This is the first interview in 2010 in my continuing series “For Love of Books” and today I’m interviewing Val Kovalin, owner of the wonderful blog Obsidian Bookshelf who also moonlights occasionally as a guest reviewer on this site.
In this series, instead of talking with authors I interview book reviewers, the people who give their opinions about different M/M books and influence the buying patterns of thousands of readers. I wanted the readers to meet the people behind the reviews. Val, like other book reviewers, does this because she loves books and she gives her opinions so that you, the reader, can get a sense of which books are good, bad or downright ugly.
Reviews are always a matter of opinion whether it’s movies, restaurants, stage shows, books, etc., and these opinions can vary from one end of the spectrum to the other, which is why it’s always a good idea to check out several reviews if you have the time, before you put down your hard earned money to buy a book. Most reviewers are motivated by their love of books, are impartial, and if they have any biases they state them upfront, and they don’t expect anything other than “thank you” from the readers.
Hi Val. Thank you for agreeing to my request for an interview.
You’re very welcome. I like this series you’re doing on reviewers. We need all the attention we can get.
Many of the bloggers who come by the site don’t know you very well so I wonder if you could tell us something about Val?
I’m totally what you might expect, in my early 40s and married. My husband and I have been together more than 20 years now. He beta-reads my fiction and tells me if I write anything about men that seems improbable!
I love reviewing because I love to pick apart fiction to see how it works. Trying to write it is even more interesting. In 2008, I wrote an m/m fantasy novel to try out everything I’d soaked up through my reading. I don’t think it’s publishable as is, but I wouldn’t mind recycling parts of it. In 2009, I wrote two m/m paranormal novellas. I’m just now kicking them out the door to meet their eventual destinies.
To have them get accepted by an e-publisher would be very exciting. On the other hand, the lure of self-publishing is very tempting. It might almost be worth the work it would take to have the opportunity to play with all those variables like cover art, distribution, and promotion. It would be a lot of interesting stuff to learn.
How long have you been reviewing and when did you start?
I started about three years ago.
One of your other gigs is with ARe. How did you become associated with All Romance Ebooks and what is your role there?
They recruited me. Their press release reads: “Beginning in early September the Wildfire newsletter will feature five rotating columns … The columnists themselves were carefully chosen for their prior experience as reviewers and their expertise in each genre.”
I’m still surprised and gratified because I’m not that well known a reviewer. The All Romance Ebooks people have been great to work with! I write the column for M/M Gay Romance, and the other four reviewers take a mostly m/f approach to Historical, Contemporary, Multicultural, and Paranormal. It’s been a great opportunity for us reviewers to reach the thousands of subscribers, and the total is growing exponentially. The Wildfire newsletter is emailed at no cost to the subscribers and is full of good content.
Many reviewers have difficulty with some aspects of the job. What do you find most challenging, other than finding the time to read and review the books?
The biggest challenge is probably reader indifference. I’m talking about blog traffic. When it plateaus and I can’t figure out how to raise it, that can be challenging. The www is a meritocracy, which is actually very refreshing, but it can be hard to figure out how to improve and attract more visitors.
You have reviewed a few books for this site and I am always struck by how unusual some of your choices are. How do you decide which books to review?
I look for books that have a strong conflict and three-dimensional characters that care passionately about something. It’s even better if I can get a vivid sense of place, and a detailed insider-look at the characters’ jobs. Even if a book doesn’t strongly attract me, I may buy it anyway because I’m curious about the author, I like the cover art, or because I notice in my blog-traffic reports that people are doing keyword searches on its title.
What do you feel are some of the critical elements of any book review?
A basic review needs a short synopsis that lays out the primary conflict and an opinion, backed by evidence, of whether the book succeeds. Adding other information such as “heat level” or content-warnings can be very helpful.
As a reader, what do you want to know about a book before you make that all important “buy” decision?
Well … if it contains non-consensual sex, nonstop sex, or extreme violence, I’m not going to buy it.
Recently some readers have expressed concern that M/M books seem to be more sex than plot. While some readers like their man on man with lots of sex, others would prefer to have a real story and a romance between the two men rather than portraying them as sex machines. What is your view?
