Magdalena Ball is the founder of The Compulsive Reader, a book review site focusing on literary fiction and long, in-depth reviews. She's also the author of Sleep Before Evening, a poetry chap book titled Quark Soup, and the nonfiction work, The Art of Assessment. A winner of both local and international awards for poetry and fiction, she's had stories, editorials, poetry, articles and reviews published in various printed publications.
Sleep Before Evening, which I had the pleasure of reviewing recently for Blogcritics, was a finalist in the the Regional Fiction category of the 2008 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. She's been writing for Blogcritics Magazine for about a year. In this interview, Magdalena talks about her review site and what she looks for in a review. She also discusses the influence reviews have on whether or not a person purchases a book, and — something most aspiring reviewers wonder — if there's any money at all in reviewing.
It's an honor to have you here today, Magdalena. How did you become a reviewer?
I started reviewing almost by accident some 9 or so years ago. I've always been a voracious reader, and enjoyed talking about and analyzing books with other like-minded readers, but one day I saw a call for reviewers on a now defunct website called BoxPlanet, and I jumped. It was Frank McCourt's 'Tis, and I was already a big fan of Angela's Ashes, and keen to read 'Tis. When I received a beautiful double book hardcopy boxed set for review, and was also given the chance to interview McCourt, I was hooked. The idea of feeding what was a big habit with an endless supply of free books, getting the opportunity to talk to my favourite authors, and even getting a small amount of payment was simply too good. When BoxPlanet collapsed, I decided to start my own site to keep things going, which leads me to the next question…
How did the Compulsive Reader come about?
I started The Compulsive Reader to replace the gap from BoxPlanet. Basically I simply hung out a shingle, taught myself to write HTML (I have some computer knowledge so it wasn't hard), found a host, and started by putting my own reviews up at first. I was surprised at how quickly it started growing, and how fast my email newsletter, which was basically just a list of new reviews on site, sent out monthly, grew. Now I have about 20 regular reviewers, over 8,000 subscribers to the newsletter which also includes giveaways and literary news, and more than 500,000 hits a month. So I don't have to write every review myself, although for me, the real pleasure is still in connecting with, and analysing a book. Compulsive Reader is now in its 8th year and we have 10 new reviews each month (but I'm quite a long way ahead of myself — there are about 40 reviews already set up and waiting to appear on the front page).
How is The Compulsive Reader different from other review sites?
Well, let me firstly say, as an author as well as a reviewer, that there is always room for more. I think of other reviewers and review site owners as colleagues rather than competitors. I get about 50 review requests a month, in addition to books that my reviewers hunt out and request on their own, and there's simply no way we can do everything. There are many more authors than reviewers, and big name review sources like the NYTimes, NYReview of Books, Guardian Books, or Times Literary Supplement usually limit exposure to well known names. So it's critical for the huge number of less well known authors to be able to get their books reviewed critically.
One of the things that, I believe, readers come to The Compulsive Reader specifically for is that our reviews tend to follow a similar format to those big magazines and papers. Although I do allow for a variety of perspectives from my reviewers, one thing I try to focus on is detailed, seriously analytical reviews which substantiate all comments, and look quite deeply into why and how a book works or doesn't work for the reader. That is, our reviews are pithy! Also, I try to keep the focus heavily on quality. We give priority to the hard to promote genre of literary fiction, and we are always keen to promote new authors with quality books. Being able to help other authors — particularly those with wonderful gems that aren't so easy to promote — is a major perk of this job!
What is the most challenging aspect of running a review site?
My biggest challenge always is time. Running a review site takes time, and it's sometimes administrative time — fixing site bugs, looking for enhancements (like automating those little bars on the bottom that allow you to link to Digg, Technorati, del.icio.us, etc), pulling together newsletters, editing, setting up and posting other people's reviews, running giveaways, or promoting the site are all fun, but time consuming. Reading and reviewing is an absolute pleasure for me, but it also takes time, and it's relatively easy time to give myself to. So making sure that I still spend time writing my own books, and not getting so swamped by The Compulsive Reader, which I love and am all too eager to use as a kind of procrastination from the longer term goals of writing full length books, is the key challenge for me.
Are you currently recruiting more reviewers?
As I mentioned earlier, there are always many more review requests than reviewers, so we're always on the lookout for new reviewers to help meet that demand. I'm a little fussy about length and depth — I like a good, detailed review with lots of specifics, with an ideal word count of over 1,000 words (but I don't count and am open minded). Potential reviewers can just email me with a review and if it fits the site and is well written, I'll publish it. We don't pay, but bios are unlimited, there are no time limits, rights remain with the author (and we're happy to use reprints), and for our established reviewers, I'm always happy to supply them with the books they really want — so will request review copies on their behalf from publishers. I'll usually circulate requests to all of my reviewers, and if anything appeals, they can just put their virtual hands up.
