Monday, July 03, 2017

From #HNS2017: the Book Reviewers Tell All panel, with details on the Historical Novels Review

Last Saturday, June 24th, I participated in a panel entitled Book Reviewers Tell All: Advice for Authors and Readers at the Historical Novel Society conference in Portland, Oregon. My fellow panelists were book bloggers extraordinaire Jenny Quinlan of Let Them Read Books and Historical Editorial and Meg Wessell from A Bookish Affair. We had a standing room only crowd of nearly 100 people – a nice surprise!

Thanks to everyone who attended. It was great to see so much interest in reviewing historical fiction.

Here’s a narrative version of my part of our presentation, for those who weren’t able to attend (or for those that did but would like a recap). My part dealt with my role as book review editor for the Historical Novels Review.

Please stop by and read Meg's and Jenny's parts of the presentation as well!  Meg spoke first, discussing what authors should know about book blogs, and then Jenny spoke about reviewing: how to write reviews, reviewing ethics, approaches to negative reviews, and more.

Background on the Historical Novels Review

This year, the HNS turns twenty, and May’s HNR is the 20th anniversary issue. A quarterly magazine published in print since 1997, it contains reviews of historical fiction from the US and UK, with additional content from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It offers a wide variety of historical fiction, from all subgenres (including historical romance, mystery, and fantasy) and from all types of publishers, from the Big 5 to small and university presses to indie books. It’s the only print magazine for historical fiction, with over 300 reviews published each quarter; most appear in print, but due to space limitations (HNR is 64pp long), some reviews appear a “online exclusives.”

The HNS website has a large database with over 16,000 reviews, all searchable by keyword as well as time period and subgenre. In the past, the HNR aimed for comprehensive review coverage, but that’s no longer possible, since so many historical novels are being published. Rather, HNR is selective, and the overall acceptance rate is about 50%, a greater ratio than many other review magazines have.

What do the reviews editors do?

I work with a great team of 11 reviews editors based in the US and UK. Each of us has publisher liaison assignments. This system is a little unusual for a review publication, but we’ve set things up this way because we have to make many requests for review copies from publishers ourselves. Some books arrive without our having to ask for them, but it’s not the majority. Publishers don’t tend to have mailing lists of historical fiction reviewers like they do for genres like romance or mystery. So: each of the reviews editors makes requests for review copies, decides on reviewer assignments (in the US, this job is rotated among all of us), mails the books out, edits the completed reviews, and emails review links to the publishers or authors who sent us the books in the first place. For example, I work with Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Bethany House, and some university presses.

a pile of books waiting to be assigned to reviewers

The books solicited by the reviews editors include historical novels with settings in the 1960s and earlier, as well as multi-period books with significant historical content. We make a point of seeking out review copies from publishers who may not have heard of the magazine, and we also handle incoming queries that arrive via email or the HNS website. Indie editor Richard Lee (HNS’s founder/publisher) and his team respond to incoming queries for indie-published historical novels.

Why review for the Historical Novels Review?

The HNR relies on the contributions of over 150 reviewers, each with different areas of specialty or interest – from ancient Egypt to Regency romances, the US Civil War, and WWII military history. Not everyone has a specialty, which is fine. Reviewers regularly receive long lists of books to select from over email and send in their choices for books they’d like to review – those that they’re personally interested in. Because reviewers are volunteers (as are the editors), we felt this was important. In the US, the editors collate who wants what. We create an enormous spreadsheet with people’s choices, making assignments based on that and the genre/time period preferences that reviewers had given to us initially.

Reviewers aren’t sent books unsolicited, although we sometimes ask for people able to review “orphans” (those that go unclaimed in the first round of selections). The fact that a book is an “orphan” doesn’t say anything about a book’s quality, but some books are harder to place for various reasons. Many reviewers look forward to getting the lists and use them to add books to their TBRs. Reviewers get to keep the books they review and have the opportunity to share their thoughts with readers of an international magazine.

May's Historical Novels Review, the 20th anniversary issue!

As with other review publications, HNR has a set of guidelines for reviewers to follow. While there isn’t a “house style,” there are some things we look for:

  • Unlike with blog reviews, HNR reviews have a set word limit. Most reviews must be 200-300 words long (there’s a shorter word count for nonfiction and some shorter genre titles). It’s a useful exercise in writing concisely and clearly. Every word counts, and you have to decide what aspects of a book are most important to describe or analyze in this relatively short space. 
  • Reviews must have a balance of plot recap and critical reaction. If a review is nearly all about the plot, with only a short sentence of opinion at the end, we’ll return the review for revision. HNR reviews are written for other readers who can use them to judge whether the book might interest them (or not). 
  • Opinions (both positive and not) should be backed up with reasons or examples to help readers. This is particularly true when reviewers find what they believe are anachronisms. 
  • Reviews should be written in an engaging style. 
  • The HNR has quarterly reviewer deadlines, and reviewers have anywhere from 30-90 days to turn in their reviews. 
  • No spoilers! Reviewers should avoid giving away major plot twists; readers should be left to discover these on their own. 
  • Readers may find the idea of reviewing historical fiction intimidating, because they feel they need to be an expert on a novel’s historical period in order to evaluate its accuracy. However, HNR isn’t an academic publication in which the historical contents of novels are analyzed in great detail. The reviews are written for general readers who are historical fiction fans. If reviewers know a historical period well and can comment on a novel’s accuracy (or not), that’s fine, but it isn’t a requirement.
There's more to reviewing than just this, but we each had only 10-15 min to get the basics in...

The reviews editors take an active role and provide feedback to help strengthen reviews when appropriate.

