It's no great secret that next to advances and royalty checks, book reviews are an author's best friend. But getting reviews are hard to come by, and no guarantee of success. Just ask Sandra Dallas, current columnist and book critic for fifty years with the Denver Post, and who is also a successful author.
"I don't know how many books are published a year. Isn't the figure around 400,000?" she said in a recent interview. "It's a huge volume. You may run two to four reviews a week. What then are the chances of getting a book reviewed? It's very discouraging for authors."
And from the reviewer's perspective life isn't any easier. "Reviewing is a sideline," said Sandra. "The Post stopped paying last year, and they never paid much anyway. It's not keeping bread on the table. National reviewers are paid more, but local papers don't."
LOOKING FOR GOOD NEWS
On the bright side, Sandra said that the Post has a new editor for it's book section; one reason Denver authors should consider themselves lucky. Many papers have done away with this section entirely. And the new editor has hinted at more articles about authors.
Also, with more blogs on the Internet focusing on book reviews there may be opportunities for writing reviews of your own to build a great reputation and add another plank to your author platform.
If you do want to write reviews for public consumption, here are some thoughts Sandra shared about the process:
WHEN TO CRITIQUE AND WHEN TO SAY "NO"
"When I started out, I was told by Stanton Peckham (the Post's book editor at the time), 'If a book isn't very good, don't review it,'" said Sandra. "'Why give space to a book that isn't very good, when there are so many good books out there?' You review only the books you think are worthwhile. And keep your reader in mind. Your loyalty is not to the author. Your loyalty is to the reader."
Sandra spoke about new critics and their biggest challenges. "You can tell a novice reviewer by a couple of things. Number one, they love to point out errors. They will take a date that's a year off and make a big deal out of it. And then they love to be clever and to be critical. And they love to write negative reviews. You see a lot of this in blogs. I think usually they're trying to be clever at the author's expense."
She said that one time a book review blogger just creamed one of Sandra's books, and then closed by saying that she would review War and Peace in next week's blog. There was a chuckle to go with this thought.
WHAT TO WRITE IN A BOOK REVIEW
First, you should love reading. Really love it. As Sandra's sister says, "Hell for us (readers) is being someplace without a book."
Then, when Sandra does a review, she says she usually keeps a paper or the book's press release in the book and jots down notes and page numbers as she goes. This is because she rarely keeps a book she's been given to review, so she doesn't like to mark them up before giving them away. Occasionally, with an ARC, she'll underline texts she wants to use.
"I look for interesting things—for catchy phrases—for summations of the book," said Sandra. "But your job is not to please the author or to promote the book. Your job is to tell readers about the book." She noted with another light laugh that some authors who practically beg to have their book reviewed will often focus in on the one negative she might point out at the end of a review and give her a hard time for that, forgetting that having a generally positive review is rare and valuable.
Sandra didn't start life as a book critic or author. From journalism school at the University of Denver, she joined the staff of Business Week Magazine, a true thought leader in its heyday, and still a strong voice in business as a member of the Bloomberg Press conglomerate of business news sources. She became the first woman bureau chief and covered the Rocky Mountain Region on a wide variety of subjects, "not just business, but about issues that business people needed to know."
Then, about 25 years ago, she turned to fiction. "It was kind of a fluke," she said. "I had never intended to write fiction. I didn't even read fiction. And I just sort of fell into it, and I love writing it. You know that old line about someone asking you 'do you like writing?" And the answer is 'no, but I like having written.' Well, I actually like sitting down and the writing process of seeing what happens with fiction. I really enjoy it."
Today, Sandra Dallas has thirteen novels and ten non-fiction books published.
WHAT'S NEXT FOR SANDRA?
This fall she has two new books coming out. The first is targeted toward children readers between ages ten and twelve. Red Berries, White Clouds, Blue Sky comes out in September, and A Quilt For Christmas, and adult novel will appear shortly after.
"My last novel was called Fallen Woman, which was about the murder of a prostitute in Denver in 1885," said Sandra. "I originally called it Holiday Street, because that was Market Street's original name, and this was the red light district. So my agent said, 'You have to change the title because your readers are going to think this is a Christmas book.' And then she said, 'Why don't you write a Christmas book? Why don't you write a Christmas quilt book?' And so that was the origin of this book.
So now it's your turn. Do you have favorite book critics you like to read? How do you think their review process works? Are you a reviewer? Please add to the conversation and let us know how you judge a book.