Want a book review? Try these tips

Jordan Dane

The Oklahoman newspaper

The Oklahoman newspaper

It’s my pleasure to introduce someone I’ve known for a long time, an Okie friend. I first knew Ken Raymond of The Oklahoman newspaper as a crime beat and features reporter. He is a talented author as well. After he graced me with a glimpse of his work, I’ve been trying to coerce him to write a novel ever since and hope he does one day. Very talented guy. Now he’s the book review editor at the paper, a man of many hats. Please chat Ken up, TKZers.

P S – I will be traveling and in remote spots this week. I may not have access to the internet, but I will try to check in on post day.

Ken Raymond’s Post:

Last year I interviewed David Sedaris, the humorist renowned for essays such as “Santaland Diaries,” a hilarious chronicle of his days working as an elf at Macy’s one holiday season.

We didn’t have much in common, aside from our mutual appreciation of his work, but we both love books … and we share a similar problem.

Whenever Sedaris makes a public appearance, would-be authors thrust their manuscripts at him. He’s not sure why, but he thinks they hope he will read all the books, pass them on to his editors and launch the writers’ book careers.That never happens. Sometimes he says no to the manuscripts; other times he takes them out of a sense of politeness and civility.

Even if he wanted, he could never find time to read them all.

I’m not famous. I don’t make many public appearances, and when I do, they’re usually at writing conferences or classrooms. But I do get buried in books, most of them unsolicited. Dozens pile up outside my front door each week, and more still find their way to what used to be my office.

Who am I? I’m just the book editor for The Oklahoman newspaper in Oklahoma City. Book editor sounds important, but really I’m just one guy who reads and reviews books and tries to convince other people to do the same. My staff, such as it is, consists of volunteer newsroom staffers and a handful of stringers, whose only recompense is a byline and a free book. I interview authors, write about industry trends and work hard to deliver the best possible product, but I’m also a columnist and senior feature writer. There are only so many hours in the day.

Don’t get me wrong: I love my job. I’m among the fortunate few in this world who are paid to read books. The problem is that there are just so many of them, good and bad, in all genres and styles.

Given all that competition, how can you make your book stand out — to me and to the countless other reviewers out there?

There’s no guarantee of success, but these tips may help:

Be honest.

For some reason, no one wants to come across as a beginner in the writing business. I guess everyone assumes that if they’re not all polished and shiny, they won’t stand out.

Me, I’m sick of flashy. I get hundreds of emails a week from authors or publicists, and sometimes from authors pretending to be publicists. The messages are so flashy they look like old Geocities websites, with weasel words thrown in to make it seem as if the books they’re pitching are the biggest thing to hit literature since the Gutenberg Bible. Read them closely, though, and they’re largely unappealing campaigns of self-aggrandizement.

I prefer a simpler approach: the truth. Don’t try to impress me; your book should do that. Your emails should tell me who you are, what you’ve written and why you think it stands out. Talk to me like we’re eating lunch together, and I’ll listen.

I’ll also tell you what I tell everyone these days. I can never promise coverage, but I’ll give you the same chance at a review that every other author gets, including the famous ones. I’ll look at your book, and if it’s not for me, then I’ll offer it up to my review team. If anyone picks it and thinks it’s pretty good, I’ll run a review. If they don’t like it, I probably won’t run a review.

Follow up.

If you apply for a job, odds are you won’t sit by the phone for two weeks, hoping it’ll ring. Instead, you’ll follow up a few days after the interview, letting the company know you’re interested and making sure you’re remembered. You may follow up again a week later.

The same goes for book promotion. Often someone will pitch a book to me, and I’ll ask for a review copy. By the time the book arrives in the mail, I may not remember it at all; I’ve dealt with a bunch of other books in the interval.

A simple follow-up email reminds me that we communicated about the book. It tells me that I was interested enough to request it. It’ll make me take a closer look.

Don’t take it personally.

Nothing turns me against a book more than an argumentative author. Earlier this year, a guy blitzed me with phone calls and emails, demanding that I review his minor book about his favorite subject: himself.

Somehow he had browbeaten other news organizations into writing reviews, none of which were particularly flattering. When his berserk behavior persisted, I told him I wasn’t interested in interviewing him or reading his book. He promptly called my boss eight times in a two-hour period and drowned him in email.

He seemed shocked, absolutely shocked, that he couldn’t force his way into the paper.

I don’t want to be a puppet. Most people don’t seek out needless confrontation. If we all act professionally, we should get along fine, even if I can’t get to your book or publish a review. I bear you no ill will; without you, I couldn’t do my job.

