“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
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.
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.
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.
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