Our principal aim at BookSirens is to help book bloggers get free books to review from publishers and authors. Acknowledging the hard work bloggers put in all year round, we have started the Book Blogger Spotlights initiative. In a series of interviews, we chat with book reviewers to learn about their motivation behind blogging. We discuss how to become a book critic, how to run a successful book blog and their experiences with other ambitious book reviewers and authors.
Our interview this week is with Sally Bend from Bending the Bookshelf. Sally has diverse reading interests, with a special affection for stories that test the boundaries of human sexuality. Sally has reviewed over 1500 books and is among the top 1% of LGBT reviewers on BookSirens. This has led her to have one of the top book review sites on the web. As an author of 14 books, she is also knowledgeable about the work that goes behind writing and publishing a story. Sally talks to us about self-publishing and her views on how to be a book blogger. Let’s start!
Many people love to read, but it takes something extra to regularly and honestly review books. What do you think that something is and where do you get that from?
For me, it's a sense of community. A natural extension of talking about books with friends in high school and university. Even if those friends have moved on, and my reading has changed, the need to discuss books with like-minded readers remains the same.
There is an author, an editor, and a literary critic in the back of my head. These are personas I cannot shake away. But it's the reader and the fangirl who are at the forefront of all my reviews.
How did Bending the Bookshelf get started?
The idea came about with the desire to share the stories I was enjoying. I wanted to bring them to the attention of other readers. Eight years of blogging doesn't seem that long ago, but it's an eternity when it comes to the internet and social media. LGBTQIA, especially transgender or non-binary voices, were neither popular nor easy to find back then. I ended up doing a ton of research on obscure websites and newsgroups. It started with building book lists for myself, and then I decided to share that with the community.
Were you blog-savvy when you started? If not, how did you learn the basics of setting up a blog?
I was not at all blog-savvy. However, I was using Blogger to read blogs, so it seemed natural to use it when starting my blogging journey. It was easy to use, with plenty of template designs available. Drafting and posting were simple too.
I've gotten better over the years, learning to modify those templates and do some of my own graphic design work. Blogger also has improved with new templates and plug-and-play features available all the time.
How did you come up with the name Bending the Bookshelf? Were there other book review blog names you considered?
The original title was Bibrary Bookslut. It was meant to be cheeky and fun, with a Bisexual/Bigender take on the library. Then, about a year or two later, Bending the Bookshelf came about. Based on the idea of gender-bending and bending sexual binaries, it tied nicely to my last name.
You are the first book blogger I am interviewing who has written and published over half-dozen books! How did you get into writing and, specifically, writing erotica?
Well, I have been writing almost as long as I have been reading. Self-publishing though was a big leap. I had wanted to try it for years but didn't know where to begin, or how the process worked. I already had a decent collection of stories posted on various websites.
Eventually, I decided to experiment with them. I polished up a few of the best and self-published them under a pseudonym. Once I was comfortable with how to structure, publish, and market my work, I did away with the alias and starting publishing new stories as myself.
What was the reason to go with self-publishing over traditional publishing?
Like many authors, I still dream of landing a contract with a major publishing house and seeing my books on the shelves. Self-publishing came about partially because I was impatient and wanted some control over my literary career. Also, I was craving feedback from readers. There was a longing to know that people were reading my stuff and not hating it.
I'm still chasing that professional contract. The book I'm currently rewriting for that audience is far stronger. This has been possible because of my self-publishing experiences, and the friends I've made within the community.
I notice you have a NetGalley badge. Do you use it actively? If so, what would you say is your favorite and least favorite thing about NetGalley? If you don’t use it actively, any reason?
During my initial few blogging years I picked up books solely from NetGalley. But I don’t use it now as much as I once did. I still check it weekly for titles that are of interest, mostly in the Erotica and LGBTQIA categories. It's a fantastic tool for connecting with publishers and showcasing yourself as a reviewer. Then there is the thrill of getting to read books before anybody else.
What, in your opinion, are the essentials of writing a good book review on Amazon, Goodreads, or your own blog?
Professionals will tell you a ton of things that should be a part of a good book review. Sometimes, I too fall back into those formal habits. However, I think personal and simple are what matters. Tell people what you liked or didn't like, and why. Authors are happy with any feedback, even if it's an "I loved it!”
