A HARD AND ROCKY ROAD: WHY AUTHORING DOESN’T PAY

I probably will never need to buy another book. I’m a popular reviewer. When I worked at Doubleday, I was extremely popular there, too. Probably because I read the books. So many reviewers don’t read the books they review. You can tell when you read their reviews that all they did was skim the first couple of pages and work from the publisher’s summaries. TV critics seem to be doing the same thing these days. Sometimes movie reviewers, too. It’s why we read a book or see a movie, then check reviews and wonder if it’s the same book or movie.

english-writersI remember at Doubleday I would discover that the publisher’s summary was factually wrong. Wrong names for major characters. Wrong relationships between characters. Incorrect plot description. It was clear whoever wrote the summary had not read the book.

So … who did read the book? Did anyone read it? That was in the mid 1970s, when most people did read, at least sometimes. Now? Does anyone read books before they are published, and have reviewers read the books they are praising or panning?

Until this year, I was a judge for a major book award. I did it for more than a decade. It started out as fun. You’d get a bunch of books, read, review, and rate them, picking a few to move on to the finals. A few years ago, they started sending me more books … so many I could not possibly read even half of them in the allotted time. Last year, I think I had almost 100 books to judge with an average of more than 300 pages per book. And just five weeks to read them all.

It was hopeless. A couple of books were more than 500  pages. These were books that needed considerable stage-setting before the story began. Depending on genre, authors may devote a couple of hundred pages to explaining how their world works. If there’s magic. Rules of the physical world. Some geography. Who and what gods are extant — or were. What languages are spoken. A bit of history, so characters don’t walk onto an empty stage.

Tolkien was a genius at world-building, which is why he remains the gold standard for the fantasy genre.

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If you only have an hour to give each book you’re judging, how can you, in good faith, even get a sense of what the book is about, much less if it’s good? Were you to put J.R.R. Tolkien to this test, you’d never get out of Hobbiton. More than 300 pages of Lord of the Rings is geography, language, history, and demographics.

All history books require substantial background, as do historical novels and time-travel books that are historical novels in science fiction garb. A lot of writers use “the wormhole in time” to get readers to be “in the time” rather than looking back at it. It’s been a popular ploy for generations.

quill penSo this year, I said no to judging. It wasn’t fair to the authors to judge them without giving them a proper reading. I have to wonder how many other “awards” are done this way, with over-burdened judges who have too many books or whatever to review without adequate time in which to do it. I’m sure I was not the only one who got down to the wire and was unable to even skim several books before “judging them.” I wouldn’t do it again.

For all of these reasons, I’m diligent about reviewing books — or anything else. I’m not getting paid and reviews won’t make me famous or rich. They won’t even buy me a quick meal at Mickey D’s. But it is a big deal to authors. Reviews make or break books, even for established authors.

I suspect all authors are perpetually being judged. Reviewed. Each book is a trial by fire. A book doesn’t sell and suddenly, your publisher forgets your name. The industry wants nothing to do with a failing author. Even if you have written a string of major best-sellers, you are only as good as the sales figures of your most recently published volume.

I doubt any of the great authors of the past would thrive under these conditions. Can you imagine Hemingway doing his own PR? Or Capone? Can you imagine Shakespeare dealing with focus groups and fighting for his contract to be renewed?

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So I do my bit. Not for money or glory, or even for the authors, who I love. I do it because if no one cares about the quality of books being published, eventually it will all be pulp and garbage. There will be classics from days of yore and nothing new worth reading.

I have had people tell me I’m stupid for doing so much work for free, but authors don’t have money — and publishers won’t pay. Even successful authors — unless Hollywood has bought their books — aren’t financially secure. Maybe Stephen King and Michael Crichton don’t have to worry about where the next check will come from, but every other author I know — and at this point, I know more than a few — are scraping by. Many still keep their day jobs because there are mortgages to pay and kids to feed.

You have to love writing for its own sake. As a profession, authoring is a hard and rocky road. Glory and riches come to few.  Maybe publishers get rich. I hope someone is making money, because as far as I can tell, most authors don’t.

40 thoughts on “A HARD AND ROCKY ROAD: WHY AUTHORING DOESN’T PAY

  1. That was an interesting post, Something that I have never really thought about. I read reviews and as a normal average reader probably base my judgement on whether to read the book or not. I read a lot, too much probably, but realise that I also forget quickly. I have read so many good books (according to my taste) but only remember pieces of the books unfortunately.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I read a lot. And I often start reading something and don’t realize I’ve read it already until I’m a hundred pages into it. Even then, I may only remember fragmented. But. Some books I remember VERY well. Those are the books I like reviewing.

