So You Want to be a Book Reviewer?
Niki Taylor | January 2003
After analyzing books in college as an English major, I decided book reviewing would be a good way to share my knowledge about books and maybe get paid for it too. For writers who are looking for a writing venue, book reviewing is an excellent way to get writing experience. With the addition of ebooks, there are many books out there to be reviewed.
Book reviews are very useful, not just to consumers but to publishers, authors, and librarians who purchase books for their library collections. Notice the blurbs on the back or on the first few pages of a book and how they are followed by a name and a publication. They usually come from reviews. One librarian says:
As a children's librarian, I do all the buying of fiction books for the older kids at my library, and in doing so I rely heavily on reviews published in various trade journals and (for older books or reorders) online sites such as amazon. I do a lot of ordering out of trade journals, many of which do supply some sort of review of the titles they are selling. Ones we use a lot are Booklist, Library Journal, School Library Journal and Publisher's Weekly.
When I am back-ordering titles, something I do when I notice that we are short on, say, fiction about hockey, I like to look up titles on amazon.com and read the reviews (they tend to have citations of back issues of the above-named journals, if a title was reviewed in one of them), both the professional and the amateur ones.
To be a book reviewer, one must love to read and to analyze what one has read. The person should be decent writer in order to express the pros and cons of the book. There are two ebooks about book reviewing that may be helpful, The Art of Assessment by Maggie Ball and Dream Jobs to Go: Book Reviewer (http://dreamjobstogo.com/titles/djtg0018.html) by Deborah Bouziden.
According to Bouziden, book reviewers can be divided into three classes: staff reviewers, freelance reviewers, and volunteer reviewers. Staff reviewers work for a certain publication or organization while freelance reviewers send their reviews to various publications. Volunteer reviewers do it as a hobby such as on Amazon.com or a website. As for training, she states that reviewers don't have to have formal education, but many are writers in the publishing fields or experts in the books they review. A degree in English, liberal arts, or communication is helpful but not necessary. Editors are more interested in how you put the words on paper than your title. It helps to have a wide knowledge of the genre you review. Bouziden also mentions pay for book reviewing:
One can't make a living or will never become rich reviewing books. However, if you reach the right market, you may make as much as $30 for a single book review ($10-$25 is the average). There is also payment in the form of the book itself. There are large consumer magazines that pay hundreds for reviews, but they have a stable of established writers and experts and expect them to write a critique or essay about a particular book.
Bouziden also lists suggestions from book reviewers on how to break into the field:
Read the types of books you want to review, know what people are reading, and read other reviewers, see what works for them, and discover what your style might be. Networking is often the manner in which people get jobs. Go into chats, discussion groups, book forums-meet and talk to other people.
Select a publication for whom you'd like to write, study their review section carefully, and perhaps even practice writing a few reviews to fit their styles and length. Then write to ask if they would consider you as a reviewer and would send you a copy of their reviewer's guidelines. You should probably send them a few of your best writing samples. Also emphasize any areas of interest, experience, training or expertise you may have.
I broke in with almost no experience. I had only sixteen published credits, most in little, obscure, or highly specialized publications. I read a review in Provident Book Finder and said I could do that. Finding the editor's name, I wrote to her and asked if she could use another reviewer and if so would she consider me?
I began writing for Christian Home and School when I submitted an article, which they rejected, but then a few weeks later, the editor, remembering that my cover letter mentioned my doing reviews for Provident Book Finder, asked if I'd be willing to review a book for them.
Studying book reviews others have written is a good start. Magazines and newspapers have reviews that someone can look at to find out how the author summarizes and assesses the book. The Internet has book review sites, but some of the reviews on these sites are poor and just a way to sell books through an affiliate. Excellent reviews can be found in the newspaper USA Today and on the website http://www.compulsivereader.com which Ms. Ball runs.
Potential book reviewers could use the book Writer's Market to find magazines that accept reviews, but they may have a better chance of querying nonpaying magazines first to build up clips that would give them experience to work for paying markets. Other writing-related books, magazines, and websites list markets may accept reviews. Writingfordollars.com, Absolute write.com, and Writersweekly.com. are examples of these sites.
Usually guidelines will call for reviews under a "nonfiction" or "department" heading. Some guidelines don't mention much about book reviews, maybe just the length needed. Other guidelines are very specific as this one is from the magazine Whole Earth:.
