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How the Book Review System Works
I will use the Midwest Book Review to illustrate the points I'd like to emphasize and explain (especially for those new to publishing) how the book review system works -- and sometimes fails to work.
A good review placed in the hands of the reading public by a competent reviewer is the most effective and least expensive publicity/promotion instrument available to the independent publisher. But this is an example of what you are up against in order to get one:
The Midwest Book Review receives an average of 30 books a day, Monday through Saturday. That extrapolates out to around 690 titles a month. So you can understand why I encourage folk who are members of a writers or publishers group -- or who are listening to this podcast! -- to identify themselves as such when they submit their titles for review and thereby getting themselves bumped to the head of the line -- which is significant when that line is 1500 titles long!
Other Book Reviews (with the possible exception of ForeWord Magazine) do not have a deliberate policy of giving preference to the small press publisher, so it's always important to keep track of those reviewers for whom your book (by virtue of its theme, subject or publisher status) will have an edge over the other submissions received by that reviewer.
It's my job as the Editor-in-Chief with a current roster of 81 reviewers, to produce nine monthly book review publications each month. It is also my responsibility to initially sort out the books submitted for review and to make the review assignments, collect the reviews from the assigned reviewers, and then edit them into our publications and/or programming.
I also post these reviews onto thematically appropriate web sites, newsgroups, and online bookstores -- and send them for inclusion into an interactive book review database called the Book Review Index for corporate, academic, and public library systems. Incidently, this Internet business takes several days each month to accomplish.
And then I must also notify the publishers that their books were reviewed and featured and provide them with a copy of the review accompanied by a cover letter itemizing all the various venues in which the review appeared. This process takes about several more days each month to accomplish.
Of the 690+ titles a month received about 1/3 of the total submitted get a review assignment. This is a significantly higher percentage of books sent, to books reviewed, than is the case with any other Book Review publication that I know of.
Those that did not make the initial cut and becoming assigned for review failed because either they came from the major presses and got bumped in favor of small presses, came in the form of galleys or ARCs and we only consider finished books, had truly inferior covers, were subjects for which other titles filled that month's quota of a given topic, were missing publicity releases, had been flawed in the printing/book production process, or damaged by the mails. (The post office seems to have improved lately, but still, about 1 out of 50 book packages continues to sustain some degree of damage ranging from minor to catastrophic).
Those books that make the cut for review assignment, but for whom no review is eventually published fall into one of the following categories:
- The book was found to be substantially flawed by the assigned reviewer who could not honestly recommend it to its intended readership. One of the things that distinguishes the Midwest Book Review is that we only publish/broadcast reviews that approve the book and recommend it to its intended readership (as well as bookstore retailers, librarians, parents, and teachers). These disqualifying flaws could be in the writing, the organization (especially for nonfiction), or the production values of the book's creation (e.g. binding so poor that it would not hold up -- important for children's hardcovers), or the availability of other books covering the same topic that are better or more comprehensively written (again, especially important with respect to nonfiction).
- The reviewer submitted a review that, itself, was flawed (in the judgement of the Editor-in-Chief). Anyone can volunteer to become a reviewer and have a book provided them to see if they can write a readable and informative review -- it's actually a fairly skilled proposition. Some folk just don't have a knack for writing reviews.
- The reviewer never turns in a review (in which case it is their last assignment). Some folk just don't appreciate how much work is involved until they try to do it, and for others, becoming a reviewer was a passing fancy that passed all too quickly.
There is a traditional agreement between the publisher and the reviewer. It goes like this:
Publishers have the right to submit their book(s) for review consideration as long as they follow the submission process as set out by the reviewer (galleys vs. finished books, appropriateness of book's subject matter, publication date deadlines, etc.).
Reviewers have the right to accept or reject a submission on any grounds they deem sufficient. These could include such considerations as too many submissions to consider them all; poorly written or defectively published; insufficient or poorly organized publicity release and/or media kit; inappropriate content; inappropriate publication date; too many books on a particular theme; a better book on a given topic is already in hand; the reviewer is having a bad hair day; etc. ad nauseam.
The publisher has the right to a follow-up contact with the reviewer after submitting a book for review in order to ascertain: 1) that the book arrived safely; 2) the status of the book with respect to the review process; and 3) ascertain if there is any further information or assistance that the publisher can provide the reviewer.
Once a book is reviewed the publisher has a right to a copy of the review, which is to be provided to them by the reviewer (or his/her editor). There is no corresponding obligation to inform the publisher that their book has been rejected for review -- the absence of any tear sheet is deemed sufficient to establish that outcome.
