Authors sometimes have a love/hate/live-in-fear/live-in deep appreciation relationship with book reviewers. In my past, I have reviewed children’s books for a major daily newspaper, and I can tell you that it’s an all-consuming job and requires a strong pair of eyes and the ability to write economically. Not my strong suit, to tell you the truth. It’s why middle grade books are oh so much easier for me to write than picture books, which I love desperately. Anyway, this month, I thought I’d interview a seriously accomplished children’s book reviewer. Someone who reviews a lot of middle grade books for a major periodical and that person is Michael Jones.
Michael lives in Southwest Virginia with way too many books, just enough cats, and a wife who lets him rant about work whenever needed. He also owns a plaster penguin that probably wasn’t carved by Michelangelo.
Here’s my interview with Michael, an Olympic athlete of reading.
1) You have a passion for children’s literature and review many books. What made you fall in love with children’s books?
I grew up with books. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a reader. Apparently, I started teaching myself how to read after watching Sesame Street when I was very young. My parents supplied me with everything from the Bobbsey Twins to the Oz series, and I never grew out of it. For me, it’s all about the infinite potential of storytelling—the characters, the worlds, the adventures. Sometimes it seems as though children’s books allow themselves a greater freedom than adult books, and enjoy a greater sense of wonder.
2) There may be many readers out there who are already book reviewers but there are also those who would like to try it out. What steps would you recommend for someone who would like to get into book reviewing?
I got into book reviewing when a mailing list to which I subscribed asked for reviewers for a new website. From there, I gradually moved from one opportunity to another. There’s no one true path to becoming a reviewer, but the first step is easy: write about the books you read and enjoy. If you contribute quality reviews to Amazon or Goodreads, for instance, you can gain valuable experience and find opportunities to obtain books. Find a review site or blog you enjoy, and see if they need new reviewers. Start your own site or blog or Tumblr account or whatever you’re comfortable with. There are a lot of ways to get your voice out there. If you’re feeling ambitious, make friends with other reviewers who write for different sites; maybe they can pass along opportunities as well. It means you’ll often be reviewing for the love of it at first, but once you have that presence, things can happen. But it’s all about reading the books, and reviewing them, and getting those reviews out where others can see them.
3) How many books do you read in a week and how many of them do you review?
I’ll read anywhere from two to six books in a week, depending on what else is going on. If I’m on a road trip, that number can jump up considerably. I review the vast majority of them, since most of my reading is for work these days. Sometimes I’ll allow myself a freebie or two—books I read and don’t intend to review. You don’t even want to see the list of books I’ve read and intended to review but still haven’t gotten to… hint: it stretches back a few years. There’s only so much time and energy to go around. I once did ten reviews in a single week for Publishers Weekly, just to prove I could.
4) How do you discover new books to read? Do the publications that you review for give you the ARCs, or do you get them directly from the publishers and then decide if you want to review them?
I use every method possible to find new books. PW sends me everything they assign me, so that’s a major source of new reading material. I also search through Netgalley and Edelweiss, which are aimed at getting advance review copies (ARCs) into the hands of reviewers and industry professionals. I also try to make friends with authors and publicists. A few years back, it was more common for publicists to send out boxes of books, but the industry has changed and they’re a lot more frugal. Electronic copies have made it easier and cheaper to send things out as appropriate, and the very nature of review platforms has shifted from a magazine-based system to an online system, which made publishers less inclined to send out those books willy-nilly.
So for work, my assignments are sent to me. Otherwise, I scrounge around for things which look interesting, and then decide what I want to review in my (hypothetical) spare time. I used to buy books at the store, but had to cut back when my cats demanded I feed them instead.
5) Authors and readers alike can be disappointed when a book doesn’t get a favorable review, yet it’s a part of the business. As authors we often like to make up stories (they carry a poison pen, they had a bad day) about the reviewer when it doesn’t go our way. Is it also hard for the reviewer as well when the book isn’t what you hoped it might be?
That varies. I’ve run into a lot of books where the premise is interesting, and the story has potential, but then it’ll fall apart for some reason. Maybe the writing isn’t up to par, or the story veers into unsuccessful territory, or the author makes a choice I don’t agree with. It’s hard when a book lets you down, and you have to be honest about your feelings as a reviewer because otherwise, what’s the point? Good reviewers don’t let personal issues affect their work, but we’re still bringing a lot of ourselves to the table, because that’s the nature of writing these things. I’d rather be honest when I find something I don’t like or enjoy, because anything else is a disservice to the reader/potential buyer. But since every reviewer is different, there’s no shortage of second, third, even tenth opinions out there.
6) Can you always tell from the first page whether you’re going to love a book or not? Or have there been some books that have required some warming up to? How much time do you allow yourself before you turn off from a narrative?
It really is different with every book. Sometimes, I can fall in love with the first line, sometimes it takes a while to understand a book. There’s no magic formula, and it varies with every reader as well. If it’s an assignment, I’ll read the whole book, no matter what I think of it. If it’s for fun, I’ll give it a page, or a chapter, to see how the writing style, the premise, and so on work for me. It’s a lot easier to move on when it’s for pleasure.
7) What would you most like to be known for as a reviewer?
I’d say that one of the greatest joys a reviewer can experience is seeing their review quoted on a book cover or on the inside. That means they said something worth repeating. That’s something I always look forward to. As far as what I’d like to be known for, I just want readers, authors, publishers and everyone else to know that my reviews are fair, honest, reliable, and entertaining. I want to be remembered as a trustworthy reviewer, who gets to the heart of the story and conveys it well enough to help other people make decisions about their book-buying or reading habits.
Hillary Homzie is the author of the forthcoming Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009). She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page.