Contributors' Guidelines: Reviews only great stuff. Whole Earth lets bad, mediocre, wimpy, mushy, rehashed, and poorly crafted books and other items die their own deaths. Don't waste time and energy on items you will only complain about. Items that provide skillful means for mind, body, soul, community, or the planet. First, ask yourself: Is this the only tool available for this purpose? If so, say so, especially if it's the first to offer a new idea, thought, or technique. Second, if it provides upgraded skillful means, a greater intimacy and sense of caring, or wild and adventurous intellect, then make sure we know how it compares to the other stuff that's out there. But avoid showing off your great and deep understanding or outlining the whole book-get out of the way of the book or tool. Beware the back cover blurb! Write with an honesty that makes you squirm. Reveal your voice and all its slangish, idiomatic candor. Let the excerpts speak. Quotes convey the thought and craft of writing. Please type the excerpts, noting the page numbers, or send photocopies with excerpts marked. Don't send us your copy of the book!
Magazines are different about what kinds of reviews they use. Some will assign a book for the reviewer; others will accept reviews written about books relevant to their topics. Some magazines pay for reviews; others just pay in copies and/or free books. I had a website devoted to book reviews, and that's how I have reviews to send to certain magazines. Having a book review website will invite authors to send you their books to review. I was even approached by a major publisher to review their books even though my website was relatively small.
My website was for nonfiction books, but of course, there are different genres that can be reviewed. In nonfiction, there is self-help, historical, biography, and others. In fiction, there is science fiction, historical fiction, mysteries, and so on. A reviewer should judge genres by different standards. A cookbook won't be reviewed the same way as a novel. Ball mentions standards for fiction and nonfiction in her ebook. It helps to review books in your favorite genres because it makes for more pleasant reading, but a book reviewer should be prepared to review all genres in order to be versatile for different publications.
As mentioned by Bouziden, book reviewing is hard to develop into a full-time career. It should really be one of a writer's specializations. As for myself, I started book reviewing online for websites using books I had purchased or borrowed from the library. Eventually I sought books to review on the site and in email groups, and authors and publishers started emailing me about books they wanted to send me. I would usually pick all the nonfiction ones, and the print ones were mailed to me and the ebooks I downloaded. Sometime I would solicit authors if I was really interested in the book, and the author would get exposure on my site in return. Print magazines usually have email addresses to send submissions, and through this, I was able to publish reviews in two magazines, one paying and one nonpaying. Plus I have other reviews to be published in the future in print magazines. All the magazines except one accepted my unsolicited reviews. That one sent me a book that I reviewed.
I soon quit my sites and started teaching an online class about how to book review http://universal class.com/i/crn/3830.htm. In addition to the class, I send out reviews to magazines and if they don't accept unsolicited reviews, I send out queries, cover letters, and clips.
Tips about Writing Book Reviews for Money.
- Specialize in different topics. Don't write just for literary magazines. Many topical magazines publish reviews. I have found a magazine about dogs that had reviews.
- Describe the book accurately and succinctly. An objective and quick description of the book may be more useful to your readers than your evaluation. In reviews exceeding 500 words, your reader should learn something about the book's subject.
- If you're web-savvy, you may want to set up your own site to publish reviews. A way to make a little money that way is to sell books through affiliates like Amazon.com and Barnesand Noble.com.
- Remember reviewing is more than summarizing. Assessing the book is also important. Some reviews include author interviews.
- Don't sound like you are the author's publicist. Objectively review the book.
- Don't be afraid to let your personal style show. There is no need for the review to sound stilted. Dorothy Parker, a great book reviewer for Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, added her flair by writing, "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown aside with great force."
Book reviewing is almost like getting rewarded for reading, and you can do it from anywhere. All you need is a book, writing materials, email and postal mail. Also book reviews are usually short so an experienced writer shouldn't have trouble writing them. Another benefit from reviewing is positive feedback from authors. When an author of a book from a major publishing house thanked me for reviewing her book, I saved her email because I enjoyed the book and didn't expect her to email me.
The Internet has articles about how to review books. This site http://library.queensu.ca/inforef/bookre view/write_review.htm tells what to put in the review and even lists sources about reviewing.
Although it's not the most lucrative field, book reviewing is very satisfying and enjoyable to a writer who loves to read. Through book reviewing, writers can add to their resumes, bookshelves, and hopefully even their bank accounts.
Niki Taylor is a writer/book reviewer from North Carolina. She has been published in The Writer and Pediatrics for Parents. Her website is http://www.nikianntaylor.com.