Welcome to my first ever interview and the first instalment of Blogger Query. Today we start this feature off with Stefan Fergus of Civilian Reader. Stefan runs one of my go-to blogs for book reviews and author interviews. His interviews are top-notch and always interesting and he’s introduced me to many a debut author through them. In addition to being a great blogger, Stefan is also very kind – he helped me figure out this interviewing malarkey – and always happy to chat on Twitter. Since he was such a help getting Blogger Query of the ground, I thought it fitting that he’d be my first victim… I mean, guest. And he came back with some super interesting answers! So let’s get to it, shall we?
Let’s start off with the basics. Who is Stefan Fergus?
I’m a vagrant book-obsessive! I’m British, but have only lived there for school – I was born in Bangkok, Thailand, and have lived in twelve countries in all. It would be nice to settle down at some point (either in the US or Canada), but I’m in no hurry. I run two blogs: Civilian Reader and Politics Reader.
What got you into blogging?
I had no one to talk to about the books I enjoyed at the time. I’m one of those people who loves to talk about the things I enjoy. So, I decided to set up a blog that would give me a platform to pontificate and ramble on about the books I enjoy. My earlier reviews were actually mostly non-fiction, though, as I was reading a lot of history and politics books for my studies. Before I set up my own, though, I had not read a single book blog, which I guess is probably unusual. So I’m sure I made a lot of “mistakes” to begin with. As the years passed, I got more into blogging, learned more about what does or does not work, and have never looked back. I’ve made connections with a lot of people with similar interests, and it’s also been a great tool for discovering new and established authors I never would have stumbled across otherwise.
Why Civilian Reader?
That is a difficult question. I have no idea, really. I think it came from the fact that all the cool/obvious names were taken, and because I’m not connected to any publishers or the publishing industry in general, the word “civilian” just popped into my mind and never went away. It was meant to be a place-holder, but it’s stuck ever since as things grew quicker than I expected. I think it’s distinctive enough that I people are starting to remember and recognise it.
What is your unique selling point? Interviews, humour, news coverage?
I don’t really know – I’m not very good at singing the praises of anything I do. Someone else has said it was my weekly author interviews, which I am very happy about. There are still so many authors I’d like to feature in an interview, so I should be able to maintain that schedule for months, if not years to come! (I’m open to suggestions, too, so let me know if there are any authors you’d like me to interview. I’m always on the look-out for new authors, especially.) People seem to like the interviews, too. Recently, though, it’s possible that the sheer number of posts I’m doing is a selling-point… I don’t have much else to do at the moment, so I just read, review, ponder, and so on. I love doing it, so it doesn’t feel like work. Sometimes I think I take the blog too seriously, though – I’d like to start lightening up a little, adding some more humour to the posts and reviews.
What are your goals for your blog?
To spread word about books, comics and authors I enjoy reading. It’s always nice to expand readership, too, but it’s not something I obsess about – that way leads to madness, disappointment and unseemly pandering. Keeping an eye on traffic numbers does serve a purpose, though – it’s been really helpful in spotting what people like, what works, what gets spread around more often, and so forth. The specific numbers, however, aren’t too important. It would be nice if more people would comment, though – I can’t be right all the time! Someone must disagree with me! I’m not very good at making solid plans for the blog – I like things to go up there in an organic manner, which is why I tend not to make too many future plans about reading and reviewing. I would, however, definitely like to start reviewing more “older” titles (e.g., Robin Hobb, Ursula LeGuin), and not solely focusing on new releases. More diversity is also something I really want for moving forward – a few more thrillers, for example, maybe a bit more rotation of genres. And I want to finally get around to reading a Joe Abercrombie novel… (I have no idea why I haven’t read any of his novels yet, despite owning them all… Same goes for Brandon Sanderson, actually.)
And, of course, it would be wonderful if my work on Civilian Reader somehow led to employment… (Such a pity there’s no one willing to just pay me a ridiculously comfortable salary to maintain my blog…) I would love to work for a Literary Agency, but also in Editorial. While writing my own stuff on the side, of course.
One of the eternal book reviewer debates is to rate or not to rate? Where do you stand on the issue?
I do not rate. Given the multitude of factors that go into forming an opinion of a book, to distil it all into a mark out of five or ten just doesn’t suffice. True, that does mean I have to be more careful about how I phrase things, in order to properly convey what I thought of a novel, but I don’t mind that at all. One review I re-posted on Amazon got an interesting reaction: it was a book I enjoyed, so gave it four-stars, but an Amazon customer took issue with the rating, because they thought the review was predominantly negative (it really wasn’t). So no, I don’t like giving ratings.
