I confess I had not discovered Adam’s blog, Roof Beam Reader, until I found a review he’d written for my book Jumpstart the World. Then I was so blown away by the thoughtfulness, balance, and detail that I had to learn more. I have a great deal of respect for a number of book bloggers, but I personally do not know anyone who takes his or her responsibility to reviewing more seriously.
I promise you, the more you read his blog, the more words like “respect” will fill your head.
So. Adam. Thanks for visiting my blog for this interview.
Me: Until I began writing these interview questions, I had read only your reviews. But I just read your post Book Blogging: a Breakdown (The Empathetic Reader and the Effective Reviewer). I think the world would be a better place if everyone read this post in its entirety before reviewing a book. And I don’t just mean bloggers. I feel a lot of old-fashioned print reviewers have dropped the ball. Do you get the sense that this piece has been widely read? I would think it would be a link worth passing around. What kind of feedback have you gotten? Can you describe the moment when you felt compelled to write and post it? I can only imagine the observations you hoped to address, and I’d like to hear your thoughts on that.
Adam: Thanks very much for your support. I do get the sense that it has been relatively widely spread (relative to how widely spread any of my usual posts are passed around, that is). It is the highest “hit” post on my blog and has received the most amount of “likes” of any post on my blog to date – the previous markers were my posts on the hoopla over so-called “dangerous” YA fiction (“Darkness & Light”) and on the recent publication of a censored edition of Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (“Censoring Mark Twain: A Literary Embarrassment”). I also notice a new batch of referred guests, which have traveled through the vast interwebs from other blogs to mine, via links to this specific post.
It’s exciting and also intimidating that the posts most often viewed on my website are not book reviews, which is the primary theme, but the more “political” of writing that I sometimes find myself publishing. For the most part, I have gotten positive feedback on this post and its intentions, although I have seen a few counter-posts pop-up on other book blogs (some who commented on my post, and others who did not but who felt the need to respond on their own turf, so to speak). The book blogging world is such a big one, now, that there are bound to be innumerable opinions not only on “how” book bloggers should comport themselves, but also on what exactly it means to be a book blogger. A couple of posts that were published in response to mine were more explorative in terms of how personal a public blog really is, and how one defines him/herself as a book blogger, as opposed to just a personal blogger or journal writer. Of course, my thoughts on that can be found in the comment thread of my post or many of those who have responded.
The post really came about after spending some leisure time on Goodreads.com. I have since come to terms with the fact that Goodreads, Library Thing, Shelfari and other such sites are much more akin to typical social media networks than they are to book blogs, which aids me in taking them a bit less seriously. But, at the time of my post, I had become frustrated by the vast quantity of truly irresponsible “rating” and “reviewing” that has taken place on those sites – rating a book 1-star when the person hasn’t read it; completely misinterpreting a text or not finishing it, so posting a poor review for it; rating a book perfectly before it has even been released in ARC form… it goes on and on. Essentially, I really just wanted to define what Roof Beam Reader is all about and explain the kind of quality and thoughtfulness that I look for and respect in other book blogs, and that will hopefully always be found at RBR.net, too.
Me: Your template scorecard for reviewing is amazing. It’s so much more detailed and helpful than “five stars means I loved it, four means I liked it.” Not to tie this directly to star ratings, but some reviewers seem to think it’s all about what they enjoy, rather than helping a prospective book buyer choose. Your template seems like the perfect tool for the (latter) purpose. Can you tell me (and my readers) anything about the process of moving from the more common “Summary—Good—Bad—Final verdict” to your own detailed rating system? Had you identified specific reviewing limitations or frustrations that you hoped to overcome?
Adam: This is actually something I touched on in that post we discussed above (“The Empathetic Reader & The Effective Reviewer). I find that a very important aspect of being a “good” reader and a “good” reviewer (I use the word good for ease and generality, though I do not necessarily believe it means any one specific thing) is trying to understand what is unfamiliar or even uncomfortable.
