Posted On June 20, 2012 by Print This Post

B&N’s Paul Goat Allen: Reviewer Extraordinaire

Today we have a Q&A with Paul Goat Allen, who writes Barnes & Noble’s Explorations blog, and moderates B&N’s Sci Fi/Fantasy and Paranormal/Urban Fantasy book forums. He has reviewed thousands of books for Barnes & Noble, the Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly and many other publications. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Paul on B&N’s book club forums for several years – I’m very excited for you all to meet him!

Romance University: Welcome to Romance University, Paul! Please tell us a little about yourself.

Paul Goat Allen: Well, Becke, as you know I’ve been a full-time book reviewer for almost 20 years and it’s been an unbelievable ride. I’ve made a career out of reading and reviewing genre fiction and I’ve had the opportunity to interview hundreds of authors for companies like BarnesandNoble.com, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, etc.

When I tell someone what I do, the response is frequently “Oh! That’s my dream job – I would love to do that!” but the reality is that I have to read and review between four and six books per week and a sizable percentage of those books are, shall we say, less than stellar. Try trudging through three or four downright terrible novels in a row and then let me know how great you think my job is! 😉

But that’s why I absolutely love my job with BarnesandNoble.com, which I’ve been doing since the 1990’s. It’s essentially to seek out and find the “good stuff,” the crème de la crème in science fiction, fantasy, and horror. It’s a wonderful feeling to discover an extraordinary read that has been overlooked by everyone else and then share it with the world.

RU: How did you become a book reviewer? Did you seek out this career intentionally, or did you stumble on it accidentally?

PGA: I know quite a few professional book reviewers and to my knowledge none of them started off with this specific career path in mind. It was the same for me – when I got out of college with degrees in English Lit and Creative Writing, I seriously thought that I was going to make it as a poet. Talk about delusional!

My hair was almost down to my waist and I had a crazy “homeless guy living under the bridge” kind of beard. I became a performance poet and read my work everywhere that I could – schools, bookstores, libraries, arts and craft fairs, community centers… I even hired an electric guitar player and we opened up for heavy metal bands in area bars! Those were INSANE experiences.

I began compiling a book of poetry that I hoped to publish but I needed a “real job” to quote my father so, somewhat surprisingly, I hooked up as a long-term substitute English teacher at my old high school – but after a few months of hormonally insane teenagers and frustrating administrative politics I knew teaching wasn’t for me. With not very many options available, I went the retail route and interviewed at a Coles bookstore located in a nearby mall and almost instantly fell in love with the bookstore vibe.

It was a dream job – I soon became a manager and saved up enough money to self-publish two collections of poetry, which I (conveniently) sold in the store. During the eight years that I managed bookstores, I also published a novel entitled Burning Sticks through a small press. My life was going pretty well – I was known locally as a writer and poet and I had a stable job that I liked. But then Borders bought all of the Waldenbooks and Coles bookstores and that cool bookstore vibe disappeared almost instantly. I knew my days were numbered but I had no idea what I was going to do.

But then Fate intervened. A friend of mine who worked at the Waldenbooks home office in Stamford, Connecticut, had recently gotten a job as a book buyer at Barnes & Noble’s headquarters in Manhattan. She called me to let me know that the company was looking for an editor for their Explorations newsletter, a bimonthly SF/fantasy book review that was available for free in all of the B&N and B Dalton stores. I interviewed for the job knowing full well that I would never get it – but I did get it and almost two decades later, I’m still doing Explorations for BN.com.

My job with B&N eventually paved the way for more freelancing gigs – PW, BookPage, Kirkus, the Chicago Tribune, BookPage, etc.

But I still dream about making it as a poet some day…

RU: I understand you’ve written well over 6,000 reviews. Do you remember the first review you ever wrote? Did you choose the book yourself or was it assigned to you?

PGA: I don’t remember my first book review but I do remember one of my very first interviews. Anne McCaffrey. I was so nervous – she was a living legend, a literary icon, and I grew up reading her Pern novels – but she turned out to be so incredibly down-to-earth and kind. I remember she went off on this tangent about trying to figure out how some race of aliens could have sex. She was 72 at the time and I just remember thinking, “wow, can I be this cool when I’m 72?”