Play the odds.

Major publishers release fewer books during the cold weather months. The spring, summer and fall are all pretty hectic, so those winter months are your best opportunity to contact me. You simply won’t have as much competition.

At the same time, I scramble for content around that time of year. I suspect others in my position do, too. I start pushing gift books on Black Friday and continue every week until Christmas. Even if your book came out much earlier in the year, I may use it in one of my gift guides. I generally offer a range of books in different genres.

But winter isn’t your only window. Whenever possible, people like me prefer to publish reviews proximate in time to book release dates. If I could, I would limit most of my reviews to books that are about to come out in a couple days.

In order for that to happen, I need your book about a month in advance. Some critics prefer digital copies; I like physical books, even if they’re uncorrected page proofs.

Because I am in Oklahoma, I take special interest in books with some sort of Oklahoma ties. If you live here, went to college here, set your book here, whatever, that’ll up your odds of getting reviewed. The same applies to other regional newspapers. If you’re in Alaska, pitch your book hard to Alaskan publications.

Set up book signings, too. You probably won’t get rich at a book signing, since stores take part of the haul, but I always mention local book signings in print. Many other papers do the same. It may not be as good as a full review, but at least it gets your name out there.

Best of luck, and please contact me about your upcoming books. The best way to reach me is via email at kraymond@oklahoman.com. Follow me on Twitter at @kosar1969.

Discussion: Any questions for a book review editor, TKZers? You ever wonder what a crime beat reporter sees on the job? Or maybe you want to know what was the strangest features article Ken ever wrote? Ask away!

Ken Raymond - Book Editor & writer for The Oklahoman newspaper

Ken Raymond – Book Editor & writer for The Oklahoman newspaper

Ken Raymond is the book editor and a senior writer at The Oklahoman. He publishes a monthly column called “Purely Subjective.” A Fulbright scholar and Pennsylvania native, he covered crime for much of his career, bringing dramatic stories to life through literary nonfiction. He has won numerous national, regional and state awards. Three times he has been named Oklahoma’s best writer by the Society of Professional Journalists. He lives in Edmond with his wife, three Italian greyhounds and a Chihuahua.

This entry was posted in #amwriting, #writers, A Writer's Life, advice, author interviews, book events, book reviews, Writing and tagged , , , by Jordan Dane. Bookmark the permalink.

About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

25 thoughts on “Want a book review? Try these tips

  1. Hi, Ken! Why people feel the need to be something they’re not rather than genuine, blows my mind. I’m a crime writer, so naturally, I’d love to hear about your crime reporter experiences. What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen at a crime scene? If that’s too broad, what’s the most bizarre crime you’ve covered? Thank you for sharing your reviewer experience. My debut releases in November. To know that’s a slow time of year for book reviewers thrills me.

    • Hi there, and thanks for the questions.

      Things have changed since I was covering cops. We had more staffers, so I had more time to dedicate to writing in-depth crime features. That was good and bad … good because it allowed me to become an expert in my field but bad because I absorbed more than I could handle and ultimately had to walk away from it. The strangest things I’ve seen at crime scenes range from tragic to utterly horrific.

      I’ve been hugged by a woman whose shirt was still wet with her newly deceased fiance’s blood. I’ve unintentionally notified people about the deaths of their loved ones by finding those people before police did. I’ve been in a house while it was shot at by drive-by shooters. My home was broken into and my weapons stolen in what may have retaliation for a story about a gangland murder; the gang’s “colors” were left on the floor of the living room in the form of a neatly folded bandanna.

      For a time I covered cold cases. One was perhaps the most savage slaying in Oklahoma City history, something to rival the worst of Jack the Ripper’s efforts. Burying myself in that material was terrible, but a day after my story ran, a state law enforcement official finally entered decades old fingerprints into AFIS, and the killer was identified. Another cold case involved the serial killings of at least three Native American prostitutes. The crime scene photos were beyond disturbing. Someone had killed these women, drained them of blood, dismembered them and then cut pancake sized slices of flesh from the bodies, scattering the skin across the area over a period of days, even while police kept an eye out for him. He, for I presume it was a male killer, never was caught.

      Few things were stranger for me than my first day back at work after my mother died of cancer. Everyone at the office treated me as if were made of glass, so I drove to police headquarters. Just as I walked in, a spokeswoman saw me and said, “I’m heading to a homicide. Want to come?” I followed her there, got out and saw the other police spokeswoman holding a press conference. As soon as she noticed me, she ended it mid-sentence and hugged me. Over her shoulder, not 20 feet away, I could see a young man lying dead in the street in a pool of blood, and somehow I thought, “Things are normal again. I’m back.”

