At a Day of Dialog a couple of years ago, an employee of School Library Journal asked me if I wanted to review books for the journal. I did not quite get into it until I started blogging last year. One post about a book Firehorse turned into a booktalk/review about the book because the writing was so superb. I have also read numerous book reviews on A Fuse #8 Production, Betsy Bird's blog. I was very curious to see what goes into writing book reviews.
At the salon, we were greeted with free issues from Kirkus Reviews, along with the usual arc (advance reader copies) cart with free pre-published books for audience members to take. It was very interesting for me to look at Kirkus Reviews, since I had never seen a print copy. (I think I may have taken a look at the online version once or twice.)
We were lucky to have Trev Jones from School Library Journal (SLJ) and Vicky Smith from Kirkus Reviews on the panel, which was hosted by Elizabeth Bird, Youth Materials Specialist at The New York Public Library. The event was held in the Margaret Berger Forum of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. The event was a panel discussion followed by audience questions.
Bird started off by explaining that, as a Youth Materials Specialist, she relies heavily on reviews of books. She asked how difficult it is to time the review of the book to its publication date.
Smith stated that she handles book reviews for children and teens. Kirkus Reviews started in 1933. At that time, it marketed itself mostly to libraries. It was one of the first journals to publish reviews, and the journal strives to publish reviews as far in advance of publication as possible. As soon as publishers get the materials to her, she assigns the work as needed (more pressing reviews go to faster reviewers, etc.)
Jones stated that SLJ mostly markets itself to libraries. She stated that mainstream publishers tended to get materials to them later. They review 400 books per issue. It is really important to get the materials as soon as she can, so that all of the books get reviewed and that things are not lost due to missed publication dates.
Bird mentioned that Kirkus pays reviewers while SLJ does not. She asked the panelists how they find reviewers.
Jones said that people like Bird give her names of people that they recommend to be reviewers. She also goes to library school professors and asks for the names of really good students.
Smith would like to culturally diversify her roster of reviewers. She needs the following skills in a reviewer: the ability to read, judge, and write excellent copy. She would like the staff to reflect the authorship of some of the books that are reviewed. She stated that someone who understands a culture intimately would be more likely to catch something about a book that is from a certain culture than someone who doesn't have a wide familiarity with the literature.
Jones said it's great to have reviewers to say that this book would give a collection depth. It's good to say that a book is fine, review it, and say how it would fit into a collection.
Smith stated that Kirkus has a direct consumer audience and libraries.
Bird stated that sometimes there is a large amount of work on a single topic (eg. 100 angel books). She asked the editors if they edit the reviewers' reviews.
Jones stated that SLJ edits, but they never change a reviewer's opinion. If they disagree or need clarification, they get back to the reviewer right away. However, SLJ does cut a lot. There is a lot of back-and-forth communication, especially if something is not clear. For example, they need to talk if it is not clear if a recommendation is being made, if the reviewer is saying that the book was god-awful but not explaining why, etc.
Smith stated that while it is important to honor the intent of the review, she also attempts to ensure that the meaning is clear. If a reviewer made a hazy comment and seemed hesitant, she will ask the reviewer to clarify and make explicit exactly what causes him or her to have reservations about the particular book. She shortens sentences, changes syntax, and makes an attempt at having a unified voice. Kirkus likes to standardize their reviews.
Jones stated that SLJ, by contrast wants the individual reviewers to retain their voices and style, and that they try to avoid standardization in their reviews.
Bird commented that when she wrote a gushing review and did not recommend a star, she received an email asking why.
Smith stated that she sometimes sees a book whose review she doesn't agree with. It is usually written by a new reviewer who is not comfortable criticizing a book. Oftentimes, a conversation with the reviewer will reveal that the reviewer also did not like the book.
Jones stated that she tells reviewers in that case that they need to be honest about what they think about the book or SLJ cannot use them.
Bird stated that she oftentimes gets requests from independent publishers to include their books in the NYPL collection. Her response is that they need to get the book reviewed. Bird asked if the panelists review books that were independently published.
Jones stated that she was more likely to publish books that look professional. It is their policy that they do not review independently published work, but they will make exceptions. For example, if the publisher has published 3 or 4 of their own books, books by other people, and they have an artist on staff, she is more likely to agree to review the book.