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  2. Very interesting post. I had no idea that many book reviewers didn’t read the books. That just seems wrong. I guess like everything now employers want more work in less time so it doesn’t matter if you are a cleaner or a book reviewer you are forced to work to an unrealistic deadline.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This was a beautiful post, Marilyn, and says so much about you not only as a judge but as a person. How can you judge something by only skimming the surface? You can’t. That is how people tend to make snap judgements about anything and everything. Actually, I am glad you said no. You did good. My hat is off to you.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. That is so true of the arts today. Only the very few are able to make a go of it in their field. Thank you for your conscientious approach to reviewing the work of others, Marilyn. In a lot of cases their writing is a labour of love and you are giving them the credence they deserve.
    Leslie

    Liked by 2 people

  5. This is a scandal. I’m never again going to hold reviews or awards to the same standard.
    I also have to confess to a problem – I can few 21st centry books that I actually enjoy. Idk of this is because the last 100yrs had a lot of time to build up a massive library of excellent work, skewing my perception, or if the 21st century really does Lack decent fiction

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is a scandal, but fortunately, there are lots and lots of independent reviews by people like me and you who actually READ the books and leave a review on Goodreads or Amazon or some other place. It’s not that there are mo good books anymore. There are lots of good books. Some of them even get published.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. In high school a few teachers gave me the duty of reviewing the new books that would make it to the school library. It was a side job that took lot of my teenager spare time and that I truly loved.

    I read every single line, even when I did not like the book, for I was committed to write the most honest review about it. Until I got a book to read which was perhaps not what parents want their children to read. I reviewed that too and, before I knew it, my reviewer career as well as the entire school project got cancelled. And to think that the book did not tell me anything about sex than I already knew. The funny part is that one of the teacher told me that I shouldn’t have read it. Go figure.

    I still think whether I should have pretended to read those books, or faked to review them. Perhaps my life would have had taken a completely different path and by now I would be a rich book reviewers of books I’ve never read.

    All this autobiographical story to tell you that sometimes it is hard to actively change the path that your life has taken. Once a job is comfortable and pays well it takes determination and self respect to say “this is wrong” and turn your back at it. In short, you have my admiration.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Don’t feel bad. Book reviews are not making ANYONE rich or famous. The “famous” ones work for major news outlets — TV, print, magazines and these days sometimes online — but they do other things too or they wouldn’t have jobs. Reviewing books is no one’s primary profession. At Doubleday, i was there to read the books, then write promotional copy to sell them to book club subscribers.

      I do think that ESPECIALLY the professional critics from news and TV should really read the books, really see the movies, really watch the TV shows before passing judgment. We virtually ignore professional reviews these days because they never seem to have a clue what real live people want to see or read … and so many of them (but not all … there still are some great reviewers out there) don’t read the books.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Bravo for taking this stance! I know people are entitled to their own opinions, but it always makes me happy to see reviewers taking a step further and respecting the author’s work. I remember entering ABNA a few years ago…you would think that being sponsored by Amazon that the quality of reviewers would at least be reasonable, right? It’s a highly publicized event! My novel, Birthplace, made it through the first round and got horrible reviews…one of which completely got the character’s name wrong! The other one didn’t sound like they read past the first page, either! It was an awful experience. I ended up complaining to Amazon. They apologized, but that was it. I published the novel a few weeks ago under a small press. I never did try ABNA again after that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sorry to hear your story, but not surprised. The people who organize these events should fix these problems. One of these days, someone will go public with how this is really getting done. To me, it’s scandalous. Genuinely shocking.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Maybe most of the people YOU know write about their jobs. Most of the people I know write whatever they have in mind to write, many of which are novels — science fiction, historical, fantasy, childrens lit, literary fiction. Mysteries. Thrillers. And some non-fiction — history, how-to, biography. Some of us get lucky and make money selling our books. Many more don’t.

        You’re talking about blogging, not authoring, I think.

        I’m talking about novel or other book writing. There’s a HUGE difference between the two … and having done both I assure you, writing a book is not blogging. It’s an entirely different mindset and commitment. Blogging is enormously easier. From every possible viewpoint.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you for this detailed post, I love your attitude towards work. You’re right 5 weeks to review 100 books is impossible. This doesn’t even give you the opportunity to get into the mindset of the book. I review books for Netgalley now and again, when I have the time, I have to finish the book to be able to provide a constructive and a thorough review.

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  9. Pingback: Ten Interesting Posts of the Week (12/11/16) – Pages Unbound

  10. Marilyn, I so enjoyed your post and the many wise comments that followed. When I compare the frustrated and bleak life I led before writing novels to the joyously invigorated life I live now with my characters, I wonder why I let fear keep me back for so long. While I love cash (there’s this hat I’d really want) and praise (every positive review is celebrated), it’s the creative process that has transformed the way I live life.

    The first review I got from a professional reviewer did give me a huge boost in confidence which I will be forever grateful for. People with integrity like you make life worthwhile. Thanks so much for sharing your story!

    Like

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