Monday, October 22, 2007

Behind the Curtain: Jen A. Miller, book reviewer

Nearly every writer worries about reviews - hoping for the best, expecting the worst, cursing the negative ones, fully believing the positive ones. :) Okay, maybe not quite, but getting reviewed can be agonizing, so it's with much joy that today, I'm lucky enough to present a wonderful book reviewer, Jen A. Miller, who writes about books for a slew of mags and papers, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Poets and Writers, and US Airways Magazine, among others.

Next year, Jen crosses to the dark side (and the hunter becomes the hunted!) to become an author herself (an author of books, I should say, as she already scribes for plenty of magazines and papers), when her first book, The South Jersey Shore, Atlantic City through Cape May: Great Destinations, is published. She also maintains two blogs, so check 'em out: Book a Week and Down the Shore with Jen, which is a taste of her forthcoming book, all about the Jersey Shore.

Here, a few reviewer insights:

1) How did you get into book reviewing? How could someone break in if he or she is interested?
I've always been a reader, and I reviewed books for my college newspaper. I've also been reading book reviews in the Philadelphia Inquirer since I was in seventh grade, so when I came home after graduation, I pitched myself as a reviewer. Didn't get very far! I then went on testing out a few careers, and when I started freelancing, one of my first niches was author profiles. I built relationships with magazines and PR people so that, not only was I writing about authors, but I was also gaining access to book catalogues and galleys. I pitched the Inquirer book editor again -- four years later -- and was assigned a review not too long after that.

Book reviewing for newspapers, I think, is not easy. Not only are a lot of people trying to do it, but the space for reviews is constantly shrinking. Someone who is interested in reviewing can try their local alternative weekly, or a book website to start. Or they can start blogging reviews on their own (even though I've been reviewing books for over a year, I still do this at -- new project, but fun outlet for book writing). This way, they can show editors that they know what they're doing.

2) Who are some of your favorite authors?
Caroline Knapp had a real gift for non-fiction writing. She wrote a few books that were blends of memoir and research. Unfortunately, she passed away in 2002, but I keep going back to her books -- I even wrote an essay about 'Pack of Two," which is about dogs, for the September 2007 issue of Paste Magazine. I don't read a lot of fiction, but I'm always eager to read anything new by Elin Hilderbrand and Ian Sansom -- his Mobile Library Series is a hoot.

3) If you see a book on the horizon that you're interested in, do you pitch it or can you request that you review it?
I'm usually so busy with freelancing (and this summer, writing my book) that I can't keep track of new books like I used to -- it's more I look at whatever galleys come in the mail. But if there's something I really want to review, I'll send an email to an editor (whichever I think the book would be better for) asking if I can review it. I just did this with a magazine. I was on vacation, but wanted to be the first to 'put her name in the hat' for this book. And it worked.

4) What do you take into account when reviewing a book? I.e., even if you didn't love it, do you consider that other readers might and highlight its strengths?
I try to gauge the overall effect of the book because, even if one aspect of the book is lacking (word choice, sentence structure, even point of view), the book can still be powerful and worth reading. I'm also pickier now in what I review. I know I don't like overly flowery prose, so I don't review books like that. I'm not a chick lit or a mystery fan, so I don't review those titles -- it's not fair to the authors, or the readers.

5) What happens if you're assigned a book you really dislike? Or suspect that you might dislike?
I don't like writing negative reviews. I'm human, and even if the book is bad, someone still slaved over every word in that book. That being said, my allegiance isn't to the author. It's to the publication where I review, and to the readers, so if the book's a stinker, I will say so. That being said, I don't always review a book I don't like, even if an editor assigned it to me. This just happened -- my editor sent me a book he thought I would like. I couldn't even make it through the third chapter, so I emailed him and asked him if I could review something else. He didn't have a problem with that because, as he said, real estate for book reviews is so limited that he didn't want to waste space on a bad book.

But sometimes I will go ahead with a negative review, for one of two reasons:
1. Even if the book is bad, the reader can still learn something from the review. I just turned in a review of a biography that I thought was terrible. It was about a fascinating person, but the book was very poorly written. However, I felt that the readers would learn something about this fascinating person through the snapshot of the review, so I went ahead with the assignment.
2. It's an anticipated book. My first review for the Philadelphia Inquirer was the follow up work by someone whose first novel was a well-received best seller. I liked the first book, and I knew a lot of people were looking forward to book number two which was, well, seriously lacking a lot of what made the first book a gem. It was my job to alert readers that this second book might not be worth their $24, which is why I went ahead with the assignment.

6) Book reviews are getting cut from newspapers left and right. Why do you think this is? What are some of your favorite resources for readers who seek out reviews?
I think that a lot of this comes down to dollars. Publishers aren't spending as many in newspapers as they were before. If you look at your local paper, you'll probably see a weekly home and garden or food section. Why? Because businesses support those sections with ads. You won't find that with books. But that's not saying there isn't good literary criticism going on. You only have to go to book sites like or to see that.

Readers can also go to the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, Critical Mass, at And I'm not just saying that because I'm a member. The blog links to industry news, and to reviews written by members. It's a great way for readers to see what reviewers from all over the country are saying. I'm also keeping tabs on the new Barnes & Noble Review. It'll be interesting to see how that goes over.

7) I know that you have your own book coming out...are you concerned about your own reviews? :) Or do you know, as a reviewer, that everything is subjective and you have to try to roll with the punches?
Yes! It's scary putting something -- anything -- out there. I don't know how many reviews I'll get in the traditional book review sense since it's a travel guide, but that's not stopping anyone from picking it up, reading it and saying, "well, she didn't cover My Favorite Pizza Parlor, so this book is crap." It's scary, but I understand that I can't please everyone all the time. Remind me of that if I get a negative review!

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