Transcripts

"Book Reviewing for Profit, Pleasure, and More" with Fred Bortz.

Thursday, July 26, 2001

MODERATOR is Kristi Holl, web editor of this site and author of 24 books for children and teens, plus l50+ articles for adults and children. Kristi also taught writing courses for fifteen years.

Fred is Fred Bortz, Ph.D. physicist and children's science writer who maintains an active web site and also writes book reviews. He reviews science books for Publishers Weekly and several major metropolitan newspapers, especially the Dallas Morning News.

Names in blue are viewers who had questions.

Interviews in the Professional Connection room begin at 9 Atlantic/CANADA, 8 Eastern, 7 Central, 6 Mountain, and 5 Pacific.

Moderator: Good evening, everyone! I'm glad to see you all. I'm Kristi Holl, your Moderator and the web editor for this site. We're here tonight with Fred Bortz who is going to be talking with us on "Book Reviewing for Profit, Pleasure, and More." Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, you can get paid for the time you spend mining for ideas and researching by not only reading but also reviewing the latest books in your field of interest. But how do you get that first assignment, and how do you turn it turn it into many more? Ph.D. physicist and children's science writer Fred Bortz is here to tell us how! Welcome, Fred!

Fred: Hello, everyone! I know you all love books, so this should be fun.

Moderator: Fred (or Dr. Fred, as you've come to be known), how did you come to writing? Were you a scientist first?

Fred: I'm the same person I always was. As a scientist, I loved to write, and as a writer I love science, so it's really just a matter of whether I'm focusing on the skill of communicating knowledge, or the knowledge that I'm communicating.

Moderator: Can you describe a typical writing day for us? I know you write, manage a very active web site, are a scientist, and speak at schools (as well has having a spouse, children and grandchildren)! How do you fit it all in?

Fred: For me, there is no typical day. I have a lot of interests, and I need to jump around. I wouldn't recommend the technique to anyone else, but I do recommend finding a style that suits yourself.

Moderator: Now for our topic: first, what's your definition of a book review for our purposes tonight?

Fred: A review is an article whose subject matter is a particular book and whose purpose is to give the readers enough information so they can decide whether they want to spend their time and/or money on it.

Moderator: How much do I need to know about a given subject to review books on it? Do I need to have a degree in that field, or years of teaching, or something really "substantial" on my resume?

Fred: The more you know about the subject, the more you can say about the book. However, it is important to be able to see the book through the eyes of your readers who may be encountering the subject for the first time. In that case, too much knowledge can be dangerous. I'm pretty good at looking at things through my readers' eyes. I think that comes from writing for children.

Kevin: What if your area of interest would be termed just a hobby, even if it's one you've had for years and know a lot about? Does that qualify you to write reviews?

Fred: Don't diminish the value of a hobby. It provides enormous incentive to learn more by reading. David Levy, for example, is a writer who hunts comets as a hobby. Lots of people look for rocks or fossils or bugs. Writing was once my hobby. Having a powerful interest and being so well read on a subject gives you qualifications enough.

CHRIS1212: What qualities make for a good book reviewer?

Fred: The most important is to be able to read the book as if you're a general reader in your audience. I assume you already have a natural curiosity about your subject.

Moderator: Did you start out writing "on spec" reviews? How did you get your first job as a reviewer? (Or sell your first review?)

Fred: For a long time, I was reviewing for free for a magazine called Appraisal: Science Books for Young People. It was a way, before publishing any books myself, to get inside the field of children's science books. The magazine ran a pair of reviews, one by a librarian and one by a specialist. That went on for quite a few years, until I started publishing science books of my own. All the reviews for Appraisal: Science Books for Young People were for free.

Moderator: Do you write review copy for jacket blurbs too? Do you get paid for that?

Fred: I don't write those for publishers. I think it would be a conflict of interest.

Moderator: Do publications these days always pay for reviews? If not, for those who do, what kind of payment might someone expect for a review?

Fred: They don't all pay. The professional ones sometimes don't, but the ones I write for now, the magazines and newspapers, do pay, and sometimes quite a lot, depending on their circulation and the length of the review.

Moderator: Do editors send you the books and ask you for a review, or do you query and ask them, or just write the review and submit it "on spec"?

Fred: Most of my reviews at first were assigned. Publishers Weekly was looking for someone who could handle the books in physical and mathematical sciences, but I got a couple of related books that seemed to be suitable for newspaper reviews, and I pitched a comparative review to my hometown newspaper. I then realized it was widely marketable nationwide and I started cold-calling some editors and found about a dozen who were interested specifically or in general and hit it off particularly well with about three of them.

Moderator: Some "reviews" are only positive, others seem mostly negative. Are there "rules" for reviewing? (Do certain publications only want positive comments, for example?)

