Thursday, November 18, 2010

How I Review Books — or — Do I Need a 12-Step Program?

• • •
You can attend readings every night in New York City.
More, if you are so inclined. This reading, at Word in Brooklyn,
was in a hot, crowded basement. The editors came
with the authors and served wine and cookies.
Jim & I were lucky to get seats.
• • •

Anna Quindlen, the former NY Times columnist, once said that her work gave her the opportunity to deeply consider what might have otherwise been a trivial or passing moment, event or experience. Writing — thinking in a careful and deliberative way — allows you to draw out the significance of what interests you in that moment. Otherwise, she said, whatever it is would pass as unnoticed and unremarkable.

The same can be said for reviewing books. It’s a great way to get into the book and formulate a considered understanding.

The process is labor intensive. I saw this from a new perspective last year when I attended a few panel discussions led by some of the country’s leading book bloggers. They are a lively and passionate group. Many are young mothers who squeeze the work into crazed schedules. Authors and publishers seek bloggers out because they can get a buzz going. To help that along, authors like to arrange “blog tours” in which a different blogger reviews their book each day or week. Managing requests and scheduling reviews are among book bloggers’ tasks, along with the hard work of getting review books from publishers.

This blog entry explains my system for reviewing a book a week. Other freelancers perform a version of this method. What I detail is but one small part of an enormous writing/production/marketing effort that concludes when you reach for a copy of “Decline of Fishes” by Gloucester, Mass., author Peter Anastas, the book I reviewed this week.

One. Finding out about new books

Most people review books that have come out within the last few weeks — while they’re still on bookstore shelves and in the “new” section in libraries. I relax that rule on occasion because most books can be purchased online.

I usually get to one reading a week. Here in Manhattan, authors on book tours pass through like water under the George Washington Bridge. My hometown library and Toad Hall bookstore — in Rockport MA — also present excellent and ambitious reading series. Sometimes I hear the author I am about to read. I take notes and quote him or her if it’s appropriate.

To stay one step ahead, I subscribe to Publishers Weekly (around $170 a year) and I also read the NY Times book reviews during the week and on Sundays, along with a host of other publications including the NY Review of Books, Time Out New York, Entertainment Weekly, the New Yorker, New York, and more. It takes a big chunk of time to go through the papers and magazines I’ve accumulated over the week. Friends, NPR, authors via email, conferences, and the entire online world provide information on new books. I still go to libraries and bookstores and enjoy browsing. Despite all this, many local and regional books never get any notice at all. That’s where I come in.

Two. Ordering books

Requesting books from publishers requires a system. Publicists, publishers, email and mailing addresses come and go. Finding contact information from a publisher’s website is sometimes like mining for coal. You have to go deep. Some still want requests in writing – faxed or mailed on your publication’s letterhead. Others accept emails but reply only if the book is in trouble. Publishers are far more careful about who they mail review copies to in these hard times. Time, patience and persistence are key to the reviewer’s success obtaining review copies.

Three. Reading the book

If I don’t get the book I ask for, often I’ll buy it. I review books I want to read. It’s fun and easy to write clever negative reviews but I see myself as an advocate, not a teacher or critic. I do include criticisms and I do review the books of people I know.

I start reading the book I select on Wednesday evening or Thursday. I divide the number of pages by the number of days I have to read the book. If I skip a reading day, I have to read twice as much the next day — usually late afternoons and after dinner. As wasteful as it is, I mark up books.

Four. Writing the review (more on this next time)

It takes me two or three hours to write a review. I save the last chapter to read before I write so that I can get my head back into the book and I look over my notes. I file my review before noon on Wednesday.

Five. Posting the reviews

Once my review is published, I’ll often post it on Amazon, Scribd, my own website, etc. When papers outside of the area publish the review, I get Google Alert notices. I go to one of the websites displaying the review, copy the URL, shorten it using and then post the link on Facebook, Twitter, etc. I must send the link, and sometimes the hard copy to the publishers, though they, too, use Google Alerts to track books/authors.

Six. Distributing surplus books

I donate books I don’t review or haven’t marked up to the Rockport library. They can shelve these or sell them at one of their fundraisers. Books I’ve marked up, I take to the fabulous Rockport transfer station. They have a small building dedicated solely to book swaps.

For most professional reviewers this process is rote. Many take book assignments and do not go through this process. I prefer selecting the books I review so that I can pay attention to some of the local and regional authors who might otherwise go unnoticed.

No comments:

Post a Comment