My Life as a Book Reviewer
By Dr. Wesley Britton
I don’t know for certain, but I’m pretty sure my first published book review came out in 1981 for Joseph P. Lash’s Helen and Teacher, the historian’s dual biography of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy. I forget the name of the periodical, but I recall it was a newspaper printed for the Dallas-based Association of Individuals with Disabilities.
In 1983, I became a graduate student in American Literature at the University of North Texas. Very quickly, I began hearing the oft-repeated mantra of “Publish or Perish.” That phrase sounds very simple, but not so fast.
Back in those days, unless you were part of a Creative Writing department, publishing “primary sources”—meaning any creative writing, poetry, short stories, or novels—didn’t count toward your career path. The research-oriented English departments wanted “secondary sources,” meaning scholarly studies of recognized classics or even short studies of other book-length scholarly studies. It was all about critical analysis. Your resume could also include book reviews, especially reviews of literary histories, biographies, or even more scholarly studies. With luck, you could present your non-paid-for articles at academic conventions where, of course, you paid your own way to attend.
Those conventions turned out to be goldmines in terms of networking, especially meeting editors of academic periodicals who gave out book review assignments. Especially for new scholarly editions written by and for academics in specific subject areas. These often-expensive tomes were nice items not to have to pay for.
Which lead to my earliest reviews for publications like Texas Books in Review, The Journal of American Studies of Texas, Southern Quarterly, and American Periodicals. In turn, this to me becoming the main reviewer for the then-new online list-serve, The Mark Twain Forum. For years, I wrote many reviews for them and I believe you can still see all of them today at the Forum’s archives. That was where I learned online periodicals didn’t have to worry about word counts, always an important consideration for print assignments.
After I earned my Ph.D., I had one quest in mind. Writing reviews for which I got paid. That didn’t always happen. For Choice Magazine, I was assigned titles for which I wrote very short reviews of around 300 words for librarians who had one question in mind—is this a book we should buy and shelve? That was another good example of knowing your audience—writing for a specific purpose with a very limited word count.
Then I did get paid work from Magill’s Book Reviews, Literary Annuals in between writing all manner of encyclopedia articles. During those years, my target audience was very broad and very non-academic. It was a very different approach from most everything I’d written before. It was very liberating.
By 1999 or so, I decided I was tired of writing short things. I wanted to write books and have reviewers review me. So began my four books on espionage in the media followed by my six book sci-fi series. But I kept my hand in book reviewing. For around a decade, I reviewed all manner of fiction and non-fiction for online sites devoted to spies in one guise or another. Once again, I had a very specific audience, readers already familiar with spy novels, TV shows, or films. If your audience is already knowledgeable in one subject area or another, then you pitch your approach to those who might know as much or more than you do about the topic.
Somewhere in all that, all manner of projects opened up for me. I don’t recall when or why, but editor Norm Goldman invited me to join his cadre of reviewers for BookPleasures.com. I still write for him. What really opened up was the range of books I could review—murder mysteries, histories, celebrity memoirs, espionage thrillers, sci-fi. And the assignments come in a variety of ways. Several times a week, Norm sends out blitzes of press releases from authors, publishers, and publicists seeking book reviews at BP. We reviewers than express our interest in whatever titles intrigue us, and Norm makes his assignments. These days, I also get press releases sent directly to me usually because a publisher or publicist likes something I wrote. They hope to interest me in other books by the same author or books of a similar nature.
Along the way, I also reviewed books, CDs, and DVDs for BlogCritics.org. What made them different was the meticulous nature of their editors. I have always treasured good editors, and BC had some excellent ones. I stopped writing for BC when they made changes in their submission format and really made reviewers work to post reviews with all sorts of hoops to leap through at their site. Well, since they weren’t paying anything, getting free books, CDs, and DVDs just wasn’t worth all the hassle.
So what have I learned over the decades and what can I pass along to you?
It seems pretty clear one key lesson is to know what audience you’re writing for as that frames so much of our reviews. It can determine length—especially for online sites—and the content—do you have a knowledgeable audience or are you addressing the general reader?
I’ve always felt the primary purpose of a reviewer is to give potential readers enough information so they can decide for themselves if they want to try a specific book or not. That’s one reason many reviewers mention the names of authors who are similar to the title being reviewed, giving readers a connection to familiar writers of the same genre.
Whether or not I like a specific title really isn’t the point. So in pretty much every review, I’ve ever written, I point out just what audiences would be most interested in a particular book. Just because I don’t like or am mildly responsive to a new book doesn’t mean there’s not a readership out there who would love it.
I admit, over the years, I’ve gotten my fair share of grumpy responses from authors. Mostly, they didn’t think a specific review was glowing enough. Or I didn’t praise enough one aspect or another of their effort. I don’t think I’ve written that many out-and-out bad reviews. I can think of two; one was simply a dishonest project, the other was supposedly a non-fiction study so personal that it was not worth the time of the subject’s fans.
I also admit I still have a hard time getting excited by Amazon reviews. Recently, I was part of a Facebook group’s debate over whether reviews posted at sites other than Amazon were equal to the usual short paragraphs posted on the Zon. Yes, most readers go to the Zon and perhaps nowhere else. On the other hand, many serious readers—and therefore potential buyers—go to other places to get more developed reviews than the often general and unedited paint-by-numbers Amazon reviews. Consider sites devoted to specific genres, for one example. Consider such reviews aren’t likely paid for or written by author friends or supporters. Consider the in-depth analysis places like BookPleasures.com or BlogCritics.org offer.
True, there are countless personal blogs that don’t have a lot of credibility. The lack of proper editing is one problem with such places. And credibility can be a valuable thing when publishers hunt for useful blurbs and quotes to promote books. After the reviewer’s name, the name of a reliable publication is not a bad thing at all. The Zon doesn’t count. So I’ very happy to see excerpts from my reviews included in other author’s media kits. Or reposted at places like The Midwest Book Review or The New Book Review Blog.
Writing book reviews can help build up your writing portfolio, especially if you can find ways to have your reviews posted at sites that have good reputations and a good-sized readership. These days, reposting our reviews is good for both the book authors and the reviewer. Getting published at a good site or periodical is the beginning, but then you can repost at Amazon, your personal blogs at Goodreads, Book Likes, or wherever, And at the book’s page at Goodreads. Normally, you should include where the review originally appeared so that publication can get credit. Like the authors we review, we too want to reach a wide readership.
Contact Wesley if you’re interested in a review exchange.
Dr. Wesley Britton,
Author, The Beta Earth Chronicles