Career Strategies for Librarians
The Hows and Whys of Book Reviewing
by Douglas King
As a Special Materials Cataloger, I work with all sorts of nonprint resources such as video and sound
recordings, online databases and journals, maps, and CD-ROMs. I like my job. But I’ll be honest with
you—I love books. Always have, and probably always will. Anyone who knows me understands that I
enjoy expressing my opinions of what I’ve read almost as much as I enjoy reading. That’s why, as corny
as it sounds, I can say that one of the greatest joys of being a librarian is writing book reviews for some
of my favorite library-related publications.
I'm not sure which is more fun and exciting—receiving a new, ready-to-be-reviewed book in the mail or
seeing my latest review in print. If you're like me and you love to read and express your opinions of what
you read, consider becoming a book reviewer. There is a wide array of personal and professional
benefits to be derived from reviewing books, and getting started is not as daunting as you might think.
Doing the actual reviewing is far from easy, but I have some tips that might help you once you've gotten
started (I'll try to help you do that, too). I won’t pretend to be an expert writer, or even a seasoned,
accomplished book reviewer. Rather, I am a librarian who has been fortunate enough to publish over a
dozen reviews in a variety of publications within the last few years. Hopefully, I have some useful advice
Finding a Home
Obviously, the first step in becoming a book reviewer is finding a publication for which to write reviews.
There are three broad categories of library-related publications that actively seek reviews contributed by
library professionals. First, organization newsletters often include book reviews of various lengths and
styles, typically contributed by members of that organization. Book review editors for these publications
are generally eager for reviewers, so consider looking here first if you're interested in getting started as a
reviewer. These publications usually publish reviews of nonfiction books related to the library profession,
such as manuals, collections of essays, etc. If you are a member of library organizations, whether on a
regional, state, national, or international level, take a look at their newsletters' review sections and find
out how to contribute.
Also, scholarly journals such as Cataloging & Classification Quarterly (my personal favorite), Journal of
Academic Librarianship, and Portal: Libraries and the Academy often feature book reviews. Reviews for
these journals will typically be more expansive than for other publications, requiring a great deal of
critical thought and analysis. Review lengths might range from 500 to 1000 words, or possibly more.
They look for well-constructed and intelligent reviews of books relevant to their areas of interest.
Finally, there are a number of titles devoted entirely to book reviews. These publications include Choice,
Kirkus Reviews, and Booklist. Reviews generally range in length from 150-300 words, so brevity is
important. As you might expect, books of any ilk are reviewed, so regardless of your interest or academic
experience, chances are good that one of these publications can use you. Editors for these publications
will periodically solicit new reviewers, and you should respond if you are at all interested. However, don't
be discouraged if your first attempt to become a contributing reviewer fails. These publications can be
picky, especially if you have not already published reviews elsewhere. Keep trying, and in the meantime,
hone your writing skills.
Entering the Game
How does one get accepted as a book reviewer, anyway? Book review editors frequently solicit
contributions by new reviewers, usually by posting to pertinent Listservs. When seeking new reviewers,
editors will typically ask for writing samples, especially examples of reviews. It is a good idea to have
several examples of your best writing on hand. If you've never published a review, make one up. Write a
review of a book you’ve read recently that you think relates to that publication’s area of interest. Compose
a review that showcases your talents as a writer and a critical thinker. Alternatively, find a writing sample
from your college career that exemplifies concise expression of critical thought. Keep in mind that editors
want writers who can express their opinions clearly and concisely, with a style that is original and
intelligent but not showy. In other words, reviewers shouldn't draw attention to themselves. Rather, you
should highlight the merits and faults of the book being reviewed, while giving the reader a good idea of
what the book is about and indicating its potential audience.
Editors for publications such as Library Journal that publish reviews of a wide variety of books may ask
potential reviewers for a list of their areas of interest, knowledge, and experience. They want to match the
right book with the right reviewer, so be honest and specific about what types of books you want to
review. Therefore, when responding to solicitations, don't just list "fiction" or "poetry." Instead, list
“contemporary Southern short stories,” or whatever the case may be. There is commonly a glut of
reviewers of all sorts of literature, including genre fiction, so be sure to also list nonfiction topics that
interest you. They don't necessarily have to be topics you studied in college. For instance, I have a
bachelor's degree in English education and a master’s degree in library and information science, but I
write reviews in the areas of American history (usually the colonial and precolonial eras) and popular
culture (usually biographies of pop and rock musicians) for Library Journal, simply because I listed
those topics among my personal areas of interest. I haven’t yet been given the opportunity to review a
contemporary American literary work or a piece of literary criticism (two other areas in which I expressed
interest), but I remain hopeful.
If a solicitation piques your interest, find copies of that publication and study its reviews. Pay close
attention to the length and style of the reviews it publishes, as well as what types of books are reviewed.
If you're still interested, respond to the solicitation, but be patient. If you’re the assertive type, go ahead
and contact the book review editor, unprompted, and ask if his publication needs more reviewers. It may
take weeks, or even months, before you receive a response, if you receive any response at all. This is
normal. And try not to let rejection discourage you. It doesn't always mean that the editor did not respect
your credentials or like your writing sample; sometimes, you will be rejected simply because the editor
already had a surfeit of qualified reviewers at that time. While waiting for a response, why not practice
writing well-constructed and insightful reviews? At the very least, you will have more samples to send
editors in the future.
