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Behind the Review Manager's Desk: An Inside Look at the Book Review Process

If you've ever wondered what it's like to mange a high volume of book reviews, this is what I do and then why I do it.

1. Overall, I edit the book review section of Technical Communication, the quarterly research journal published by the Society for Technical Communication. STC's "20,000+ members include technical writers, editors, graphic designers, multimedia artists, Web and intranet page information designers, translators and others whose work involves making technical information understandable and available to those who need it." (from STC's Web site) The review section is the most ambitious in our field, annually publishing 100-120 reviews of 400-1,500 words.

My specific duties:

* Track details of relevant new books, publishers, reviewers, and volunteers, using a Microsoft Access database. I control the schedule for everything having to do with reviews. Most of the activity mentioned below leads to further database entries.

* Communicate with publishers' PR folks, new and old reviewers, authors, my general editor, and others so that we remain on pretty much the same page.

* Scout for new authors and titles, with the help of several volunteers.

* Get review copies. This is the most fretful part of the work. Because I'm a one-person operation based in a spare bedroom, I can't have publishers sending me everything they have for me to sift through. So I wait until I see what sounds like a relevant title and have a reviewer assigned to it before asking for two review copies, one to the reviewer and one to me (I have to verify all statements of fact, quotations, and page references). Much of the success here depends on how well organized the publisher's staff might be.

* Troubleshoot when review copies don't arrive, publicists leave their jobs without passing along our files, and reviewers fall behind on their schedules.

* Mentor the many reviewers who need help in writing a substantive review that addresses our readers' needs, reads clearly, and is fair to the author. Believe me, not every technical writer can do this the first time out!

* Edit each review. If the piece is well done, the editing can be light. Oftentimes a review requires substantial reworking. I'm not about to let these professional communicators embarrass themselves with a poorly written review!

* Go back and forth with each writer until the review is ready to send off.

* Closely copyedit reviews destined for the next batch. Budget cuts have eliminated the copyediting professionals we used to have, so I fly carefully!

* Batch the edited reviews for a given issue and send them to the general editor at least by the agreed quarterly deadline, usually earlier.

* Proofread the batch (using Adobe Acrobat) when the publisher releases the PDF for proofing.

* Upon publication of the issue, send a volunteer the mailing addresses of publishers who should receive the paper version of the issue, and send reviewers in that issue a PDF of the review section.

* Make presentations about writing book reviews and recruit reviewers at conferences.

* Meet with the general editor in person once a year.

This is a paying contract. Before I took over in 1993, the book review editing was a volunteer task. Because of overwork for no pay, immediate predecessors had problems--including a failed marriage and a near-suicide--that they attributed to their role as book review editor. So I proposed and won a wage--not a large one, mind you, but enough to make me take the work seriously.

Now, why have I done this for 13 years, with more to go? A few reasons:

* Like you, I think, I like books and the creative expression of authors who have something to teach us.

* From age 2 I've been an information junkie. And what better way to keep this habit nourished than to challenge yourself never to lose the will to watch out for whatever is new in your field and to see those wonderful new books arrive on your doorstep. The moment of anticipation while opening the carton, the silence while skimming the table of contents, the reading of sample pages, and the firing off to your reviewer of an e-mail briefly describing your first take on the book are all small things that might be peculiar to our profession.

* It's wonderful to be able to continue talking with people at all professional levels about books they want to sell, their plans for books they want to write, and others' books that excite them as readers.

* I take very seriously what I perceive as my duty to mentor. Decades ago, I began professional life as a college English teacher, following the life-altering years of earning an English PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. During my 19-year career in the classrooms of three colleges, I directed professional writing programs and closely nurtured future writers. And during my years as a corporate editor (last as senior editor at Microsoft), I was "the old pro" who helped young writers and editors learn how to shape professional documents. This temperament underlies much of what I now do for my reviewers now, whether they be graduate students fretting over their first publications or seasoned publication managers who over the years have lost the innate ability to write with natural ease.

Avon J. Murphy (avonmu at comcast.net) is a freelance editor in Lacey, WA. Avon edits the book review section of Technical Communication. He has written and edited several dozen nonfiction books and articles, written approximately 150 book reviews, and presented at dozens of writers’ conferences.


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  • As is the case for most professional reviewers, many of the books I review on this site have been provided by the publisher or author, at no cost to me. I've also reviewed books that I bought, because they were worthy of your time. And I've also received dozens of review copies at no charge that do not get reviewed, either because they are not worthy or because they don't meet the subject criteria for this column, or simply because I haven't gotten around to them yet, since I only review one book per month. I have far more books in my office than I will ever read, and the receipt of a free book does not affect my review.

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