IndieView with Indie Book Reviewer, Frida Fantastic

Adarna SF A Speculative Fiction Review Blog“I ask myself, “Do I want to live in this universe for the next 8 hours of my leisure time?” Books with uninformative blurbs and samples boggle me. I’ve seen samples with nothing but maps of some fantasy world I don’t care about (yet). I don’t find the lack of information intriguing—I find it frustrating.”

Frida Fantastic – 9 September 2011

About Reviewing

How did you get started?

I bought an e-reader back in late 2010 and started posting on the Mobileread message boards. There are a lot of indie book reviewers on the Mobileread forums, so that was how I became exposed to the vibrant community of indie book reviewing.

Being a science fiction and fantasy genre reader, I was looking for speculative fiction blogs that reviewed indie books. I found either speculative fiction blogs or indie book blogs, there wasn’t much overlap between the two blogging communities outside of a handful of sites. There are great blogs that review paranormal romance, which is speculative fiction, but I was looking for blogs with a different focus.

I came up with a list of features I wanted to see in my ideal indie-focused speculative fiction blog: honest in-depth reviews, easily browsed by sub-genre, occasionally covers other topics of interest to an ebook-reading SF/F audience, and so on. I started a wordpress blog and started reviewing and accepting submissions, and posted the link up to a few message boards and sites. The site traffic and submissions just grew from there.

How do you review a book? Is it a read first, and then make notes, or do you make notes as you go along?

I’m a science fiction/fantasy fan first and foremost, so I read with the intention of having fun. I make notes on my Kindle when I see typos, and sometimes I type out little comments when I’m really impressed by a scene. But usually when I’m enjoying a book, I’m flipping pages too fast to take notes—I need to see what happens next!

What are you looking for?

My blog reviews speculative fiction for adults in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. I read almost everything under the umbrella of spec-fic. I enjoy anything from light-hearted fantasy, to dystopian science fiction, to gruesome splatter horror (as long as the splatter is caused by something supernatural, eldritch abominations are always a plus). The only thing I’m not as keen on is romance. A romantic encounter or subplot is okay, but if it’s basically a Harlequin book with a space opera setting—then that’s not up my alley.

In terms of what I am looking for in a good book, I look for an immersive experience, an engaging story, and refreshing ideas. As Dorothy Gambrell puts it in her Cat and Girl webcomic: “The world has enough art and literature for a thousand lifetimes.” Indie books aren’t competing with other indie books—they’re competing with traditionally published books and other forms of fiction out there.

I’m passionate about books, but I’d rather watch a good movie than read a bad book. Whenever I write a review, I think about the other SF/F works that have dealt with similar themes, regardless of medium. I don’t shy away from referencing other books, movies, comics, and so on if it’s informative for an audience that’s enthusiastic about SF/F fiction. In short: I want to read stories that cover new territory or do it better.

 If a book has a great plot, great characters, but the grammar is less than perfect, how do you deal with that?

The same way I would deal with a movie with bad editing, sound problems, and a visible film crew: it depends on how much it bothers me. If there are a few mistakes that don’t detract from the experience, I’ll forget about it. If it really bothers me, it could really sink the book’s rating and my review would warn readers about it.

How long does it take you to get through, say, an eighty thousand-word book?

Probably around five hours. I read one indie book a week.

How did you come up with your rating system, and could you explain more about the rating system?

I use a five star rating system without half stars. I cross-post my reviews to Amazon, Smashwords, and Goodreads and they all use that system. I looked at other reviewer websites and their thoughts about on what an informative rating system looks like. I liked Thomas M. Wagner’s rating system on sfreviews.net so I adopted it for my own blog.  3 stars are good books that are enjoyable but not as engaging as others, 4 stars are excellent and engaging books, and 5 stars are masterpieces and among the best SF/F I’ve ever read. I rarely give five stars, but all books rated 3 stars and higher are worthwhile to read. It just depends on what the reader is looking for.

What advice could you give to authors looking to get their books reviewed?

