An Interview with Veteran Book Reviewer Michael Jones

Writing JournalAuthors 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.

Houses and Stories

I love houses.

Old and new. Big and small. Cozy and sprawling. Mansions, cottages, castles, ranches, igloos. Tudor, Cape Cod, Colonial, French Provincial. No matter the size or style, houses simply fascinate me.

One of my all-time favorite books for young readers is The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton, published in 1942 and winner of the Caldecott Medal. I remember being completely taken by this book as a child — the story of a little house that was happy living in the country, swallowed up by progress, then moved and happy again. I delighted in sharing this book with my three children.

153540What struck me as a kid, and still strikes me now, is the house’s expression and how it changes from a smile to sadness and despair, back to a smile again. How interesting it was that a house could have a face!

But the truth is, I think houses have stories too, shaped by the people who live in them and the neighborhoods they are a part of, and perhaps that’s why I love them so much.

I’ve never been a runner or very good at going to the health club, but I do take a long walk almost every day. Sometimes when I’m out walking and get a glimpse inside someone’s house, I immediately start imagining the story of the people who live there. (It’s a little creepy, yes, but admit it — you’ve done it too.)

My mini-obsession with houses prompted me to set my middle grade novel, The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days, in a cul-de-sac of eight houses. Here’s a drawing from the first page of the book. Each house in the neighborhood has a story and a personality. Mr. D, a reclusive neighbor who never comes outside, has a neat house with the shades revised cul de sac finaldrawn tightly. One house is for sale and it’s unloved and empty, with overgrown grass and broken shutters. Mrs. Chung’s house has Christmas lights strung around her trees year-round and marigolds in front.

All of these details come into play in the story, as the main character sets out to do 65 good things for her family and neighbors the summer after eighth grade, except things don’t go exactly as she envisions.

For me, character’s houses (or apartments or huts or igloos) go so much beyond just the setting. They’re almost characters in themselves, with quirks and emotions and unique attributes. And the details that are found in houses can become important parts of the plot, such as a lost toy or Grandma’s antique table or a rusty, squeaky swing set.

I particularly loved Kristen Kittscher’s The Wig in the Window for just that reason. Seventh-graders and best friends Sophie Young and Grace Yang, who 12848132make a game out of spying on their neighbors, stumble on an adventure and mystery that unfolds from something they see in a house.

To me, home is not just where the heart is, but where the heart of the story is.

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days (Wendy Lamb Books 2014) and Calli Be Gold (Wendy Lamb Books 2011). Both books are on 2015-2016 state reading lists. Michele can be found at micheleweberhurwitz.com.

From the Island of Misfit Books, Episode 2

My prior Mixed-Up blog entry introduced the Island of Misfit Books, populated by works that find themselves in publishing limbo: unsalable manuscripts; series books abandoned by their publisher; and other books with no traditional route to readers who would love them.

For the sake of those books, I’ve been gathering information about self-publishing and sharing with other authors who find themselves in a similar position.

So far we have learned that:

  • Self-publishing is now called indie publishing because, like indie music and indie film, indie publishing sees itself as an underground movement. Whatever you do, don’t call it “vanity” publishing;
  • Self-publishing has become more common and less stigmatized than in the past;
  • Because of trends and market forces, traditional publishers are less willing or able to support midlist authors as they did in the past, and are putting more resources into short-lived blockbuster titles;
  • Authors with hybrid careers, publishing both traditionally and independently, are becoming more common;
  • For indie publishers, the rise of ebooks and print-on-demand technologies have eliminated the need for large print runs and warehousing expenses;
  • Online retailers have automated the ordering and fulfillment process;
  • Websites and social media have made powerful marketing tools inexpensively available to authors; and
  • An independent marketplace for many of the services provided by traditional publishers—editorial, proofreading, design, layout, marketing, and publicity—have made it possible for indie books to be as polished and professional as traditionally published books.

Or in other words, for authors who believe strongly enough in their work, the Island of Misfit Books has a sleek fleet of escape boats.

One recent inspirational example of a middle grade escapee from the Island is…

The Sweet Spot by Stacy Barnett Mozer

When thirteen-year-old Sam Barrette’s baseball coach tells her that her attitude is holding her back, she wants to hit him in the head with a line drive. Why shouldn’t she have an attitude? As the only girl playing in the 13U league, she’s had to listen to boys and people in the stands screaming things like, “Go play softball!” all season just because she’s a girl. Her coach barely lets her play even though she’s one of the best hitters on the team.

