Lesa Holstine began her library career as Director of a Public Library when she was only 22 years old. Presently, she's a Library Manager and reviewer for Library Journal, Blogcritics Magazine, and various websites. Her own blog, Lesa's Book Critiques, is syndicated through Blogburst, and her reviews are often picked up by Reuters and USA Today. In this interview, Holstine talks about reviewing, including objectivity when reviewing friend's books, as well as the philosophy behind reviewers who write mean, nasty reviews.
How long have you been reviewing?
I’ve been reviewing for about 18 years. I started by reviewing teen mysteries for Voice of Youth Advocates. For two years, I wrote a weekly book column for a newspaper. Two years ago, I started reviewing women’s fiction for Library Journal. I’ve been writing short reviews for Stacy Alesi’s website bookbitch.com for almost three years. And then I started my blog.
Please tell us about your blog, Lesa's Book Critiques. How and when did it get started?
Lesa’s Book Critiques came about because I had a new job, and was missing the opportunity to talk about books. I went to a library workshop at which I learned how to blog. A light bulb went off, and I saw this as my chance to talk about books. I wanted to share my excitement for books. I read a little of everything, and, I think that comes through on my blog. There’s an emphasis on mysteries, but I review biographies, women’s fiction, children’s and teen books, and more sports books than people might expect. I’ve had the blog since January 2005. I’m very proud of the fact that Lesa’s Book Critiques is syndicated through Blogburst, and my book reviews have been picked up by USAtoday.com, Reuters, IBS, and other distributors.
I also use the blog to report on authors appearances I attend at the library I manage, the Velma Teague Library in Glendale, Arizona, or appearances at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale and, once in a while, at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe.
I also run weekly contests on my blog that bring in additional readers. Once in a while, I’ll do an author interview.
How long have you been writing for Blogcritics Magazine?
I’ve been writing for Blogcritics for just nine months. In that time, I’ve written 28 reviews for them.
How many books do you review a month?
I read 13-15 books a month, so that’s how many I review. Of course, I might dip into a few more books, but I only review the ones I finish.
Do you publish freelance reviews by other writers, or only those written by you?
When I started the blog, I included a couple other people, but I found that I was doing the bulk of the work. Then, Madeira James, a web designer that I respect, suggested that I should make the blog more professional. I changed the original name of the blog, and took back its identity. Now, I only do reviews that I write.
How should an author contact you about a review request? Do you review e-books as well?
Authors can contact me via email at [email protected] However, I make no promises. Since I am the only one doing reviews on the site, and I don’t read more than 15 books a month, there will be no more than that on the blog. However, if I receive the book at least two months ahead of publication, it will at least appear in my monthly column, "Treasures in My Closet." That column is occasionally picked up for syndication, so the book does receive some publicity.
I don’t review e-books. I’m sorry. I’m enough of a luddite that I prefer to hold the book in my hands.
Do you think there’s a lot of “facile praise” among online review sites?
Maybe, but many people might read my blog and comment about all of the positive reviews. Periodically, I’ll write a column explaining why there are so many positive reviews. I not only have enormous piles of ARCs (Advanced Reading Copies) in my closet, I’m also a librarian with easy access to three collections. There are too many good books out there for me to waste my time on books I don’t enjoy. I seldom finish a book I don’t like, so those books are never reviewed.
If I’m reviewing a book that I’ve received through Blogcritics Magazine or Library Journal, I have an obligation to read and review it. Then, a book might receive a negative review on my blog. Almost every book will receive some praise, if it was worth finishing.
Is there too much “facile praise”? Are reviewers gushing over every book, or every book by one author? In that case, it might be too much. However, I can’t speak for other reviewers, because I don’t know their intent in praising books. I don’t think I gush over most books. I try to point out similarities to other books, weaknesses if I notice them, and, most of all, the excitement or value of the book.
The purpose of my blog is to share books. I want people to be excited about them, know what books are being published, and learn about new books and authors. As a librarian, my job is to help people find something new to read. I hope people will be excited about the books I review on my blog.
In your opinion, how influential are reviews on the consumer?
Reviews can be influential, once the reader learns the taste of the reviewer, and whether or not their taste in books matches the consumer. As in anything, a reviewer must build trust with the consumer. I have both library patrons and blog readers who read books I recommend because they have similar tastes, or because they trust my evaluations. However, just as in buying a product, I’m sure most consumers consider the source of the review. It’s a matter of trust. Once a reader finds a reviewer that matches their reading tastes and needs, that reviewer can have a great deal of influence. It’s why readers have their favorite blogs, and their favorite review sources. They trust that the reviewer will not steer them wrong.
