If you want The New York Times to review your book, it helps to be named David McCullough. Also, try magic.

In an hour-long interview with C-SPAN’s Book TV, New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul and preview editor Parul Seghal recently explained how the staff puts together the weekly section and — the question all authors and publishers want answered — how they choose, among countless titles, the few books that merit review. Paul, who became editor in April 2013, weighs in on whether big-name authors get special consideration, how she deals with books by colleagues and what it feels like to get a bad review. Highlights:

On turning books down:

“A long time ago it was said that 1 percent of books that come in get assigned. So it’s small, we have such small space. . . . Every time we skip a book, we have to write up a reason. A couple of sentences saying that ‘you know what, [this is] an incredibly worthy book but I just assigned something very similar,’ or ‘this is rehashing arguments that we’ve seen,’ or some sort of justification. So it’s not sort of a summary process.” (Parul Sehgal)

On whether The New York Times automatically reviews certain high-profile writers (in response to a question about David McCullough): 

“There are some authors who are pretty automatic, because even if we don’t necessarily think, for example, the latest thriller by X Big Name is necessarily his best, we know that our readers are going to want to know that. So, it’s worthy of review not necessarily because of the quality — and I’m not speaking of David McCullough here, I think everything he writes is pretty terrific — but we know that it’s going to be of interest. So we’ll assign a review and the review might not be positive, but it’s worthy of attention.” (Pamela Paul)

On how a single issue of the review comes together:

“There’s are a lot of factors that go into figuring out what books are going to be in an issue. The most obvious is pub date — the date of publication, because we’re a newspaper so it should be a relatively new book. But then we think about the mix in terms of fiction vs. nonfiction, all the genres within both of those categories. Within fiction you want to have, let’s say, science fiction, you might want to have a British novel, something in translation, include poetry. And then on nonfiction you want to have a mix of biography, foreign policy, science, hard science, mathematics. We’re kind of balancing in so many different ways. . .” (Paul)

On picking a single book for review among several similar titles:

“It’s voice; it’s perspective, it’s a very subjective thing, it’s a very imperfect art, you know? If it’s a subject that’s been really explored, you’re looking for somebody who has some kind of unique twist, some kind of different argument, something sort of magical or exciting happening in the voice or the prose.” (Sehgal)

On the right mix of authors to review:

“We try to bear in mind that the books that are of interest to our readers are multifaceted. . . There are so many distinctions that you could choose. Some people think of it very much just in terms of gender. We try to keep an eye on gender but that’s just one of the factors. I would say that ethnicity and country of origin are something we pay a lot of attention to.” (Paul)

On reviewing books by New York Times journalists:

“We don’t review all of them at The New York Times Book Review; we review a lot of them. Also, as you know, The New York Times has its Sunday book review, which is what I work on, and we also have our daily reviews, where we have our daily critics. And they can’t, obviously, review The New York Times reporters, but the daily section will often get an outside reviewer to write about them. . . I can’t tell you that people won’t be annoyed if we don’t, that I won’t get looks from other staffers if we pass over their books. We review those books when we think they’re worthy.” (Paul)

On how to review political books:

“There are two easy ways to do a book review that’s political in nature. One is, you get someone who is going to agree with that person 100 percent, and that’s very boring in terms of the review, because they’re just going to say ‘yes, yes, yes, this person is right!’ — especially if the book is a polemic or polemic in nature. Or you can get someone who is on the opposite side of the political spectrum, and then they just make fun of the book and the author and take it down, and that’s a set-up. And neither of them, I think, is interesting, they’re both very predictable. So what we try to do with books that are political in nature is get someone who we think will honestly and in an interesting way engage with the subject matter, as opposed to just do a take-down or a rah-rah.” (Paul)

On the purpose of negative reviews:

It feels terrible when it’s happening to you. But, you know what, I remind myself when we have negative reviews, is that we’re not a service arm for the publishing industry — I mean, we love the publishing industry, we support what they do — but really we’re here for readers. And readers are trying to make a decision about what they should spend their time reading and their money buying if they’re buying a book, and it’s important for us to tell [them] if it’s worth their time. So, negative reviews serve a function.” (Paul)

On self-published books:

We get them, and we don’t review them. We review about 1 percent of the books that come out in print from a publisher every year. So 99 percent of those books are being discarded. At some point you kind of have to say “okay, we’re just going to look at these books.” Otherwise we would be here 24 hours.” (Paul)

The full interview is worth watching — especially by desperate authors hoping to glimpse their titles among the piles of might-be-reviewed books all over the office.

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