All stakes now rest on Sam’s performance at baseball training camp. But the moment she arrives, miscommunication sets the week up for potential disaster. Placed at the bottom with the weaker players, she will have to work her way up to A League, not just to show Coach that she can be the best team player possible, but to prove to herself that she can hold a bat with the All-Star boys.

The Sweet Spot

The Sweet Spot

Mixed-Up Files author Stacy Barnett Mozer says:

Self-publishing The Sweet Spot was not an easy decision. I went the traditional route first. The book had an agent, spent a year in revision, got feedback from editors, went through more revision, but it didn’t sell. My agent suggested putting it in the drawer. I spent over a year working on other projects, but my heart was still in this book so I took out the editor feedback again and spent another two years revising it. I could have sent it back out there but the idea of taking control of the process became too enticing. It was the right decision for me and this book to do it myself.

What I have liked about self-publishing is that it has been up to me to get the book out there, to make sales, and to champion my work and since I have access to all of my sales, I can tell within a few hours whether something I tried worked. And getting the book out there hasn’t been completely my doing either. Every time someone has posted about my book on Facebook or written a review on Amazon, I have seen a bump in sales. It has not been easy, but at this point over a hundred kids all over the country are reading my book. That wouldn’t have happened if it had stayed in my drawer.

More details on Stacy’s decision and experiences can be found here and here.

Inspired by Stacy’s success, I’m building my own escape raft for…

Galaxy Games, Book 2 by Greg R. Fishbone

Galaxy Games, Book 1: The Challengers was the story of Tyler Sato, who turned eleven and got a star named in his honor…

which turned out to be a doomsday asteroid…

which then turned out to be an alien spaceship!

Tyler found himself at the center of the most important event in human history, and only his last-second victory over an alien challenger could secure Earth’s invitation to the greatest sports tournament in the galaxy.

I thought it’s a great story, but I also wrote it, so I’m biased. But my agent thought it was a good story, my editor thought it was a good story, my publisher thought it was a good story, and that it would make money. A whole bunch of talented folks helped turn it into an actual book, and I was very grateful to have them on my team. Readers thought it was a good story too, or at least the ones I’ve heard from. It’s just a shame there weren’t enough of them to maintain an ongoing series.

And that’s how GG#2 ended up on The Island of Misfit Books.

I resisted the self-publishing route for a long time after the series cancellation because I didn’t want to be a publisher. I’ve already done that once, and I hated it. Back in the 1990s, I published Mythic Heroes magazine, working long hours with tight deadlines. I read submissions, purchased stories, commissioned artwork, managed an editorial staff, put layouts together, took out advertisements, dealt with a printing company, a shipping company, warehouses, and distributors, handled returns, and acted as corporate attorney, accountant, and IT department.

There was so much grunt work that I didn’t have any time left for actually writing anything, which was why I’d started the magazine in the first place.

But today, an ebook can be put together with HTML, which is like a second language to me. And now you’re telling me that I no longer have to front for a print-run and fill my garage with boxes?  Sold!

2015 is not 1995. It’s a brave new world, with fewer excuses than ever for a good book to remain cooped up on an island, on a USB drive, or in a desk drawer.

Which is why I am pleased to announce, officially, that by this time next year you will be able to hold a copy of Galaxy Games, Book 2 in your hands!

Or loaded into your favorite device, which would also be located in or near your hands. Either way, Tyler Sato’s next adventure will be in close proximity to your fingers very soon.

In Book 2, we will discover the high personal cost of Tyler’s victory, and the new danger that will emerge as the Earth team ventures into the galaxy for the very first time. The story world will expand, the stakes will be raised, mysteries will be revealed, and new characters will be introduced.

Website Reveal

There are several places you can go to keep up with Galaxy Games news. The Mixed-Up Files blog, of course, but also galaxygam.es, where a new series website is coming together. It’s an early beta, so your feedback and comments are welcome.

And since I won’t have a traditional publishing house behind this second book, I would love to have you on Team Tyler as we launch this boat off the shores of the Island.

Greg R. Fishbone is the author of galactic fiction for young readers.