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Trade book reviews: Behind the scenes with a professional reviewer

Authors need the social proof that comes with trade book reviews to get library and bookstore distribution. A professional reviewer explains the process.

Rose Fox is the director of BookLife Reviews, a paid review service just launched by Publishers Weekly, and was previously a senior reviews editor for PW and a freelance book reviewer. When they reached out to me about writing a guest post, I knew all my readers—self-published, traditionally published, and hybrid—could benefit from Rose’s 20 years of experience on all sides of book reviewing.

Trade book reviews: Behind the scenes with a professional reviewer

By Rose Fox

Sending a book out for review can be immensely stressful.

If you’re self-published, you may have chosen the indie route to dodge all the gatekeeping and waiting periods associated with sending manuscripts to editors and agents—only to run into the same feeling when sending books to reviewers!

Traditionally published authors often rely on their publishers to submit their books to the media for reviews known in publishing as trade, media, or literary reviews. Sometimes, though, it’s up to the author to make it happen.

If pursuing trade book reviews feels like dropping copies of your book into a black hole, read on for an explanation of exactly what happens on the other side, including why getting a book reviewed can take a lot longer than you’d think.

trade book reviews

Who decides whether my book gets reviewed?

At a trade publication such as Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, or Library Journal, or a newspaper or magazine such as the New York Times or the Los Angeles Review of Books, your book will first be assessed by an editor who works with your fiction genre or nonfiction category.

These publications get hundreds of books every week, so it may be a little while before yours gets to the top of the stack.

The majority of indie books are turned down at this stage, and many traditionally published books are as well. Editors have limited time and publications have limited page space; books have to be significant or promising in some way to make the cut.

Pro tip: If you’re submitting your own book for review, don’t bother with gimmicks like mailing an editor chocolate or wrapping your book in fancy paper. What review editors care about is professionalism. Your cover art and jacket copy need to be top notch, and the text of your book should be well designed and typo-free.

Most important is a pitch letter or press release that explains why your book is worth covering. A publicist can help you put together a submission package that’s polished and appealing.

If the editor decides to cover your book, they will choose a reviewer with relevant knowledge and expertise and pass the book along to them. Each editor may work with dozens or hundreds of freelance reviewers, each with a particular specialty.

Who will review my book?

You won’t know in advance who the reviewer will be. In fact, you might not ever know. For example, reviews at Publishers Weekly and Kirkus are anonymous. Those at Library Journal, School Library Journal, Booklist, and Foreword are bylined.

Bylines are also the rule at newspapers and magazines, where reviewers often let their personal writing style and opinions shine through.

Several trade publications have paid review services for indie authors, such as PW’s BookLife Reviews and Kirkus’s Kirkus Indie. These are run along the same lines, with similar policies on bylines or anonymity.

Why does getting a review take so long?

The reviewer usually takes two to four weeks to read the book and write a detailed, thoughtful review. Then the review needs to be fact-checked and edited, which might mean some discussion with the reviewer. After that, the copyeditor will do a pass.

If the review is going to run in print, it will be laid out by the art team and proofread.

Depending on the publication’s schedule, the review could be held until a particular date—maybe the newspaper’s book review column only runs once a month, the review is perfect for an upcoming theme or feature, or this week’s issue is full already.

Worth the wait

Taken all together, these factors can lead to you waiting two months or even longer for a review to see the light of day.

Is it worth the uncertainty? Often, the answer is yes!

A positive review from a respected major publication can give your book a huge boost and put it in front of literary agents, film agents, booksellers, and librarians.

Submitting your book to a trade publication is free, and the payoff can be huge, so there’s no reason not to do it.

But I hate waiting!

Paying for a guaranteed review from a reputable service is an alternative. It removes a lot of the uncertainty and waiting from this process.

You don’t need to worry about being rejected, and there’s a guaranteed time frame for receiving your review: BookLife Reviews, BlueInk, and Clarion have turnaround times of four to six weeks, and Kirkus Indie starts at seven to nine weeks.

In some cases, you can pay an additional expediting fee to get your review even sooner.

Paid reviews are similar to standard reviews

Paid reviews work the same way as standard trade publication reviews: An expert reviewer will review your book; a skilled editor will edit the review.

Even if the review isn’t positive, you can learn from the critique. Plus, with BookLifeReviews and most paid professional review options, the review will only be published with your approval. If you’d rather keep it private, only you will see it—you can absorb any lessons from it and move on to making your next book even better.

A glowing review, on the other hand, can give you a fantastic marketing boost.

Your fee buys you the peace of mind of getting a guaranteed review on a set schedule. For many indie authors, it’s well worth the cost.

As with every aspect of marketing your book, submitting for a trade review or purchasing a paid review requires an investment in hopes of a return. Go in knowing what to expect and you won’t be disappointed.