How should an author contact you about a review request? Do you review e-books as well?
Guidelines for review requests are here, but basically authors should just send a few paragraph synopsis via email to me, and if I feel the book fits I'll circulate the request to my reviewers to see if anyone wants to take it on. I will almost always take on a literary fiction title if the request is very well written (literary fiction is a fuzzy genre at times, and sometimes authors will tell me their book is literary fiction but the synopsis will read like a very clear Harlequin styled romance or hard core science fiction, and I'll still reject it). Sometimes I might take on books in other genres if I know we have reviewers interested in them (or if they sound so good, the genre becomes irrelevant), and sometimes I'll reject a book because I know all of my reviewers are overloaded and behind on their reviews and not keen to take on more, so I'm not always consistent! It's always worth a try.
What do you look for in a book review?
I'm particular on this point, but I like a review with a lot of detail and specific examples (quotes) which demonstrate the points being made. I'm very keen on an assessment of quality, rather than just a plot summary. I want to know, as a reader as much as an editor, whether this book is worth my limited time and I need enough detail so that I can judge if the reviewer's assessment aligns with my own.
I've heard this, but I don't think it's true. I've never seen evidence of 'facile praise' and I've seen plenty of negative reviews at online review sites. It is the case that sometimes, online reviews are a little brief and provide too much plot (just a book overview) and not enough analysis about the book's value. Sometimes there isn't any substantiation (example quotes) to go along with the reviewer's statements. That may be because of the perception that online readers have a short attention span — something that isn't true in my experience. I think, however, that most reviewers tend to be critical, and will review honestly — not shying from indicating where a book falters.
I certainly encourage my own reviewers to be honest, and am more than happy to publish negative reviews as long as they are well written and the reviewer provides specific examples of instances where the book doesn't work. That said, there are sometimes instances where a book is so badly written and unprofessional — first time author, maybe self-published and poorly edited — that publishing a negative review would be like kicking a kitten. In those instances, we'll just refuse to do the review, and if it really is self-published or produced by a small house, we'll offer to send the book back. If, on the other hand, a book is awful in every respect, but written by a well-known author at a big house with good sales, I won't hestitate to publish a well written negative review. Sometimes there's a case of "The Emperor's New Clothes" operating with book reviews, and I'm always happy to buck the trend!
What defines a "legitimate" reviewer?
I think that the term "legitimate" is full of emotion and fraught with danger! A reviewer who writes well and does a thoughtful, in-depth analysis of a book is certainly providing as valuable a service as say, Michiko Kakutani of the NYTimes. There are all kinds of blogs and not all of them have been designed to provide professional quality reviews. Some are just casual opinions and aren't presenting themselves as anything else. Some are focused around discussion about books rather than reviews. It's sometimes easy to blur those distinctions online because everything happens very quickly, and sometimes the editing step is skipped. A well written, well-edited review is a well written, well-edited review whether it published online or in print. The only difference is the medium (and speed of publication!).
What is your stand on paid reviews?
I don't think they're ethical! I understand why an author would be tempted to pay for a review. Some publications like Foreword or Publishers Weekly are incredibly difficult to get reviewed in if you're an 'unknown', but if you are paying for your review, you're effectively becoming a customer, and that muddies the waters of objectivity. I like the idea that reviewers tend to be working for the readers. I love giving an author publicity, but I see my 'customers' as those who are hoping to gain information on books so they can decide where to spend their hard earned money and time. So I'm not working for the author, I'm working for the reader, and that's where my allegiance lies and who I'm writing for. If someone pays me to do a review, I'm writing for them, and it's a lot harder to maintain objectivity.
Do you think it's okay for reviewers to resell the books they review? What about Advance Review Copies (ARCs)?
As an author, the honest truth is that I really don't care what reviewers do with my book after they review it. I'd certainly prefer it to go into the hands of a new reader than into the garbage. Selling (e.g. making a profit from) review copies or ARCs (I can't really see a distinction, although ARCs may not be ready for the market and the author might be judged by a substandard edition if it isn't obvious) isn't entirely ethical, but it isn't illegal and as an author, I'm more than happy for readers to get my books wherever they can (royalties per book tend to be around 10% for a new book — say $2 per copy, so the impact on me would be pretty close to negligible) and at whatever discount they find.
As a reviewer, I have a policy of not selling review copies, but I do end up with many more books than I can house (loads that I've never agreed to review that simply come on spec), and I feel comfortable donating these to whatever cause requires books, from the local hospital or library to my children's school fetes. But I don't impose restrictions on what my reviewers can do with their books — the books are theirs to keep, and therefore do with as they see fit. That's part of the deal. Most don't get paid, so getting a book is a small reward which should come without any kind of provisos.
What are the most common mistakes amateur reviewers make?