What do you look for in a book review?
To be honest, I usually don’t read a review if I’m planning to read the book. I might read it after I’ve read it, to find out if I felt the same way as the reviewer. I’ve found too many reviews that spoil the book for me, giving away too much of the plot. I look for book reviews to tell me about new authors and their books.
So, what do I really look for? I look for a review that does not give away the plot or the ending. There was quite a discussion online recently about a mystery. There was a turning point in one book in the series. How do you discuss the next book without giving away the events that happened, for people who might not have reached that book in the series? As a mystery reader, I like to read the books in order, so I don’t want the plot lines spoiled for me.
I try very hard not to give away too much in my book reviews, while still informing the reader about the book, so they can decide for themselves if they want to read it.
Do you think the average reviewer can review a friend’s book and still be objective?
This is a difficult question to answer because it has so many aspects. Is this a close personal friend? How will the friend feel if you’re honest with them, if the book is bad?
I consider myself an average reviewer. I review books by authors I’ve corresponded with, and, in some cases, met. However, they are not close personal friends, and they know I’ll be honest when I review the book. Of course, remember what I said earlier, that most books on my blog will receive a positive review. If I review it there, the authors know they will probably receive a positive review, not because of our “friendship,” but because I finished the book, and found some value to it. If I don’t like a book, I’ve been known to tell authors why the review will not appear, because I didn’t finish it, and therefore, can’t give it a review.
I don’t know that any of us are actually objective about reviews. I look forward to books by a number of authors, and I have expectations that I will read and enjoy their books. Is it objective that I’m going to review a book that I know I will in all likelihood enjoy? I already have expectations for the book or author before I even start the story. If I’m disappointed, I’ll say so.
To be truly objective, we should probably only read books by authors we don’t know, and ones we’ve never read before. In that way, there will be no preconceived ideas as to what to expect.
Do you think a review written by reader has less value than one written by a professional reviewer? What defines a true “reviewer”?
That’s a good question. What does define a true “reviewer”? Was I a reviewer in fifth grade when I did a book report, and stood up, and said why I liked or didn’t like the book I just read? What makes a person a professional? Are you a professional if you get paid?
I have received payment by the publishing magazine for only one review I ever did, and I didn’t consider it my best work. I may spend one hour on a five or six paragraph review for my blog, trying to find the right words to convey the spirit of the book, without ruining it for a reader.
In my opinion, a true reviewer is someone who is well-read, and wants to share their opinion about a book. So, every review is written by a reader. I consider myself a reader first, and a reviewer second. There are many “readers” who write blogs, and review books, who I find express themselves much better than professional reviewers who think they need to tear apart the entire book, and explain it to me. If I want to read the book, I don’t want it torn apart. The best reviewers let me know why I should care about a book, why I should want to read it. It doesn’t need to be a professional.
What is your stand on paid reviews?
A paid review is just a commercial for a book. It has no more value to me than a commercial.
Do you keep the author’s feelings in mind when you review?
Yes, and no. The reviews are intended for the reader, not the author. I want to encourage people to read. However, if I’m going to criticize a book, there are ways of doing it tactfully. I don’t have to tear the author apart, even if I don’t think the book was well-done. I will criticize a book, but I certainly do not intend to do it viciously.
If a book is terrible, do you think a reviewer should write and publish the review, or should she decline to write a review?
It’s up to the individual reviewer, or the editor or source that assigned them the book. If I receive a book from Blogcritics Magazine or Library Journal, and the book is terrible, I will write the review. However, if I receive it for my blog, and the book is terrible, I won’t finish it. Therefore, the review will not appear on my blog. I have written negative reviews, when a favorite author disappointed me, but even then, I knew other readers might feel differently, and I stressed why the book didn’t work for me.
There are some bloggers out there who have acquired fame as tough reviewers because of their harsh, nasty reviews. What’s behind this philosophy?
I have no idea. There is also a professional journal that has a reputation for its snarky reviews. Most librarians don’t respect that journal, and its circulation certainly is not those of the journals that readers can depend on for reliable, unbiased reviews. Bloggers might receive some notoriety for writing nasty reviews, but I don’t think they will be respected.
I would prefer that readers know they can find a reliable review source at Lesa’s Book Critiques, a blog that will tell them why they should buy, borrow, or pick up a book, rather than a negative source that will tear the book apart.
Thank you for this interview, Lesa!