Today I have posted the second and final part of Henry Neufeld's post on what makes for a good book review. Part one can be found here.
Here's where I prefer to write as a reader rather than as the publisher.
If you have found a way to engage your readers in the topic of books you read,
then I'm happy. But what engages me?
To misappropriate the Apostle Paul:
Much, and in many ways.
One of Adams' complaints about reviews is that they may substitute for
reading the book. And he's right. That could happen. I use academic reviews in
that way. I look for reviews by someone whose scholarship I already respect and
read the review to discover the major arguments and also the quality of the
work. But for me this is a necessary short cut. Currently I'm revising my study
guide to the book of Hebrews. I wrote it eight years ago. I want to make sure
to catch the best of recent scholarship as I revise it. It's not a commentary,
and certainly not exhaustive, so I'm not going to read everything. But I do
want to see the best of recent scholarship. Academic reviews, wherever I might
find them, will help me discover the literature that is breaking new ground and
that is going to impact the much more limited scope of my study guide.
By an academic review here I mean a review written by someone with
academic qualifications in the appropriate field of study that includes key
information such as the scope of the work, the major arguments, and evaluations
of the quality of that work. That's not all there is to a good academic review,
but those are key. Whether the academic in question wrote the review for a
journal or published it on a blog is of limited concern.
The majority of blogger reviews, however, are not academic reviews. I often
hear complaints about reviews based on the fact that they do not include all
the information necessary. But for many blogs, a full academic review would be
incredibly boring. That's not what the blog is about.
So here are some other ideas for engaging with your readers about
1. A series of quotations with a brief response
2. Comments about a particular argument, again brief
3. A simple list of a few points you liked about a book and a few points
4. An extended, multi-part response (one of my preferred forms)
5. Your own reflections on the topic with only a brief mention of the book
As a publisher I would find any of these options acceptable from
someone who had received a free book (remember to let people know about the free
copy!) and as a reader, if I'm interested in the topic of the book, I'm likely
to read any of them.
If you do choose to write an academic review, be sure to do it well.
Inaccurate or misleading reviews are extremely annoying, at a minimum. Try to
review rationally. I don't mind if your review reveals more about you than
about the book or its author, provided that whatever the review asserts about
the book is actually true.
Finally, a note on technical details. (Note that the preceding is a
sentence fragment, left as such intentionally.) Typos, format issues, and cover
design are valid topics for reviewer comment, but generally only for brief
comment. There are those who don't have to produce books who feel that there
should be no typos in a manuscript. I very, very rarely read a book – and I
read many books – even from major publishers, in which I don't find something
wrong. Mention that you found typos if they have an impact on reading the book.
Make sure that you are equally hard on typos in books you agree with as on
those you don't.
Other technical issues that deserve comment include endnotes vs.
footnotes, indexes, the detail of the table of contents, and the overall
quality of the printed book (paper, consistency, etc.). But again diatribes on
the matter are rarely helpful in a review. Your readers already know whether
they prefer footnotes or endnotes, and you're unlikely to change their mind.
(Incidentally I prefer footnotes, but depending on topic, nature of the
presentation, and author, I may use either chapter endnotes or book endnotes.)
In addition, you might do well to make sure you actually know the topic
on which you comment. One reader sent me an extensive list of uses of the
singular “they” in a manuscript, noting that my copy editor should have caught
such glaring errors. My copy editor was doubtless quite capable of catching
such an “error” except that our company notes on style list the singular “they”
as acceptable. Some style manuals require it. This reader was applying
his high school English, and it showed.
I would not recommend writing book reviews as a means of getting free
books. But if you can find a good way to engage your blog readers in response
to these books, they can provide you with some excellent material. While some
readers may decide not the read the book (and you may have done them a favor!)
others will learn about a new book they might otherwise have missed.