From Pitch to Publication: How to Write a Book Review That Matters

From Pitch to Publication: How to Write a Book Review That Matters

Writing book reviews can have all kinds of benefits for writers.

There’s nothing like reading a book and writing about it to help hone word-wrangling chops.

Different kinds of books can also expand people’s understanding of writing, especially varied styles. And, reviewing can help writers hone storytelling skills, vocabulary and clever turns of phrase.

I’ve experienced all this during my 5-plus years of book reviewing for publishers like Library Journal, Children’s Literature, and Chanticleer. Here’s what else I’ve learned in the process.

The pitch

Some of you might be wondering how to obtain a book reviewing gig in the first place.

Like with any freelance writing job, it’s always good to think about what you can bring to the table. I obtained two of my review jobs by pitching to publishers on the exhibit floors of conferences, for example. The first was with Library Journal, and I was sure to scour their website to see what their review guidelines were and what they were looking for before I pitched what I could offer (in my case, it was my education background, along with my knowledge of music).

With Chanticleer, I was interested in reviewing fiction (I’d mostly reviewed nonfiction before then), and I asked a lot of questions regarding the scope and intent of their reviews to see which genres I could do the most justice to.

Always do your research, and know which niches you can cover. You can discover unexpected opportunities in areas where your specialties might intersect, too.

The pacing

As a new reviewer, it was my inclination to make sure the turnaround was a quick and efficient as possible. While this is a good, it’s also important to pace yourself.

You might feel like you have to read a book instantly, but it’s better to retain the information in a meaningful way in order to make it digestible for those reading the review. Conversely, don’t throw all your energy into making one review perfect when you have ten other books waiting.

Most publications allow around 4-6 weeks to submit, so you can treat reading and reviewing like eating an elephant — by doing it a little bit at a time.

The review itself

Poorly written books have taught me just as much as well-written ones.

Whether I’m reviewing a fiction or a nonfiction book, I’ve found it helpful to take notes on each chapter so when I go back to complete the review, I can remember elements that appealed to me as a reader.

For nonfiction books, it’s good to read the introduction to determine the author’s intent in structuring the book’s content. This can also lead to the most important part of the review — figuring out what makes a book stand out from others in its category. This is also true for fiction, when notes can cover the gamut of dialogue, pacing, plot and character. The overall summary shouldn’t give too much away–just enough to give potential readers a taste, and entice them to pick up the book for themselves.

In my experience, this usually measures out to a brief summary of the book’s content, and then its big picture reaches–including which audiences are mostly likely to appreciate the content.

Sometimes, it’s really hard to be objective about a book, especially one without a lot of redeeming qualities. In these situations, I usually get my vitriol out in my notes first, and then cobble together a more objective way of stating my feedback. Those of you who have given and received regular critique are probably familiar with the sandwich method–criticism sandwiched on both sides with positives. Every book has its redeemable qualities and flaws, so it’s possible to give an honest account while remaining somewhat objective.

The best thing about writing book reviews is how word restrictions force writers to express the deepest ideas with the fewest words possible. There’s a middle ground, though, because eliminating too many words can sound robotic. Since book reviews tend to be conversational in nature, it’s better to keep the humanity intact.

The aftermath

Some review jobs are paid, and some aren’t, and it’s always good to be aware of what your options are. Regardless of circumstance, make sure that you are always updated on new information, whether regarding review policies, or new knowledge about writing.

It’s also important to maintain open communication with your managing editor, especially if you are encountering roadblocks in your reviewing process. For example, there was a book that I was set to review that had a lot of character and plot hiccups. I asked my editor how specific my critique should be, and she welcomed all of it, because she prefers honest reviews.  

And I can see why. Not only do readers depend on reviews accurately portraying the books they want to read, authors do too. Every book has its reader, and not everyone will give the same level of discernment to the content they consume.

Even more importantly, the more we can give reviews for other authors, paid or unpaid, the more visibility we can give to necessary stories that need a chance in the spotlight. And that’s where the real benefits come into play.

What makes a book review stand out for you? What kinds of experiences have you had reviewing books, or having your books reviewed?

Filed Under: Craft
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11 comments

  • Colin says:

    Reviews are highly valued as feedback. I cannot speak for other authors, but when a reader likes your novel and is keen for you to write a sequel then it is rewarding to know this. Literary agents and reviewers are related in that the best ones are those who are keen on the genre you write in. Early on, when writing a novel you are asked -“what’s your target readership?” The fact is you do not truthfully know until later- I have found. Reviews doubtless sell books. Busy people read the snippet, but it is really the comments from the actual reader, rather than the paid critic that are especially valuable. I read non fiction. Often to get the facts right in a fiction novel. Reviews may be a double-edged sword. The author, after publication can be made aware of errors, that he/she already has awareness of. With a good story and powerful character portrayal, you are looking to entertain/enthral/ captivate the reader-depending on genre. I would not necessarily find it easy to review the genre I write in, at a given time. After numerous re-writes/re-drafts and corrections there are still on publication niggles. — I would be far too, over sympathetic toward the author to make a good critic!!

  • Caroline G. says:

    Unfortunately, it is the function of our contemporary technology- that our reviewers and publishers have been effected by gravity implode to their words right inside the computer screen. I dAresay that reviewers and publishers should not act as writers in thOse capacities and inside computers. It is to deride the very reason to author by the writer…..
    Caroline

  • C.B. Matson says:

    Okay, Write Life, I’m interested: How DO I “Learn to Write a Book Review That Matters,” and where do I find this magical step-by-step guide?

    • Karen McCoy says:

      I understand the confusion, and I’m happy to elaborate. Please feel free to email me through the contact form on my website, karenmccoy.net. You can also look at existing reviews with publications you’re interested in to see how theirs are structured.

      • Marsha says:

        Thanks, that is generous and usefully directive.
        The image is confusing. It specifically states that there is a step-by-step guide. There is not. We are directed to do the research in your other articles to make our own guide. Is this a sales hook? Should I expect to receive an email promo for an e-book on “How to write a book review that matters – a step-by-step guide”?

        Perhaps you might consider changing the image and title? It might improve loyalty in your readership among he readers whose initial impression of your work is through this article. If it’s a sales pitch, fine – but, please just say so. I don’t see that your title has anything other writers haven’t offered for free on their blogs – I was just curious if your guide included anything I should consider incorporating, so if you can pitch me on what you know or do that I might be more interested – new studies or analytics, perhaps – then I’d like to hear it.

        Thanks! Best,
        Marsha

  • This was very helpful information. I started doing book reviews on my site. Every time I do one, I feel like I can get a job doing this kind of work. This article was very insightful. I feel like I have an idea of what to do next.

  • My review of this article is that it did not fulfill the promise implicit in the title. Probably, many writers such as one of the commentators above and myself were expecting details regarding what to write within a book review, details regarding length, and details regarding style, etc. What we got was much too general to be very helpful.

    • Karen McCoy says:

      Hi Greg–My apologies. I understand the confusion, and I’m happy to elaborate. Please feel free to email me through the contact form on my website, karenmccoy.net. You can also look at existing reviews with publications you’re interested in to see how theirs are structured.

  • Nancy L White says:

    Is this article the step-by-step guide? If not, how do we find the guide?

    • Karen McCoy says:

      Hi Nancy–I’m happy to elaborate further. Please feel free to email me through the contact form on my website, karenmccoy.net. You can also look at existing reviews with publications you’re interested in to see how theirs are structured.

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