For anyone interested in joining the review team, please email me! Send details on your reading interests and, if I’m not familiar with your writing, I’ll request a sample review from you, or a link to one. Please don’t be offended by this; I’ll want to get an idea of your writing/reviewing style before mailing books out. If you’re new to reviewing, consider writing up a sample review of a novel you’ve recently read, and I’ll read it over and provide feedback.

What authors should know about the review process

Here are some points for authors to be aware of:

  • HNR doesn’t charge for reviews.
  • Read the submission guidelines first to learn more about HNR and the review process. This is a good idea for any review publication you want to submit to. 
  • Since HNR is a quarterly magazine, it has a lead time of 2-5 months. (The “lead time” is an estimate for how long the review process takes, from book submission to the publication of a review.) Both print copies and e-copies are accepted. 
  • Our scope is limited to books published within the last 12 months. HNR accepts historical novels and selected historical nonfiction only; modern novels about the past, such as The Da Vinci Code, aren't covered.
  • Requests are accepted from both publicists and authors. You can email the appropriate reviews editor directly; email addresses and publisher liaison assignments are listed on the magazine’s masthead. Additionally, you can fill out the HNS’s online review request form, and an editor will reply if they’d like to request a copy of your book. 
  • Although the editors request review copies from publishers, please reach out, or have your publicist reach out, if you want to be sure your book is being considered. 
  • Realize that although we appreciate the opportunity to consider all submissions, not everything submitted will be reviewed. Also, HNS reviews can’t be purchased via membership. HNS members and non-members are treated equally in the review process.

Other promotional opportunities offered in the HNR

  • Myfanwy Cook compiles a quarterly column, New Voices, which profiles four debut historical novelists in each issue. 
  • Feature articles (which include interviews, profiles, and other pieces) are published both in the HNR and on the HNS website. Lucinda Byatt is the features editor for the print magazine, while Claire Morris is the web features editor. Have an idea for a piece you want to write? Contact Lucinda and/or Claire – use the HNS’s contact form, or email me at sarah dot readingthepast dot com for their contact details. Many articles & interviews are based on queries from publicists or individual authors. 
  • Articles are more likely to be accepted if the focus is not explicitly self-promotional. 
  • Effective with the May 2017 issue, I’ve started compiling a list entitled New Books by HNS Members as part of my Market News column in the print magazine. This is for HNS members only; if you’d like to be included, send me the details! The submission deadline for August’s HNR (covering novels published Jan-Sept 2017) is the first week of July. 


  1. Terrific recap, Sarah. I was there--this is a great summary. :)

    1. Thanks for coming to the panel, Alana! I had made detailed notes for my part of it, which made it easier to type everything up longhand afterward. :)

  2. I missed the conference while doing research in Europe, so this report on your panel presentation is much appreciated. Thanks, Sarah!

    1. My pleasure - and that sounds like a fabulous trip! Hope it was fun and successful.

  3. That pile of books makes me greedy! Looking at them closely now.

    1. I wish I got to keep them since many of them do look good...

  4. I cannot express the extent of my appreciation for your efforts and energy, Sarah, that for those of all the members of your team from reviewers to editors.

    I am someone always on the look-out for the kind of historical novel I like. The kind I like is by far and away my favorite reading. I have never attempted to describe the aspects that provide what I like. I probably could, but I have never taken the time. But I know it when I see it.

    You and your team members are efficient, professional, and it goes then without saying, ethical. There isn't much like that going on anywhere in any situation these days alas.

    Thank you so much!

    Love, C.

    1. Thanks so much in return, C! I appreciate your kind comments about the work all of us do with HNR.

  5. Additionally, did you all do q&a after your presentations? What were the most frequently asked questions? I am so curious.

    I've done reviewing professionally in the past. It's not the slam dunk easy ride that people think it is, particularly for those doing it professionally, but without getting paid as a columnist, etc. These days so few places pay for critical writing or for reviewing, which are not necessarily the same, but necessary for readers and writers! It's a terrible loss to both readers and writers. So we need to be grateful to those who are doing it conscientiously and with devotion.

    Love, C.

    1. We did have some Q&A, about 10 minutes' worth. For the few questions that I got, I worked the answers into my writeup above (one attendee asked how long reviewers have to turn in their reviews; another question dealt with the online review query form, which I linked to). There was some additional discussion at the end about blog tours and how they worked. I'm trying to remember what the other questions were.

      Reviewing can be a divisive topic, but that wasn't in evidence when it came to the panel Q&A. It was a very respectful and professional discussion, and the audience members seemed genuinely interested in hearing what we had to say.

      It's true, very few places pay for reviews. Booklist does, a bit, but you won't get rich that way... instead, reviewers participate to contribute to the profession and literary conversation - and to get early access to interesting-sounding books!

  6. Thank you again for your time and energy!

  7. Hi Sarah, thank you for the wonderful recap of your presentation. I wasn't there and so appreciate this interesting and informative post. You and other editors and reviewers at HNS are so great in your efforts to contribute to the historical fiction genre!

    1. Thanks very much for your comments, Alice, I appreciate it! Glad you found the writeup interesting and useful. Hope we can meet up at a future conference!

  8. Sarah, this is wonderful...I'm sorry I couldn't attend...I think I was pitching. Question: You note that modern books written about the past aren't reviewed...but you do review time slip and time travel, right? So books written with a double time thread would qualify, right? Like the kind of thing MJ rose writes is what I'm getting at. Thanks!

    1. Hi Gaye, yes, timeslip and other multi-period books are included as long as a significant part of the story (half or more) takes place in the '60s or earlier. Dual-period novels are among my favorites!