Sunday, December 13, 2009

Reviewer Time: Simon Appleby ["Bookgeeks"]

Today’s Tuesday, which sadly is a bit far away from Sunday and another “Reviewer Time” should not just pop up from thin air, but these past few days I have been a bit out of reviewer mode, so I would have slapped something half assed, if I were to get this on time. Aren’t we all happy that I care for quality, huh? This week I have Simon Appleby, the mastermind behind one heck of a collaborative effort called the “Bookgeeks.”

What can be said about the “Bookgeeks”? Quite a lot springs to my mind, but let’s start with the most obvious. When it comes to looks, site layout and just a general first impressions the site looks professional, a step beyond the one man show blogger or the intimate friendly collaborative blogs. The content is entirely review-centered without in-between posts that show a bit more about the creator or the contributors and it is to be expected, when the regular contributors are more than ten and then there are guest reviewers as well. The personal touches might create a confusion of voices that are most likely to make a reader turn away, so this professional one tone impression content-wise is a difference from all the collaborative efforts I have seen so far.

“Bookgeeks” are not closely specified within a genre and everything goes from speculative fiction to modern contemporary, humor, sports, thrillers, history books and whatever else you can imagine. This is also to be expected by the amount of reviewers present and I am also quite pleased to read Nobel prize winner Herta Müller’s “Passport” and Robert Rankin’s “Retromancer” reviewed on the same page. It’s both the diversity in titles and the lack of discrimination between genres, which is kind of hard to come by these days, that are so welcoming to come and visit.

Most naturally there is other content provided. Articles, book competitions, interviews and panels appear here and there to add some more color to the site, but the predominant majority of posts are well crafted and intelligent reviews. I can certainly recommend “Bookgeeks” for the people, who like to genre hop, enjoy experiments and like to broaden their horizons.


HM: First, thank you Simon for agreeing to participate in this feature of mine. As we begin it is expected to supply some personal information, so can you present yourself and share what you do, when you are not running “Bookgeeks’?

SA: I recently joined Octopus Publishing Group as Digital Project Manager for Miller's Online (of which more below). I have spent the previous 11 years in a variety of client-facing roles for web design and digital marketing agencies, of which the last two and a bit were spent with an agency doing loads of work for publishers (Hodder & Stoughton, Faber & Faber, Little, Brown, A&C Black and HarperCollins among them).

Along with my partner Mathew F. Riley, we also run Bookhugger (, which is an on-line literary magazine working with various publishers, some of whom we got to know through Bookgeeks.

HM: In your website bio you say you are a Digital Project Manager for the Octopus Publishing Group. I bet you are feeling good to work someplace, where your passion overlaps with your duties, but I am curious to learn about this position. What exactly does a DPM do?

SA: I will be running a major online project working with the Miller's brand, which is headed by antiques expert Judith Miller (you may have seen her on Antiques Roadshow). Something of a departure for me, but as you say it's great to combine my digital experience with my love of all things bookish (and I should get to learn quite a lot about antiques along the way!).

HM: You are a voracious reader. That much is obvious, but how did the book addiction creep into your life?

SA: Since I was small – I was the classic example of a kid reading under the covers with a torch, and I remember being totally addicted to books from the age of about 6. My first passion was the animal adventures of Hal and Roger in Willard Price's books; I have been hooked ever since, and it's got even more established in the last five years, as my commute means I have at least 3 hours per day on the train to read.

HM: On your bio on “Bookgeeks’ it is said that you read from fantasy and SF to historical and contemporary. As a person with so many fields of interest don’t you find it hard to organize time slots to satisfy all your cravings? And with so many genres you read in, how many novels a month do you manage to finish?

SA: I did a history degree and can't live without slices of history now and then; other genres, much as I love them, I find difficult to read back-to-back, as the similarities can start to become a bit obvious. I try to never read two books of the same genre back to back. My weakness is in remembering to mix in serious fiction – usually once I start such books I enjoy them, and I can count on the fingers of one hand the books I have not finished since we started Bookgeeks in February 2008. I reckon on average I finish 8-10 books per month (fewer if there's a major fantasy epic in the mix!).

HM: In connection to the last question, do you have one genre that you read in primary and can’t live without? Mind you I am just asking for one genre.

SA: If fantasy encompasses Terry Pratchett then it would have to be fantasy!

HM: “Bookgeeks” is a collaborative blog with an impressive number of contributors and guest reviewers. Running blogs like that either rely on the chaos theory or employ a strict schedule. Which one is it with your site?

SA: Oh it's both :) We have a policy for scheduling reviews – 9am slots, minimum 24 hours in the top slot. But as my reviewers have their own lives and priorities, I never usually know what's coming in until it appears in the Wordpress queue. Sometimes we live hand-to-mouth, sometimes we have reviews scheduled in for a week or more.

HM: What got you into reviewing and prompted you to start Bookgeeks in the first place?

SA: It was started on a whim after a conversation with someone at Faber – I had never really tried my hand at reviewing, but it was an outlet for the writer in me, and also a great way to prove to our clients (the publishers) how passionate we really were about books. That really helped us with a number of projects.

HM: What is the coolest thing about reviewing, which had you hooked, and what is the aspect you don’t enjoy at all?

SA: Free books of course! That got me started, and the fact that it gave me an excuse to communicate with authors I really admired, kept me hooked. I don't enjoy getting books that I can't find a reviewer for, though I know publishers don't expect a review every time.

HM: What is your approach to reviewing? Do you read the novel with thoughts for the review? Do you take notes or just let it all come back to you later?

