Page Turners: Finding out more about the Reviewing Community
The tables have turned – this time the author’s asking the questions.
Blogs and websites have been hosting author interviews for decades, giving readers a chance to get to know their favorite writers on a more personal level. But today we’re going to flip the mold, having an author interview a book reviewer. So buckle up, grab your favorite caffeinated beverage, and prepare to dive into what makes a book reviewer tick!
Behrg: Our interview today is with none other than Michael Patrick Hicks, renowned horror author and moderator of High Fever Books. This is an interview I’ve been looking forward to! So Michael, tell us a little about your platform. Where do you post reviews and how long have you been reviewing?
MPH: I run High Fever Books, which I launched in January 2019. However, I’ve been reviewing for nearly a decade now. I got my start in 2012 as a freelancer for the now-defunct Graphic Novel Reporter website, and also reviewed for the original Audiobook Reviewer website (it shut down a few years ago, but has since reopened with new owners). I also did a lot of reviewing on my own, publishing book reviews on my author site, Goodreads, and Amazon, prior to opening up my own review site and establishing a small team of reviewers to help serve readers and, hopefully, introduce them to some more great books. And I also talk a lot about books on the Staring Into The Abyss podcast, which I co-host with Scott Kemper and Matt Brandenburg.
Behrg: That’s an impressive output of content! I’d love to dig into the podcast side of things as that’s something we haven’t covered much yet in this interview series. What got you started going down that path and what have some of the challenges and successes been? Any advice for those considering doing something similar?
MPH: Well, I’ve been online pals with Scott Kemper, a reviewer for Signal Horizon, for a while now, and the podcast was all his idea. He asked if I wanted in, and it sounded like fun, so, sure why not? Each episode we give little mini-reviews of whatever piece of horror we’ve consumed that week, and then launch into a spoiler-filled discussion of our story of the week. Each episode, we focus on a particular title and discuss what worked and what didn’t, dissecting the hell out of it. Occasionally, we have an author guest with us who has picked a particular favorite story by another author, and we discuss that, so it’s kind of like a book club in term of content and execution. The biggest problems we faced were all technology-based and having little clue how some of the software worked. It’s all boring technical stuff, but long story short is that after recording a handful of episodes, Scott’s computer shit the bed and we basically lost all of our first six episodes before we could release them! We learned of this prior to recording our eighth episode and had to rejigger that one into a brand-new pilot episode on the fly. The biggest success, though, has been discovering that we have a lovely devoted fanbase who tune in for each new episode and really dig what we’re doing (or are at least kind enough to lie and tell us they enjoy it!). Each month, we have more new listeners than the month prior and our audience is growing rather nicely with each new episode, so that’s really cool!
Behrg: Minus the losing six episodes of content part, that sounds awesome! I think podcasts are a great way to connect with and grow an audience. People are able to get a really good sense of your style, humor, etc. Any other podcasts you’d suggest for readers, reviewers or authors to check out?
MPH: The Horror Show with Brian Keene, This Is Horror, and Ink Heist should be your must-listen-to podcasts. If you want something a bit more satirical and funny, check out Max Booth III’s Ghoulish!
Behrg: Thanks for the recommendations! Outside of reading, what are some of your favorite things to do? What’s something no one in the horror/book blogging community would suspect about you?
MPH: I’m not sure it’s anything all that unexpected, frankly. Reading is my number one favorite thing to do! But look, I’m also the father of two toddlers, a writer, and a full-time office monkey, so I don’t have a lot of spare time left over to really do much of anything that doesn’t revolve around kids when I’m outside of work these days. I might be able to squeeze in a movie or an episode of TV show every few months, maybe, if I have both the energy and desire to watch something once they’re in bed, but that’s really kind of rare now. Work, kids, and some reading before bed is basically my whole life at this point.
Behrg: Something I can certainly identify with, though I will quote David Letterman from the gloriously under-appreciated movie Cabin Boy, when he said, “Dance, Monkey, Dance!”
Any favorite sub-genres under the horror umbrella? Any you don’t particularly care for? Same questions but for common tropes in the genre?
MPH: Oooh! ARCTIC HORROR! That’s my absolute favorite sub-genre and it makes me giddy as fuck! Give me something like The Thing or Bracken McLeod’s Stranded and I’m a happy horror reader. While I love the imagery of red snow, I’m also a huge fan of sea-based horror. I love aquatic monsters, like J.F. Gonzalez’s Clickers, and freaky ship stories, like Tim Curran’s Dead Sea. In general, anything that has some extreme weather or geographic element is a big lure for me.
