Negotiating Multiple Roles in Publishing: Interview with Caris O’Malley

Here's the bulge shot for all my vert-viewers.

Caris O’Malley entered the world of small press publishing last year, with the release of his book The Egg Said Nothing, published by Eraserhead Press imprint, NBAS. As the first leprechaun to be published by EP, Caris has encountered a plethora of interesting reactions to his appearance on the scene. But more difficult than negotiating his identity as author/leprechaun, negotiating his roles as prominent reviewer on Goodreads (cycles through various rankings in the top 50 out of countless reviewers in the community. He’s one of the best, and if you check out his reviews you’ll see why)  and published author have resulted in a few interesting scenarios.

Reviewing books, particularly the books of those in your circle in the small press world, remains a complicated issue for authors. Brutal honesty can hurt feelings and, worst case scenario, cut ties with fellow authors. At the same time, being generous to fellow authors can ruin one’s reputation as a reviewer. Out of all the friends I’ve made this year, no one had more at stake in this scenario than Caris, whose status as a high-ranking reviewer for Goodreads put him in a hot spot as a new author in the small press world. Did I mention he’s also a librarian with a taste for high-brow literature?

I had the opportunity to send him a series of predictable and dry questions and endlessly grill him for response, all for the express purpose of posting a bulge shot of Lucky (top left). Here is the result:

1. How long have you been reviewing books?

I’ve been actively reviewing books for about three years. In that time, I’ve reviewed every book I’ve read. Prior to that, I just wrote about the ones that struck me as notable- in either a good or bad way. I find that the process allows me to engage with the work in a way that reading alone doesn’t allow.

2. How long have you been working in the library system?

I’ve been working in libraries for about eleven years. I started out as a Page (book-shelving grunt work) and eventually got my Master’s in Library Science and became a fully-credentialed librarian.

3. Was The Egg Said Nothing the first work of fiction you had published? If not, could you tell us a little about your first acceptance for fiction?

The Egg Said Nothing is my first published work. Right around the time I finished with high school, I gave up on any hope of becoming a published author. It no longer seemed realistic, though it had been my dream since I was a small child. It was too fucking hard. After a couple of years in college, I got involved in a writing group and started to write for the sheer enjoyment of it, but never thought any of my work was any good. As such, I never submitted anything for publication. The Egg was the first thing I wrote that, in my opinion, had any commercial appeal.

4. Stephen King once ranked his roles in life, saying he was a father first, a husband second and a writer third. I think I have the order down on that, anyway. How would you rank the three roles above (reviewer, librarian, author). Or, would you say you avoid prioritizing altogether?

That would be really hard to do, since the three are so interconnected. Being a librarian, I am constantly surrounded by books. Being a reviewer allows me to engage with those books and influences my writing. Reading is my biggest source of inspiration. It’s like having a memorable conversation with a room full of brilliant friends. But if I wasn’t a writer, would any of that be so memorable? Would I be drawn to books to such a strong degree? I don’t know. I think I’d be completely lost without all three of those roles.

That said, if you made me choose, I think that being a librarian would find its way at the top. I’ve been trained to evaluate books; it’s my job. It only beats out writing because I have to spend a hell of a lot more time doing it.

Pictured: Caris O'Malley (actual size)

5. Have you asked local libraries to offer your book or other bizarro books to the public?

I have many times, but it’s never been too successful. There are three significant reasons why. Most of the bizarro publishers out there use Lightning Source for printing. It has obvious benefits of being economical and listing all of its printings in the Ingram catalog. Ingram, however, is primarily used by bookstores for ordering. Libraries have the ability to use it, but typically don’t. They do with another jobber called Baker and Taylor. Many libraries won’t order something if it’s not in the B&T catalog, which immediately puts most bizarro titles out of the running. I’d say that accounts for 90% of the bizarro requests that go unfilled at libraries. Secondly, libraries have to spend their money wisely. With the downturn in the economy, most libraries have had their materials budgets decimated. Because of this, every book purchased has to count. To select the best titles possible, library selectors use professional publications (Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, etc.) for recommendations. If your book isn’t in one or (typically) more of those publications (and bizarro titles tend not to be), librarians won’t be able to justify the risk in purchasing. Filling out the trifecta of disadvantage is the nature of bizarro fiction and, more importantly, the titles. Librarians are among the biggest censors of materials. If the book you’re requesting has “fuck” or “butt plug” in the title, there’s a good chance that it’s not going to be purchased. Sad but true.

6. Are there any bizarro books you’d avoid recommending for library distribution due to the extreme content?

Me? No. I believe in open access for all. It is not my place to tell people what they should be reading. People are intelligent enough to judge content on their own.

