On The Frontiers Of Book Talk

Recently Published: Nov. 17, 2011

by Emily Goodman

Brian Kenney, editorial director for Library Journal, School Library Journal, and The Horn Book, and Luann Toth, managing editor of book reviews for School Library Journal, described how the digital revolution has transformed professional coverage of books and publishing in general at the October 11, 2011 lecture in the Tuesday Professional Series.

“The popular media have cut a lot of their book reviews,” said Kenney. “But digital platforms have enabled a great expansion of book talk. Our coverage of books for children and teens has tripled or quadrupled in the last six years thanks to our bloggers and the digital newsletters that have spun off from the print publications. Make no mistake: digital publishing is here to stay.”

School Library Journal, or SLJ, is a magazine for school and public librarians that covers children’s and young adult books and multimedia, Kenney said. SLJ reviews about 6,000 of the 20,000 children’s and YA books published annually; it also includes author interviews, features on publishing trends, and articles on issues affecting children and teens, such as bullying.

Toth explained the review process: Of the 20,000 titles submitted annually by publishers, the magazine’s book review editor Trevelyn Jones assigns the 6,000 they’ll review from those books the publishers indicate are their lead titles and representative samples from various mainstream and small presses. “Usually voice is more important than plot, for me, in determining an outstanding selection,” says Toth. “In nonfiction, we look for a new twist on old topics.”

While almost all picture books get reviewed, for longer books, “It gets harder and harder to have a handle on everything that’s being published by virtue of the sheer volume that we receive,” she said. The magazine’s reviewers, all of whom are librarians currently working with kids or subject specialists, are not paid for writing reviews. One person reviews each book; an SLJ editor also reads the book to see if she agrees with the evaluation and edits the review for style, and a second reader unfamiliar with the book checks to see if it makes sense to someone who hasn’t read it.

“Each month we give some reviews a star,” Toth said. “There’s no set number. Starred books are chosen by all four of our editors. Sometimes we don’t quite share the reviewer’s enthusiasm for a book, but we like to let our people have their say. That’s why some regular reviews will occasionally sound more glowing than the starred ones.”

Asked about reviewing self-published books, Kenney said, “We would need someone to go out and search for the books that should be reviewed. It’s a different model from what we do now, with the publishers sending books to us. Some places will review a self-published book if the author pays, which means that the burden of getting reviewed is moved onto the author. We can debate if that’s a good idea or not.”

But digital publishing is here to stay, Kenney said. “There are lots of apps ‘related to’ picture books, and we expect that in the next year we’ll see YA books that are only available digitally, with no print versions. That will create reviewing challenges for us.”

Also thanks to the new digital platforms, bloggers have transformed book talk, Kenney said. “Instead of columnists, we now feature about ten different bloggers on our website. They’re not under SLJ editorial control: They write long, personal, passionate pieces, not SLJ reviews. It’s gratifying to see the conversation and traffic they generate. “Our job is to talk about books,” he said. “I’m glad the voices talking about books have expanded.”

To join the conversation, go to http://www.slj.com.

Emily Goodman’s picture book Plant Secrets is the Nebraska Farm Bureau’s Agriculture Book of the Year for 2009. Follow Emily on Facebook!

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