Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Review for Revenue?

Carol Hoenig, a freelance writer and publishing consultant, asks whether one should pay to have books reviewed. She expresses guilt over not being able to review every book delivered to her, but stresses that priority must be given to her paying gigs.

"The shame of it is that there are fewer places to have one's book reviewed, thanks to so many publications eliminating the position or having folded altogether," she says at one point.

Hers is perhaps the longest question I've read so far on whether paid reviews are relevant in the age of the digital freebie.

...Probably not.

The modern phenomenon of shrinking attention spans is eating into a lot of the stuff we do, including writing reviews of anything that justifies a paycheque. Nowadays, the gauge to whether a book is good is the number of stars or votes it gets on Amazon, Librarything or Good Reads. In short, "Is this book worth my money and time?"

...Probably not.

Reviews of a book - of anything - are subject to the fancies or foibles of those who pen them. Not everybody thinks Phillip Roth is a writer, and still many others wonder, "How the hell did this book get so-and such prize?" If one has trawled through the 20-odd pages of reviews for a popular book in Amazon before deciding to buy it, chances of a 50/50 "I will like/hate this book" will still be high enough to give pause.

So why write reviews at all?

I suppose it depends on where the review is going to be published.

It's true that the mainstream media nowadays sees little reason to publish book reviews or book-related features, especially when the featured books are not considered commercial successes. In the old, old days when books were relatively a luxury and a bit later, associated with culture and enlightenment, reviewers (or whatever they're called back then), could show off a little by disassembling a book and calling out the author on plot devices, characters and the hidden messages, cutting commentary and whatnot, disguised as a work of literature.

Though that aspect of the reviewer's job remains, modern reviews are geared towards selling books, hence the "balanced" review, even for books one knows are unequivocally bad. Of course, a review for the mainstream media has to be of a certain length, depth and quality for payment to be justified.

But will it be enough to make people care and, maybe, shuffle off to the bookstore to pick up a copy and see if the reviewer is right?

...Probably not.

The increasingly huge freebie pool comes with history's biggest caveat emptor sign. When free doesn't necessarily mean quality or veracity, you'd be a fool to believe everything you read on the web. At home, book reviews tend to be supportive, if not "balanced", so I don't think the question of ethics and "honesty" in one's paid review really applies.

Nevertheless, we should probably be grateful that the mainstream media hasn't given up on books yet. Though it is foolhardy to pay the bills by solely reviewing books, those who still write reviews will have a platform to publish - and maybe an additional, albeit small, income stream.

...And this is the longest preamble to my reply to Ms Hoenig's question.

Which is, should reviews be paid for? By paid reviews, I assume she's not talking about those commissioned by newspapers or magazines, but the freebies gathering dust on her table, which she might review on her blog or web site if... .

...Probably not.

When a publisher, agent or bookstore (chain) sends you a book, it implies that they are confident that your blog, newspaper or online portal can provide some degree of visibility for whatever they send you. It is, I think, not a decision made lightly. Every printed book sent to a reviewer means one less sale, on top of postage. That sort of suggests you should do something with it, even if the letter says you are not obliged to.

Lots of books are released each year and some really good ones get swamped by the buzz over hyped-up commercial successes. Reviewers should take a chance on some books not extensively covered by the press. Not to mention the thrill - and spill - of the gamble when you, if you can, dive into the book pile at a newspaper's HQ.

And if the book is not available in your local bookstores? Who cares? There are no borders in cyberspace. Someone in Poughkeepsie, New York might want to know if that book he's looking up is worth his time and money. Your review could help him decide.

Write the damn review(s). Find the time. Got books you're "not obliged to review"? 500 words, minimum. Maybe less if you're a blogger, or a reviewer at The Independent. Quote some passages to complete the word count. When it's done and posted, that's your obligation, there. That's also material for your blog, and a free book for your bookshelf.

...Probably not a good idea to wait until the book is out of print.

(Disclosure: I have missed deadlines before. You don't need to know how many times. This is not about me.)

I guess the writing of book reviews, along with the reading and writing of books, has always been a labour of love, and we know just how much love pays where cash-strapped, overworked and stress-out freelancers are concerned. Labour of love, or simply a chance to show off one's biblio-forensics skills.

But as long as there's a space for the book review, those who want to, will. If you can spin an entertaining review out of a good (or bad) book, that's even better.

"Can you tell me how?"

...Probably not. That's something you have to discover. Just like what I'm trying to do.


  1. Interesting.

    In China, though, there isn't really any two ways about it. If a film-maker or a writer wants to be reviewed, 'red packets' are the only way to go. The idea of reviewing something *without* being paid is practically non-existent there, and you are more likely to be met with a cold stare if you even dare suggest such a thing.

  2. Ha. That pays the bills, I suppose, but if a review was "bought" I'd think it would show up in the writing.

    The downside to negative reviews is the hazard of ticking off a litigious author, of which there's at least one documented case. Might want to (briefly) write about that one.


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