Guest article by James A. Cox
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 the chances of getting your book reviewed can be drastically reduced if you do not understand what you are up against and do not take steps to improve your odds.
The Midwest Book Review receives approximately 50 books a day, Monday through Saturday. That works out to around 1,500 titles a month. I encourage PMA members to identify themselves as such when they submit their titles for review because Midwest Book Review has a policy of bumping small presses and PMA members to the top of the review list – a significant step when the line is 1,500 titles long!
Other book review publications or programs (with the possible exception of The Independent Publisher) 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 roster of 38 reviewers to produce four library newsletters and two book review magazines each month, a weekly half-hour television show and a monthly short-wave radio broadcast. 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 post these reviews on thematically appropriate websites, newsgroups, and online bookstores, and I send them (by computer disk) to be included on an interactive cd-rom for corporate, academic, and public library systems. Incidentally, this internet business takes one full working day each month to accomplish. Then I must send a tear sheet or review script and a cover letter to the publisher, notifying him or her that the title was featured and the various venues in which the review appeared. This process takes about eight working days to accomplish.
Of the more than 1,500 titles a month received, about half (750) are assigned, and only around 450 are reviewed. That’s about one-third of the total submitted. Compared with other book review publications or programs, that is a significantly high ratio of books sent to books reviewed.
Those that did not make the initial cut for review failed to be assigned because they either came from the major presses and got bumped in favor of small presses, came in the form of galleys 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 were damaged in transit (The post office seems to have improved lately, but still, about 1 in 20 book packages sustains some degree of damage, ranging from minor to catastrophic).
Those books that make the cut for review assignment but for which no reviews were eventually published fall into one of the following categories:
1. The assigned book reviewer determined that the book was substantially flawed and that he or she could not honestly recommend it to its intended readership. One thing that distinguishes the Midwest Book Review from other book review publications is that we only publish or broadcast reviews that recommend books to the intended readerships (as well as bookstore retailers, librarians, parents, and teachers).
These disqualifying flaws could be in the quality of writing, the organization (especially for nonfiction), or the production values (e.g. binding so poor that it would not hold up—important for children’s hard covers), or the availability of other books covering the same topic that are better or more comprehensively written (again, especially important with respect to nonfiction).
2. The reviewer submitted a review that was flawed (in the judgment of the editor-in-chief). Anyone can volunteer to become a reviewer and be assigned a book to see if he or she can write a readable and informative review—it’s actually a fairly skilled proposition. Some folk don’t have a knack for writing reviews.
3. The reviewer never turns in a review (in which case it is their last assignment). Some people don’t appreciate how much work is involved until they try to write a review. For others, becoming a reviewer was just a passing fancy that passed all to quickly.
There is a traditional agreement between the publisher and the reviewer. It goes like this:
1. 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.).
2. 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.
3. The publisher has the right to a follow-up contact with the reviewer after submitting a book for review to ascertain three things: 1) that the book arrived safely; 2) the status of the book with respect to the review process; and 3) if the reviewer needs any additional information.
4. Once a book is reviewed, the publisher has a right to a copy of the review, provided by the reviewer (or his/her editor). There is no corresponding obligation to inform the publisher that a book has been rejected for review—the absence of any tear sheet is deemed sufficient to establish that outcome.
5. The publisher has the automatic authority to utilize the review, in part or in whole, in publicity/promotion/advertising/marketing material for the book. (This is the quid-pro-quo for having provided a free review copy.) I 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! Although it is too late for those corrections to be made in the newsletters, they can still be made in the magazines (Internet Bookwatch and Children’s Bookwatch) quite easily—and should be inasmuch as the reviews will be up on our website for five months.
The most common reasons for a book’s failure to be reviewed are as follows:
1. It was not submitted according to the submission guidelines and preferences of a particular book review publication or program. For example, galleys were sent when only the finished books are considered—or finished books were sent when only galleys are considered.
2. The book subject was inexpertly handled by the author.
3. The book is flawed—either in the writing or as a published entity.
4. Insufficient information was included with the book to complete a review (I can’t tell you how often important information is missing, such as a price, publisher address, 800 numbers, and publicity releases.
5. Space or time limitations prevent its use. For example, I’m doing a poetry column, and I’ve got room for 10 books. Thirteen excellent titles were submitted, but I don’t have enough space to use them all. Sometimes it is as raw as the flip of a coin; sometimes it’s easier. For instance, if two books were from Simon & Schuster and one was from Penguin Putnam, those would be bumped because our policy of preferring small presses would kick in and make an automatic cut for me.
Good book reviewers always send out 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 reviewer or publication and it is reviewed and a tear sheet is sent, add the reviewer to your “highly valuable” resource file for future publishing projects. Send a thank you note; name your first born after him or her. When submitting your next title, customize your cover letter to note how much you appreciated the previous review and that you are especially pleased to be submitting this second (or third or fourth, etc.) book.
If your book was reviewed but you had to prod the reviewer 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 your book has fallen into a book review black hole never to be heard of again, consider the following before writing them off:
1. 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?
2. Having their submission guidelines, did you follow them?
3. Was your book thematically appropriate for that particular Book Review?
4. Did you submit your book during an appropriate time of year to maximize your chances for getting attention? This is extremely important for small presses trying to get the notice of the big guys such as Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, The New York Times Book Review, and Bloomsbury.
5. Did you read Jim Cox’s article on How to Spot a Phony Book Reviewer?
6. Did you do the ten-working-day-follow-up?
If you answered yes to all, then write it off to your publicity/promotion overhead and move on. You may get some serendipity out of the submission later—it has been known to happen. But in any event, it’s how the game is played and a part of your operating overhead. Put that particular reviewer in 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 you answered no to any of the questions, you may want to rethink your submission strategy (which is a part of your overall marketing plan for the title) and consider resubmitting or just determining to do better with that book reviewer next time.
And, of course, there is the third list you should be keeping—the one containing book reviewers that are not appropriate for the kind of book(s) you publish, the scam artists, and reviewers or that have submissions guidelines so stringent that bothering with them isn’t worth your time.
Remember that prepublication book review publications such as Publishers Weekly and Library Journal are looking for reasons to disqualify your submission, to prune their 5000+ incoming titles a month to a manageable size—and resulting list is not going to be anywhere near one-third of those submitted.
About James A. Cox
James A. Cox is the editor-in-chief of the Midwest Book Review, which produces four monthly book review library newsletters and two monthly book review online magazines (“Internet Bookwatch” & “Children’s Bookwatch”); produces and hosts the weekly half-hour television show “Bookwatch” in Madison, Wisconsin (first launched in September, 1978 and now the oldest public access television program in Wisconsin); is an on-air book radio review columnist for KNLS Bookwatch, which is broadcasted via shortwave radio to Europe, North & South America, and the Pacific Rim; and is a regular contributor of advice and commentary for two internet discussion groups dedicated to the small press publishing community: “Publish-L” and “PubForum”.