(1) Find book blogs that are a good fit with your book (2) Read and follow a book blog’s submission guide (3) Send your book for review to as many book bloggers possible as long as you continue to follow #1 and #2. It’s pretty straightforward.

I know that searching for book blogs and reading their submission guide is time consuming, but it’s worth the time. Not abiding by #1 or #2 just makes the author look bad. I’ve received emails from authors who submitted books that had nothing to do with speculative fiction, even though my blog’s tagline is “a speculative fiction blog for the ebook revolution”. I make it very clear in all my online profiles that I’m a spec-fic blogger, and yet I have receive the strangest things nothing to do with spec-fic: non-fiction books on how to combat alcoholism, video game strategy guides, political thrillers, autobiographies. Yes, autobiographies. Unless someone has ridden a dragon from Westeros, it’s a waste of my time and their time—it’s probably the biggest pet peeve of all book reviewers. I’m referring to people who don’t read submission guides, not ones that ride dragons. I think there’s a consensus that dragon-riding is an awesome activity. (George R. R. Martin, they will play a bigger role in future books, yes? Stop teasing us already)

Do you get readers emailing you and thanking you for a review?

Yes. I receive really kind comments from readers and some even link to my reviews. Linking and sharing are among the biggest compliments that can be given to a blogger. Many authors also send me an email thanking me for the review.

My advice to authors on getting a “bad” review (hasten to add that might mean a perfectly honest, well written, fair review – just bad from the author’s point of view) is to take what you can from it and move on. Under no circumstances to “argue” with the reviewer – would you agree with that?

Yes. The internet has something called “the Streisand effect”. As wikipedia defines it, it is “[the] attempt to hide or remove a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely.” I think it also includes the attempt to dispute with information in a way that attracts attention. This is why everyone has read BigAl’s review of The Greek Seaman. The responses triggered “the Streisand effect” big time. It was on message boards, facebook feeds, blogs, and when Neil Gaiman tweeted the link, it reached the point of no return.

The best way for authors to deal with a negative review is to ignore it. Don’t make any snide comments on any publicly accessible places on the internet. That includes Goodreads, messageboards, twitter, personal blogs, etc.  The more the author talks about the review, the more attention it gets, and that’s the last thing the author wants. I’m happy to expand on my points with the author privately over email, but “arguing” with the reviewer won’t get the conversation anywhere.

As a reviewer, I can’t claim that all readers would experience the book the same way I did. Reading can be a very subjective and personal experience. What I do hope is that all my reviews are informative enough to reach the book’s target audience. Maybe if it didn’t work for me, it would work for others. All books get negative reviews at some point. On Goodreads, there’s over 13,000 one-star ratings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude. This is normal. What counts is that there are over 122,000 4 and 5 star ratings. It’s the big picture that matters.

About Reading

We talk a lot about writing here on the blog, and possibly not enough about reading, which is after all why we’re all here. Why do you think people love reading. We’re seeing lots of statistics that say reading as a past-time is dying – do you think that’s the case?

I disagree. I think ebooks and e-publishing has an enormous potential for global distribution: making books more accessible to readers all over the world and creating a vibrant global reading culture. I live in Canada, but having grown up in the Philippines, I understand how reading paper books for leisure is such a luxury.

In the Philippines, there aren’t a lot of libraries, and so a reader in the Philippines has to buy most of the books they want to read. Space is another constraint because of small living spaces. Price is another limitation because of average incomes—while salaries there are much lower, books are either have the same prices or are more expensive than the books in North America. Distribution is another thing, as not all books are distributed in every country. So what you get is a small and expensive selection. This is the situation in most countries in the world.

With e-publishing, the internet is a global distributor. There are still geographical constraints on e-publishing (for both readers and authors), but the barriers will lower over time. Once there’s an inexpensive e-reader or mobile phone that does the job well, the world could be reading more books than ever.

I think readers want to read good stories no matter where they’re published, and writers want readers no matter where they’re located. I look forward to an era of a truly global reading and publishing culture.

About Writing

What are the most common mistakes that you see authors making?