      I could go on, but this is already turning into an entirely separate post, and I try not to think about this stuff anymore.

      • A side note:

        As it happens, I came down with influenza the week I had to write the story about the deaths of the three butchered women. I was barely coherent as I lay in bed trying to make sense of my notes, research and crime scene photos. But I ended up with some pretty good opening sentences, although you may disagree.

        The head lay in the alley like an abandoned toy.

        Its eyes were closed as if in sleep, but the head could no longer dream. Arley Bell Killian’s secrets and memories, fantasies and fears – everything that made her human – had spilled from it with her life’s blood, and now she was no more.

        • Wow. Fabulous opening lines, Ken. I’m in 100%! What’s the book entitled?
          Thank you for sharing your experiences. Those scenes, especially the killer who got away, sound horrific to witness. I’m betting writing the story was cathartic on many levels; to deal with what you witnessed; to try and make sense of how someone could do this to another human being, and why. That’s always the big question for me. Why? What made them snap?

          • For you, as a novelist, that absolutely makes sense. You need to understand your characters’ motivations. When I began covering crime, “Why?” was a question I asked all the time. Eventually it sunk in that police don’t care about why. They care about what happened. It’s up to the prosecutor to come up with a compelling story of why Suspect One killed Victims One and Two. Police want to know why, just like the rest of us, and they can dig up evidence that points in a direction, but on the really strange cases — the ones that aren’t the result of domestic violence or drugs — officers may never know why something happened.

            That’s important to understand, I think, because it allows prosecutors leeway to sell juries on stories they only _think_ are true. Take “Helter Skelter,” for example, the late prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s dramatic book about the Manson Family murders. When I read that at age 12, it scared the pants off of me. Imagine it: A cult of sex- and drug-crazed hippies who murdered at Manson’s whim and for no good reason other than to try to incite a black-white war that would devolve into anarchy and install Manson as a world leader. If that stuff could happen near Death Valley, it could happen anywhere.

            As an adult, knowing what I know now, I find myself entirely skeptical of the case Bugliosi presented. I’ve no doubt that Manson instructed his followers to kill and that he was present at one or more of the crime scenes. I don’t doubt guilt. I doubt the crazy “Helter Skelter,” the Beatles are talking to me, race war, killing at random, over-the-top story. There’s good evidence to believe that Manson chose the home of Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate because he thought someone else lived there.

            I guess what I’m saying is that the simplest explanation is usually the most accurate. Bugliosi, to follow that example, built up a whole carnival of sideshows to the main attraction, and I think many of his theories were simply distorted reflections in his own sideshow mirror.

            Still … who doesn’t want to know why???

  2. Welcome to TKZ, Ken. Thanks for the post. Very helpful. Great tips.

    I wish I had ties to Oklahoma, but don’t.

    Hope you’ll post here again, and give us tips on writing about crime (mistakes you’ve seen in the books you’ve reviewed.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Most novelists, I think, have gotten better about learning how the real criminal justice system works. But knowing that stuff only helps with the small details, the tiny stuff that adds authenticity. It doesn’t necessarily help the entire narrative because, frankly, real-life police and courtroom work is boring; you have to break from reality in order to have lone detectives facing overwhelming odds, risking their careers and breaking the law in order to act as vigilantes. In the real world, rogue cops get fired (then reinstated because the Fraternal Order of Police is a powerful union, then given an office job or bumped down to patrol). They don’t stay on the streets.

  3. Welcome to TKZ, Ken. It’s great to reconnect with you. I’d love to hear about any crazy features articles you might have had fun writing. You liked to hit up my Romance Writers group for Valentine’s Day posts. Some of our authors had some pretty funny ideas on “most romantic gift ever received” like Maggie Price who said her husband bought her a .38. I laughed aloud when I read that, especially if you know Maggie.

    Thanks for being our guest.

    • Currently I’m writing a monthly column called “Purely Subjective.” It’s in first person, and (for now at least) I have free rein to write about whatever I want. The first three are pretty … I don’t know … I guess you’d call them deep. The first, which was sort of a test case, was about me returning to my old house in Pennsylvania for a visit. It’s no longer in our family, and the property has changed much, and the house became a metaphor for my father and his death. Readers responded strongly to it, as they did to the next piece, which was about the recent death of my cousin Allan, who embarrassed the heck out of me but was a man with a giant heart who grabbed onto life and wouldn’t let go. His prosaic death shocked me, as I’d always considered him larger than life. The third was about my father’s attempts to mold me into a leader, pretty much from the day I was born. (You can find the first by going to NewsOK.com and searching for my name and “going home.” The others you can find by searching for “purely subjective.”)

