I’ve got a real treat for you guys today–we’re going to mix it up a bit with the usual Awesome Authors interview and do an Awesome Reviewer piece with BigAl of the phenomenal BigAl’s Books and Pals indie review site. Okay, okay, Al enjoys doing interviews so it wasn’t like it was hard to talk him into it or anything, but I’m still stoked to have him on the blog today.
I’ve been a big fan of his review site since I went indie in 2011, and got to know Al during my stint at Indies Unlimited (he shared his gruel with me when I first started. I do miss those “raisins” that Kat always added. So thoughtful…) Al’s a staunch supporter of indie authors, working tirelessly to advance the cause, and has a wicked good sense of humor, to boot. Here’s his bio:
An avid reader for just shy of half a century, BigAl (who claims not to have a last name) spends the majority of his waking hours sitting at the computer. After working his day job (in front of the computer) his evenings are spent scheduling posts for The Indie View and thinking how happy he is to have never had the urge to become a writer. Then he’ll write reviews for his book review site, BigAl’s Books and Pals, or work on his next post for Indies Unlimited (a website for the indie author and those who read them). Those times BigAl manages to escape the computer are usually spent hanging out with his four grandchildren.
DV: Hi BigAl! Welcome to Awesome Reviewers🙂 Can you tell us a little about yourself?
BA: You’re really starting off with a short joke in the first question? Most interviewers save that until later for fear that I’ll storm out in a huff. Yes, I’m vertically challenged and called BigAl (I’m a fan of camel case) for the same reason every six and a half foot tall, four hundred pound man is called Tiny. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to live with it. Almost.🙂
DV: Your blog, BigAl’s Books and Pals, recently won the Indies Unlimited Excellence Award for Best Review site. Congratulations! How has the recognition changed your formerly luxurious lifestyle over there? Are you receiving extra rations of gruel? Are they at least including a few more ‘raisins’?
BA: Stephen Hise, the Evil Mastermind, always digs deep and makes sure I get a little more meat in my daily half bowl of gruel now. I’m not nearly as gaunt as I was and may soon have to go on a diet.
In all seriousness, congratulations on the recognition. You and your pals do a great service for indies and I, for one, am forever grateful to you and your site for intelligent, concise, and well-balanced reviews.
And thanks for the kind words. The Pals make all the difference. Without their help the site wouldn’t do nearly as well. We’d have many fewer reviews and some genres would get short shrift if I was on my own.
“If you want to find the next big thing before most of your friends… indie books are the place to find them.”
DV: How long have you been a book reviewer?
BA: It depends on your definition. I posted my first book review on Amazon in June of 2010. I started Books and Pals the following January after several authors and readers on the Amazon forums kept telling me I ought to and I grew tired of resisting. Prior to that I’d reviewed music for several years for a website specializing in what is often called Americana music as well as for an arts and entertainment magazine in St. Louis. If I didn’t have that prior reviewing experience I might have thrown in the towel when Books and Pals was only a few months old due to a few experiences early on.
DV: Why did you choose to review/support indie authors as opposed to traditionally published ones? Any thoughts on indie vs. traditional publishing?
BA: Do you have a word limit? I could go on forever on this question. The short answer has two parts. First is that just as in music, the big companies with high profiles need hits or bestsellers to survive. So what they choose to pick up is aimed at the center of the bell curve or, as I like to think of it, the lowest common denominator. If you want to find the next big thing before most of your friends (although most of my reading friends read Wool first and made me read it) or read books that don’t always hew as close to the tried and true formulas, indie books are the place to find them. Second, when I can I like to support the little guy. (Now you’ve got me cracking short jokes, too.)
DV:🙂 You contribute to or run three different blogs (that I’m aware of): BigAl’s Books and Pals, The Indie View, and Indies Unlimited, as well as work a day job. How the heck do you find the time to breathe, eat, or sleep?
BA: As I said above, the Pals help a lot and telling them I’ll hold my breath if someone doesn’t get me a review soon almost always works. I usually read while I’m eating (not to mention while cooking, filling and emptying the dishwasher, and a few other activities I won’t list), so multi-tasking helps. Being able to work my Kindle with one hand or read with it sitting on a kitchen counter makes all that possible. I’m not sure how, but I manage to fit it all in and still have time to hang out sometimes with my grandkids.
DV: Let’s talk about reviews: is it just you doing the reviewing or do you share?
BA: I share reviewing duties with the Pals which not only takes the pressure off me, but allows us to review a lot more books. I also have one Pal who doesn’t write reviews, but proofs mine. I do the same for the others, so we hopefully shake out the worst typos and other problems.
“I’ve read a hundred or more books a year for almost as long as I’ve been reading.”
DV: How many books do you review in any given year?
BA: The last few years I’ve read somewhere in the neighborhood of 150-200 books a year, which I think is a slight increase from before I started Books and Pals, but only slight. I’ve read a hundred or more books a year for almost as long as I’ve been reading. I review most of those and with the help of the Pals we average a review a day.
DV: Holy Cow! That’s a lotta reading. How do you choose which books to review?
BA: I and each of the Pals have their own process. I use a combination of methods, sometimes looking at the reviews in our queue about to “expire” to see if any jump out at me (we have an open submission policy, but if no one picks the book to review after a year it drops off), sometimes looking for a specific genre I’m in the mood for, sometimes a new submission will appeal to me and I’ll grab it before anyone else gets a chance, authors I’ve read and liked before, really it could be anything. One of the Pals vets books that look interesting by reading the Amazon samples and filtering out those with serious issues or that don’t grab him right away. I never go by anything except the title, author, genre, and sometimes whatever pitch is made in the submission.
