Josh shares his journey as a reader, one way he makes use of Evernote, and his approach to find homes for a number of books after he got married.
Leigh Lim: Hi Josh, thanks for taking the time to do a Q&A! Looking through your reviews, I noticed that your reading focuses on different areas. Do you go off recommendations now?
Josh Olds: Leigh, I’m honored (and frankly surprised!) at the opportunity. I do tend to read in many different genres. It’s a luxury of being a somewhat professional book reviewer. I’ll always pick a good story outside my favorite genres than a mediocre story that’s within my “normal” parameters. As my review site, LifeIsStory.com has grown, so have my reviewing opportunities.
About half the books I read come from publishers or publicists who believe the book is a good fit for Life is Story. Usually, they’re right. The other half comes from doing a thorough search of publisher catalogs and seeing what interests me. A good book cover and tagline definitely makes a book stand out. I’m not likely to pick up a fiction book by an author I don’t recognize unless the cover and tagline catch my attention.
LL: Would you recommend a reviewer reach out directly to publishers?
JO: It depends on the size of your readership. I recommend that you start with book review programs such as BookLook Bloggers from Thomas Nelson or the Tyndale Blog Network or NetGalleys. All of these programs allow you to get your foot in the door and, once you have a history of quality reviews, you can seek out the publisher directly. That’s exactly how I’ve grown Life is Story over the years.
LL: How have your reading preferences changed through the years?
JO: I’ve definitely widened my reading range. 2014 was the year that I challenged myself to read books that I would normally decline. I also read a lot more what I would call “pastor” books. As a pastor (and writer), not only do I learn from the books but I’m learning how to structure my own writing.
LL: Writers that you loved from first read, until now?
JO: I can already tell that I’m going to be talking about Ted Dekker a lot. Ted has had a profound influence on my life (more on that later) and, yes, my reviews of his books do tend to emulate his style. Fun fact you may want to follow up on: I emulate his style so well that in 2011 I was asked to co-write a special promotional book he gave out to a select number of fans.
LL: Do you make it a point to catch live readings regularly? (or would you rather listen to the audiobook version?)
JO: I listen to audiobooks on occasion, but not often. I can read faster than I can listen.
LL: Do you usually re-read books?
JO: No. If I re-read a book, it’s a sure sign that I love it. My annual re-reads are When Heaven Weeps and The Circle Trilogy by Ted Dekker.
LL: How do you decide which books to keep after reading them?
JO: This is a difficult one. Just ask my wife! We literally have piles of books around the apartment and I’ve a couple thousand more volumes in storage at my parents’ house. I’m a book hoarder. If I love a book, I don’t want to part with it. If I don’t love a book, I don’t want to give it to someone else.
For our wedding, my wife and I took the duplicates of our merged libraries (close to two hundred duplicates!) and gave them away as wedding favors.
LL: Did you allow your guests select a wedding favor instead of a wedding gift?
JO: It wasn’t an either/or thing. Obviously, we weren’t going to demand gifts from our guests, but we are very thankful for everything we received. My wife and I owned a lot of books, but I had just come out of college and she is in college, so you know what we didn’t have? A toaster. The books were our way of saying “Thank You” for providing us with the things we deemed less important than books.
LL: Have you travelled to a specific area just to get a copy of a hard-to-find book?
JO: The first book signing that I ever attended was a huge event put on by Ted Dekker in 2009. Through his web forums, I’d become friends with a lot of fellow readers and the event marked the first time we ever met in person. Ted tends to have a book signing once a year, so I try to make it a point to go to a signing every year.
LL: What’s your rule when purchasing new books?
JO: I’m lucky enough that 99% of the books I want to read are ones that publishers are willing to send me in exchange for a review. Buying a book means I really loved it. I allow myself one book a month to buy, generally an older title that I couldn’t get elsewhere or an academic title.
I’m all for the print version. An ebook copy is better only if the price is significantly lower or, as is the case in academic titles, is a book I’ll use more for reference and can easily search.
LL: Do you still gravitate towards physical copies of books?
JO: I thought I’d never read ebooks. I was wrong. But nothing can replace the feel of a physical book in your hand.
LL: For the eBooks you have, do you use a specific eReader?
JO: I use an iPad. The Kindle app is my friend.
LL: Do you find yourself wanting to get more material after reading a book?
JO: If it’s a book I love, always. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing many authors (from David Baldacci to Jerry Jenkins) because of this. Listening to an interview is great. Actually getting to pick up the phone and call them is even better.
