Saturday, 27 February 2016

Pay to play

    In my inbox this evening, an email form a New York literary publicity agency. Wow, I must be going up in the world! I open it up, give it a read.
    Someone's written a book with relevance to the transgender community. Looks a bit American-centric, but go on. They want me to write a review for them, how lovely! And they'll send me a copy if I get back to them! Hey, where do I sign up!

    If you haven't seen the inherent problem in what I have just described, I had better explain.

    I have worked in and around the publishing industry for nearly all of the last quarter century. Since I graduated, in fact. I have mostly worked at the technical end of the business, in CD-ROM publishers, computer games, a spell working for a very large technology company whose services you use every day, and finally years on the electronic publishing staff of a name with global public brand recognition in the book world. Along the way, I've written stuff. Most of that stuff has been technical documentation, some of it has been technical documentation for customers, and quite a bit of it has even been public facing work for my employers aimed at the Man Or Woman In The Street. And now I'm a self-employed wrangler of electronic gizmos and large bodies of words I find myself also a paid freelance journalist writing for a popular technical publication. So you might say that aside from my writing for fun here, I also know my way round how the publishing business does its work.
    Here's how it happens. The author writes a book, but with a few exceptions they aren't up to getting it printed and put in the shops themselves. They therefore go to a publishing company, a big organisation with the contacts and resources to pay for printing thousands of books and getting them in the shops in the hope that they'll sell. There is usually a lengthy process of talking to agents and many companies who reject them, but let's assume they find a publisher.
    The publisher wants to ensure that there is a hunger for their book and people will buy it, so they hire a publicity team. Either they have their own, or they hire an agency. A lot of money changes hands, and rather highbrow parties are thrown for literary journalists and similar wordy people, for whom a lot of wine and canapés are provided. A *lot* of wine.
    The journalists then go away and write their reviews, and depending on the quality of the free wine they might even be good reviews. They are paid anyway, their newspaper proprietor sells lots of copies of his paper and needs to ensure that there are journalists on the staff to drink the wine and write the stories so people will keep buying papers.

    You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. That's the way the world goes round.

    Why have I spent three paragraphs telling you the bleedin' obvious, you ask? The point I want to get over is that like all businesses the publishing business runs on money. Sometimes, if they sign a Harry Potter or something, Obscene amounts of money. And generally the people at the top of the publishing tree get extremely rich, even if the fresh-faced English graduates at the bottom of the tree who don't work for them in technical roles don't, but that's another story.
    So to go back to my email above. Someone's been paid a lot of money to buy wine and canapés for florid journalists of the type who wear bow-ties, but zut alors! there are no transgender people among said florid gentlemen of the Press who can talk authoritatively about this book.  What can we do! they cry, before realising that they can probably butter up a load of transgender people and hoodwink them into doing the reviews for free. Then they can keep all that wine money - and who knows, maybe even the wine! - for themselves.
    A book review isn't something you just dash off in an instant like a two paragraph blog post. Hell, it's something that takes a lot longer even than a lengthy diatribe blog post like this. You have to read the book, understand it, get to know any of the author's other works, maybe get some understanding of the setting, and you haven't yet written a word. Then you have to craft the piece, set a thread that draws the reader in, engages and caresses them before delivering your punchy conclusions. You're selling that book if you like it, and you want the punter to want nothing more than to buy it.

    I ain't doing that kind of work for free, and neither should you.

    Perhaps I should try it on them: I have a computer module to review, but hey, you use computers in America so you'll want to write my review for me so I can collect the cash for it, won't you. Won't you? Er... Hello?


  1. You know, I have honestly never looked at it that way before.

    I've been writing reviews for years now, and I figure it's a free book (I like free), often in my hands before it's in stores (which is fun), the publisher or publicist is eager to share the review (which generates traffic for me), and sometimes I even get blurbed (which always tickles my fancy).

    I can completely see your point, and I do wish I got paid for it, but I'm going to read anyway, and I like talking about books, so it just flows naturally for me.

  2. I get similar emails. I'd never say never, though, I've got a pile of unread books in physical and digital formats to read so its got to be a captivating proposition to even grab my interest.