Subgenre’s I don’t care for… vampires and zombies are pretty well played out, and I’m good with not reading either of those types of books again for a long while. I could probably be steered toward a vampire book, though, where they’re inhuman monsters rather than sensual, romantic figures. I’m so fucking over Dracula pastiches and Anne Rice wannabes, but if there’s some vamp fiction like Nate Southard’s Lights Out or the Seize the Night anthology Christopher Golden put together a few years back, I’m willing to give it a try. Otherwise, it’s an easy genre for me to skip right over with no regrets.
Behrg: Good call on the arctic horror. There’s something about a setting that’s as horrifying and dangerous as any monster or creature that ups the scare factor. I finally started Dan Simmon’s epic novel The Terror, and he does a great job with allowing the setting to be almost a character unto itself.
MPH: Oh, man. The Terror is fantastic! Enjoy!
Behrg: Yeah, it’s been intense! Physical books or digital?
MPH: I like both. As I said before, I’ve got two toddlers, and space is at a huge premium in our house right now. Physical books are nice and all (especially signed, limited collector’s editions from publishers like Thunderstorm Books, Cemetery Dance, Subterranean Press – I’ll find a way to make room for some interesting books from them!), but I have to keep them out of the reach of small, dirty hands that like to tear things apart. The older I get the more I’m leaning toward digital, for a number of reasons. Less clutter, easier on the eyes, instant access to my library and new purchases, I can read at night in the dark without disturbing my wife, and my Kindle is way more portable than most books, particularly if I’m reading some massive Stephen King epic, and if the font is too small I can easily adjust it to make it bigger. So, yeah, I’m all in favor of ebooks! I love my Kindle! The whole “print books only!” mentality is pretentious as fuck.
Behrg: I love listening to the arguments on both sides of that debate, but I lean heavily on digital myself as well. Writing well-thought reviews takes time. What are some of the things that keep you going?
MPH: Good books keep me going, man! When I find a book that speaks to me, one whose author has poured his heart and soul into, and I can’t help but scream about it to everyone I meet, that’s that type of book that keeps me going and finding those works is like striking pure gold.
Behrg: Eloquently put! If you had only one author you could read for the rest of your life, who would you choose and why? What if you had only three?
MPH: Stephen King. For me, he is the consummate master storyteller, and reading his books are pure comfort food for me. They’re like a warm bowl of savory mac and cheese, you know? You can just sink right into it and it fills you with such warmth, but you know, it’s a classic staple for a reason, right? It’s reliable, and maybe it’s even seen you through the worst, helped you get over some of the bad stuff in life. That’s Stephen King for me. He’s gotten me through some bad patches, and his books always give me warmth.
If I had to pick three, well then… Stephen King, John Connolly (specifically the entirety of his Charlie Parker series), and Jonathan Janz.
Behrg: Great list. It’s funny, for a few years I purposely strayed away from reading any King, and immediately when I jumped back in it felt oddly like coming home. That familiarity you mentioned is definitely a part of it, but I love the confidence with which he writes as well. Something all writers hope to achieve.
What’s some advice you could give to those just starting to build a platform to review books? What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered and how have you navigated them?
MPH: If you’re just starting out, do not fucking hound authors for their books! Sending them instant messages and bombarding them with Twitter and Facebook messages begging for free copies is ridiculously unprofessional and makes you look bad. It shows you’re a complete novice, and it’s a red flag to authors and other reviewers. In short, it’s a great way to look awful and alienate everyone. Especially if you’re a complete unknown and have zero relationships within the community and amongst the authors and publishers. You just look like a leech, and trust me when I say that’s a bad look. Be professional, learn how to do things the right way, start building a reputation by getting some books for review via NetGalley or Edelweiss, and start working directly with a publisher’s marketing contact, which you can find on their websites. Indie authors typically aren’t fortunate enough to have a marketing contact, and everything they do comes out of their own pocket. The good news is, they’re generally not shy about posting public calls for reviewers, which you can absolutely respond to! It’s the unsolicited requests that can leave a permanent black mark, though, so do be wary. Also be aware that, for indies and even, to an extent, major publishers, ebooks are where it’s at for review copies nowadays. They’re quick and easy to deliver, and you can start reading in no time. If you can’t or don’t want to read digitally, a simple thanks but no thanks will be sufficient. Don’t try to badger and harass your way into a print copy because it’ll photograph well or look prettier on your YouTube page. (Can you tell there’s maybe some reviewers behaving badly out there?)