      The next column runs Monday, and it’s entirely different. It’s just a straightforward funny story about something stupid I did as a kid. I’m excited about October’s column, tentatively scheduled for Oct. 30, as I’m sharing the scariest thing that ever happened to me.

      Aside from that, I loved doing a feature about a group of local “wrestlers” who dream of making it into the WWE, despite the long odds against that happening. I am always drawn to stories about people who are brave enough to reach for the stars even when they know they’re unobtainable.

      As for my favorite feature … well, that’s got to be the one about the Hellzapoppin traveling freak show. I spent an evening behind the scenes with these folks during the first performance of their tour. Behind the tattoos and makeup and surgical implants and costumes, they’re real people with real opinions on the life they chose and the outside world. For a time, I wanted to run from responsibility and join them, but I realized the dull every day reality of their lives. That story took first place in the National Society for Features Journalism awards.

  4. Thanks for the questions! I was up into the wee hours finishing Rachel Vincent’s upcoming book, “Menagerie,” so give me a chance to down a caffeinated beverage or two, and I’ll give you coherent answers.

      • Yep. She’s a local. I’d never read any of her books before, as they’re a bit too romantic, but “Menagerie” seems to be intended for a wider audience. It’s the first book in a new series. The alternate world she created drew me in from the first chapter, and I read nearly all 429 pages of it in one sitting.

        I sometimes feel guilty about that, actually. Here you folks spend months or years crafting your stories and then waiting for them to be published, and I read your books and review them in a matter of hours. (I just found your new book in the stack yesterday, Jordan; thanks for sending it.)

  5. Ken, a pleasure to get to know you. Although my wife is from Oklahoma, I’ve forgiven her, even though we wear different baseball caps during the Texas-OU game. I especially appreciate reading this because, in the novel on which I’m currently working, one of the characters reads in The Oklahoman about the murder of his former partner who’s now in a medical practice in North Texas. That’s about as close as I can come to working Oklahoma into my novels, but I’m trying. : )
    Jordan, thanks for introducing us.

    • You’re welcome, Richard. Ken is a very talented writer too. A journalistic style of writing is very different from a fiction style but I’ve seen Ken bridge that gap without a problem. Not an easy thing to do but he gets it.

    • Nice to meet you, too! I spent several years in north Texas, mainly in Denton but also in Lewisville, Dallas and Richardson. I’ve become an OU fan during my years here. I moved here in October 1999, and the Sooners won the national championship in January 2000, so that was a good introduction to the craziness that is Oklahoma football.

      At heart, I’m an NFL guy, though. I actually pay money to watch my beloved Cleveland Browns lose each week.

  6. Thanks for stopping by TKZ, Ken. You deserve kudos for the great comments, and tremendous sympathy for the Browns. Maybe Johnny F. can get it together Sunday. I’m all for the thing called hope.

    • Hope and broken dreams are the staples of being a Browns fan. I’ve come to think of the NFL draft as our Super Bowl, although we don’t do so well there, either.

      I loved Manziel in college and hope he comes into his own in the pros, but the tendinitis in his throwing elbow is worrisome. He threw his first professional touchdown in Sunday’s loss; Marcus Mariota threw four TDs in his first game.

      But I digress …

  7. Hi Ken-
    Thanks for all of the fine thoughts, tips, and comments. We all work hard at creating great and memorable characters, who is the most interesting person you’ve come across and what made them so memorable?

    • Wow, that’s a tough one. I’ve met all kinds of people, from political figures and captains of industry to the homeless and uneducated, and I’ve got to say I tend to find the poor in general to be the most interesting people, largely because they’re the most genuine. I always said that covering crime was the best beat at a paper because you were dealing with life and death human drama every day. Writing about the poor is similar. In part it’s because I grew up impoverished, as well, and I know how hard life is — and yet how enjoyable it can be — when you’re close to the edge and doing your best simply to survive. But it’s also because sophistication leads to sophistry, and I like genuine people best.

      I guess if I had to name one person it would be a fellow named Calvin, whom I never really wrote about. I think he’s dead now. Calvin lived with his family about a mile down the road from me. The family lodgings were inside a literal garbage dump; likely they lived in trailers, but the rumors were that they lived inside some of the old school buses that were visible on their hillside in the winter months. Everything was a mystery about Calvin and his family. Physical deformities, real and imagined, led to much supposition about incest. His brother David had a twisted face. The girls didn’t look normal. Neither did Calvin. He didn’t dress to display his body; in fact, he always wore a tight stocking cap, but I’m sure he was as strong as an ox. He walked about four miles into town and back multiple times a day virtually every day. I think it’s how he brought groceries back to the family.

