Meet the Reviewers Keeping Indie Lit Alive

It’s rare to find a book published by an independent press reviewed in the New York Times. Newspapers and popular magazines tend to focus on literary authors with rich parents and, when they do venture out into genre fiction, they usually play it safe by reviewing Stephen King’s latest bestseller. If you want to understand how difficult it is for an indie press to get their books recognized, take a look at Kirkus (a review publication you probably respect): for a 250-word review of your book, they charge a fee of $425. If you want a 500-word review, the rate increases to $575. Do you think Kirkus is charging the mainstream presses to review their titles? Fat fucking chance. So it makes sense then, that indie authors would have to seek out indie reviewers. Thankfully, there are many fine reviewers out there with decent audiences who will take on books published by the little people. Below, I reached out to a couple of my favorite reviewers and got to know them a little better. Let’s take a look…


ADRIAN SHOTBOLT/THE GRIM READER/BEAVIS THE BOOKHEAD

Can you remember the first book that turned you into a lifelong reader?

I can. It was Touching the Void by Joe Simpson. Joe was giving a speech at a nearby venue and I thought his real-life story of survival against the odds sounded really interesting. So, along I went. He was an incredibly engaging chap, so much so I picked up a copy of his book, got it signed, and took it home where I began reading it that night. Holy shit, I couldn't put it down. It's an amazing story! From there I stumbled onto James Herbert and his book The Rats, closely followed by The Ritual by Adam Nevill. I got a big horror hard-on after reading these two and the rest, as they say, is history.

How did you get started in the reviewing game?

The first indie published book I picked up was Video Night by Adam Cesare. I loved the cover art and the synopsis sold me. I wrote a short Amazon review when I'd finished it—only a couple of sentences. Adam contacted me on Facebook and said how happy he was that I enjoyed his book and he thanked me for the review. I was stoked he went out of his way to do that. I started picking up a few other indie books by folk like Kristopher Rufty, Brian Keene and Bryan Smith. Man, it was like I'd discovered another world. These books were great but I felt they weren't getting the attention they deserved so I made sure to review each one and start talking about them on social media. It took me a while to get the blog going. I was kind of embarrassed in the beginning that readers and writers were actually interested in what I thought. Slowly things started to pick up, the review requests I received went from a trickle to an avalanche!

And now here we are.

When writing a review, what are you trying to achieve? A general overview, an analysis of the text, a mixture of both?

Good question. I don't really have a formula that I adhere to when writing a review. I try to keep it simple. I tell people what worked for me and what didn't. I try to inject a bit of humour into it, too. I don't go too in-depth with regard to the writing, though I know good writing from bad. I also don't generally write long reviews. I subscribe to a lot of review blogs and everyone has their own style, but I like to keep it simple and informal.

Being a reviewer, you probably read more books than most people. What are you sick of seeing? What do you want to read more of?

Zombies. I will probably never read another zombie novel ever again (sorry Z authors). I don't care how much of a "new twist" the author has put on it, so I'm definitely sick of that. I'll always make room for a cheesy dinosaur book and I still don't mind the traditional horror stories featuring vampires, werewolves and haunted houses.

At the end of the day, I'm all about the characters. Give me someone I can relate to, someone to invest in and it really doesn't matter if it's been done a million times before. I also love emotion in my horror. John F. D. Taff, Kealan Patrick Burke, Damien Angelica Walters, Mercedes Yardley are all masters of this, these writers know how to pull at the heartstrings. I'll read everything they publish.


BENOIT LELIEVRE/DEAD END FOLLIES

Can you remember the first book that turned you into a lifelong reader?

It's certain moments more than precise books. For example, my mother always brought me to the library and worked her tail off to make a reader out of me. She'd never forced me to read anything, but always gave me books at my birthdays and Christmas, and often used her own library card to get me novels she thought I would enjoy. But it wasn't important what I read, as long as I was reading. I'd read way too many Archie comics back then, but I had my nose in books.

Another important moment is when I started studying literature in college. It was somewhat of a desperation choice because I had just been kicked out of the History program for bad performances. I started reading three books a week out of necessity then and never really stopped. Of course, I've slowed down to 1 or 2 books a week now, but was never without something to read since then and it's been what? 15 years?

Of course, I have special books like everybody else. My choices aren't that original, though: Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, Mystic River by Dennis Lehane, The Count of Monte-Cristo, etc. Books that have been (or would be) formative for anybody.

How did you get started in the reviewing game?

Boredom and misery?

I was working in a call center and hating my life. I was about to finish my masters degree in comparative literature and couldn't see it leading me anywhere I wanted to go. So I started a blog, not knowing what else I should do. It took me a couple months to figure out what I should do with it. My friend Jarrod was watching me read a David Foster Wallace essay collection one day and suggested I try the work of Chuck Klosterman, which changed the game for me. It provided me a framework through which I could be smart and critical without being academic. That's when I started reviewing books and movies more regularly. I've always had thoughts and feelings overflowing when I feel compelled by a strong work of art and, through Dead End Follies, I now have a fun way of communicating them. It's what the site is ultimately about: fostering discussion between enthusiastic readers and moviegoers who want to go the extra mile. I know many reviewers who feel indebted to writers for allowing them to read their book, gracing them with their friendship, yadda, yadda, but reviewing is not about that. It's about readers and audiences. I've been enforcing that quite drastically on Dead End Follies this year.

