Why Write a Book Review?

Some thoughts on improving your publication record.

In about October last year (2021), I was discussing my dismal employment situation with an older colleague and friend. I explained that I knew I was being passed over for opportunities because my publication record was very poor – I had one paper published, and two stuck in an interminable review process at the time. I needed to beef up that section of my CV, pronto.

My friend said, “Have you considered doing a book review?”

I explained I had thought about it but didn’t know how to start the process. I was then given some very helpful instructions which I shall reproduce for you below:

  1. Make a list of the key journals in your target field and check if a) they publish book reviews and b) if they have a dedicated book review editor you can contact. This information should be on the journal’s web-page, possibly in the section on the Editorial Board.
    • This step narrowed my list down from 20 journals to 3.
  2. Contact the book review editors, explaining that you are considering doing a book review and asking whether you might be considered for their journal. Include your field and areas of expertise.
    • This resulted in two responses – both asked for examples of my writing and suggestions for books I wanted to review.
  3. Collate a list of books you wouldn’t mind reviewing.*
    • I had NO IDEA of how to go about this so I asked Another Very Clever Friend who directed me to https://newbooksnetwork.com where you can search by category for recently and soon-to-be published books in your chosen field. I was able to very quickly put together a list of about 20 books I wanted to read.
    • *Maybe do this before contacting the editors.
  4. The editors will mull over your list and get back to you if there’s something they think will be of interest to the readers of their journal.
    • At this stage, one editor said “Thanks, but no thanks” and the other said “This book looks good – PDF or hard copy?” – so, that worked out perfectly.
  5. Then, a deadline is decided between you and the editor (mine was 2 months) and they will sort out getting you a copy of the book. Mine also sent me the journal guidelines on book reviews and even offered to give first round of comments before I sent it through the publisher’s submission system to speed up the process. Top Notch Book-Editorship, 10/10.

Nota bene: I assumed that journals who wanted book reviews would have a list on their site of books they wanted reviews for. This is not the case – you basically pitch a list of options, and the editor might pick one. Also, I was advised that book review editors are generally desperate for people to do reviews, so your chances of being taken up on your offer are relatively high.

Then, I set about doing the book review, aided as ever by my writing Guru, Prof Wendy Belcher: https://wendybelcher.com/writing-advice/how-to-write-book-review/

This is a bonafide picture of Wendy Belcher sprinkling Good Writing Practice upon all aspiring academics.

I’ve just sent my first draft to the editor, and now have the bandwidth to consider this experience.

One consideration is a discussion I had with another, totally different, older-colleague-and-friend somewhere in the middle of this process, when I had arranged the review and was awaiting my hard copy in the mail. “I’m doing a book review!” I said excitedly. “Why?” she asked. “I just think there are better uses of your time.” That certainly brought me down to earth with a bump. I explained that I had been advised this was a good way to quickly get an extra publication on your CV. She disagreed, saying I had been given bad advice. I could sort of see her point – to a degree. I was planning to spend time on a writing project that may not ultimately benefit my career and could be ‘off-topic’. But, being now on the other side of the review, I can say it was definitely worth it.

For starters, the book was really interesting. I reviewed Hydrohumanities: Water Discourse and Environmental Futures, edited by De Wolff, Faletti, and López-Calvo, University of California Press, 2022. The topic was fascinating, but what I really enjoyed was how each chapter showcased a different humanities discipline and research approach and how they can bring value and fresh insight to bear on issues that are typically reserved for more social scientific or even STEM disciplines. There are chapters I want to read again. I also found aspects which intersect directly with my own work more specifically (Bonus!).

Secondly, how often do you sit down and read a whole book? As an exercise, I found it very helpful having the deadline pressure (albeit very slight, see next point) to concentrate my reading and to really focus. I’m considering doing maybe one book review a year, it was such a good experience.

Thirdly, it didn’t take very long at all. Probably two weeks, in total. The two-month deadline was just to allow me to fit it around my other projects – which actually included moving house and prepping for a job interview. Realistically, I read maybe one or two chapters in a day, taking notes and so on, and the writing (first draft) took two days. Given that I’ll likely get a publication at out of this, I really don’t feel like this has been a waste of time at all.

Fourthly, considering time-spent and the overall length of the process, this is a bargain considering the timescales we’re all used to in academic publishing. The paper I recently had published took about 14 months, easily 12 of which were spent sending it round and round the review system. In comparison, two weeks of work and maybe a month later I have a publication? Absolute BARGAIN.

Thank you for attending my TED talk on why you should think about writing a book review.

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