Fred: Most publications like generally positive reviews, but not completely so. You don't want to bring attention to a book that is bad or uninteresting. The only exception is when a book is going to be read anyway, and you need to warn people that it has serious problems.

CHRIS1212: As a reviewer, do you ever feel compelled to say something negative about a book just to make your review more "balanced"?

Fred: No. I usually say positive things or spend a lot of time discussing the content. Readers can usually tell by my tone whether it's an "A", "B", "B+", and so forth.

Moderator: Do you send for writer's guidelines for writing reviews, as you would send for regular guidelines?

Fred: The newspapers usually send guidelines when they send a contract or an assigned book.

Moderator: Are there any how-to books on writing reviews?

Fred: I don't know. If there were one, I'd pitch it for a review!

JaciRae: How long are reviews supposed to be? I've seen some very short ones and very long ones.

Fred: That varies from one publication to another and within the same publication. For my main client, the Dallas Morning News at www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/books I usually write 450-500 words, but I had a three-book comparative review there that was 900 words. I have a two-book comparative assigned, and I can stretch to 500-600 words.

John223: If you write a review that's too long for the publication, do they ever just use part of it?

Fred: It's not a good idea to send too many words when you've been given a limit. It's better to edit it yourself than to let someone else choose what to cut. The only time I did that was when I had written an 800-word review for one paper and the Morning News editor cut it to 450 -- and she did a marvelous job. (I told her so, too.)

CHRIS1212: Where do I look for opportunities as a reviewer? Where would editors and/or publishers advertise? Or do they?

Fred: I found my first opportunity for paid reviews (225-250 words) with Publishers Weekly on an Internet newsgroup (science education, I think). From there, I began pitching reviews to my hometown paper, and then the cold-calling. I never imagined myself a salesperson, but I had a product that I could interest clients in within two sentences.

Kevin: Is there a section in Writer's Market that tells who buys reviews?

Fred: Kevin, it's hard to identify book review editors from listings. I finagled a list from a book publicist, and I went from there. I think the best way to do it is to develop a small packet and send to newspapers that publish what appear to be freelance reviews. Get the editors' names from the paper. I didn't go about it the right way, but I had a product that allowed me to get away with it.

Kevin: What would you put in this packet?

Fred: I'd put a brief list of my credentials -- what I said on the phone in those two sentences -- and a sample review of a recent book.

Moderator: Do you only choose to review books you'd read anyway, for your own knowledge or entertainment, just in case you can't sell the review?

Fred: Book reviewing has broadened my reading list in wonderful ways. I work mainly from assignments, but I can choose to turn down some titles that don't interest me. You know all those books that you planned to read some day? Well I get to read them and get paid for it. They give me ideas for my own books, too. I'm working on a proposal about global warming, and I've seen several brand new books that approach the subject from several points of view.

CHRIS1212: Just curious. Do you get to keep the books you review?

Fred: Yes, and I sometimes get multiple copies, which I donate selectively.

Moderator: You mentioned having to put yourself in your audience's shoes to write the review. How do you do that if you've never been there? Or should you only review books for audiences you truly understand (like parents if you're a parent yourself)?

Fred: Whenever you build a relationship with a person, you learn how that person thinks. I've never been a woman or a teenage girl, but I have succeeded in being married to a woman and after 34 years, I usually know what is going on in her head. I also raised a daughter, now 28, who still calls me "Daddy," even though she's happily married. Anyway, I build a relationship with my audience. I'm saying that I have known enough people in my life that I can usually say that so-and-so would like this book. Then I write the review to tell so-and-so why s/he would enjoy it.

Moderator: I see! Fred, how timely do your reviews need to be? Must you read pre-publication galleys to have reviews done when the book comes out? How "hot off the presses" do the books need to be for reviewing?

Fred: One newspaper editor insists that the books be published in the month of the review. But my editor at the Dallas Morning News believes, "Science keeps." The reviews may be a few months after publication. The one currently on-line there, The Hole in the Universe, came out in January or February, but the book is timeless in a sense, at least until the next theory of space-time and all the other dimensions comes out.

Kevin: Why are some book reviews published even a year after the book comes out?

Fred: Often they coincide with the release of a paperback version. Or an item in the news.

JaciRae: How do you get books soon enough to have the review written and published the same month it comes out?

Fred: I get pre-publication proofs, which sometimes have errors that are later corrected. The publishers ask that any quotations from the book be checked against final copy. My PW reviews don't usually lead to finished books, but my newspaper reviews do. That's how I get extra copies from multiple sales.

CHRIS1212: About those review excerpts that appear on the back cover of a book: "Advance praise for <title>." Are those solicited from prestigious names in the given field for marketing purposes?

