I’m embarrassed to admit this, but even though I’m a writer, who very much depends on book bloggers and their reviews, I never gave much thought behind how difficult it is to write reviews, week after week.
Until I started posting my own reviews on this blog.
Then it hit me: It’s hard, hard, hard to read a book and then review that book in such a way that’s fair and honest and yet also interesting, unique and personable.
So naturally I thought of Julie Valerie, a writer and book blogger I’ve admired for a long time, who reads and reviews an enormous amount of books each year plus is the mother of four children and, get this, has two fairly large dogs.
How in the heck does she do it all?
So I asked her just that. And luckily, she agreed to take time out of her very busy schedule and sit down and chat with us about what it’s like to be a popular book blogger.
Q: You read, a lot. How many books do you read a week, and how do you find the time? And do you have a yearly goal?
A: So great chatting with you, Cinthia. Thank you for inviting me to your website to talk about books.
I’ve always been a voracious reader but never tracked books or organized my reading life in any meaningful way until I started book blogging in 2013.
My book stats? Quite modest when compared to uber book bloggers who read 100+ books per year.
I’m about to write my 200th book review. After that, I suspect my eyeballs will fall out. And if each of the 200 books averaged 85,000 words in length, I’ve read about 17 million. Yow-za!
When do I find time to read? Oh gosh . . . I read all the time. My advice? Commit to carrying a book with you wherever you go and read when you feel active and alert. If reading at bedtime puts you to sleep, don’t blame the book. Blame the fact that it’s the end of the day; you’re exhausted, in pajamas, lying down with your head on a pillow.
Sleep happens. I’m way more productive with my reading when the sun is up.
Q: Do you prefer eBooks or hardcopy, or either?
A: I definitely read books across all formats and devices; hardback, paperback, ebook, audiobook. I buy books from indie booksellers, big box stores, and online booksellers. I also receive ARCs from authors and publishers, trade books with friends, and I’m on a first name basis with my local public librarian. I think there’s a name for people like me. Perhaps even, a twelve-step program.
Q: Did you read a lot as a child? If so, what were some of your favorite books?
A: Great question, Cinthia. I’m going to twist this question around a bit to tell you about a book from children’s literature that changed my life when I was an adult: Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne.
I read the actual book by Milne, not something created by Disney who later bought the rights and then fought to retain those rights and won. (Every writer should read: License v. Assignment? The Winnie-the-Pooh Trademark Dispute by Anne O’Donnell).
I was awed by the fictional reality Milne created with Christopher Robin and his stuffed playmates. I was in college at the time, a good distance from the imaginative play of my youth and yet, through words—through the manipulation of 26 letters, I was three years old again; believing stuffed animals were real. Anthropomorphic, animistic, personification, blah, blah, blah, whatever it was, I looked up from the pages, so astounded by how deeply I was immersed in the narrative—I declared writing a type of magic.
Because of that specific book, read at that moment, in that chair, I decided to study the art and craft of fiction writing. I wanted to peek behind the curtain. I wanted to become … a magician.
Q: Writing reviews isn’t easy. Do you maintain a schedule or pen reviews as soon as you finish a book?
A: I do a little of both. Often, I agree to post a review on a particular day of the month to coincide with an event in the book’s life, most typically, its release date, but often, if the book is being promoted through pricing or hitting the news cycle for some reason. I tend to write the review immediately after reading the book so the content is fresh in my mind. And when I’m reading a book for review, I always read with a stack of yellow sticky notes so I can tuck them into certain pages and take notes as I read.
Q: How do you choose the books you review on your blog?
A: The word ‘choose’ in your question highlights a sensitive issue, something that has led to my making changes on my website in 2016. I started book blogging because I wanted to share books I felt passionate about. But, like most book bloggers, I quickly lost control of my reading life because I had difficulty saying ‘no’ to requests for book reviews.
Soon, all of the book-rich content I created on the web led to publicists from publishing houses mailing me books. More and more authors were sending review queries. I began reading books on referral from other book bloggers. I joined reading challenges that featured preselected lists of books, even won the BookSparks 2015 Summer Reading Challenge Grand Prize.
Yes, I read books that appealed to me, but I soon realized the time I once spent browsing shelves at my favorite bookstore had almost stopped completely because my TBR pile was a mile long. I’ve been so “booked” with books I’ve lost those intimate moments with the bookshelves, quietly hand-selecting my next read. So many books, and truly, so little time.
Another problem? My reading commitments were taking time from my writing.
Q: You also write. Do you feel as if reading and reviewing books helps your writing, hinders it, or both?
