Most book critics have a pretty thankless job. If they give a bad review, they’re often accused of sour grapes (“If they could write, then they wouldn’t be reviewers”) and when their write-ups help a book to take off, they almost never get the credit (“the author’s talent sold the book, not the review”). Yet literary criticism is an essential driver in the book-world — now more than ever in our age of online purchases and algorithmic curation. Which means there’s no time like the present to learn how to become a book reviewer.
In this post, we’ll look at the value of book criticism and show you how to become a book reviewer with our 12-step plan.
Why is book criticism important?
By conservative estimates, over 600,000 books are published each year in the US alone. Even the most voracious reader could only read a tiny fraction of those titles. Without literary criticism, the only thing to determine which books receive exposure would be the marketing teams of Big 5 publishers who would — dollars to donuts — always choose the titles they think will sell the most copies.
In the film Ratatouille, the fearsome food critic Anton Ego has something of an epiphany in the final reel: “There are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.” In many ways, that is the reason why literary journals, newspaper book reviews, online review blogs, and Amazon user reviews exist: all of these play an important role in championing new authors and new ideas.
As we’ll discover in the next section, the book critic’s job is not just to serve as an arbiter of taste, lording their influence over authors. When they’re doing their job right, they’re serving as a shepherd, not just for readers but for writers as well.
Why would you want to become a book reviewer?
Before we get into the topic of what a critic personally gets out of reviewing books, let’s expand a bit on the role they play.
First (and arguably foremost), a critic’s job is to guide readers. They need to present a book to the reader in a way that gives a flavor of what it’s like: they might choose direct quotes, isolate individual sections — whatever it takes to help the reader to form their own impression of the title.
The reviewer should also be well-read, so they can not only provide a personal reaction to the book, but justify that opinion as well. In an age of online ‘reaction videos’ where novices offer their knee-jerk opinions of music, films, and books they’re not familiar with, the critic should ideally provide a more rounded, informed account. They should be able to put a book into context, comparing and contrasting the author’s approach based on what works have come before it. Some may see this as an elitist approach, but surely we read reviews because we’re interested in what the critic knows — not what they don’t know.
Book reviewers also have an influential platform. Whether they’re writing product reviews for an online retailer or penning 1,200 words for The New York Times, they can use their soapbox to shine a light on new authors. If we want to get lofty about it, you could say that it’s a critic’s responsibility to seek out and champion new talent: give them exposure that they wouldn’t get if we were to leave it to the marketing team at HarperCollins, for example.
And what if you’re just starting off? What’s the immediate benefit of becoming a book reviewer if you don’t yet have a strong readership or a byline at a national newspaper? Well, there’s always the perk of getting to read books before they’re published... and for free! In time, a novice reviewer can build up their profile, increase their readership, and — if they choose to — work their way toward becoming a top-level critic.
In this next section, we’ll show you how you can get involved in the world of literary criticism and become a book reviewer.
How to become a book reviewer in 12 steps
If you're looking to become a professional book reviewer and reach a growing audience, you could do a lot worse than to follow these twelve steps.
Step 1: Read abundantly
If you don’t already read like a maniac, then one might wonder why you’d want to become a book reviewer in the first place. Reading certainly won’t get any more enjoyable when you’re faced with a deadline. Plus, as we mentioned before, one of the best things you can bring to the table as a reviewer is your understanding of the history and landscape of the genre. When you’re reviewing a new horror book set in small-town New England, you should be, at the very least, well-versed in Stephen King books.
While you're at it, read other book reviews as well. You might as well learn from the best!
Step 2: Start reviewing books for free (or for money!)
Guess what? You can become a book reviewer today! You just need to log into your account at an online book retailer and drop a review of a book you’ve enjoyed.
Okay, this article’s done now. Turns out, we only needed two steps. Roll credits.
All joking aside, reviewing books on retail sites is not a bad place to start. It gives you an opportunity to exercise your reviewing muscles and have your write-ups seen and enjoyed by folks browsing for their next big read. You can get feedback on your review (“20 people found this helpful”) and even contribute to the success of a book you like.