LL: Any memorable answers?
JO: Usually I delete the raw audio recording after I’ve edited and published a podcast. Last year, post-interview but still on the recording, Max Lucado praised my writing and the website. To a pastor and book geek like me, that was probably the highest honor I’ve ever been given. I didn’t delete that audio.
Another good answer was when I had the opportunity to interview NYT bestseller Terri Blackstock. I don’t recall the exact reason why—construction on her neighbor’s house, I believe—but at the end of the call, she mentioned that she’d been sitting in her kitchen pantry with the door closed to best minimize the outside noise. It was a great interview and without any background noise. I appreciate Terri’s willingness to go above and beyond to give a good interview.
LL: Have you watched a film before reading the book?
JO: Confession: I have watched all the Harry Potter movies and read…none…of the books. They’re on my to-read list, you know, for when I run out of books to review.
Very rarely do I ever finish a book and think it should be made into a movie. Unless, that is, the books are very visual and action-oriented. Usually, the fear that a movie would mess up my favorite books outweighs wanting to see my favorite stories in a different medium.
LL: How many books do you bring when you are out and about?
JO: I once took a vacation to Florida and packed an entire suitcase worth of books. If I’m on a road trip and not driving, I’ll pack a book or two to pass the time. If I’m flying, then space is usually a concern, which is another perk to ebooks. But, I mean, usually four or five.
I never leave the house without a book. You never know when you might need to read.
LL: After reading a book, are they usually devoid of marks?
JO: I cannot stand highlighting or writing in a book. If I want to make a note (or capture a quote), I’ll generally use Evernote to make my notations.
LL: What’s the best (book related) gift you’ve received?
JO: Christmas 2004. The Circle Trilogy by Ted Dekker. It revitalized my interest in fiction and jumpstarted my own desire to write.
It was through this that I eventually made friends all over the country with people I consider my best friends. One of those friends is now my wife. You can call it a slippery slope argument, but I call it a very, very good gift.
LL: There are people who think that reading is quite a solitary activity, and forget that it is after a book is read that connection with other readers (in forums or during live readings) kicks in. What would your advice be to form and cultivate deep friendships like you did?
JO: If you find a good book, talk about it. Seek out others talking about it. Chances are if you both like the same literature, you have other things in common as well. A friendship built on books is a strong friendship indeed.
LL: The last book you were really excited about?
JO: Checkmate by Steven James. Steven’s been writing a superb thriller series for a past seven years and Checkmate concluded it.
LL: Favourite place to read?
JO: Nothing beats curling up in bed and spending a few hours with a good book.
LL: Do you think there is a uniting quality from all the books you’ve read and enjoyed that draws you in?
JO: In terms of fiction, I look for a good story with a good theme. I abhor books that beat you over the head with their message. I don’t find any enjoyment or purpose in books that have no message. The best books are those [that] use the power of story to make you think.
LL: Are you a fan of boxed sets?
JO: Depends. I personally tend not to get boxed sets because I’ve usually followed the series through its individual releases. There’s something satisfying about seeing a boxed set, though. It’s like a nice way of partitioning a series and setting it apart from the rest of the bookshelf.
LL: Are there any misconceptions about you that you’ve had to clarify?
JO: After reviewing a book by NYT bestseller Eric Wilson, I got an email from him asking “This could be a weird question, but are you the Josh Olds from Family Force 5?” Turns out I share a name with the bassist of a Christian band. I’ve fielded that one a number of times.
LL: Are there questions you find yourself answering multiple times?
JO: Everyone comes to me for Ted Dekker questions. Most people come to me for reading recommendations. I always tell them to check the website, it retains the information better than me!
LL: Are there times when you struggle to find time to read?
JO: Always. I work two jobs outside of Life is Story and have to carefully schedule and protect my reading time. Especially as the site has grown and I’ve had to do more administrative and publicity work, it’s gotten harder. Fortunately, I’m a fairly fast reader and can usually average two books a week.
LL: Were there instances when you hesitated about posting a review?
JO: Any negative review goes to my wife first. I want to make sure I’m tactful and offering constructive criticism rather than just tearing something down. I always sit on a negative review for at least a day and come back to it later. If my feelings about it stick, then that’s what I publish.
There have been a few instances where, for independent publishers, I’ve elected not to publically review a book but send back private feedback. For indie publishers, a review is the same thing as publicity and if I can’t help them publicly, I’ll do so privately.