Book reports. It's pretty common for a new reviewer to write out a book synopsis and tell the reader just what the book is about. But a plot summary really isn't a book review, and certainly doesn't help me as a reader to determine if this book is for me. What I need as a reader is a good through evaluation of the book's overall quality — how are characters developed, what is the narrative thread, what does this book illuminate. If I don't get an analysis, I'm not getting a book review. That's the biggest mistake. But other mistakes are in using cliche and hyperbole ("I couldn't put the book down"), tired phrases culled from other reviews ("tour de force"), or in making sweeping statements that aren't substantiated by examples from the book.
With so many major newspapers getting rid of their book review sections, how do you see the future of online review sites?
I think the future of online review sites is very bright! But not necessarily as money makers. A lot of people talk about making money from the Internet, but I really see the key benefits of online sites like The Compulsive Reader as a kind of community, where like-minded people can "congregate". As a kind of literary community that isn't limited by time and place, an online review site can bring people together — to share their feelings about quality words, and to provide well thought through information on what's new, what's good, and what to avoid. We don't all necessarily write for money — we also write (just as we read), because it's part of the whole pleasurable experience — to work out why something worked and to explore the character, plot, voice, tense, structure of the book we've just lost ourselves in. Writing a review is like a shared, detailed second reading, where one's instinctive reactions are polished, explored and worked through until they are able to be shared with others in a meaningful way. More and more books get published each year, and over the years that I've been doing online and print reviews, I've watched the online demand grow exponentially.
Do you keep the author's feelings in mind when you review?
Yes and no. Yes in that I'm an author and I never feel happy writing negative reviews — I don't write negative reviews easily or lightly. No in that the author's potential feelings don't impact on what I write. I'm generally a nice person, and I enjoy discovering great work, but if, as a reviewer, I'm not honest and only write nice things about books, my reviews aren't worth anything. I never write unsubstantiated invective. I've never written a negative review that was mean or negative in a non-objective way. But I still feel I need to point out where a book has failed in its aims or not worked well — that's part of the whole review process. That doesn't change, even when the author I'm writing about is a friend or family member. I've written some very negative reviews on books sent to me by people I know, and I've even had some reviews rejected because the editor of that publication felt I was too negative. I've occasionally had an author or publisher request that a negative review is taken down. In those cases, I'm happy to accept the rejection and have understood that sometimes my perspective as a reviewer doesn't align with the perspective of the author.
Reviews always have a degree of subjectivity in them, and are never the final word on a book's quality or saleability. Most authors/publishers accept negative reviews gracefully (and there is usually something in them that can be used in excerpt). If it's requested, I will usually comply with requests to remove a review. I did once have a very negative response to a book that I declined to review. It wasn't a negative review — just a nice note saying that a book wasn't right for The Compulsive Reader (I send out a lot of those, by necessity, but I always try to respond to requests). The response I received back was about 3 pages of very angry abuse stating that they felt I was discriminating against them for all sorts of reasons (sex, race, genre, height, weight, nationality, taste in clothing, you name it). The note was almost good enough to publish, never mind the book. I just had a good laugh, and deleted it.
Apart from celebrity reviewers who work for major publications like The New York Times, can a reviewer make any real money from writing reviews?
It depends on what you mean by "real money". I've made anything from nothing to $250 USD from a single review, so it does vary a lot, and some of the difference between nothing and $250 involved things like flexibility, reprint rights, and my own ability to use the review as a promotional medium for my own (for sale) work. That is to say that even the reviews which I wasn't paid "real money" for still had a financial value for me. I would say this, that A.) just like other forms of writing, it isn't something a person should go into for the money (although if you are a book addict, its a very successful way to keep your book bills down and get hold of a wide range of excellent new release novels).
You can probably earn more on average, on a time versus return examination, by working in your local grocery store — though a new reviewer will probably make significantly more than a new novelist for what that's worth (the learning curve is much smaller and the investment of time much lower). B.) If you make a name for yourself, you can actually earn a reasonable return from your reviews if you don't mind giving up rights and are willing to work on a single topic. C.) the perks are worth more than the "real money," and by perks I don't necessarily mean the review copies although they are a perk, especially in the beginning while you've still got bookshelf space. I mean that, if you are a writer, being a reviewer is a way of being considered important and valuable by the publishing industry, and developing a strong network of publishing contacts which will stand you in very good stead should you ever become inclined to write your own books.
What advice would you give to beginner reviewers who wish to make a career in this field?
Just like any other form of writing, a review needs to be crafted carefully. Learn your craft by reading other reviews (the good meaty ones you get in the Observer, The NY Review of Books, Salon, The Compulsive Reader :-), etc. Only go into it if you really, truly love to read (or do whatever it is you are reviewing). The heart of a good reviewer is being the natural consumer for what you are reviewing.
Thank you for such an insightful and informative interview, Magdalena!