Saturday, 22 November 2014

Writing Book Reviews

One of many perks of being a Book section editor is a lot of review books. It's pretty awesome - free book in exchange for about 500 words.

I'm just sharing what I've learnt  from experience so far. There isn't one way to write a book review, so take what you want from this (words are bold so those in a rush can skim. I'm not being patronising!).

Getting review copies
Since student newspapers are small publications, we don't get approached with books unless a student/local is promoting their work. So, I have to request them myself. I believe bigger companies are automatically sent big releases or are give a list of books they can choose from (but don't quote me on that).

'We are the media'
I keep on top of book news, knowing what new releases are coming up and when. Twitter is fantastic for this - I follow authors, publishers and book stores. Authors tend to promote other writers (which is a lovely thing to see happening), so following one writer can lead on to more.

Try and send in your request at the right time - around a month before or after the release date is your bubble. Two months after is pushing it, but can be done.

To contact the right person to contact, search through the book's publisher - not the big publishing house that encompasses many smaller companies. You want THE company. It's important to be very specific - try and email exactly the right person. After all, we're all busy people and they won't appreciate having to forward your email on. The contact details are usually in the press/publicity department (yup, you're press now!), or if it's a company abroad, you might have to locate the international department. Generally, it's not too hard to find the right person, but sometimes - have a big cup of tea next to your.

The email:
1)  Introduce yourself briefly. Then get straight to the point. You'd like to inquire if they have any review copies of '............' book by '...........' person from .......publisher
2) Second paragraph explains/sells your platform; what you are, where you're based, your readership, if you're online and/or print. Throw in any awards you've won/been nominated for as well.
3) Finally, leave contact details. Say they can reply back to this email, and leave an address for them to post books to if they're particularly quick and only need your first email.
4) Keep the tone professional and polite. I've found nearly every response to be surprisingly chatty and casual in response, but you've got to be business-like at first.

Also, lots of career guides advocate making phone calls because "you remember a human voice, not emails" and "you should add a personal touch" etc. I have never made a phone call to secure interviews, press copies, tickets or work experience. Personally, I would find calls are annoying and unnecessary - an email will contain all the necessary information ready to be opened when you want, stored safely in the inbox.

I felt pretty odd sending off those first few emails. A voice at the back of my head said I was being greedy and trying to score free stuff. Kill that voice - this is a respected business and a mutual transaction. They give you the material you need in order to help and promote them. Never be afraid of bad responses. The very worst responses I've had are:
a) They're out of copies, sorry (almost certainly true)
b) No reply

Here's the glorious Amanda Palmer's TED talk called 'The Art of Asking' which always helps me. Everyone should watch this at some point, it's so inspiring:

Now, your books have arrived - what next?

How you read
I just read the book as I normally would, and jot down notes. Some reviewers disagree with this tactic, and would just do it all at the end but I like to record my first impressions and initial thoughts. Also, I can then track how I felt at certain points in the book, observe character development, as well as noting down good quotes and moments. 

I generally try to read the book twice in order to pick up on anything I missed, but often I don't have the time. Luckily, I have a weird mind for stories - I can remember practically everything that happens. Is this rare? People get freaked out by how accurately I recall stories. Anyway -

Look up the writer - they tend to have their own site with a bio. If they don't, you can usually glean something from their Twitter or Facebook pages. Incorporate relevant information into the review.

Then, ID the book - all the info should be right there in the book. You'll need the author, full title, publisher, date of publication and edition. If you take an image of the book cover, make sure you give credit. 

Now onto the writing
I would start with a synopsis of the book. I always write it myself, or paraphrase the press release/blurb, but it's fine to quote the blurb directly (make sure it's clear a quote - put it in italics or something). Do make it concise and interesting. This is also a good place to add some information about the author.

'Date with a Stack of Light Reading'. Credit:
Then I put in a summary of my thoughts about the book. Basically, you should be able to get an general impression of the book from your first paragraph. But, it has to be interesting and strong enough to make you want to read on. 

To write the bulk of the review, my next stage is to splurge all my notes and thoughts onto the page. Everything goes down, including strange thought trails and random comments. Afterwards, I write it up properly, edit, rewrite and structure the review so there's a flow throughout the piece. Each paragraph should move smoothly from one to another. 

I end my reviews with another summary - I avoid repeating the introduction, because that's lazy. This can be the difficult bit, because you want to sum up your review and your overall opinion in relation to the review. A top tip is to go back through your article and refresh yourself on what your main point is, and use that in your ending. For example; 'this is a fun book but the plot is weak', 'it's a strong story with well developed characters' or 'immensely gripping book which could be improved by having less clich├ęs'.

What goes in the review
Some stuff I'll talk about:
  • Characters - who/what about them I liked or disliked, were they well developed, relatability, depth
  • Plot, themes
  • Structure of book and quality of writing
  • Feelings conveyed by book
  • Readability
Remember to work quotes into your review to support your point, and if you're writing for online try and embed links into it.

Last tips
  • Judge whether the book serves its purpose and if the author achieves their objective. Don't try to put in meanings that didn't exist or add your expectations. 
  • Relate it to current events/trends - for example I was reviewing The Honeymoon Hotel by Hester Browne and because of the female protagonist, I talked about the #BanBossy campaign. 
  • Compare it to other books if possible, especially to their other works if they have any. 
  • Don't feel like you have to be 'The Harsh Critic' to have your review respected. Strike that balance - be honest, not horrible. Be kind but don't suck up.

I'll leave you with this beautiful clip from Almost Famous - it just inspires me to keep working. 

Happy reviewing!

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