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Writing book reviews

By Mary J. Nickum
I’ve written and used book reviews in my profession as a public services librarian for more than 25 years. Many of us use book reviews when deciding to purchase a book for ourselves or someone else. There are various publications that include book reviews, including local newspapers, magazines, and dedicated publications, such as Library Journal and the Kirkus Review. We must recognize the difference between reviews and flyers or catalogs. Flyers and catalogs sent by publishers and distribution houses, such as Book-of-the-Month Club, are not reviews. They are informational snippets designed to sell you the book. They won’t tell you if the plot doesn’t move or the characters are flat.
Many newspapers and other review media buy book reviews. Have you ever thought of writing book reviews for fun and profit? Fun is probable, profit is relative. Those who buy reviews often pay per word, just like the pay for most columns. In fact, you could be the sole contributor to a column for book reviews. The publication will decide the broad subject area of the books to be reviewed. You may get to choose the books or the editor may choose which books will be covered. If you are proposing a book review column, you may wish to begin by proposing a column regarding books about the outdoors. Then, if the outlet says their readers are most interested in hunting and fishing, you can suggest several titles of new books that would fit this column. Be prepared to provide details of your background in education and experience or provide writing samples, showing you are knowledgeable about this field.
When you’ve secured a column in the local Sunday newspaper to review the newest books on hunting and fishing, you need to be able to find the books to review. You might begin your search in bookstores to find publishers’ names. However, don’t wait for books to arrive in the bookstore before deciding which books to review. Most commonly, you’ll review the book based on the advanced reader’s copy (ARC). ARCs are proof copies or pre-publication copies produced by the publisher as a last check before final printing. These can only be obtained from the publisher and may not be sold or distributed by the recipient. To obtain these copies, write directly to the publisher. Choose publishers based on books that you know or have seen in the bookstore. Write to them describing your column, how often your column will be published, the circulation of the paper or magazine and a little of your background. Most publishers will be more than willing to supply you with ARCs free of charge. Most likely, they will add your name to their mailing list for future books in the same field. You’ll have the column and free books to add to your collection as well!
Now, what exactly is a book review and how is it constructed? Book reviews are just that; they tell the reader a little about the author, what the book is about, how useful it will be and who will find it interesting. Book reviews are often short, sometimes 200-300 words. A column devoted to book reviews could be as long as 500-600 words.
A book review should focus on the book’s purpose, content and authority. A critical book review is not a book report or a summary. It is a reaction paper in which strengths and weaknesses of the material are analyzed. It should include a statement of what the author has tried to do, an evaluation of whether you think the author succeeded and evidence to support this evaluation. There is no right way to write a book review, as book reviews reflect the opinions of the reviewer.
My formula for a book review:

  1. List specifics of the publication, including title, author, publisher, place of publication, price and other details required by your publication.
  2. Identify the author of the book and his/her accomplishments in two or three sentences.
  3. Discuss the contents of the book while analyzing its strengths and weaknesses.
  4. Provide an overall evaluation and recommendation as to its use and users.

Read some good book reviews if you haven’t been paying attention to them before now. The New York Times book review section is considered the “gold standard.” Many magazines contain a book review or two when the editors become aware of a title that fits the focus of the magazine. Newspapers are harder to pinpoint. Some, especially smaller local papers, carry only reviews of books by local authors. Some carry none at all. Larger city papers usually have a book review section in the Sunday paper. Many of those reviews are syndicated, but the paper may take some local reviews as well.
Book reviewing sounds easy. However, to do a good job you must read the entire book, which can be time consuming. You may need to check some of the facts with a specialist, much like you’d verify facts in any other piece of writing. The more reading you have done in the field for which you plan to review, the better equipped you’ll be to provide meaningful reviews.
Good luck and most of all, have fun!
Mary Nickum, of Fountain Hills, Ariz., has been an OWAA member since 2000. Her recent children’s chapter book, “Mom’s Story, A Child Learns About MS,” is available from amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com as well as her Web site: www.marynickum.com. Contact her at mjnickum@hotmail.com.
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