Once you feel confident in your skills (and are ready to take the next step), you can look at some of the online platforms which are always on the lookout for reviewers.
One of the most difficult parts of being a first-time author (especially a self-publishing one) is getting editorial reviews in time for the release of their book. If you look at the product description of a book’s Amazon page, you’ll often see that they include an extract from a review. If it’s a prominent release, the review may be from a national broadsheet; if it’s a smaller release, it may be from a smaller online reviewer. A few services specialize in providing authors with paid editorial reviews, which naturally requires reviewers. Some of the services will even pay them for their reviews (with some significant strings attached).
So which review platforms should you consider?
Some of the best-known review services include Kirkus, The U.S. Review of Books, Online Book Club, and Publisher’s Weekly — all of which offer a small honorarium in exchange for reviews. The review copies of the book are free (ideal!) but almost all of these services will give the reviewer no exposure (not ideal — especially if you’re looking to build your own profile as a reviewer).
The team here at Reedsy recently launched Reedsy Discovery as an alternative to these services. The reviewers on the platform have to submit examples of their writing for quality control, but once accepted, they can access and review a massive pool of upcoming indie books from their chosen genre.
The edge that Discovery offers reviewers is visibility. Each reviewer has a bespoke landing page where all their reviews can be found, along with a bio, headshot, and newsfeed. Readers who like what any given reviewer has written can choose to “follow” them and receive alerts about new reviews. Overall, Reedsy Discovery aims to give critics a platform (and the social networking tools) to build their personal profile and readership, two things that will come in handy as your reviewing career progresses.
To register as a reviewer on Reedsy Discovery, click here.
Between these options, you should have a few places where you can start writing reviews almost immediately! But before you take a step into the big leagues, let’s cover some best practices.
Step 3. Always follow guidelines
Following guidelines is a good reviewing habit to develop early on — it will save you from a lot of rejection and rewrites. Sites like Kirkus are notorious for requiring an exact format for each review, while Reedsy Discovery and a few of the other sites allow a bit more freedom.
As you start to work with editorial staff, this ability to stick to guidelines will help you with your reputation as someone whose reviews don’t require an immense amount of feedback and editing — something that time-strapped editors appreciate.
Step 4. Always think of the reader first
It feels good to write a bad review. Eviscerating a terrible book can really get your blood pumping — but it’s also something you should try to avoid wherever possible. As a reviewer, your job is not to punish an author for making you read a book you really didn’t like. Instead, focus on the reader. What will they find interesting about this book — even if it’s not exactly a literary masterpiece?
In your life as a reviewer, you will almost always have a choice of which books to write about. So if a book has been utterly terrible, you can always choose not to write about it at all. Instead, find another title that might actually deserve getting the push that your review can provide. Look for books that sound intriguing; then if you love it, find a way to convince your readers that they might love it too.
Step 5: Host all your reviews in one place
Any freelance writer (such as a reviewer) these days needs to have a strong online presence. If you’re looking to build your portfolio and profile, you need to keep most of your work in one location.
This might mean starting your own website or maybe a Tumblr page (maybe) as an easy, low-cost alternative. Reedsy Discovery effectively gives reviewers a homepage where all their reviews can be found (okay, the last mention of Reedsy Discovery for a while, we promise!).
Essentially, you just want to be able to send anyone a single URL where they can browse through your back-catalog of work. This will come in extra handy if you’re ever applying to a high-profile reviewing (or any other type of writing) job: your whole portfolio will be in one convenient place to impress employers.
Step 6. Become a specialist
It can be hard to sell yourself as a jack of all trades. If you tell an editor that you are the right person to review ‘anything’, chances are they’ll think you’re deluded.
Instead, focus on a few genres that you know intimately. Through your work, you want editors to know you as the go-to person for certain genres — so when a conspiracy thriller or what have you crosses their desk, they’ll know exactly who to assign it to (you).
Once you know your specialty, make sure you’re familiar with trends in that category, and review a lot of titles in those genres. When it comes to pitching to review the next big book in that niche, you’ll be able to point to your past work as why you’re uniquely qualified to take that job.