Fred: Yes. I'm hoping that my name is that valuable sometime!

Moderator: Do you read books differently when reviewing than when you read for yourself?

Fred: Yes. I always try to think about other readers. I read a book that made me very mad once, but I could tell that a certain political bent -- and perhaps that's the right word -- would cause the reader to lap it up. Actually, I think the author was trying to reach the traditional scientist with his interesting point of view. But he made such readers so mad that they'd never get to the good parts. That's what I said in my review.

Moderator: Do you read the whole book thoroughly? If not, how much skim-reading do you do?

Fred: I read most of it, though I often skip the back-matter. I make sure I'm never criticizing it for something I skim over. And good books usually hook me again after minimal skimming.

Moderator: Did you ever "trash" a book, and if so, why?

Fred: The only trashing was for a book where the author touted herself as a cross between Madonna and Carl Sagan. As an admirer of Sagan, I took offense. This book was not intended to promote good science or a scientific-political agenda as Sagan's did so well, but rather it was to promote the author herself. She even had a new-agey CD of sorts. Anyway, the publication toned down what they viewed as ad hominem attacks, but didn't change my assessment. I learned about how to write a better review from that.

CHRIS1212: How do you feel (now that you review too) when reading others' reviews of your own books? As a writer, how much credence do you give them and have you ever found them helpful to you as a writer?

Fred: I don't mind if they criticize me as long as they do so for reasons that show they understood what I was getting at. If you go to the Amazon.com reviews of my book CATASTROPHE! (which I market myself now and could add reviews), the second review shows that the reviewer missed my point, thinking I blamed engineers. Most of the reviewers recognized that I was saying good things about engineers and engineering. I think the reviewer must have worked on one of the projects that went wrong and took something personally. I am very careful in my reviews of others, not to review the book that I would have preferred, but to review the book they wanted to write.

CHRIS1212: Has an author ever contacted you and taken exception with your review of his work? [Moderator adds: Did you ever contact a critic and question or argue their review of your book?]

Fred: I've gotten e-mail from an author who liked my review. And once I contacted a scientist whose work I admired who had given one of my books a mixed review (slightly negative). I asked him to help me understand where he saw things differently, and we had an interesting e-mail exchange for a while. It turns out that he was on the opposite side of a scientific tug-of-war, and my book favored the other conclusion, though not absolutely by any means.

Kevin: So no one has ever taken exception to a review you wrote?

Fred: Well, I wouldn't say that. They just didn't tell me about it.

Moderator: Has reviewing changed the way you write your own books?

Fred: I don't think so. However, a reviewer's comments once did. She said CATASTROPHE! read like an adventure story from the first page to the last, and I suddenly realized what I did well. From then on, I looked to tell true stories as much as possible in my books.

CHRIS1212: Does being a reviewer of books help you as an author? If so, how?

Fred: Absolutely, Chris. Let me count the ways. First, it exposes me to new intellectual terrain and to different approaches to that terrain. Second, it gives me books to write. I am proposing some science biographies of people whose biographies or autobiographies I read. It also helps me as a teacher. I'm frequently including copies of book reviews with my correspondence lessons, and I'm leading a directed reading course for some graduate students who are soon to be science teachers in high school.

Moderator: Fred, I'm still not quite clear on something. Do you choose the books to review, or do you work only from assignments now?

Fred: I'm now able to pitch some ideas before they are assigned. Sometimes, I read the book and write the review on spec. Other times, I pitch the book based on catalog copy and only read it if I get an assignment. But I still get a lot of assignments, especially from my friendly editor in Dallas who knows my weird taste -- and probably shares it.

CHRIS1212: A question about technique: In writing a review, do you ever "inject" yourself into the review? For instance, do you ever qualify your opinion by writing things like "In this reviewer's opinion..."

Fred: No. I often speak of "the reader" or "a scientist who reads this book," a generalization of myself, but not precisely myself.

Moderator: What happens if you discover that a book bores you even though you know someone else might be fascinated? Or if it bores you and you suspect it will bore everyone?

Fred: I have two choices in the first case. I either return it to the editor and say that it deserves reviewing by someone else, or I struggle through it, trying to read it through that other reader's eyes. In the second case, I send it back and recommend that it not be reviewed, that it doesn't deserve the limited review space. The only exception is that a highly touted but B-O-R-I-N-G book needs to be reviewed to counter the hype.

Kevin: Do you do the same with something poorly written?

Fred: Yes.

Moderator: If you had to come up with "three rules of reviewing," what would they be?

Fred: First, review the book that the author wrote, not the one that you wanted to read. Second, write the review for the people who care about books and might want to invest time, money, and effort with this one. Third, pay attention to the needs and audience of the publication you are writing for. If you can make a direct connection between them and the book, do so.

