Reflections on Black Book Reviews

For more than a decade I, through AALBC.com, have published hundred’s of reviews of books written by or about Black people. Over the years this has sometimes been taken to imply that those book reviews were only meant to be read by Black people. This has never been the case for the reviews or, for that matter, the books themselves.

The reviews are written for any book lover looking to discover a great read, or to simply read stories too often overlooked by the main stream media.

When I first started publishing reviews of Black books on AALBC.com these books were largely ignored by the magazines and newspapers that published book reviews. Similarly, websites that might publish reviews of Black books focused primarily on celebrity and scandal driven titles.

It was much harder for an author to secure a critical book review, written by a respected entity, with a large audience, than it was to be published by one of the big six* publishers. This is even more true in today’s environment.

I’m also interested in reviewing books from small independent presses, academic presses, self published authors and even great writers who deserve a larger audience and more recognition than can normally be afforded in a commercially driven environment.

An Uncaged Eagle – True Freedom by Colonel Richard Toliver, USAF (Ret.), Reviewed by Kam Williams

Magazines and newspapers are folding, and those that remain have cut back or eliminated their coverage of books – despite the fact that, year after year, the number of books published continues to increase. With the continued growth in the publication of books, the demand and need for critical reviews of books is greater than ever.

According to the preliminary numbers released on May 18th by R. R. Bowker, and reported by Publishers Weekly; “…the number of books produced by traditional publishers rose 5% in 2010, to a projected 316,480”.
This figure does not included self-published books produced by CreateSpace, Lulu, AuthorSolutions, Xlibris, and AuthorHouse, which combined to publish almost 65,000 titles.

Why do we need book reviews?

For readers, book reviews help sort through the vast number of books available, and to find one they are likely to enjoy. For authors, there aren’t too many better ways to get a reader’s and the media’s attention than with a positive review from a respected book review publisher.

Make the most of the book review: Get to know your book reviewer.

You’ll need to read many reviews by a reviewer before you can determine how their opinion relates to your own. Just like you know to trust a good friend when they tell you, “I know you’re gonna love this book!” You can develop the same type of relationship with a book reviewer, one you are familiar with their work.

Like any reader, book reviewer’s opinions are subjective. Ideally, a professional reviewer’s opinion is bolstered by having read far more books than most avid readers. Their passion for reading coupled with a great deal of experience and training in the art of communicating their opinion in an informative and entertaining way is the hallmark of a good reviewer.

Here are some of AALBC.com’s most popular book reviewers:

“Thumper”. is the pseudonym of AALBC.com’s most popular reviewer. Thumper’s book reviews are never luke warm, and his style is quite unique. A popular phrase Thumper used to describe a book is “Ass Wiper!” This is actually a strongly favorable reaction (don’t ask me why). Despite — perhaps because of — Thumper’s colorful language he was far an away my most frequently requested book reviewer. Unfortunately, Thumper has not written a book review for me in almost a year. But his reviews live on, and you can still check them out and discover a great read. Thumper’s book reviews may be found here: http://aalbc.it/thumperbookreviews

Kam Williams is one of my most prolific book reviewers. He only reviews nonfiction books and films. Kam is not the type of reviewer to be overly critical of a book, he tends to balance negative comments with positive ones. Kam has four college degrees and brings a wealth of education and experience to his craft. Kam’s reviews may be found here: http://aalbc.it/kamwilliamsbookreviews

Idrissa Uqdah reviews novels primarily, but her specialty is Christian
fiction, and she is passionate about the subject matter. While I don’t personally read many books in the genre; her reviews keep me up to date. As a result, I always have something to good recommend to those who enjoy this type of literature. Read Idrissa’s reviews: http://aalbc.it/idrissauqdahbookreviews

Robert Fleming is a serious Brother and has been writing for a long time. He, like all of my reviewers, is mission driven. We all take pride in sharing news about good books. Robert can be counted on to expose us to important but relatively obscure authors and subjects. Robert’s reviews may be found here: http://aalbc.it/robertflemingbookreviews

Emanuel Carpenter has reviewed many of our self-published author submissions. Through Emanuel I learn there are indeed good books that have been self-published. Recognizing that most newspapers and magazine have a policy of not reviewing self-published works I take special pride in sharing favorable reviews of books written by self-published authors. Several of these authors have later thanked me saying that their favorable AALBC.com review has resulted in a book deal from a major publisher. Read Emanuel’s reviews here: http://aalbc.it/ecbookreviews

I have been privileged to have many more folks review for AALBC.com; including Black Arts Movement’s poet, activist and icon, Kalamy ya Salaam, poet, Jacqueline Jones LaMon, social media guru, Lynne d. Johnson, author and publisher, Sheree R. Thomas, and most recently Alvin C. Romer (The Romer Review).