DV: Do you have a rating system? If so, how does it work?
BA: We use a five star rating system which is defined to parrot the system used by Amazon although we try to use objective terms to describe each ranking rather than purely subjective as Amazon’s does. People think five star rating systems are all the same and really they aren’t. For example, an average book or at least your average review using Amazon’s system if you review every book you read should be closer to four stars than three which goes against most people’s instincts. For those who wonder, I wrote a post at Indies Unlimited that explains why this is.
“If I find more than the equivalent of roughly one [error] every ten or fifteen pages, you’re going to receive a three star rating, at best.”
DV: What do you like to see in the first pages of a book that’s been submitted for review on your site? What keeps you reading?
BA: A character experiencing a conflict. It could be something big (maybe a bullet hitting the wall behind the narrator) or something normal (a guy working up the nerve to approach an attractive woman in a bar). Whatever it is, I want to wonder “what happens next?”
DV: Are there any specific things writers do (pet peeves) that make you drop the book you’re reading and head for the nearest liquor cabinet?
BA: Lots. (I thought we weren’t going to discuss my “little problem.”) I’ll limit it to two.
Releasing a book into the wild before it has the proper polish. By this I mean that proofreading and copy editing functions have been done and done right. While reading, I keep track of typos, incorrect grammar (except in dialogue where the character isn’t well spoken), missing words, and other issues that should have been shaken out in the final stages of the editing process. If I find more than the equivalent of roughly one every ten or fifteen pages, you’re going to receive a three star rating, at best. One of the legitimate knocks on indies is that many of their books aren’t properly edited. I know that isn’t true of the best indie books, but where it is, I follow the take no prisoners approach.
Repetition. This can take several forms. Instead of going into them maybe I should plug Indies Unlimited again and link to this post where I gave a list of ten pet peeves and go into more detail on this one.
DV: What are your thoughts on negative reviews? What do you suggest an author do when they receive one?
BA: One option would be to not read it. For some authors that would be the best decision. The danger there is that you’re setting up an echo chamber and may miss a chance to learn something of value in how different readers react to your writing which could potentially help you improve as a writer. The most productive thing to do is consider the reasons given and ask yourself a few questions. Do I agree and if not, why not? Does it appear this reader was outside my target audience (maybe because your book was free and attracted readers who would have never given it a second glance otherwise)? Have the reviewer’s reasons been raised previously by others? Vent in private to a friend if it helps. Remind yourself that this is only one person’s opinion. Then, if there is nothing you think you can learn, file it way in the back of your mind and move on. If it helps, every time-tested classic of literature has someone who didn’t like it and has given it a negative review.
More important than what you do is what you don’t do. Don’t argue with the reviewer. (Who is the expert on what his or her opinion of your book is? This is an argument you can’t win.) Don’t click on that “review was not helpful” button on Amazon and have all your friends do the same. (Many reviewers know when this happens and they may be capable of being more passive-aggressive than you.) Don’t vent in public. Don’t start a war you can’t win.
“Don’t argue with the reviewer.”
DV: I certainly agree with you there. Where do you see the publishing industry headed?
BA: For my cues, I look to the music and, to a lesser degree, the video industries. Both have gone through what is commonly referred to as disruptive innovation, in both cases brought on by the same culprit, the internet. You can still buy DVDs, CDs, and even vinyl records, but most people download their music and stream video through Netflix or some other service. The paper book will still be around, but at least for narrative books, fiction and some non-fiction, it will become a specialty item, not the norm.
How that works out for the biggest players in the industry, the largest publishers, remains to be seen. I think they’re more likely to end up like the largest record labels than becoming almost extinct like Blockbuster Video. However, like the record labels, their business will shrink and they’ll become less and less relevant.
DV: All good points. What advice would you give to new authors?
BA: Do your homework. There are multiple ways to get your book in front of readers, each with advantages and disadvantages. Read, listen, and evaluate what those who have taken different routes to publication have to say about the experience. (Even better are authors who have had books published in multiple ways.) If you decide to self-publish, realize that you’ll be wearing two hats, author and publisher. Sometimes those two personas will find themselves at odds.
DV: No kidding. Are there any other projects you’re involved in that you’d like to mention?
BA: Sometimes I think I should write a book. Then I think about the first one star review and reconsider. Plus, I have that time problem you already pointed out.
DV: LOL. And now for the question I ask all my
victims guests: If you could time travel, either forward or backward, where would you go and why?
BA: Only one? No fair. Michael J. Fox got three chances.
If I have to pick one time and place I think I’d go to San Francisco, probably in 1967 or 1968. Hopefully you can make me thirty or thirty-five years younger so everyone won’t assume I’m a square. (That sure sounds dated, doesn’t it?) The why is easy. Partly it would be to observe and possibly participate in a time of social upheaval where I think the country changed for the better. (While you’re making me younger, can you make me taller and handsome, too?) And what about the music of that place and era? Cool and groovy, don’t you think? Right on.
DV: Yeah, man. I get where you’re coming from. San Francisco in the late 60s would be far out :)
Thanks for stopping by, BigAl. Good luck with that whole sleeping thing—and don’t forget to say hi to Jimi for me if you happen to end up back at the Summer of Love.
For more information on BigAl and his pals, follow these links: