Today we have a guest blogger. She’s a reviewer for several major publications, including various national newspapers. For reasons explained below, she needs to remain anonymous–but if you’re a writer with a book under contract, there are a few things she’d like you to know about reviews–and reviewers.
(If you’re a small press-pubbed author, pay special attention to her advice about galleys. Not sending out galleys in advance of publication is one of the areas in which inexperienced small publishers often try to pinch pennies–to their own and their authors’ detriment.)
A Long Growwwwl…
Well, BEA hasn’t even started up, and I’m already being hunted…
Usually the hunting doesn’t start until I walk through the door, but I made the mistake of registering on the BEA site as a reviewer. So I’m getting invites from people producing cartoons and from self-help gurus, and a lot of pings from authors of business books. I guess they’re business people, and being business people feel they must be cheery and sell, sell, sell. I take my outlook on life from Eeyore, and find their smiles so much toxic waste.
I’m a book reviewer. I review for a couple of major papers and a lot of minor ones. If you’re reading this blog, it’s likely you’ve read my work. I don’t know why the business writers are hunting me. I don’t review business books—my areas are literature and poetry, with the occasional quirky book about history. I don’t know why the publicist for self-help books and the woman writing a book about the Chinese middle class are hunting me. Maybe it’s something they can take back to their bosses and say “look, I’m being proactive, I contacted a reviewer!”
Last time I went to BEA, I had an publicist actually grab my arm and pull so hard it hurt. She wanted to drag me over for a head-to-head with an author so that I’d review her book. It mangled my shoulder and made me mad. No, I didn’t review the book.
So what do you have to do to get me to review your book? Well for starters, don’t meet me. Ever.
Major papers in the U.S. have an iron-clad policy: reviewers can’t meet the authors they review. I suspect this is relaxed a bit when major writers write reviews, but for run-of-the mill reviewers–the ones who, like me, search publishers’ catalogs months before the pub dates and let our editors know what we think will be hot–it’s a firm rule. Can’t know you. Can’t talk to you. Aren’t supposed to accept gifts from your publisher.
A lot of people don’t get this. As promos, I’ve received: cookies, a plastic horse, stuffed animals, t-shirts, and an electric tooth-brush. (I’m not sure of the reasoning behind the last gift. How is an electric toothbrush supposed to inspire me to give a good book review??)
If you’re a new author, pay attention, because if your book is going to land a review in the New York Times or The Washington Post, the person who writes it will be someone like me. So if your publicist ever tries to drag you over to a book reviewer for either of these papers, run the other way. An editor is another story. You can have a bit of contact with an editor. But trying to get me to like your book by getting me to like you isn’t fair play.
And it could get me in trouble.
A lot of book reviewers are also writers, so we’re constantly skirting conflict-of-interest issues. Causes a lot of strange silences at parties, and the occasional ducking-into-the-bathroom. Recently, I attended a book party when I probably shouldn’t have. The publicist grabbed me by the arm (ouch! again) and dragged me over to an author. Unfortunately, I was reviewing his book for a major magazine. I felt I had to tell my editor. My editor felt he had to pull the review. (He was kind enough to still pay me. A lot of editors wouldn’t do that.) If you sense a nervous, slightly school-marmish tone here, it’s because when a publicist or author slips up, the reviewer may lose a paycheck. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to review for that magazine again—-that’s a chunk of change, and a bit o’ prestige, that I’ve lost.
So if you’re an author, especially a new author, you don’t want to meet me. I’m a nice person and all, and know a lot about literature and am kind to dogs and small children, but there are other nice people in the world. And you certainly don’t want to ask me advice on your writing, or where to send a manuscript, or about editors or agents. If I give you advice, I really can’t review your work. The New York Times, for one, specifically forbids reviewers to give advice, and I don’t think it would go over well most other places either.
So how do you get your book reviewed? Well, I’m writing anonymously so I can give advice:
1) Write a good book. I got into this job because I like to tell people about good books. Personally, I’m not one for snarky reviews, and I know a lot of book reviewers who feel the same—-and we’re the ones in the trenches, searching for the next great debut. If I don’t like a book, or think it’s atrocious, I simply won’t review it. If I think that its merits outweigh its flaws, I’ll still mention the flaws, but I’ll spend more time on the good parts. ‘Nuff said.
2) Make sure the publisher releases galleys early and that they print a lot of them. 5-8 months before the pub date is optimum, and I can think of at least one excellent book that didn’t get reviewed because the publisher only put out 75 galleys. Most newspapers take book review pitches 2-3 months before the pub date, but with the crush on book reviewing, that’s expanding to 3-5 months. Glossy magazines take book review pitches 5-8 months beforehand.
3) Make sure the publication date is printed clearly and in large print at the top of the publicity letter and in the galley. This seems like a small thing, but book review pitches are structured around the pub date. I’ve not reviewed books I thought were good because I couldn’t find the pub date. The publicity letter and the galley should both have contact information for the publisher as well. Some places like Bloomsbury and Penguin are hell to get a review copy from unless you have the email for the specific publicist involved.
4) Make friends with your publicist. Mostly, they are good-natured, but horribly overworked. Learn their name, their kids’ names, the name of their dog (or cat). Form a relationship with them as early as possible. I’ve heard of publicists who have 60 books to market in a year. Give your publicist a reason to love you.