With last week’s sad announcement that Kirkus is being shuttered, we thought it might be nice to spotlight some of the creative people and places who are doing their darnedest to provide book industry pros and general readers alike great reviews and book news. One such place — Library Journal‘s fantastic online newsletter BookSmack!
For just over a year, BookSmack!’s seasoned library-type editors have been been delivering high-impact reviews of street lit, genre fiction, graphic novels, audio, and DVDs, along with edgy RA, in-depth prepub info, and industry buzz. I recently had the pleasure of corresponding with Heather McCormack, BookSmack’s editor (and conflicted novelist in training), who shared not only what makes BookSmack rock, but a little bit about her own love of things literary.
What prompted the creation of BookSmack!?
As I recall, a push for electronic newsletters came from on high two or three years ago in Library Journal’s parent company, Reed Business Information. My colleagues and I took what was essentially a corporate mandate and created something meaningful we’d wanted for a long time: both a supplement and a complement to the print Book Review; an avenue for reviewing more books, pop and niche, that strengthened our connection with our audience and showed our sense of humor.
That’s where I come in—I felt strongly from the start that being funny and left-of-center could be the clincher. Comedy is hard, but being boring about books in this day and age is criminal. With BookSmack! I knew we had the opportunity both to capitalize on librarians’ reputations as book authorities and to smash the tired stereotype of them as Uptight Protectors of Silence. Long story short, I hired Douglas Lord to write the Books for Dudes column—which I can only describe as an absurdist lollercoaster cum collection development tool—and encourage other contributors to inject their voices into book reviews. The effects are more often than not blog-like and just as authoritative as what you find in the print magazine. In fact, I think we might have more authority because we sound so invested and honest.
How do you choose the reviewed titles, themes (like the breast cancer theme), and features?
Our regular columnists Neal Wyatt, Douglas Lord, Angelina Benedetti, Vanessa Morris, and Rollie Welch are whip-smart librarians who know their audiences, so they decide what makes the cut, taking into account suggestions from their editors. I do assign what we call Short Takes for perennially popular categories like memoir, topical themes like breast cancer, and areas that I think might be building momentum or have mostly been ignored (e.g., autism-themed fiction). Our goal with the coverage is to alert librarians to great books old, recent, and forthcoming. It’s dicey-as-hell prognostication coupled with what some of our readers call “catch-up collection development,” meaning, “You might’ve missed these titles upon their original publication, but order them now.”
How is it being received by the librarian community?
BookSmack! is but a wee baby, only a year and three months old. We did our first formal readership survey last summer, and people are happy for the most part with the review coverage, tone, and look. There’s definitely room for improvement—readers want more book information, faster—but our first steps were steadier than I originally thought.
Are you proactively trying to reach out to the younger, hipper, more urban reading audience by boosting acquisition of those kinds of titles? Is that one of the hoped for outcomes of BookSmack!?
I would love it if BookSmack! became an e-bible for book fiends unconnected to librarianship, no matter their age or zip code.
But, no, I am not consciously trying to be hip with BookSmack! I think that would be a mistake. I resent the logic that librarians should have to aspire to haute coolness because most of them are already such individuals—they just get slammed with that dowdy label.
Are the titles/ other content that you cover in BookSmack aimed at any one age group?
The columns Books for Dudes and 35 Going on 13 cater to specific audiences in theory, but there is mucho crossover appeal in Doug’s and Angelina’s selections. The aim overall is to showcase damn good books for different tastes and moods. General readers can easily dip into those sections.
Books for Dudes cracks me up, but I can see how it might be filling a void. Do you think library collections seem to hold more titles that are of interest to women, then they do to men?
A library in wealthy suburban Connecticut is very different from one in inner-city Detroit and another in rural North Dakota. A good collection meets the needs of its users, so it’s not wise for me to say that most libraries are tipped toward women. That said, the “dude” demographic—twenty- to fortysomething males—is not noted for using libraries, and that’s why we created Books for Dudes. Librarians asked for guidance in attracting Gen-X, Gen-Y, and millennial males. My two cents: they read a shit-ton, but they could use pointers in getting beyond graphic novels, David Sedaris, and porn (so could a lot of women, for that matter).
What titles from 2009 have most surprised you?
If you mean “surprise” in the sense that they were surprisingly good, not many. I am a notorious jerk when it comes to books. I love them, and I hate them in the same way people can be ambivalent about friends, family, and lovers. Books mean a lot to me, but because people so frequently screw them up in terms of writing, editing, and marketing, etc., I get angry with them. I used to silk-screen my own T-shirts in high school, and I’ve often thought about busting out my squeegees to make a BOOK LOVE HURTS line.
To the point: Most fiction and nonfiction reads formulaically to me. In the bloated memoir category, however, I found a friend in Danny Evans’s eloquent and profane Rage Against the Meshugenah: Why It Takes Balls To Go Nuts and Alex Lemon’s electric Happy. Graphic novels à la David Small’s Stitches have also put me under their spell. I think they are beautifully in synch with the 21st-century attention span, a delicate balance of just the right amount of text and image for our info-bombarded brains.
What titles are you excited about for 2010?
A few months ago, I had the great pleasure of attending the Association of American Publishers Libraries Committee Spring 2010 Book Buzz, where I first heard about Keeping Chickens with Ashley English [stop laughing at me, Kat]. This is a classic example of a how-to book I will never likely use for its stated aims. I love the idea of raising chickens in Brooklyn; of using the nicknames of The Clash (Jonesey, Simmo, etc.) to christen my flock; and collecting fresh eggs in a basket and preparing omelets for my friends. But will I do all this? Probably not. This is akin to armchair travel, except we’re talking about rearing fowl as pets.
P.S. I heart Nick Flynn, so very curious about The Ticking Is the Bomb. Anyone heard about Zadie Smith working on a new novel? I’ve always connected with her.
What kind of titles do you enjoy reading the most?
These days, I have such a short, fragmented bus-subway commute that I can only handle comics or graphic novels. Besides being fun to ingest, they’ve given me great ideas about how to approach finishing my novel and what to write in the future.
I’m a big multiple-reads person. I like to mix up fiction, nonfiction, and glossy/semiglossy magazine. On my bedside table (that is, the floor), I have Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (about a quarter through); Alan Moore’s Watchmen (its new smell gives me migraines, so can’t get past page 15; someone please lend me an older copy!); and several back issues of Yoga Journal.
What is your favorite part about working in the book biz?
My job has steeped me in the world of librarianship, home to some of the smartest, funniest, and most bizarre people I’ve ever met. They have taught me about great music and literature, helped me through personal trials, and inspired me to take a stand on important ideas. I’m a better reader, editor, and person because of my interaction with them. Really, really glad I never got that copyediting gig at Glamour.
If you aren’t already a subscriber, go sign up for BookSmack! right away. It’s a fantastic resource and a fun read – plus, this Thursday’s issue includes BookSmack!‘s second-annual gift guide featuring books and multimedia. Follow Heather on Twitter at @hmccormack and @LJBookReview.