Assistant Proffie Andy asks questions about book reviews

Howdy, friends!  Sorry to have gone silent for the past few days–last week was the first week back to classes, and then I spent yesterday in bed all day long suffering from “nervous exhaustion.”  (Well, I slept a lot, and tested negative for everything else, so what would you call it?)  Poor Dr. Mister is on call this weekend, so in between his usual clinic hours and hospital duties, he stopped by to check on me every couple of hours.  (House calls sure are handy–they help make up for his busy schedule and inability to go on sabbatical with me. . . almost!)  Fortunately for him, I was a pretty easy patient because I was usually asleep.  I take pride in being a low-maintenance patient.

Anyhoo:  today’s letter from the mailbag comes from a young historian who has questions about book reviews and the role they might play in his budding career:

I am in the middle of my first year as a new assistant professor.  I am writing to ask you a few questions about writing book reviews.  I have read the instructions posted on the leading journals in my field–submit your vita or fill out our form and so forth.  Here are my unanswered questions: 1) Including a careful reading (or two?) of the book, approximately how much time does a book review take you to compose?  2) How many book reviews do most assistant professors complete in a year? 3) What is the process of saying no to a book review, or would this decision shut the door forever with the journal I turn down? 4) To what extent do academic-political considerations factor into your reviews?  That is, is there a risk in writing an especially negative review early in my career–even if the book warrants it?

Ever yours,

Assistant Professor Andy

Dear Andy,

You seem to take book reviews awfully seriously–not that that’s a bad thing.  It’s always good to hear from an Assistant Professor who is thinking about the big picture, and about how everything he writes is part of a strategy for building a national or international reputation.  Book reviews are a very important service to the profession, so you should think about how they will reflect on you as a professional.  I’ll answer your questions in order from the perspective of a fellow historian.  (Commenters from other disciplines should feel free to add on or offer different, discipline-specific advice.)

Let me answer your last question first, about academic or political considerations in writing book reviews.  Since you’re offering an important service to the profession in writing a thoughtful, thorough book review, you should review only the books that are in a subfield in which you hope to establish yourself, and/or books that you must read for your research or teaching anyway, and/or books you really want to read anyway, just because they sound fascinating.  You want to write reviews in fields you know, so there’s no benefit in agreeing to review a book in a field you don’t know.  Saying “yes” is a favor to the book review editor and to the journal, but it’s not that big of a favor that it would secure you a guaranteed “yes” to any article you might send that journal for publication.  (Lots of people review books in a single journal issue, but only 4 or 5 people publish headline articles.)

To answer your third question, how to say “no” to a book review request, it’s quite simple:  just write back speedily but politely to let the book review editor know that you can’t review the book in question because your research interests actually lie more specifically in X subfield rather than Y subfield, and suggest other possible reviewers whose research is more germaine to the book’s subject.  Book review editors are usually doing that job for free, on top of their other teaching, service, and research obligations, so if you say “no” in a timely fashion but give them the names (and e-mail addresses) of others who might be happy to help, they’ll be very grateful.  Saying “no” in this fashion will help you build a reputation as a good colleague, and it will maximize the chances that the book review editor will ask you to review a more appropriate title the next time around.

As to your question about how much time and work a book review should take:  well, that will depend on the book, because all books are not equal when it comes to length, complexity of argument, or richness of primary sources.  Reviewing should take as much time as it takes you to read a book carefully, and then to compose a thoughtful review, which includes 1) an overview of the topic, scope, main arguments, and the sources used in making these arguments, and 2) an attempt to explain its larger significance (if any) and its place in the relevant historiography for the journal in which your review will be published.  For me, this usually takes about two days of reading the book (and making notes about important ideas or issues to raise in the review as they occur to me), and then perhaps half a day to draft the review, and another few hours of revisions after I’ve left the book and review alone to think about other things for a while.  So, this should bear on your consideration of how many books you can review in a year, when you consider that each review will probably take a whole weekend.