I try to think of other readers when writing my reviews. They are the ones who need to be convinced to spend their money on a book.
Do you have an all-time favorite book review?
Oh, that's a tough one. Woman as a Foreign Language by Katherine Wyvern comes to mind as a recent favorite. I had seen some horrible reviews of it. None of them fit with what I knew of Katherine as a person. So, I felt compelled to give it a read. Ultimately, I was happy to counter the critics with unadulterated appreciation.
Now, the review I had the most fun writing was Horatio Slice, Guitar Slayer of the Universe by Oleander Plume. For that, I completely silenced my inner critic/editor and let the fangirl gush about the book.
Do you have an example of an author who impressed you with their pitch? If so, what specifically influenced you? What did they do differently from the others?
I get several pitches for reviews, sometimes quite a few in a single day. Plus, there already exists a towering stack of books to review - 20+ at last count. It does take something special to catch my attention and convince me to add another book to the pile.
The first thing that impresses me is whether they've done their homework. I want to know that the author has visited my blog, read some reviews, and genuinely feel their book is a fit. "Dear reviewer," tells me I don't need to waste my time reading any further. "Dear Sally" will keep me interested.
An outstanding request takes things a step farther. They might reference a review I've written for a book similar in tone/content/theme to theirs. Or, they explicitly call out how their story fits the blog's mission. I read their email and immediately get a sense that the author knows who I am and what I'm about. I can tell they are not just spamming me with a copy of the same email they've sent to others.
Where do you hope to see yourself and your blog in 10 years?
That's a hard one. I see that social media is heading toward video reviews and podcasts, but I’m not sure if that is what I want. I suspect that the platform may change at some point.
I do want to share more visual review snippets across platforms. Although, the primary process of read-review-repeat is, in my mind, all about the written word.
What advice do you have for bibliophiles who want to learn how to start a book review blog of their own?
Most importantly, find something that you're passionate about and embrace it. That's the key. Don't worry about anybody else. Don’t listen to people who say you're reading or reviewing the wrong books. Somebody else out there loves what you love. Your voice could influence someone to pick up a book, an author, or a genre they've not yet considered.
Having said that, don’t allow yourself to feel trapped in what you've begun. People change, tastes change, and that's okay. You may lose some readers if you redefine or expand your niche. There are others to fill the gap.
If you could pick one author, dead or alive, whom you would like to grab coffee with, who would it be?
Oh, that is an easy one - Clive Barker.
Are you in favor of reviews with spoilers?
No. Don't ruin somebody else's enjoyment.
If you highlight, what was the last passage you highlighted?
This comes from the New Clone City by Mike Hembury:
It’s not often you’ll see a congregation of the Muslim faithful handing over a six-foot semi-conscious transvestite to a carload of militant queer prostitutes wielding baseball bats. For the mosque security detail, this is certainly the first time that they’ve had a bunch of sexy genderbending mommas come up to the gates of their prayer house wielding billy clubs, but they are more intrigued than anything else, and are keeping a remarkably worldly cool about the whole thing.
Most pages you have read in a single sitting?
I'm a voracious reader, and can quickly lose myself in a book. Looking back at my reading list, I did 328 pages one-night last month. However, there were days before family and career where I could have easily doubled that.
Favorite place to read?
Anywhere outside. Preferably by water, or deep within the forest, with no distractions.
Thank you, Sally, for the helpful book blogging tips and an insight into your world as a self-publishing author.
If you are an aspiring book reviewer, we hope you picked up some precious nuggets of information about how to become a book reviewer. Remember to keep your reviews personal and straightforward as Sally suggested. If you haven't already, we also recommend you join Sally and become a book critic on BookSirens.
BookSirens is a free and enjoyable way to get a never-ending supply of books, directly from publishers and authors, in the genres you love. You can read as many or as few of these books as you want, for free. All we ask is that you try your best to leave an honest review once you have finished reading the book.
If you are an author looking for the best book review websites, you can read Sally's review policy here. Also, check out BookSirens's book reviewers list and quickly find potential book review blogs that are currently accepting books in your genre(s).
Read long and prosper!