What makes a good peer review of a book manuscript or prospectus?
When a press invites you to serve as a peer reviewer for a book manuscript or prospectus, your first step is to consider whether you should take on the project. Do you have any conflicts of interest? Is this project in your area of expertise or only tangentially related to it? Can you meet the proposed deadline, or is the schedule not realistic in the light of your other commitments? If you’re not the right reviewer, please let the press know as soon as you can; the project can move along more smoothly if the press knows to contact another possible reviewer rather than wait to see if they will hear from you. (You can also help by suggesting other possible reviewers.) If the review is a good fit for you, thank you for participating in this process, which plays an important role in the scholarly community.
Peer reviews have two audiences: the author and the press. These audiences have somewhat different needs and goals for the reviewer to keep in mind. For the author, the review should help make the project as strong as it can be. For the press, the review helps in determining the project’s next steps, including whether to publish it. Both audiences benefit when a report is complete and detailed. Helpful reviews are clear about whether a project makes a worthwhile contribution to the field. Is it up-to-date, convincing, thorough, or even pathbreaking? Good reviewers draw on their subject-area expertise to evaluate the big picture of the project as well as to identify details such as any factual errors that a nonspecialist might not catch. The best reviewers are able to approach the project on its own terms. Likewise, a reviewer should consider what the project is trying to do and evaluate it by those standards, rather than attempt to shape it into the manuscript or prospectus the reviewer would have written.
You’ve probably received a number of readers’ reports, so think about what kind of report you would hope to receive. What types of feedback did you find most helpful? Have you received any reports that you found unhelpful, that you wouldn’t want to emulate? Reviews can be critical if there are problems with the project, but critical reviews should be reasoned, reasonable, and respectful. They should be directed toward improving the project, not toward the scholar personally, and delivered in a spirit of fairness and kindness. Keep in mind that the author is a colleague in your field; you may already know them, and if you don’t, you are likely to encounter them in the future, perhaps in person at a conference. Assuming that the author is writing in good faith, then the tone of your report should reflect your shared membership in the scholarly community. If the author is a graduate student or recent graduate, the review is an opportunity to mentor that person and to shape the future of the field.
In addition to these general guidelines, most presses will have specific forms for reviewers to complete or questions to be answered. These will vary from press to press, and if you’re not sure what’s expected of you as a reviewer, don’t hesitate to ask. Also, pay attention to the question of anonymity. There may be an option to reveal your identity to the author, but if the review is to be anonymous, make sure that the review doesn’t reveal your identity even by accident (that is, by including any details that might make it clear who you are). Please meet the deadline you’ve agreed to, or at the very least communicate with the acquisitions editor if that deadline is no longer realistic and set a new one. Book projects need to meet a number of deadlines at the press as they proceed through each step toward publication, and a delayed reader’s report can lead to other delays further along in the process. Even more important, the author of the project may be counting on it for tenure or promotion and cannot move forward without your input.