RU: You are a published author as well as a reviewer. Are you still writing poetry or fiction?

PGA: I have one mainstream fiction novel essentially finished except for the ending (which sucks) and a bunch of miscellaneous poems. But I recently decided to try my hand at science fiction/fantasy – I’ve been reading it nonstop for 20 years and I’ve run across a lot of formulaic, derivative storylines. I’m just finishing up a highly unconventional – and potentially unreadable – short story that will hopefully see the light of day somewhere soon.

RU: What are some of the most memorable books you’ve reviewed?

PGA: Well, like I just said, science fiction and fantasy can be very formulaic and uninspired. I remember books that have a profound personal impact on me – like Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, etc. – and I also remember the reads that were singularly unique, wildly original and visionary, like Jon Armstrong’s Grey and Stephan Chapman’s The Troika, to name a few off the top of my head.

RU: Do you use a checklist while you’re reading a book, taking notes to use in your review? What sort of things do you look for?

PGA: Well, many companies that I review for need citations (for character names, plotlines, quotes, etc.) so when I read a book, I take a lot of notes. I also like to keep track of particularly good lines and/or elements as well as bad ones. It makes writing the reviews much easier.

RU: What books influenced you when you were growing up?

PGA: I was a big reader when I was a kid and I read whatever I could get my hands on. As a kid in elementary school, fantasy was powerful for me – Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Le Guin’s Earthsea, Brooks’ Shannara, McCaffrey’s Pern, but as I became a teenager, science fiction had a huge impact. Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions anthologies blew my mind – as did Thea Alexander’s 2150 A.D., Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, and pretty much anything Arthur C. Clarke wrote.

RU: What are some of the books on your keeper shelves?

PGA: You’ll have to stop over for a cup of coffee and see for yourself – there are bookshelves everywhere. It’s like a museum.

RU: I’m almost afraid to ask, but how many books are in your waiting-to-be-read pile?

PGA: I have an entire room downstairs filled with ARCs and review copies. Seriously. I’d guess a few hundred easy…

RU: What books have excited you lately?

PGA: I’m loving this current Golden Age of apocalyptic fiction, particularly the female writers and female protagonists. There are some extraordinary end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it novels being released now: Sophie Littlefield’s Aftertime trilogy, Mira Grant’s Newsflesh saga, Rhiannon Frater’s As the World Dies trilogy, Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh, Justin Cronin’s Passage trilogy, Jessica Meigs’ Becoming saga, etc. I love a good apocalypse…

RU: Finally, I’d love to hear a little-known fact about you – something that might surprise us!

PGA: Okay. Let’s see if this surprises you: I’m obsessed with the number 13. All of my book titles have 13 letters (Warlock Dreams, Old Winding Way, and Burning Sticks), my daughters’ names are 13 letters long, and my wife’s maiden name was 13 letters long. (Thank God or else I would’ve never dated her!)

RU: Thanks for letting us pick your brain today, Paul!

PGA: Anything for you, Becke! Hope it wasn’t too boring.

RU: You? Boring? Never!

***

Have you ever bought a book based on one of Paul’s reviews? Do you participate in his book forums? We’d love to meet some of Paul’s fans!

On Friday, VIRGINIA KANTRA returns with Part Two of her series on The Basics of POV. Read Part One here.

***

Bio:

Paul Goat Allen is a book critic specializing in genre fiction – more than 6,000 reviews and counting – whose work has been published in the Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, The Huffington Post, etc. but he is probably most well known as being the longtime editor of BarnesandNoble.com’s science fiction and fantasy blog Explorations as well as the moderator for BN.com’s Paranormal & Urban Fantasy and Fantasy & Science Fiction book forums. He has also published a novel and self-published two collections of poetry.

