A Different Perspective On Book Reviewing—From An Ex-Reviewer And Book Publisher

Successful independent publisher and former Newsday staff book critic Ilene Barth shares her experienced perspective and insider tips for receiving reviews (and other ways to get your books noticed).

When I was a Newsday staff book critic both the book review office and my desk were swamped with bound galleys and finished books. But most decisions about what to review had been made before any book reached us. We made these decisions by scrutinizing publishers’ catalogs, talking to good, i.e. honest, publicists whose sensibilities we’d come to respect–and by reading Publishers Weekly.

I believe that PW sets American book reviewers’ agenda to a far greater extent than is usually acknowledged. But when I was on the critic’s side of the desk, my colleagues and I were not just looking for starred reviews; we were also looking for nonfiction books on subjects that interested one of us, and for new fiction by writers we admired. We were also interested in new voices, in “discovering” stylistically fresh writers able to lead us on a journey we didn’t feel we’d already taken. It’s pretty hard to interest a seasoned reviewer in just another coming-of-age novel. But I still remember my pleasure in reading and writing about Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon’s first novel. In all honesty, I just didn’t pick it up out of a first-novel slush pile. It was one of several novels by young authors I’d set aside to examine, because I’d already heard whispers it was above the ordinary. No sure thing, mind you, which is why I, and not the paper’s senior reviewer, had dibs on it.

If your vocation is reading and pondering books, you want to read books that engage you. The works of many best-selling authors are not reviewed in the majors because reviewers have no compelling reason to tell readers about the work of someone they probably already know. But books published by unknown authors writing for small presses also tend to get dismissed quickly because 1.) reviewers haven’t heard anything about them or 2.) they’re the wrong books for the reviewers.

As an aside, some publishers were not more discerning in what they sent me when I was on the National Book Critics Circle Board, and therefore a prize juror. While I did not get books on golf addressed to me as an NBCC juror, some publishers just dumped every work of fiction they’d published that year into a huge box and shipped it to my door. (My children’s school Book Fair appreciated the gesture.)

So don’t send a literary reviewer a practical new work on gardening or that unexceptional novel. Send the shrub primer to the newspaper’s garden writer and the mundane novel to the feature editor of the author’s hometown paper.

As a publisher, I don’t send books to most mainstream critics because although I believe we publish wonderful books, gift books are not what book critics seek. If one day, Red Rock Press acquires a book that deserves serious critical appraisal, I’ll let my former colleagues know, but I’m not about to squander my personal capital.

Finding our way around people like the one I used to be is how Red Rock Press gains print attention. That’s how we collected mention of a couple of our seven titles (to date) in The New York Times, and how we earned a half page in the broadsheet [large-format newspaper] Chicago Tribune.

Most book buyers do not share reviewers’ criteria in deciding on all of their purchases. Many consumers are interested in books that give them information they can use. These people can be reached through off-the-book-page publicity, through special interest publications, and through broadcast media.

But what if the books you publish really are superior literary works or important nonfiction? You need the critics to notice them. Then your publicity push has to begin even earlier. If you’re not working for Farrar or Knopf or Algonquin, my hunch is that it’s smart to delay publishing such a book for a season while you plant rumors of its debut. First you need to get credentialed people – better known writers and impressive experts – behind the book. You need back-cover blurbs from these people, and you need their word of mouth. (The blurbs won’t impress reviewers; they’re for bookstore browsers, but favorable gossip will.)

Approach book review editors with sound reasons why this forthcoming work should not be ignored. Ignite a conversation about this book so that people will be on the lookout for it before the galley appears.

We small publishers are less in competition with each other than we are with the big guys for media attention. At this point, every small press success opens doors for other small publishers. Interest in our offerings is growing along with our market share.

Since independent publishers can’t afford blockbuster authors (who also have a review problem) we need to concentrate on the message or voice–the uniqueness of the authors we do publish. But I still believe that looking for a review is often looking for the wrong thing. Get over it. Seek the people who, in other contexts, will spell the titles of your books right or announce them in well-modulated, clear tones.

Ilene Barth is Creative Director of Red Rock Press. You can learn more about her business at http://www.RedRockPress.com and http://www.VirtueVictorious.com.