The Beginner’s Guide to the Professional Book Review

Editor’s Note: In need of inspiration? You are in luck! Hack Library School plans to bring back reviews to the blog – on books, technology, and other resources in the LIS field – and will even consider guest reviews! You can check out previous books reviews on the blog here.

By now you’ve probably noticed that here at Hack Library School we are really big on a little thing called professional involvement. Just recently, we’ve covered professional organizations, conferences, committee work, and more. It’s an excellent way to develop important skills, learn about issues and conversations in the field, meet people, and demonstrate to prospective employers that you’re proactive and engaged. Book reviews are one important (and fun) avenue of professional involvement that many students aren’t aware of. HLS alumna Annie Pho first suggested book reviewing to me, and I’m so glad she did. Now that I have a few reviews under my belt, I’m here to pass it on!

From the author's Instagram, (c) Anna-Sophia Zingarelli-Sweet

Prepare to drink a fair amount of coffee. From the author’s Instagram, (c) Anna-Sophia Zingarelli-Sweet.

Book reviewing is a volunteer opportunity offered by numerous publications and professional organizations in library and information science fields. Reviews are often assigned based on specialized expertise, so if you have another graduate degree or a lot of prior experience, they can be an especially good fit. Your book reviews will become a public part of your professional persona, so think carefully about what kinds of venues are a good match. Don’t just apply to every available publication! If you are already involved in a professional organization, start there. For example, the Art Libraries Society of North America is an organization that closely matches my background and personal goals, so that’s where I started. Or take a look at the list of periodicals published by ALA.

Next, find out how they identify potential reviewers. Occasionally reviews are by invitation only, but the majority of review publications accept applications and inquiries. Some, such as Library Journal, will have a reviewer application online. You can submit a bit of information about your qualifications and interests, and they may add you to a reviewer pool. They will then notify you when a book becomes available for review. Others, especially professional organizations, will curate a list of books and put out an open call for volunteers to review those specific books. These calls are often distributed through the organization list serv or on their website. You can then email the editors to express interest in an available title.

Once you’ve thrown your hat in the ring, you may have to wait a while before being selected. Be patient, don’t bug the editors, and most importantly, don’t get discouraged! You will get to review something eventually, and that will give you the opportunity to prove yourself so that you’re a better candidate next time. Some publications, such as ArLiS/NA Reviews, have a short-list system where volunteers who are not initially selected are given first dibs on the next list of books. This has happened to me twice, and I received a title to review after being short-listed both times.

So you’ve received a book to review. Great! Now what?

Along with a copy of the book, you’ll receive a publication agreement that establishes copyright and licensing terms, plus guidelines such as the submission deadline, word count, the expected content of the review, and formatting requirements. Be sure to pay close attention and adhere to these expectations! First and foremost, respect that deadline. Remember that the review editor is probably a volunteer too, and don’t make their job harder than it needs to be. This is an opportunity to demonstrate your reliability, professionalism, and collegiality.

Read carefully and take notes along the way. What is the author doing particularly well? Are there gaps or inconsistencies? Are their arguments credible? What is the author’s background? How does the work engage with other literature on the topic? How does it feel to read the book? Is it durable and of high quality? What kind of audience is it suitable for? These are the types of things you’ll want to pay attention to. Don’t get too bogged down, though! On my first review, I took extensive notes as if I were writing a dissertation on the book’s subject. I don’t recommend this approach – you may lose sight of the big picture, have a hard time giving a concise assessment, and run out of time…

Don't let your enthusiasm for the topic and your mad note-taking skills get the better of you! From the author's Instagram, (c) Anna-Sophia Zingarelli-Sweet.

Don’t let your enthusiasm for the topic and your mad note-taking skills get the better of you! From the author’s Instagram, (c) Anna-Sophia Zingarelli-Sweet.

Before submitting, proofread the review thoroughly and check it against the guidelines one more time. Imagine that you are a librarian making collection development decisions; would this review help you decide whether to buy the book for your library? If so, you’re ready to hit send. The editor may contact you if further revisions are needed, but you can be confident that you’ve written a good review.

Do you have any experience writing book reviews? Leave your tips in the comments!

Categories: Professional Life

9 replies

  1. I am a book reviewing junkie! The Library Journal is a great place to start if you’re just beginning! It also helps to have a blog with personal book reviews so publishers can get a feel for your writing style.

    It may not pay well (or at all really) but there is nothing more satisfying then seeing your name in print and getting free books. I’ve been reviewing audiobooks now for about two years and it’s been a blast. Before I never listened to audiobooks and was picky with what I read, so reviewing audiobooks has really expanded my reading (and listening) horizons. There is no incentive like a deadline to get you to read outside your box!

    Also (bonus!), reviewing adds that extra nugget of gold to your resume. Did I mention the free books 🙂


  2. Great points, Erin – writing book reviews on your blog is a tried-and-true way to practice and build up a portfolio of writing samples. And there are plenty of opportunities to review things other than traditional print books. ArLiS/NA just started offering Multimedia and Technology Reviews, for example.


  3. Howdy!

    I’ve found book reviews to be rewarding and interesting – glad you are highligting them for LIS students. I’ve found that the requirements for each journal are fairly clearly stated typically. Of course, there are exceptions, like the NYRB, and a recent majesterial review I saw by Jeannie Whayne in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly.

    Taking general notes is indeed helpful – about the thesis of the work, and the things that either strengthen or weaken the argument/thesis. Also, think about the targeted audience vis a vis references, a bibliography, index, and illustrations.

    Lovely essay!


    • Thanks, Jason! I’ll have to check out AHQ – I would love to eventually become a magisterial book reviewer rather than a merely competent one! Thanks also for putting it so clearly here: “the thesis of the work, and the things that either strengthen or weaken the argument/thesis” is really the crux of the matter.


  4. Reblogged this on Emma's History Blog and commented:
    This is the last reblog, for a while, anyway, I promise. I’m not too lazy to write something original, this post is just really good! Time to start really brushing up on my book review skills because this sounds like fun.


  5. How do you get past the terror of “What if I’m wrong?” That’s where I get nervous about publishing — I’m afraid I’m going to be the one moron who didn’t see the glaring issue, or who thought she saw one that didn’t actually exist, etc.


    • That’s a great question, and honestly, it’s always in the back of my mind! My library makes it easy to search book reviews in ejournals, so sometimes I read other reviews after I’ve written, but before I’ve submitted, my own.

      Public writing is hard and it isn’t for everyone. But ultimately, like anything, you have to do your best and just put your work out there; you can’t let fear paralyze you. If someone does criticize you (which I think is pretty rare), just feel confident that you can acknowledge the criticism and either change or defend your position. It gets easier with practice, which is why the suggestion above about starting out on a blog is a great one!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s