How do book critics decide which books to review? I’ve always loved reading book reviews in magazines and newspapers, and bemoaned the ever-decreasing amount of space devoted to them, which makes the job of the critic even more important. How do they decide which books to review and which to leave out? Do they ever write a bad review? Can we trust book critics to be unbiased?
I interview three book reviewers to get the low-down on what must surely be one of the best jobs in the business.
How do book critics choose which books to review?
Charlotte Heathcote is literary editor for the Daily Express and the Sunday Express. She also reviews for the Daily Mirror.
Nina Pottell is books editor for Prima Magazine, published monthly. She has been on the judging panel for the Costa Book Awards and the British Book Awards.
Lucy Atkins reviews for the Sunday Times & the Times Literary Supplement. She has previously reviewed for The Guardian, The Telegraph and Sunday Express.
How many books do you feature, and how often?
Charlotte: Typically three for the Daily Express, seven for the Sunday Express, and five for the Daily Mirror. When we do a spread of paperbacks/children’s books/summer reads/books of the year we can cover many more titles.
Nina: Seven in total; six publications that are out that month and a book from my bookshelf – so a backlisted book.
Lucy: About one novel every four weeks or so.
Do you read all genres, or are you a specialist reviewer?
Charlotte: I commission reviews in all mainstream genres.
Nina: The books have to fit with Prima (female readers aged 35-60). I don’t feature childrens, YA, non-fiction, poetry, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, or, porn, which I have been sent! I definitely review more commercial fiction, and I like to have a balance of debuts and books from already published authors. The biggest genre I’m sent are psychological thrillers: out of 124 books I received over two months last year 64 fell into this genre; with space for approximately four.
Lucy: Generally I review literary fiction, although sometimes I’ll also cover memoir.
How many books do you receive in an average month?
Charlotte: At a very rough guess, and it varies depending on the time of year, around 250.
Nina: Anything from 20-100. In 2018 I was sent 964 proofs.
Lucy: Around 30 at home, but a lot more go to the Sunday Times offices.
How far in advance do you read?
Charlotte: Typically a month or two.
Nina: I like to get books a minimum of four months pre-publication date, ideally 4-6 months. Any proofs I receive out of this timescale I don’t look at and sometimes this is sad for me as it may be a book I wanted to feature but I can’t delay a magazine going to print!
Lucy: About two weeks before the review (which is scheduled around publication date).
Do you judge a book by its cover?
Charlotte: I judge some genre fiction by its cover but I’d argue that’s exactly what publishers intend. Publishers are experienced and savvy and they put a great deal of thought, time and care into their covers to convey at a glance what kind of book we are looking at. This can help me to make decisions in a situation where it’s not humanly possible for me to read everything I am sent. Generic book covers evidently work in commercial terms but as a literary editor virtually identical books land on my desk day in, day out. These books have to work harder to stand out unless I am already aware of industry excitement building around them. But they are still contenders for a shorter review by a specialist reviewer (I commission various reviewers to cover highlights in genres from crime and romance to history and cookery).
Nina: I really try not to but a cover is imperative to choosing. A lot of covers can look quite samey; using psychological thrillers as an example with their darkly coloured covers and neon headings so the blurb has to sell it to me in these cases. I’ve read and reviewed a few books over the last year that I have adored which have had awful covers, so what’s inside the can overide this. Maybe all proofs should be plainly packaged? I wonder what authors would think of this?
Lucy: I don’t care about the cover at all.
How do you decide what to read and what to ignore?
Charlotte: Books that publishers are passionately championing are often on my radar before a copy lands on my desk. I get a steer from sources such as The Bookseller or book fair updates which I find fascinating. But what’s even more exciting is finding out which books individuals in the industry are championing and this can come from from industry showcases, from meetings with publicists, from fellow reviewers, from discussions at book launches or lunches, or from social media.
Nina: Whether it fits with Prima. Publication date. Blurb and read of first page. I trust my gut!
Lucy: Discussion with the books editor; word of mouth; authors I love; big name literary authors. I generally avoid novels that I know don’t interest me.
Do you give bad reviews?
Charlotte: There are some authors whose books are so eagerly anticipated that it would be remiss for me to ignore them on the books pages. If their book was given a bad review then I would still run it. And frankly, scathing reviews make great copy. But we all know about the blood, sweat and tears that go into writing a book so I try to avoid negative reviews.
If a reviewer hated a book by a less famous/established author, and we could just quietly ignore it, then I’d rather give the space to a great book – because there is no shortage of those – and try to help it find enthusiastic readers.
Nina: Never. The Prima books page is about recommending books I’m certain their readers will love. And life is far too short to read books I’m not enjoying!
Lucy: Very rarely – I don’t do ‘hatchet jobs’. I tend to try to convey reservations more subtly.
Is it difficult if you know the author personally?
Charlotte: I can generally match a book to a reviewer who is likely to enjoy it. But if the book is poor, I’d rather not cover it at all. Space is so tight that I can’t justify wasting it.
Nina: Yes. I can’t review every book an author writes even if I know them otherwise my page would be far to repetitive. I want to include variety so Jane Doe’s eight books published since I’ve been doing the Prima page can’t all feature.
Lucy: I don’t review a book if I know the author (unless it’s just a very vague acquaintance)
What’s worse: a terrible book, written by a lovely person; or a great book, written by a horrible one?
Charlotte: A terrible book is always worse, whoever wrote it! My pages are there to assess books, not authors’ personalities.
Nina: Oh gosh this is a hard one..I think a terrible book written by a lovely person.
Lucy: Terrible book by lovely person as it feels like such a shame. If it’s a great book I don’t mind who wrote it.
How much difference does it make if a book arrives in a fancy envelope, or with chocolates or novelty gifts?
Charlotte: It doesn’t make the slightest difference. I often don’t open my own post so that kind of thing can get a bit lost. If glitter or sprinkles are involved, it’s plain annoying. I have accumulated a bizarre amount of vodka miniatures and wildflower seeds. One thing that does stand out to me is a hardback proof. It signals to me that the publisher is really serious about the book, and that it’s therefore more likely to be worth a closer look. I’ll pay slightly closer attention if a book arrives in a box with themed extras but to a much lesser degree. Again it signals that a publisher feels this book deserves to stand out. But ultimately once that book is out of its box, it’s taking its chances with all the others.
Nina: None. I would much rather receive the book with a press release with all relevant information on both in a recyclable envelope. My work colleagues are always appreciative of the alcohol or chocolates but I don’t need them. Other ‘stuff’ sent sadly ends up in the bin. Sorry, I know!
Lucy: None – sometimes the opposite in fact (though always glad to have chocolates…)
Has an author ever been upset with you because you haven’t featured their book, or you’ve reviewed it unfavourably?
Charlotte: If they have, it has never been fed back to me.
Nina: Not upset with me because I haven’t featured their book but maybe because I didn’t receive a copy or received it too late.
Lucy: Probably! I’ve had one or two slightly awkward encounters at literary parties…
Has an author (or publicist) ever tried to bribe you?
Charlotte: Absolutely not! I’ve never heard of such a thing.
Lucy: If only (see chocolate, above).
So, how do book critics choose which books to review? With some difficulty, judging by the above answers! Huge thanks to Charlotte, Nina and Lucy for taking time out from their reading piles to answer my questions. I hope you’ve found it as interesting as I have.