Also, always be honest! It’s really unlikely that, as a reviewer, every single book you read is going to be 5-star material. If review after review after review is proclaiming each book you’ve read as the greatest book ever, it’s bound to raise some eyebrows and you may be seen as a reviewer with a credibility problem. Reputable publishers are not going to blacklist you because you didn’t like one of their books, so don’t live in fear that if you give a Big Name author two out of five, you’ll never be allowed read again. As a reviewer, you’re not there to serve the author or the publisher – it’s your job to inform readers and give them your honest thoughts and opinions. Reviews are for readers. I know that some reviewers, though, do not post negative reviews, and it might behove you to have a public policy about this and determine if you’re going to use a star-rating or numeric scale, and what your cut off is going to be.
As far as biggest challenges go for me, though, is simply how few hours I have in a day to dedicate to reading and reviewing. I do what I can, when I can, but I’ve also had to learn how to say no. It’s impossible to say ‘yes’ and review every single review request I get, and I’ve had to become much more judicious in what I read. Even then, there’s still not enough hours in the day. I also need to be way more conscious of the amount of time I waste doomsurfing on social media. Scrolling through Twitter and hating on our current state of affairs is valuable reading time and attention I could be giving to a far more rewarding book, instead.
Behrg: Some really great thoughts and advice here. And as an author myself, I would agree that an expectation of receiving physical books can be a hardship on authors or small / indie publishing houses. I’ll dig into your thoughts on negative reviews in a bit, as I’d like to come back to that.
Favorite read of 2020 so far? Favorite read of 2019? Of all time?
MPH: Favorite read of 2020 so far: Clown in a Cornfield by Adam Cesare, due out in August.
Favorite read of 2019: Recursion by Blake Crouch.
All time: IT by Stephen King.
Behrg: I’m looking forward to the new Cesare read! Recursion was by far in my top 3 last year as well, Crouch has grown into what I consider the Christopher Nolan of fiction.
So I’ve had a chance to read a few of your books, (maybe even more than a few), and your stuff is definitely on my list of insta-buys. Revolver is one in fact that still sticks with me after several years. For those who don’t know about your writing, tell us a little about your publishing experience.
MPH: Like you, I’m an independent author-publisher and I recently released the second novella in my Salem Hawley series, Borne of the Deep, which is a bit of extreme, Lovecraftian cosmic horror set just a few years after the Revolutionary War.
Next up, I’ll be appearing in Silver Shamrock Publishing’s big anthology, Midnight in the Pentagram, due out sometime this year, and it has an absolutely fucking killer line-up, featuring some of the biggest names in horror. I was recently published in the erotic horror anthology Obliquatur Voluptas, the ebook of which was banned by Amazon, as well as a couple of Crystal Lake Publishing’s Shallow Waters flash fiction anthologies. I’ve also been published in several of Samuel Peralta’s Future Chronicles anthologies, and Mission from the Extinction Cycle Volume 2, from NYT Best-selling author Nicholas Sansbury Smith, featuring stories based on his bestselling Extinction Cycle series.
Behrg: I’ve read the first in your Salem Hawley series and purchased a copy of the sequel which I’ll hopefully be getting to soon. It’s such an ambitious project to be self-publishing! The historical aspects of it alone are fascinating with the plague doctors as well as the racism inherent of that time. What thoughts would you have for those railing against self-publishing or for those who might be just starting out and are considering going that route?
MPH: Oh Christ, where to even begin… I’d be lying if I said I didn’t understand some of the reasons why people rail against self-publishing, and some of those reasons are absolutely valid. I love writing, but if you’re going to self-publish you have to understand that it’s a business first and foremost, and not a hobby.
You’re selling your words for money, and vying for the attention of readers the world over, and the book market itself isn’t exactly slim pickings. You can write whatever you want, but once you decide to sell that book, you have to understand that you are now releasing a product. It isn’t enough for this book to be a labor of love – it has to now be a marketable item, as well. You need a strong, professionally designed cover, and you need to have your book professionally edited. Some authors, like Kealan Patrick Burke, are able to design their own covers, but I suspect the number of writers who can make their own professional-level covers are slim. Rarer still, are those that can self-edit at a professional level, and for those that can it would still behove them to have a proofreader at least.
You need to put your best foot forward and release the best book you can. You’re indie, but you need to make your book look as good, if not better, than a traditionally published mass-market work, and it’s all on your shoulders to make it happen. I would also think that you’d want to release something you can be proud of, rather than a typo-ridden mess with missing words and a cover straight out of MS Paint, since your name is attached to it. There also seems to be this delusion out there that writing is some kind of get rich quick endeavor, or that every writer is pulling down Stephen King money and making $20 million off each release, and people need to prepare themselves for disappointment in that regard!
