Critics on rookie mistakes, and how to avoid them when submitting your book for review

Reviewers are of vital importance when it comes to getting the word out about your book. Your novel might be the next great American classic, but if no one reviews it then its next stop could be the remainder bin. Literary critics, both offline and on, already have your prospective audience’s attention, so what can you do to guarantee that they focus it on your book?

Well, unfortunately, the short answer is that you can’t. There’s no way of ensuring that a critic reviews your book. However, with just a little research, you can avoid making rookie mistakes that keep some books from even being considered. I spoke with several critics today and asked them to share what they’re looking for – and what they aren’t – when it comes to book submissions.

Addendum: some of you have asked about online reviewers. Queries were emailed to several, but no answers were received at the time of publication. Plans are already in place for a second post, and any answers that I receive in the prior will be printed then. In the meanwhile, feel free to leave your own “rookie mistakes” and “ideal submissions” below. As an alternative, you can email me directly at for inclusion in a future post.

Ron Charles, Deputy Editor, Washington Post Book World:

What are some rookie mistakes writers and publishers make when submitting a book for review?

Writers should not submit books for review.  We want to deal only with writers’ publishers (and no self-published books, please, or cleverly disguised self-published books).  Do not call to ask if we received your book.  We have no idea. We’re getting 150 books a day. We only know if we’ve assigned your book.  And in that case, we’ll contact you; no need to call us.

Use e-mail only. Never call. Never write through the PO. Do not include gifts or bling.  We cannot accept anything. Make sure your press kit tells us exactly when the book will be released.  Remind us of relevant holidays and anniversaries.

What is the subject, in just a couple of sentences? What are the author’s qualifications and previous books?  You can include much more information below that, but try to get our attention with the brief summary first.

In short: We need short, detailed, succinct information.  We’re moving too fast for flattery or throat-clearing or fireworks.

Lev Grossman, book critic, Time Magazine:

What are some rookie mistakes writers and publishers make when submitting a book for review?

There are two major rookie mistakes, and they’re so obvious you wouldn’t think they’d be worth mentioning, but they are:

Do not call the magazine. Ever. Put your phone down. If every publicist called about every book they did — or every 10th book — my phone would never stop ringing. And it never does. I no longer answer my work phone, ever. And don’t even talk to me about authors calling — just not a good idea. Mail works fine.

In the pitch letter/e-mail, right up front, right after the title and the author, tell me the on-sale date. To review a book, I have to schedule it. If I don’t know when it’s coming out, I literally can’t review it. Don’t make me hunt through Amazon to find the shipping date. (I will do that. but I won’t enjoy it.)

What would an ideal submission for review look like?

It would consist of three parts. No more, No fewer. One: a galley, three months before publication, with a one-page pub letter (consisting of the title, the author, the pub date, plot summary, any blurbs, and a paragraph telling me who the hell the author is). Two: a single (1) e-mail, a month before publication, reminding me that the book is coming out and why I should care. Three: a finished book, also a month before publication.

Michael Berry, science fiction columnist, book critic, San Francisco Chronicle:

What are some rookie mistakes writers and publishers make when submitting a book for review?

The biggest mistake by far is that people don’t take the time to research what kinds of books I personally review for The Chronicle. Search the archives for my byline (or even look at my blog or Twitter feed or whatever), and it becomes clear that my overwhelming focus is on science fiction/fantasy/horror. I occasionally cover crime/mystery or comics, but I’m never going to review your memoir of your years at Bear Stearns or a self-help book on overcoming anxiety after being bitten by a Great White. I’ll politely direct you to the Books editor, but I will not encourage you to send your book to me.

My big peeve with publishers is when they don’t provide sufficient contact info ON THE ARC. The press release sheets get lost or discarded, and I have not taken the time to build my own database of publicist phone numbers and e-mail addresses. When I need a finished copy or have a question, I’m usually on a deadline and I don’t want to waste time working my way up the corporate voice-mail tree.

What would an ideal submission for review look like?

