Most academic journals, both print and digital, contain a section of reviews of relatively new books in the academic area about which the journal publishes. Journals receive books from academic presses, distribute them to qualified reviewers, and then publish the reviews. Writing book reviews is an expected part of academic life. It happens to be one I'm not totally crazy about. Reviews tend to be short, (>1000 words, in general), so it's a bit more like writing a glorified book blurb than an engaged, in-depth analysis, and for a book blurb, it takes a disproportionate amount of time. I have heard many people describe the writing of academic book reviews as "the most expensive way to get free books." But since one is expected to participate in the scholarly discourse in this fashion, and since it's not too terribly onerous, one makes do and carries on (not to mix two plucky British wartime mottos, or anything like that).
The reviewers are selected through a process in which the journals, at certain intervals prior to publication, publicize the list of books they have received from academic presses and solicit reviewers. You write in, you explain why you're qualified, so do twenty-five other people, and the journal editors choose one of them. I've only written one book review so far (it's not yet appeared in print), and that came about after I requested a certain book, it was given to someone else, and then during the next cycle, the book reviews editor for that particular journal wrote to me, said he thought that based on my stated interests in qualifications that I might be a good reviewer for a different book, and was I interested? I said yes. I hadn't really thought twice about not being assigned the original book, and thought it was actually quite considerate and well-organized of the editor to keep track of people to whom he hadn't assigned books to give them first crack at the ones in the next set.
Another set of books for a different publication was recently circulated, and one in particular was pretty much in my wheelhouse; it's a book that I'm likely to have to own because it's something I'll refer to frequently. (And, to be completely frank and to name names because their practices are so egregious, it's published by Brill, so it's exorbitantly, usuriously, preposterously expensive, and so I wouldn't mind receiving a copy at no charge.) I sent my little blurb of information off and really hadn't thought about it again; I figured I'd hear one way or the other and take it from there. No big deal.
Today, I received the following email:
Dear Dr. Pearce,
Thank you for your recent offer to undertake a review for [PUBLICATION]. We received several requests to review the book in which you expressed interest and have made the decision to assign it to another reviewer. We hope that you will not take this as a comment on your qualifications and interests; we encourage you to respond to future postings of "Books Received", and we have noted your interests for our use in assigning future reviews.
Thank you again for your support of [PUBLICATION].
I find this to be an odd sort of rejection letter. Because many people are vying to review the same books, it never would have occurred to me to take an instance of not being offered a specific book to review as "a comment on [my] qualifications." It's just a numbers game. But now that they've put it that way, I find myself thinking, "It's just a numbers game... right?" I would never have taken it personally until the editors suggested that perhaps I might or should.