My final suggestion is that you err on the side of generosity, especially if you haven’t yet published a book yet.  I wrote one book review when I was a confident young turk that I really regret now, and the process of writing a book has made me much humbler a reviewer.  If you give a careful summary of what the book does, readers can fill in the blanks about the questions it doesn’t answer or the evidence it doesn’t include.  If you have real problems with the conceptualization of the book or the evidence presented, you can state your objections briefly.  Rarely do we read books that answer every question we have on a subject, but then, that’s a mark of good scholarship in my view.  If a book raises more questions than it answers, that means that the book convinced you that the subject is important, even if some of its arguments or conclusions are problematic.  Think about it–which book would you rather write:  a book that stimulates debate and discussion among other historians and is assigned in graduate (or even undergraduate) courses because of the provocative issues it raises, or a book that is so 100% thorough and reliable that it’s briefly praised in book reviews but is forgotten soon after it’s shelved in your library?  

Those are my thoughts–but as always, Andy and I are looking for other ideas from my illustrious and industrious readers!  Especially if you have experience on journals or even specifically with book reviews.  What have I left out that you think is important, or where would you offer a different opinion?

0 thoughts on “Assistant Proffie Andy asks questions about book reviews

  1. It is interesting that book reviews are considered an important aspect of professional publishing in the humanities. This is obviously because books themselves are considered substantial intellectual contributions in the humanities. In the natural sciences, books are not considered relevant intellectual contributions–only peer-reviewed journal manuscripts are–and thus book reviews are also irrelevant.


  2. CPP–your comment makes me think I should make more explicit something that is perhaps too implicit in the comments above: book reviews won’t be a factor at all, let alone a decisive factor one way or the other, in tenure review. That’s why I call them an important *service* to the profession, but for humanities scholars they can be a way of getting one’s name out as an expert in this or that subfield.

    Yes, we still write books–they are in fact the sine qua non for humanities scholars. We appear to be the last ones clinging to books, since the social sciences are all about articles. (Political Scientists still write books, although they tend to be more focused, specific, and they frequently are written by two or three co-authors.)


  3. Comrade: Yesterday I was flipping through a pretty well respected American history journal, and it basically consisted of (and I don’t think I exaggerate) 5 articles and about 10 times as many (50, for fellow humanities folks) book reviews. This, of course, means that there were at least 50 book-length manuscripts published in areas relevant to the journal. In order to best manage your time and stay anything like current in your field, you need to have insight into the contents of these books. It’s a professional must, really.

    I have often wondered about getting onto the editorial board of a journal. I’d like to do the peer-reviewing thing myself, now that I have been elevated to a “peer.” (Heheh. I’m so clever.) Should I approach editors over email or should I get an introduction or bump into them at a conference?

    Lastly, what is the pin-up sitting on? If it didn’t have “x-ray” on it, I would have thought she was making novelty xeroxes of her backside.



  4. I had a substantive comment on this post until I was pushed off my own internet connection by an “update” program that needed the bandwidth. I hate these pushy update protocols. So, only to Bing’s last question: I think she’s sitting on a heavy-duty aluminum or at least metallic examination table. Not certain that would be compatible with x-ray safety practices. Of which, cf. the truly horrifying accounts of radiation errors in hospitals in Sunday’s NY Times. Very scary.

    Hope you’re in a recruiting way, Historiann, as Elizabeth Drinker would have phrased it. I couldn’t rebound from a down day like that to post even a cookie recipe, much less today’s essay!


  5. I don’t recommend taking on more than two book reviews in a year as an assistant professor. If it starts to eat into your own research time, it’s a drag, not a boost!

    Historiann’s right that clear-headed kindness is a good rule to go by. Sure, we’re all entertained by those nasty reviews, but how does that really play out in terms of academic sub-fields later on. If you can’t envision yourself saying this to someone’s face, why would you write it down in a published review? (And, anyway, you’re writing to guide other would-be readers who need to know what are the book’s strengths and weaknesses, not how clever you are.)

    Beside the time involved reading the book, I expect to spend part of a week in writing the review, spread over about a two-week period. Time needed increases if it’s for a journal that I’ve not reviewed before (in which case I’m reading at least five book reviews from their pages before I write my own.) During my read-through, I cover my copy with Post-It notes that highlight elements I want to discuss. Then I’ll write up the first draft at least a week before the due date, giving me time to let it sit and come back to it after four or five days to administer some well-deserved revision.

    Good luck, Andy!