When writing a review, what are you trying to achieve? A general overview, an analysis of the text, a mixture of both?

First, I'm looking for something smart. Does the book have something that goes beyond clever narrative structure? For example, I reviewed Clive Barker's Cabal, this week. The thesis of this book is that the binary understanding of the world enforced by Judeo-Christian values is inherently wrong. Good vs evil, that sort of thing. The way Barker exposes that is by setting dualities he later deconstructs: life and death, day and night, humans and monsters, sanity vs illness. It's simple, clever and I believe any reader would benefit from knowing that going into the novel. It makes your reading more fun, trying to spot these dualities and understand how Barker invalidates them.

If the book doesn't lend itself to that, which happens—not everybody tries to reinvent the wheel—I'll go for a more simple analysis of what I liked and didn't like about the book, citing contextual examples for readers to get a good grasp of what I'm saying. I try to put analysis first, because it's what I like, it's what keeps me going and it's what I think offers most value for readers.

Being a reviewer, you probably read more books than most people. What are you sick of seeing? What do you want to read more of?

There's way too much stuff to coherently put in there, but let's say it like this:

If you're going to write something formulaic like a mystery, a vampire novel, or whatever, fucking go all in. Bleed your heart out on the page. I want you to solve your ex-girlfriend issues or look your past failures in the eye. I want you to be personally involved or I don't fucking care. Joe Clifford is an author who's mastered this. All the Jay Porter mysteries feel personal and even painful to a certain point. That's why I love them. They feel human and relatable to me. They feel real.

Otherwise, I'm really looking for stuff that thinks outside the box. I know it's a cliché, but the best thing that can happen for me when I read is not knowing what is going to happen next, and that doesn't happen all that much anymore. I've been on a binge of J.G Ballard over the last couple years because of that. High-Rise in particular was some wild-ass, no holds barred shit. It managed to terrify me without even trying to. But what genre is Ballard? Literary? Don't you think that's too easy? But I'm looking for stuff like that.

That said, I recently closed to review submissions on the site. You can't offer me your book anymore. I'll either request it or buy it myself. That's my way of keeping it fun and unpredictable. I don't want anybody dictating my reviewing schedule.


LORI HETTLER/THE NEXT BEST BOOK BLOG

Can you remember the first book that turned you into a lifelong reader?

This is probably going to sound really cliché, but I’ve been a reader for as far back as I can remember. My earliest memories are of spending weekend mornings at the library with my mom, searching the stacks for books to bring home. As far as a specific book, I do recall sneaking Stephen King’s IT off my mom’s bookshelf when I was around 11 years old and being both ridiculously terrified and completely enthralled by it. From that point on, you couldn’t find me without a book in hand.

How did you get started in the reviewing game?

I discovered Goodreads back in 2007, and began writing short reviews of the books I’d read or was currently reading on the site. Members would comment on my reviews from time to time, and after publishing a review I had written for David Maine’s Fallen, the author messaged me directly on the site and thanked me for taking the time to read and rate his book. Through those first initial conversations, a whole new interactive world of literature opened up for me. That’s when I started to realize that there were readers who were just as voracious, and just as hungry to talk about what they were reading as I was. That’s when I decided to start TNBBC, and within two years I had branched out into the blogging arena, where I made a conscious effort to focus on reading and reviewing small press literature.

When writing a review, what are you trying to achieve? A general overview, an analysis of the text, a mixture of both?

Reviewing has always been a fun and challenging exercise for me. My style of reviewing flexes slightly based on how I connect with each book I read. I’ve written reviews that read like a letter written directly to the author. I’ve gushed and gleamed. I’ve vented frustration (and btw, answering this question actually made me go back and revisit some of my reviews, and while reading this specific one, I started getting pissed off all over again at that friggen book! LOL). My intent never waivers though. I want to catch the reader’s attention. I want them to understand how the book made me feel. I want them to decide for themselves whether they want to experience the same thing.

Being a reviewer, you probably read more books than most people. What are you sick of seeing? What do you want to read more of?

That’s a great question. I generally avoid reading books published by The Big 5. Mainly because I have no interest in throwing money into a system that cranks out cookie cutter literature that will undoubtedly end up on best-seller lists everywhere. That’s tiresome and boring and I have no interest in reading what everyone else is reading. I’m most drawn towards the small press. They take risks and publish books that are breathtaking, edgy, and absolutely fucking amazing; books that stretch you, make you feel uncomfortable, and that mess with your head.


BOB PASTORELLA/THIS IS HORROR

Can you remember the first book that turned you into a lifelong reader?

I read through tons of children's books when I was younger—Dr. Seuss, etc.—but my first young adult book was part of The Three Investigators series, The Mystery of the Green Ghost by Robert Arthur. I can't remember much of the story now, but it definitely was a turning point for me.

How did you get started in the reviewing game?

