Readers and writers really like to talk about the importance of book reviews, but many of these discussions revolve around Amazon and Goodreads. In places like that, reviews are fairly democratic; anyone, assuming they meet a few basic criteria, can write about a book. But how do reviews end up in more discriminating locations? How does a book review end up in a place like The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, or Bookforum?
The process is a fairly complicated one, and I’ve broken it down into several sections. Keep in mind that my perspective comes from working at two mid-size presses in the US. Larger or smaller publishers, agents, and independent authors solicit reviews in slightly different ways. The basics, however, are broadly applicable.
What books are reviewed?
Unless there is a special occasion such as the recent adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale into a television show, most publications like to focus on discussing new and upcoming books. Part of this is because publicists promote new books the most, and another part is that most readers are only interested in hearing about the latest news. As a result, places like The Atlantic or The Guardian don’t typically review books from the backlist. (A publisher’s backlist is full of books that were previously published. To generalize, the backlist features titles published at least a year ago.)
How are books chosen?
The backlist notwithstanding, traditional publishers in the US release around 300,000 new titles each year, and most reviews in newspapers and magazines draw from this batch. Since 300,000 is not an insignificant number, reviewers have to find a way to narrow their focus. To do this, they rely on their editorial team. These editorial team members receive promotional materials, review copies, and other information related to upcoming books. A publicist or agent may even meet with a member of the editorial team to pitch certain titles. From there, the team decides whether or not a book fits with the overall spirit of the newspaper or magazine and assesses whether or not there is a reviewer available who is well-suited to review the title. Even if the editorial team thinks a book sounds spectacular, they may not ask anyone to review it. In fact, The New York Times has estimated that it only reviews around 1% of books submitted to it.
Do personal meetings make a difference?
Meetings between book publicists and members of an editorial team are a vital part of the book review process. These meetings usually occur between people who know and trust each other. They have met at book fairs or have both been part of the book industry for years. Despite any established relationships, the meetings are usually short. They may last only an hour or so and are not always prioritized by an editorial team; I have seen a fair number of these meetings get canceled because editors had deadlines looming.
Assuming a meeting actually happens, a publicist will not pitch every upcoming book to the editorial team. Instead, she chooses a few titles that seem to be especially good fits for the publication and highlights them. If the publicist does her job well, the editor will ask to be sent several of the books so that they can be further assessed for potential review.
All of this is just a general overview of how periodicals choose which books to review. It certainly doesn’t cover all cases, but hopefully it offers a little insight into how the publishing industry functions. If there is any single takeaway from the entire process, it is that agents and publishers do matter. A well-known and well-connected publicist will have more success getting a book reviewed in a place like The New Yorker than a publicist who lacks those connections.
And for new people in the industry, that can make getting a review in those traditional publications extraordinarily difficult.