I agree with BigAl here: publishing indie books before they’re ready for public consumption. It doesn’t matter if the book is free, $0.99, or $9.99. It must be polished, edited, and worth the reader’s time. As BigAl said in his Indieview, “The biggest investment a reader makes is not the price of the book. It’s the time to read.”

I think it’s better for authors to release no books than to release a book that’s not ready, even if the book is free. No business is better than bad business. Even if the author doesn’t lose money, they may hurt their brand and lose potential readers. Bad books get stuck in the slush pile, dilute the author’s offerings on her Amazon/Goodreads/Smashwords/etc. page, or even worse—create negative word of mouth. It’s nearly impossible to remove anything from the internet once it’s publicly available (especially people’s opinions), so it’s bad for authors to sacrifice long-term branding and potential sales when it’s not necessary.

We’re told that the first page, paragraph, chapter, is absolutely key in making or breaking a book. Agents typically request only the first five pages of a novel, what do you think about that; if a book hasn’t grabbed you by the first five pages, do you put it down?

Yes. I consider books to read on three aspects: (1) the premise/book description (2) the first five pages (3) the sample on Amazon. I receive over 20 book submissions per week. I normally only have enough time to read the blurb and first five pages, and then skim through the sample. If the book doesn’t interest me compared to the other books I’m also considering, I put it down.

Key elements I consider are the POV character, the tone, and the setting. I ask myself, “Do I want to live in this universe for the next 8 hours of my leisure time?” Books with uninformative blurbs and samples boggle me. I’ve seen samples with nothing but maps of some fantasy world I don’t care about (yet). I don’t find the lack of information intriguing—I find it frustrating. It’s better to have the blurb and sample deliver more information than not enough information, as readers are choosing between many books. It’s best to give a book an edge whenever possible.

There has been a lot of talk recently about the Page 99 concept, what are your thoughts on that idea?

Reading one page isn’t informative enough to draw conclusions from. It’s an interesting concept, but I don’t see how it’s useful.

Is there anything you will not review?

Because of my blog’s focus, I only review speculative fiction, and I don’t review paranormal romance and children’s books. I also don’t review YA books and books heavy on the romance, but I make exceptions on a case-by-case basis.

About Publishing

What do you think of the oft quoted comment that the “slush-pile has moved online”?

It’s true, but it doesn’t demean good indie books. Great books sit on the same virtual shelf as terrible books that should have never left the vicinity of the amateur writing forum. That’s why social media, the blogosphere, and book reviewers are so valuable to readers and authors.

Do you think attitudes are changing with respect to Indie or self-published titles?

Yes, especially with readers who read ebooks. On the whole, e-publishing gives indie authors an edge on pricing and e-distribution, and it’s easier to read indie than ever before. Readers are finding out that there are great stories everywhere, regardless of the business model chosen by the author.

Do you have any ideas or comments on how the industry can “filter” good from bad, asides from reviews?

I think it’s a great thing to be able to publish and access anything. I’ll quote Isabela Morales of The Scattering: while e-publishing “does mean that there’s junk to wade through, it’s made the good, the interesting, and the creative more accessible as well.”

The word “filters” is too close to the term “gatekeepers”. Like what Grace Krispy has said, the term “guides” are a better way of describing the tools and channels that connect readers to books. A reader can technically find any book, but readers value guides that connect them to the most relevant content—in this case, books they’ll like.

A guide can take the form of a message board, a Amazon recommendation algorithm, a book club, a person’s twitter feed, or a book blog, and so on. There are many guides available, but it’s not easy for readers to find the guides that work for them in a short amount of time. The reader’s time is precious: the time they spend being lost in the internet’s flood of content takes away from time they could’ve been buying books.

I can’t say anything about the other guides, but as an indie book blogger, I think there is value to aggregating book reviews in an informative way for readers. I really like the Simon-Royle.com site for that reason, because it has a comprehensive list of book bloggers and has lists of the latest indie book reviews from all over the web. It’s the best aggregator that I know of.

