More on Paying for Non-Fiction

This morning over breakfast I listened to the latest edition (#21) of the Galactic Suburbia podcast. I’m very grateful to the ladies for mentioning my post on paying for non-fiction, but I can’t help feeling that they missed the point a little because they said things like, “why should anyone pay for reviews when so many people are willing to do it for free?”

Well, you know, lots of people put their fiction online for free as well, but we still pay people to write it. Sometimes we pay them quite a lot, because they are good at it.

And possibly my point is that when a magazine doesn’t pay for the reviews it prints then it is saying to its readers that it doesn’t care whether those reviews are any good or not.

But mainly the point is that if you do want to get paid for non-fiction has to be worth reading. If you query me to write something for Salon Futura I won’t just say, “yeah great, the more reviews the merrier,” because I have a budget to stick to. Instead I will ask you questions, like this:

  • Why, of all the hundreds of books published recently, should we carry a review of this one?
  • What do you have to say about the book that is interesting, exciting, innovative, important?
  • Why should other people want to read what you have to say about this book?

And if you can’t answer those questions, or if your answer amounts to, “I read it and I liked it”, then I won’t buy your article.

It comes down to this: there are all sorts of reasons why people write reviews, but if you want someone to pay you to write them then you have to write something that other people are going to want to read.

6 thoughts on “More on Paying for Non-Fiction

  1. It’s also a cultural thing.

    Fandom values even poorly written short fiction to the extent that it considers it reasonable to pay for it in order to encourage writers/help support them.

    By generally not paying non-fiction writers, fandom is making it pretty damn clear that it considers us entirely dispensable.

    The Galactic Suburbia crew’s failure to recognise that criticism may have inherent value over and above its usefulness to the publishing industry as well as their collapsing all of genre non-fiction writing into the same category as hack book bloggers spunking out positive reviews in return for free books and invites to parties demonstrates that attitude as well as the lack of imagination that it fuels it.

  2. I think that the cultural assumption here is that ANYONE can write a review, whilst the penning of tales is an art. Most people want to read reviews to hear others’ opinions, not to read criticism, which I think is the distinction in Cheryl’s questions. I think that is part of the feeling of dispensibility that Jonathan is talking about, the idea that just about any reviewer will do. Most reviews do not say anything exciting or innovative, and fall prey to Amazon Star Syndrome.

    I think it’s great that some editors are willing to pay for, and thus support and advance, critical reviewing. We need more of it. . . says the budding critic :-).

  3. Hi Cheryl – it’s exciting that you’re listening to us, I must say! But if we came across as implying that we agreed with the idea that reviews don’t deserve payment, that was certainly not our intention. We meant that to be a suggestion of how *other* people might think – and, since we’re all reviewers in various ways ourselves, we know full well that getting a book isn’t exactly fair payment!

    Alex (from Melbourne)

    1. Of course I’m listening to you. Jonathan keeps recommending you. And you say interesting things, including about feminism.

      It’s not that I thought you were in favor of not paying. It’s more you sounded like you didn’t think that anything could be done about it. I continue to hope that there is a market out there for quality non-fiction. But we have to keep talking about it, and recommending good stuff. Far to much of the conversation about reviewing is complaining about Amazon, or book bloggers trying to promote themselves by complaining about the morals of their rivals.

  4. If we sounded like we didn’t think anything could be done about it, then it’s my fault – i was unprepared for the podcast for a variety of reasons. The reason I put the link in was because I think you said you were paying for nonfiction and I thought that was important and needed to be discussed.

    Jonathan – I’ve run a review website for over 5 years and I hold great value for criticism and review, for a variety of reasons.

  5. Your point of view makes perfect sense to me. I used to do film reviews on my Livejournal, and after a couple showed up on the first page of Google results (without the readers leaving any comments, unfortunately) I tried to see if I could find a way to make it pay enough to cover my expenses. I thought I had good answers to the questions you posed, unfortunately I got the “why any people are willing to do it for free?” response so uniformly that my repeated replies that my reviews would be more entertaining, better informed, and better written then what they were using and would therefore increase readership began to feel as if I was shouting through ten thousand feet of irrigation pipe. So I assumed my reviews were good but my arguments were not and tabled the notion.

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