  6. Janice’s advice is golden. Heed this part especially: “If you can’t envision yourself saying this to someone’s face, why would you write it down in a published review?” Because you WILL meet everyone whose book you review, eventually. That’s not to say that you can’t write a critical review–just bear in mind that you will cross paths, no matter how unlikely it seems at the moment. We get criticism for our ideas and our execution on conference panels by panel commenters all the time–but the good commenters are those who also praise the good in our work as well as flag the shaky and/or not-so-good.

    As for Bing’s question regarding editorial boards: I have no idea! I hope some of my readers who are on editorial boards, or who are in editorial positions at journals, will chime in with their advice.

    (BTW, Indyanna is correct about the table: it’s just a stainless steel examining table, like in the olden days. Brrrrrrr!)


  7. Editorial board service, like reviewing itself, is often something that the editor has to extract from friends, acquaintances, or even strangers, with relatively little ability to make it more rewarding than just seeing your name in print. It does usually in fact come with the expectation of being a “go-to” source not just of reviews, but especially of submitted manuscripts. Sometimes this can even be informally expressed in terms of the editor’s estimate of how many times in a year (or other unit of time) ze would expect to request this service. I think there’s some expectation that board members will be at least modestly well-published, but not necessarily extensively, and often there’s an implicit or explicit policy in place about rotating people on and off such boards.


  8. Editorial boards are very strange, but I wouldn’t get carried away with power on them: they may mean work, but not much say (at least from my service on one editorial board over many years).

    And I’d just emphasize that I would not work too hard to get on the book review circuit. Write a few articles, and you’ll get on the list, I promise. They don’t count, and can be a time sink. I’d just echo Janice and Historiann about the time involved, and the tone. I’ve written one really critical review(of a book I didn’t think should have been published)and I haven’t regretted it; but more often I’ve tried to be positively engaged, if ritical; you give the author the respect of treating htem seriously. “This is very interesting and well done, but Jones doesn’t deal with this problem which means that the book doesn’t finally build an argument/come together/ work”. I heard indirectly from an author to whom I’d given such a review that he was greatful for the seriousness with which I’d treated his work.

    And Historiann, sorry for the nervous exhaustion. Keep getting lots of sleep and drinking lots of fluids!


  9. This is a thread that I wish I had read when I was an advanced grad student/young assistant professor. I would second the point about not wanting to write a review that was too harsh. I now try to emphasize what a book does well. One of my assumptions is that readers might be able to “read between the lines” when it comes to books I don’t love; I mean, if my list of things a book does well is short, then they can do the math.

    Another factor that one should take into account is the journal itself. With previous reviews I have tried to match the review to a journal’s readers, somewhat: they will have a different level of knowledge of the historiography and perhaps be interested in different historical questions. (I am currently writing a review essay for an interdisciplinary journal and need to modulate my writing to appeal to lit scholars!)

    I have tried to be very judicious when writing a review for the journal of record in our field. Authors are certainly going to read nearly all of the reviews published of their works, of course (some are published in out of the way places, I suppose). But for “our” journal–everyone will read it. (Maybe even more than for the Journal of American History and American Historical Review.) So it is particularly imperative not to embarrass someone in such a “public” place, so to speak.


  10. John S’s point brings up another thing. In some of the big, profession-wide journals, especailly JAH and AHR, they’re only giving you maybe 750 words to begin with, and they DO policed this. There just isn’t room for nuancing your complex feelings about a book, and in fact, what they really mostly want is a punchy summary that let’s a scanning reader know what the book is about and *where* it fits in, not how *well* it does so.


  11. I sort of disagree with Indyanny here. I think as a reviewer I owe it to the journal’s readers to let them know more than that the book exists. There is a code that is used, I think — even in the AHR’s 750 word framework — to indicate the quality of a book — words like “important” or “valuable” tell people to pay attention, while “worthy” or “useful” can mean “boring” or “read this if this is exactly what you’re interested in, but otherwise…” My role as a reviewer is also different for junior and senior people. I’m much gentler on first books.


  12. Thanks for the clarification, Historiann. It sounds, then, like book reviews in the humanities are similar to literature review articles in the natural sciences. They are nice opportunities to mark your scent on an area, and they do demonstrate that one is an active participant in a particular area of inquiry, but they are given infinitesimal weight by hiring, promotion, and tenure committees.


  13. @PhysioProf–actually we do the equivalent of lit review, too–sometimes in the form of review essays (which count a bit more for tenure), sometimes in the form of full-length historiographical articles. Having known scientists in graduate school, my historian friends and I were always a little horrified at how little often scientists reflected on the past academic developments of their own disciplines. But then again, I guess if they did that, they’d be historians.

