“ Book review website featuring reviews of a wide range of books and genres, offering regular book giveaways and competitions. „
~Once Upon a Time~
Many good stories start with those words.
Once upon a time - in this case towards the end of 2009 - a new book review site appeared on the internet and went largely unnoticed for some time except by those of us who wrote for it. The site was www.curiousbookfans.co.uk and was the brainchild of a chap called Vladimir, a Serbian with an uncanny love of the English language and such exceptional command of it that few people ever guessed he wasn't 'one of us'. He was known to some members of the popular consumer review sites as either 'John Cleese' or 'John Cheese' depending on the site. Vlad wrote to a bunch of writers whose reviews he had enjoyed and asked if they'd be interested to post reviews on his new site. He never claimed that anyone would 'get rich quick' and admitted that it would most likely be a very long time before anyone would make any money, but in the meantime he hoped to be able to supply a few free review copies of books direct from publishers.
Despite it being clear that this wasn't a money spinner, any true book-lover is unlikely to turn down the offer of free books especially when curiosity and the desire to read new writers and go outside your comfort zone reading-wise is often tempered by the shocking cost of books these days. For many of us there was also the desire to support Vlad in his venture. I thought I'd give it a go as did around a dozen other reviewers. Even if you've never been to the CBF site, if you read book reviews on here you'll probably have seen footnotes
identifying that some reviews have previously appeared on there.
~What's it all about?~
Curiousbookfans doesn't specialise in any particular genre - you'll find kids books, non-fiction (biographies, self-help, historical etc), fiction from chick-lit through to Booker prize listed books, educational text books and all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff. Less than one fifth of the books are ones that have been supplied by the supporting publishers - the rest are reviews that the writers have chosen to submit. To date there are nearly 450 reviews on the site - and best of all you can read them without having to worry about rating the bloomin' things. If you do want to leave some kind of feedback, feel free - there's a comment box on every review and they do generate some lively debate at times. A surprisingly large number of authors have actually chosen to comment on the reviews about their books, most nicely - though some have got a bit arsey, but I'll name no names; let's just say that getting stroppy when someone doesn't LOVE your book doesn't do a writer any favours. The reviews are listed in an alphabetical index or you can interrogate the list by genre using links on the home page (though admittedly quite a long way down the home page).
~What it's like to write for~
A year later and I'm as committed as ever to Vlad's vision of a website for people who love reading, a place where you can find unbiased reviews of a wide range of book genres and hopefully be inspired to try something new. Curiosity might have killed the cat but Curious Book Fans has given me a route to getting to know new writers both through their books and through e-interviews. The first e-interview on the site was with a wonderful writer called Sorayya Khan whose book I'd picked up in an Indian airport. Vlad spotted several hits originating from a particular state in the USA, found out that was where Sorayya lived and tracked her down through Facebook and asked her if she'd like to do an interview for us. Several emails later and not only did I have the answers to the questions that had been lingering in my mind when I finished her book, Five Queen's Road, but also a promise of a second copy of the book (to lend to friends - GillyMN, time to give it back please!) and a signed copy of her first book.
I've done further interviews with a couple of writers whose publishers provided the books (Sex and Bowls and Rock and Roll by Alex Marsh and they've just published my interview with Martin Pevsner who wrote Divinity Road) as well as finding the site gives me a way to get to authors I've enjoyed without looking like a nutter-stalker (using Vlad as the nutter-stalker's respectable intermediary).
In case you're wondering about the financial rewards, the site generates a small income through referrals to Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com and The Book Depository. These sites pay a small commission on sales that come to them through curiousbookfans and Vlad then splits the income 50:50 with the writers whose links led to the sales, putting the rest towards the site's running costs. Most of my commission is on Amazon and Book Depository purchases that I've made myself but increasingly I'm starting to get commission on books that people have ordered after reading my reviews. I used to order from Amazon to get air miles but that stopped being an option and since they don't offer commission or points through any other sites I use, my Christmas shopping generates a bit of extra commission when I remember to use the links. Most of the publishers now send books directly to the writers which saves a lot on postage and is helping Vlad to keep paying his administrative costs without going too far into the red. It's a labour of love for him and many of his writers.
I've learned a few things during the year. First amongst these is that self-published books can be a bit scary and I tend to shy away from those now. One of the few books I've failed to be able to review was a very worthy but very heavy-going self-published book that I just couldn't make head nor tail of. Secondly I've learned not to be greedy since it's a mistake to take on too many review books if you they don't leave you enough time to read what you want to. I've also learned to say "No" and that if I really CAN'T read a book then I won't review it although I have to say hating a book is no bar to reviewing it (though I'm relieved to not have had any hate mail yet).
There are some rules for the site but I have to confess I've not read them but I've not had my knuckles rapped so I guess I've not broken them. The one important rule is that any reviews of books that the publishers have supplied must include an acknowledgement of where they came from and must not be posted to other review sites for at least one month after they appear on CBF. I think that's fair enough.
~How's the Site Doing?~
After a very slow start and some issues with nasty old google loving us some months and ignoring us others, the site is doing pretty well and picking up more traffic every month. Vlad sends us writers the site's statistics each month along with a report on our commission earnings. I find the information fascinating but I'm not about to reveal how many hits a month we get as I think that's something that only Vlad should share with others outside the site. Some of the original writers might have become disenchanted whilst others are more than happy to keep writing and several people who've liked the site have approached Vlad directly to ask to be added to his writing team. We try not to have too many writers or the book supply would get very thin but if you check out the site, like what you see and really want to get involved, the 'About' page has a link to the contact form and you can get in touch with Vlad and offer your services and perhaps send him links to some of your best reviews.
~Why bother to visit?~
What's in it for you as a reader rather than a writer? Obviously we hope you'll find the reviews interesting, track down some books you might not have thought of reading, save money on buying rubbish books that we hated and all the usual things you'd expect when reading book reviews. If you sign up for the newsletter (don't worry, it's only about once a month) then you'll get an update on books that have been listed and any competitions that are running. The competitions are a bit special and CBF has done a lot of book give-aways during the year and these are usually run through the site's forum. With relatively low numbers of active members in the forum, you've got a very good chance of winning.
At the end of 2010 we had our most ambitious event - a charity book auction which helped to generate $300 dollars for the site's chosen charity - Room to Read - which educates girls in the developing world. Vlad approached some of the publishers who've been supplying books during the year - including Canongate Books, DK Publishing, Hachette, HarperCollins, Headline and Profile Books - and asked them to donate books for the charity auction.
None of us will ever make a fortune from Curious Book Fans but some of us have already had a lot of fun with the site. I've been in contact with some wonderful writers and, whilst I still have no particular desire to write a book of my own, I'm much clearer in knowing that the people who do write books are really just like the rest of us (though a lot more self-disciplined than me). I've filled my bookshelves with authors I didn't know, read genres I'd normally avoid and I've had a lot of enjoyment out of the site.