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61 Responses to “B&N’s Paul Goat Allen: Reviewer Extraordinaire”

  1. Morning Paul!

    Wow, sounds like a fascinating career ride you’ve been on! I used to read a ton of sci-fi when I was younger, but nowadays I have to say I don’t actively seek to read it anymore….look at all the stuff I’m missing out on! =) Thanks for mentioning a few of your favorite authors, it might be time for me to dive back into the pool again!

    Thanks for posting with us today!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | June 20, 2012, 5:25 am
    • Carrie – I never thought of myself as a huge sci-fi fan, but when I think back I used to read a LOT of it. Robert Heilein, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury – mostly “classic” authors.

      Posted by Becke Martin Davis | June 20, 2012, 8:02 am
    • Thanks for the comments, Carrie – and I know what you’re saying about SF. But I would most definitely dip my toes back in – have you read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One? AWESOME.

      Posted by Paul Goat Allen | June 20, 2012, 8:11 am
  2. Hi, Paul. Welcome to RU!

    With so many books available to you, I’m curious how you choose which ones to read? Do you just grab one off the pile and start reading?

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | June 20, 2012, 6:43 am
    • Great question, Adrienne! I get a ton of emails an press releases from publicists so most of the time,I’ll know about a book before it actually arrives. I am also a big fan of the “debut novel” so I try my best to read and review as many debuts as I can. And sometimes it’s something as superficial as good cover art or a catchy title. And, of course, I am a huge fan of innovative writers so if a book’s synopsis sounds groundbreaking in any way, I’m reading it!

      Posted by Paul Goat Allen | June 20, 2012, 7:42 am
  3. Hi Paul, Wow I get to know a little more about someone who I truly admire and who I feel is a bit of a mentor to me.
    Good luck with the writing I know the ending will come to you. And I’d love to read the poetry you’ve yet to come up with.
    see you on the boards
    deb

    Posted by Debbie Haupt | June 20, 2012, 7:01 am
  4. Good morning, Paul –

    My twelve-year-old son is (along with many others his age) totally into apocalyptic and dystopian fiction. (We debated the difference a few days ago, and he tells me you can’t have a dystopia without an apocalypse. I learn something new every day.)

    Do you have any hot new authors/series you might recommend for a kid his age? He’s also a fan of the fantasy/sci fi genre.

    Thanks for hanging out at RU!
    Kelsey

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | June 20, 2012, 7:07 am
    • Kelsey:
      Well, I hate to contradict your son but you can absolutely have a dystopia without an apocalypse (Paolo Bacigalupi’s The windup Girl, etc.). They are most definitely two different categories – but that is a conversation for another day.

      I have some great suggestions for him!
      1. Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy
      2. Railsea by China Mieville
      3. The Water Wars by Cameron Stracher

      Posted by Paul Goat Allen | June 20, 2012, 7:52 am
  5. Paul – Thanks so much for letting me pick your brain. This was a fun interview! We’ve been partners in crime (or paranormal-slash-fantasty, etc. in your case) at B&N for so long, I enjoyed getting to know more about you!

    I wish there were videos of you as a performance poet. Darn, I should have asked you for old pictures!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | June 20, 2012, 7:14 am
  6. Hey!! Wonderful interview with the master. ;D

    I have to say, YES I’ve bought several books on Paul’s references. And LOOOVED many of them. And Paul is the one who got me going with my books. I have always said B&N Forums and Paul are my beginnings and send everyone there, if they listen..well that’s their trouble if not.

    And awesome about 13. I will say it’s my lucky number. And when I waited on tables, no one would take that call number and I was thrilled as I could always have my number. Although, I haven’t gone as far as only date someone with 13 letters in their name…well, husbands first, last, and Jr all add up to 13. Hmmm…

    Oh, and Paul, when you get that short story done, I would love to read it. 🙂

    Great interview, and glad to learn a little more about the man. Thank you!

