Recently, an author with a book warm and fresh from the press mailed me. He wanted me to review it. Came down straight to the point in a two-lined mail 1 itself – ‘Where should I send you a copy?’ No, he did not ask me what the procedure is, he did not want to know what I charge as a fee and he certainly seemed to assume it’s going to be a ‘yes’ from my end, as if Richard Gere were asking for my hand in marriage!
Is this because he thought he was sending a copy of his book, free, so which sane woman in her write mind would refuse an offer such as this?
When I mentioned that I do commissioned reviews only, he sent a shorter mail saying ‘Sorry, I’m not comfortable with paying for a review.’ If he had explained more, I wouldn’t have said a loud Punjabi ‘Hain?’ to denote anything from ‘Why in Jupiter’s name?’ to ‘What the Pluto does he mean?’ Since he did not, I felt free to call him stingy, secretly, and then sit and simmer over it.
Simmer. Simmer over the fact that some writers, who themselves must have ranted against doing free assignments all their lives, are not ready to pay for your date with their book – reading it, reviewing it and then expectantly so, sharing it in their social media networks. They are, ahem, ‘uncomfortable’.
Their view, I assume? If we pay you you will write a biased review. And we want an honest review. (Another assumption that the soul is sold if they pay in cash for our glass of lassi!)
Okay. But then –
- A free book may be reward enough for someone to sing your praises?
- The possibility of a contact for a fancy literary fest could be incentive enough to call your book a best-seller?
- That overuse of ‘dear’ and ‘I love your writing’ and ‘lovingly yours’ may make someone fall in love with your book as much as your nature, enough to make the love flow cover-to-cover?
- They may admire your nose and ears combination and may translate that 5 star attraction into a 10/10 review?
When I began reviewing on my blog, I did a handful of reviews without charging a fee. I was a new name, no one had read my reviews before and I had an old-school idea of ‘let them get a sense of how I review and then I’ll charge a fee’. In short, I wanted to earn my right to ask for and earn my buck. I was testing the waters in the blogging world while giving a taste of my wine to prospective authors.
I was putting in everything I could to review in my own way. To be different, successfully or not. And to be independent of popular schools of review methodology, very successfully. But ‘different’ is not an idea which gets accepted too fast. While writing the reviews was enjoyable, hearing ‘your reviews go over my head’ or ‘who are you reviewing for?’ or ‘give a star rating, please’ from readers was so discouraging I would feel conscious simply thinking about charging a fee.
Till some friends (and one husband) took me by the shoulders, shook me awake and told me to not do any book reviews for free, or any writing either no matter how much you enjoy it, you idiot! Not in the name of friendship or family friends; not in the name of their God or your dog. This is your work. This is what you do! So, there were 3 and a half people who pushed me off the sagacious cliff of ‘let me earn (read justify) my buck’ to the waters of ‘you have earned your buck, crazy!’ And that was that!
Looking back, I thank them for that plunge, even though the first time I mailed my fee to a commissioning author I didn’t breathe for a while. I am glad for the push because subconsciously I was becoming what so many authors and publishers want book reviewers to be – Professional but unpaid means of publicity, which they politely call ‘feedback’.
They convince you they trust you, implore they value your feedback, they assure you they cannot do without it before their next book and then they knot their brows in incomprehension, clear their throats and shuffle off if you say ‘Okay, I charge 1 million dollars per review.’ Or so the numbers seem to them. ‘We’ll find someone else. There are plenty around’ or worse ‘I thought she was my friend. Sob sob’.
A friend who should not dare to contribute to her family income, or collect funds towards her next hair cut? Hm.
Why I do not review books for free?
1. Time – Just like you, I don’t have a big slice of this cheesecake just to myself. Of course, I have no office to go to, but there is a reason I work from home, right? A book review typically means reading the book 8 am – 11 am (apart from bathing, minding house, managing maid, getting ready for school to pick up my kid) and then 3 pm – 5 pm (fighting bone-tiredness, sleep, heat, lethargy, season’s vagaries, empty stomach sometimes since after feeding kid who wants to cook for oneself?). I have tried to read post-dinner, but I have a family. And I never can extricate myself from the bed-TV madness that we like to indulge in. It's valuable "personal time" to me. One book may take three days to read and another three to write review. Weekends included! That is a lot of time, considering I could have written a few articles for my column, done some posts for the blog or simply trimmed my nails, shaved my head or joined a meditation camp and laughed my lungs out. I did not. I had a book to review. And I spent a good amount of time at it.
2. Effort – c.f. Point 1. Add a few thousand units of Horse Power to it.
3. Respecting another’s worth – And this is the most important thing we are missing in our lives. Even if we recognize another’s work’s worth, we don’t want to respect it. Yes, I am linking respect to money because a fee acknowledges your talent and encourages it too. Some authors who mail sing my praises, but zip it up when I say ‘all reviews are commissioned’. They go away, feeling ‘uncomfortable.’ There are many who do not even respond to the mail mentioning the fee. Why do we want services for free, when we ourselves wouldn’t sit on a television panel like a famous authorial voice on human liberty without asking ‘Do you pay an honorarium?’ Is the idea of availing cheap/free labour so built into our systems that we cannot acknowledge worthiness over nothing? Or is it, rather disturbingly, that we have created invisible pyramids of socio-professional hierarchies in the writing world too where the author is just below the publisher but far, far above a puny book reviewer. And grass can’t be a tigress, how dare she roar and decide to be a chooser!
[I look at that poor sarkari driver my neighbour feels comfortable to call, even on Sundays, assuming he has nothing to do with his own family, but take the officer's out for a picnic in the Lodhi Gardens. All day. Assuming he doesn't need personal time. And then, what compensation can suffice for taking a husband or a dad away from his chutti at home, or a man away from his bed? I look at him, and I empathize. He's not expected to ask for that compensation. It rings a bell.]
Authors are putting in sacks of money to promote their books. They forgo royalty, pay literary agents to polish and pitch their books, hire digital media experts to promote it and sell a few family heirlooms (or wear them) to stand behind their books like a mother would behind her chick running the first race in KG. I can understand that pride, and wish someday my pen gives me the opportunity to feel it too, but I cannot fathom the ‘discomfort’ in paying for another’s time, effort and worthy work to do with something so dear to them.
Am I trying to convert those book reviewers who, like me once, are too afraid to ask for a sum? No. But do I wish them to get converted to this side of the fence, where remuneration for writing and reviewing should reflect the effort, time and even talent that they put in? Yes!
The season’s or its end’s sales are in the malls. Your souls won’t read ‘sold’ just because you asked for a fee. Let there be no ‘discomfort’!
On either side of the fence.