September 4, 2015

Giving peas a chance: The challenges of professional book reviewing

You’ve finished your book and now you’re wondering: How on earth will I sell it? This is a daunting question, to be sure, one that involves carefully considering who your readers are and where you will find them. Whatever the tactic, one of the first steps in reaching readers is to obtain book reviews.

A book review tells potential readers what sort of content they will encounter in your book. More importantly, it lets them know whether or not the book is worth their time.

At BlueInk Review, we have written nearly 5,000 reviews of self-published books. We are extremely careful to make sure the reviews are provided by knowledgeable professionals and that their assessments are fair and balanced.

It’s not always an easy task.

How does the review process work? And what can you expect from a quality book review? Here are a few answers to questions you may have.

What are the components of a useful review?

The best reviews let readers know what they’ll find in a book. This, of course, means explaining the narrative arc of the book or, in the case of nonfiction, the scope of the subject matter. But it also means telling readers what the experience of reading the book is like: Is the prose smooth and breezy? Is it dense and intellectual? Does the author skillfully help you along? Or will you struggle at points? This kind of information helps readers decide if it’s the kind of book they would enjoy.

What are the qualities of a top-notch book reviewer?

Quality book reviewers aren’t just people who love to read – like your neighbor or book club friend. They are people with a deep understanding of what makes books tick and proven skill at articulating their thoughts in print.

At BlueInk, we have a pool of over 100 professional reviewers. Many have a long history in journalism, writing for major news sources such as The New York Times, Washington Post and so on; they are well-versed about what goes into a professional critique. Other critics hold senior-level editorial positions at major publishing houses such as Random House and HarperCollins and have spent many years studying the craft of writing and learning what makes a book succeed or fail.

In general, professional reviewers are also people who are well-read in the genre they are reviewing. They understand the requirements of the genre and the books that have been important to that category in the past.

Most importantly, as mentioned above, they are skilled at analyzing what is working in a book and what isn’t (this isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds). And they have the writing talent to clearly articulate all of this in print.

In short, while your neighbor may love to read, he or she needs much more than a pile of books by the nightstand to qualify as a credible book reviewer.

How do you match the book to the reviewer?

The right reviewer is absolutely critical to producing a review that is fair to both authors and readers. If you assign a thriller to someone who prefers literary fiction, that reviewer is likely to react the same way someone who hates vegetables does upon seeing a plate of peas: They will have a distaste for the book before they even open it.

To help with this tricky match-making process, we ask reviewers to fill out a questionnaire detailing the types of books they enjoy reading. We ask them to go well beyond noting “fiction,” for example, and to let us know if they prefer thrillers, romance, historical fiction, science fiction and so on. When it comes to nonfiction, we ask them if they lean toward history, biography, memoir, self-help, spirituality and other sub-categories.

We also ask reviewers to list their favorite authors. This gives us further clues as to the type of reading they like (someone who loves Jonathan Franzen or Philip Roth, for instance, probably isn’t going to be the best pick for a Stephen King-style novel).

Finally, we ask reviewers to tell us what books they “absolutely hate reading.” This way, we will never be sending them something akin to sending a meat lover a plate of peas.

Of course there are always specialty books that require experts as reviewers: books on physics, health care, biology. In these cases, we network to find the right reviewer. When we receive math books, for example, we look for a math professor. If we receive a zoology book, we contact zoology associations that can lead us to the right specialist in the field. We are dedicated to hunting for just the right person.

Is the review scrutinized before being posted?

Yes. Just like anyone writing a book, reviewers need editors! A BlueInk editor carefully reads each review, looking for a balance between book description and analysis of the book’s strengths or weaknesses. If you have the former without the latter, you have a book report, not a review. And if you have the latter, without the former, you aren’t giving readers enough information about the contents of the book to let them know if they would be interested in reading that particular book.

We also make sure the reviewer is consistent in their criticism: We would flag a review, for instance, that says the book is too long in one part of the review, while noting that it’s a “page-turner” elsewhere. These kinds of inconsistencies usually occur when reviewers fail to accurately articulate their thoughts. Thus, we challenge reviewers to be as precise as they can be. Most reviews are sent back to the reviewer with questions and require revision before they are ready to go – sometimes several times over.

What is the difference between a professional review and a crowdsourced review?

A professional review is carefully vetted to include all of the qualities mentioned above. By contrast, crowdsourced reviews are written by anyone. While it could be someone who actually read the book, it’s just as likely to be a friend of the author – or even an enemy. It’s hard to trust crowdsourced reviews without reservation. This is why industry professionals, such as librarians and booksellers, do not give these reviews the same credence they do to professional reviews.

What do you do with that professional review, once you have it?

Use it over and over again in your marketing efforts! A good line from a review should be featured front and center on your website, your press release, bookmarks, postcards and other sales materials. It should be blasted out on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest — whatever social media you engage in. Used wisely, it is ultimately the source of sales to come.

BlueInk Review offers credible and unbiased reviews of self-published books exclusively. Visit us at www.blueinkreview.com. And if you’d like to read more of our writing and publishing tips and information, sign up for our monthly newsletter.

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2 thoughts on “Giving peas a chance: The challenges of professional book reviewing

  1. Patti Thorn says:

    Skip: We have just signed you up for the newsletter. Let us know if you don’t receive a newsletter in August (we will be sending one out in a week or two), and we’ll doublecheck to make sure you’re subscribed correctly. Also, Clarion does review both fiction and nonfiction routinely. Hope that answers all your questions!

  2. Skip Rowland says:

    Tried to sign up for newsletter. My website is: http://www.skiprowland.com. You didn’t accept it. But it’s real and true.

    Also, since I write narrative memoir non fiction I question the use of paying for Clarion which I understand is strictly fiction. Please advise.

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