I would like to see a website that features the latest indie book reviews in a magazine-style format. It could have a preview of the blog posts and be tabbed by genre, and special events like giveaways, and so on. I could see it working for Simon-Royle.com 🙂

End of Interview

Visit Frida’s site for a great collection of reviews and follow her on Twitter @FridaSF.

16 responses to “IndieView with Indie Book Reviewer, Frida Fantastic

  1. Thanks for the Indieview, Simon. It was fun! 🙂

  2. Oh yeah, if anyone is curious about the webcomic I mentioned: http://catandgirl.com/?p=2035

  3. A great interview, Frida. I particularly like the concept of “guides.” “Gatekeepers” conjures up images of Nazi guards with automatic rifles standing at attention and only permitting the elite to enter. “Guides” are helpful volunteers with flashlights escorting people through the dark wilderness so they can reach a desired destination. Much friendlier mental picture, and it doesn’t imply that other things are somehow less-deserving.

    I also agree that arguing with negative critics is pointless. If they make a misstatement of fact, it’s OK to correct them in a courteous and helpful manner, but vituperation gets you nowhere. I’ve always considered my job to be one of communicator. If a critic misses what I was trying to say, I very well may not have said it in the most effective manner. And then too, if the critic is particularly obnoxious, I may wonder whether I even wanted to communicate with him. But I’ve only encountered a couple of people like that in my career, thankfully.

    • Thanks for your comments, Stephen. You’ve basically elaborated on what I meant to say about critics. Clarifying a misstated fact is fair and even welcome. It’s arguing with opinions that brings out the worst of the internet.

      Writing prose fiction is a complex art–it’s conveying entire worlds, sensations, and lives with nothing but text. Essentially, one writer conveys an entire universe to people to many different people of diverse backgrounds. It’s miraculous that this kind of communication is even possible. No book is going to work for everyone and there will always be room for interpretation. But the most engaging fiction bridges that gap, and feels as exhilarating and meaningful as if the reader experienced it herself. If a writer can make a number readers feel that way, damn–if that isn’t magic, I don’t know what is. As long as the work is connecting with a target audience that the writer is happy with–(funny that I say this as a reviewer) then critics be damned.

  4. Frida’s site is one of the speculative fiction review sites that I frequent. She’s honest, thorough, and when I see a 4+ star review, I know the book is an exceptional read.

    That her interview would be informative is no surprise to me at all. Her offhand comments about how difficult it was to find material in the Philippines is interesting to me. For far too long, many countries have had little to no access to good literature because of barriers of entry into the market. The introduction of eBooks is changing a lot of that, and I’m glad to be a part of it. But Frida is right, with this deluge of books, the readers need helpful guides, and if she chooses to keep doing this, I think she will be a very useful, long-term guide for speculative fiction readers.

    Nice interview, Frida!

    • Thanks for your comments and tweeting this interview 🙂 Part of what I look forward to in e-publishing is its potential for a truly global distribution on both the sides of the authors/publishers and the readers. There is a ton of English reading people in the world: to only think about the market as America, the UK, Canada, and Australia is very short-sighted. The speculative fiction community is international, and the love of English literature is global. Making publishing and book buying more accessible to people all over the world can only enrich us all.

      The rest of this response isn’t a specific reply to Rex, but just more about my points on ebooks and their potential to be truly global and all that. While visiting family in the Philippines over the summer, I was lucky enough to snag two volumes of the small-press Filipino Speculative Fiction anthology (it’s all in English, with American spellings to be exact). I’m only halfway through volume two, but the stories are nothing like anything I’ve read before. They’re amazing. Each book is only about six bucks Canadian, but as they sit here in my humble home in Vancouver, they feel priceless. But as a reader, I don’t like to hoard books. I like to share my most enjoyed books and force it on others (which is why book blogging is so suited to me). When I’m done with them, I’m sharing it with anyone I know. The most loved books are the ones that had passed through so many hands that they’re all dog-eared and their pages are barely held together. But what’s even better is that there’s another Filipino spec-fic small-press that’s going down the route of global ebook distribution for their next release, which makes it likely that these precious books that I have now can be read by anyone and anywhere in the near future as an ebook.