    Posted by Melissa (My World...in words and pages) | June 20, 2012, 7:15 am
  7. Hi Paul,

    I’m with Becke. So glad YouTube was not around when I was younger. The description of your book piles reminds me of the classic Twilight Zone. All Burgess Meredith wants to do is read and keeps stacks of books. I don’t want to spoil the ending.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | June 20, 2012, 7:54 am
  8. For those of you who haven’t read sc-fi/fantasy/paranormal for a while i have to agree with Paul, there’s so much genre mixing in these novels today that there is absolutely something for everyone, it runs the gamut from soft and cuddly to very dark and disturbing but what I find is that there are so many that are so wonderfully written that it’s hard to choose so my pile just increases and my personal library at home is overflowing but I’m not complaining.

    Posted by Debbie Haupt | June 20, 2012, 8:23 am
  9. Love the interview. Agree that pictures would have been fun.

    I have chose MANY books from Paul’s Para blog site. His reviews make it easy to pick what appeals to me. I really enjoy the monthly picks as well, I start looking for them on the 1st of every month. Everyone is polite and no question usually goes unanswered for long. Paul your brain has to be crammed full. Thanks for all the hard work.

    Posted by Jeannie | June 20, 2012, 9:31 am
  10. A lot of the books I read are recommended by Paul. My to-be-read pile is pretty much all recommended by Paul. Some Christmas, birthday gifts are also recommended by Paul. In fact family or friends have been known to say “has that guy you follow said anything about this book”. It is nice to find someone that you understand how his reviews hold up to your personal opinion. It would be fun to see what books his children will read as they get older and can browse the book shelves at home.

    Posted by Luanne(pen21) | June 20, 2012, 10:04 am
  11. Paul opened up a new reading world for me on: http://bookclubs.barnesandnoble.com/t5/Unabashedly-Bookish-The-BN/bg-p/UnabashedlyBookish

    This is where I met and got to know Paul….I love his reviews, taking you into other times and places, ones where the imagination can run wild. He popped a few of my brain cells in the process, but he’s still the man!

    And, Paul, I hope you get your ♥ dream someday.
    All the best,
    KathyS

    Posted by Kathy Shattuck | June 20, 2012, 10:18 am
  12. Paul, Melanie and Debbie – all moderators at BN.com – have made my to-be-read pile what it is today. Sooo many authors/books I want to read!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | June 20, 2012, 10:23 am
  13. Any writers or aspiring writers out there have any questions about getting published, promoting their books, do’s and don’t’s, etc.?

    Pick my brain if you want…

    Posted by Paul Goat Allen | June 20, 2012, 11:21 am
    • Paul, on a more serious note ♪, after you’ve become friends with a writer, do you find it difficult to write a review of their work?

      Posted by Kathy Shattuck | June 20, 2012, 11:30 am
      • Not at all, Kathy – I’ve written some less than flattering reviews for releases of authors I know well. I can’t ever let any outside influences affect the review or else my integrity is tainted – and, really, at the end of the day that’s all I have.

        Posted by Paul Goat Allen | June 20, 2012, 11:37 am
  14. Paul – I’d like to hear some of those do’s and don’t’s! (Pick…pick…)

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | June 20, 2012, 11:31 am
    • Okay. The biggest “do” for me is being honest and being real. authors are just like car salespeople – except they’re selling their work. If an author, or aspiring author, comes across as fake or too confident, I’m frankly turned off. Humility is a beautiful, glorious thing – I’ve interviewed some of the biggest names in genre fiction (Dean Koontz, Laurell K. Hamilton, etc.) and guess what? All have been not only tremendously kind but also incredibly humble. I know it seems obvious but it’s a Big lesson.

      Another big thing to focus on is building relationships, expanding your social network. Get out there. Almost every single BIG career move that I have had the opportunity to do has come about via people in the biz who knew me giving someone else my name when a job opened up. again, this seems like a common sense lesson but it is vitally important. Writers! Email publishers, agents, fellow writers… “friend” publishing professionals on Facebook and follow them on twitter! Every week I see something on twitter – looking for a short story for this collection, new mag starting looking for horror, etc. Look at social networking as a river of information that never stops flowing. This is stuff that could lead up to your big break – dive in!

      And this is even more important for self-published authors!

      Posted by Paul Goat Allen | June 20, 2012, 4:01 pm
  15. I’m curious on some do’s and don’t’s too.

