Following Brodie’s post last month on ‘Twelve reasons to buy my book, or, The ancient art of self-promotion’, I started thinking about what is one of the most exciting stages of the subsequent post-publication process: that is, the point at which the first review appears. This post is therefore a reflection on my own experience of being reviewed. The book in question is my Church Music and Protestantism in Post-Reformation England, which was published by Ashgate in their St Andrews Studies in Reformation History series in May 2010. A modified version of my PhD thesis, the book charts the impact of the reformation on religious music, and the role of religious music in shaping the English reformation (OK, so I couldn’t resist a quick plug!).
A jog rather than a sprint
One of the inevitable by-products of the academic system is the development of a ‘feedback loop’. This starts at school, and continues through university, including the process of PhD supervision, and even the viva. I think most of us have a deep-seated desire to be told how well we’ve managed to perform a given task: I’m minded here of Lisa Simpson’s desperate plea to Marge when the teachers go on strike and Springfield Elementary closes: ‘Grade me…look at me…evaluate and rank me! Oh, I’m good, good, good, and oh so smart! Grade me!’ All of which is a slightly roundabout way of making the point that, once you’ve released a book into the world, it’s only natural to want to know how well it has been received. Well, you may be in for a bit of wait. Books have to be sent out to a journal, received, processed, allocated, sent out to a reviewer, received and read even before the review can be written, which can itself take a fair bit of time. Manuscripts have to be typed up, sent in, proof-read, and scheduled for publication in a particular issue. How many of us have ever taken more than the allocated time to submit a book review? Need I say more! My first review appeared just over a year after the book was published, which isn’t an especially long time by any means, and two and a half years in I suspect that there are still several more in the pipeline. Glance at the list of books available to review on the Sixteenth Century Journal website, and there are still plenty of titles from 2010 awaiting their reviewer…
More a trickle than a flood
Briefly, and for the same reasons outlined above, it therefore follows that different journals will take varying amounts of time to publish their review of your book. The rules here are slightly different for game-changing books by field-shaping authors. When Eamon Duffy or Alexandra Walsham release a new monograph, it’s a fair guarantee that the reviews will appear thick and fast, while journals vie with one another to ride the crest of the publication wave. But I think that the experience is different for the majority of (especially) first books and their authors. The sheer volume of work being produced in the field is so overwhelming that it might take a long time for your turn to come around. For example, the October 2012 issue of the Journal of Ecclesiastical History features reviews of several books published in 2009.
Past and Present famously do not review books, of course, but most of us have an idea of the top journals in our particular area, and would probably like to see our book being reviewed there. But, and again for the reasons outlined above, it’s not wise to be too fussy, and it is frankly exciting to see a review of your work being published anywhere! My experience is of two reviews in major, large-circulation journals (History and the Journal of British Studies) and two in smaller, more specialist publications (Ecclesiology Today and Anglican and Episcopal History).
Again, most of us would probably like to see our work being reviewed by one of the leading practitioners in our field, but the reality is that you could be reviewed by anybody, from the greenest PhD student to the loftiest of munros [for an explanation of this term, see this previous post by Laura Sangha]. The thing to remember is that a review is no less valuable for that! I feel lucky in that two people whose work I already knew and respected very much reviewed my book (Eric Carlson and Andrew Foster), but the other reviewers also brought valuable insights and have helped me see and think about the book in different ways, as well as addressing the concerns of a broader constituency of readers.
The Good News
I’m delighted to say that although it is at times a slow and frustrating process, my experience of being reviewed has been an entirely pleasurable one (so far). Everyone likes having nice things said about them, and a few positive reviews finally close the ‘feedback loop’ I mentioned at the start. I feel that it would be remiss of me to pass up the opportunity of quoting a few highlights(!): Eric Carlson commented that the book used ‘an exceptional range of sources’ and that ‘the prose has flashes of genuine wit and elegance’. Sarah Williams picked up on ‘careful and exhaustive archival research’. Andrew Foster wrote an extremely kind review, calling it a ‘truly exciting, ground-breaking book’, displaying ‘amazing erudition whilst also providing a compelling read’. And Jonathan Gray remarked that the book was ‘learned and thought-provoking … a detailed, meticulously researched monograph’.
The Bad News
Given that we research and write in a universe of finite time and resources, most of us are probably aware that even the most polished work has, if not shortcomings, at least areas of particular strength and therefore (by extension) of relative weakness. A good review will highlight these, but in a proportionate and constructive manner. To pick a few nuggets from my review sample, this was not (as one author pointed out, I imagine with eyebrow raised) an introductory textbook; another noted that it shed light on far more aspects of life in early modern England ‘than one might suppose from the title’ (ouch!). Finally, another commented that the final chapter was perhaps the ‘least satisfying’, because – as I would be among the first to admit – much archival work on parish music still remains to be done.
In conclusion, my experience of being reviewed is that it is a slow but ultimately rewarding process. It certainly isn’t the be-all and end-all though. If anything, the most rewarding feedback I’ve had has come in the form of unsolicited emails or personal approaches at conferences and elsewhere from people who have read and enjoyed the book. It’s also made me think very differently about how I review other people’s books. I’d be interested to hear what experiences monster readers have had, either as reviewees or reviewers. Is it always plain sailing…?
 My book has been reviewed four times so far since it came out in May 2010: by Eric Carlson in History, 96.323 (2011), p. 368; by Andrew Foster in Ecclesiology Today, 45 (2012); by Jonathan Michael Gray in Anglican and Episcopal History, 81.1 (2012), pp. 106-17; and by Sarah F. Williams in Journal of British Studies, 50.3 (2011), pp. 753-755.
 Jonathan Willis, Church Music and Protestantism in Post-Reformation England: Discourses, Sites and Identities (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010).