Monday, September 19, 2011

Northwest Author Series: Jeff Baker

Jeff Baker, The Oregonian
Qualities of Critically Acclaimed Books:
How to Write for Raves

The Northwest Author Series kicked off its fifth season yesterday at the Wilsonville Public Library. The presentations are sponsored by the library and Friends of the Wilsonville Library, with coffee provided by Starbucks and cookies from the fabulous Lamb's Thriftway bakery.

Jeff Baker, book editor for The Oregonian, opened the season with a discussion of how he selects books for review, the use of freelance and wire book reviews, and the qualities that attract him to a book.

Baker, who once had a full-time assistant and a half-time helper, is now a one-man department. He receives about 500 books a week that he winnows down to 4-5 book reviews for print. In supplement his own reviews, he assigns and receives reviews from freelance writers in addition to using wire services.

How does he sort through so many printed books and pre-distribution galleys (advanced reader copies)? Baker prioritizes as follows:

  • Eliminates categories not reviewed by The Oregonian (including romance novels, self help books, travel books, etc.).
  • Emphasizes local connections. That is, local authors, publishers, or settings. This includes Oregon and Washington, as well as (to a lesser extent) Idaho and Montana.
  • Focuses on author appearances in the greater Portland area. He may extend coverage of readings outside the metro area but seldom mentions appearances beyond Salem.
  • Considers everything else -- which may include books getting a lot of buzz in the publishing business, books recommended by authors/publishers, etc.

According to Baker, you can read a book by its cover. At least when it comes to sorting through 500 a week. As writers hear over and over from agents and editors, Baker indicated he can tell within the first paragraph/page whether a book is well written. Books of limited quality don't improve with further reading. Baker does keep books/galleys from his "maybe" stack for 3-4 weeks in case he changes his mind about reviewing them for the newspaper.

What attracts Baker to a book for review?

  • He loved the author's previous work.
  • The publisher's pitch interests him.
  • The book is receiving a lot of industry buzz due to its quality and/or concept.
  • Word of mouth recommendations from friends and authors
  • It's short. (Tongue not so firmly in cheek. Shorter books make his job easier.)
  • #1 = the quality of writing.

Electronic publishing has tremendously changed the publishing industry, as readers and writers are well aware. Amazon states 40-50% of its book sales are ebooks. Any more, traditionally published books are simultaneously made available as ebooks. E-publishing has made it easier for writers to place their work before an audience. However, self-publishing and e-publishing lack the quality control of traditionally published books.

Avid readers who want to freelance as book reviewers for The Oregonian can expect to be paid $150 for first rights. Reviews are limited to 500 words in which the reviewer must explain what the book is about, whether or not the reviewer liked the book, and why. Reviews are printed within 3-4 weeks of book publication. Baker plans and lays out his reviews several weeks in advance; however, freelancers are welcome to contact him for assignments/proposals. Regrettably, in addition to staff reductions Baker's budget has also been cut. As his freelance funds dwindle toward the end of the year, he relies more on the wire services for book reviews.

What northwest authors currently have Baker's attention?

  • Brian Doyle, Mink River
  • David Guterson, The Other (author of Snow Falling on Cedars)
  • Tim Egan, The Big Burn
  • Denis Johnson, Train Dreams
  • Craig Thompson, Habibi (graphic novel)

Finally, the question aspiring authors always ask:  what does it take to get a book published and then reviewed?

  • Persistence. Don't just talk about writing a book, complete it and pitch it.
  • Talent. Someone will publish a well-written book.
The next installment of the Northwest Author Series is scheduled for October 23 at 3:30 p.m. in the Oak Room at the Wilsonville Public Library. Emily Chenoweth will discuss "Memoir or Fiction? Make the Most of Your Choice." Cost is $5.00. Coffee and cookies are free. Copies of the speaker's books will be raffled off and signed copies are always available for purchase.

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