Nonstop sex can be boring – sounds weird, but it’s true! I need plot and character first. Then the sex scenes can be whatever they need to be. Sex scenes can work better than anything to reveal the characters’ personalities and how they interact with each other. Mild to explicit scenes of basic sex are fine with me. In my opinion, if the sexual practices get too outré, they start to compete with the plot and characters for the reader’s attention. This is something I’d notice as a reader, but probably wouldn’t mention in a review unless it was overwhelmingly distracting.
A few times in the recent past reviewers have been verbally attacked on Twitter, Amazon, here, and other sites by authors who don’t like the ratings or reviews of their books. Would it make you less likely to continue reviewing if this happened to you?
I have immense sympathy for the authors because no one else is going to love their books as much as they do. They will always experience a crushing gap between the reaction they expect and the reaction they get. However, I would never attack a reviewer or anybody else, nor would I condone it. Everyone has a right to express his opinion about commercial products, even if the product is someone’s book. If I ever got well known enough to get attacked by authors, I’d ignore them and keep reviewing.
Many reviewers are either frustrated would-be writers or are actually writers themselves. What category do you fall into? If it’s the latter what are some of the challenges for you?
How about frustrated writers-to-be? snort I’m just starting to send out my fiction. It can be frustrating, waiting for a response, and then getting a story rejected with no way to know the real reason why. Sometimes editors are generous and provide feedback on a rejection, which I appreciate more than words can say. I never forget a favor like that.
As for challenges of being both a reviewer and a writer, I’ve actually benefited. Tremendously! I’ve become a much more compassionate reviewer, more aware of my tone, and more inclined to help authors with things like putting reviews on Amazon and being generous with those little stars in the rating. I also understand, and don’t take offense over, the mixed feelings that authors have towards us reviewers. We reviewers are like defense attorneys – a necessary evil, but maybe not somebody you’d want to have over for dinner!
On the writing side, it’s a huge advantage to be a reviewer as well as a writer. I don’t take any criticism personally. I’ve seen it all. I’ve even written some of it. When I receive criticism, I sift through it for usefulness and then move on. Nothing short of copyright infringement or plagiarism would make me hold a grudge.
If a reviewer ridiculed my fiction or dismissed it with a one-word review like “Meh …” or “Crap!” it wouldn’t be worth remembering. If a reviewer wrote a huge, analytical piece on why she hated my book, and I disagreed with everything she said (by that, I mean I found nothing in her criticism that I could use), I’d still appreciate her time and effort. We’re talking sincere gratitude. I know how much effort it takes to write a detailed review, and even negative reviews sell books.
What kinds of books do you like reading, other than those you review?
Almost everything, with an equal ratio of fiction to nonfiction. This includes mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, mainstream fiction, the occasional m/f romance, memoirs, psychology, history, and how-to.
Bloggers decide to start a blog for different reasons. If it’s not too personal, could you tell us why Val made this momentous decision? 😀
For fun! I came to the www later than everyone else on the planet. When I finally got here, I saw everyone’s 14 year-old doing a blog and thought that if they could do it, so could I. I wanted to play with stuff like HTML, search engine optimization, and website design.
As for content, I know about books, but didn’t want to get lost in vast genre like Fantasy or Mysteries. M/M Gay Romance was a niche that I could get passionate about. Such a great community, too! Knowledgeable, friendly, and organized. I’ve made some of the best online friendships through M/M Gay Romance.
What does Val do for fun?
This is going to sound hopelessly nerdy, but I like to learn how to do things. This same motive got me into blogging and writing m/m fiction. I get curious about different things and seek instruction – sometimes to the point where I’ll end up teaching it for a while. I’ve done arts and crafts, been a firearms instructor, learned how to lay bricks into a sidewalk, and I’ve dabbled in computer programming. I’d love to learn how to cut hair. I’ve asked my husband if I can practice on him, and the answer is always, “Absolutely not!”
Thank you Val. I appreciate your time.
VAL KOVALIN’S CONTACT INFORMATION