Moderator: Have your reviews ever led to media appearances or other valuable opportunities for you?

Fred: On June 29, I had my fifteen minutes of fame, as my fellow Carnegie Tech alumnus Andy Warhol would say. NPR's Talk of the Nation has a Science Friday segment. On that day, they were discussing summer science reading, and my reviews that were republished on web sites caught the attention of the producer. Two other reviewers and I had an interesting hour. You can find the list of books at www.sciencefriday.com.

Moderator: I recently read your on-line review of the book The Hole in the Universe: How Scientists Peered over the Edge of Emptiness and Found Everything by K.C. Cole. It has a great opening limerick. I've seen limericks for a number of your reviews. Do you always do this? Is a catchy "gimmick" (I hate that word) helpful to selling reviews? (For our viewers, that review can be found at http://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/books/424347_bk4_hole_22art.html )

Fred: It's an occasional "trade mark" that the readers of the morning news seem to enjoy. I've used limericks in a few places. My book TO THE YOUNG SCIENTIST has one for each chapter, and I won first place (bragging rights) for a "Brain Teaser Limerick" in the American Physical Society contest a couple of years ago. Believe it or not, my limerick could serve as an exam question for a graduate quantum mechanics course!

Moderator: I do believe it! I've read them! Do you have any more reviews coming out soon that we could also read online?

Fred: Oh, yes. I'm probably going to have a regular kids column, with limericks in each one. As for the reviews, I have two next weekend unless the space requirements change, one in the Dallas Morning News on IT'S A BUNNY-EAT-BUNNY WORLD by Olga Litowinski (children's book publishing) and one in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on THE IMPACT OF THE GENE: FROM MENDEL'S PEAS TO DESIGNER BABIES by Colin Tudge. The URL for the J-S is www.jsonline.com/enter/books.

CHRIS1212: Do you think good reviews are those that are more objective or subjective? Or should they be more of one than the other?

Fred: Good reviews are informative and lively. They should have a clear point of view, but you shouldn't have a hidden agenda.

james55clinton: Shouldn't scientific tug-of-wars be fought in scientific journals, not tabloids and nightly news? Scientific controversy often appears in public before the scientific community has reviewed it. It leads to less confidence in science.

Fred: Actually, it leads to greater confidence. Scientists argue the evidence in scientific journals, but when the topic is as compelling as life on Mars lots of people are interested. They feel better when they understand that scientists are considering alternatives, even if they are also human beings who root for a particular outcome and it colors their judgment. Science, in the ideal, is dispassionate, but the best scientists have a passion that they are pursuing. It's a human activity after all. For some insight, go to my web site description of my book TO THE YOUNG SCIENTIST: REFLECTIONS ON DOING AND LIVING SCIENCE. www.fredbortz.com/YoungScientist.htm

CHRIS1212: Earlier, you mentioned reviewing a summer science reading list. Would bundling a group of related reviews as a query increase my chances of interesting a local paper in me as a reviewer?

Fred: A small bundle for a busy editor, Chris. Use your cover letter to guide the editor to the ones that you think might appeal to the publication and its readers.

Kevin: Let's say I have decided I want to write book reviews, and I have quite a bit of knowledge of their subject matter. What would be my first step to take tomorrow? Second step?

Fred: Write a sample review and call the editor of the nearest major metro paper that runs freelance reviews. Most editors prefer local reviewers or local subjects. For example, I'll be reviewing a book called FLIGHT 427 about the discoveries of rudder problems in Boeing 737s. The probe became intense after a plane crash in Pittsburgh, my home town. If I were trying to get started, I'd go "on spec" with that one, but pitch it as far in advance as possible.

CHRIS1212: Are you always looking for new markets for your writing? Or do they find you?

Fred: I'm always looking for new markets. If I could win an award for reviewing or get some more national attention like that NPR program last month, they might come looking for me. Dream on, Fred!

Moderator: I bet it will happen! I'm sorry to have to interrupt, but we need to stop for tonight. Thank you so much, Fred, for making time in your busy schedule to join us tonight. We really appreciate it! I'm sure you've given many of us--including me--some ideas about how we can apply our expertise toward writing reviews.

Fred: Thank you, Kristi, and all you future book reviewers. As I say to my young readers, follow your questions, and enjoy your research!

Moderator: Thanks again, Fred! Do come back in two weeks on August 9 for our next interview. The topic is as yet undecided, so I'll be posting that on the calendar as soon as it's all set. Look for that information in upcoming newsletter updates. Be sure that you're signed up for the weekly newsletters telling of the latest articles and transcripts posted on the sites. If you're not, go here to sign up: http://www.longridgewritersgroup.com/rx/email_updates.shtml And have a great weekend, everybody!

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