An interview with Magdalena Ball, managing editor of Compulsive Readers

For our 2024 blog series, we’re highlighting industry professionals to find out more about their time in the book world. Follow along for insight on what catches a reviewer’s interest, things to avoid when pitching a media outlet, what librarians are searching for and more. 

Today, we’re chatting with Magdalena Ball, a novelist, poet, reviewer, interviewer, vice president of Flying Island Books, and managing editor of Compulsive Reader. Her stories, editorials, poetry, reviews and interviews have appeared in a wide number of journals and anthologies, and have won local and international awards. She is the author of several novels and poetry books, most recently, Bobish, a verse-memoir published by Puncher & Wattmann in 2023.

  1. As someone who hears about A LOT of books, what makes one stand out to you?   

I’m always surprised at how many wonderful books keep coming my way. You’d think there’d be a limited way of saying things but that has not been my experience. There’s always something fresh and new that makes a book stand out — something unique and yet recognisable — as if the author were reaching into my own unnamed experiences and finding something I’ve not yet been able to name and sharing it with me. When this happens it’s visceral and immediate — that recognition. 

  1. What’s the worst thing an author (or publicist!) can do in telling you about a book they’d like you to consider for coverage?  

I don’t know if this is the worst, but here are two things I get far too much and they’re usually enough to get a quick rejection. The first is sending a link or .pdf with nothing more — no note or information. I won’t click or open anything so best to just write. The second, which will come from authors — usually new ones — is hyperbole about their book, eg “this is the best thing you’ll ever read,” “this is a game-changer for poetry,” etc. 

  1. What makes your job easier?  

Compulsive Reader is a passion project. I do it for all sorts of reasons but not to make a living; I have a day job for that and, of course, we’re all in the midst of life with its many priorities. This is the same for my whole reviewing team. We don’t take a lot of books. Publicists and authors who understand that will often send me reviews, ready to use interviews (including recordings), giveaways and other assets I can use straight away, written and formatted in a way that fits the site standard; this won’t necessarily guarantee something will be used, but if it’s well-done and in line with what I do, that not only makes my job easier it means I can do more to support authors which is why I do this.  

  1. What’s the most memorable (or maybe funniest) pitch that’s ever come your way?  

There is this Irish author who I won’t name here but he sent such a funny, charming, slightly over-the-top pitch full of linguistic brogue that I really couldn’t resist.  

  1. Did you always know you wanted to be involved in the book world? 

I’ve been reading and writing since I was very young (and even before I could read and write I was pretending to do those things until my pretense became reality). So I think, yes, this is my world and it feels very natural to me to be reading deeply, writing about books, facilitating that for others, and of course creating my own works too. 

  1. What is your most recommended book and why? 

I get asked for recommendations all the time, but I don’t think I can limit myself to one recommended book as I try to tailor my recommendations to people’s tastes. There are a few books, however, which have remained on my “best of the best” and while it might depend on the person, I think that Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is a book I’ve loved since I was 1 or 2 years old and I still love it today — it still rewards my reading out loud to others or to myself.

For something a bit older, I continue to recommend Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum as a challenging and beautiful book that can be read multiple times with something fresh and fascinating every single time. Just one more and that’s Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish, which remains, to my mind, an innovative (different coloured ink for example) masterpiece that combines magic realism and historical fiction, and is just such a great read. It’s probably time for me to re-read it.  

  1. What is a book that surprised you recently?  

I struggled for a while with Valerie Werder’s Thieves. It came to me very highly recommended but my attention has been lower than usual for a variety of reasons (I suspect I’m not alone in this) and I kept starting and stopping. When I finally got into the flow and narrative voice of the book, I realized what an incredible feat it was — how ambitious in scope for a first novel but also how cleverly Valerie has engaged with her big and powerful themes and how the unusual structure and language is really the only way this could be done. I continue to think about the book.  

  1. What is your favorite part about working in the book community? 

We all live such busy lives with so many competing demands but I feel there is something counter to that — a kind of slow engagement process at heart when it comes to books. I know this isn’t really the reality of the publishing industry but even there, beyond the day-to-day market, there is this core where the ultimate end “product”’ is a reader and a book and a profound connection that is really beautiful.

I see this deep reverence for engagement translated into face to face sessions at writers conferences and whenever I interview someone; it’s a kind of shared love that is resistant to the commercial enterprise that is built around it. Also you know, I love reading and talking about books — it’s really my favorite thing to do — and having a mandate to do that is just a wonderful privilege.