I’m relatively new to book reviewing, having only been doing it for a year or so. So these tips represent my current thinking, which is likely to change as I gain more experience. To me, the most important thing is to make sure that the outlet you’re writing the review for really wants a review and not literary criticism. The two are quite different—the former focuses only on the book at hand and perhaps mentions other books it might be similar to, while the latter requires critical analysis of the books in the context of other books in the genre and other work by the author. My tips focus specifically on book reviews.
You may be wondering where to start when getting into book reviewing. First, understand that most places that publish book reviews want to have your review in hand, edited, and ready to publish on the release date of the book itself. This means that you have to get an advance reader’s copy (ARC – also called a galley) of the book before it’s released into the market. This requires that you pay attention to when books you might be interested in are being published, and pitch reviews to paying outlets well in advance of the book’s public release date.
Finding out when books are being published is the tricky part of the equation. You can subscribe to Publisher’s Marketplace ($25/month), which posts book deals that have been made and the date by which a book is meant to be published. If you see books that interest you, you can note the date by which you should check in with the publisher to see the book’s release date. The other approach is to follow presses that publish books you’re interested in. For example, I follow the University of Chicago Press, Torrey House Press, Chelsea Green Publishing, and others. They list the books they have coming out in the next few months, so you can browse their online catalog and check for ones you might be interested in reviewing.
Finding an outlet in which to publish a review takes persistence and patience. First and foremost, make sure the outlet you’re pitching hasn’t already reviewed the book. Then consider a few questions. Is the book strongly centered in place? Perhaps you can pitch it to a local newspaper as representing their region. I have a book about a small town in Texas, Odessa, that I pitched to several Texan newspapers to see if they were interested in something regional. Unfortunately, they’d already assigned it to another writer. Does the book cover a specific topic that is of interest to a niche group? For example, I pitched a book on the history of embroidery to an embroidery magazine. They had already covered it, which shows that they were definitely interested in the topic.
Some writers sign up to write reviews for BookRiot, Kirkus Reviews, BookBrowse, Foreword Reviews, and others. These usually require that you send in a sample review so they can assess the quality of your writing and decide whether or not to bring you onto the team. The pay isn’t great (averaging $50 per piece), but it’s consistent work and can be interesting if you get to review books in your favorite genre.
Another option is to review books on your own blog or on Medium. I’ve done both, usually in cases where I have a conflict of interest. For example, I reviewed a book on walking via my Medium account because I’m friends with the author. While you won’t get paid, it’s good practice in writing reviews and there are always people interested in reading what you have to say.
Do you pitch first and then get an ARC, or do you get an ARC and then pitch? I’ve done both. I prefer to have an ARC in hand because it gives me the details I need to craft a tight pitch, whereas if I just have promo material there’s not much to go on to write a pitch. The downside is that you may get the ARC but not find a place to publish your review. Note that you might be able to write something different with an ARC that you weren’t able to place for review—you might branch out into literary criticism or connect it with other ARCs you weren’t able to place. For example, I had a copy of Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her for almost a year before I ended up placing it in a multi-book review of books on women’s rage for the Chicago Review of Books.
Read and re-read the book you’re reviewing. Book reviews require deep reading of a book. You need to read and annotate, and read again and make more notes, so that you can process your thoughts on the author’s ideas as you read them and so that you have notes to inform the review itself. These notes help identify the main themes of the book, the angle you could take with your review, and the structure of the book. I find that exploring the structure of the book is critical because that helps me understand how it’s put together and where the key information is.
As Beth Kephart writes, reviewers think about the following: “What is this story? What is its purpose?… Does it feel true, is it original, does it come from a thoughtful place, and is it part of a tradition or does it break a mold? Is this book…a mere platform or an urgent plea?… Has the author written to trumpet herself or to elevate a possibility? Have risks been taken? Will this story last?”
When writing your review, don’t read other reviews of the same book. This is a cardinal rule of reviewing, as you want your review to contain your own perspective and ideas, and not to follow in the footsteps of other reviews out there. You can read others once you’re done, but during the writing process it’s best to stay away from them.
Review the book you have, not the book you wish it was. This is important, as there are always ways that books can be improved. But you’re not reviewing a potentially improved book – you’re reviewing the book that’s in front of you, warts and all. You may mention that the book could be improved by doing X or Y, and why, but the review should focus on the book itself.
Consider the audience for your review. When I was pitching the history of needlework book, the audience was very different than that which would read the novel about Odessa, Texas, that I was also pitching. For example, the audience for the needlework book might like to know more about what types of needlework the author writes about but also does herself, while the audience for the Odessa novel might want to know about character development and the sense of place to see how close the book is to their own lived experience.
Avoid spoilers: make sure you don’t give away key plot points or conclusions in your review. Leave the ending—and any other plot twists—for the reader to discover.
Start with an anecdote from the book, which is a good way to get the reader interested from the beginning. You can start with a brief summary of the same story the author started with or, depending on the themes you’re focusing on in your review, you can pick an anecdote from later in the book. The key is to hook the reader in the first paragraph.
Discuss the book’s structure and style. Most readers will want to know these details. You may compare the style to a well-known author that readers will know. Outlining the structure is helpful because it gives readers a sense of what the book covers, in what order, and from what perspective.
Once you’ve defined the key themes, determine which ones you’ll discuss (you may decide to discuss all of them, but that could end up being a fairly long review). Address how well the author covers these themes, and what they add to the bigger picture of the book as a whole. You can relate those themes to other books if you are so inclined. For example, I reviewed a book that reminded me of Ellen Meloy’s Eating Stone, and I put that in the review as context for the reader.
Include relevant, key quotes from the book in your review. You don’t want to write a review that’s only (or largely) quotes, but rather use quotes to illustrate themes you’ve identified in the book. Quotes also serve as support for your arguments about the book’s quality, while also giving the reader insight into the book’s language and how it flows.
Determine the key message of the book and end the review on that key message with a few notes about who you think the book is best suited for and why. You might also note what you really liked/disliked about the book and why. The key is the “why,” as you must have a reason for liking or disliking it.
Let the publisher know when your review is published. This shows that sending you an ARC worked out in the end, and allows the publisher to add your review to the publicity package for the book.
Continue honing your book reviewing skills. There are many good book reviewing resources out there, including these from Queen’s University. Consider reviews you like—and what makes you like them. Is it the voice of the reviewer, the humor, the pull quotes, or something completely different? Practice writing book reviews that focus on each of these things to see what works best for you. Also note that many readers enjoy reviews written in a certain voice, so the sooner you find your reviewing “voice,” the sooner you’ll get dedicated readers who enjoy your writing.