Some reflections on being a book review editor

I’ve been the reviews editor for the journal Information, Communication & Society for a year or so. Things are going well with the journal. We get a very high number of article views and we are accessible through plenty of libraries throughout the world. I’ve found editing the review section to be really enjoyable, it’s also helped me to stay on top of the vast literature that is being published in the area. I’ve also found the job to be really manageable and containable. I tend to spend chunks of time commissioning reviews, often when I don’t feel I’m able to write that day, with the occasional moments used to read incoming reviews and to handle the management of the section. ICS is really well organised so editing the reviews can be quite efficient. I was very happy to take on the reviews section. ICS has always been one of my favourite journals, so I was keen to be involved. I can see that if you were taking a quite instrumental line then you might not be willing to take on a reviews editor role. I suspect that it doesn’t help a great deal with the CV (this is my suspicion anyway, but views might vary). So it is one of those roles that you might take on for other reasons. Apart from the fact it is enjoyable and I like the journal, the reviews editor role brings other benefits. As well as helping to keep up with the literature, it also helps to build up a network and be part of an academic community. You get to know people when you invite them to write a book review, and then as you follow this through to publication. Most of all though, I think book reviews are important. They provide a space for dialogue and reflection, which are often things that get sidelined as a result of other pressures. When I took the role on I began to think that in some ways book reviews needed to be defended and nurtured. Particularly as spending the time to do them, which is an act with no describable or measurable pay off, is almost an act if resistance against the constraints and expectations of contemporary higher education. Book reviews provide a space to stop and respond to ideas.

Given the pressures people face it is probably a surprise that anyone agrees to right a book review. One of the advantages of the high price of academic books is that the promise of a free book is seen as a substantial pay-off. Even though this is the case it can still be tricky to successfully commission reviews. People often don’t have enough time, which is completely understandable. We all have to turn things down for this reason from time to time (I’ve had an idea for a post on saying no, I hope to post it on here soon). This makes it difficult to commission review from across academics at different stages of their careers. It is harder to find more established academics who are willing to write a book review. and beyond this, i suspect that the training of ambitious early career academics includes advice about avoiding book reviewing in favour of what are seen to be more productive/measurable activity (a shame as book reviewing can really help to build up background knowledge and facilitate more substantial writing). But one simple lessons learned very quickly was that people are more likely to agree to review a book if it is something they are keen to read. So I started to curate the section a little more. I did this by finding books that looked interesting or potentially influential. I then started actively contacting publishers to get hold of these books. I was quickly able to build up a stock of these books, alongside the others that publishers were sending me anyway. I also found that publishers learned the type of thing I was after and started sending the type of stuff I wanted for the section. With this newly curated stock of books I had much more success. I is sometimes hard to match books to potential reviewers. The quality of websites varies substantially. But I found that the rate of people agreeing increased, and I was also able to attract more reviewers. Even established academics are keen to review important books in their field, especially if they are books they wanted to read anyway. I still get a good share if no’s or no responses, but the hit rate of positive responses is quite high. I’m always keen to find reviewers. I have a bit of a backlog of books now, so some more commissions are on the to do list. One idea I had was to post a photo of the pile of books for review in here. I might do this in the future, for now I’ll stick with commissioning reviews. And I do occasionally get an email from dolls asking if they can write a review, but these are quite rare.

We have around 35 book reviews in the journal this year – I commissioned around half of these, my very capable predecessor left a good pool of reviews behind. And I’m now working on 2014. However, we now publish all reviews on our online first or ‘latest articles’ section. This means that the reviews are often published within a few weeks of submission. This allows the reviews to be timely. Indeed, I’ve just provided posts to seven recently published book reviews on this blog. These will all be in the print journal in 2014, but are already available online. This is working well at the moment, but we will no doubt review this, particularly in mind of open access debates. A number of journals are now publishing book reviews online and open access, often on blogs. This seems to be working well. As things stand we are keeping them in the journal. But we are about to enter a period of substantial change in academic publishing.

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5 Responses to Some reflections on being a book review editor

  1. stuartelden says:

    Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
    David Beer reflects on being a review editor, and the sometime challenges of getting people to write reviews. It is a great shame that some people take this narrowly instrumental view of what counts. Book reviews are useful to authors, to readers, and to reviewers.

  2. I really liked to read this post offering the perspective of the editor. Thank you.

    It was a very timely post, too, as I just submitted a book review a few days ago and have been thinking about the pros and cons of doing that. The truth is that writing that review took me many, many hours – hours that I could have spent working on a paper, or analysing data for a publication that might count towards my promotion. The book review, however, counts nothing and, so, it seems like a really daft use of my time. However, the topic was very relevant for my work and, so, I did get a few quotes for future writings, and picked up a few references that I want to pursue. That was good, but still not worth all the hours that it took me to type that review. The main benefit for me was that this is a book that, most likely, I would not have picked up through my own initiative – so, doing the review exposed me to a body of work that I was not aware of, on a topic that I am working on. That is a significant benefit, indeed.

    In terms of dissemination, when my book reviews are published, I also write a short post about that book on my blog; though, with a slightly different angle from the one I focused on for the journal. I.e., the published review and the blog, complement each other. So, along the lines of what you do on your own blog. However, given that so many people check Amazon (or other referral systems) before buying a book, is there a case for either the review’s author or the reviews’ editor to write a short entry on such websites, as well?

    • Thanks Ana. Yes, maybe there is a case for this. I expect that social media will change book reviewing. Some really good journals already use blogs for reviews. And I suppose that people will use their own blogs etc to post short reviews. So, things are probably going to change. We’ve kept them in the journal for now, and we use social media to promote them.

      On the other point. Yes, I think people are questioning the value of reviewing books, given the pressures to publish certain types of things and bid for money. I’m hoping that the values you mentioned might keep people writing the occasional review. Hopefully.

  3. Pingback: Revisiting the classics – William Mitchell’s Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City | Thinking culture

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