Editors on Reviews

Jane Ciabattari
From the July/August 2003 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Prepublication forums, such as Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, and Library Journal, review books primarily for industry professionals—librarians, book review editors, and other publishing folks—so they try to cover as many as possible in a range of genres. “We’re the canary in the coal mine for a lot of books,” says Jeff Zaleski, who edits the Forecast section of the trade publication Publishers Weekly, which reviews about eight thousand books before publication a year. Several hundred reviewers write PW’s unsigned “consensus” reviews, based on the work of the initial reviewer and at least three editors. The questions they must answer: What is the book about? How good is it? How will it sell to its intended readership? “We set the table for future reviewing,” says Zaleski. “It’s like walking a tightrope. You have nothing to rely on except your own good judgment. You have to be able to resist the hype.”

All respectable print publications follow codes of ethics ensuring, among other issues of editorial integrity, that editorial and advertising function like church and state.

The biweekly Kirkus Reviews reports on some seven thousand books a year, covering general interest titles only—nothing scholarly or academic—because its readers are primarily public librarians who want a sense of which books to order and recommend to average readers. Kirkus is also important to editors of daily and weekly book reviews and Hollywood producers in search of film projects based on books. In fact, it has launched a new online column in collaboration with the Hollywood Reporter—several of Kirkus’s hundred or so regular reviewers (specialists in nonfiction, foreign books in translation, and small and university presses) write about hot properties Hollywood might have missed.

A book’s appearance in prepublication reviews helps its chances of receiving coverage in newspapers and magazines, thus exposing it to general readers.

“It’s our job to report on a wide range of books,” says McGrath, whose readership is over a million nationwide. McGrath and his staff of editors sift through some 80,000 books a year and assign reviews of about 15 to 20, plus another half dozen or so in brief, each week (that’s about 1,200 a year).

“We’re not like the New York Times, which serves a certain elite cross section of the country,” says Marie Arana, who edits the Washington Post Book World. “We serve the Washington metropolitan area.” Like most other book review editors, her mix is a mirror of the publishing industry, and thus she publishes reviews of more nonfiction (60 to 70 percent) than fiction (30 to 40 percent) each year. Book World doesn’t cover only new books. In the newly established column Second Reading, Jonathan Yardley reconsiders or rediscovers books. And Michael Dirda writes a quirky, taste-based column called Readings, which, for the next year, will feature Victorian novels.

Steve Wasserman describes the mission of his book review as “a continuing meditation on the nature of America, both in the nonfiction realm and the fictive—where we’ve been, how we got to be the people we are today, and where we might be tomorrow.” Still, the Los Angeles Times Book Review sometimes has a regional flavor, with Richard Schickel’s monthly film-related books column, Jonathan Kirsch’s biweekly column focused on the American West, and such surprises as a bilingual review of Gabriel García Márquez’s autobiography, which, says Wasserman, was “selling like hotcakes” in Los Angeles in its original Spanish edition (released by Knopf in the fall of 2002). Rather than wait for the English translation, due in the fall of this year, he assigned the review to the Nicaraguan poet Gioconda Belli, and published it in Spanish alongside an English translation by Gregory Rabassa, who translated García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Newspapers that have smaller audiences tend to have a more focused method to their coverage. The Chicago Tribune prioritizes books from small and university presses in the Midwest, says literary editor Elizabeth Taylor, who is also president of the National Book Critics Circle. “We really care about the region and the Midwest.” The Tribune receives about 200 books a day, and reviews 10 a week.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has a similar approach. “We cover the Southeast first and foremost,” says Teresa Weaver, who edits the book pages, where 1,400 books a week are winnowed down to six to eight for review. “People who read the book pages are the smartest of our readers. We pay a lot of attention to what’s being done outside the big publishing houses. My philosophy is that readers are going to find the new Nora Roberts or James Patterson or Tom Clancy. Given our limited space for reviews, it makes a lot more sense to concentrate on the literary works—authors that serious readers might not automatically buy or might not even know about yet. Small presses and university presses are a huge part of that mission to discover new and exciting writers.”

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