Mid-to long-distance runners are said to be lonely individuals. That’s because they put in their miles and miles by themselves, then suddenly one day they join hundreds or thousands of other runners in a competitive event. Book reviewing is a bit like that.
The book reviewer is alone while he/she reads advance copies of books that others will not see for weeks or months. Then, when the book is released he/she joins the crowd and finds out what is the consensus about the book. The reviewer’s call has been made earlier at a time when he or she could not reflect public opinion because it has not been formed.
Let me state this again. If I like or dislike a book it’s a call that I have to make early on in the publishing process, often when there are no other reviews to read. This can be fun but it also introduces a scary aspect to the process. To use the running analogy again, it’s like being excited about running a marathon on a course that no one has ever run before.
There’s also a loneliness based on distance. The great majority of publishers are on the east coast, and most of them are based in New York City. When review copies are mailed out, the publishers often provide a reviewer with the names of persons to be contacted if there are questions. But the contacts are three hours ahead of our time in the west, and a reviewer with questions after 2:00 p.m. in Sacramento or San Francisco is not going to get a quick answer. Thus, the questions are not usually asked.
Then there’s the Catch-22 of galleys. Galleys are early release copies of forthcoming books that, by definition, are not yet ready for prime time. It can be a sign of recognition for a reviewer to begin receiving more galleys but…
One source has said that a great majority of the corrections to soon-to-be-released books are made at the 11th hour. In reading a galley, a reviewer is often reading the draft that precedes the final draft. The reviewer who wants to add life and depth to his/her review by including quotations from the upcoming book is hampered by the standard publisher’s statement that, in effect, “No quotations should be taken from this version without checking them against the final version.”
It’s a bit hard to finish a review near the publication date when one does not and will not have access to the final version. The result is that a reviewer is going to pull out a quote with a hope and a prayer that it was not changed in publication. Ah, well, this is just another frustrating aspect of the work of the solitary book reviewer. Yet there’s still something special about reading one of only a few hundred copies of a galley or an advance review copy (which often cost more to produce than the finished product) of an upcoming release. It seems like an honor.
The lonely runner keeps putting in the next mile and then the next. The lonely reviewer reads the next chapter in the galley and then the next. The race never ends, but the reward is found in the journey.
This article was originally published by the Sacramento Book Review and San Francisco Book Review.