Write because you love it, but understand that publishing is a business.
Behrg: Phenomenal advice all around. Let’s jump back to the negative reviews. There’s no right answer here, but how do you personally handle reviews for books you don’t care for? Do you finish every book you read or do you move on if a book isn’t grabbing you?
MPH: I handle those reviews honestly and as diplomatically as I can, and maybe with a degree of humor if possible. I don’t want to slag an author’s work, and I try to point out some positive elements alongside the negatives. Some books, though… well, there’s just no saving them, and that’s what quitting them (or DNFing if you prefer) is for. I used to try and read everything, even if I was hating the book, but that was time that could have been better spent reading good books instead! So one of my resolutions for this year, actually, was to DNF more books! If something isn’t working for me, I don’t have any qualms about dropping it.
Behrg: Great advice on both fronts. Since you’re both an author and reviewer, what advice would you give authors looking to have their books reviewed? What are some of the best ways authors have asked you to review their book? Some of the worst? Anything you’d like to let authors know regarding the etiquette of requesting a review?
MPH: Etiquette is actually the biggest part of it. If you’re an author looking for reviews, most sites have a review policy page or a contact page that outlines how to submit a title for review. And if a site is closed to reviews, don’t waste both your time and theirs reaching out to them.
If a site is open for requests, feel free to send them a polite, professional e-mail. If you’re the sort of author who has to ask what constitutes a polite and professional e-mail, reviewers don’t actually need to hear from you, and you’re better off just moving along.
MPH: One of the best things an indie or traditionally published author can do is post an open call for reviews and let those reviewers come to you! Let readers know you have copies to give away in exchange for honest reviews on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, your newsletter, blog, wherever. You might want to vet those who respond, though, and get links to their review sites or Goodreads profiles and the like.
On an author-to-author level, some advice here: be prepared for bad reviews. Not every reader is going to like your book, and you will get negative critiques. Have a thick skin about this and learn how to laugh it off! It serves you absolutely no good to get ruffled by it and try to call the reviewer out on social media or e-mail, and even if you privately want to let a reviewer know that you think they’re an inconsiderate, tasteless sack of shit, trust me when I say that private e-mail will surely become public. Always, always, always put your best foot forward. Having a public social media meltdown over a bad review will never, ever make you look good. You’ll lose a hell of a lot more than you’ll gain.
Behrg: It’s sad that this last point you’ve made even needs to be said, but I couldn’t agree more. As you mentioned previously, reviews are for readers. Once an author lets a book out into the world, it’s no longer “theirs”—it becomes the experience of each person who reads it.
As part of the horror author community, let me say a huge thank you from all of us for all that you do to support indie, hybrid, and traditionally published authors. Honest reviews not only help others discover our work, but can sometimes be the encouragement an author needs to keep doing what we do. Any last words you’d like to share with authors, fellow reviewers or casual readers?
MPH: Thanks for having me over, Behrg! Keep on reading!
Behrg: As long as you keep on writing, I’m good with that contractual agreement! 🙂
Michael Patrick Hicks
Michael Patrick Hicks is the author of several horror books, including The Resurrectionists, Broken Shells: A Subterranean Horror Novella, and Mass Hysteria. He co-hosts Staring Into The Abyss, a podcast focused on all things horror. His debut novel, Convergence, was an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Finalist in science fiction. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association.
In addition to writing his own works of original fiction, Michael is a prolific book reviewer and manages the High Fever Books website. His reviews have also been published by Audiobook Reviewer and Graphic Novel Reporter, and he has previously worked as a freelance journalist and news photographer in Metro Detroit.
Michael lives in Michigan with his wife and two children. In between compulsively buying books and adding titles that he does not have time for to his Netflix queue, he is hard at work on his next story.
If you’d like to connect with Michael Patrick Hicks or check out his work, his reviews, podcast, or maybe even that picture of him from High School, follow the links below. Be kind to each other out there!
A former child actor turned wanna-be rockstar, The Behrg is the author of the Internationally best-selling novel Housebroken and the thrilling Creation Series. His short work can be found in anthologies from Bloodshot Books, Comet Press, Omnium Gatherum, and Cemetery Dance. A mental health advocate, Behrg often explores the themes of mental illness within his work, albeit within a horror backdrop.
Behrg lives in Southern California with his wife and four kids where he still plays in a band, plays in fictional worlds of his own creating, and plays—quite poorly, he might add—at being an adult.
When coloring, he does not stay within the lines.
Stalk him at www.thebehrg.com
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