SA: Anyone who says they can read a book without thinking about what they are going to say in the review is lying. It's impossible. I find myself thinking about angles for the review, about opening paragraphs, about conclusions, as I am reading. It's definitely made me more sensitive to stylistic annoyances and problems with books.

HM: Also did you ever feel the need to stop with what you are doing?

SA: It's not always easy to find to find the time, but no, I love it too much to stop.

HM: Which is the one book or genre you would never ever try, because it’s too far away from your comfort zone, if you have a comfort zone?

SA: Anything with romance in the genre title (paranormal or otherwise).

HM: You have a no PDF policy on your site. Do you have something against the new electronic generation of books or is it something else?

SA: Basically, I don't have an e-reader, and I don't have time to read books on screen (which in some ways is a shame, because some great smaller houses, like P.S. Publishing, can only provide review copies as PDFs). I also think it discourages self-published authors from contacting us, as we decided a long time ago we needed the professional separation from the author that them having a publicist brings, so we have the freedom to review objectively.

HM: Christmas is quite near and with it knocking on the door, people start thinking about gifts for their loved ones, while book-addicts look forward to a Christmas Wish List. Do you have a wish list already and how long is it?

SA: My wish list is huge but I will be encouraging my family to buy music rather than books from it – because if you add up the review copies I get, and the myriad other titles that I own but have not yet read, it seems a bit silly to get more books. Plus, I am running out of shelf space!

HM: How was 2009 in reading and what do you expect from 2010 in terms of titles, events and in general?

SA: I think 2009 has been a great year (I read so many books that I have to look back at Bookgeeks to remember them all). I think my top books this year have been:

Max Frei's The Stranger – This series is up to 10 books in it's native Russian and they're all as good as the first one then we've got some treats to come.

Finishing Sean Williams' Astropolis trilogy – I enjoyed the books, and I was proud of the E.J.Thribb-esque intro and the general approach (a direct address to the main character). The author said “This is probably my favourite review ever at the moment” which made me happy!

Michael Cobley's new space opera is fantastic, really looking forward to volume 2 in 2010:

Joe Abercrombie goes from strength to strength. Best Served Cold was his best yet:

And to finish with something a bit more serious, I have loved discovering the works of The Wire's creator, David Simon this year:

Loads of great stuff to look forward to in 2010, but the best stuff will probably be the joy of discovering authors I haven't heard of or read before, via the joy of the review copy – that's how I discovered Chris Cleave, Nick Harkaway, Reif Larsen, Chris Wooding and even vintage authors like Joseph Hone, who Faber have brought back via Faber Finds.

What would make me happiest of all in 2010 would be GRRM's A Dance of Dragons finally emerging in to the light of day.

HM: Have you any secret writing dreams that you hope you materialize?

SA: Yes but they're a secret ;)

Mathew and I did get published this year, in fact – we had an article in the 2010 Writers' and Artists' Yearbook, which marks the first time I have been paid to write anything. We also had an article in the Bookseller magazine.

HM: Not a while ago Mark Charan Newton posed the question that perhaps Sci-Fi is dying, while Fantasy is expanding and flourishing. What do you think about this one?

SA: When we have amazing authors like Alastair Reynolds, Charles Stross and Neal Stephenson, and brilliant space opera writers like Iain M. Banks, Peter F, Hamilton and Michael Cobley, I don't think you can possibly argue SF is dying; Fantasy is undoubtedly flourishing, and is throwing off the “elves, dwarves and orcs” cliché image thanks to Steven Erikson, K.J. Parker and George R.R. Martin, among others. To my mind, fantasy has always been the more commercial of the two genres, and there are always trends and sales cycles, but I think SF is going to be fine...

HM: Also I have been drowning in genres that keeping sprouting everywhere and all definitions cause my brain to melt down. Truth is that to me the lines between genres are blurring into obscurity. Could this mean a possible post-genre future?

SA: While there are bookshops there will always be genres because the poor bloody booksellers need to know where to put things; not to mention the know-how that publishers build up in their specialist imprint teams to publish SF, fantasy, horror, crime, etc. There will always be books that blur the line or confuse people, but many of the new genres will find a home within the big, established genres I suspect.

HM: Speaking of changes in the industry, you must have heard about the Harlequin fiasco with the launch of their own vanity press and the strategy behind utilizing it to make profits. This has got to be a very interesting situation to watch unwind since so many organizations are rapidly reacting like RAW removing Harlequin from its list eligible publishers to the MWA and SFWA, who are taking similar actions. What do you feel about the whole situation?

SA: I was always taught to be extremely skeptical of vanity presses and anything that any publisher does that blurs line line between 'proper' and vanity publishing is probably a bad thing. The technology now exists to allow anyone to self-publish anything and make it look half-good – what makes publishers important is not the fact that they typeset and print books, but all of the things that happen before they get to that stage.

HM: As social networks grow, countless new sites that measure ranks pop up and more of us show at the blogging party have you officially entered the web hits war? I know there is one, even if it is silent, since we all want to be taken seriously and counted as reliable sources for information and critique and numbers prove that. Where do you stand on this subject matter?

SA: Stats are important to us (more for Bookhugger, as that is a commercial proposition), but we like to know people read what we write. We use a few site to rank our popularity, but I don't think we obsess over the results (we save that for our Google Analytics stats!).

HM: What are your future plans regarding “Book Geeks”?

SA: There will be a revamp at some point in 2010, centred around making it easier for people to find stuff and probably making a homepage that gives a better sense of the depth of content. No doubt we will continue to attract would-be reviewers, and if some of them are as good as our other stalwarts, we will expand the crew.

HM: Please finish with your own words.

SA: We really love Bookgeeks and hope people enjoy it. Geek on!

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