Monthly Archives: February 2011

Issue of February 27, 2011

We are proud to announce that Carl Rollyson has joined BiblioBuffet and his new column, Biographology, debuts this week. In addition, you will find a long but fantastic interview by Gillian Polack; a wonderful sports book that probably isn’t on your bookstore shelves but should be on your shelf; and a short essay on finding new homes for unwanted books.

Defining moments in our lives tend to me unusual and worth remembering. Pete Croatto shares his discovery of a fantastic book about one of those moments in football, an extraordinary few seconds that changed many lives in A Sense of Where You Aren’t.

Does the art of reviewing biographies justify its means? Or is there a better way?  In Biographology, professional biographer Carl Rollyson argues that most biography reviewers shortchange readers by focusing on the subject rather than the genre—the biographer’s sources and methodology, where a particular biography fits into current practice, and the history of the genre.

In Placelessness and Between: A Talk, three writers of “the fantastic” (SFF) come together with Gillian Polack to create a conversation in which they focus on their backgrounds and memories that play “a strong part in how they write” and include “strong senses of place and time into their work.”

What do you do with books you no longer want on your shelves or with books that someone gifted to you and you really don’t want? Lauren Roberts shares her choices for re-homing books to new homes in How to Get Rid of Books.

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Book Review Sites: A Compare-and-Contrast Observation

First, let me apologize for not posting at this time last week. I was pretty  much incapacitated with a calcium deposit in my shoulder. Typing was so painful I avoided as much of it as I could. But I am healing now so let’s get on with it.

Two weeks ago, I did a bit of a rant about vanity book review websites. This week, as promised, I want to do a compare-and-contrast analysis to show you exactly what authors and readers will want to look for when seeking opinions about books. We’ll look at two online sites—Bookslut and BookPleasures.

Bookslut is one of the oldest online book review sites and a hugely popular one. It’s beautifully designed with a clean format that uses three columns to separate their current issue from the reviews and columns. Heading up the page is a well-designed logo and well-chosen typeface, and under that are small tabs that offer quick access to various parts of the website.

The date and number of the current issue is clearly noted, and its individual pieces are previewed in a manner designed for easy reading. Clicking on a review takes you to the page for that particular book, which is also well designed. The column that holds the review offers a lovely image of the book, the typeface is clean and clear. Information about the book—the title, author, publisher, ISBN, and number of pages—are neatly formatted at the end of the column. Any imaged advertising is set off to the left of the page (and in the header); Google ads, text only, are at the bottom of the page. The only thing that can be annoying is the flashing of one of those imaged ads, though that is rare. Columns are pretty much laid out like the reviews. Any books discussed in them have their images embedded to the left top, where the column text begins. Ads are to the right.

Their contact page is minimal but offers all the information needed on submitting books for review and for writers who wish to apply. Their description of Bookslut is succinct with a touch of humor: Bookslut is a monthly web magazine and daily blog dedicated to those who love to read. We provide a constant supply of news, reviews, commentary, insight, and more than occasional opinions.

It is a site designed for readers seeking good information on books, and entertaining and thought-provoking essays, interviews, profiles, and commentary on books and reading. The writers are professionals, and their writing is top notch. The reviews are erudite, informative, and provide excellent information about the book sometimes within the context of the author’s previous work or background. In other words, readers get the information they need to make an informed decision.

For those seeking to advertise, they have a separate page that explains in just enough detail the reasons to advertise. They also provide links to their specifications and prices—no hidden fees or sneaky hints, just clear, simple information.

To say it briefly: Bookslut is a consummately professional book review website that knows its focus (readers) and strives to provide a high-quality, pleasurable reading experience.

BookPleasures, I am sorry to say, is Bookslut’s opposite in more ways than one. Its logo is a free clip art image, and the typeface for the name appears to have come straight off a 1960s typewriter. Above the logo is a page-wide list of internal links in a tightly squeezed box that spans the page, making it an effort to determine where to go.

Google ads litter the top of the page. The background is a dull gray, and the layout has three columns. To the right is the “BookPleasures’ Section,” which offers links to various parts of the site but not one of which, until you get down to the fourteenth link, is geared to readers. Clicking on any of these makes it obvious that the intent of the site is to sell services to the authors who come here. You need a quick review? That will be $119, please. How about an e-interview? A mere $50. Editing services? We can do that by referring you to someone who will charge you $35 or $60 per hour. (I don’t know this, and it’s not illegal, but I would be willing to bet that some of that money also makes it way back to the founder of BookPleasures.)

