How to Review Book Manuscripts


An assistant professor writes in with the following query:

I’ve been asked recently to review some books for major presses, which is great and I love doing it (free books!) But I have no idea how to do it and they really give no guidelines. They just say something like, “tell me what you think.” Obviously I have all sorts of thoughts, and I’d really like to know which are appropriate. So, are there rules here or what? I want to do a good job but I need norms or standards and I’m just guessing. I wonder if other people feel this way, or if people know what the rules are and I’m just a schmuck who doesn’t know them. Usually a journal sends guidelines. I just find it odd that presses don’t. (It would also help those of us who are working on book manuscripts!)

Readers, I am sure this professor would not be the only one grateful for some guidance here. Your thoughts, please.

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Peter Ohlin, Oxford University Press
Peter Ohlin, Oxford University Press
6 years ago

I think it would be fair to ask the editor or editorial assistant for some guidelines, which they should send to a first-time reviewer. Most presses do have some standard and straightforward questions.Report

Kevin Timpe
Kevin Timpe
6 years ago

Thom Brooks has some useful advice on writing book reviews in this article of his: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1085245Report

77
77
6 years ago

As a grad student in philosophy, I’ve never had any guidance on book reviews. It’s as if one is just intuitively supposed to know how to write them (rather like many other scholarly ways). It might make a difference if there was some kind of reference out there, but I’ve found nothing. Much advice on this would be appreciated. I see right now there is nothing but radio silence.Report

Josh May
6 years ago

It’s unclear to me whether the assistant professor and the comments so far are talking about the same thing. Is the query about writing a review of an already published book or about refereeing a manuscript that a press is considering publishing?Report

Kevin Timpe
Kevin Timpe
6 years ago

Oh, sorry for misunderstanding.Report

Josh May
6 years ago

OK, thanks. I’ve wondered about this myself too. I’ve talked to people who have gone about refereeing a monograph in various ways. I, and some others I know, have provided comments on it just as if each chapter were a journal article one’s reviewing. That is, I’ve provided comments on each chapter and then an overall assessment up front. Not everyone does this and whether it seems appropriate might depend on the book. It also seems acceptable to just provide roughly the same amount of comments as one would for a journal article, or even few at all.

Which route one goes for might depend on the quality of the book. If it’s a slam dunk, few comments may be necessary anyway. (This might apply if it’s obviously unpublishable too, I’m not sure.) Or maybe there’s just one chapter that you think really needs work, then just some extensive comments on it might be necessary. It seems pretty flexible. It’s a large task to write extensive comments on each chapter, so my sense is this isn’t expected, even if welcomed.

Either way, like a journal article, I ultimately provide a clear recommendation of whether it should be published, trashed, or considered in light of revisions.

Hope this helps. I’m no authority on the matter, but I’m happy to share my experience and the impression I’ve received from discussions with a few others.Report

Rob Tempio
Rob Tempio
6 years ago

At PUP we do provide authors with guidelines in the form of questions we would like them to answer and their recommendation, viz., whether to publish as is or with relatively minimal revision left to the author’s discretion, to publish only after revision, or to reject. The kinds of questions we ask include: What are the purposes, main arguments, and conclusions of the manuscript? Is the scholarship sound? Is it a significant contribution to the field? If so, why? Is the content effectively organized? Is it, in your opinion, well written? How does the book compare with similar books on the topic or other books in the field. We don’t limit authors to these questions and I often make clear these questions are only intended to give a general sense of the kind of information we are looking and that they should feel free to range beyond these questions. And most do range well beyond in the form of detailed (often surprisingly and much appreciated detail) on the book’s form, content, argument(s), sourcing, spelling etc. In my experience, the quality of the final product has been greatly enhanced by the rigorous peer review process we subject books to. Thanks so much for doing this all of you who take this on!Report