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08/31/2020

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Michel

I think it's a fine first publishing experience, but I wouldn't go out of my way to chase it. The main advantage, to my mind--and I published two reviews as a graduate student--is that it nets you a free copy of a new book and forces you to read it, so that it's now in your arsenal for the dissertation/future work. So it's best if it's for a new book in your AOS, preferably closely related to your dissertation work. It's also a way of getting yourself out there in the subfield.

FWIW, all of my book review invitations, then and now, came through friends and friendly acquaintances who were in a position to assign a review or suggest a reviewer, and who knew the kind of stuff I work on. I made good use of all those books in my dissertation and my published work since then. I'd like to review books more often, but the tradeoff is that it really does take a while, especially when you haven't yet found your academic voice. I'd stay away from longish books, boring books, and edited collections (which will take much more work) altogether.

Rather than try your luck with Mind reviews or whatever, have a look at Philosophy in Review. They're open-access and entirely dedicated to reviewing books in philosophy, so they need and go through a ton of reviewers. (As a result, it's also a fantastic clearing-house for finding reviews when you need them for research purposes.)

Ted Shear

The advice that I received in grad school–which seems to hold up in my opinion–is that writing book reviews is not a good use of your time until you've got tenure (or perhaps are well on your way). The advice came with a few provisos. It may be worth considering if:

1) the book and venue are sufficiently prominent that they will give you a voice in the conversation, or
2) it is a book you are already planning on working through closely (e.g. as part of a lit. review chapter in your dissertation) and you think this task would be helpful in motivating you to succeed in that.

Although I've heeded this advice myself and have not written one, I understand that they are a *lot* of work and your efforts are almost certainly spent elsewhere.

Evan

I wouldn’t do a book review unless it’s necessary or relevant to your main work for several reasons: First, it can waste your time when you should be focusing on writing articles or your dissertation.

Second, most book reviews are not great in my experience. For some reason, academic book reviews tend to be shorter than articles. As a result, this will cost you nuance; you probably won’t do the book justice because of word limit. Ironically, I’ve seen more in-depth and nuanced reviews from Amazon customers on a book than from some scholarly book reviews.

Third, because book reviews tend not to do the book justice and tend to be shorter than most articles, hiring committees will probably be unimpressed by a host of book review articles on your CV. These hiring committees probably know first hand what academic book reviews are like anyway. Hence, you won’t be able to fool them by having lots of book reviews. Put yourself in their position. Would you hire somebody with so many book reviews and insufficient original articles published?

Of course, there may be times when you’ve read a book and absolutely hate it or love it and you want to write a review on it to convince others to either buy or don’t buy it. This is understandable. Most of us wanna brag about things we love. However, given that book review articles tend to be short, you probably won’t be able to convince your audience anyway. If I were you, I would just write an independent book review that does the book justice and post it on your website or blog. Just don’t include the independent review on your CV.

Personally, I rarely come across a book review that truly satisfied me. Many of them are just as useless as film reviews I’ve read on Rotten Tomatoes.

RJM

Just wanted to register that I've always found doing book reviews helpful, whether as a PhD student, postdoc, or with the security of a permanent position. Obviously I don't just review any old book I come across; I choose books I am liable to focus on in papers, chapters etc., or that I will be teaching in depth. I have also found it is a great way of developing the important skill of summarising a lot of material in very few words, and it often prompts me to think about new issues, new objections to familiar views, and so on.

Trevor Hedberg

I've done several book reviews, and I'd say they are worth doing in a few specific situations. (1) There's a book you want to read for your own research, but you don't have a personal copy of that book. (2) There's a book you're planning to read because you might assign it as a text in one of your own courses. (3) You've been asked to review a book that you have already read (either partially or fully). This is a rarer occurrence than the other two but can certainly happen if you, for instance, read papers that later become chapters in the book or have someone share a draft with you when it's still a WIP.

In each of these cases, it's not going to be much extra work to put together a book review of the content, particularly since book reviews are rather short publications. Also, my own view of book reviews is that they are a service to the profession. Having benefited from reading many book reviews over the years, I think it's appropriate (if not obligatory) for me to contribute an occasional book review of my own so long as I remain a part of the scholarly profession and benefit from the book reviews others have done.

Anon TT

I would tell my past self to not do the book reviews I did (2 in grad school). They didn't matter at all on the job market and took *a ton* of time. They also count for nothing now on my CV. It's also extremely difficult to write a good book review, so the process can be frustrating and you might look back on your grad student self (as I did) and think- well that's kind of embarrassing. If only I had waited to review books for when I was more experienced, more of an expert, and more prepared to judge the quality of a book...

