At a time when book review sections of newspapers were declining, Ross Rojek and Heidi Komlofske-Rojek decided to start a new book review, distributed free around Sacramento CA. Their first issue of the Sacramento Book Review (SBR) had about 100 book reviews in 24 pages and had a 10,000 copy print run in September 2008. Mostly distributed through local bookstores, libraries and coffee shops, it created an audience for a free locally oriented publication highlighting local books and literary events, along with reviews of nationally published books.
Over the first year, SBR expanded distribution into the East Bay Area, prompting requests from local bookstores there for a Bay Area version. That lead to the launch of the San Francisco Book Review in September 2009. They shifted frequency of the two publications to bi-monthly, alternating between the two. While there was consistent readership of both publications, getting advertising was always a challenge, both from local bookstores and national publishers.
The initial self-imposed restrictions on books that were reviewed were fairly simple – they needed to be within 90-days of their publication date. City Book Review didn’t differentiate between self-published books or main-stream publishers, all were treated equally. The company received about 1000 books a month, and of those, typically reviewed 300. Eventually City Book Review set up a fee-for-review service for authors that had an older book they wanted reviewed or just wanted to make sure their book received a review. Their Sponsored Review program is one of the few run by book review companies that aren’t just vanity review outlets (see Fee-For-Review Versus Vanity Reviews).
Licensing was an important part of the City Book Review growth. Starting first with a licensee from Portland Oregon in 2010, then the Tulsa City-County Library publishing a monthly book review in 2011, and lastly the San Diego Book Review in 2014. Portland and San Diego are independently managed, selecting their own books for review, whereas the Tulsa Book Review uses reviews from the various City Book Review publications for reprinting.
Ross and Heidi viewed their publications as more than just an end product, but as tools for authors to get more readers or feedback. Additionally they constantly try new products, both as services to authors, but also new ways to promote the reviews they generate. In 2009 they created the first kids’ book review app (which ended up creating a whole side business in app development called GoLocalApps). Other new projects included an interactive iPad magazine, a new Chrome Tab and a PDF magazine. Heidi says their company slogan is “Do more of what works, do less of what doesn’t”, so they keep trying new things as new opportunities and technologies come along.
Beyond the Sponsored Review program, working with so many authors provided insight as to the needs that many new or self-published authors had. So over time, they added in more services for authors, from book review video production, author press releases and book blogger outreach. And of course they still help authors get a book review.
According to Heidi, City Book Review has reviewed more than 30,000 books since their humble 2008 kitchen table beginnings. Many of the authors they work directly with come back book after book for new reviews and promotion, having found Ross and Heidi to be their best supporters. Far from being discouraged by the changes in the book industry and technology, they see it as opportunities and challenges. Now at their 9 year anniversary, they’re looking forward to seeing what the next 9 years will bring.