For a previous blog, I wrote about what it was like to be a book review editor for two ecological journals. I am constantly asked questions like: What is the process for writing an academic book review? How does one choose a book to review? Which journal should it be published in? How does one write a book review?
The following three Parts give some answers to these questions. Whilst the reviews I commission and edit have an ecological flavour, the answers below can apply to all academic book reviews.
Because this post is long, I have split it so you can skip sections. Read each Part, or select one to answer your question. Bookmark this blog and come back to it later. Overall, I hope you find what you read useful and/or stimulating for your next book review.
Part 1. Choosing the book.
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- Enjoy reading books?
- Need to improve your writing skills?
- Want to get your name ‘out there’?
- Want to have a quick and easy experience of the journal submission process?
- Enjoy writing a critique piece of writing?
- Is there a book you want, but the price is prohibitive?
If you have answered ‘yes’ to a few or all of the above, then writing a book review is for you.
Book reviews are a short, concise piece of critical writing, which offer an opportunity to have a taste of the journal publishing process. A book review is a chance for you to put your investigative abilities to good use and for you to demonstrate your knowledge of your field. Book authors and book publishers want to see their books reviewed – sales are boosted and profiles increased. There might be a new text you have already bought, read, or would like to buy but perhaps the price is rather steep? Perhaps you should consider writing a book review.
You might already have a book in mind, perhaps one which covers your field. Reviewing a book from your field means you not only gain experience in publication but are ticking the research box also. Books that encompass hot topics are usually high on the list of publishers and editors, even societies. The Ecological Society of Australia has a Hot Topics section that is set to be affiliated with their journal Austral Ecology.
I only advertise books that have been published in the last 2-3 years and are relevant to our journals. I also only procure books from reputable publishing companies (there is the odd exception). Publishers send me hardback and paperback books. Only one publishing company sends E-books only. I am sent hardback or paperback books from all other publishing houses – I do not choose hardback/paperback. Whilst at the moment E-books appear to not be a preferred option by reviewers, I think in the future will see both print and electronic books equally on offer from publishers.
I am often asked ‘Is it okay to choose a book that is unrelated to my field?’
While it sounds adventurous, I don’t encourage it. Of course you might have a background in marine biology and want to review a book on road ecology and have excellent background and practiced knowledge to write a review – of course I am not going to say ‘No’.
Maybe your aim is simply to write for your own pleasure and you can spare the time, then by all means write out of your field. However, there are two things you should know.
- Book reviews do not add to your publications record in the way a peer reviewed article does.
- Offering to review a book out of your field may put you into direct comparison with a reviewer who is a leader in the field and you may/may not wish for this comparison.
There are many benefits to reviewing a book in your field such as utilising and showcasing your background knowledge, increasing your profile, and beneficial writing and publication process experience.
Don’t review a book that you think may be a conflict of interest e.g. your spouse, supervisor, colleague, or any former associate. For every person that offers a review or to review a book I do a check to investigate background knowledge and potential conflicts; it is a requirement for publication submission to declare conflicts.
Finally, when offering to review, consider including a link to your website or a publications list – it shows professionalism and wins points from me for pro-activity and saves my background check time! I keep searches confidential and only use what is in the public domain: Scopus, Web of Science, business websites, ResearchGate, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, business numbers, Google and Google Scholar, and fellow editors. You might be astounded at how much information can be found from just a ‘name’ search in Google. Why not give it a try? One prospective reviewer did and enjoyed reading ‘his’ obituary!
Part 2. Selecting the journal.
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Most journals, such as the ones I am book review editor for (Austral Ecology and Ecological Management and Restoration) have a book review section. You may already be well versed with a book review section in a journal of your choice; reading a few book reviews in journals is a good place to become familiar with what types of books are relevant/selected for that journal.
The book reviews published in the ESA journals reflect the papers published in those journals: Austral Ecology… “publishes original papers describing experimental, observational or theoretical studies on terrestrial, marine or freshwater systems, which are considered without taxonomic bias”;
Most journal book review editors operate in a similar way. I am routinely sent books from publishers; I also contact and request titles of interest. I advertise to ESA members a list of books I have available for review (i.e. you get to keep the book I send if your review is successfully published), or people contact me saying they have read and would like to write (or have written) a review of a book and ask for ESA’s journals to publish it. I also directly contact people and commission a review for particular books.
If you get a free book make sure you write the review, or politely send the book back if you can’t. I’d much rather someone say they can’t review a book and return it with no reason than not contact me at all and keep the book. I don’t send people another book if they haven’t delivered a review on a free book.
If you already have the book it’s a good idea to contact a book review editor and ask if you can write a review of a book before you launch into sending them your review. It would be disappointing to go to all that effort only to find your selected journal has already a review in prep. Rarely is more than one review of the same book published in the same journal. However, don’t despair. Find another journal or as the book review editor if they have any contacts. I personally would hate to see a good book review go to waste and would be happy to assist if I felt I could.
Part 3. Writing the review.
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(Appeared in “Reader’s Digest” in October 1967. Quote Investigator)
People have different methods for reading then writing a review. The best method I find is to read the book and as you are reading jot down points of interest from the book so you can go back to these later and choose whether to include or exclude the points.