      While the last paragraph has been a lengthy tangent, a world where publishing & accessing books is a truly global phenomenon isn’t some far-off egalitarian dream or obscure ebook enthusiast newspeak. It’s a reality that’s only twenty minutes into the future, and I’m really looking forward to it.

      • As you know from my writing, I believe that we are only a small step away from an “always on, everywhere world”. Where “wireless or 3G” aren’t even mentioned anymore because it will be like the air we breathe. Once that happens, devices, be it ereaders or smart phones (what I call Devsticks), will be widespread. By 2015 there will be at least 2 Billion smartphones (or some such device) in hands globally. A majority of those people will read English. And as our world gets more and more connected, English will spread – we are unlikely to require learning two international languages (sorry to all French speaking people). As this happens, translation software will improve, to where the source language, may to some extent, also be considered a format. It is my hope that this leads to a better, more understanding world, and books play a big part in that understanding. In my travels, covering four continents, and chats with everyone that wanted to (and probably a few that didn’t). Invariably the subject of “understanding each other’s race” will come up and, typically within a very short time, a reference to a book will be made. Stories, written or told, are a fundamental part of who we are, mirrors to our realities and dreams.

        • You make very valid points, Simon. Specifically on ebooks, from what I’ve noticed in my visit to the Philippines (not sure what it’s like over there in Thailand), print media is still very strong and it’s the most dominant medium. Regular people generally go to internet cafes but some have netbooks. The rich minority have iPads and iPhones, but ereader and mobile-reading adoption for the masses hasn’t quite caught on, probably because of the lack of affordable models that make sense for local wages. I can see the future you envision, but I’m just wondering exactly when it’ll happen. Tech adoption is uneven and takes on a local (or at least regional) trajectory.

          I think English will become increasingly the international language of choice, but ebooks and the internet actually provides the opportunity to keep other dialects and languages vibrant, especially between diasporic multi-lingual communities. It may create a lot of niches, but it has a lot of intrinsic cultural value. I sure have several I could continue brushing up on. I sometimes forget I’m multi-lingual while living in Anglophone Western Canada (my French isn’t passable, I’m probably not going to move to Quebec anytime soon :P).

          Another point, I sure hope we don’t have that particular population-annihilating crisis you have in TAG… ;D

        • Great Indieview, Frida.

          I think technology in general has a tendency to bring the world closer together. The internet has done that. In the case of those from the US, where we tend to be a little US-centric and not always well informed on other countries and cultures, Indie authors from other countries provide us a glimpse at both.

  5. Thanks for another great IndieView, Simon! Frida has become really influential really quickly, in no small part to her smart and thorough reviews that really help readers determine whether the book is a good fit for their own personal preferences.

    Two of my very favorite people in one place, I can hardly contain myself 😉

    • Aw Grace, you’re too sweet! You with your amazing book review blog is one of the reasons why I got started with indie book blogging. It was really cool to see book bloggers running indie-focused blogs and finding amazing reads. What can I say?–I was inspired. Thank you, Grace!

      For those who don’t know Grace (how can you not?), she reviews across all genres of indie books over at her Motherlode blog. Whenever I’m looking at indie books to read, I always think “Hm! What did Grace think about it?” She’s one of the book bloggers I trust the most.

  6. Great interview, Simon.

    Frida Fantastic is an awesome reviewer of speculative fiction. Actually, one of the biggest barriers for me starting my own blog was reading hers. It’s enough to give any blogger-to-be an inferiority complex. Nice to see her interviews are as insightful and intelligent as her book reviews.

    • I’m really humbled by your comments, Caleb. I’m digging your reviews at Papyrus. You’ve always written great reviews, but your reviews are becoming even more thorough with a better flow to them.

      For those who aren’t familiar with Caleb, he’s also another indie book blogger from the Mobileread forums, and I very much like his taste in spec-fic. Papyrus is another great up and coming book blog, so check it out 🙂

  7. Great interview! Really good questions and interesting answers. I can’t wait till those 20 minutes are up 😉