Why I do not review books for free

29/07/2015 4:01 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Recently, an author with a book fresh from the press sent me review request. Came down straight to the point in a two-line mail - "Where should I send you a copy". No, he did not ask me what the procedure is, or 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!

Was it because he thought since he was sending a free copy, which woman in her write mind would refuse an offer such as this?

When I mentioned that I only do commissioned reviews, he sent a shorter mail saying, "Sorry, I'm not comfortable with paying for a review." If he had explained a little more, I wouldn't have uttered a loud Punjabi 'Hain?' to denote '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 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 on their social media networks. They are, ahem, 'uncomfortable'.

Their view, I assume: If we pay you, you will write a biased review. We want an honest review. (An assumption that the soul is sold if they pay in cash for your glass of lassi!)

But then -

- A free book may be reward enough for someone to sing paens?

- The possibility of a contact for a fancy literary fest could be incentive enough to call your book a must-read?

- 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 for free. I was a new name, no one had read my reviews since HT days and I had an old-school idea of 'let them get a sense of how I review first'. In short, 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 differently. And to be an independent voice from popular schools of reviewing. But 'different' is not an idea that gets accepted too fast. While writing the reviews was enjoyable, hearing 'your reviews go over my head' or 'give a star rating, please' from readers was so discouraging for my critiques I would feel conscious simply thinking about charging a fee.

Till some friends (and one husband) shook me awake by the shoulders, and told me to not do any book reviews for free, or any other form of writing for that matter, no matter how much you enjoy it, you idiot! Not in the name of friendship or family; not in the name of their God or your dog. This is your work. This is what you do! So, there were three 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. I am glad, because interestingly so under-selling ourselves and being content with mediocrity is almost a part of our nurture. 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 that they trust you, assure you they value your views to become better writers, and then they knot their brows in incomprehension 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' 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 four out of the five free hours I get to myself in a day, fighting bone-tiredness, sleep, season's vagaries, hunger, sometimes. I have tried to read post-dinner, but I have a family. 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 shaved my head or joined a meditation camp. I did not. I had a book to review. A commitment made. 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. Why do we want services for free, when we ourselves wouldn't cut an inaugural red ribbon without asking for an honorarium? Is the idea of availing 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. Oh! He doesn't need personal time. 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. 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.

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