An Interview with Kristopher Zgorski of BOLO Books

By Wendy Tyson

I first had the opportunity to work with Kristopher Zgorski of BOLO Books during the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in 2014 when he moderated a panel to which I was assigned. I was struck then by Kristopher’s passion, insightfulness, and the degree to which he had his finger on the pulse of the crime fiction market. In the interview below, Kristopher and I talk about blog beginnings, likes and dislikes and advice for new authors.

Your crime fiction blog, BOLO Books, has an unusual title.  As I understand it, “BOLO” actually comes from the police acronym “be on the lookout”—as in, be on the lookout for fantastic crime fiction. I love that. Can you share with us a little about your background? The genesis of your love of mysteries?

I had the name for the blog years before I actually launched BOLO Books.  I thought it was a clever connection to the genre and pretty much summed up what I wanted to do with the blog – that is, let readers know what great books are coming out so that they could keep an eye out for them. As it turned out, less people were familiar with the acronym than I expected, so it ended up being the eyeball logo that became the most recognizable image of the brand, rather than the blog’s name.  I’m not complaining, I love the eyeball with a book logo.

I’ve always read mysteries – starting with Encyclopedia Brown when I was a child. There is just something about the process of solving a mystery that intrigues me. On the blog’s “about” page I also talk a bit about an incident I witnessed as a child.  I was at a friend’s house when a man came to the door after having been stabbed by his father. He needed to use the phone to call the police and while we kids were distanced from everything, I always did wonder what happened to that guy.

How did you get your start as a reviewer?

My undergraduate degree is in English, with a focus on minority literature, so I have spent the good majority of my life reading and analyzing the writing of others. Around the same time,  I started to notice that all my friends and acquaintances were asking me for recommendations on what to read – and then coming back to tell me how much they enjoyed my suggestions. I always knew that a review was just one person’s opinion, but when I realized that people really valued mine, I started to take things much more seriously and made sure that my suggestions were always honest and tailored for the person asking.  It was years later when I parlayed that into the blog and now the magazine reviewing – I should point out that many of my blog reviews now also run in Crime Spree Magazine and Deadly Pleasure Magazine, as well as occasionally on the SHOTS UK e-zine.

Is there a particular type of crime fiction you prefer?  Any subgenres you typically avoid?

My go-to sub-genre is psychological suspense, with a strong affinity for domestic suspense.  But I really do read widely in the category. I tend to not enjoy anything that comes across as too – what I like to call – “testosterone-heavy.”  Too many of those books rely on action, violence, and sex to obscure the fact that they lack characterization and often have no plot. I hear criticism of romance novels all the time as being too cookie cutter crafted and I just want to say that many thrillers suffer the same issue. Again, that is only my opinion, so this is why on the blog I rarely review books I didn’t enjoy.  The purpose of my blog is to promote the love of reading and I do that by talking about the books *I* think people might enjoy, but if they enjoy something else, I encourage them to continue reading it – regardless of what others say. Every book has a reader and every reader, a book.

Many readers are drawn to certain types of stories.  (For example, I love locked-room mysteries.)  Are there certain plot elements or storylines that you particularly like?  Any that are an instant turn-off for you?

I love unreliable narrators. I know some people hate them; they don’t like to feel manipulated or that they have no characters to root for, but I just lap them up. So much clever plot construction can be generated when you don’t really know who is telling the truth – or whose truth they are telling. Similarly, I love a book that features a twist – something that completely alters what you previously thought was going on. Books like that are rare, but so powerful when done successfully.

As for dislikes, you will recall my public statement at Bouchercon a few years back when I said that I really dislike mafia tales. There is something about their attitude of being above the law that really grates on me, but I have read some titles containing mafia or mafia-like elements that I have loved recently, so I may be mellowing out in my old age.  The real moral of this is the realization that if a book features strong characters and is well written and compelling, anything goes in terms of subject matter.

Do you have a favorite format (e.g. hardback, paperback, or e-book)?  What appeals to you most about this format?

If it’s a book I am going to keep on my shelf, I prefer hardback. A hardback book seems like it was built to last the test of time, is easy to read, and looks beautiful. For paperback books, I tend to prefer trade-sized works for easier reading. And I am far from opposed to e-books. They are great for traveling and require much less storage room, but they will never be my dominant format I think.

Readers want to know: what great books have you read recently?  What or who are you on the lookout for in 2016?

