgets, then some of the existing, or maybe some new websites, will rise up and fill the gap to filter and promote. The publishers need book reviews. Some sites are already more “legitimate” then others. These sites will probably have an even larger offering of advance review copies. Maybe we will recognize the new “legitimate” by the number of books they review at laydown date, as long as the reviews offer quality writing. It is hard for me to imagine that hasty quick Amazon.com blurb reviews will do the trick. Maybe, the sites that become “ new legitimate” will initially emulate the print world (or derive from the print world since most major newspapers print their books reviews online so why wouldn’t they continue doing this?). But with 175,000 new books published every year it is hard to imagine that this structure could last long. Moreover, as e-readers become more common and publishers will be able to push out review copies for less money, maybe the whole model will break apart.

If this happens, I just want it known that I will accept any unemployed book reviewers as volunteers at MostlyFiction.com….

Do you keep the author’s feelings in mind when you review?

I think about the fact that someone put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and has written a complete book. Thus, they deserve respect because this is not something that I will ever accomplish. I prefer that our reviewers be the good reader and give the book a chance. However, if the book is just not enjoyable, then leave it be. Hopefully someone else will find more pleasure in the book and they can write a fair review.

Have you received aggressive responses from authors or publishers because of a negative review? If yes, how do you handle it?

Yes, back in 2003. One of our reviewers followed my guidelines and said what she liked about a certain book and what she did not like about it. In her opinion the author had done a “writerly trick” at the end of the book and just ruined it for her. Up to that point, she enjoyed it quite a bit, but she could not recommend the book because of this flaw. The book was published by a small independent and they needed our review to generate some publicity. Naturally, they were appalled when they saw what was posted. I had not read the book myself and felt bit helpless as I considered what to do — stick up for my reviewer or persuade her to soften her review. When I looked around at other reviews, we seemed to be the only site to pick up on this flaw. But then, there were only a few reviews and those sites were smaller than ours with more fluffy reviews. I had more discussion with the reviewer to just to make sure she wasn’t being a sloppy reader. Despite thinking she was probably right in her assessment, I still decided to pull the review and post just the excerpt instead. Without reading the book myself, I didn’t think I should keep the review posted. And since the book didn’t interest me enough to read it, I figured taking the review down was the moral answer to the dilemma.

Since the reviewer involved in this incident has just published her first book, I’m tempted to revisit this issue with her and see what she now thinks about how I handled this situation.

That incident helped me solidify my rules for bad reviews. And I haven’t had anything as strong or nasty as that incident since.

Though I did have one author who decided her self-published book was terrible and asked me to remove any mention of the book because she didn’t want to be associated with it. It was too bad because the book wasn’t all that bad.

I also had one author ask me to cut words out of a review that I had written because he felt that I had given away too much of the story. I did change it but I don’t think I made the right decision because I do not think that I gave away too much. But I was “young” then. Now I would simply tell him that no one remembers the review itself – only whether or not the book sounded interesting enough to read the book and I would have left my review alone.

Kooky reader comments is another thing …. Lots of these over the years usually threatening to boycott the site for one reason or the other.

What does your site offer readers?

Reading suggestions. Although we read a lot of new books – because that is fun – we also read not so recently published books. We hope that we are like a friend that recommends a good book. Some you’ll want to try. Others, you are glad that you know about them mainly because you know it is NOT one that you will want to read. It is hard to imagine that you would visit MostlyFiction.com and not find a good book to read.

What promotional opportunities does your site offer authors?

None outside of the obvious – that every review is publicity. If we really want to call attention to a book then we might do an interview or a book giveaway. For a few years, I went crazy with “book raffles;” so much so that it started to feel more like we were just pushing anything and everything. We tried to review the books that we gave away but it didn’t always work out. Worse, I’d realize that we were about to raffle a book that no one was that crazy about. So now I’m only doing book giveaways for books that we truly want to promote. Of course, since several of our former reviewers are publishing books this year – we will promote those! Nepotism reigns supreme in the publishing world.

What is the most rewarding aspect of being a reviewer?

Reviewing slows you down and lets you really, really read the book. When you know that you are going to write a review you do read more carefully because you do not want to make false statements in your review. Often, the process of writing a review lets you see the book more clearly and sometimes you like a book even more when you finish the review than when you started writing because reviewing makes you a better reader.

Another reward, is discovering new authors. I can not imagine my reading life without having become involved with reviewing and reviewers. I am a better person for this experience. Moreover, the fact that I get do research on the authors for the “bookmarks” section and the “bibliography” section has offered further enrichment. I really hope that this experience is passed onto all our site visitors.

Is there anything else you would like to say about you or MostlyFiction.com?

Simply put, we love to read and we love to tell you about good books. It would be great if more people were to discover MostlyFiction.com because I think our reviewers deserve a larger audience. I don’t expect us to ever become one of the big “legitimate” sites but we should be a place you come back to on a regular basis just to make sure you don’t miss any good reads.

Thank you for your thoughtful answers, Judi! I appreciate it!

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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.christopherhoare.ca c hoare

    Some interesting differences in the way MostlyFiction works. I like the idea of having links to other review sites and author sites. It suggests someone visiting the site will find more detailed information on both book and author — and the author will have more substantial exposure than a few quick paragraphs vying with hundreds of others for reader attention.

    Chris H.

  • http://afallon.bravehost.com/ A. F. Stewart

    Great interview, it sounds like you are doing a wonderful job with your website. I loved the thoughts on including the “where” in a review, along with the “how”, “what”, “who” and “when.” I hadn’t really considered that.

  • http://margayleahjustice.com/ Margay

    Wow, what an in-depth interview! Thanks, Judi, for sharing your thoughts with us. It was very informative.

  • RG

    If bad reviews are discouraged, what’s the point?