My own process started with brief, one or two sentence responses to the book. Did I like it or not? Why or why not? So, for example, a very early review from me might have said: “I loved this book. The writing was engaging and the story was believable and entertaining… I would pick-up this author again in the future!” Well, that is a positive review, sure, but it definitely doesn’t tell me much about the book! Ultimately, my book blog started as a place for me to keep my own thoughts, for future reference and such. When I found that going back to old reviews didn’t remind me of anything or help me to remember why I went back to a certain author or subject, I knew I had a problem. From there, I established a system that was a bit more comprehensive, in which I gave a summary of the book, discussed what I thought to be “Good” and “Bad” in it, and then an overall rating and some final thoughts. This was a vast improvement, but it was still missing something! How many layers and kinds of “Good” are there? What are the elements of “Bad?” Can something be a nuisance for me as a reader, but clearly have a place in the text? [Me: Ha! This reminds me of your reaction to Elle in Jumpstart.] If so – does that mean I should really count it as a negative element? Headaches abound! It took, literally, about two years for me to get to the system I use today – and even this one has its limits. Poetry and non-fiction, for instance, do not work very well, because I have a section devoted to “Plot” and “Characterization,” both of which would be severely limited or non-existent in those particularly genres. So, I still find myself making adjustments, when needed – but my primary goal is to make my reviews as comprehensive and unbiased as possible, and I definitely think I have headed (and continue to go) in the right direction.
Me: We’ve talked a good bit about the fact that you pointed out something in your review of Jumpstart, and I learned from it. I don’t say this boastfully, but that’s rare. Not because I’m so damned infallible, but because I have beta readers, an agent, an editor, a copyeditor, and two proofreaders who seem to aspire to copyediting. Usually if there’s an issue, it comes up during the process. After that, more often than not, minor complaints in reviews seem to be a matter of taste. But you actually dug deeper. I’m wondering if you’ve had this feedback from other authors. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that you have.
Have you gotten any blowback from “authors behaving badly” after negative or mixed reviews? I’ll tell you why I ask. I notice that when an author goes on the warpath against a review, their rant tends to be excuse-based. Not really being able to say, “How dare you not like it?” I hear things like, “The review was not professionally done,” or, “The criticism was not constructive or fair.” And, frankly, I just can’t imagine anyone saying that to you. And yet authors behaving badly will be authors behaving badly. So I have to ask.
Adam: Well, thank you again for being open to anyone else’s thoughts on your work; as you mention, not all writers/authors are particularly welcoming to feedback!
I have been fortunate enough not to have received much negative push-back from authors whose works I’ve reviewed, at least not that I know of (who knows what they’re saying in private!). I think there could be a few reasons for this, though: 1) A lot of my reviews are for literary fiction and/or the “Classics.” In the first group, most literary fiction authors seem to be either relatively oblivious to the book blog world (that is to say, I do not see them promoting or responding as much in this venue as I do with “genre” authors); and, of course, in the second group, the authors are dead – so getting responses of them would be terrifying. 2) I tend to be adept at selecting books that I think I will enjoy. Readers will not find too many overwhelmingly negative reviews on my blog because I usually know what I like to read. 3) I have a review policy in place. This one is key and it is a piece of advice I share with every new blogger or veteran bloggers who might be new to the ARC game. I post my review policy on its own page on my blog; I post my review policy in e-mail responses to queries; I make it very clear that, if I agree to read a book then the author/agent/publisher agrees to let me speak my mind about it. It helps, I think, that I do have such a comprehensive review template – as there is usually at least something to applaud in most books.
That being said – if an author or agent is dissatisfied with a review I write, I absolutely welcome them to e-mail me or comment with questions or to discuss my thoughts in more detail. I know some authors who have gone onto blogs and ridiculed the reviewer (or spread negativity through Twitter, Facebook, their own websites, etc.) and I think that is unprofessional and unacceptable – I always feel for the blogger in question, when that happens, because it is usually a new, unexpected, and saddening experience for them.
[Me, note: I couldn't agree more, which is why I have written several posts in support of bloggers, and advising authors to think carefully before they react. I do honestly believe that the blogger comes off well in the long run and the complaining author looks like a fool. But you're right that it must be upsetting for the reviewer.]
Me: Your blog has won quite the boatload of awards. I’m not the least bit surprised, but I hope you’ll take this opportunity to brag on it a bit. Please do tell us the highlights of 23 awards to date.