Negative reviews, yay or nay? And why?
I tend not to post negative reviews for one simple reason: I don’t review books I don’t finish, and I tend not to finish books I don’t enjoy. There’s only so much time in the year, and with so many books I want to read I don’t like to force myself to struggle through stuff I’m not enjoying. However, if it’s an author I like and have read in the past, but I don’t really like a specific book of theirs, I will persevere and write about why I didn’t like it so much. So there haven’t been many negative reviews on Civilian Reader. I’ve seen some bloggers think this is ridiculous and assume it means I’m pandering to publishers or something. It’s not. I do this for fun and read for pleasure – why should I inflict fiction I don’t like on myself?
How important are blogs to your reading choices?
That’s tough to answer. I don’t read reviews of books I’m either looking forward to or that I have waiting to be read. I don’t like to influence my perceptions by reading other reviews before I read and write my own. Books I wasn’t aware of, or had maybe prematurely written off, though, I will read coverage of. I’ve changed my mind on a number of occasions due to a review on another blog.
I follow a lot of book blogs now, though – partly to keep up with peers (I don’t consider other bloggers to be “competition”), but also because other people spot things I miss and, I hope, vice versa. For example, I learned of Lyndsay Faye from you – and I’m very glad that I did, because I thoroughly enjoyed The Gods of Gotham. So, yeah: very important for general news, interviews, learning about new authors, and so on.
How do you think blogs and reviewers fit in the book business?
Difficult to answer this without coming across as self-important, but I do think book blogs have certainly increased in importance and influence. This is visible through publisher’s increased willingness to send out review copies to blogs (especially independent ones), and things like the increase in cover-blurbs coming from blogs. I also think blogs are very useful for bibliophiles especially, as most of them offer better reviews – longer, more in-depth and so on – than some trade publications or newspapers.
What is your current read and what book are you most eagerly awaiting?
I’m currently reading Chuck Wendig’s sequel to Double Dead, Bad Blood, after which I will read Ari Marmell’s False Covenant. I also have a couple of non-fiction books on the go: Drift by Rachel Maddow and Fear & Loathing at Rolling Stone, which collects Hunter S. Thompson’s articles for Rolling Stone (which is one of my favourite magazines).
As for eagerly-awaited books coming out this year…? There are so many! I’ve got a page on my blog for the releases this year I’m most looking forward to, but it’s a little difficult to pick just one. There are a lot of sequels to superb 2011 debuts that I’m looking forward to. It’s not technically a ‘new’ book, but I’m also looking forward to Ian Tregillis’s Bitter Seeds, which will soon be released in the UK for the first time.
I’m also really looking forward to Evan Thomas’s new biography of President Eisenhower – he has a wonderful, accessible and engaging style that is just so good, quite journalistic.
There is one that I think everyone’s looking forward to: Scott Lynch’s Republic of Thieves. The Lies of Locke Lamora is the novel that got me back into reading fantasy in a big way, so the Gentleman Bastards series will always have a very special place on my shelves.
Is there something else you’re obsessed with other than books?
Coffee, wine, and rock and metal music – I love all three. I love reading in coffee shops, and usually listening to my ever-present MP3 player (I have a small, rugged, five-year-old Sony model). I love red wine, but not in a particularly refined way – I know what I like (favourites are all Argentinian Malbecs), and have a limited vocabulary for describing them. I’ve become far more selective with music, though – when I was reviewing music, I started to receive review copies of endless bands that just sounded the same, and it kind of ruined it for me for a little while. I still keep on top of releases and so forth, but I don’t seek out new authors as obsessively as I used to. Mainly, I like Scandinavian metal (In Flames, Sonic Syndicate and Soilwork, for example), rock from the US (Shinedown, Black Stone Cherry, Five Finger Death Punch), and some gothic rock/metal (HIM, Entwine, Sentenced). I also like some classical and some pop. I don’t listen to the radio and never really have, so I tend not to get bored of popular songs too quickly.
I’m also fascinated by American politics, and I read altogether too many news magazine, newspapers and politics blogs. (Note: it’s what I studied at university, too, so I do have some professional interest in it.)
Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?
Alphabetical by author, then by date. I separate fiction from non-fiction and graphic novels, too. I do the same for my extensive CD collection…
My extensive collection of presidential biographies is organised chronologically by administration, author and date.
Thanks for a lovely set of answers, Stefan, and for letting me start Blogger Query off in style. For those of you not already following Civilian Reader, what are you waiting for? Hop to it! You can also follow Stefan on Twitter.