Inside A Newspaper’s Book Review Department

You will be better equipped to market your own books if you understand your audience. Or maybe you just want a behind-the-scenes tour – you loved the episode of “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” that showed you around a fortune cookie factory. Either way, a newspaper office is a fascinating place, and if you have a book to sell, you should know who’s answering the phone when you call to offer a review copy.

Chances are, the book department is the only office on its floor of the building with a lock. That’s because behind it are boxes of books, shelves of books, tables piled over and under with books… A bookworm doesn’t have to be a kleptomaniac to drool at the sight. Publishing houses and writers alike send hundreds and hundreds of books in hopes that they’ll be given away, placed into the hands of a reviewer and written up in the Sunday paper. Publicity sells.

Most of the books are galleys: softcover copies that don’t yet have cover art, and still have some typesetter errors inside. They have been sent out in advance of the publication date because many book departments will not review a book if it has already been released in stores (ostensibly, the news isn’t fresh anymore), and the editor needs, on average, about a month to assign the book to a reviewer, receive the review, edit it, and run it. The books are organized by publication month – a hundred books here for November, another hundred in December, and so forth. These aren’t even all the books the department receives. These are just the ones that might be worth reviewing. All the others are in boxes, waiting for somebody to donate them to the local bookstore and free up some much-needed office space.

In the case of Portland’s newspaper, The Oregonian, the book editor either selects the books he wants to review and does the writing in-house, or invites some of his freelance reviewers to stop by the office, peruse the forthcoming titles and select a handful of promising ones. Most of the books have a one-page letter folded into the front cover, extolling the author’s work and providing practical information on the print run, release date, and book tours. Freelance reviewers will scan the spines (Do I often like books by this publisher? Have I read this author’s work before?), read the first page, peruse the cover letter, and confirm the choices with the department editor. Then the books go home, get read and reviewed, and the review shows up among about eight others every Sunday. Even if the review is neutral, the author can call this a success. Some attention is better than none at all.

Often the department editor gets calls from self-published authors. The unfortunate news is that print-on-demand (POD) novels often don’t make it to the shelves because the assumption – also unfortunate – is that these books aren’t good enough to be published by traditional houses, and therefore aren’t good enough to review. Nonfiction self-published books have a better chance, especially if the author is an expert in his or her area.

What can you do to improve your chances of getting a review? The best you can do is prepare a professional one-page letter to include with your book, be brief and informative when you call the editor (if you choose that route over simply sending the book), and provide the highest-quality book possible. In the best of worlds, its cover should not give away the book’s POD or self-published origins, and its content should be top quality, free of errors, and well written.

Alas, getting a review is difficult. But if you take your time at every stage of the writing and publishing processes, invest in yourself, and know how to prepare a submission that gives the department editor the information he or she needs, you can hope not to be dismissed out of hand.

The cloud is not as dark as it seems: books from even the biggest publishing houses can hope for no more.

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