Today, I spoke with Sam Tanenhaus, who is an editor at the New York Times Book Review. He’s got quite the job, receiving hundreds if not thousands of books. As an upcoming author and friend to many other authors and people who want to get into the publishing business, I thought it would be a good idea to interview Sam. After interviewing Sam, it’s safe to say that you need a bit of luck, and a high quality book in order to even have a chance at getting reviewed.
What takes you from reading a book to writing a review about it? What is the process of selection?
My inclination, in almost every instance, is to think first of someone else, one of our many fine critics. On occasion, however, one of my colleagues–one of our half dozen superb “preview editors,” who do the lion’s share of reading and assigning–will suggest that I might be an adequate reviewer. This happened, for instance, in the case of a biography of Richard Hofstadter. Since I write history myself and have a particular interest in his subjects, this made sense, so I did it.
How many books have you received over the past year? How many of those books have you read? Out of that amount, how many have received reviews? Were they all positive?
We receive hundreds of books each week. I myself read only a small portion, though collectively as a staff, we read several thousand. We review perhaps 2 percent of the books published each year. Our reviews cover a broad range, from admiring to unadmiring. We have no control over what a reviewer will say about a given book. Our most important statement is the decision to send it out for review. By doing so, we’re indicating our belief that the book merits attention. The rest is up to the reviewer.
How have you built your personal brand over time? Looking back, what would you have changed as you progressed in your career?
My career, such as it is, has been one long accident. Much of what I’ve done, I would not have predicted for myself, though each step, or misstep, seemed to make sense at the time.
Sam Tanenhaus was named editor, Book Review of The New York Times in March 2004. Mr. Tanenhaus had previously worked for The Times from 1997 until 1999 as the assistant editor to the Op-Ed pages. He has also written for the Book Review and the Op-Ed page, as well as Arts & Ideas, the Week in Review and The Times Magazine.