Even if you are well prepared to write the review, it's just not worth it. Focus on publishing peer-reviewed journal articles in well-respected places. Write book reviews for service to the profession (that's what it's counted for here, I think) when you have tenure.

R

One of the pieces of advice I received in grad school (and I should emphasize that I am in no position to judge whether this is true) is that writing book reviews is a no-win proposition. The only person likely to read it carefully is the book author, and they will be easily offended by even the mildest critical notes.

Again, I don't know if this is right, just wanted to share this perspective that at least some people have.

JR

Writing a book review is like peacock growing feathers. It looks nice but is no real use. The only point is to show that you have resources to spare from your dissertation/paper writing (it can also be a good practice of writing stuff though). Same goes for editing journal issues.

I have written a book review (as a grad student) for a top specialist journal. I just contacted the book review editor and asked if I can do it. They wanted to see my CV but after that agreed. Not sure, but it might helped that I had the book myself so the journal did not even have to sent the book to me. Probably no-one read the review but at least I was able to exchange a few emails with the author after my review was published.

It was fun but quite time-consuming. I would say: do it once but after that spend your time in more important things.

Mike

I don't see the attraction in writing a book review. I've never gone looking to book reviews for contributions to the scholarly/academic/philosophical conversation, so I'm unsure about the comment that the right venue might still afford you a voice in the conversation. (Also, I basically *never* see book reviews cited, so I'm not alone.) I do glance through book reviews somewhat often (usually Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews), but always just to find out what a book is about and whether it's any good. In that light, I think Anon TT is right that book reviews are service to the profession.

I'd guess, as others have suggested, that a book review is meaningless on your CV on the job market. I imagine that the value (for you) in doing a review is probably in the actual networking that goes along with it: It signals someone with some power thought you were an expert, it builds rapport with them, opens up potential connections with new people (like the author), etc. These connections might lead to something that is meaningful (like a contribution to a fancy volume or workshop).

So, if a grad student finds themselves in the position of being asked to write a book review, it's maybe a good idea to accept as a means of cultivating professional connections, but I just can't see the appeal of chasing a book review or wanting to write one.

Also, as I type this, I can't help but think it's all moot, since the pandemic is probably going to obliterate an already terrible job market.

Current PhD student

I thought about getting into the book review game, but it’s a lot of labor. I can’t afford to work that much without adequate compensation. The choice was easy once I thought about it like that.

PhD Reviewer

I'm going into the second year of my PhD and recently wrote a review for an edited collection after soliciting a journal. I've heard a few people warn against reviewing collections (as opposed to reviewing monographs), ostensibly because it's much more work to review a collection. I'm not sure this is the case, though. Reviewing a monograph requires fairly careful attention to detail, at least if one wants to present the author's arguments accurately. Edited collections don't require this to the same extent, since the reviewer isn't required to write an in-depth review of each article in the collection, but rather discuss the collection as a whole, briefly dipping in and out of particular articles. As such, the review can be far more coarse-grained. Because of this, I didn't find it too arduous and I think reviewing a monograph would have been more intimidating. (Then again, I might have done a horrible job of reviewing the book!) Having said that, I'm not certain it was a good use of my time. I think the most useful benefit of the review is for networking of sorts -it "signals" my research interests without having to publish an article in the area first - not least to the editors of the collection - but hopefully to others who write on the subject. Time will tell if that benefit is actually tangible, though.

phdstudent

If you are only writing a book review for a line on your C.V. its likely a waste of time. However, I've found them fairly useful writing exercises. Writing a couple book reviews as a grad student helped me get a feeling for the publishing process and took away some of the intimidation I felt for sending out actual articles. I would have likely sat on publishable articles for much longer if getting a couple book reviews out hadn't convinced me that this was the sort of thing I could do.

In addition, I've found them fairly useful and rewarding writing exercises, and they've never really taken me that much time. I've learned a few things about paraphrasing concisely and making objections that are both sharp but charitable through writing reviews. Not every piece of writing has to be about getting ahead on the job market (though most likely do), they can be about developing skills, confidence, or engaging with a book your interested in. And as I mentioned, those getting ahead on the job market writings for me would have probably been further delayed if I hadn't had a soft introduction to publishing through book reviews.

