Overall, Rebecca Skloot has probably the best advice I’ve ever seen on breaking into book reviews on her website. Some of the best advice: “Read the publication you plan to query” to know their tastes. Her advice on getting clips is, for the most part, spot-on. But the market is completely different since Skloot first broke into book reviewing, so I’m going to update a few things.
First: no one has any money. Just pretend like you’re cool with not getting paid and everything else will be 1,000,000 times easier for you in the beginning. For starters, the publishing industry is no longer keen on parting with their publication catalogs, and a lot of publishing houses now only distribute PDFs of their forthcoming titles. The best resource for finding out what books are coming out is Amazon.com.
For those just starting out, I’d take advantage of the fact that plenty of editors need online content, but don’t have any money. (Last thing I’ll say about money: if money is a concern, do something else.) So, read your local paper, weekly paper, or the closest reputable publication you can to get a sense for the kind of stuff they like to review. Then, search Amazon to find out what upcoming books are coming out in the next few months that you’re interested in.
If there are no local publications you care about, or you haven’t published a book review before, there are plenty of respected online-only venues for criticism. One good way to find them is to look at some online-only Bookforum reviews to see where the contributors have been published and email those places, too. Email the editor, and say that you’ve been published in a few places and are really interested in reviewing the books you found, perhaps with a sentence or two about why each book excites you. Say that you’re cool with writing for him/her online, and that being published is sufficient payment for now. This last part is key. To repeat: take advantage of the fact that plenty of editors need online content, but don’t have any money. I’m not here to talk about the ethics of this, or how hard it is to be a writer, or the direction of quality criticism. That’s another conversation. This conversation is for those getting started.
The catch here is that a lot of people will only work as hard as they’re getting paid. Do I have to tell you that that’s bullshit? Hopefully not. To an extent, good writing speaks for itself. Any time you spend honing your craft—regardless of what you’re getting paid, where it’s being published, or if anyone’s going to see it at all—is time spent wisely that will serve you in the long-run. And to survive mentally, psychologically, and professionally, you have to think long-term.
Some of my favorite contemporary writers seem to publish very little. I have no idea what they do for money. But it’s better to publish two high-quality articles, essays, or reviews a year than a bunch of hastily-written crap that you did just to pay the bills. Of anything I’ve written, quality is what gets Tweeted, Liked, noticed, and commented on—but more importantly, writing well, in addition to developing good relationships with editors, is what can get you future assignments in better publications.
In addition to Skloot’s advice, which you really should read—especially the part about having a specialty—I’ll give you some advice on contacting editors. I entered my career a bit sideways, since I started out as the books editor for Willamette Week, the alt-weekly in Portland, Oregon. I used to get a ton of emails from would-be reviewers, lots of them students who had just graduated (maybe they were the editor-in-chief of their college’s literary magazine and were still going for their career Plan A); others were recent retirees, jaded journalists, or stay-at-home moms—all types. By far, the biggest mistake they made was the mistake most people make when emailing someone who’s really busy: they wrote really long emails and focused their emails entirely on themselves. A busy editor doesn’t have time to read three paragraphs about your thesis. Think of making contact with a busy person as a reverse robbery: you want to get in, offer help, and get out as quickly as you can. If they’re interested, they’ll ask for more information. If you throw them the kitchen sink, their eyes will glaze over the email before they hit delete.
On the other hand, if you’re on the other side getting those emails, it pays to be nice. If someone’s really nice and persistent, work with them. Throw them a bone. You never know where they’re end up in a few years.