The reviews were aimed at bookstore and library buyers, so reviewers rarely test a recipe. The cookbooks Rotella selected are mostly from big names. I spoke with him about what makes a good cookbook review and why:
Q. What is the most important question to ask yourself when approaching a new cookbook for review?
A. See if it lives up to what it purports to do.
I tell my reviewers not to review the book on what they want it to be, but whether the author or publisher has accomplished what they set out to do, and whether they do it well. I usually cut out the part where the reviewer says I would have liked it better if they did this, except when ingredients are hard to find, or when the book needed an index or resource section.
A. You’ve got the title and subtitle. You make sure all the information is there, and you figure out what’s different about this book and why would it stand out. Flip through to see how it’s laid out and what it feels like.
Q. How important is it to read the book from cover to cover?
A. That’s a good question. I expect my reviewers to read it through. They do it a disservice otherwise.
Q. What should they look for?
A. They look at the tone of the book, the type of recipes, the layout, and the overall design. The writing is really important too, because many cookbook readers want a narrative. That should be part of the enjoyment and what you take into consideration when reading the book.
Q. How many recipes should a reviewer test?
A. Because of the expense of the ingredients, we don’t formally ask reviewers to do that. Most of my reviewers will test and report what they’ve found, but it doesn’t always go in their review.
Q. Isn’t testing central to a cookbook review?
A. It is, but there are other parts of the book that are just as essential.
Q. What if someone tests the recipes and they aren’t great?
A. The books that I choose are often bigger books, and I haven’t heard people come back to say “this hasn’t worked.”
Our audience is not always end users, but bookstore owners and librarians who want to see if they should carry the book, so 220 words gives them a general idea. They want to know the size, the color, the photos, the layout. If it’s an author who’s done a lot of books before, they want to know if it’s a rehash of previous books.
Q. That might be hard for reviewers if they don’t have their previous books.
A. A lot of my reviewers have been with me for a long time, and I try to find people who are familiar with the books. If not they may go to a bookstore or library and look at the author’s previous books.
Q. Will you publish the cookbook review if the reviewer doesn’t like it?
A. Yes. I think it’s completely fair to state it if doesn’t live up to the expectation and why. In the end, it’s what we do as critics.
Q. Many food bloggers won’t review a cookbook if they don’t love it.
A. Our reviews are anonymous.
A lot of bloggers want their own cookbooks, or they want traffic from one site to any other, so they may be unwilling to give a negative review of the book.
Q. What about food photography and styling?
A. See if it works within the whole of the book. Often when reviewers get galleys, we don’t often get full color photos. Because we review them three to four months ahead of time, we rarely see a finished book. We can’t really comment on the quality of photos, but we can comment on the layout. Sometimes publishers send a color blad (a glossy insert, kind of like an 8-page magazine, or a color page layout example — DJ) so we can get a better idea.
Q. Why do people buy cookbooks rather than download recipes?
A. Because they want to be transported. It’s a bit of an escape. And people will go to a cookbook for two or three recipes, and then they’ll go to another cookbook, and maybe they’ll combine recipes.
* * *
Update: Publishers Weekly no longer publishes this newsletter and Rotella has moved on. Still, what he says is instructive for those who want to write reviews: “I select who reviews each book, based on the reviewers’ interests, such as baking. Then I send galleys. Some galleys look just like the book but are black and white. Some are full color and look like the full book. While we mostly review big books, I try to cover smaller titles from smaller houses when I can. I rarely have to look for reviewers because the ones I have are pretty dedicated, but I’m always looking for a particularly good writer.”