Two of the best books I have read this year are UK releases, coming out here in the States later this year. Alex Marwood’s THE DARKEST SECRET is really a new high for an author already working at an exceptional level.  And Clare Mackintosh’s I LET YOU GO, a book I was almost unable to write a review for because by doing so, the book would have been ruined for others (in the end, I did manage to find a way around the large spoiler in my review). I am very big on keeping my reviews spoiler-free. Remember, my goal is to get folks to read, so spoiling a book for readers is not in my DNA. 

Stateside, I am always awaiting the next Laura Lippman book. Her release this year, WILDE LAKE, is set in the area of Maryland where I live, so I am anxious to see what she does with/to my neighborhood.  Lyndsay Faye’s JANE STEELE is incredible. As a huge, huge fan of JANE EYRE, I was delighted by what she was able to do with that story with just a few, albeit major, tweaks. Lastly, I must mention Megan Abbott. Her last few releases have really cornered the market on young girl angst (in the best possible way) and the new one, YOU WILL KNOW ME, is set in the world of gymnastics. Who could resist?

Authors want to know: can they contact you to review their work?  Is there a right way or a wrong way to reach out to BOLO Books?

I am always open to pitches. I am blessed that BOLO Books has become very popular fairly quickly, so my calendar tends to book up early. I have things mapped out at this point up through July or so.  This does not mean, however, that authors shouldn’t approach me, as I will always make room when something really intrigues me. Also, every Monday I post a selection of books (4 or 5 titles) coming out that week which I think my followers might be interested in checking out. Not all of the those books go on to get full reviews on BOLO Books, but those posts are very popular and can generate interest for a title simply by being included. Like the reviews, those spots are competitive, but there is more room there than with full reviews. With a day job, I can only read and review so many books a year – a goodly number, but I always wish it could be more.

As for how to approach me – or any blogger – I can’t stress enough how important it is to visit the blog before reaching out. I know we are all busy, but if you can tell me something you like about the blog or what I am doing, you are more likely to get my attention. Book bloggers are unpaid; we do what we do because we love doing it. However, that does not mean that we owe anyone anything. When we love a book, we are happy to help you make money by selling more copies, but keep in mind that the payoff for the blogger is much less tangible. In that way, respect is going to get you much further than demands.

At the very least, make sure the book you are pitching fits the type of stuff the blog covers – I get pitches for romance novels all the time. And most bloggers include their name on their “about” page; it’s there for a reason, use it. It also shows that you are not just sending out mass template e-mail pitches – even if you really are. Lastly, please don’t ask me to buy your book or provide me a link to purchase it with your pitch. I review plenty of books that I buy on my own, but never once have I reviewed something after an author asked me to buy and review it for them. It just won’t happen.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not reading or reviewing? 

People who follow me on Facebook know that I also love and attend theater on a regular basis. Occasionally those outings will get reviewed on BOLO Books – like when I saw THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME on Broadway – but more often than not those “reviews” only appear on Facebook. I also love travel, conventions, movies and television – all of which occasionally cross over onto the blog and the associated Facebook profile.

You’ve read and written about a lot of great fiction over the years, and you have met many successful authors. Any advice for new and aspiring novelists?

Network, network, network.  Attend conferences and meet people – not just other authors, but fans as well. You never know who is going to be beneficial to your career later down the road and even if they can’t help you in that manner, it’s nice to meet new people with similar interests. BOLO Books would not be nearly as successful as it is if I hadn’t attended conferences like Bouchercon and Malice Domestic years before I launched the blog. Those people I met are the ones that help to spread the word about BOLO Books. Word-of-mouth is the best selling point in the world – don’t discount it.

And finally, what’s next for BOLO Books?

Along with appearing in the magazines mentioned above, BOLO Books will continue to provide quality critiques of new crime fiction while remaining spoiler-free and inclusive of all forms of diversity. Last year, fellow bloggers Dru Ann Love (Dru’s Book Musings) and Lesa Holstine (Lesa’s Book Critiques), and I launched a series of Triple Posts where we all weighed in on a common topic and posted to each other’s blogs. We will be continuing that concept a few times this year. I also hope to host a reception for BOLO Books in NOLA just before the start of Bouchercon – details of that will be posted to the blog, so please sign up for e-mail notifications if you would like to know when and where that event will be.

WENDY TYSON has written four published crime novels, including Dying Brand, the third novel in the Allison Campbell Mystery Series, which was released on May 5, 2015.  The first in the Campbell series, Killer Image, was named a best mystery for book clubs in 2014 by  Wendy is also the author of the Greenhouse Mystery Series, the first of which, A Muddied Murder, is due to be released in spring 2016.  Wendy is a member of Sisters in Crime and International Thriller Writers, and she is a contributing editor for The Big Thrill, the International Thriller Writers’ online magazine.

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