In another article, we presented academics new to publishing with some suggestions regarding how to begin their publication record in the humanities. Here, we will devote more attention to the book review since it is relatively easy to accomplish and an established form of academic publishing that can be added to the publications section of your CV.
Book reviews serve a very important function in the world of scholarly communication. They allow researchers and publishers to publicize their books; they allow journals, societies, and associations in very small subfields to circulate new research among their peers within the larger discipline; and last but not least, they are a way for readers to find out whether they would like to read a particular book.
If you are ready to take the plunge, here is a step-by-step guide to navigating this process:
1. Identify a journal in your area of study that publishes book reviews
If you are a graduate student, this is also a good opportunity for you to begin narrowing your area of study and getting familiar with journals that publish work in that area. If you don't know where to start, search for keywords or authors who interest you in a database and see where this work is getting published.
2. Reach out to the reviews editor
Typically, established researchers will be contacted to review a specific book, but it is perfectly acceptable for you to contact the journal. Most journals have a reviews editor whom you may contact to ask about books he or she would like reviewed. Remember to keep your e-mail to the reviews editor short and to the point, letting him or her know a little bit about yourself as a researcher. Here is a model template you can use if you do not have a particular book in mind:
My name is _____, and I'm a ___-year PhD student in [area of study] at [name of university]. My area of research focuses on [1 or 2 sentences about your research].
I would love to have the opportunity to write a book review for [name of journal] if there are any books in my area that you would like reviewed.
Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you.
[your contact information]
Before you contact the journal, however, make sure to see whether they have a Books Received section -- a lot of journals do. If you are interested in one of these books, make sure to ask whether anyone has already claimed that particular book.
If you have a specific book (usually published within the last two years) that you think will be a good fit for the journal and its audience, feel free to suggest it. Indeed, it's a good idea to be somewhat strategic in your book selection. Pick a book in an area you would like to begin developing expertise in, one that will help you with your qualifying exams, or one that will help you research and write a paper you already have in the works. If the journal is not interested in your idea, let them know that you'd also be open to reviewing one of their received books.
Note that there is no harm in emailing the reviews editor to express your interest in reviewing for the journal; failure to come to an agreement about a particular book will not damage your chances of publishing an article or book review in that journal in the future.
3. Look at other reviews while you are waiting for your book
If you come to an agreement on a book, congratulations! The journal will be sending you a copy of that book in the mail. In the meantime, look at other reviews published by the journal, as they will give you insight into what kind of balance they are looking for in terms of review vs. critique.
4. Read the book and write the review
There isn't a formula for writing a good review. Good book reviews will give a sense of the structure and main ideas of the book while also offering a critique of the ideas. You also don't want to champion or knock down every single idea and argument offered by the author, but rather, you should offer a sense of why it is important to engage with the book. Otherwise, there is no point in bringing attention to it and participating in the conversation. Again, looking over reviews in back issues of the journal is important, as it will give you a sense of what your journal expects of its book reviewers.
You will most likely also be receiving formatting guidelines at some point, either with your book or by email. Make sure to stick with them (the most important is to not go over the word limit) and with the due date, especially if you'd like to contribute another review in the future.
After submitting your review, you will enter a period of waiting. As you may be aware, the publishing world in the humanities operates within time frames all of its own. It could be up to 6 months or more before you even get your essay proofs. Publishers' proofs usually arrive by mail, together with copyright consent forms.
Writing a book review is a great opportunity for graduate students and new academics just starting out to begin to think about their interests and audience. It requires focusing on an area in your discipline and communicating with its audience. In other words, you can begin to participate in a particular research community. Writing a book review is also an excellent introduction to the academic publishing process, as you get first-hand experience communicating with journal editors, working within certain journal guidelines, and working with proofs. AJE wishes you the best of luck!