Saturday, 18 July 2015

Why I do not review books for free



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?

My story. 

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. 

43 comments:

  1. Bingo!! I empathise and endorse your views entirely!
    Exactly how I feel when am expeçted to give my photographs to embellish an article for free or maybe ' due credit' Sigh

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    Replies
    1. 'Due credit' and 'wide exposure' really get my goat too!
      Thanks for reading! :)

      Delete
  2. Very true Sakshi. It is painful to say the least. And this was what I wanted to speak to you about last week. So all my questions have been answered now. Thanks.

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    Replies
    1. Ah! I read your mind then, even as I was simply venting my own.
      Let's talk anyway! :D
      Best.

      Delete
  3. Well, That's a lot of information to ponder on. Never thought about it in this way and you have given me some food for thought. Maybe, it's time to convert.

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    Replies
    1. Chew before swallowing. And do the due! :D
      Thanks for reading, Akanksha.

      Delete
  4. Can you see me nodding? I agree to what you have written here...I was just thinking of writing a post along the same lines and saw yours..For the past two weeks a classmate of mine from Engineering days, who never even spoke to this girl from the 'Northeast', was after me to write about his website... But the moment I sent across my media kit, the reaction was , well, let's just say as I had expected all this while...

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    Replies
    1. I can see you nodding, yes, Naba.
      Oh gosh! I too encounter sudden 'rishteydaari' where before there existed not a 'hi'. And I find author not mailing back after getting the T&C rude.

      Delete
  5. Thank you for the wonderful thought process.

    Recently I had the experience of receiving a book through a blog site and blog site pushing me again and again through email to complete the review and post the review in my blog.

    What was actually happening was, as you mentioned I could not spend my valuable time and effort (if I got 1 minute, I got 1000 things to focus on), and
    i was constantly travelling too.

    More than all these, I could not read past 1 chapter of the book, as the book was so unreadable. I mean the style of the author.

    So, I described all these to the blog site and expressed my inability to review. I also asked them 'Do you want me to give the book a bad feedback? Or should I just be quiet?'

    They came back and said 'No no, the book has received excellent reviews from many! Please post your review asap!'

    After that, I never felt obligated to follow-up and do the review.

    1) They never respected how I felt about the book!
    2) They never respected the fact that I was totally tied up!

    So, now, I am thinking I should charge for book reviews!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That sounds like a sorry tale to live through. It makes me happy that you did not feel any obligation, especially since you offered to return the book, to write the review.
      I steer a mile clear from obligatory reading and reviewing. It is tedious, and often we see the book through colored (read frustrated) eyes.
      Yes, have a procedure for reviewing in place.
      Very good to see you here!

      Delete
    2. I know that feeling. I tried to learn how to write as professional an did my best working on my essays, I had my own blog where I constantly added new writings etc. Until I realized that our professor usually doesn't read them at all, she delegates it to her assistant and moreover she's not interested whether it's good or not. Now I want to try to purchase essay online (my friend said this one is kinda good) so I can save time for another activities that will be appreciated by the others, but I fell a bit guilty about it...

      Delete
  6. I totally agree with this post! It gets so difficult when people are not willing to pay!

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    1. Especially comical is hearing PR agencies hired by authors saying 'We don't have a budget for this publicity.' Hm.
      We must look really dumb!

      Delete
  7. Well written Sakshi. Work is work whether you sit at home to work or at office. That is a lame excuse of being 'uncomfortable to pay for a review'. Lawyers sit at home/office and read contracts of their clients and put on a hourly fees, it is the same. Time is precious!

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    Replies
    1. Absolutely, Bhavana!
      Thanks for reading and liking this!

      Delete
  8. It's the right way to go.....

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  9. I can understand Sakshi because I have been doing free reviews as well because of the reasons you have mentioned. People usually think that they are actually doing us a favor by sending free books. They fail to understand that we have a lot of fictions to read and if we are doing a free review, it's actually us doing them a favor by publicizing their books on our blogs and social media.

    You did the right thing and once I'm able to reach that level, I'll do the right thing too. :)

    Great post. As usual. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I guess this arrangement is viewed hierarchically. Why, I know not.
      What level?
      Thank you! :)

      Delete
  10. Good one...i ve been doing reviews for free too. But agree with your thought process.

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    1. Thank you for reading and agreeing, Lata!

      Delete
  11. What?! You charge for writing reviews? But words should be free! Like the air we breathe and the water we drink! :P
    I wonder who these psycho friends of yours are who have been prodding you to never write for free...

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    Replies
    1. What?! You? What are you doing here, my 'Psycho Friend'?
      Let me publicly thank you, dear Rickie, for being a part of the 'three and a half'.

      Delete
  12. I agree wholeheartedly, Sakshi. But then again, you knew that.
    I've stopped writing and designing for free too. Why is our time not as valuable as the ones who're requesting (often demanding) our service.
    Great decision and May your reviews continue to be sought after and also, soon we get the pleasure of buying your book(s) too :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I knew that because once upon a time I was trying to convince a friend about it! Happy, happy to note you have closed doors to this free-dom. It's worth it!
      My books. :)
      Sigh sigh sigh.

      Delete
  13. Very succinct and legitimate, morally and monetarily. I think it's a part of ' please zara yeh bhi kaar dena...' culture

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    1. Oh I love how you put it, Ilakshee.

      Delete
  14. I am so glad that you finally published this. I have heard this time and again from you. But to read it all made so much more sense. Your work speaks for itself. More and more power to you.

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  15. Ooops! I sure hope THAT mirror is not reflecting my face :)

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    Replies
    1. Oooops! :)
      No. The mirror that was held between us ended up reflecting mine.
      40 lashes.
      Don't go there. :D

      Delete
  16. How do you manage the charging part? I have been toying with the idea for a very long time now. Directly transferred to the account or something like that? How much do you charge for a review?

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  17. Well, one may have to agree with you willingly or unwillingly. I agree. There is an old proverb, TIME IS MONEY, one always keeps in mind for oneself but not for others, and here you not only put time but a lot of efforts, labour and have to lose your comfort. So what is the problem with that? Then, I think a lot of people will have to come to terms with this concept.

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    1. It is important to value your time, and even more your worth. It's not mandatory to charge a fee, but I did want to put across how there should be no hesitation in doing so either.
      Thanks, Binod.

      Delete
  18. Excellent article! Authors surely think that they are doing a favour to a book-lover when they send a free copy but unfortunately they fail to understand that it takes a lot of time and effort. Thought-provoking post, I'd say. Loved the humour. :)

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    1. Love your feedback, Tarang. (pretty name!)
      Good to see you here!

      Delete
  19. Once someone contacted me on Goodreads to review his book and when I asked a copy, he asked to buy since he doesn't have. I didn't even bother to reply.
    It's true we need to value our time and ourselves, agree to that. I do review for free to carve a name but planning to ask for a token amount come next year for a start. Thanks for opening my eyes, Sakshi:)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good you did not bother to reply. There is no limit to rudeness around.
      You must ask for something in return for your services, Vishal. And you are so passionate about writing. Good to know you want to now!

      Delete

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