Book Reviews – What Publishers Need to Know

To the publisher there are two kinds of book reviews. The first is called a pre-publication review and is sent out in galley form some three or four months before publication. The recipients are the trade journals (Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, and another half-dozen or so.) The purpose of reviews in these journals is to enable bookstores, distributors, librarians, and others in the book trade to decide which books they need to order.

A galley is the book in rough form, usually without cover or photos and possibly without final editing. In addition to the galley I attach a sheet giving all the detailed information about the book (size, ISBN, etc.) Also, I include in the package a News Release about the book and a letter to the potential reviewer. Some experts advocate sending a complete press kit but I do not find this to be necessary. After all, I’ve gotten a number of pre-publication reviews without adding all that fancy stuff.

The second type of review is the post-publication review. These are reviews written for the potential reader and usually published in a periodical. For a post-publication review a finished copy is sent along with a letter and News Release. I usually send 70 to 80 of these to a carefully selected list of known reviewers of books of my type. The majority of these are to magazines and newspapers.

To the author there are also two types of reviews?good and bad. In reality most reviews contain both positive and negative elements. The positive parts can become blurbs on future printings of the book. Also, they make the author feel good. The negative parts can be a learning tool.

Many authors angrily reject any criticism that appears in a review. In my view, this is shortsighted. True, some of the criticism in reviews is simply way off the mark. It may be obvious that the reviewer has not even read the book. Or it may be that he hasn’t really understood the book. (Whose fault is it if the reader doesn’t GET the book?)

But these total misses are relatively rare. There’s a lot to learn from most critical reviews.

Let’s look at some of the critical reviews I’ve received over the years and what I’ve learned from them. One of the most helpful was an extremely critical review of my book on Patagonia. Among other things the reviewer quoted several awkward sentences that were included in the book,

“The drive through the countryside was different from what we had seen until now.” This was one of the sentences quoted and I was appalled that neither my editor nor I had caught it. I have resolved to be more careful with sentence structure in the future. I think I am a better writer because of this negative review.

An earlier review of my Amazon book had regretted the lack of my describing the meals available on the riverboat. I took this comment to heart and have endeavored, in my subsequent travel books, to pay some attention to describing the food available.

Although I have gotten many more positive reviews than negative ones over the years, it is the negative ones that I have learned from.

Pat Holt, formerly Book Review Editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, now has an e-mail newsletter concerning literary matters. She recently discussed the White Bread Theory. This theory contends that if you were brought up on Wonder Bread you will never like multi-grain or whole wheat bread.

As applied to reading magazines it maintains that people who grow up reading People Magazine will never progress to reading Harpers or Atlantic Monthly. Concerning books, the theory says that if your reading is confined to romances or thrillers you?ll never learn to appreciate more complicated or serious literary fare. Re newspapers, if you are an avid reader of USA Today you will never become a reader of the New York Review of Books.

This theory sounds kind of elitist to me, but it’s interesting to mull over.

Godfrey Harris, Executive Director of International Publishers Alliance, recently gave a speech that, I think, made a number of interesting points. He pointed out that from Gutenberg’s time (1448) until the middle of the 19th century ALL publishing was self-publishing. Authors delivered their handwritten manuscripts to a printer who would design the pages, handset the type, and run the number of copies desired. The author would then pass on the finished copies to his friends, associates, interested publics, and a few to the libraries of the day. Most of the books would be given away; occasionally the author would collect money for the book.

Similarly to the way in which barbers evolved into surgeons so printers became publishers. And their purpose was to make money.

As writers we hope that this is an industry that will make us famous, grant us a huge advance, and prove to our family and friends that what we do is legitimate.

As anyone who has been published by a major house knows, the people who work for these publishers do not walk on water and that while they have a few more connections among reviewers and a lot more money for promotion, they have no magic, and cannot guarantee sales.

Plus, most major publishers today are only a small part of international media corporations. The top book publishing companies in the world today are Bertelsmann AG, Viacom, and News Corporation.

Thus the small publisher can publish what he/she judges needs to be published rather than simply what might (or might not) make money.

Dick Lutz is an author/publisher. Free telephone consultation on book publishing problems is available to all WW members. Please call (503) 364-7698 or e-mail Dick at Visit the DIMI PRESS Web Site at or Dick’s blog (Willamette Publisher) at DIMI PRESS also produces books for self-publishers.