So now that we’ve built you a reputation, a small following, and a massive body of work, you may want to take the next logical step: writing a review for a paper or a big online outlet. To do this, you’ll need to get yourself on the radar of some editors.
Step 7. Put together a packet of your best reviews
If the editors of a magazine or paper have never heard of you, then your work is going to have to knock their socks off. The prime way to do this is to assemble a packet of your best work. Yes, you should already have your full portfolio in one place — but this will be a “greatest hits” compilation of sorts, so editors can see your maximum potential.
Perhaps choose a mix of recognizable, traditionally published titles and indie books, so they know you have a wide range. Then, as you start getting published in more prestigious publications, begin working those reviews into your pack, and continue the cycle as you write more and more. After all, it’s much easier to get published if you can show that you’ve already been published.
Step 8. Join an association
Being part of a community is an important element of entering any profession. And book reviewing is no different! If you’re based in the US, check out the National Book Critic’s Circle: membership currently costs $50 a year for freelancers and it gives you access to a bunch of great resources and access to its Emerging Critics Fellowship.
Step 9. Find out upcoming releases
Magazines and papers don’t usually print reviews for books that have already been on the shelves for months. For that reason, you need to be pitching reviews months in advance of their release. You can usually get your hands on a publisher’s catalog of upcoming titles, either by heading to their website (Penguin, for example, offer PDF versions) or by contacting them and requesting a copy.
Once you know what books are coming up, you can start creating a shortlist of books you want (and are suited) to review.
Step 10. Start small-ish
Even if you’re a freakishly prodigious writer, chances are you won’t be able to make the jump straight to The New York Review of Books. Instead, look for more modest opportunities at smaller local papers, online magazines, and certain literary journals. As you research, make yourself a “hit list” of possible review outlets, figure out which upcoming books might be suited to those outlets, and start pitching.
Step 11. Pitch reviews effectively
First of all, always make sure that you’re contacting the right person at a magazine or newspaper. Don’t send your pitch to the city editor or the sports desk — word will get out that you don’t know how to do basic research.
It’s also good to bear in mind that you’re not pitching the idea of a review: you want to pitch the story your review might tell. The editor might not have considered running a review of the book you’re putting forward, so you have to sell them on the idea: why should they print a review of that book? Is it newsworthy (e.g. does it cover a topic in the current zeitgeist, or that is about to have a major anniversary)? Is it the latest book in a category that’s about to explode?
Once you’ve convinced an editor that the book you’ve proposed is worth reviewing, you’ll also have to make a case for why you should be the one to do it. Of course, you’ll want to link to your review samples to prove that you can write and that you’re well-versed in the genre. This should demonstrate your understanding and passion for that type of book and prove that you’re the ideal candidate.
To see what that might look like, check out this post from writer Erika Dreyfus. She provides an example where she mentioned how her grandfather was a businessman in post-WWI Germany as part of her successful pitch to review a new memoir set in that era.
Also, don’t pitch too late. Magazines will assign reviews weeks (if not months) in advance, so get your pitch in there early.
Step 12. Always follow up politely
Some people call this “hustling,” but in truth, it’s basic common sense. Wherever there is a submissions process, you can bet that there’s some poor soul who has to go through hundreds of emails. Naturally, emails will get lost in the pile and forgotten. If you don’t receive a reply from an outlet after two weeks, drop them a short polite reminder.
And if the answer is “no thank you,” then be gracious. Just because they don’t want you to review this book for them today, doesn’t mean they won’t be interested in something down the line. Who knows: after a few pitches, they might remember you as the “reviewer who’s big on Civil War fiction” and think of you the next time something appropriate turns up. So make a good impression and leave things on a positive note.
Keep plugging away, never stop reading, and always review with an eye to championing new talent and broadening readers’ horizons. You’ll eventually get a lucky break — and when that happens, you’ll be ready to seize the opportunity!
To register as a reviewer on Reedsy Discovery, click here.