Start reading from the beginning.
Yes, I know this might sound obvious! But some books are best read from front to back and others lend themselves to being picked up and chapters skipped e.g. case studies. You may not need to start reading at the beginning but if you want to tell the reader that the book is a ‘chapter skip’ then you cannot give this advice unless you have started from the beginning.
As you are reading keep some questions in mind. Does the title fit the book? Are subheadings appropriate and/or informative? Do chapters flow in a logical order? What is the main argument of the book? Does the book meet its aims (and are they presented)? Given your expertise in the books’ field, does the book add anything more to your discipline? Is the book written/edited well? Have figures/tables/boxes/summary paragraphs been used well? What audience is the book directed at? Who would benefit from reading the book? (This may be different from the targeted audience) What most/least captured your interest in the book?
I try to avoid using the computer until the actual writing stage, otherwise I find myself writing too much text from the book or editing what I have written – an editor’s curse! Some books can be large e.g. 1000 + pages with numerous contributors. In this case I don’t expect a review to report on the whole book and reading some of it is fine. Report on if the book is best read from front to back or still readable if chapters are skipped e.g. case studies. A reader would want to know this. Some books which are not intended to be read from the beginning require excellent editing. I suggest avoiding reporting on typos unless they severely distract from the text. Typos can be directed to the publisher. However, if you feel something is missing from the review, suggest it with a positive slant e.g. encourage the authors to consider inclusion in the next edition.
Book reviews for Austral Ecology and Ecological Management and Restoration are between 600 and 1000 words in length. I also ask for a review to be written within 8 weeks of receiving the book. This gives time to read the book, undertake any necessary research, write a plan and write the review. I send follow up emails to reviewers if they haven’t delivered their review. This ‘chasing’ can be quite time consuming, especially when on average I have 30 books being reviewed! I suggest leaving one week to write the review but don’t spend too much more than this on it because you will find yourself going over parts you have written too often or adding more when you don’t need to. Keep it simple. The structure of the review can be gleaned from reading previous reviews. Below is an idea what a general structure might be, with some suggestions of what to include or avoid:
- Include: Title and bibliographic information (reviewer name, institutional affiliation, full postal address, phone, fax and email details. Complete book title, author, publisher and place of publication, publication date, ISBN number, number of pages [including those before page 1], recommended retail price in Australian dollars [or other currencies, if unavailable].
I give reviewers this list of specific information but as an editor I go over it to make sure it is precise. If they forget, I don’t press the issue.
- Include an introductory paragraph. This helps set the scene. For example, the book might be about invasive species ecology so you could set the state of play regarding an aspect of invasive species. Some research into the author’s background is useful and inclusion into the introductory paragraph works well in providing context.
- A few paragraphs summarising the book are a good idea. Include the aim(s) of the book and whether or not the aim(s) are achieved. Try not to summarise all the chapters – a reader can simply go to the table of contents online to glean that information and I do to when I edit a review. Many reviewers fall into a trap of stating ‘Chapter 1 looked at …….Chapter 2 reviewed ….Invasive species in the subantarctic was covered in Chapter 4….” etc. Instead try to highlight some aspects of each chapter that interested you. You don’t need to go into elaborate detail of what each chapter covered – a concise summary of the chapter’s main point’s works well (this is where taking notes in point form as you read really helps). Making a judgement works well in a book review
- Do highlight the books positives and negatives, its strengths and weaknesses. The trick here is to ensure the review focuses on the books content, its main argument (or your argument about the book) and don’t wander. The review is about the book and what it aimed to do, not only what you would have preferred it to cover. Likewise a book review is not a place to complain the author didn’t include specific references, or your own publications. Readers are not appreciative of you ‘blowing your own trumpet’! Remember, it’s not about you, it’s about the book. If the reference list is wanting, state this in a suggestive tone but as for all the commentary around negative aspects, don’t harp on it.
Where negatives/weaknesses about the book are addressed in the review I encourage doing this in a constructive light. If there is something glaringly omitted from the review by all means state it but, once again, keep the reference brief. State the issue and perhaps highlight where a future edition could rectify the omission or include more information. I also don’t encourage the use of quotes from a book. Short quotes don’t necessarily require publisher approval, but it is polite to obtain it and so as an editor I do seek permission. Long quotes do require publisher approval and, where appropriate, I instead ask the reviewer to paraphrase.
Overall when it comes to editing a book review my focus is on: relevance to the journal; relevance to our readership; grammar; typographical corrections; whether the book review addresses the books main argument/content; structure of the review; tone and constructive criticism.
Your focus as the reviewer should be on: reading the book; critically reviewing its aims; argument and content; concisely writing a review.
And this last point is important. In the end the main point of writing a book review is to do it concisely, both in word-length and read-review-return time. Allowing a book review to drag on too long is unfair to the book review editor, the books author, the publisher, and most importantly, you.
I am indebted to Ian Lunt and the Ecological Society of Australia for having faith and granting me the opportunity to be the ESA’s Book Review Editor. Without their support, guidance and mentoring I wouldn’t have been able to write this piece or achieve what I have in this position. My hope is this blog will answer the questions and provide as a future reference for many book reviewers.