LL: Are you currently in the process of getting someone into reading?
JO: My brother. He’s a senior in high school and we couldn’t be less alike. Last year for Christmas I gave him a Kindle and preloaded it with some books I thought he’d like. He just finished the first one.
LL: Are there certain things you ‘geek out’ about?
JO: The Art of Story. Ted Dekker. Doctor Who. Jesus. My wife. Not necessarily in that order.
LL: Is there a topic that would get you talking endlessly?
JO: It changes weekly. This week I’m preaching on living in light of eternity, so right now I’m struggling with not preaching the whole sermon to you.
LL: Are you a big listener of music?
JO: Confession time. I’m not huge into music. I appreciate it. I enjoy it. I don’t follow it enough to know who sings what. As far as worship music, The Stand and This I Believe by Hillsong United are my favorites at the moment.
LL: What are you reading at the moment?
JO: Fiction: Then Sings my Soul by Amy Sorrells, Non-Fiction: Overrated by Eugene Cho, Websites: A daily read of mine is Cracked.com. Improvement: My friend Kevin Kaiser is putting up great content about making a living as an artist at his website 1ktruefuns.com. Bible: In the middle of an in-depth study of Ephesians.
LL: Do you go out of your way to discover new things? JO: I always check the publisher’s upcoming catalogs. They usually list books 3-6 months before they release. A couple months before release, I’ll put in my request.
LL: In what way do you approach motivation and inspiration?
JO: Well, as I define it, inspiration comes from the outside. Motivation comes from the inside. Both are necessary to succeed. As far as the writing life goes, I’d take motivation over inspiration any day.
LL: What makes you smile?
JO: My wife. It’s cheesy, but it’s true. She’s the funniest person I know.
LL: What’s your view about social media?
JO: I use it more for business than personal. I might post a personal update once every few days on Facebook, but all other social media is for Life is Story. I’ve taken a liking to Instagram as of late.
LL: Do you currently post at forums?
JO: I used to. The whole group of friends I had hung out a lot on a forum we created. Forums have died down as other forms of social media have taken their place, so not so much any more.
LL: Are there websites that you like to visit just because you like the design?
JO: I looked at a lot of different modern designs when researching the recent theme change at Life is Story, but other than that, no.
LL: What would you do when you need cheering up? (a particular website, listen to an album….?)
JO: Some time alone with God. Then commiserating with my wife.
LL: Are you interested in technology?
JO: Technology interests me, but I’m definitely not a whiz kid with it.
LL: For someone reading one of your reviews for the first time, what is the message you’re hoping they’ll take with them?
JO: Overall, I want it to be “This guy knows what he’s talking about.” Life is Story can help people craft their whole years’ worth of reading and we take pride in offering quality reviews.
LL: What makes your soul sing?
JO: Writing. I don’t do enough of it.
LL: What do you find is the best way to connect with other readers?
JO: Facebook is wonderful. I belong to a number of groups dedicated to various fanbases or reading in general.
LL: What kind of opportunities are you looking forward to?
JO: Well, I’d never turn down an opportunity to collaborate with Ted, but I doubt that’s even on the radar for him—though you never know.
Opportunities? There are so many out there that are within my reach in 2015. For Life is Story in particular, I’m working on capitalizing on this great opportunity I have called Behind the Pages, which is a twice-weekly guest column that I’m hosting on LiS. I’m bringing in a whole host of experts to talk about the various aspects of publishing, writing, editing, and so on. I’m going to learn a lot and it’s going to help Life is Story grow.
LL: In what way do you enjoy helping others?
JO: My wife and I…and I say I loosely, my wife runs the thing…have an organization called Gathering Family (GatheringFamily.org) that fundraises for families going through international special-needs adoptions. In the past 9 months, we’ve raised over $12,000 and been involved in helping five families bring their children home from an ocean away. It’s an exhilarating experience.
* Josh Olds writes for ‘Life is Story’. You can learn more about him through his tweets or viewing his photos on Instagram.
Source Material and Notes: The material posted is based on correspondence (December 2014 – January 2015) between Josh and Leigh. Content has been edited for length, and the final version has been reviewed and approved by the interviewee.
Leigh Lim is a musician based at Sydney. You can find a sample of her music here. To reach out to Leigh, you can do so via this form or a direct message through YouTube. (Curious to find out if she’s your kind of person? You can check out her tweets and personal entries.)
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