As for the ideal submission, it’s really just a well-designed ARC with the proper contact info. I never read press releases, and shwag won’t sway me. A gentle, “hey, you might be interested…” e-mail from an author or publicist can be effective, especially if the writer is local to the Bay Area. But everyone needs to understand that I can consider only the tiniest fraction of the material I receive every week.

Amy Guth, books digital coordinator for the Chicago Tribune:

What are some rookie mistakes writers and publishers make when submitting a book for review?

Three big ones: I get a ton of books each week here at the Chicago Tribune, and while I read, I have several on-deck to read next. I’m never, ever without something to read, and never in a position to skip anything ahead to the front of the reading list. So, while I welcome blind submissions, I cringe when an author or book publicist spends a fortune on postage to overnight or 2-day it to me unless I’ve specifically requested it to be sent on the double. Secondly, unless it’s a very delicate specialty sort of book, when a book has a ton of wrapping on it, around it, over it, through it, above it and below it, it drives me crazy. When I’m sitting there ripping open a stack of incoming books and I need to spend several minutes cutting through bubble wrap, shrink wrap, packing tape, then pulling off tissue paper, and pulling out the vellum sheets inside the book, it’s a mess. (Interestingly, I’ve found that to be symbolic in many cases; people who are so ginger about their books that they’d pack them so carefully tend to not be terribly open to critical discussion of the book either.) Just an envelope or bubble mailer will do the job, I promise. Finally, I’m always sorry to see gimmicky or cocky cover letters. Let your work speak for itself, really. A cover letter telling me I’m about to read the greatest book in the world, or that’s written in code only visible with 3-D glasses, or trying to conceal something about the author, publisher or book will only turn me off to it. But, a professional, honest, courteous cover letter or email is always welcome and always starts things off on the right foot.  There is a weird desperate sense in a lot of cover letters that we’re an awful bunch of gatekeepers who delight in throwing books into the rubbish bin. I think all too often authors forget that critics and editors are rooting for them; we want their work to be great. We got into the literary world because we love good writing, too.

What would an ideal submission for review look like?

Just mail it. A simple manila envelope or bubble mailer and a professional, polished cover letter and a brief press release if it’s available. That’s it. Sometimes an email or Twitter DM to let me know the book is en route is a nice touch, too. But that’s really it. My father said something to me once about the importance of doing the solid, ordinary and simple things impeccably, and I think that absolutely applies here wonderfully.

n653213921_1671825_1056996Matt Staggs is a literary publicist and the proprietor of Deep Eight LLC, a boutique publicity agency utilizing the best publicity practices from the worlds of traditional media and evolving social technologies. He has worked in the fields of public relations and journalism for almost a decade. In addition to his work as a publicist, Matt is a book reviewer and writer whose work appears in both print and web publications.

Using Your Leverage

As the year comes to an end, I’ve been thinking about leverage, which I talk about in Booklife. But in Booklife, while I have a separate section on paying it forward and contributing to community, I’m not sure I fully tie the idea of leverage to the idea of paying it forward.

Your writerly “leverage,” as I define it, is a kind of political capital. You can amass it based on your visibility through your online presence and your books, published short stories, etc. It consists of intangibles beyond audience, too. The respect and affection others have for you affects your leverage–how people perceive you as both writer and human being.

You use leverage to make your projects, your books, successful–leverage breeds leverage–but it serves, or should serve, another purpose. You should use your leverage (or position or privilege) to be of use to other people in the writing community (or even outside of it). No matter what level you’re at, there’s something you can do to help someone else.

I’ve met writers who hoard leverage or privilege, who feel that concealing their contacts, masking their methodology, building closed cliques, ignoring talented people who ask for help, is the best way of helping their careers.

Maybe this is true in the short term, but the fact is the best way to build leverage long-term is to be open and useful to others–as much as you can be without disrupting your own time for writing and other creative endeavor.

Paying it forward, contributing to community, can at times be controversial or uncomfortable or actually cause you to lose prestige or respect temporarily. The whole point, at times, of using your position is to expend it like rocket fuel–in a short burst that is of immeasurable value to someone else.

