An Unedited Exploration of Editing

I spend so much time writing about the murky areas of book reviewing that readers may well be wondering if I have any idea what I’m doing. Most reviews, in fact, don’t present esoteric conundrums. But like the 10 o’clock news, I’m most interested in the anomalies, the tough choices, the ethical dilemmas, the miracle babies, and the black-light search of the supposedly clean hotel room. For some scenarios I have clear guidelines to follow. For some, I don’t. Sometimes new conundrums arise, and sometimes I take a new approach.

Fortunately, book reviewers aren’t left alone to drown in a sea of galleys and angry e-mails. Fortunately, there are book review editors.

As I’ve said before, though I am an editor, I don’t assign books for review at Booklist. My job is to prepare reviews and features for Booklist Online, to help create Web-only content, and to be the point man for ongoing development and technical issues. And to write this blog. And to demonstrate the product at conferences. And to stand ready with a wrench when a wrench is required.

The vast majority of our content is commissioned or created by the editors of Booklist. They’ve been doing the job for a long time and they’re very good at it. So if a reviewer isn’t sure how to handle something, the editor can often provide an answer based on precedent, knowledge of the industry, or understanding of the audience. (Even if it’s just a guess they’re very good at giving guesses the guise of authority.)

I’ve gone to my editors many times with questions about matters both large (how do I review I book that I hate but that I think has an audience?) and small (how do I style citations of previous works?). Sometimes the editor will fix a problem I didn’t know I had and I won’t even know until I read the finished product in the magazine. I always welcome this, except when the edit makes a travesty of my brilliant argument (in some circles, a lack of subject-verb agreement is considered a sophisticated literary device). Due to the volume of work, we don’t always have time to discuss matters over tea and crumpets. (But on the days that we do, wow!)

There are myriad decisions that must be made correctly to ensure that a review is well-written and useful, and these start before the reviewer even receives the book – with the editor. The editor first decides which books will be considered for review and which won’t (Booklist is a recommended-only journal, which I will explain in a future post). Then the editor decides who will review the book. This second decision, putting the right book in the right hands, is almost as weighty as the first.

Give the right book to the right reviewer and the reader will get an informative, helpful review. Give the book to the wrong reviewer and a delicate balance is upset: somewhere, another species goes extinct. Or, more likely, the review will be off balance. Someone who’s never reviewed a gardening book may focus on the parts of least interest to green thumbs, or worse, be bored by a work that avid horticulturalists would find worthy of a starred review.

Give a fantasy book to someone who reviews literary fiction – especially a book in an ongoing series – and you’re likely to get a hesitant evaluation steeped in puzzlement. Those are pretty obvious scenarios. Splitting things even finer, a reviewer who reviews only mysteries is still not necessarily a candidate for all mysteries. An expert in cozies might close his eyes through the gory parts of a grim police procedural.

The task might be described as finding the reviewer who most closely fits with the book’s intended audience. But that’s easier to say than to do. It’s not always obvious what a book is going to be like (publicists’ blurbs sometimes bear as much relation to a book’s contents as the hype-filled copy on the back of a rental DVD). The pool of available reviewers is not infinite. And, with hundreds of books pouring in the doors every day, these are decisions that can’t be decided over the aforementioned cup of tea.

Brad Hooper is the Adult Books Editor of Booklist. No, he doesn’t work with naughty books – at least, not exclusively – and yes, he’s heard that joke before. (He does like a cup of tea, although I’ve never seen him assigning books while under the influence.)

I asked him yesterday about how he makes sure the right books get into the right hands. With 30-plus years experience in the book-reviewing biz (something you’d never guess to look at him), many of these decisions have become largely intuitive for him. But there is method to what he does.

First of all, “nonfiction is easier,” he says. Nonfiction reviewers are chosen for their expertise in a particular area, whether crafts and hobbies or U.S. history, and their track record with us. Nonfiction reviewers tend to have what the newspapermen call a “beat”. Mark Knoblauch covers cookery, for example, and David Siegfried covers business. The longer they review for us, the more valuable their expertise becomes, because they can compare any new book in their discipline to what’s come before it, letting readers know what’s new, what’s not, and what’s worthwhile.

Fiction is harder for a lot of reasons. First of all, says Brad, quality of prose counts a bit less in both nonfiction books and in the reviews of those books. “A librarian isn’t necessarily reading a gardening review for the beauty of its prose,” he says. “Fiction is a different story. The reviewer has to be able to take it to a different level.”

While there’s undeniably a huge class of narrative nonfiction that relies on sterling prose and supple storytelling (and sometimes, sumptuous and lovely alliteration), a large class of nonfiction books is simply about conveying information. And reviews of those books need to convey the information that they convey. The prose of a fiction review must be able to convey the beauty – or lack thereof – of the book’s prose.

Also, more nonfiction books are cut at the point of selection. It’s a lot harder to tell whether a novel will interest readers without reading it. So a greater percentage of novels tend to get assigned for review, though some of those will be rejected by the reviewer. (How can a reviewer reject a book altogether? Once again, this has to do with Booklist‘s recommended-only policy.) Selecting fiction for review, says Brad, is one of those areas where he must rely more heavily on intuition and experience. He can’t judge a book by its cover – not usually, anyway – but his time in the trenches helps him decide quickly who can judge the book.

