Since I started this blog, I have become a book review editor for Presidential Studies Quarterly. So, this essay on book reviewing is a topic on which I should have some real expertise. Writing book reviews is important, but it is not an activity that is going to fundamentally alter your career.
Do not get me wrong. Book reviewing is something that young scholars should engage in to one degree or another, because it is a form of professional development. Reviews show that you are staying active and engaged with the rest of the profession, and are keeping abreast of new developments. It is also a good way to get some publications under your belt when you are in grad school, or at any time when you are unable to engage in larger research projects. Book reviews are also a nice way to add books to your own collection.
When you are in graduate school any type of publication is a good thing. So, you should be willing to review for any periodical that offers you the chance, and you should be willing to review any title, even if it has little or nothing to do with your main area of specialization. Of course, if you are a historian of colonial America and you get something really outside of your field like a book on late imperial Rome, that might be something you want to consider passing on, but if it is a biography of John Adams and you are writing a dissertation on Scots-Irish immigrants to Massachusetts—close enough! Reviewing in the main publications in your field is nice, but not that crucial. Attending the right conferences and publishing articles and books are far more significant in determining how your career advances.
Now, why are book reviews all that significant? Good reviews are important, because they tell the reader if this book is one that they should consider investing their time and energy in reading, or if it is one they can safely skip.
Publishers regularly use good reviews in their marketing efforts, depending often on a review in a publication as a way to target certain audiences. Reviews have been a major tool for both academic and commercial publishers. The fact that most magazines and newspapers are reducing the number of reviews that they publish is a major issue that is becoming a crisis for publishers specializing in fiction and commercial non-fiction. Book reviewing is holding its own in academic publishing—because of the different economic model in use—but that could easily change in a year or two if library budgets shrink and the circulation and page counts of academic journals contract as well. So, the time to do reviews is now.
Collectively, book reviewers also evaluate the importance a work makes to the field. Remember from 2002-2003 when a number of prominent historians ran afoul of charges that they were plagiarizing and several suffered significant professional setbacks as a result? Well, most of those incidents developed when book reviewers noticed passages that were not attributed to their original authors.
So, how do you end up doing book reviews. Most book review editors are always looking for new reviewers. Some publications have a rule that you cannot review a book until you have had one published, but most academic journals—even major ones—are more than willing to commission reviews from graduate students. When I was in grad school, a buddy of mine, just wrote a letter to the book reviewer of a state history journal and included a copy of his vitae. I have used that approach time and time again even long after leaving grad school.
In fact, as an editor it is easier to get junior scholars to review books than it is get senior types. Most book review editors develop some type of database of reviewers. They try to use a variety of reviewers, but many end up using some individuals repeatedly.
Something that many reviewers fail to keep in mind is that the author of the work under review is another living, breathing individual with feelings. They have invested years of their life in the book, even if it is a bad one, and reviewers often fail to respect that fact. In graduate school, it is easy to write slashing reviews that dismiss authors with unrestrained brutality because it will never be published. That type of review can and does get published. Here is the problem: if the author is still active in the profession, they might end up in a position where they can have some type of impact on your career. Now, if a book is bad, it is bad and your job is to offer your analysis. The tone of the review is a different matter all together. If your review is going to be negative, fine, that serves a purpose, but keep it professional. An honest disagreement over evidence is more than acceptable. Reasonable people can disagree over these matters, but avoid making the matter personal. Make it clear you are assessing only the work under review and nothing else like the author’s competence as a scholar, teacher, or his/her character.