As a child, when drawing my dream house, I almost always included a room in which all four walls were filled top-to-bottom with bookshelves. A room overflowing with books – what could be better?
Now, in a turn of events unimaginable to my childhood self, I have daily access to such a room, not at home – yet – but at work, in the form of the Sunday Times Books office.
I also now have access to a lot of new knowledge about the book reviewing world, writing critically and many, many emails from book publicists.
Having been here for less than a month, I have plenty more to learn, naturally. But, based on my first impressions, these are my top tips for writers of and about books, from a journalist’s perspective.
Firstly, and it almost goes without saying, a review is the subjective opinion of one person. Journalists are not magic gods – trust me – whose views are indisputable, and one bad review doesn’t mean you are doomed as a writer.
Having said that, reviews do make a difference! I’ve seen first-hand since being here that a good write-up in the Sunday Times can take a book right up the bestseller list. So, while there’s no need to obsess over reviews, getting a good one is an achievement, and it’s worth taking on board some of the criticism. We usually choose reviewers who are experienced, and familiar with the subject matter, so what they have to say does carry some clout.
A good reviewer will do their homework, and learn about the book, its author, and its subject matter before sitting down to write the review. They will then read the book specifically looking for something to say about it. So bear that in mind when editing your work: think about which bits an informed reader will notice, or get bored by, and change them accordingly.
Enter writing competitions! As well as the Young Writer Award, the Sunday Times runs another award, specifically for short stories, and during my first two weeks here I had the opportunity to meet the shortlisted authors. Talking to them, I discovered how much amplification awards like that can offer to writers, even to those who don’t win: it’s incredible. And if you do make a shortlist, or have your work recognised in any way, shout about it – on twitter, Instagram, or in any way you can. People will sit up and take notice.
Lucy Knight is the Assistant Books Editor at the Sunday Times. She has also written a chapter for an upcoming anthology called The Book of Queer Prophets, curated by former Stonewall CEO Ruth Hunt. As a child she took eight books out of the library every week; now she reads slightly less but has a few more friends.