It seems that this is a question being asked even among the elite reviewers of the National Book Critics Circle. Julia M. Kline spoke on a panel at Book Expo America about the challenges of getting paid to review books. A transcript of her remarks appears on Critical Mass, the NBCC’s blog.
The issue is both the shrinking space and the financial challenges both print and digital media are facing. Kline observes that the $1 a word rate paid Teddy Roosevelt seems extravagant today when freelancers might receive $.25-.50. Many review publications want reviews of 500 words or less. That is $125 to $250 for the time spent reading, writing, revising and submitting a review. She observed that the top rate paid by The Washington Post is $375. I’m fairly productive and might write 170 reviews a year. If all of them were accepted, I could earn $63,750. That’s in line with a median annual salary of $60,250 for all writers and authors in 2015 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Staff writers, the relatively few that are left, might do that well.
I suspect most freelancers are doing something else for their day jobs. Reports are that Kirkus pays its reviewers $50 per completed review, Publisher’s Weekly $25. I suppose if you are going to review anyway and are willing to conform to their formats, it’s a nice way to pick up a little extra spending money. If you are interested, here is one of a number of websites listing places that will pay for reviews. But making a living, including covering your own health care. Not so much…
But why do we need this, you ask? If you go on Amazon, you can read reviews of anything. Likewise on Goodreads. Some of those reviews might even be good. I hope some of mine are. There are lots of book bloggers out there like me doing it for the fun of it, and for some free books, which is the only pay many of us get. You might even argue that this is the democratizing of reviewing, rather than a small group of elite reviewers determining our book reading tastes.
What distinguishes the great book critics, it seems to me, is not only that they write well and perceptively, but also, that in whatever genre they review, they’ve read the significant works in the genre, and can assess books against the best of the best, and situate them on the literary landscape. It can be a fascinating exercise to review a book yourself, and then compare your review to one of these critics–fascinating and humbling. I review on the side, and have limited time and sometimes wonder what it would be like to have the luxury of being able to focus on that work.
I’ve been writing this week about book review aggregator sites. For them to work, and connect their users with quality, someone has to write these reviews. To truly be useful, there needs to be a level of quality to them. Otherwise it is garbage in-garbage out. These sites are only as good as the reviews they are aggregating.
What is clear to me is that we get the book and literary culture we are willing to pay for, and increasingly, it seems we would rather pay for less. We would rather not subscribe to a literary review when we can get some kind of review for free. We’d rather not pay the extra costs of overhead for the ambiance of a brick and mortar bookstore so that we can save a few bucks on books delivered to our doors. I kind of wonder if in our search for cheap, easy, and quick, we will wake up some day and wonder where all the richness of life has gone, including the delight of reading a book critic at the top of his or her game.