The center section is also poorly formatted. There’s a picture of the reviewer that is clearer than that of the book cover, mostly because the cover is encased in a border that also holds several links to Amazon. You can barely read the title or author’s name because the font color of the permalink is a hard-to-read bright blue and begins with the author’s name, not the book title, and includes the “[reviewer name] of BookPleasures” in one long sentence. The typos don’t help much, either.

In other words, it’s all about the writers. And BookPleasures.

Readers are shortchanged. Indeed, they appear not to be thought of at all. Reading the reviews is an exercise in pain. Grammatical errors and clichés graffitize the reviews. There is very little description that is useful to someone looking for a new book. What does it behoove any reader to learn that a reviewer “enjoyed reading this book”? Or that “pages have a sensuous, shiny feel that makes one’s fingers linger.” I love the sensuality of books, but those kinds of statements cannot possibly help a reader make a judgment about whether a new book is worth buying. They do, however, have the advantage of making an author feel good. Ideally, an author who paid for the review.

In short, BookPleasures is an author-focused site that looks to squeeze money out of its readers client-authors. The fact that the founder repeatedly stresses that these money-making offerings are optional is telling. Methinks he doth protest too much.

Quality book review sites like Bookslut know that their audience is composed of readers who demand quality in the writing found on the sites and in the books they review. If you are an author, look for sites and blogs that appeal to readers. Look at their design, their features, their writing, their writers. Would you want to hang out there if you were not an author? Does the site repeatedly solicit books or simply provide guidelines for submission? Are there any charges for anything, optional or not?  

Does it appeal to you as a reader? Is it fun, enjoyable, interesting? If you are a reader, do the book reviews and essays appeal to you regardless of whether or not you agree with them? Does it seem sufficiently trustworthy that you would you buy a book based on their recommendation? Is the site visually appealing? Does it annoy you with its ads, or are they tastefully designed and placed? Is the writing worth reading on its own even if you are not interested in the book being reviewed?

Remember, there’s a big difference between Parmigiano-Reggiano and Cheez Whiz. Learn the difference, and enjoy the fruits (cheese?) of your knowledge.

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Issue of February 20, 2011

Winter marches on, even in southern California, so to keep you warm we have lots of excellent reading. From literature to audio books, from bookmarks to xxx, it’s here. Curl up, enjoy our columnists—and perhaps find wonderful new books to add to your shelves. We wish you a wonderful week.

At a time of increasing global unrest, it’s more important than ever to understand the world outside our borders. Lev Raphael’s reading of famed translator Edith Grossman’s book about the (difficult) art of good translation shows that we have little chance of knowing other countries and peoples if we cannot engage with the minds of their authors, a theme he explores in Found in Translation.

Cleopatra. The name rings romance. But the reality may be far different—more convoluted, complex, political, savvy—than mere sexuality. Nicki Leone reviews the recently issued biography of the Egyptian queen and finds a (mostly) wonderful book unfortunately hobbled, in part, by the subject’s own legend and its myriad incarnations in History is Written by the Winners (if They’re Men).

In the midst of writing her first novel, Lindsay Champion undertook to read the well-known On Writing by Stephen King. Much more than a how-to book, this “dual-layered educational memoir” teaches that writing earnestly enriches the lives of writers’ readers and of writers themselves as Lindsay discovers in Notes from the King.

Time is one of those elusive things that is hard to define. Yet it runs our modern lives. We live by the clock and we die by it (at least for the official records). Lauren Roberts explores the history of the devices used to keep track of time, and of two companies in particular whose beautiful bookmarks, originally intended as sales tools, pay tribute to the pride of workmanship in Odeur du Temps.

Guest columnist Alessandra Bianchi was with her family on a beloved trip that had turned sour and silent when she came up with an idea that turned everyone’s mood completely around: Finding the Boy in the Man in the Balloon.

If you know anyone (or are someone) who is still displaying December holiday items she, he or you are not alone. Lauren Roberts finally took down her Christmas tree only to discover that the books that had been moved to make room for it now had nowhere to go in Books. And More Books.

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Issue of February 13, 2011

We’re full of books. Just for you. Please enjoy our new issue, and have yourself a wonderful week!