    I do have a question for the group, though–I realize that published book reviews have little weight for tenure and promotion–but what about serving as a peer reviewer for journal articles or for book presses? In fact, which weighs more–the fact that one has written a published book review for, say, JAH, or the fact that one has been asked to review full-length articles for them?


  14. Historiann, do you need some therapeutic cookies sent?

    There are book reviews, and then there are book review essays. The Journal of American History or the American Historical Review require short and pithy reviews; these tend to toward the programmatic: thesis, argument, possible problems, new findings, contribution. Book reviewing is the work of the good professional citizen.

    But there are also journals that publish lengthy review essays of one or more works, and if one is interested in introducing one’s voice/perspectives to the profession (including journal and university press editors who are always looking for authors and manuscript reviewers), then this may be a task more useful to a tenure-track type. My first reviews were lengthy essays in two journals in my interdisciplinary field–the first I regret for tone (the typical rookie mistake).

    Having worked in the editorial office of a scholarly journal, served as an interim editor, and having membership currently on two editorial boards, I may be able to shed some light on how board selections are made. No doubt friends are enlisted, although I have no firsthand knowledge of this practice. Some editorial boards have fixed terms; others do not. Some editorial boards mandate that members cannot refuse to read manuscripts sent to them; all board members are told to expect a certain number of manuscripts in their mailboxes.

    Journals published by scholarly societies tend to follow more stringent rules: editors have to be approved, for example, by the society’s officers and executive council. Editors nominate board members, and those members must be approved as well. In my three decades’ experience with scholarly journal editing I’ve found that editors deliberate mightily about who to ask to become a board member. They take into account what sector of the discipline requires representation, what subfields may be emerging, geographical representation, and strive for diversity of the board’s membership. In addition, board members are expected to represent the journal, encourage authors, volunteer to serve as a guest editor for a special issue, and deliberate editorial policy. The scholarly works (and thus reputations) of the names on the masthead add to the journal’s prestige.

    Scholarly journals do keep lists of potential peer and book reviewers, but the opportunity to review manuscripts depends, of course, on just what comes over the proverbial transom. I review about 10-12 manuscripts a year; the broader interdisciplinary field in which I work means that peer review usually consists of a generalist reader and a specialist. More often than not I’m the generalist. But when it comes to my research field, well, there ain’t too many of us, so the opportunities to serve as peer reviewers are few and far between.


  15. Thanks for your further thoughts on all of these questions. And thanks especially for History Maven’s insights into how editorial boards function.

    As to BC’s questions: I’d have to say that neither book reviews nor having reviewed manuscripts really count for much, other than as a kind of proof that you’ve established a national reputation as an expert in such-and-such. They’re perhaps necessary, but not sufficient, for making a case for tenure. So, if you’re in a department that requires a book or X number of articles (or a book AND X number of articles) for tenure, then neither book nor manuscript reviews will compensate for any quantitative research insufficiency. (At least not in what I’ve seen so far in my admittedly limited number of years on a t & p committee.)

    Book and ms. reviews are good to show people that you’re moving forward, making contacts in the field, etc. while you’re on the way to finishing a book in years when you don’t publish an article or book chapter. But, they’re what a former colleague of mine called “salad” (along with encyclopedia articles, for example)–good to show on your C.V. but not quite a main course, if you follow the somewhat tortured metaphor.

    The gold standard remains published peer-reviewed scholarship. Participating in the review process is good for making contacts, reading new scholarship, and keeping you abreast of your field/s–all worthy endeavours–but that and about $3.00 will buy you a whole-milk medium latte at a decent coffee shop. (And, I say this with no joy as someone who reviewed 3 book manuscripts for uni presses in the last year. But at least they pay cash, as opposed to journals, which rely on totally volunteer labor!)


  16. p.s. Susan is right–there are code words you can use that will let people know your emotional temperature about a book. “Important,” “valuable,” “original,” and using the word “striking” or “strikingly” as positive adjectives, are much better than “solid” or “useful.” (Not that the latter adjectives are anything to be ashamed of if they’re applied to one’s own book.)