Smith stated that the business model of Kirkus was to not review independently published work. Kirkus used to rely on subscriptions for its revenue. However, circulation of the journal started decreasing. In 2005, at the time when self-publishing was becoming more accessible, Kirkus created a separate fee-for-service review section for self-published work, "Indie." However, they subject these works to the same rigor as the other books, and they do not guarantee a positive review of the book.
Bird asked how much time she spent figuring these things out.
Smith responded that she spent way more time than she would like.
Jones mentioned that she once reviewed a book written by a 13-year-old girl, and the review was negative. The mother called up complaining that she reviewed a book that was written by a child. Jones responded that they generally don't, but the mother had been calling up every week begging her to review the book. The mother kept calling and saying that she had spent her life savings on this book. Jones compromised and removed the negative review on Amazon so that the girl would not have the negative review following her around for life. The next day, she got a huge bunch of roses from the mother.
Bird stated that everyone wants stars on their books. Everyone hopes for six-starred reviews, which happened twice last year. That is very unusual. She asked the panelists how they handle stars.
Jones stated that they mark books that they will consider for stars, then a committee discusses which books should get stars. They also talk about how a book fits into a collection. Sometimes books will get starred so that they don't get forgotten. They don't want books to get lost. For example, The Wicked and the Just is a story about 13th Century Wales, which she didn't think would be highly read. Likewise, My Family for War is another Holocaust story, but it is extraordinary. Nonfiction titles can be easily ignored, but they could be fantastic work. For example, Temple Grandin, by Sy Montgomery is the story of a woman who was diagnosed with autism, who is a pioneer for the humane treatment of animals, in particular farm animals. There are no set rules for which books get starred and which don't.
Smith stated that she relies on her reviewers' recommendations. She spends extra time looking at those books to ensure that she agrees that they need to be starred. Sometimes her reviewers will include a note to her explaining why they think a book does not deserve to be starred. She stated that books that make her laugh out loud are rare; therefore, if they accomplish that, they get starred.
Jones agreed and pointed out a book that made her laugh out loud. (She had physical copies of many books to show the audience.) She stated that reviewers have individual voices. Therefore, a book with a glowing review may not have a star if the editors did not like it. Likewise, a review written by a reviewer who did not express her or himself well, may get starred if the editors liked it.
Bird spoke about the challenges of reviewing apps. She asked how the panelists handle reviewing them.
Jones stated that she handles books and doesn't know much about apps, but she read from notes from someone who did app reviews. She stated that it is important to consider what an app offers that a book doesn't, and it is important to check to see if updates have been made subsequent to a review's criticism of it.
Smith stated that Kirkus has been reviewing apps for 18 months. It can be time-consuming and tedious to have the update installed, then check to see if the problem that the review pointed out has been corrected. She stated that she hopes the Kirkus website will become more malleable, so that published reviews can include a note addressing any improvements that have been made in an app since the publication of the review. It is the reality of the digital age that sometimes content is changed. She mentioned a book that had illustrations of gorillas. In the app, the animals had long tails that made them look like monkeys. Then the app removed the tails, which made the creatures look like chimps.
Jones stated that in order to properly review apps, it is necessary to have a full-time person reviewing apps. At present, they have one person reviewing three apps a week, which is as many as she can do, but it is only the tip of the iceberg.
Bird mentioned that publishers are creating more electronic galleys nowadays. She asked the panelists to describe the difficulties of dealing with electronic versus print galleys (advance reader copies).
Smith stated that the physical book serves as a reminder to review the work. Digital galleys (eg, NetGalley) require users to browse electronically, which is harder to remember to do. The interfaces of some digital gallery repositories are not easy to use. However, from the publishers' point of view, print galleys are expensive to produce, and she thinks that publishers will become more and more inclined in the future to publish digital-only galleys in order to save costs. However, this could be detrimental in the case of picture books, which do not fit easily into a digital format due to the size of the books and their illustrations. In some cases, the physical format does not translate well into e-format.
Jones said that she has not even attempted to utilize e-galleys in reviewing, since they are too hard to keep track of.
Bird asked the panelists what direction they see book reviewing moving in the future.
Jones stated that she predicts that there will be more and more pressure for publishers to move into digital-only format for reviews. However, she stated that some people still prefer the print format.
