I spend so much time writing about the murky areas of book reviewing that readers may well be wondering if I have any idea what I’m doing. Most reviews, in fact, don’t present esoteric conundrums. But like the 10 o’clock news, I’m most interested in the anomalies, the tough choices, the ethical dilemmas, the miracle babies, and the black-light search of the supposedly clean hotel room. For some scenarios I have clear guidelines to follow. For some, I don’t. Sometimes new conundrums arise, and sometimes I take a new approach.
Fortunately, book reviewers aren’t left alone to drown in a sea of galleys and angry e-mails. Fortunately, there are book review editors.
As I’ve said before, though I am an editor, I don’t assign books for review at Booklist. My job is to prepare reviews and features for Booklist Online, to help create Web-only content, and to be the point man for ongoing development and technical issues. And to write this blog. And to demonstrate the product at conferences. And to stand ready with a wrench when a wrench is required.
The vast majority of our content is commissioned or created by the editors of Booklist. They’ve been doing the job for a long time and they’re very good at it. So if a reviewer isn’t sure how to handle something, the editor can often provide an answer based on precedent, knowledge of the industry, or understanding of the audience. (Even if it’s just a guess they’re very good at giving guesses the guise of authority.)
I’ve gone to my editors many times with questions about matters both large (how do I review I book that I hate but that I think has an audience?) and small (how do I style citations of previous works?). Sometimes the editor will fix a problem I didn’t know I had and I won’t even know until I read the finished product in the magazine. I always welcome this, except when the edit makes a travesty of my brilliant argument (in some circles, a lack of subject-verb agreement is considered a sophisticated literary device). Due to the volume of work, we don’t always have time to discuss matters over tea and crumpets. (But on the days that we do, wow!)
There are myriad decisions that must be made correctly to ensure that a review is well-written and useful, and these start before the reviewer even receives the book – with the editor. The editor first decides which books will be considered for review and which won’t (Booklist is a recommended-only journal, which I will explain in a future post). Then the editor decides who will review the book. This second decision, putting the right book in the right hands, is almost as weighty as the first.
Give the right book to the right reviewer and the reader will get an informative, helpful review. Give the book to the wrong reviewer and a delicate balance is upset: somewhere, another species goes extinct. Or, more likely, the review will be off balance. Someone who’s never reviewed a gardening book may focus on the parts of least interest to green thumbs, or worse, be bored by a work that avid horticulturalists would find worthy of a starred review.
Give a fantasy book to someone who reviews literary fiction – especially a book in an ongoing series – and you’re likely to get a hesitant evaluation steeped in puzzlement. Those are pretty obvious scenarios. Splitting things even finer, a reviewer who reviews only mysteries is still not necessarily a candidate for all mysteries. An expert in cozies might close his eyes through the gory parts of a grim police procedural.
The task might be described as finding the reviewer who most closely fits with the book’s intended audience. But that’s easier to say than to do. It’s not always obvious what a book is going to be like (publicists’ blurbs sometimes bear as much relation to a book’s contents as the hype-filled copy on the back of a rental DVD). The pool of available reviewers is not infinite. And, with hundreds of books pouring in the doors every day, these are decisions that can’t be decided over the aforementioned cup of tea.
Brad Hooper is the Adult Books Editor of Booklist. No, he doesn’t work with naughty books – at least, not exclusively – and yes, he’s heard that joke before. (He does like a cup of tea, although I’ve never seen him assigning books while under the influence.)
I asked him yesterday about how he makes sure the right books get into the right hands. With 30-plus years experience in the book-reviewing biz (something you’d never guess to look at him), many of these decisions have become largely intuitive for him. But there is method to what he does.
First of all, “nonfiction is easier,” he says. Nonfiction reviewers are chosen for their expertise in a particular area, whether crafts and hobbies or U.S. history, and their track record with us. Nonfiction reviewers tend to have what the newspapermen call a “beat”. Mark Knoblauch covers cookery, for example, and David Siegfried covers business. The longer they review for us, the more valuable their expertise becomes, because they can compare any new book in their discipline to what’s come before it, letting readers know what’s new, what’s not, and what’s worthwhile.
Fiction is harder for a lot of reasons. First of all, says Brad, quality of prose counts a bit less in both nonfiction books and in the reviews of those books. “A librarian isn’t necessarily reading a gardening review for the beauty of its prose,” he says. “Fiction is a different story. The reviewer has to be able to take it to a different level.”
While there’s undeniably a huge class of narrative nonfiction that relies on sterling prose and supple storytelling (and sometimes, sumptuous and lovely alliteration), a large class of nonfiction books is simply about conveying information. And reviews of those books need to convey the information that they convey. The prose of a fiction review must be able to convey the beauty – or lack thereof – of the book’s prose.
Also, more nonfiction books are cut at the point of selection. It’s a lot harder to tell whether a novel will interest readers without reading it. So a greater percentage of novels tend to get assigned for review, though some of those will be rejected by the reviewer. (How can a reviewer reject a book altogether? Once again, this has to do with Booklist‘s recommended-only policy.) Selecting fiction for review, says Brad, is one of those areas where he must rely more heavily on intuition and experience. He can’t judge a book by its cover – not usually, anyway – but his time in the trenches helps him decide quickly who can judge the book.
New fiction reviewers, if they don’t arrive with a genre specialty, will be tried out on a few “garden-variety novels or short-story collections,” with enough time to reassign the review if necessary. “We would never give a major author to someone who couldn’t hit the ground running,” Brad says.
“But honestly,” he continues. “You can tell right away. If they can’t handle a 175-word review the first time out, that’s it.” Despite the low pay, Brad notes that there’s a lot of competition to write the reviews. A lot of it comes from staff members, who generally get first consideration for more coveted writers.
A reviewer who proves himself with small books and lesser authors will gradually get better assignments – I’ve climbed that ladder myself – though it’s not likely any young upstart will be prying John Updike from Brad’s hands any time soon.
Even if he knows the perfect reviewer for a given book, Brad still has to contend with that reviewer’s workload. If the reviewer already has her hands full, is it worth reprioritizing existing reviews? Or is it better to simply find another reviewer? These decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.
And once in awhile, changes are made. Sometimes a reviewer will decide that they prefer not to review an author they’ve done for a long time. Maybe they’re burned out, or maybe they feel they’re no longer the best person to write the review. (If they don’t “get” the appeal, maybe there’s someone who does.) Or maybe Brad feels it’s time to shake up Booklist‘s take on a well-known author.
So maybe he will give me the next Updike.
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