I took up book reviewing in my eagerness to get published. It’s the simplest way to get your name out there. It turned out that reviewing a book is sometimes more trouble than it is worth. But some upsides:
You get a free book! If the book you want is more than 50 dollars (and as a graduate student that’s a lot of moolah) then getting it for free in exchange for a review is something. I was able to get several free books and some that were just off the press. It is an exciting time when the book has arrived and you open the package; made me feel giddy on several occasions.
You get published! Most of the time, the book review editor will publish your work. They have to because it is difficult for them to get reviewers. Graduate students are the best option for getting reviewers. Book reviews don’t count for much in academic promotions but it is still a good writing and reading exercise (i.e. you know BS when you read it.)
You help readers! And yes, some people do read academic journals where your reviews will usually appear. I have contributed to non-academic ones but it is the academic journals which really want solid reviews. You may have helped your fellow grad students who were looking for books to read for their own research by pointing out if a book is worth it, if it advances new ideas, or just something useful to prop up your uneven table.
Of course, there are some downsides:
You get enemies! Especially if you really dissed a book (and yes, there are some that deserve it), then prepare to get a response from the author. Don’t mind them. You would not have made a bad review if the book was any good.
You lose time! Book reviewing is not easy. If you are reviewing a technical book or an academically-oriented book, then prepare to spend some time poring over the pages, footnotes, and even the bibliography. You have to take your book reviewing task seriously so you have to spend some time to read the book. I tried reading chapters while on bus and train rides: they put me to sleep (another benefit: cure for insomnia!!!)
You end up with more commitments! Well, the upside of getting more books for review is that you have more work to do; and since reviewing is not easy, well, you know the rest. I did get several e-mails reminding me to submit books that I have agreed to review. Sometimes, you just can’t do it. Additional downside: you will probably get banned from the journal.
So there you have it, the joy and sorrow of reviewing books. For my part, I was able to develop professional connections with a couple of editors, one of which led me to a speaking gig in the future. You never know.
To get you started try to get books from here: