A few years ago, my book Cold surprised everyone (most of all me) by delivering a glancing blow to the bestseller list. Since then, I’ve been working on another book (with a rather obvious topic and title: Heat), but I’ve also been writing quirky travel pieces for the Wall Street Journal (of all places) and book reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle and, most recently, the New York Times.
Quirky travel pieces make perfect sense—they incentivize me to do things I wouldn’t ordinarily do while also covering a few expenses. And I’ll admit that the writing is almost as fun as the research.
But why write book reviews? It’s certainly not for the money. Very little writing, except maybe the writing of bad checks, is for the money.
Here are four reasons why I write book reviews.
First, I feel a duty to give back to the community. One of the most important contributions we can make, as writers, is to support other writers. As writers, we know the challenge of stringing together nouns and verbs to come up with something meaningful. A book is an accomplishment, and as such is worthy of recognition, but many books go into the world ignored by the media, facing the reading public without a single review.
Second, reading a book in preparation for a review forces a level of focus that is generally absent during my routine reading. When I have to write about the words I read, I pay attention.
Third, good book reviews are creative works. They are not—or should not be—formulaic. Good book reviews hook readers. They identify links between superficially disparate topics. They establish a relationship between readers and both the author of the book under review and the author of the review itself. Good book reviews are creative essays, but unlike most creative essays they can find reasonably certain outlets for publication.
Fourth, writing reviews makes me feel a bit closer to the publishing industry. It makes me feel like I am in the game. Writers are of course at the heart of the publishing business, but working with no one but my keyboard for company for hours on end can leave me feeling a bit detached. A review brings me closer to the center. It brings me in contact with a book review editor and it brings me closer to another author and that author’s publisher. It leaves me feeling like less of a hermit and more a part of a larger movement.
So with those four reasons about why I write reviews behind me, what about four tips for others who might be interested in writing reviews? I am not at all qualified to provide these tips, but in any case here you go.
Tip 1: Think positive. If a book is so bad that nothing good can be written about it, the book should not be reviewed.
Tip 2: Be thoughtful, in the sense of remembering that authors are human too. Every book is flawed, and a review should not be advertising copy, but reviewers should be sensitive to human feelings when discussing the flaws of the author’s creation. So don’t ignore the flaws, but don’t dwell on them, and try to present them juxtaposed with the positive. Also be thoughtful, but in the other sense of the word. That is, think about what you have read for a while. Then think about it some more. Then write a draft review, think about what you have written, tear it up, and write another draft. The work under review deserves the effort.
Tip 3: Avoid conflicts of interest. Reviewing a book by your best friend is probably not acceptable. Likewise, forget about reviewing books by your wife, husband, partner, mom, dad, son, daughter, and cousin. As a general rule, you should avoid reviewing books published by your own publisher, and you should certainly avoid reviewing books edited by your own editor.
Tip 4: Find a place for your reviews. In my experience, few publications accept unsolicited reviews, which means that you have to convince an editor to assign a review. Send out a query or two, but instead of pitching a review on a specific book, pitch yourself as a reviewer. Tell the editor about your expertise and maybe add a sentence or two about your love of books and your belief in the importance of reviews. Start small—a local newspaper, or maybe an academic journal or a trade association magazine—and build from there.
A last bit of advice: Don’t expect much in return for writing reviews. Authors don’t generally send thank you notes to reviewers, no matter how positive the review might be. The reward for reviewing a book is the review itself—the process of reading another author’s work, thinking about that work, and writing about it coherently. And that, when you think of it, more than justifies the effort.
Bill Streever is a biologist and writer. He lives in Anchorage with his wife and companion, Dr. Lisanne Aerts, his son, Ish Streever, and the resident dog, Lucky (who was adopted from Sakhalin, Russia). The four of them hike, ski, camp, dive, and bike as often as time and their varying abilities allow. His next book, coming out on January 15, is Heat: Adventures in the World’s Fiery Places.