New fiction reviewers, if they don’t arrive with a genre specialty, will be tried out on a few “garden-variety novels or short-story collections,” with enough time to reassign the review if necessary. “We would never give a major author to someone who couldn’t hit the ground running,” Brad says.

“But honestly,” he continues. “You can tell right away. If they can’t handle a 175-word review the first time out, that’s it.” Despite the low pay, Brad notes that there’s a lot of competition to write the reviews. A lot of it comes from staff members, who generally get first consideration for more coveted writers.

A reviewer who proves himself with small books and lesser authors will gradually get better assignments – I’ve climbed that ladder myself – though it’s not likely any young upstart will be prying John Updike from Brad’s hands any time soon.

Even if he knows the perfect reviewer for a given book, Brad still has to contend with that reviewer’s workload. If the reviewer already has her hands full, is it worth reprioritizing existing reviews? Or is it better to simply find another reviewer? These decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

And once in awhile, changes are made. Sometimes a reviewer will decide that they prefer not to review an author they’ve done for a long time. Maybe they’re burned out, or maybe they feel they’re no longer the best person to write the review. (If they don’t “get” the appeal, maybe there’s someone who does.) Or maybe Brad feels it’s time to shake up Booklist‘s take on a well-known author.

So maybe he will give me the next Updike.

Yeah, right.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.

5 Comments on "An Unedited Exploration of Editing"

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  1. Donna Seaman says:

    It takes a certain turn of mind, a certain knack, to be able to critique a book in a mere 175 words. Not only must a reviewer write tight, he or she must also read both passionately and discerningly, knowing that there’s so much to say, yet how little you can actually cover in a short review. It is especially difficult to decide what to leave out when reviewing fiction. You need to provide enough description to give an idea of the scope and voice of the novel (short stories provide their own challenges), without getting bogged down in plot summarization. And you need to save a line or two (we do count every word) for evaluation. It’s always a gamble working with new reviewers, and it’s true, you can tell right away if a reviewer can perform this distillation. Then the editor has the intuitive task of ascertaining taste. Does this reviewer have a good eye and ear for comedic writing? A high tolerance for serious, even disturbing themes? I ask reviewers about their interests (animals, sailboats, exploration), take into consideration where they live and what they do, if they have children or not, how acute their social conscience is. Any clues. And the longer an editor works with a reviewer, the more often an editor ends up selecting books that she or she loves to read and think about. Eventually you feel like one those dowser guys who find water in the desert with a divining rod: you hold your hand over a truck of books, it quivers a bit and you think, ah, this is a Carol Haggas book, or a Deborah Donovan book. Assigning books is an art, perhaps, more than a science.

  2. sbeaureg@ala.org' Sue-Ellen Beauregard says:

    As media editor, I have the task of getting the right media into the right hands. Sounds easy, but in addition to subject matter and interest, we are talking format as well. One reviewer can only take cassettes because that’s all he has in his car, another wants only CDs (more common than those who want cassettes), another has trouble with their DVD player and can’t take anymore DVDs until a new player is purchased. Someone else loves mysteries on audiobook but please don’t send any narrated by so and so. Another reviewer is great at evaluating the plot of a novel, but because we are reviewing an audiobook and not the book, I don’t want a critique of the writing. I find it very rare that a first time reviewer hits the ground running and turns in a perfectly tuned review. But if a reviewer is willing to learn, answers my questions in a timely fashion, and is a good judge of quality, I will work with that person to hone their craft.

  3. Ilene Cooper says:

    One might think reviewing a children’s book is easy – after all some picture books have fewer words than a review. But, actually reviewers have to respond both as an adult reader, able to critque both words and often art, and the child for whom the book is intended. When our reviews say “kids will like. . .” we have to be confident in our expertise and personal experiences with children to be able to make that statement. Fortunately, our reviewers have a strong mix of both.
    As the editor who distributes books to our freelance reviewers I try very hard to match the right book with the right person. There’s no point in giving Harry Potter to a fantasy hater. (Though in point of fact everyone’s pretty wild about Harry.)

  4. szvirin@ala.org' Stephanie Zvirin says:

    Procedures used in the Youth Section vary slightly from those used by the Adult Editors. Each member of the Youth in-house staff is responsible for editing the reviews of an assigned group of contributors, but book distribution to those outside contributors is delegated to one editor. As Section Editor, I preselect books, choosing the ones that(in a perfect world with unlimited page space!)we’ll review in the magazine, identifying high-priority titles, and flagging books for spotlight-issue consideration. From these, in-house staff and contract reviewers choose what they would like to review (about 60% of our reviews are written by in-house and contract staff). Then, selecting from the remainder, our Children’s Editor (Ilene Cooper) assigns books to outside contributors, a wonderful group of people who come to us from a variety of of backgrounds and geographic locations. Among them are librairans working in school and public libraries and childrens/YA literature consultants. We keep our outside contributing staff small to increase name recognition among subscribers, something that’s very important to us. Some of our contributors specialize: Jesse Karp, Tina Coleman, and Kat Kan take only graphic novels. Stella Clark concentrates on Spanish/English books. A few reviewers take only picture books; others only want YA titles. Ilene tries very hard to give each reviewer the sort of book he or she feels most comfortable with. which adds to the challenge of matching the right book to the right reviewer.

  5. Keir says:

    Thanks for weighing in, everyone! It’s especially helpful to have the youth and media perspectives.

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