I’ve written only three book reviews and have a fourth one assigned but not yet written: I'm a beginner. But already I've found that review writing is some of the most enjoyable work I’ve done, and I even get paid for it!
So how did I start? I found a book I wanted to review, a publication I wanted to write reviews for, and I wrote a pitch.
Find a book to review
After looking through new and forthcoming releases at Publisher’s Weekly, I selected one, printed out the description, and Internet-stalked the author (whose work I was lightly familiar with). Because of the subject matter and its connection to my own memoir, I did not read the book or even hold it in my hand before I pitched the review. For another title, I might want to read the book before pitching a review.
Find a publication to write for
My friend Hannah writes for Books & Culture, and although I am a Christian writer, I have done very little to reach Christian readers. I like the magazine’s style and ethic; I had a connection. Those reasons were as good as any!
Write a book review pitch
I really had no idea what I was doing—but I’ve written successful query letters and book proposals, and I’ve written cover letters for job applications. So I drafted a pitch, revised and rewrote, sat on it for a couple of days, revised again, then clicked "send." I’ve printed my pitch below, along with my own observations “between the lines.”
Subject: Book Review Pitch: No Saints Around Here
Dear Mr. Wilson,
My friend Hannah Grieser shared your email address with me. I’m writing to inquire whether you have a reviewer for No Saints Around Here: A Caregiver's Days, by Susan Allen Toth (University of Minnesota Press, April 2014). If you have not yet assigned the book, I would love the opportunity to write and submit a review.
Since I did have a connection, I thought I’d better use it. I linked the book title to the listing at Publisher’s Weekly. I put my request right up front rather than dilly dallying. Shoot straight. Tell the editor why you've made contact.
In the difficult months or years preceding death, the family caregiver—usually a woman—becomes enmeshed in what is too often a solo service. Dark thoughts arise for the caregiver and remain secreted away until someone like Toth unlocks her journal and says: here’s what it’s really like. Here are my awful thoughts. And here’s how it feels when it’s finally over and your husband is gone forever and all you feel is relief.
Toth’s memoir chronicles the last eighteen months of her husband’s life, when she cared for him through the final decline of Parkinson’s and dementia. This is no victorious memoir, but it’s piercing and honest and gives readers an opportunity to think through a season most of us pretend won’t come.
I wanted the editor to have an idea of the book’s content and why the subject matter would be compelling to his magazine’s readership. Mind you, I hadn’t read the book yet myself—these are elements I gathered mainly from reading sell copy and one blogger’s advance review I found online (though I do not think it’s generally a good idea to read reviews before you write yours).
I’m interested in Toth’s work because her emphasis appears to be on fulfilling her marriage vows and not on euthanasia or right to die. I was the primary caregiver for my mother-in-law for several years, and my own caregiving memoir released in September 2013 from Texas Tech University Press (The Fifth Season: A Daughter-in-Law’s Memoir of Caregiving). I want to compare and contrast my experiences and Christian convictions with those of Toth, who teaches at Macalester College, an extremely secular and politically liberal institution. How does the world think of caregiving—and what can believers learn from and contribute to our larger culture in this area? These are issues I would explore in a review of No Saints Around Here.
My qualifications and my “angle.” As it turned out, Toth’s between-the-lines convictions about end-of-life issues did not differ from my own, so my review doesn’t do the comparison and contrast I might have anticipated. That’s fine. Before you sit down and write a piece, you don’t really know what will emerge. Your finished piece can differ a little from your pitch, and your editor won't mind. No problem.
My Middle East memoir, Through the Veil, was published by Canon Press in 2010 and was a finalist for the 2011 Oregon Book Award. My second book is The Fifth Season: A Daughter-in-Law’s Memoir of Caregiving (Texas Tech University Press, 2013). My literary essays have been published in a number of secular literary journals and have received special mention in Best Spiritual Writing and Best American Essays. I’m new to review writing and have just one review forthcoming in “Book Look” from MissioNexus. I have included links to my blog and a couple of essays. Please let me know if you would like further writing samples.
I ended with my qualifications just to show I’ve got the chops. My clips were not book reviews because I didn’t have a way to link to the one review I’d written. There was no need to hide the fact that I have little review experience—but I did make sure to show the quality of my writing in the pitch itself.
I would be glad to answer any questions you might have, and I hope you’ll be interested in a review of No Saints Around Here.
Lisa Ohlen Harris
I had a return email from Mr. Wilson that same day, giving me a word count and a deadline, and it turns out that this pitch was the beginning of regular review writing assignments from Books & Culture. My review of Toth's memoir was published in July, and I've got another completed review coming out in November and an assignment for a third waiting on my writing desk.
Want to try your hand at review writing? Go for it! Choose a book, a review publisher, and write your pitch!