Adam: Oh, yes, folks have been very generous to me! I think I am up to 25 at this point, of the ones I accepted and can remember, anyway. Most of these are from the community, so they do not come with any special prizes or gifts, but they are still the most important because it means that those people who are most passionate about book blogging value my thoughts and my hard work. What could be more satisfying than knowing you are appreciated in your own community!?
I was also incredibly honored to have been nominated for Best Literary Fiction blog in the 2011 Book Blogger Appreciation Awards. I was further shocked and humbled when I discovered that I had been short-listed. Ultimately, I didn’t win – but having made it that far into the nomination and recognition process was an honor in and of itself, for sure! My blog was also keeping incredibly good company in that particular category, so it was quite exciting.
Two others I would point out quickly, though, were the “Men Your Men Could Blog Like” recognition that I received from Amanda at Dead White Guys, which was really cool because there are, percentage-wise, far fewer male book bloggers than female, so it is always fun being pointed out as “one of the dudes,” especially in a great way like this! The other is The Blog of the Week Award that I received from The Crazy Bookworm. It was so great to be spotlighted on another blogger’s website as “The” blog to check out.
Me: What are your plans for the future, and how do books fit in?
Adam: Well, I am sorta-kinda writing a book (but not really – but, yeah, kind of). I have begun and abandoned three books already, though. This could quite possibly be the fourth (but, wait a second – I thought they said “the third time’s a charm!”). In addition to that, I do work full-time in University Academic Affairs, which sucks up most of my time, and I am headed back to school this Fall to begin a Ph.D. program in English (American Literature). I already have two degrees in English, and, for some reason, I miss school quite a bit – so it seemed a natural “next step.” Books will obviously play a role there, though I do not know, yet, if I will review the texts that I read for my coursework… I might, if only to keep my thoughts organized and easily reviewable when research paper time comes around!
As far as Roof Beam Reader goes… I have plans for a re-design, soon and there may be a decline in the number of books I take on from review requests (both because I accept too many and because I will be insanely busy with schoolwork, so tying myself down to deadlines on reviews doesn’t seem like a great idea).
Ultimately, though, I plan to keep RBR.net around for a long time. I plan to continue my engagement with the community and to participate in events like BEA, ALA Week, Book Tours, Author Events, etc. I love it too much and I get far too much out of the experience to say “farewell” anytime soon!
Me: Will you recommend a few other book blogs you think are worth visiting?
Adam: Of course! I can tell you the blogs that I visit most often, although most are not “conventional” book blogs. These blogs tend to read more literature/literary fiction and some of them are written less like reviews and more like journals, which is great for those who are more interested in the personal process of reading (what a book means to the reader).
Allie of A Literary Odyssey
Amanda of Dead White Guys
Jillian of A Room of One’s Own
Judith of Leeswamme’s Blog
Me: Please write your own question, and answer it.
Adam: You have a policy of only accepting physical copies of books to review – why is that?
Well, at first it was because I did not have an E-Reader and because I refuse to read books on the computer. Reading is a very personal, spiritual experience for me. I connect with books physically – I often base my purchase of book editions not solely based on which publisher I most respect, but also on the texture of the book and its pages, the design, the smell, etc. To me, technological reading devices are (like most technology) cold things – they leech out the romantic element of the experience (for me). That being said, if E-Readers make it easier and more convenient for people to read and enjoy books, then more power to ‘em! I know a lot of “new” readers who have started reading (or returned to it) because it is cheaper/more convenient now, and I know a lot of traditional readers who have at least partially transitioned to the electronic platform, too. So, it is working for a lot of people, which means a lot of people are reading, which means I’m happy!
Me: I feel the same, Adam. I love to see numbers of book sales and readers go up instead of down. And I'm very happy you joined me on my blog this week. Thank you so much for your in-depth and thoughtful answers.
Next week on Blogger Wednesday I'll be hosting Lauren of Shooting Stars Mag and Let's Get Beyond Tolerance (among other blogs). She is terrific, so please do stop back.
I want to note that Adam and Lauren have teamed up to do a giveaway and blog hop devoted to my work. For which I thank them tremendously. But I didn't know they were going to do it when I asked them to be part of this series. I chose bloggers I know and like, and whose work I enjoy, not the ones who can do the most for me. But it is a great example of why I like them so much!