I think about this, too, because sometimes people get into positions of power by being miserly with their leverage…and never realize that they’ve reached a position where they can afford to take a stand, be publicly controversial for the greater good. And so they don’t.

Whatever level you’re at now, don’t be that person. If you die without calling in all your markers, for others, for yourself…you lose.

What I’m saying is this: whether you’re a writer with one published story or a writer with twenty novels out, you have some leverage. What you can do might be tiny in scope, but might mean a lot to someone.

As we enter 2010, in a perilous publishing atmosphere, with a lot of uncertainty ahead, we should all be thinking of about not just ourselves but others. Trust me when I say the more connectivity you build, the more good works you foster, on whatever level, the more you, too, will benefit in the long run.

This is a rare cross-post to Ecstatic Days.

A Grim Future for America’s Bookstore Chains?

Marketing maven and provocateur Seth Godin has the blogosphere talking today with his post “It’s not the rats you need to worry about.” Godin stated that online bookseller Amazon and the Kindle had done to bookstores what iTunes and filesharing did to the once-profitable music store chain Tower Records: rendered them obsolete and even an impediment to the customers who matter most, heavy users. Godin stated that bookstores depend on shoppers who buy one hundred to three hundred books a year and that the Kindle, which offers near-instantaneous delivery, more variety and a less expensive format, is incentive enough to abandon the bookstore.

Certainly, it has been a tough year for the major chains. Borders Group narrowly avoided bankruptcy when creditor Pershing Square Capital Management agreed to extend the pay-off date of a nearly $43 million loan, allowing it an opportunity to take numerous cost-cutting measures, including the closure of 100 Waldenbooks locations. Competitor Barnes & Noble fared better, but experienced hardships of its own as it headed into the holiday season with reported quarterly losses.

Both chains have already taken steps to capitalize on the growing e-market. Borders Group began selling the Sony Reader in its stores some years back, and Barnes & Noble launched its own branded e-reader this year, the Nook. Further, Borders Group announced plans this month to invest in Kobo, an e-book content delivery service spun off from Canadian book chain, Indigo Books & Music. But is all of this enough to save the brick-and-mortar chain bookstore in America? Probably not.

When it comes to the e-reader’s natural habitat, the internet, Amazon holds the home field advantage. Online since 1995, the company’s website attracts over six hundred million visitors annually, has no storefronts to maintain and is already a trusted name in e-commerce. The Kindle reader is estimated by some to already hold up to 60 percent of the US market share in e-book sales. Further, along with big box retailers Walmart and Target, Amazon is putting the squeeze on chain bookstores in the hard copy arena as well by offering selected popular hardbacks for as little as $9 a piece. From any perspective, it doesn’t look good for the long-term future of the big chains.

As the reading public becomes accustomed to e-readers, the market for paper books will grow smaller, limited to collectors of special editions and a dwindling sliver of customers who refuse to embrace e-reader technology. Chain bookstores may wake up to find their commanding share of the American marketplace greatly diminished, forcing them to cut fat, consolidate resources and focus on winning the hearts and minds of local customers. In this arena, they may face great competition from not only Amazon and whatever e-reader platform that’s left to pick up the crumbs, but also the surviving independent bookstores, many of whom have had years to sharpen these very same techniques in their own war against the once-mighty chains.

n653213921_1671825_1056996Matt Staggs is a literary publicist and the proprietor of Deep Eight LLC, a boutique publicity agency utilizing the best publicity practices from the worlds of traditional media and evolving social technologies. He has worked in the fields of public relations and journalism for almost a decade. In addition to his work as a publicist, Matt is a book reviewer and writer whose work appears in both print and web publications.

Booklife/Jeff VanderMeer Lecture at MIT, Boston

One of the more interesting gigs on my five-week book tour was getting to go to MIT and lecture about Booklife at their Comparative Media Studies center. We had a big audience, and Kevin Smokler of was there to talk a little as well and then discuss relevant issues with me. Many thanks to Geoffrey Long for setting up the event.

MIT Blog Post link.

MIT Booklife lecture podcast link.

(Matt Staggs’ Friday links post will return next week.)