Smith stated that we will probably keep the print, since some people do not like the digital. She used to be a public library director. When interviewing employment candidates, they used to ask them which section of the newspaper that they read first. One candidate stated that he or she did not read the newspaper, and the candidate listed all of the places that they could find news information. Smith stated that she wanted to hire the candidate since he or she had a wide knowledge of nontraditional information sources.
Bird stated that kids are versatile and move easily between the electronic and print format of books.
Bird then opened the floor to questions from the audience.
One audience member asked how the reviewers could stay relevant to the consumer audience if they were reviewing books for libraries that were out-of-print.
Smith stated that the electronic version of Kirkus also points to similar books to cater to people who do not want out-of-print books. She pointed out that one could go to the library and check the book out. She stated that she works with reviewers to make the reviews more explicit and honest. For example, she encourages reviewers to use direct quotes in books with foul language, in context, to authentically describe what the book is about.
Jones stated that it is difficult to serve the entire world in its diversity. SLJ strives to meet the needs of customers, which include parents, students, libraries, etc.
Another audience member asked how many books do the reviewers not review.
Jones stated that when she started at SLJ, 95% of books would get reviewed, or about 2,600. Now, they review 6,500, out of the 15,000 or so titles that are published each year. Most of the reviewed books are from mainstream publishers. Oftentimes, not all of the books in a series get reviewed due to the sheer overwhelming amount of material that is published.
Smith stated that reviewing decisions are sometimes made on the timeliness of the publication. For example, she stated that Kirkus reviewed the 6th Diary of a Wimpy Kid book, which she did not think was necessary. Kirkus used to not review paperbacks, but now they do. They would rather do reviews of a title that might be missed than the 16th Froggy book, for example.
Bird stated that more books are being published, yet publishers say that they have decreased funds to produce picture books.
Jones stated that the publication of picture books is decreasing, and the production of teen novels is increasing.
Smith stated that the publication of picture books is decreasing, but the quality is increasing. It is almost as if the mediocre picture books are on the decline. There are a lot of angels and zombies in teen novels.
One audience member asked why Jones didn't think people would want to read a book on 13th Century Wales.
Jones responded that readers want books that are relevant to their lives, the here and now, and that many kids may not even know where Wales is.
Jones stated that if there were no more questions, she would like some feedback from the audience about how they felt about the publishing world going digital-only.
One audience member stated that she was offered a digital-only catalog, and she didn't like it.
A teacher from Brooklyn in the audience stated that the kids liked going from the front cover to the back cover — that was an integral part of the process.
Another audience member stated that ebooks need to focus on making the interface reflect the physical book. For example, she would like an easier, more intuitive interface that has options to circle and mark pages.
Bird stated that perhaps if the electronics change and morph into more user-friendly features, perhaps that would change the ereader landscape.
The audience member stated that it would be useful to have a user login and be able to change user capabilities and preferences.
Another audience member asked if librarians review books for their own collections. Bird said that we have committees create lists for The New York Public Library, such as the annual 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing. NYPL has a wiki that is a venue for sharing information and debating the merits and demerits of particular works. They used to type up reviews, but now use the wiki. In the past, the ability to be on the committee was more limited, but now any information professional can join. Bird can recommend people that she meets from these committees who are good writers to Jones from SLJ.
Future Children's Literary Salons
May 5, 2012 - Hear a panel of international authors discuss the worldwide state of children's literature and publishing. Panelists will include Sharon Elswit, the anthologist of The Jewish Story Finder and the East Asian Story Finder, Pnina Mode Kass, the author of REAL TIME, translated into German and French, winner of the National Jewish Book Award and the Sydney Taylor, and others.
Location: Margaret Berger Forum Room 227
Time: 2 p.m. - 3 p.m.
June 2, 2012 - Formed in 1987 by a group of Brooklyn illustrators to share publishing information and industry experiences, The Children's Book Illustrators Group brings together artists with an interest in producing exceptional artwork and books for children. Join Donna Miskend, President (Exhibition Curator) Vicky Rubin (Webmaster, List serve Manager), Maria Madonna David off (Postcard Designer) and others in a discussion of the group's accomplishments and future goals.
September 15, 2012 - Patty Lee Gouch - author and editor
October 20, 2012 - Bullying in Children's Literature
October 27, 2012 - Philip Nel - American Scholar of children's literature
Books on book reviews
Book review journals