      Naturally, Calvin and his family were social pariahs, but my family often picked Calvin up when we saw him walking and offered him rides to his destination. He didn’t smell good, and he wasn’t an eloquent speaker, but he had one extraordinary talent, which very nearly made him a savant. Some people, particularly my oldest sister, found this talent — and Calvin himself — to be unbearably creepy. I always thought it endearing, if that’s the right word. I guess I looked down on him as the smart often do to the uneducated, which made me guilty of pride and stupidity, but I also recognized, even when I was young, that I’d probably never meet anyone like him again.

      Calvin’s skill was simply this: He knew the birthday of everyone in our small town and perhaps beyond. There were only a few thousand of us living in my community, but that’s an impressive number of birthdays to recall. What’s more, almost anyone could expect a visit from Calvin on their birthday. He would knock on the door, dressed in his garbage dump clothes, and serenade people with the “Happy Birthday” song. Those who lived beyond walking distance would instead get a homemade birthday card.

      Bear in mind, Calvin was no child. When I knew him, he was likely in his 40s, or perhaps even his 50s. He had a unique, nasally voice that seemed almost to emerge from his chest. When the town fair would roll around each year, he’d approach people at the park and say, “I’ll tell you your birthday for a quarter.”

      He was viewed as a ridiculous figure by most in the community. If I am to be honest, I must admit that I didn’t take him all that seriously, either. But he, too, was a human being, and while he didn’t express many emotions, one day in the car he implored me to tell town officials that he and his family really were clearing garbage away from their home dump site; it turned out the township was cracking down on them for producing such an eyesore.

      The moment I most appreciated Calvin’s selfless birthday greetings was the day I realized that he would never sing to my father again. My Dad, a tall and strong man, was cut down at age 53 by cancer. His ordeal lasted about two months. What it did to the family has never stopped. The day we held viewing hours, people shuffled in wearing their Sunday clothes. They shook hands with us gravely, then looped around the room to stand briefly before the casket, thinking private thoughts. They’d linger a little longer out of a sense of obligation, then leave, obviously pleased — as anyone would be — to put the funeral home behind them. Maybe they felt a chill from their proximity to death, or maybe they felt grateful that it wasn’t them or their loved ones. Maybe they listened to the radio or talked a little louder, trying to force away the dark feelings inspired by their visit. Or maybe they felt nothing at all.

      I had decided, from the moment of my father’s diagnosis, not to cry. I didn’t, not until the graveyard ceremony, and only then because I was surprised into it. I nearly cried at the visiting hours, though, when I realized that among the crowd that night was Calvin. He had walked through the October cold and darkness to pay his respects to my father. He looked absurd; he’d tried to dress up, but he had a limited wardrobe. So he entered with tatty dress pants tucked into his high rubber work boots, wearing an ill-fitting sport coat and a tie that had literally been tied around his neck like a shoelace. His presence there, more than anyone else’s, meant the world to me, because he was snuffling and crying, and I knew it wasn’t just for show. He cared about my father. He was authentically hurt that Dad was gone. And he’d made a sacrifice, of sort, to come here on foot.

      He stopped by our house months later, on April 21st, to say he remembered it was my father’s birthday. No one else did the same.

      I think Calvin is dead now. His brother David committed suicide after a failed marriage. Drove his pickup deliberately into a bridge abutment. It shames me to think that I didn’t attend David’s funeral, and I don’t know for sure if Calvin’s actually gone … especially since Calvin remembered. Calvin always remembered. Most of us just try to forget.

      • Thanks Ken. That is really neat, and memorable. Everyone does handle death differently. What a unique individual. Even though most of the world didn’t seem to notice him, the world would have been a lesser place without him. I bet there were others who “saw” him and were inspired. Thank-you for sharing.

  8. Ken,
    Calvin is still living, still walking back and forth to the family homestead, or to Springboro for church, or Edinboro for a Lancer football game. He continues to remember birthdays and sells candy bars to raise money for various community organizations. You can still see him carrying his plastic bags full of who knows what. Many have grown to respect this simple, loving, gentle soul. Your hometown is a richer place because of Calvin.

    • Awesome, Wayne. That’s good to hear. By the way, you show up in my next column, which runs Monday. I think you played an unknowing part in one of my childhood adventures, but as I say in the column, it may have been someone else.

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