Reviewers & Critics: Isaac Fitzgerald of BuzzFeed Books

by
Michael Taeckens
8.19.15

How much traffic does BuzzFeed Books get per month?
We don’t share traffic information for specific sections, but I can tell you that BuzzFeed Books has seen significant traffic increase since we launched, and it continues to grow.

How many books do you get a day? How many are you able to cover?
We receive anywhere from thirty to fifty books a day. We have a BuzzFeed Books library that everyone on staff is encouraged to browse. If they find any book interesting, they can cover it, whether it’s in the form of a recommendation, as part of a roundup or list of books, or even in a personal essay. Because of the amount of content we get to publish, we’re able to touch on numerous books. If a book really has my attention, I’ll usually try to get an essay from the author, because once I get obsessive about a book all I want is more writing about anything from that same brain.

What sorts of things influence you when deciding to select a book for coverage? Do blurbs, prepublication reviews, large advances matter at all? How about relationships with publicists and editors?
All of that definitely helps, and it should. It’s all information coming from well-informed, passionate people who have made books a huge part of their lives. But what it comes down to is that I’m really lucky to have the freedom to cover what I want. I never feel like I have to cover a book for any reason beyond that which is between its two covers. So the most important thing is that it’s a good book.

Do you cover books of all genres?
It pleases me so much that not only do we have the freedom to cover all sorts of books, we also have the staff to do so. The best thing about working at BuzzFeed is how many ridiculously smart book-lovers work here. While my background is in contemporary literary fiction, we have other members on staff who are huge fans of science fiction, fantasy, children’s books, and young adult fiction. And everyone gets to contribute; although I’m the books editor and Jarry Lee is staff writer, anyone at BuzzFeed can cover a book that they enjoyed.

We also have an internal book club. We’re currently reading Mia Alvar’s short story collection In the Country, which is fantastic. We also have authors come visit us at BuzzFeed HQ, where we have a conversation attended by staff members, but also do fun posts and cartoon drawings of the authors. We’ve had Margaret Atwood give us advice on surviving a zombie apocalypse, dating tips from Chuck Palahniuk, as well as visits from Judy Blume, Issa Rae, Meg Cabot, and Renata Adler.

Everything comes into BuzzFeed Books from different pipelines—which allows readers with all kinds of interests to find something that’s right for them.

BuzzFeed Books is particularly adept at featuring and promoting a diversity of writers—diversity of race, sexuality, gender. Do you see what you’re doing as a corrective to an imbalance in the publishing world?
From where I’m sitting, there have always been diverse storytellers, so diversity in coverage comes naturally as long as you pay attention and focus on seeking out the best work. As an editor, when you cast the net wide and keep striving to reach and hear from more people, you’re just doing your job.

What do you think BuzzFeed offers that other literary sites don’t?
I don’t like to play the comparison game, so here’s the way I see it: For a long time, the literary world—and coverage of the literary world—was a very fancy cocktail party, with champagne and tuxedos, and it was very hard to get into. What the Internet has allowed is not for everyone to storm that party and tear it apart—in fact, that party, and the forms of discourse it has developed, are incredibly important. It’s about building around that party, so that all kinds of voices can be heard and so many styles of book coverage and discourse can happen. So while I’m maybe playing Frisbee over here, there might be beer pong over there, and a fish fry across the way. The other thing that’s nice is that as the Internet progresses it’s becoming easier to go from one party to another, so someone in a tuxedo might step across the way to the fish fry.

For me, it’s not about what we have that other places don’t, or vice versa. It’s about the ways in which we all contribute to the conversation about books. Which is really why we’re all here, right? No one in this business is here to get rich. We’re here because we really, deeply, truly love and care about books. How that’s expressed will vary for different people and outlets, but it is all love.

You’ve interviewed a number of authors—Joyce Carol Oates, Junot Díaz, and Emily St. John Mandel, to name a few—for live events. Is this part of your official role at Buzzfeed? Who else will you be interviewing in the near future?
I love interviewing writers—basically, I’m loud and curious and I show up on time, which event organizers really seem to like. Interviews aren’t in my job description, but when I first got to New York, the Strand offered me the opportunity to do a conversation with Joyce Carol Oates. And recently, I interviewed former BuzzFeed writer Anna North, whose book Life and Death of Sophie Stark is fantastic, and moderated a panel featuring Stephen King, Owen King, Peter Straub, and Emma Straub. All of which BuzzFeed has been very supportive of.

I’ve been doing live events and book discussions since back in my Rumpus days. Doing and supporting live book events is incredibly important to me, as just another great way to expand the conversation around books. When it comes right down to it, whether online or in person, my favorite thing to do is talk about books.

Where do you see the future of book coverage in ten years?
Hopefully the cocktail party is bigger than ever, with more voices from different socioeconomic backgrounds, more diverse voices, more international voices. I think with the growing worldwide audience, not to mention incredible translations from presses like Graywolf and Melville House, we’re only going to find that as book lovers we find strength in one another, too, and that group is only going to continue to grow.

Are there any books coming out in 2016 that you’re especially looking forward to?
Another fun thing about my job is that I’m usually planning for the next week, or the next month, or if I’m really good, the next season. I’d be lying to you if I said I had a Google Calendar with all of the 2016 releases already marked out. So instead of talking about books on the horizon that I’m excited for but really haven’t had a chance to read yet, I want to leave you with a couple of the books that have really lit me up this year: The Sellout by Paul Beatty; A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara; Get in Trouble by Kelly Link; and The Invasion of the Tearling, the second book of a killer science fiction–fantasy trilogy that began with The Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen.

One book I can name that I’m excited about in 2016 is All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. It comes out in January, which might barely be 2016, but in Internet time that feels aeons away.

Michael Taeckens has worked in the publishing business since 1995. He is a cofounder of Broadside: Expert Literary PR (broadsidepr.com).