This week, Gillian Polack takes her readers on an extended journey through several spectacular new books of speculative fiction that she spent two days doing nothing else but reading. It’s funny how summer (for her, in Australia) brings out the post-apocalyptic, heroic fantasy, traditional fantasy, steampunk, and Arthuriana desires in Five New Books

He began another book for his column this week, but it wasn’t long before Pete Croatto bagged it as poorly written and dull. Then he picked up a new biography of legendary baseball player Henry (Hank) Aaron and found himself enmeshed in a fabulous world fueled by exhaustive research and a humane point of view about a man who was “the standard of excellence” as he shares in The Standard Bearer.

The recent news about the staff lay-off’s at Powell’s Bookstore has been distressing for Lauren Roberts, who is a devoted fan of the store, its books, and its website. She hopes it is only a step back onto the road of recovery—and not in the other direction—and muses a bit about what it means for her in Say It Ain’t So!

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Fries with That Review?

As the publishing industry changes, and as technology allows for anyone to publish inexpensively, the number of books issued each year continues to grow. The self-published and vanity-published ones are mostly  destined to sell fewer than 100 copies each because no one knows about them, but even authors from the major houses feel the pressure to get to get and keep their sales up or risk not having future books accepted. That means publicity.

Publicity can encompass all kinds of things: book signings; book tours (virtual or, less commonly, real); postings on their own blogs, Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, or on forums; links, articles in magazines, newspapers, and online publications; and book reviews. 

Places that publish book reviews also span a wide variety of types and styles. There are trade publications such as Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, Kirkus. These get the attention of those who can make a book such as librarians and booksellers. For general readership, the big venues are the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and similar. Sadly, most of these have cut back on their coverage because of insufficient advertising, but they still are the dream of most authors. With the exception of the NYT, several online sites that incorporate reviews are nearly as powerful: Slate, Bookslut, the Huffington Post. There are the lesser known but also high-quality sites and blogs—BiblioBuffet among them—that are exclusively book review sites or that review books as part of their offerings. What they all have in common is a well-designed product, fine writing, a passion for good books, and writing designed for readers seeking opinions on good books. In other words, they are the Parmigiano-Reggiano of the book world.

Over in the other corner are the Cheez Whiz of book review websites and blogs. Like vanity publishers, these are easily discernible by their pandering to authors, the inevitable bells and twinkles of amateur web design, and often poor writing. Not all of them do this, but it is not unusual for them to charge authors, not to get a book reviewed but to get it reviewed expeditiously. It’s still money, though, and it’s coming out of the author’s pocket.

Fact: Legitimate book review sites cater to readers. Excellent, legitimate book review sites cater to readers with high-quality writing, factual statements, honest opinions, insightful commentary. In other words, they know who their audience is and they care about that audience.

I dislike these “vanity review sites” as much as I do vanity publishers. The fuels upon which both feed are, in too many cases, naïveté and desperation. So next week I plan to do a compare-and-contrast analysis of two very different online review sites to highlight what one should look for and avoid regardless of whether one is an author or a reader.

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Issue of February 6, 2011

From the world of chess to the world of drugs, BiblioBuffet travels the gamut this week to bring you some excellent writing and interesting stories along the way. Join us and find something good for yourself too!

Benjamin Franklin once noted that “life is a kind of Chess, with struggle, competition, good and ill events.” And Nicki Leone says she can’t “shake the feeling that chess is more than ‘just a game.’ ” And while she doesn’t get the chance to play as much as she’d like these days she does keep her passion for it alive with one of her bookish fetishes: fiction about chess—of which there are some excellent ones as she discloses in Chess Stories.

After more than month of reading books that dealt with deep caving, murders both fictional and real, real-life poison, cruelty, and other manner of darkness, Lauren Roberts needed an out. That proved to be a gift of a collection of audio recordings of Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet, dramatist, and writer. She shares how the evocative series that showcases the striking voice and fervent words of a rare talent helped her find bright new ground in Driven by Dylan.

Broadway diva Patti LuPone has a new memoir out. This is a book that Lindsay Champion has been waiting to get her hands on, and she is not disappointed, noting that it is delivered with “blazing intensity and brash attitude.” Not everyone’s cup of tea, she admits, but one that Broadway fans will certainly want to read about in Just a Little Touch of Star Quality.

It certainly wasn’t the “days of wine and roses” back in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—at least as far as medications were concerned. A bookmark advertising a “cough balsam” containing what would prove to be a poison and a disastrously addictive drug sent Lauren Roberts on a search into the world of early medicines that may or may not have cured illnesses but certainly created problems of their own in Medicine of Ills.

