In the past few months, several early-career scholar friends have asked me for advice about reviewing manuscripts. The scenario goes like this: a press contacts a scholar to do an anonymous peer review of a book or collection of essays; said press offers the scholar books or $$ for this review work; said scholar wants to do the best possible job but is new to the review world; said scholar might also be concerned about disciplinary politics, or might feel s/he isn’t enough of an “expert” to offer good feedback. (There’s that old Impostor Syndrome rearing its head…) In case my advice might be helpful to others, I offer a more polished version here.*
1. Do unto other others as you would have reviewers do unto to you. If the book sucks, it’s really tempting to flame it. But remember that when you submit a book for review, you’ll want to be treated as gently as possible, even if your content still needs a lot of work. Instead of peppering your review with phrases such as “this is inscrutable,” “OMG this is awkward,” and “does the author even know what a footnote is?”, try “perhaps the author meant x; please clarify,” “I’m not sure where the argument is headed here,” or “this passage would benefit from more citations.”
2. Don’t hesitate to express your opinion. The press contacted you because you are an expert in your field. You may be a junior expert, but you are an expert nonetheless. And the press contacted you either because someone recommended you (yay!) or your own published work speaks to your expert status (yay!). As the expert, your job is to help the press decide if it wants to invest in an author.
3. Do give concrete feedback in addition to general comments. Authors truly appreciate concrete advice. Repeatedly telling the author “your work is sloppy” only depresses the poor author. (Also, it isn’t very kind. See point 1 above.) The press usually asks you to fill out a general questionnaire and also asks for specific suggestions. Here’s the part where you should supply details such as “chapter 2 could use more citations especially on pages 6, 7, and 42”; “the author has the tendency to split infinitives (see page 4, line 6 and page 22, line 12 for examples)”; “seminal texts such as This Book is Awesome and This Book is also Awesome, by historian I. M. Awesome, would enrich the resources in chapter 4.”
4. Do protect your time. We all want to do our best work. But unless the press is paying you $1 million to do this review, bear mind that you’re not getting paid enough to point out every flaw in the book. Decide in advance how many hours you have to spare for this, and stick to it. Unfortunately, the best books will take very little time. The worst books will need a ton of intervention. If you get two chapters in and the book is terrible, don’t be afraid to simply stop what you’re doing and indicate to the editor that the book is simply unsuitable.
5. Don’t confuser “reviewer” with “editor.” I’ve just told you to offer concrete advice, but you will lose your sanity if you try to point out every little issue that needs to be fixed. Remember that the author will work with an editorial team. The essential question at hand for you is whether or not it is worth the press’s time and resources to take the book through that editorial process.
6. Do negotiate. It is less expensive for the press to offer you books; this is why presses usually offer roughly double payment in books. If you opt for the cash instead, be aware that you will have to claim this on your taxes the following year. (The press will send you a 1099 form.) And you can also ask the press for a bit more money. The press might say no, and then you can decide if the work is worth your time. The press might also say yes.
7. Do stick to whatever timeframe you’ve agreed on. Presses remember. Word gets around. More importantly–at least from my point of view as an author currently waiting for a round of reviews that should have been back a month ago–the poor author is waiting on tenterhooks. A tenure bid or promotion may be at stake. We all have busy lives, and sometimes we miss deadlines (*ahem*). But when a press contacts you to do a review, refrain from accepting unless you are absolutely committed to submitting the review on time. If you are running behind, communicate with the press. The author will send you anonymous blessings, and you will have just invested in reviewer karma.
*This advice also applies to review of journal articles. Change the nouns as necessary.