    And…by chance is there any way for a little reviewer to try and become more? Any suggestions where to turn to become better and make more of what we do?

    Posted by Melissa (My World...in words and pages) | June 20, 2012, 11:40 am
    • Same advice for aspiring reviewers, Melissa. Get your name out there and start building relationships with fellow reviewers/bloggers. Send queries to PW, Kirkus, LJ, BookPage, etc. Many of these gigs are filled almost immediately when there is an opening because these editors simply ask their current roster of reviewers, “hey do you know anyone who reads romance or sf or whatever?”

      Posted by Paul Goat Allen | June 20, 2012, 4:07 pm
  16. There is a reason Paul is also known as our Book Pimp on B&N…! I would be totally lost without Paul’s recs and reviews! I read mostly paranormal/UF, but have also started picking up some scifi as well lately, of the more “apocolyptic” variety (I’ll never forget your recommendation for Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh- amazing book that I never would have picked up otherwise…) Paul is bad for all of our bank accounts!

    Super fun interview- Paul, it was great getting to know you better! Becke, thanks for sharing!!

    Posted by Stephanie Mitchell (ThirstyFlea) | June 20, 2012, 11:53 am
  17. Hi Paul,
    Thanks for the fab interview. As a debut author, I was so happy to read that you actively seek out new authors for reviews. I’m sure every reviewer has their “must read” authors, so it’s cool to see that you’ll pickup an unknown.

    I visit my local B&N every Friday (seriously, it’s an addiction), but have shied away from promoting myself there as an author. Any thoughts on how to develop the bookstore-author relationship without the salesperson vibe?

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | June 20, 2012, 11:55 am
    • Great question, Tracey – and one that really is significant. I’m all for authors who are trying to get more exposure for their work – be it approaching a bookstore manager, emailing a book reviewer or publication that does reviews, etc. – but it’s all about being real. I cannot stand authors who are deceptive, authors who come across as egotistical, or authors who treat managers, reviewers, etc, as means to an end. I have had literally dozens of authors (all self-published, although that doesn’t matter) approach me through the BN.com forums pretending to be someone else and pushing their own book. Unbelievable! as with anything in life, it’s all about nurturing relationships – so Tracey I would definitely approach your local B&N manager and introduce yourself. As a former bookstore manager, I loved finding local authors to promote – it’s a win-win situation – so I’m sure that whoever this manager is, they will be happy to know you and hopefully do something – a book signing or a reading or whatever. Be yourself, be confident but humble and just keep plugging along. You’ll never know about an opportunity if you never put yourself out there…

      Posted by Paul Goat Allen | June 20, 2012, 3:47 pm
  18. Hi Paul!

    Thanks so much for being with us today. My question….do you prefer a book or an e-reader?

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | June 20, 2012, 2:20 pm
    • Absolutely, without a doubt, I prefer books, Jennifer. I love the feel of a book, the smell of a book, the cover art, etc. Although I understand that ebooks are the future, I’ll always enjoy reading an actual book much more…

      Posted by Paul Goat Allen | June 20, 2012, 3:37 pm
  19. Hey guys, thank you so much for having me here today. I hope it was at the very least entertaining and maybe a little enlightening.

    For those of you who want to keep in touch, http://bookclubs.barnesandnoble.com/t5/Explorations-The-BN-SciFi-and/bg-p/SciFi

    Explorations is my SF/Fantasy blog on BN.com, and I’m on facebook and twitter so the ball is in your court now…. 🙂

    Posted by Paul Goat Allen | June 20, 2012, 4:14 pm
  20. Paul – Thanks so much for a fantastic interview and for answering all our questions today. This was a blast!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | June 20, 2012, 4:52 pm
  21. Great interview, very interesting!! I follow PGA’s reviews and posts on B&N, and he has never led me astray when it comes to recommendations!

    Posted by Pamela {@SpazP} | June 20, 2012, 7:26 pm
  22. The trouble is, Pamela, I want to get ALL of his recommendations!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | June 21, 2012, 7:04 am
  23. I’ve created a monster.

    Posted by basney | June 21, 2012, 4:07 pm

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