The publisher has the automatic authority to utilize the review, in part or in whole, in their publicity/promotion/advertising/marketing of the book. (This is the quid pro quo for having provided a free review copy.) I personally appreciate publishers who notify me of any typos they may spot in a review. Even with two eyes proofing and a spell checker checking, a correctly spelled wrong word still manages to get through now and then. Once I even used a book's subtitle as the title -- and to this day I don't know how I managed to do that!
Those corrections to be made in our monthly book review publications quite easily -- and should be inasmuch as the reviews will be up on our Web site for five years.
What are the most common reasons that a book fails to be reviewed?:
- It was not submitted according to the submission guidelines and preferences of a particular Book Review. For example, galleys were sent when only the finished books are considered -- or finished books were sent when only galleys are considered.
- The book subject was inexpertly handled by the author.
- The book is flawed -- either in the writing or as a published entity.
- Insufficient information was included with the book to complete a review (I can't tell you how often a price is missing, there is no publisher address, 800 numbers and even addresses were left off, no publicity release accompanied the book, etc., etc., etc.
- Space/time limitations. I'm doing a poetry column, I've got room for 10 books and 13 excellent titles were submitted, three have to go only because there is not enough space or time available to do them all. Sometimes it is as raw as the flip of a coin, sometimes it's easier because two were from Simon & Schuster and one was from Penguin Putnam and therefore bumped because the rest were self-published authors, small presses and academic houses -- our preferential treatment policy kicked in to make an automatic cut for me.
Good book reviewers always send out physical or email tear sheets to the publishers. Mediocre ones will if prodded. Scam Artists never do.
Keep good records on the review copies you send out. If you send a book to a given Book Review and it is reviewed and they send you a tear sheet -- put them in your "highly valuable" resource file for future publishing projects. Send them a thank-you note. Name your first born after them.
And when submitting your next title, customize your cover letter to note how much you appreciated their review of the first title and so you are especially pleased to be submitting this second (or third or fourth, etc.) book.
If you had your book reviewed but you had to prod them for a tear sheet, note that situation and put it in your "I've got to put a little extra effort in the follow-up with these guys" file. But you still have a useful resource so don't lose track of it.
If you sent the book off and it's fallen into a Book Review black hole never to be heard of again -- then consider the following before writing them off:
- Did you do your homework and find out what their submission standards were and if there were a specific person to whom it should have been addressed to?
- Having their submission guidelines, did you follow them?
- Was your book thematically appropriate for that particular Book Review?
- Did you time your submission to a part of the year (read publishing cycles) to maximize your chances for getting attention? This is extremely important for small presses trying to get the notice of the big guys like PW, LJ, The New York Times Book Review, Bloomsbury, etc.
- Did you read Jim Cox's article How to Spot a Phony Book Reviewer? If you didn't you'll find it posted on the Midwest Book Review website as one of the Advice for Writers & Publishers articles.
- Did you do the ten-working-day-follow-up using "Cox's Questions"? (Also found in an "Advice for Writers & Publishers entry.)
If the answer is yes to them all -- then write it off to your publicity/promotion overhead and move on. You may get some serendipity out of the submission further on down the line -- it has been known to happen. But in any event, it's how the game is played and a part of your operating overhead. And put that particular Book Review into your "only if there are enough copies in my promotional budget to spare a title will I consider these guys the next time around" file.
If the answer to any of these is NO -- then you may want to rethink your submission strategy (which is a part of your overall marketing plan for the title) -- and consider resubmission or just determining to do better with that Book Review next time around.
And, of course, there is the third list you should be keeping -- the one of Book Reviews that are not appropriate for the kind of book(s) you publish; the scam artists, and the ones with submissions guidelines so stringent that bothering with them isn't worth your time.
Remember that prepublication Book Reviews like PW and LJ are actively looking for reasons to disqualify your submission, to prune down their 5000+ incoming titles a month to what's a manageable size for them -- and it's not going to be anywhere near 1/3 of that incoming!!!
In conclusion (I bet you were beginning to think there wouldn't be one!):
Book Reviews and book reviewers come in the same three categories that authors and publishers are to be found: The Good, The Bad, and The Mediocre. Publisher discussion groups like Pub-Forum and Publish-L are an excellent way to begin your sifting process so that you can be certain to target the good ones, know what you have to do with respect to the mediocre ones, and to avoid the bad ones altogether.
Midwest Book Review
James A. Cox
Midwest Book Review
278 Orchard Drive
Oregon, WI 53575-1129
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