pastdue

The Book Reviewer’s Downgraded Credit Rating

On August 6, 2011, The Los Angeles Review of Books‘s Tom Lutz published an essay about the future of book reviewing suggesting some evolution of “old-school commerce” through a somewhat questionable “private philanthropy.” Rightly decrying The Los Angeles Times‘s recent decision to cut its entire freelancing budget devoted to books coverage (which included Susan Salter Reynolds, ignominiously diminished from staff position to freelancer in order to save her corporate employer of twenty-three years some money), Lutz lamented “the agonizing death of print journalism” while also expressing his hope that his own outlet could “raise the money from foundations, private individuals, and advertising to reemploy at least a few of the people who have been washed out to sea by the seemingly endless waves of firing and cutbacks in the print world.”

Lutz further claimed that there was “a missing generation of journalists” — with the last “youngster” at the Times being Carolyn Kellogg in her mid-forties. What Lutz failed to observe, however, was that Kellogg was plucked from the online world. What he also did not acknowledge is that The Los Angeles Review of Books is not a print outlet, but an online one. And while the quality of Lutz’s stewardship has been commendable so far — especially his recent efforts to find new regular perches for both Reynolds and Richard Rayner (another Times freelancer let go) — he has failed to be transparent about the degree to which he is paying his contributors. He has indicated that The Los Angeles Review of Books has “raised about 10% of what we need,” but he has not offered a specific dollar amount, much less any revenue-generating plans outside of selling T-shirts and tote bags.

Financially speaking, The Los Angeles Review of Books is no different from any other group blog or online magazine. As Full Stop‘s Alex Shephard observed, the question of basic survival is crucial to all writers, regardless of where they come from. The Los Angeles Review of Books‘s present interface relies on Tumblr and, even though it has featured close to 100 posts, it is just as dependent on volunteers and donated time as any other online outlet. As such, so long as it does not pay, it assigns zero value to the labor of its contributors, which makes it not altogether different from The Huffington Post.

Lutz’s biggest oversight — a blunder likely inadvertent, but one nevertheless insulting to the many journalists currently toiling online for free — was his failure to acknowledge the countless outlets that have sprouted up in response to a diminishing book reviewing climate. Missing generation of journalists? What of The Millions, The Rumpus, Full Stop, The Quarterly Conversation, the reviews recently introduced at HTML Giant, Open Letters Monthly, the monthly reviews over at Bookslut, Words Without Borders, and other quality outlets too numerous for me to list? Reynolds, Rayner, and Sonja Bolle have certainly read a great deal. But what of the twin deaths of Ed Park’s science fiction column (Astral Weeks) and Sarah Weinman’s mystery column (Dark Passages)? Both of these serious readers disappeared only a few months before the latest assault on Times contributors. Even if Park and Weinman were discouraged from continuing their vital columns, walking away from their respective gigs because of frustration with those running the show, they were nevertheless victims of the Los Angeles Times‘s ongoing war against books coverage. Real editors would have committed themselves to keeping Park and Weinman on board. And what of Reynolds’s comment at this Publishers Weekly article?

I offered to continue writing for very little money until things got better. Also the quote about continued commitment is insulting to readers’ intelligence. When I was laid off a year and a half ago I was assured by the editor of the book section that it was purely cost cutting and there would be no more hires. Next thing I knew he had become the book critic and then they hired a full time blogger one month later. I understand these are tough times but isn’t publishing a world in which expertise has some value?

* * *

Lutz’s essay is unwilling to swallow the bitter pill: in a world of free, expertise no longer has any value. The National Books Critics Circle can hold all the panels it likes about the state of book reviewing, but this clueless organization of ostensible professionals refuses to comprehend the present journalistic environment. On the books front, there are few places left for paying journalists.

Are times now so tough that we cannot find ways to prop up our peeps? Don’t journalists or books experts deserve to be paid for their work?

The above video, featuring the angry writer Harlan Ellison, has been watched more than a half million times on YouTube. In it, Ellison rightfully points to the fact that most writers offer their services for free and that he, as a professional, has been “undercut by all the amateurs.” Ellison, much like the majority of book reviewers left coughing in the dust of recent cutbacks, faces a ramshackle system in which those who want the content are so used to getting it for free that they expect writers of all stripes to surrender their labor for nothing.

While the many book websites I have mentioned above continue to offer quality material, the writers who spend their hours carefully reading books and carefully writing essays quietly turn in their work. They cultivate relationships with editors, hoping that their endless apprenticeships will eventually lead to stratagems that cover some sliver of the rent.

