It’s a question that has baffled many an author—and publicist: what causes a book reviewer to pick a book for review? Rather than speculate, I decided to go straight to the source and called upon Jacqueline Cutler, longtime reviewer for the Star-Ledger in New Jersey.
Jacqueline was kind enough to answer a few questions for me and give us the scoop of the life of a book reviewer:
Maryglenn McCombs: As a book reviewer, what tends to pique your curiosity about a book and make you want to pick it up and/or consider it for review?
Jacqueline Cutler: I pick up every book that comes to me because I work from home. If I did not, I would wind up on an episode of “Hoarders.” I start with criteria for coverage and I do not deviate from those criteria, no matter how compelling a book may be. I will not consider self-published books. Books need to be sold in stores and new. And the author must have a New Jersey connection: reared, educated, lived or worked (past or present).
MC: How important is physical packaging (cover art, design, etc.) to you in the selection process?
JC: Not at all, but it is very obvious with self-published books.
MC: Do you pay attention to reviews in trade journals (such as Publishers Weekly) and, if so, does that ever influence your decision to review a book?
JC: Other people’s opinions do not influence me. I also find it annoying when publicists keep sending me good reviews. I do read the NYT Review of Books and sometimes find titles in there that I want to review, and then track down the publicist.
MC: What is the most common mistake authors (or publicists!) make when pitching you a new book?
JC: Lying to me. Calling or emailing incessantly. I don’t mind a follow-up, and I receive several hundred emails a day (600?), so emails can get lost, but I try to keep on top of them. I cannot respond to all emails.
MC: How do you feel about follow ups? How much is too much?
JC: A follow-up is fine; five is not. Telling me you are circling back or checking up is irritating. If I have responded that I have the book, I do have it. If the book is not self-published, is sold in stores, and the author (or, on occasion, the setting) is New Jersey, I then need to know there is art. I need two, large (not thumbnail) high-res color jpegs. One must be horizontal. I have to define horizontal a few times a week. I have at least a dozen emails from one publicist (after she called me), pushing a book I have not yet fully decided on. I explained the need for a horizontal image. (I wish it were not a deal breaker, but it is that important.) She keeps emailing me. She sent me a horizontal with the author, at a formal event, with two people hugging her. It could not be cropped and if it were, it would be vertical.
MC: What is the one thing you wish authors knew/understood about book reviewers?
JC: I can only speak for myself, no other book reviewers. Once I commit to a book, I read it carefully, from dedication through acknowledgments. I run the gamut; I read about physics and poetry, I read YA and short stories, I read 800-page novels. Basically, fiction, non-fiction. And I do a midweek, online only column. I wish this were all I did, but it is one gig. (I am on assignment for unrelated stories as I write this.) I wish publicists were honest from the get-go. Do not tell me it is not self-published when it is. Ask your author what her or his New Jersey connection is and be prepared to have it authenticated. Have high-res art, for the love of God, please know that horizontal is wider than longer.
New authors ask me fairly often “to just read their work and give constructive criticism.” This defines chutzpah. I am not sure how many hours I spend a week reading books, writing notes and reviews, then editing the reviews. People are basically asking me to give 10, 20 hours of my week. I do volunteer at a food pantry and I also do other volunteer work. I cannot do this and I try to be polite when turning it down but I wish people would not even ask.
Having held a variety of beats over many years as a journalist, I understand that much comes down to editorial choice. When a publicist or an author keeps asking if I am reviewing a book, and then when I pass, demands to know why, it often comes down to editorial decisions. Sometimes those are as simple as I recently reviewed four mysteries and need a change of pace. Or it could be that the book was so awful there was no reason to suffer through it only to tell readers to not bother. It feels kinder in those cases to ignore the book.
I received one pitch telling me to give the book only a positive review and telling me my deadline. That was not reviewed. I realize how cranky I sound and actually I am not, at least about books. I love to read with the fervor of any true book person. I always have, so this is a perfect job for me. When a book is wonderful, my annoyances turn to the rest of life that dares impinge on my reading time. One of my great joys is discovering a new writer and I was thrilled when the book I reviewed in last week’s paper was a debut novel and I know it will make my Top Ten.
I’m so appreciative to Jacqueline for sharing her excellent insights on reviewing books—and for shedding light on the life of a book reviewer.
If you’d like another source for getting your book reviewed, consider City Book Review and their five brands (San Francisco Book Review, Manhattan Book Review, Seattle Book Review, Tulsa Book Review, and Kids’ BookBuzz).
MARYGLENN MCCOMBS, is an independent book publicist who has worked in the book publishing industry for more than twenty years.
A graduate of Vanderbilt University, Maryglenn serves on the board of the Nashville Humane Association.
Maryglenn is a native of South Central Kentucky. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her husband, Tim Warnock, and their Old English Sheepdog, Majordomo Billy Bojangles. A native of South Central Kentucky, Maryglenn currently lives in Nashville with her husband, Tim.