Karin Wulf reviews reviewing at The Scholarly Kitchen. She selects an epitome of the review article format from The New York Review of Books, and demonstrates how it works. “The most effective review brings readers — those who have read or might read the book, but often those who have not and may not — into a broader, informed conversation about the topics the book addresses.”

In scholarly publishing reviewing is done both pre- and post-publication, and both are vital to the health of the academic community in the widest sense. Academics do reviewing mostly as a service to their community. Any remuneration for pre-publication reviews will be modest, often taking the form of a few books. Academic journals tend not to pay reviewers: you review in order to help guide your discipline forward, but also to keep your name in your colleagues’ eyes. You also get a free copy of the book.

Notoriously review media have been under pressure in recent years, and there are just fewer and fewer places where books can be reviewed in the print media. Apart from its obvious significance in the academic world, how important is the review process though? Do trade books need to be reviewed in order to succeed? Obviously not if one thinks of high fliers like Fifty Shades of Grey. However, no publisher would say that there’s no point in trying to get a book reviewed: it’s all part of trying to create that word-of-mouth buzz which is the marketing gold standard. One of the old saws we mumble now and again is “There’s no such thing as a bad review”. Any attention is better than no attention. This is of course not really true — a bad review can be a killer, especially with academic books — but the implication of second part is almost always true: getting the book talked about is (almost) always a good thing. Word-of-mouth is the real secret sauce.

Could it be that what we tend to think of when we see the words “book review” is on its way to extinction? Or perhaps to a lonely existence at the bottom of an Amazon page? I think there’s no likelihood of the disappearance of review articles of the type discussed by Ms Wulf: people just want to write about books which stimulate open-ended thinking, and an article about the American Revolution which is provoked by a particular new book is just as likely to see publication as any other article about the American Revolution (which is anyway just less explicitly inspired by previously published work).

The assumption that books get reviewed as a consequence of a free copy of the book being sent to the journal and then allocated by the editor to one of their reviewers who gets to keep the book afterwards (or to sell it off at The Strand) is so deeply ingrained, that we no longer consider whether there’s any ethical issue here. Of course there is, and this is being highlighted by the controversy over paid reviews on Amazon. The issue is starkly clarified if you think of someone getting an $800 refrigerator in return for a favorable review. Are product reviews different from book reviews? What about music reviews? What about reviews of theatrical shows? What about reviews of holiday resorts? Books are relatively cheap, so maybe this makes it less of an issue, but this doesn’t seem to make attempts to pay for coverage go away. See the examples in Digiday‘s article (linked to via The Passive Voice).

See also Purchased reviews, and Reviews sell books don’t they?