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The Times They Are A-Changin’

In a manner of speaking, they are changing. But only a bit. Our submission guidelines (for those seeking reviews) currently state this:

BiblioBuffet’s mission is to bring into the public eye high- quality books from small andmedium-size commercial publishers including university presses, though we review from large houses as well. We accept books, both fiction and nonfiction, in all genres except business, self-help, true crime, New Age, and romance. We do not review self-published or vanity-published books, which include but are not limited to those from Publish American, Vantage Press, Xlibris, iUniverse, Dorrance, Booklocker, and Lulu.

Two reasons exist for this: (1) it helps us manage our inflow by cutting down on the number of books we receive, and (2) it filters out books that lack any kind of editorial gatekeeping, that is, they have not been selected, paid for, and edited by houses whose goal is to sell books to the public.

When I originally wrote thes guidelines, I had in mind factors that would help determine how we would define a “commercial” press, especially because we wanted to find good books from smaller publishing houses. One of those factors was distribution. To keep it simple, I will say that distribution is the means by which publishers sell their books to the book buyers and owners of brick-and-mortar stores. Online stores, on the other hand, list every book that has an ISBN, a unique identifying number. The difference is important because online shopping, whether at Amazon, Powell’s, or your local independent store’s site, is rarely good for browsing. If you know what you want or if you are looking for a nonfiction title on a specific subject (“how to sail”) it can be excellent, but if you are a fiction reader wanting to browse new titles there is almost no way to . . . easily browse. You are up against millions of books. At physical bookstores, browsing is easy; you have fewer books but you have the ability to take them off the shelf, check out their cover art, skim the blurbs and jacket copy, and read enough to determine if it is a book you want to buy. These are comparison factors that can’t really yet—even with excerpts—be gotten online.

This is where recommendations come in. These could come from various sources: friends and family members whose taste you trust; book clubs; readers’ discussion forums like Dirda’s Reading Room, Book Balloon, LibraryThing, GoodReads; or some of the numerous excellent blogs and websites devoted to books and reading, whether they are connected to bookstores, magazines, or newspapers, or are run independently, and whether they specialize or are general.

As one of these general independent websites, BiblioBuffet takes its responsibilities to its readers seriously. We have what we believe to be some of the best writers around. We give them maximum freedom to find books that interest them, and we encourage them to write honestly.

One of our guidelines for reviews and reviewers, as noted above, is that we do not review self-published or vanity-published books. But that “rule” has loosened up a bit lately because we have run across a few—a very few—independently or self-published books that go above and beyond the usual self-published level. One of those was a book called Bound for Evil: Curious Tales of Books Gone Bad, issued by Dead Letter Press, a niche publisher of fine limited edition books of new and classic fantasy and horror fiction. DLP’s books do not have the traditional channel of distribution to bookstores. Instead, they must be ordered from the publisher’s website. But . . . these books are as carefully conceived, planned, and executed as any other—and more so than most.

More are coming too. Nicki Leone is working on a column about a new book of poetry, an unusual book in several ways (“about race in the south by the former NC poet laureate, printed in a limited letter press edition, selling for $100, with covers made from old pulped confederate flags”). And Pete Croatto recently e-mailed us to ask about the possibility of reviewing a self-published book he discovered that he feels is going to be fantastic.  (We said yes.) Neither of these books is going to be available through bookstores, but they are available. And because they are excellent you, our readers, deserve to know about them.

During our e-mail discussion with Pete over the book, Nicki wrote what I feel was a to-the-point summary of our goals: 

The most important thing is that BB’s writers have the freedom to write about what moves them. I trust all our columnists to understand when a book is worth reviewing and when it isn’t, so if you have found a self-published book that covers an important or interesting topic or event, or that you think is particularly well done, or brings up an interesting issue that you want to tackle, then that seems like enough justification to me to write about it. 

Lauren’s points about BB’s original criteria are worth keeping in mind, and should be honored for their intentions, if not followed to the letter. . . . if you do decide to review a self-published book, it needs to be evaluated as if it had received all the editorial work one expects from a traditional press. If it doesn’t show that level of craft—if the text is rambling, the typesetting bad, the cover looks like someone’s first Photoshop project, then the review needs to fault the book for it.

I don’t recommend changing the official submission policy, all the while keeping in mind internally that there may be a difference between “self-published” and “vanity” and that once in a blue moon the former can be considered, if one of our writers is interested enough or passionate enough about the book.

So while our original guidelines are not changing they are incorporating flexibility so that we at BiblioBuffet can continue to bring you news of books that offer “writing worth reading” and are “reading worth writing about.”

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