Interview with a Reviewer: John A. Sellers of Publishers Weekly (plus a giveaway!)

Today I'm very pleased to welcome to the blog John A. Sellers, Book Reviews Editor at Publishers Weekly, and my book club buddy. John is a fantastic person to know, because if there's any book on Earth you want to talk about, he has read it. And it turns out he's a fascinating interviewee too! (Not to mention that he is offering up an amazing giveaway for our readers...) Let's get started, shall we?

Lisa Graff: Okay, the first question's an easy one: What is your official title, and how long have you been working at Publishers Weekly?

John A. Sellers: I’m the children’s reviews editor at PW, and I’ve been with the company since 2007. PW actually gave me my first job in publishing when I moved to New York, working as a part-time assistant in the children’s department (I was also barista-ing at a coffee shop in Carroll Gardens at the time). I eventually moved on to working in publicity at the Vintage/Anchor imprint at Random House and at the literary agency Pippin Properties before circling back to PW.

LG: So what does a reviews editor do, exactly?

JAS: It’s my job to get our children’s book reviews ready for publication in print or online. We’ve got a great group of reviewers who we send picture books, middle-grade and young adult novels, and nonfiction to on a weekly basis. When their reviews come back in, I edit them for grammar and accuracy, as well as consistency of voice (which is important since our reviews are anonymous).

LG: What does a typical day look like for you (if there is such a thing)?

JAS: Since we’re a weekly publication, my main goal over the course of the week is to edit as many reviews as I can so that my section is as big and robust as it can be. I start each week with a tall stack of books on my desk and work my way through it; there will be a whole new stack waiting the following week. It can be a bit Sisyphean, but that’s the nature of the job and the business—there will always be more books to review.

In 2011, we reviewed more than 1,800 books, and that’s not half of the books for children and teens that were published last year. The shelves of our bookroom are piled high with books (usually two rows deep), and I want us to review as many of them as we can.

A good part of my day is spent, I’m happy to say, with the books themselves, reading, making sure the reviews are accurate and fair, tightening and cleaning them up, and going back and forth with reviewers to make sure they are on board with any changes I’ve made. During a given week, I’m also proofreading pages for my section, meeting with publishers, checking out what books have come in, helping my boss, Diane Roback, with our free Children’s Bookshelf newsletter (you can sign up for it here), keeping on top of industry news, writing stories for our magazine or website, helping coordinate features like our announcements issues, and so on. We’re a small department within a small magazine, so we all wear lots of hats. We’ve just hired a great new editor, Carolyn Juris, which will let me spend even more time with books and reviews.

LG: What is PW’s goal with its reviews (i.e. are they written with a certain audience or objective in mind)?

JAS: PW’s readership includes industry professionals, librarians, booksellers, and consumers, and our reviews need to work for all of these readers. Our reviews are generally published two months before a book is published, giving our readers advance notice about what’s new, fantastic, and—sometimes—less than fantastic in the world of children’s books.

My foremost, overriding goal with all of the reviews I’m responsible for, whether they are positive or negative, is that they are fair. I want them to be informative, enjoyable/entertaining to read, and useful to our readership, but every book we review deserves as fair, considered, and objective a review as possible. Criticism is inherently subjective, so I really try to stress to my reviewers that they need to be open- and fair-minded, aware of what a book is setting out to do, and who its audience is.

LG: Is there anything PW would never put in a review of a book?

JAS: I don’t have a problem running negative reviews—I don’t think that puffy, nice-for-the-sake-of-nice reviews are all that useful—but at the same time, there’s never reason to be overly vicious or to “twist the knife.” So if a review comes in reading as overly snarky or cruel, I may rein it in—I think you can point out when a book has problems without getting nasty or personal.

I also think that there’s a tendency to be cutesy or punny when it comes to writing about books for children. I’m all for having fun, lively reviews, but I have a low tolerance for the overt preciousness, especially if it doesn’t add anything of substance to the review (which it seldom does).

LG: How many books would you say you personally read in a given week? And how, if at all, have your personal reading habits changed since you began working at PW? Do you ever have time (or the desire) to read for fun anymore?