Have you submitted your book for professional reviews, whether paid or not? What was the outcome? Please tell us in a comment.

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34 Comments

  1. I had my debut title, “Solve the Divorce Dilemma: Do You Keep Your Husband or Do You Post Him on Craigslist?” reviewed by Kirkus and the Midwest Book Review because libraries declined to carry it for lack of professional reviews.

    Both reviews were excellent. Here’s Kirkus’

    https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/sonia-frontera/solve-the-divorce-dilemma-do-you-keep-your-husband/

    Some industry insiders, however, believe that paid reviews receive little weight because librarians and bookstores know they are paid.

    I would love to hear your thoughts on this debate!

    Thanks for the enlightening post.

    1. I’m interested in Rose’s response to this Sonia, but I’ll note that librarians know that professional reviews coming from indie review programs with reputations behind them — PW and Kirkus, for example — are honest and pass muster. I’ve heard from plenty of authors who paid for a Kirkus review and were VERY unhappy with the outcome. When that happens, the authors simply don’t share their purchased, professional reviews. The reviewers’ reputations are on the line.

      Sandy

      1. Agreed. I did see a politely-written scathing review on a book on my topic, which proves to me that reviews are honest. Instead of hiding the review, the author chose to argue with the reviewer in the comments section!!!!

        I look forward to hearing Rose’s response as well. Thanks, to you both.

      2. Paying for a book review is like paying someone to make positive comments on a Linked In profile. It’s not merely unprofessional, but more a sign of desperation. Writers and others in the creative arts have to be willing to accept criticism and negative reactions. Not everyone will like our work or appreciate what we’re trying to impart. Living in a world of utopian expectations is delusional and ultimately disheartening.

        1. Alejandro, paying for a review is one thing, paying for an HONEST review is another. (And remember, we aren’t talking about reader reviews here — paid reader reviews are prohibited on Amazon and useless in general.) That’s why — from my perspective — you’d better be pretty sure that you’ve produced an excellent book before paying for an objective and honest review from a professional. One way to get that certainty is to give the manuscript to beta readers who have no vested interest in pleasing you. And, if your self-published book is good enough to secure library distribution, you might need that extra boost from a paid professional review if you haven’t been able to get trade reviews through other means. There’s a solid business reason for buying professional reviews from reputable sources that has nothing to do with ego.

          Yes, when you’re soliciting trade/media/literary reviews through more conventional means from publications that don’t offer a “guaranteed review” option, you have to be willing to accept criticism and negative reactions. I think anyone who knows enough about publishing to even send review copies to the press understand this. If they don’t, they might find out soon enough, eh? Thanks for weighing in!

          Sandy

    2. Hi Sonia, I agree with everything Sandy said! I think going with a reputable service makes a big difference. If an author pays someone to write positive Amazon or Goodreads reviews of a book, obviously that’s pretty sketchy. But if you’re working with a service that has a reputation for honest, thoughtful reviews written by professional reviewers, I think we’re seeing increasing acceptance of that as a legitimate source of educated opinions that librarians and booksellers can rely on.

      BookLife Reviews and other services have a “don’t like it? don’t publish it” setup precisely so we can be fully honest. Of course all our book reviewers are people who LOVE books and want to gush about the books that thrill and delight us. But when a book is flawed, we say so. It would be a disservice to the author and to our readers if all we wrote was unwarranted praise. We know authors are paying us for professional assessments and deserve our best work.

      If you encounter a bookseller or librarian who’s skeptical, encourage them to read the reviews on a service’s website and check whether the reviews are thoughtfully analytical. They may be pleasantly surprised.

      1. Thanks for your insights, Rose. Indie authors, and newbies in particular, are bombarded with tons of information and sometimes it is hard to make enlightened decisions. Working with reputable services is the best defense.

    1. Hi Leah, this is a great question! Every publication has its own submission guidelines. If your book is traditionally published, it’s usually best to send out galleys three months or more before publication so you can get early reviews and use them to guide your launch publicity. When submitting self-published books for trade reviews, guidelines vary.

      If you’re purchasing a paid review, I recommend sending a finished book; you don’t want a review you paid for to say “This is full of typos!” because you sent an uncorrected galley and they were expecting something more polished.

      Many publications accept digital submissions, and it can be a great way to save on postage. Always read the submission guidelines! They’ll tell you exactly what to send and how to send it.

      1. Thank you, Rose.

        I understand the schedule now but I’m a bit confused by another point you made: If it’s being traditionally published, would the author still be responsible for sending out requests for reviews? And what if it is a hybrid situation?

        1. Leah, with a traditional publisher, the publisher *usually* takes care of that (but you always want to ask if you don’t know). With hybrids, it depends on the contract terms. Some provide that service, others don’t.