    But, I will say that because of the space limitations (I think, anyway), most JAH or AHR reviews are pretty flat, straightforward what’s-inside kind of reviews. I thought the one in the JAH for my book was pretty tepid, but then I looked up the reviews of other books I admire to see what the JAH said about them, and by comparison, mine seemed like a total rave! (So, that’s another thing to keep in mind with respect to the “house style” expected or demanded by certain journals.)


  17. RE: WRITING book reviews: I see this as a sort of hybrid of service and scholarship, and I’ve done very few book reviews, primarily bec. with my 4/4 load it makes more sense to spend my time writing conference papers or articles or chapters than to review the work of others, but reviews do get one’s name out there, and if you write a review that others find useful, that does get one’s name out there positively. The only reviews I’ve ever written of others’ works have been by request, either from editors (people I didn’t know) or friends (sometimes friends who are editors, sometimes from friends who wanted their books reviewed). This isn’t something I’d recommend to another asst. prof. as a way to manage his/her career, but it’s what I did, and it was fine, in my context.

    RE: reviewing articles for journals in terms of peer review, I’m on the editorial board of a small journal for a society of which I am a member, and that was pretty much because I volunteered. Otherwise, I’ve been asked to review for journals to which I’ve submitted or to review for other journals that (I imagine) other people have recommended me for. In other words (at least in my experience in English) I think a lot of this is about networking, and that journals choose people to review essays who they know either because they’ve seen them submit (a), because they’ve read their work (b) or because somebody recommended the person to them (c). I don’t think there’s some secret formula: I think a lot of it is just about being out there and available and clearly a productive person in the field who will do the work and on time.

    Re: reviewing, whether for publication or for peer review, I see it as an important part of professional engagement, but I also think that if all one is doing is reviewing the work of others while sacrificing one’s own work, that’s not a good thing. What matters most pre-tenure is one’s own original contribution to the field, and reviewing – whether in published form or in peer-reviewed form – doesn’t really assist in that. Don’t sacrifice your own scholarship to comment on the scholarship of other people.

    But in terms of content of book reviews, I think that what Historiann writes is really excellent advice. I’d only add the following: 1) whatever you think of the book, write what you think people who haven’t actually read the book but might read it need to know about it, i.e., engage with the book itself and not what you had wished the book might have been, because readers of the review don’t care what you wish you would have read, or of what you would rather have read, but rather they care about what they will read if they actually read the book, and 2) understand that people who write books aren’t only writing for a specialized audience, in that publishers (even university presses and commercial academic publishers) assume that a book will reach a wider audience than that of specialists in the field, which means that will be useful in undergrad and grad classrooms, as well as to professionals who are interested in the broader concepts addressed in the book, even if they aren’t invested in the very specific subject of it. In other words, what you might think is just “needless” rehashing of old stuff, given your expertise, might actually be necessary background for people who are either new to specific content area or who position themselves outside the specific content area. While you, as a reviewer, may be familiar with all of the debates in 18th c. nosepicking (cf. Sisyphus), all of the potential readers of this book probably won’t be, and that broader audience is of interest to the publisher. That is why the author gave that overview of the debates, not just to irritate you.


  18. I now have my second book ms. I’ve ever been asked to review sitting on my desk; it’s from the press that published my book. In this case, I mostly accepted because of the care the peer reviewers for that press took on my book. I really just want to give as useful and thorough a review on this author’s ms. as I got on mine. Corny, perhaps, but I think that there is something of a karma element here.

    (I am certainly not doing it for the money. I have no doubt that this press will pay me. But given that I have been waiting for 11 months to be paid for a manuscript review I did for a Really Famous British University Press, it’s not really like you can count on this kind of income.)


  19. Really Famous British University Press pays you to review it’s manuscripts? How do I get that gig?

    And on a related note- the other reason to review books is FREE books. In the UK, where a new monograph will set you back £50 (c.$100), getting those books you *need* to read for free is a huge financial boon (and much quicker than waiting for your library to get a copy). For this reason, if I have nurtured a few friendships with book reviewers in order to have favours to call in when a book I really wanted comes out. This has included reviewing a very ‘worthy’ [read snooze-worthy] book to get a very fab book I wanted to read! So while I agree with the advice not to review books unless you want to read them, the reason why you ‘want’ to read them might not be to do with the book itself.


  20. Pingback: Thanksgiving roundup: greatest hits edition : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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