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Black Static

Dark Fiction & Film BLACK STATIC ISSUE 61 OUT NOW!

Trade Secrets Part 2: Triage

30th Apr, 2009

Author: Peter Tennant

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I keep a list of all the books I have received for review in Case Notes, and constantly update it as new titles arrive. In appearance the list is pretty much like that which I posted at the end of the very first blog entry, First Steps, with such information as when published, author, publisher and format. The only difference is that those books I haven’t as yet read are shown in bold for easy identification, and I use this list for reference as I plan what will be reviewed in each issue of Black Static.

In the main, the books that get read and subsequently reviewed are those that intrigue me, as simple as that. I’ve already eliminated a few titles by the time I have to decide what to read, but on occasion books I’ve expressed an interest in seeing for review don’t turn out to be quite as appropriate once I’ve got them in my sweaty little hands (e.g. on at least two occasions I’ve requested books that sound like horror when you read the publisher’s blurb, but have in fact turned out to be fantasy). While I manage to finish most of the books I start to read, there are exceptions. Back in the old days of The Third Alternative when I was part of a team of reviewers I felt an obligation to finish any book that I had volunteered to review, but now rather than persevere with something I’m not enjoying and then writing a bad review I’m more likely to give up and read something else instead.

Regardless of how arbitrary this all may seem, there are certain factors that I take into account when deciding what books to read and review.

My number one priority is to find an author we can do a feature on, with a Q&A session plus all the trimmings, and so from the very start of any reading period I am looking at books with that consideration in mind. In theory I could simply do a feature on anyone, but in practice I’d prefer to work with an author whose work I like. Once I’ve found my featured author I make contact and ask if they’re up for doing it (nobody has refused yet, but I guess it could happen) and hunt around to find if there are any other titles current that can be used to beef up the feature (e.g. with both Tim Lebbon and Simon Clark, I reviewed three titles). I read as much as I can about the author and check out any other interviews they may have done, before formulating my own questions.

My second priority is finding any books that can be grouped under a common heading. Andy and I are both agreed that ‘cluster’ reviews with thematically linked titles make for more interesting reading, and also allow us to do other things, such as the sidebar factoids that appear in some issues. The downside of the ‘cluster’ approach is that the reviews are not always as current as we might like (more on that in a moment) and after a while it gets harder to identify new ‘clusters’ without repeating yourself. Given their prevalence in horror fiction, we could quite easily feature vampire or zombie titles in every other issue of Black Static, but where’s the fun in that? Conversely, we don’t want to be reduced to grouping books together for totally arbitrary reasons, such as ‘all titles beginning with the letter C’. Inevitably, certain issues are more 'cluster' heavy than others, and some of the clusters might seem a little contrived.

In an ideal world all the reviews would be as current as possible. Black Static is published bi-monthly, so in the June issue we'd run reviews of titles that saw print in May and June, but deadlines make that impractical. I start the reading period for the next issue as soon as I’ve finished reading for the last one. For Black Static #11 (June 2009), I’m looking to get the finished Case Notes section off to Andy for typesetting by the middle of May (he has to get HD covers and author photos from the publishers, so things can’t be left to the last minute), and in practice any book that I haven’t read by the 10th is unlikely to make the cut. May and June titles will only be in contention if the publishers have sent us an ARC (Advance Reading Copy). In the last Black Static we ran fourteen book reviews, and that’s par for the course, but in the To Be Reviewed pile at the moment I have only three titles each for May and June, and when you also factor in that with ‘cluster’ reviews some older titles may come back into contention because they fit the theme, then it becomes obvious that staying ‘current’ is not really an option.

I don’t think this is particularly important though. Books don’t have the shelf life of, for example, films at a multiplex, and so the reviews don’t need to be as current; the window of opportunity to buy remains long after the publication date. I’d also argue strongly that reviews should be enjoyable and worth reading in their own right, regardless of any function they may have in helping potential consumers make the right purchasing choices.

Aside from the featured author spot and any ‘cluster’ reviews we may be doing, I play it by ear with the other titles. Early in a given reading period shorter works may be prioritised, as I have so many pages to fill each issue and so getting a number of titles under my belt is good practice. I also look to prioritise books by past Black Static contributors, because I believe readers who enjoy the magazine’s fiction will want to know about other work from those writers. Short story collections and anthologies tend to be read around other titles, and on occasion I take so long over them that the window of opportunity for a review slips past; however we do have The Fix with its dedicated coverage of the short form, and so the chances are good that the book in question was reviewed somewhere under the TTA umbrella, regardless of any dilatoriness on my part. Hardbacks are not so much of a priority as paperbacks on the grounds that if I miss reviewing them when they’re published there’ll be another window of opportunity when the paperback comes out.

And, of course, I might ignore all of the above, and review a book simply because the publisher was thoughtful enough to bung a complimentary bar or two of chocolate in the parcel when they sent the book my way, or because the person in the publisher’s PR department wrote me a nice query email and signed it with a smiley face. I make the rules, but I also flout them as and when it suits me. I am a bad person.

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