Blood, Fret, then Beer: How I Choose Which Books We Review
I’m afraid to check my inbox this time of year because it’s overwhelmed with queries from publishers and authors seeking to know whether the advance copy of the book they’ve sent me will be reviewed in the upcoming Winter issue of Foreword Reviews.
This crunch time happens every three months. My job is to select 150 new books to be reviewed, so this week you’ll find me sitting on the floor next to stacks of 1,200 or so galleys engaged in the same onerous task performed by every review editor at all the trade review journals.
Anyway, I thought it would be a good time to talk about how I make these decisions. (Full disclosure: I rarely respond to those e-mails. Ninety-nine percent of them arrive before I’ve made final decisions so I have nothing to report.)
Here’s my routine:
I separate the books out by genre, and I begin by leafing quickly through all the titles, looking for glaring reasons to say, “no, this project is not ready for prime time.”
Is the title original? Are there typos and clichés in the back cover copy? Does the author have the credentials to cover the subject? Are the copyright page, TOC, index, and other front and back matter elements professionally presented? Is the project necessary in the sense that the author is bringing something fresh to a perhaps tired topic?
If I find more than a couple black marks, the book is dismissed to the slush pile. The more promising titles make it to the next round.
This is the toughest part for me because a good two-thirds of the titles make it to this next phase, and I have to judge whether the author can write up to trade standards. This can be dicey because readers of certain genres (romance, thriller, fantasy) are accustomed to a different, more florid or adjective-laden style of writing that runs against my predilections. I need to concentrate on the author’s voice and ability to tell a story. Anyway, I always begin with the intro or preface of nonfiction titles and the first sentence of a novel. On average, I’ll read a range of pages over five or ten minutes.
(As an aside to this dry recitation, don’t think for a second that I’m not completely thrilled to be surrounded by so many beautiful books. I love my job. I feel honored to hold this position.)
In Foreword, we cover everything from poetry to photography books, business, LGBT fiction, graphic novels, nature essays, etc.—over sixty genres—so, for example, I can only select four or five memoirs out of the ninety or so that are submitted.
I also strive not to review books from the same publisher from one issue of Foreword to the next, in order to cover as many indie presses as possible. If the University of Florida earned a review in the Fall issue, for example, it’s almost certain they won’t be in the Winter issue. This requires that I constantly refer to a Google doc spreadsheet listing titles by publisher per issue. (Picture me popping up off the floor to peek at my monitor and then back down again.)
All told, start to finish, the selection process takes me forty-plus hours.
We then quickly enter all the to-be-published titles on a private digital dashboard for our team of one hundredish reviewers to put in their requests.
Teeth-pulling, blood-sweating, angst-causing decisions behind me, I climb off the floor and revert back to my favored writer/editor role—though not before a celebratory brown ale. The upcoming Winter issue of the magazine is our university press issue, In anticipation, several dozen university presses have submitted upwards of 250 new titles, of which I have the space to choose a mere ten to include in a Foresight feature article. Arrrggggghhhh!
Matt Sutherland is managing editor at Foreword Reviews.