Meanwhile, those at the top continue to show no interest in offering a break or two to the next generation. But they are all too happy to lead them on. Organizations such as the NBCC offer “freelancing guides” as an incentive to woo a declining membership, while hiding the fact that The Believer only pays $75 for a review (and takes as long as two years to pay some of its contributors) and that the Boston Globe pays as little as $150 for a review. The dirty little secret is that freelancers get paid hardly anything. A fortuitous freelancer can count on a sum just under $200 if a review is commissioned by the Dallas Morning News, the San Francisco Chronicle, or the Philly Inquirer. But shouldn’t one expect more from three of the top 50 United States newspapers? If we translate that $200 into labor — let’s say that it takes about fifteen hours to read a book and five hours to write the review — the freelancer basically earns around $10/hour before paying taxes. You could probably make more money working at a touchless car wash. Small wonder that so many, including yours truly, have dropped out of this dubious racket, leaving it to increasingly sour practitioners. Book reviewing has reached a point where those who are left practically have to beg editors to get into a slot. And if book reviewing has become a vocation in which veteran and novice alike must debase themselves for scraps, one must legitimately ask if there’s any real point in such an uncivilized and undercompensated trade carrying on. Perhaps, like the ending of Barry Lyndon, it comes down to this: “good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.”

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9 Comments

  1. Terribly and unavoidably true. Do you think it is time to say that there isn’t a sustainable commercial model that can support book reviews of this kind?

    Is it a question of strategy and management that makes these things untenable or of the possible brute fact that the market won’t bear paying people to write 3000 words a week about literary fiction? I honestly don’t know.

    Perhaps the kind of long-form book reviewing that was the rule in the old print world should be gathered into the fold of academia, and it seems like the LA Review of Books model might be the thin end of the wedge here.

    The other fact Lutz doesn’t mention is that there are probably more book reviews being written today than at any time in human history–they just are happening on GoodReads, Amazon, Facebook, blogs, and other online forums. Is there space in this crowd for professionals? Or, put another way, what could a reviewer who works at this full time offer that people will pay for?

    While I don’t tend to blame the LA Times for its moves(they seem to me inevitable, as is the continuing erosion of the mainly print media), I do wonder if this old guard cannot come to terms with this new online day.

    At any rate, thanks for this clear-eyed assessment.

  2. Okay, you’re right, we’ll swallow the bitter pill and close up shop tomorrow. Thanks for saving us so many future headaches and heartaches. Much appreciated!

    PS I don’t think Mr. Champion’s is, as Mr. Reading Ape suggests, a clear-eyed assessment at all. I think it is, in fact, either intellectually dishonest or just plain lazy, or perhaps an attempt at hyperbolic humor, I can’t tell.

    We at LARB pay writers, although many with academic or other incomes have donated their honoraria back. We may be no different than other websites — I don’t know — but we are trying to do something different, that is, we are trying to create an economic structure that will pay better than any online outlet now does. We are a nonprofit public service with an editor in chief, a board of directors and at this point a largely volunteer staff, in other words, we are, like most nonprofit public services, not in it for the money. But if my article was about anything, it was about the necessity for writers to get paid, even that crankiest old hack of them all, Harlan Ellison.

    To that end we have sold our first syndication rights, we have made our first click-through monies, we have received our first foundation grants, we are building, as I say, a nonprofit board of directors that supports us financially and strategically, we have, yes, sold our first t-shirts and tote-bags, we have held a number of fund-raising events, we have received our first corporate sponsorship, we are preparing our first app-based and print publications which we will sell, and we are developing a series of other strategies — I have spent roughly 50 hours a week on this for the last year and a half for no direct recompense, I’ve sunk $10k of my own money into it, and 90% of everything we raise goes to writers and editors (a dozen editors who have been working for less than your hypothetical $10 an hour because they believe we have a shot at making this work); the other 10% goes to the necessary costs. A hundred and more people have now pitched in, and we continue adding new revenue streams, trying to find a mixed funding model that will work.

    And you want to attack us why? Because as Mr. Reading Ape suggests, the Goodreads and Amazon reviews are good enough? Because people are willing to write for free elsewhere? Because of the ‘dirty little secret’ — secret to who?

    But I go on too long — I keep scrolling up to remind myself what the argument was, only to find myself feeling like a dupe — what is the argument? Are we supposed to “find ways to prop up our peeps”? If so, why attack us as we try to do just that? I didn’t mention The Millions, The Rumpus, Full Stop, The Quarterly Conversation, HTML Giant, Open Letters Monthly, Bookslut, and Words Without Borders, but we are linked to all of them, and they all do great work, and I’ll bet they could use a little more revenue, all of them, and most of their contributors, that they could all stand to pay their various culture workers and themselves a bit more than they do. I’ll bet all the people involved would all like to be able to support themselves writing, and I’m guessing most don’t. I think that if everyone has to have a day job to support their cultural work, the culture suffers. Are you saying no one should figure out how to pay foreign correspondents in the post-newspaper world because of the dirty little secret that right now many are not getting paid enough?