Writing the Review
I've come up with a few things you may want to keep in mind when writing your reviews. Remember that
nearly all book reviews should consist of five basic components: a summary of the book’s contents, a
critical analysis of its merits and faults, an evaluation of its overall effectiveness, a comparison to similar
works, and a suggestion of the book’s appropriate audience. How much emphasis and how many
words you devote to each component will vary. There is no magic formula or single correct way to write
reviews, and a bevy of helpful books and articles have been written that can help you compose a
publishable book review. But here are a few ideas of my own that I hope will help:
· Read the entire book before writing your review. Don't cheat! The lone exception is lengthy reference
works such as encyclopedias, which can be skimmed once you've read any preliminary content and
gotten a good feel for its style, content, audience, and purpose. Always read critically and carefully.
· Stick to the rules. This means adhering to deadlines (which can be as short as three weeks!), word
counts, and other rules established by the publication. Many publications provide reviewers with clear
guidelines and helpful advice.
· Find your own personal editor. Ask a trusted but forthcoming friend or colleague to read your
reviews and provide feedback. This person should check your grammar and spelling as well as the
quality of your prose. Your publications’ editors will appreciate receiving error-free and well-written
reviews that are ready for publication.
· Communicate openly with your publications’ editors. They are there to help you. Be honest and
open with them at all times. If you can't make a deadline, let them know as soon as possible. You may
get a deadline extension, depending on publication schedules. When they ask you to defend or clarify an
opinion or rewrite a portion of your review, do so gracefully. Don't take it personally if an editor asks you to
shorten or expand your review, or if he or she chops it up. That’s an editor’s job. The importance of
fostering positive relationships with your editors cannot be overstated.
· Don't be afraid to write a negative review. Your opinions matter, and collection development
librarians appreciate learning what's both positive and negative about books they are considering
adding to their institutions’ collections. Don't worry about hurting the author's feelings, and don't think you
won't be asked to write future reviews if you contribute a negative one. You don't have to like every book
sent to you for review, and you are not expected to. This is something that took a while for me to learn.
· Keep your audience in mind. Collection development librarians, acquisitions managers, and
selectors/bibliographers/liaisons depend on your reviews. Always be thinking about what sort of library, if
any, should acquire the book you are reviewing. Also, your fellow librarians want to know which manuals,
handbooks, etc. would be worthwhile additions to their own bookshelves.
Recognizing the Benefits
Not sure you should be writing reviews? Need convincing? Here are some potential personal and
professional benefits of moonlighting as a reviewer:
· Tenure. If you are a tenure-track librarian and your institution's tenure review board accepts
nonrefereed publications for tenure consideration, reviewing books may be a great way to help achieve
the so-called “golden handcuffs” of tenured status. Ask your tenure advisor if writing reviews counts
toward tenure, or check your institution’s written guidelines. Writing reviews can be challenging, but let's
be honest—it's a lot easier than writing scholarly journal articles.
· Develop writing and critical thinking skills. You learn how to write clearly and how to express your
thoughts concisely. These skills will help you immensely in your library career.
· Build a professional library. I have managed to acquire a strong collection of pertinent handbooks,
manuals, essay collections, and other books that help me perform my job and keep up with library
trends and developments, without having to spend a dime.
· Read books before they are published. You may receive uncorrected advance copies that lack
artwork or covers, or you may receive final, published versions of books. Either way, it’s always thrilling to
receive a new, free book in the mail.
· Reviewing leads to other writing opportunities. Yes, fellow librarians do read your reviews, and you
may get contacted to write reviews for other publications or be asked to co-write an article. Publishing
reviews can certainly lead to bigger and better writing opportunities. Finally, and on a related note...
· Establish and cultivate your professional reputation. Getting your name in print is always a boon to
your career, especially if you are contributing reviews to scholarly publications. Your colleagues will
recognize you as an informed professional.
Others benefit from your reviews as well. As I mentioned, writing reviews helps acquisitions managers,
collection development librarians, and selectors/bibliographers/liaisons. You are helping them do their
jobs effectively by informing them of books to purchase and books to avoid. This cannot be overstated—
reviewing resources that libraries are considering for purchase is extremely valuable. Libraries do not
want to waste money on books that are unnecessary, redundant, poorly conceived, poorly executed,
inappropriate for certain audiences, or contribute little or nothing to scholarship. As a reviewer, you can
strongly influence libraries’ book purchases. Also, reviewing newly published library literature is a
tremendously important service to all your colleagues. They need to know which new books would be
worthy additions to their own professional collections. That's why a reviewer's views are so important.
You should feel confident that your work as a reviewer is appreciated and utilized.
I hope I have managed to convey how fun and rewarding it can be to review books, and how important it
is to the field of librarianship. I should mention that writing reviews is very time-consuming and requires
more thought and effort than you might think if you've never tried it. However, I have discovered that my
time and effort have been repaid tenfold, and I hope you'll find it to be just as interesting and gratifying.
About the Author:
Douglas King has been Special Materials Cataloger at Thomas Cooper Library, University of South
Carolina since November 2004. Prior to becoming a Gamecock, Doug held cataloging positions at
Georgia Tech and the University of South Florida. He earned his MLIS in 2000 from the University of
Article published Apr 2007
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.