Brad

I think the last comment, by phdstudent, gets at some important issues. Let me be clear, I edit a Springer/Nature journal that publishes only book reviews, so I am hardly impartial. But I work on the journal because I believe in the mission. And we have had many leaders in the field - HPS - contribute to our journal, including van Fraassen, Dennett, etc. I also published a review as a grad student. And I have published 29 reviews since.
Book reviews are a low stakes ways to learn about publishing. You can learn how to check proofs for publications, etc. (Do you want to be learning all this with your first published article?) They are also an opportunity to connect with people and debates. If the book is in your area, and should read it anyway, you might as well write a review. People do read them - I see the numbers. (One review by a young scholar was accessed over 900 times in one year - that is exceptional). You also learn about writing effectively, including what tone to use. As an editor, I try to help authors of reviews, and recommend changes that may help them. Further, once you have reviewed a book, there is one (often more) people aware of you and your work. I get asked every now and then if I will do something (participate in a conference, referee a paper, etc.), or if I know someone working in an area who might want to be part of a conference, etc. And on numerous occasions I have forwarded names of people who have written reviews for the journal, honoured their deadline, and were easy to work with. These are people I may know nothing else about (Of course, I have read their review, as I read all of them). The benefits that come from many things in the profession are rather indirect. It is not a perverse crony system. Rather, people are looking for others they know to vouch for someone's reliability and thoughtfulness.

Malcolm

I second what Brad has said, as book review editor myself. We regularly have established philosophers contribute reviews. Writing a book review is a good way to hone skills like pairing charitable interpretation with critical engagement. On the professional side of things, it is a good chance to practice setting a manageable writing goal and sticking to a deadline.

I realize that deadlines are a bit of a joke in academia, but it is important to learn project and time management skills, and a book review is lower stakes than a grant application or a dissertation. However, on the flip side, you can make a poor impression by ignoring emails, blowing past deadlines, writing a hasty review which nit-picks or misconstrues a project. So, as others have said, don't write a review just for a line on a CV.

Fool

I think book reviews are an extremely important genre of writing and more people should do them.
They're not adequately valued for professional purposes, which means most sane people don't put the kind of effort into them that would make them good enough to do their important work in the field. Make them worth something, hold them to a higher editorial standard before publication, and you'll get better more substantive reviews that are more worth doing.
I edited the reviews at a journal for five years. I had a policy of giving one round of feedback on submitted reviews and asking the writers to edit them in response. The increase in quality from just one round was substantial. I would never have asked for more revision than that because the investment from the writers would not have been rewarded professionally, but many of these reviewers told me that 1) they had never been asked to revise a book review before, and 2) that they were much happier with the revised version.
Finally, it's not entirely true that book reviews are always worth nothing. One of my first reviews (just a normal 1500 word affair) was cited 15+ times, and led to the editor at the press that published the book making me their go-to internal reviewer of book proposals in the field (which actually does pay, albeit in books). They even invited me to submit my own book there first, though I didn't as it was an awkward fit. But it goes to show that very occasionally a book review isn't wasted work even by standards of practical professional reward.
More importantly, though, they can be really intellectually valuable when done well. And that's without even getting to the value of multiple-book review essays, which seem to be a mythical species in philosophy. It's not a coincidence that these have huge citation counts in many fields: they're extremely useful. If I had the logistical capacity I'd set up something like NDPR but for multiple-book survey-reviews.

Almost there

The above advice that the CV line isn't much and that writing reviews is a major time sink is valid. But I take issue with the claim that nobody would read reviews. Some folks do read book reviews. If I hear about a book that would be good for my research but don't have immediate access to it, I tend to read a couple of reviews to help learn more about the general argument and judge whether it's worth acquiring. When I'm engaging, in writing, with a view that's been articulated in a book, I read reviews of that book to see how others have received it. And finally, my own reviews have been read, in numbers on a par with my articles -- I've even had a professor e-mail me to ask me to e-mail them the review.

That said, if I had to choose, I would prefer that people read my articles rather than my reviews, and I figure most would make that same choice. Hence, when pressed for time, write what you want people to read -- i.e. articles.

PhD Student

I am a second-year PhD student, I have just been asked to complete a book review. It is my first review so I am surprised I was asked, however, I believe there is an intrinsic value to the process; 1.) I am new to publishing and gives me insight into the process and 2.) it allows me to connect my name to a discipline whilst still a grad student.

I have heard they are useless as CV builders, but I would still merit that it allows for a strict disciplined approach to your writing skillset and to adhere to set formatting parameters.

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