A: Writers write. Writers should read, too. When I approach a page, I read for enjoyment, yes, but I also read to study the craft of writing.
Q: What’s your favorite book? Favorite author? Favorite genre?
A: Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne changed my life. Helen Fielding deserves mention for speaking to me in the late 1990s through Bridget in a watershed book that launched a genre. (You go, girl.) Favorite genre? I don’t know what it’s called but I love reading books about books and the book life. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan comes to mind, as does 84, Charing Cross Road by Helen Hanff. Was charmed by Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry and felt I was revisiting my favorite bookstore in Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. by Jeremy Mercer. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows is on my bedside table and yes, I know it was released in 2009, and no, I don’t know why I’ve waited so long to read it.
A: Love them both, but because I read so much women’s fiction, I tend to read more female authors than male. Not a deliberate choice, more a reality of the genre.
Q: What was the last book you read that really touched, and I mean grabbed and twisted and stunned you? Do you often cry at the end of books? If so, can you remember the last title that left you weepy?
A: Earlier this year, I reread Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides. My first reading was about fifteen years ago. Cried the ‘ugly cry’ all over again. Tears, snot, quivering chin, the whole bit. I was a mess. A glorious, book-loving mess.
Q: Have you ever turned down a review? If so, why?
A: Yes, definitely. I have to. For a while, I was receiving about 20 queries a day, way more than I could ever read. Some book bloggers read “wide” across many genres, but I read “deep” and specialize in a particular genre, so I tend to pass on books that aren’t women’s fiction.
Q: Tell us more about yourself and your writing. When did you realize that you wanted to write and how do you schedule your writing around your reviewing, and your work and personal life?
A: I “wrote” long before I thought of myself as a writer. Growing up, a spiral notebook was a novel waiting to be created, and I almost always had a spiral notebook novel “in progress” in my backpack. After college, I wrote a “real” full-length novel but that novel shall remain hidden in my drawer where it belongs.
When my youngest of four kids started kindergarten in 2013, the house was finally quiet in a way that allowed me to reconnect with the writer within. After giving so much to my family, it was finally “my” time. So I started my book blog and wrote my second novel while reading and reviewing 200 books in my genre.
I’ve learned a lot about the industry, about book reviewing, about book marketing and publicity, and I’ve built a solid base of readers through my book blog. My debut novel is complete but not released, my tenure as a book blogger is slowing down so I can focus on my writing, and I’m excited for what’s in store for me in 2016.
Q: What’s your take on 5-Star reviews? Do you feel they’re given out too generously? Do you think there should be stricter parameters when it comes to book review guidelines and rating?
A: Stars. They’re odd little things, aren’t they? Subjective, qualitative and quantitative at the same time. There’s gotta be a better system. Please, oh gods of Amazon, at least give us the ability to rank with quarter- and half- stars. I’d love a system where I can give a book 4 stars, 4.25 stars, 4.5 stars, 4.75 stars, or 5 stars. I know that sounds tedious but trust me, I’d welcome tedious over a lack of choice and accuracy any day.
Q: Do you ever write negative reviews? Or do you find something positive in every book? And do you feel that there is a place for negative reviews?
A: While I definitely indicate areas where I think the story, character development, or whatever is lacking, my policy has been to “fall silent” on books I really didn’t connect with rather than use my platform to openly bash a book. One example of how I handle negative feedback while also citing valuable merits of a book can be found in this post: Size doesn’t matter, fellas. It’s what you do with your sentences that matter. There was so much I loved about Verlyn Klinkenborg’s book, but his use of second-person POV and its resulting impact on tone needed mentioning.
Q: Tell us something about yourself that might surprise people.
A: I’m certified in wilderness first aid, lose my ability to spell when writing with a Sharpie marker, and have given presentations to audiences in thirteen countries. Presentations in said countries had nothing to do with either wilderness first aid or Sharpie markers.
More about Julie Valerie:
Julie Valerie spent a portion of her career as a university professor, a trend forecaster, and a paid professional speaker. She has presented to large, international audiences across North America and Europe. She is the founder and host of the 85K Writing Challenge, which challenges writers to write 85,000 words in 90 days. She runs a monthly Fiction Writers Blog Hop and her short story “LLL” was featured in the anthology, A Kind of Mad Courage. She is currently considering options for her debut novel, Holly Banks Full of Angst. She lives in Virginia with her husband, two daughters, two sons, and two English Labradors—one yellow, one chocolate.
P.S. Stay tuned next week for Julie Valerie’s advice on what writers should and should not do when approaching a book blogger (or, in more blunt language, how to not piss off a book blogger when begging for a review).