Publishing Book Reviews does not come without some headaches.

The Deal, the Dance, and the Devil by Victoria Christopher Murray Reviewed by Idrissa Uqdah

The worst scenario is when the review comes back very unfavorable (especially if Thumper wrote it). On two occasions I actually had another reviewer review the book a second time. Both times the 2nd review also came back negative.

I really do not enjoy publishing an unfavorable book review. Most authors deal quite well with the criticism. A small minority however takes an unfavorable book review quite hard. I try to help the author understand that the review is not a personal attack and is just one reviewer’s opinion (albeit an informed one) of one book.

Interestingly, I’ve seen authors actively promote unfavorable reviews I’ve published; apparently heeding the advice that there is no such thing as bad publicity or as Oscar Wilde once wrote, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about”.

Early on I discovered, the hard way, that some reviewers will review whatever you pay them to review – even if they dislike the genre. This dislike usually ends up in the book review, with undesireable results. Today I make sure I pair reviewers with subjects they actually enjoy.

Fee based book reviews

Scratching for Daylight by Wilbert Gibson Reviewed by Alvin C. Romer

A few years ago I added a fee based book review service.  At the time it was very controversal.  Once book review powerhouse Kirkus been charging for book reviews, I decided there was no reason I could not do the same.

One benefit is that the quality of the books submitted for review increased dramatically.   Authors began to “self-filter” their book review submissions.

The biggest benefit was actully to the author:  authors now have a guarantee their book review will be written, by a specific date and published on a site where people will actually see it.

A significant benefit over sending books to publications that simply throw them away in the vast majority of cases.  Incidentally, I never throw away anyone’s book — even if it is not reviewed. All books are either donated or given away.

We still publish reviews free reviews. However of those books submitted for review consideration, only a very small percentage are actually reviewed.

Technology Helps

Today our book reviewing process is quite streamlined. For commissioned book reviews, once payment is made, we buy the book on-line and ship it directly to the reviewer (electronically if an eBook version is available). In most cases, the author/publisher does not have to take the time to physically mail a book — unless we are reviewing a prepublication galley.

All of the book reviews that I publish are available permanently on AALBC.com.  If the book is favorablably reviewed it is actively shared in our eNewsletter, website and social media.

Notes:

How to get an AALBC.com Book Review: http://aalbc.com/reviews/reviewer_guidlines.htm

Several years ago I wrote a great deal about fee based book reviews on my discussion  boards, answering the question; Should Book Review Should Be a Fee Based Service?  http://aalbc.it/feebasedbookreviews

“Traditional Book Output Up 5%; Nontraditional Soars .” Publishers Weekly May 18 2011: n. page. Web. 6 Jun 2011. <http://aalbc.it/2011bookspubed>.

*The Big Six: Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, MacMillan Publishers Ltd, Penguin Group, Random House and Simon & Schuster

 

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About Troy

Troy D. Johnson is the President, founder and webmaster of AALBC.com, LLC (The African American Literature Book Club). Launched in March of 1998, AALBC.com has grown to become the largest and most frequently visited website dedicated to books and films by and about people of African descent.
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  • http://lenasledgeblog.com Lena

    Great article. I think it is a great service to offer quality book reviews for authors. I also think it is unfortunate that book reviewers don’t get enough support from authors, especially considering it can be time consuming, so I can understand the need for commission based reviews. I always enjoy book reviews that have an authentic voice with passion, whether that passion is favorable towards the book or not. It is the honesty I relate to.

    Lena Sledge’s Blog… Books, Reviews and Interviews

    • http://aalbc.com Troy Johnson

      Hi Lena, other than the free books, book reviewers, in general, do not not get much support. I do what I can, but as an industry

      Many publishers of book reviews do not pay book reviewers very much. Authors are usually supportive to the extent that the review helps the book. The typcial reader is probably not sophisticated enough to distinquish the difference between the promotional copy posted on Amazon under the guise of a book review and the true critical book review.

      No one can really make a living as a book reviewer. The whole industry is really suffering.

      If anyone has sources of entities (web or print based) that regularly publish critical reviews of Black book please post them here. I’ll compile the names and distribute.