          Sandy

        2. As Sandy says, it depends! Publishers are expecting authors to do an increasing amount of publicity, and trades do receive review copies directly from authors as well as from freelance publicists or publicity agencies that have been hired by authors. The larger the publisher, the more likely that they will send out review copies. If you’re publishing with a small press, their publicist may be stretched very thin—or they may not even have a publicist! And hybrid companies vary widely. The same is true for submitting books for award consideration, setting up bookstore and school appearances, and so on; some publishers do it, some expect authors to DIY.

          It’s always best to ask your publisher what they’re doing to publicize your book and how you can contribute without getting in their way. You don’t want to mail out 20 copies of your book at your own expense, only to find out that your publisher already did the same. Coordinate your efforts with your publisher’s to give your book the best shot at success.

  2. Bookmarking! I’m drafting a marketing timeline for launching my middle grade book in Oct. 2020. Good reminder to add a long window for reviews. Thanks, Rose and Sandra.

    1. Yes, Cat, make sure you leave enough time for professional reviews. It will help! Thanks for stopping by.

      Sandy

  3. Thank you for this article! My novel “Curse of the Ninth” is on its way for a PW Review consideration! Fingers crossed, someone will love it as much as those who’ve already reviewed it!

  4. Sandra, how many reviews should you do before publication.I have recently sent my manuscript “To Whom it may Concern” to be reviewed before I even think of publishing it. Thank you for your help. Don.

    1. Don, are you referring to professional media reviewers who work for magazines and newspapers (the subject here), or beta reviewers — readers who provide feedback that helps you improve the manuscript? There’s also “blurbs” — testimonials or endorsements — that you solicit from influencers before publication so you can use the testimonials in your marketing.

      Sandy

  5. One last question: What if the book was self-published by the author a few years ago, but didn’t do any marketing except on her own website? Is it acceptable to try to get reviews now?

    1. In most cases, publications prefer to review new or new-ish books, but that’s not necessarily the case with niche bloggers and an evergreen book.

      Sandy

    2. Self-published books tend to get a lot more leeway in that regard, especially ones that were published before trade reviews opened to indie books. I can’t speak for other organizations, but at both PW and BookLife Reviews, self-published books can be submitted regardless of publication date, and it’s not a factor when PW editors choose which indie books to review.

  6. I’m so grateful to Rose Fox for explaining the process. I’m a freelance reviewer for PW and take the work seriously, reviewing on average a book every 10 days. I appreciate the anonymity which allows me to do my job, and the focused niche that I occupy — reading narrowly but steadily lends authority to my evaluations. There are many books I would have bailed on if I were not paid to read, and those teach me as much the ones that earn starred reviews.

    I would hope no author wants a generic review along the lines of “I love it!” because that does a disservice to your book. Reviewers look carefully at the strengths, the unique qualities, and ways that the work could be better. We are specific, mannered, thoughtful and honest. We are never generic.

    I could never do this in real life with writer friends —evaluate with this much frank candor — so the anonymity is key. And to be completely transparent, I don’t care if you’re famous or unknown; good writing, pacing, solid plot and structure, and clarity will always win the day.

    1. Thanks so much for this input, Linda! It’s priceless! I’m sure you’re not paid nearly enough for the time, thought, and effort that goes into your reviews, which tells me you love what you do. Tell us: What brings you the greatest joy when you’re reviewing books?

      Sandy

      1. Spotting the next big book. It’s obvious when you read it. A fantastic tale well told will always stand out amidst the more pedestrian storytelling.

  7. What would be the timing (months before publication/ launch)/ sequence/ format (galley/ print/ digital) for the different types of reviews?

    Professional media reviewers (magazines and newspapers)?
    Beta reviewers?
    Influencer reviewers for “blurbs”/ testimonials/ endorsements?

    1. If by “beta reviewers” you mean early readers of your manuscript, that should happen as soon as you have a finished draft.

      I honestly have no idea about the timing for requesting blurbs if you’re self-published. In traditional publishing, it happens with a manuscript that’s complete but not yet copyedited or laid out, maybe six months before publication.

      For trade reviews, traditionally published books should be sent out in pre-publication galleys at least three months before publication. Self-published books should be sent out as soon as they’re 100% complete and ready to be sold—finalized text, layout, and cover. You can delay publication of your book in anticipation of advance reviews, but it’s not as necessary with self-publishing unless you’re really pushing hard to get your books sold in libraries or bookstores, which are used to putting in pre-publication orders based on catalogs and reviews.

  8. I can say that I have been happy with BookLife. They were very fair in reviewing my book SOCIAL WORK and their Prize contest gave me a usable quote for my previous book THE SEPARATION. Use these services because they will definitely help you as an author.

  9. Not being allowed to see previously done reviews by a reviewer is why I’m not going to open my wallet. But if I were able to see and like a specific reviewer’s previous reviews, that would be a different story.

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