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Publish, don't perish – Instalment 17

Read a little, write a little: getting started as a book reviewer

Inspired to make a New Year's resolution to begin writing for the profession, but not sure where to start? Intimidated by the prospect of beginning a lengthy research project or article? Just need some time to get out of the holiday groove before jumping headlong into the swing of writing?

This may be a good time to think about writing book reviews, which can be a non-threatening way to ease into writing for publication. Benefits include:

  • An automatic topic
  • Practise in writing concisely
  • Fodder for your résumé
  • Writing samples for when you are ready to tackle bigger projects
  • Free books!

Both library-related and general publications often seek reviewers – or, you can start by instituting a regular review column in your library's monthly newsletter or local paper.

Writing a useful review

To make sure that your review is useful to readers, first, look at the purpose of the reviews in a particular publication. In journals like CHOICE, for example, reviews are intended to let academic librarians know if a particular title is appropriate and useful to purchase for their collections. Publications like VOYA need to identify materials that fit readers' YA collections and that they can recommend to different groups of teen patrons. As VOYA's Linda Benson notes: "Follow the guidelines! Provide a review that, if you were making purchasing decisions or handing a book to a teen, would give you the best information to do so".

Each publication will have its own guidelines and specific needs, but most reviews for library publications fill a similar purpose: evaluating titles for purchase for a given collection or for professional development purposes.

Those journals that publish longer reviews (500 words or more) often look for a more thorough examination. Sarah Johnson, professional reading column editor for Public Services Quarterly (PSQ), says that PSQ reviews "should provide both a description of the book's contents (format, arrangement, special features) as well as a critical analysis. In addition, reviewers should address the following points:

  • Does this work fill an existing gap in the literature?
  • How does this work compare to related works in the field?
  • What audience(s) would benefit most from this book?
  • Should this work be added to a library or professional collection?"

The Journal of Academic Librarianship's (JAL) Christy Zlatos explains:

"We look for evidence of the reviewer's honest, considered opinions that reflect a careful reading of the book. Although our 'Guidelines' suggest a review formula (within 500 words... the reviewer should provide a brief description of the contents or statement of the thesis, critically appraise both the substance and execution, indicate the book's value for the collection, and make a personal recommendation) that can make short work of the review, we also like to see uniqueness that would add value to the product. This could include some overview of an evolving field and how a work might fit in or a comparison of the reviewed work with other books presently out there".

Even journals with shorter word limits stress the importance of evaluation. Heather McCormack, managing editor, Library Journal, shares:

"Many reviewers make the mistake of skimping on or side-stepping evaluation – especially in instances where they hated a book. Their thinking is that they don't want to be 'mean' to the book or face the wrath of an angry author. But a review is an opinion, to quote my boss. You have to take a stand, and the author on the receiving end has to have the courage to take it in".

As a reviewer, you have the duty to express your opinion and provide a critical assessment of a given book. Do so within guidelines, stick to your word count, and turn around reviews in a timely fashion, and you have the makings of a good book reviewer.

Finding reviewing opportunities

As always, the best way to find reviewer opportunities is to read the publications you are targeting, the second best being to visit journals' websites and look for reviewer information. Think about the types of material you are best qualified to review –- and realize the value of any specialized subject knowledge you might possess, especially in less common areas where review journals need more coverage.

Most publications are open to newer librarians and new reviewers, looking more for subject knowledge and the ability to work to guidelines than for previous writing experience. Those that publish hundreds of reviews each month, such as Library Journal, are always looking for new reviewers, "because there are too many books!". Some publications will simply post a list of titles available for review, from which you can request one of interest, while others will send you selected books in given subject areas.

Library Journal's Heather McCormack says:

"Currently, I'm looking for people who can handle books on diet and fitness in the popular vein, pharmacy (drugs, effects and interactions), herbal medicine, alternative and homeopathic medicine, specific illness and conditions (head injury, stroke, acne), patient memoirs, popular psychology (relationships, dating, sex), child rearing, serious psychology (psychoanalysis, causes and treatment of depression and anxiety, child and teen psychology), and dance. Readers can apply by sending me an e-mail at [email protected]. Include a résumé and writing sample, of course".

JAL's Christy Zlatos explains:

"I always am seeking reviewers in every area of academic librarianship, a field that is changing rapidly. As far as a specific area, I seem to have difficulty placing cataloging books currently. Apply by sending a e-mail letter of interest, an electronic sample of your writing, and areas of interest to Christy Zlatos at [email protected]".

When reading reviews or doing collection development in your own library, keep an eye out for calls for reviewers. These will outline the subject specialties that the publication currently needs, and give instructions on applying. Most often, you will be required to send in a sample review or writing sample with your application; be sure not to skimp on this step! Even though your sample might demonstrate a very different type of writing, it is important to show that you can write. Writing skills are transferable, and you will be able to put existing skills to good use in your reviewing career.


"How to Write a Decent Book Review"

Love to Read: Become a Book Reviewer

"The Art of Reviewing"