7. How has being a published author influenced your role as a reviewer?

I’m definitely more sensitive about what I write. I know that, especially in the case of indie authors, a bad review from me can hurt sales. That idea makes me feel kind of icky. Because of this, I tend to be very forgiving to the missteps of my small press peers. I’m not convinced that’s the best policy, but it’s what I’m comfortable with at this point in time.

8. You recently ran into a circumstance in which you were asked to alter and/or remove a review because it was not favorable. How did you respond?

In response to this particular request, I replied that I wouldn’t remove the review. I explained my position and that was that. To that individual’s credit, there was no further argument. S/he respected my position and I appreciate that. Because I tend to be so forgiving to indie authors, I was offended by being questioned on that single critical review. It made me reevaluate my stance on the issue and, probably, made me a bit more realistic. Books should stand on their own merit, I think. People can choose to be really, really nice in their reviews, but they shouldn’t feel any obligation to. When you write something for public consumption, you’re putting your ego on the line. You’ve got to be prepared to take a few hits if you’re ever going to get better.

9. You have had run ins with many authors as a reviewer. How have your relationships with fellow authors changed since your first novella was published?

I’m a lot less intimidated by them than I used to be. Which is good. I really like engaging with authors now. As a reviewer, there’s always this nagging apprehension associated with an author seeing a review you wrote of his/her book. Especially a bad one. It’s impossible to know who can take it and who can’t. I’ve been really lucky in that regard. I’ve given bad reviews to books and have chatted with the authors afterward. It’s cool. Taking the time to write an engaging review (which, really, isn’t hard) seems to be appreciated by pretty much every author. Even if you didn’t like the book, it says something that you took the time to figure out why instead of just riding that gut reaction. Because of reviews, I’ve gotten to talk with New York Times bestsellers, small press legends, and mass market romance writers among others. Hell, just today I was contacted by a guy who wrote a really fucking old pulp sci-fi book that I reviewed. That was super cool. People like to have their efforts recognized and, at its heart, that’s what reviewing is all about.

10. Assuming you do either of the things I am about to mention, which makes you feel worse: writing a negative review for a beginning author, or writing a kind review to avoid causing rifts/hurting feelings? (assuming you do either of those things).

I do both of those things and both make me feel like shit. It is awful to have to tell a new author that you didn’t like this thing s/he spent so much time on. That sucks. But, hopefully, my well-considered criticisms will help make that person a better writer. I know that’s what I try to do when faced with negative reviews of my own work. That second thing, though? That makes me feel like a fraud. And I’ve done it a lot. It’s so much easier to inflate a review because it helps you to avoid the altercation and, more importantly, not be responsible for any negative impact on someone’s career. A lot of small press authors really are trying to survive on their writing, something I don’t have to worry about. That sucks really bad. When I take that easier road, though, and do the nice thing for the author of the not-so-good book, it reflects poorly on me as a reviewer. Don’t get me wrong, every book has its audience. But you put your credibility on the line when you inflate reviews for friends. It’s just so goddamned hard not to.

11. Many authors have different methods for negotiating their dual roles as authors/reviewers. Mykle Hansen avoids giving star ratings for books written by people he knows and Carlton Mellick III generally avoids writing reviews, and has a well thought out philosophy on why he does so. Have you contemplated employing similar methods?

Carlton’s philosophy on reviewing is really smart and kind of excludes him from this discussion. As I understand it, he believes that a reviewer loses credibility once s/he becomes a published author. And, in many ways, I agree with him. When someone sees, for example, the authors on a press always reviewing books on that same press, it starts to get pretty obvious what’s happening. We all look to help one another, but our credibility is shit at that point. Carlton doesn’t review because he doesn’t feel a small press author should be evaluating his friends’ work.

Mykle’s philosophy, though, is more to the point where this conversation is concerned. His refusal to assign a star count stems directly from peer insecurity. Will this person get mad because I gave him fewer stars than I gave her? I think Mykle’s decision makes a lot of sense and it’s definitely a way to go. I, personally, am reluctant to do that because a star rating is important. On Goodreads or Amazon, it’s the first thing a potential reader sees. Five stars can really help a book sell, both on a per-customer basis and working the Amazon recommendation algorithm. So I really like assigning a lot of stars to good books. If I were to stop giving ratings to the books I didn’t like so much, it would still be very obvious that I didn’t like them. And that is a problem. It’s a really rusty, double-edged sword. Covered in AIDS.

Closing:

There are only a few days left before the NBAS team finds out whether or not they have made the cut. Do us a favor and check out the 2010 series on Amazon. “Like” our books, join our fan pages, buy a copy of one of our books. To see O’Malley’s first work, click here.

Have a question for Caris? Want to make an observation about how you or others you know negotiate their dual or triple roles as author/whatever else they’re up to? Drop us a line in the comments section and we’ll sustain the discourse.

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