I started reviewing on my blog, which I need to be more active on nowadays to be honest. I reviewed books I liked, linked them to my Facebook account, and made some great connections with the authors through social media. Being part of the Velvet forums (an online community celebrating the works of Will Christopher Baer, Craig Clevenger, and Stephen Graham Jones) helped me make some other connections, at the very least pointing me in the right direction of fiction I wanted to read. I then wrote reviews for several websites early on before writing reviews for This Is Horror. Now as website manager and podcast co-host, I review a lot less, but I have curated an excellent team of reviewers who assist in that department. I still take on the occasional review when time permits.

When writing a review, what are you trying to achieve? A general overview, an analysis of the text, a mixture of both?

I try to be as critical as possible without spoiling the story. There's a fine line there, and it's easy to give too much of the story away, and to heap mountains of praise on a book. It's much easier to write a negative review than a positive review. I'm pretty easy to please, but I'm getting more critical of things as I get older, and can usually find tons of things I didn't like about books I love. If you're writing reviews for a website/blog there are several factors to consider, including driving readers to your site, providing them with an engaging review of the material that either gets them excited about the book or at least provides some critical points on why it didn't work for you, and a means for the reader to get the book you're reviewing very easily.

Being a reviewer, you probably read more books than most people. What are you sick of seeing? What do you want to read more of?

I'm tired of stories that follow the tropes down the line, offering 'just another ghost story, or just another vampire story.' I'm not tired of the tropes, because that's what we have to work with. I'm tired of seeing things that I would call typical. As for what I'd like to see more of? More stories that straddle the line between the natural and the supernatural, never fully slanting either way, ambiguous and slippery, yet compelling. I want to see stories that use the old tropes in new ways, with new characters, new settings ... with a strong use of imagination and characters I give a shit about. If you write a story that can capture my imagination and give me people I care about, providing the natural and the supernatural in ways that leave me with more questions at the end and still lingers on my mind after the last page is turned, I'm in, and I'm going to tell everyone I know about that book.



SADIELOUWHO/MOTHER HORROR

Can you remember the first book that turned you into a lifelong reader?

The first book that made me a life long reader would be a tie between James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I can’t really remember which one I read first and I could never pick a favorite between the two of them. My original copies are so worn out from multiple reads. Roald Dahl knew how to write for kids, he made inappropriate potty jokes, the child protagonists were always incredibly smart but made mistakes so that we could relate. There were illustrations throughout but not too many—they weren’t for babies. I binged all his books.

How did you get started in the reviewing game?

I got started in the reviewing game by drinking a potent cocktail of becoming a Goodreads member and joining the bookstagram community. When I first joined Goodreads, I went through and gave star ratings to hundreds of books. Then I didn’t know what else to do with it until I made a dedicated Instagram account for posting pictures of my library. As I finished a book, I would photograph it and review it on Goodreads, not just with a star rating but with actual thoughts and feelings. The community on bookstagram would engage with discussion! As soon as I realized I had an audience and bookish friends to review for, it was a game changer for me. Now it’s part of my daily routine.

When writing a review, what are you trying to achieve? A general overview, an analysis of the text, a mixture of both?

When I write a review, there are two mortal sins I don’t commit:

I don’t disclose spoilers or the plot in any kind of detail. I feel like books have a synopsis if people want to know what it’s about.

I’ll also avoid talking about twists or surprises just because it’s my personal preference to read a book with a clean slate: no expectations for it to be a certain way—I think every reader wants to have their own, unique discoveries. My favorite thing to include in a review is my personal experiences: thoughts, feelings, likes and dislikes. I always write this part out to flesh out my true and final opinion and then I star rate it as my last step. After I’m done, I post it all over social media...ha!

Being a reviewer, you probably read more books than most people. What are you sick of seeing? What do you want to read more of?

I do read a lot of books! Currently I read mostly horror books. (I’ve been dubbed Mother Horror on Instagram.)

I’m actually sick of certain book marketing trends—maybe these are publishing problems, but someone is to blame here: Titles with “So and So’s Daughter or Wife.” This has to stop. “The Baker’s Wife” and “The Magician’s Daughter.” (I’m making these up) but you know the ones. Also, book covers with those “stickers” that you can’t remove—or even if you can remove them, just NO STICKERS. No movie tie-in covers.

Lastly, in horror, can we stop rehashing the plot for Stephen King’s IT?? It just can’t be improved upon and there’s a lot of great books with similar plot lines, so it’s been done. Done really well. We need more horror novels with a modern gothic vibe with witches or werewolves. More please!


There you go. Five excellent reviewers doing their best to spotlight works by indie authors. You no longer have an excuse for not reading more widely. Take a gander at any of these reviewers' websites and social media accounts and you're guaranteed to find something worth checking out. And yeah, of course I haven't included all of the reviewers I would have liked to in this article. As it is, we're already pushing 3.5k on the word count. But that's what the comments section is for! I invite you to drop a note below recommending your own favorite reviewers. Promote those who promote others.

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Comments

Han Jenny's picture
Han Jenny July 2, 2018 - 1:37am

I would photograph it and review it on Goodreads, not just with a star rating but with actual thoughts and feelings. geometry dash online.