    I’m not kidding, I now know less about what you meant to say with this piece than when I started writing this.

    PPS (I will admit, re the blogs above, that we only added Full Stop today, because I didn’t know the site; they ran this today: http://www.full-stop.net/2011/08/08/blog/alex/crystal-ballin/. There Alex Shephard criticizes us, too, for being insufficiently digital –we are engineering a full site and will be moving from the Tumblr when it s ready, with a full range of media content– and for having 3,214 contributing editors. That was obvious hyperbole, and I appreciated the joke. They, like my 6,000 contributing editors, believe we should give this a solid try. Were you just kidding, too?)

  3. Tom: If you’re viewing my levelheaded essay — complimentary to you and the Los Angeles Review of Books at several points — as an attack, then that’s part of the problem here. I clearly support writers being paid. But even in your explanation here, you’re simply not being transparent about the way that you pay your writers, much less your specific business model. Do you honestly believe that I’m not sacrificing time and money to maintain this site, which includes The Bat Segundo Show? I guarantee that I’ve put in more hours and money over the years for no compensation than you have. Would I like to get paid? Sure. Would I like to keep culture alive? Sure.

    This strange reality of post-book reviewing life is how the many other quality online outlets that I mentioned in this piece also get by. We’ve been in denial about this for a long time. And this piece was meant to be a conversation starter. But you would rather view this as an attack. And you would rather ignore the fact that many of the outlets I’ve cited were here well before the Los Angeles Review of Books was. The fact remains — and it is clear that you didn’t read my piece closely — is that all of us contribute to the devaluation of labor when we demand that the work is free. It’s an unsustainable model in the long run and, when anyone tries to muscle in on specific territory by declaring themselves to be the best, it’s extremely insensitive to the many people who have been trying to find a solution to the problem for years.

  4. I’m sorry if I misunderstood. Wishing you all the best; glad to know you reciprocate.

  5. Just to be clear–I didn’t at all suggest that Amazon and Goodreads reviews are “good enough.” I said that they exist and in great numbers. I do think they along with book blogs, “compete” with mainstream outlets for readerly attention. I would prefer that the world support professional reviewers. I just don’t know that it will.

    The part in Champion’s essay that was the most clear-eyed is precisely the part that Lutz missed, or at least seemed to, in his response. He says that the LA Review of Books will pay the most of any online site. Champion says that even major corporate publications pay paltry sums. Will these new numbers surpass what exists, or perpetuate the system that Champion diagnoses? I think that was the crux of the question.

    That’s not to say that I, or Champion, don’t want the LA Review of Books to succeed. But when it comes to reviewer compensation, how much is the game really changing here if it does succeed, but writer/reviewer compensation remains so slight?

    I’m in the front row cheering for something like the LA Review of Books to thrive and for writers/reviewers to get something like reasonable pay. I’m just not sure that this is the model or that there is a model for it at all. I hope I’m wrong.

  6. I’m genuinely curious how much people think a book review is “worth” — clearly ten dollars an hour, give or take, is thought to be too little. Honestly, I have trouble seeing how we can call this exploitation in the traditional sense. Very few people have ever managed to earn their living writing book reviews, and fewer still manage to do it on a freelance basis. Expectation of a living wage doesn’t seem to enter into the negotiations, at least not over the course of the fifteen years that I’ve been writing them. It seems to me to be a vocation voluntarily entered into — out of love, one would assume. Sort of like the writers being reviewed.

    Which reminds me. Deep in the midst of this slightly confusing conversation I began thinking about writers, whose work is of the object of the reviewers’ critical attention. It seems a bit odd to be bitching about how corporate media is extracting profits from the sweat of book reviewers when it’s the BOOK WRITERS who provide everyone with the opportunity to content-provide in the first place. The last time I checked it was a lucky author indeed who cleared anywhere near ten dollars an hour for his labor. Just saying.

  7. [...] should you read first? Try the recent, um, tiff? between Champion and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Tom Lutz regarding the future of book reviewing. Be sure to read [...]

  8. LA Times Review of Books paid me for the piece I did for them. Quickly, too!

  9. A couple of times I’ve been promised payment, and never received it, once from the Philadelphia Inquirer. The Harlan Ellison rant here is from a terrific documentary about Harlan, one that’s worth viewing in its entirety. I mostly agree with Harlan, and even when I don’t I find his viewpoints stimulating. In the case of his rant about getting paid, I think he’s dead on target. Writers, like lawyers, ought to be paid for their work, paid at least something. Ditto musicians, etc. The artists are often the last ones that businesses consider paying, and most artists are laughably inept at demanding payment, because they’re so used to living in poverty and getting ignored, overlooked, dismissed, and not paid. I wish every writer would listen to Harlan, here, and demand fair payment for their work. Granted, for a book review, that won’t be much. But it ought to be more than zero.

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