JAS: We review anywhere between 20 and 30 books in the children’s/teen section of the magazine each week (not counting books we review online), and I try to spend as much time with each of them as possible. It comes back to fairness and trying to give each book its due.

My personal/pleasure reading has kind of tanked since starting this job—it’s difficult to make time for it when there are so many books vying for my time each week. I attend (poorly) a couple of book clubs (including the one you and I are in!), which helps, and I do find plenty of pleasure in the books I read for work. I try to keep up with what’s being published in the adult market—I think that perspective is important. My adult “to read” pile includes The Art of Fielding, The Stranger’s Child, Swamplandia!, and The Age of Miracles. Keep your fingers crossed for me!

LG: (Uh, side note: I think last year I read about 40 books all year, so you just made my eyes pop out of my head. Putting them back in and continuing on...) What was the book that made you fall in love with reading?

JAS: Oh wow, I’m not sure I can narrow it down. I read like crazy as a kid, and I still have such strong memories of and fondness for so many of my childhood favorites: Tomi Ungerer’s The Three Robbers, Judith Viorst’s Sunday Morning, Russell Hoban’s A Bargain for Frances (I wanted that tea set so bad!), the Mr. Men books, D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, Ann M. Martin’s Ten Kids, No Pets, every Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys book ever written—as soon as I end this sentence I’m going to think of ten more books I should add, so I better just call it quits. Oh, and I was Paddington Bear for Halloween once. No, not last year.

LG: So then, with all of the bajillions of books you read, what does it take for a book to really knock your socks off these days? Is there any trend or style you’ve become particularly tired of seeing in the children’s book world these days, or anything you think is sorely lacking?

JAS: I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I’m getting a little burned out by paranormal and post-apocalyptic novels, but authors are still doing wonderful, exciting things within those genres. Already, 2012 seems like it’s starting out as a strong year for GLBT YA titles—The Miseducation of Cameron Post, The Difference Between You and Me, and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe jump out immediately as powerful, wonderfully written novels for gay teens (though not just for gay teens, of course). And that’s just in the first few months of the year. The inveterate nerd in me is also excited that we seem to be gearing up for a boom in science fiction.

As far as books standing out, voice is really crucial. It isn’t everything, but when you see so many books in a given week, the ones that establish a strong, fresh narrative presence from the beginning tend to demand one’s attention. And even with as many books as I see, there’s still nothing like the chill you get a few pages into a book when you realize, hey, this is something special.

LG: Thank you so much for stopping by to join us, John! You have added about a billion books to my To-Read pile! :)



John is giving away three different middle-grade books to one very lucky blog reader! The first is Fancy Clancy: Super Sleuth, by Jane O'Connor. (Super-cute book description: "Nancy and her best friend, Bree, have everything they need to solve a mystery, from their totally professional trench coats to their top-secret code. But when crime strikes in their classroom, will these super sleuths be able to crack the case?" Read the PW review here.)

The second book is Fake Mustache, by Tom Angleberger. (I think all this book needs to sell itself is its full title: Fake Mustache: Or, How Jodie O'Rodeo and her Wonder Horse (and Some Nerdy Kid) Saved the U.S. Presidential Election from a Mad Genius Criminal Mastermind. Seriously, how could you not want to read that? Not that Tom "Origami Yoda" Angleberger probably needs much help selling his books these days!)

And the third book is Neil Flambe and the Marco Polo Murders, by Kevin Sylvester, about a "fourteen-year-old wunderchef" who uses his incredible sense of smell to solve mysteries. (Find more info on the publisher's page.)

Three fabulous books for the price of none! Why haven't you entered yet???

To enter the giveaway, simply send me an email at graff [dot] lisa [at] yahoo [dot] com with the subject line "PW BOOK GIVEAWAY." The winner will be chosen at random on April 1st.

The giveaway is now closed. Congratulations to our winner, Kate!


  1. What a fantastic interview! I love PW's reviews (they often help me decide what I'm going to read next), and I'm a bit jealous of John's job, actually! I'm with you, Lisa--I write so much, I often feel I'm behind in my reading!

  2. Lisa and John, thanks for this wonderful behind the scenes glimpse of the review process. I had no idea the reviews got reviewed! And John, I'm with you: down with "overt preciousness!" :)


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