Paging Tips for Book Reviews

Gerald Bartell

The e-mail pinged in when I wasn’t checking every five minutes for an editor’s response to a pitch. My editor at the New York Blade, where I wrote book reviews, asked if I wanted to review books for the Washington Post. “You ask!” I shot back. Soon I was reviewing a David Baldacci thriller for the “WaPo.” So began a terrifically rewarding pursuit that’s lasted six years, expanding to reviewing for the Kansas City Star, the San Francisco Chronicle and other newspapers. If you’re a voracious reader, book reviewing may reward you as well.

My tips for breaking in:

Develop a specialty – Editors want reviewers with an expert’s knowledge of a genre, who can, for example, compare the latest biography of Marilyn Monroe to the crowded shelf of other books about her. Know your genre and track what its authors are up to by reading Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and the news items in book review sections. (This work will also qualify you to do author interviews.)

Get clips– Show editors you’re a scintillating reviewer. File the best reviews you can write on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Goodreads and other book sites. Review for neighborhood newspapers. Write a sample review. Be candid. Editors want reviewers with keen insights into why books work and don’t work. (Don’t waste time with publications that run only entirely favorable reviews.)

Pitch – Clips at hand, track book review editors. Their e-mail addresses may be on a paper’s “Contact Us” link or listed with reviews the editors write. Start pitching mid-market, i.e. mid-size city papers that run reviews by-lined “special to the Daily Blat,” a clue they buy freelance. Start with an e-mail pitch; if editors want hard copy, they’ll let you know. Introduce yourself, note attached reviews and offer to review a title coming out in three months. Review sections favor major titles. (One morning I pitched Susan Orleans’ anticipated bio of Rin Tin Tin. By evening I had two assignments.) Find out what books are in the pipeline by reading Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly – and while you’re at it, pitch them: they buy freelance.

Follow up – Persist with pitches and updated links to your reviews. It may take a while, but if you’re good, one day you’ll pitch the next bio of Rin Tin Tin and an editor will bite. You won’t get rich (rates average $150-$600 for 300-750 words) but you’ll have the satisfaction of publishing an informed, entertaining essay that tells readers why they should or shouldn’t load James Patterson’s latest onto their Kindle.

Photo from Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash