Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Six Questions For Carter Jefferson, The Internet Review of Books

SQF: What is the purpose of The Internet Review of Books?
CJ: Book review sections are rapidly disappearing from newspapers. For non-fiction readers and writers especially, this is a disaster. Some specialized works are still reviewed on sites dedicated to particular subjects, but most readers of print media like The New York Times Book Review want to hear about books they might otherwise miss. So four of us who knew each other at the Internet Writing Workshop started our publication in October 2007 to fill the gap. In our first issue we reviewed six non-fiction books on subjects including literary essays, religion, science, and biography. We included a review of a book that had in the past left a "Lasting Impression" on someone. We began to attract readers right away, but soon figured we'd do even better if we added a fiction section to our site, so we did that in January 2008; thanks to the hard work of our excellent Fiction Editor, the fiction reviews have helped us build readership. Since then we've published reviews on numerous subjects, interviews with authors, and essays on various literary matters. About a year ago we added a section of "Brief Reviews" for books likely to interest a somewhat smaller readership. Very recently we found a Poetry Editor, so we'll soon add a poetry section. We're a serious publication operating on a regular schedule.

SQF: Who writes the reviews and essays that appear on your site?

CJ: Our reviewers come from everywhere. At first we called on friends we knew could write and sought specialists, like college professors in various fields, to fill our needs. We looked at blogs and found good reviewers who didn't get many comments on their work, and asked them to help. Now we have a list of reviewers who have told us what sort of thing they'd like to read and write about, and we call on them when we get a book that fits their preferences. Many are published authors, some are experts in a field, and some are simply good writers who are willing to deal with subjects with which they are familiar. We find new reviewers all the time.

SQF: Anyone wishing to recommend a book for review by your staff is asked to submit a query containing the title, a 100 word description, pertinent author info, the page count, publisher and publication year. What do you look for in 100 words that makes a book float to the top of your to-be-reviewed list?

CJ: We review books six months old or less that we think might interest our readers. When someone recommends a book, we check it out on the publisher's website and decide whether it's worth a review. We don't review inspirational or how-to books, or, usually, fiction other than literary or mainstream genres. The books we're interested in must be likely to appeal to a fairly wide audience. Incidentally, if someone writes an excellent 100-word recommendation, we might ask that person to write the review.

SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a book?

Books we review must be the kind that might interest a fairly wide circle of readers. Most of our space we reserve for books that might be missed by other mass media reviewers. That's two. I can't think of a third.  :-)

SQF: Based on your experience reviewing books, what is your advice to people who'd like to become reviewers in any publication?

First, read reviews in first-rate media. Reviewing is a genre in itself, and that's the best way to get an idea how it's done. Next, think of the readers reviews serve--your work will need to interest and entertain as well as to let readers know whether the book in question is worth picking up. Finally, don't submit a review anywhere until it's been critiqued by several people you trust in order to make sure it's the very best you can do.   

SQF: What question do you wish I’d asked that I didn’t, and how would you answer it?

CJ: Is there any money in reviewing?

There can be, but most good reviewers learn the trade by writing without pay. I got my first experience writing movie reviews for my college newspaper. Then I got a lot of mass media writing experience by working as a reporter and editor for newspapers. Later, when I was a college professor, I wrote reviews for scholarly journals, and then got paid for writing reviews for newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post, because I knew how to write for the mass media. Nowadays it's a lot harder to find paying venues, but with experience it's still possible. Pay scales vary. The IRB doesn't pay yet, but we will when we get enough readers to attract more advertisers and make money. Because we have good editors who carefully vet every piece we publish, we're a good place to get the experience good reviewers badly need. The bottom line is that good reviewers are, first and foremost, good writers.

Learn more about The Internet Review of Books here.

Thank you, Carter. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.

NEXT POST: 3/19--Six Questions for Jeff Chon, Editor, vis a tergo

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