A Freelance Book Reviewer’s Reflections
At the end of July 2013, I left my job as a library assistant to set up as a freelance book reviewer. For just over a year, then, I’ve been writing reviews and other book-related articles on a self-employed basis. My one-year anniversary seems like a good opportunity for some soul-searching about how things have progressed and what I’ve learned. Here goes.
How My Reading Habits Have Changed
The switch from print books to an e-reader has been the biggest change in my reading life over the last year. I had always been a secondhand book fiend, addicted to the smell and feel of antique books and proudly showing off the stacks of to-be-read books on my bedside table. I still receive a lot of paper books for review purposes, but most of my free reading is now on my Nook e-reader, a present from my husband on my last birthday. I never thought I’d take to an e-reader as much as I have, but now I’d estimate that 60-70% of my reading is e-books. I get most of these as advanced reading copies (ARCs) via NetGalley or Edelweiss.
Storing a whole library of 60-70 books on a device no bigger than the average paperback is a wonderful advance. I love being able to jump to particular page numbers or search for a word or phrase. Never again will I load a suitcase with books before a transatlantic flight. If there’s an associated sadness, it’s that I barely use my public library anymore. I used to max out my library card and lug home tote bags of books nearly every weekend; now, even if I only borrow a couple, I never get to them before the due date.
I’m pickier and less patient when it comes to books that are just average. I’m much less likely now to stick with a book that’s not interesting me. Despite Nancy Pearl’s very sensible advice to give a book 50 pages (see my article on readability), I have sometimes abandoned books after just 10-20. I’m also likely to drop a book after 60-90 pages if I just can’t face picking it up again. Usually this doesn’t mean that a book is horrible, just that it’s so very okay I can’t be bothered to return to it.
Skimming a book can be just as effective as reading every word. In fact, I sometimes think reading the whole thing can make me lose focus. It’s easier to get right to the core of a book’s argument when you’re skimming. Besides, the savings in time is sometimes an absolute necessity when I have deadlines looming. As Francis Bacon said, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” (For more thoughts on skimming, and on forming opinions on books you haven’t actually read, see my article on bestsellers.)
Some More Things I’ve Learned
Self-published books vary wildly in quality. Two of my main gigs are for independent companies that provide book reviews to self-published authors. There have some true gems over the past year, but there have also been some books so utterly terrible that they shouldn’t ever have seen the light of day.
Likewise, authors vary wildly in temperament. A handful of the self-published authors I’ve come across have an inflated sense of themselves and their words – an opinion the quality of their work just doesn’t support. On the other hand, I’ve worked with some truly lovely writers who humbly, almost self-deprecatingly, asked if I’d be willing to take a look at a free copy of their work. One might hypothesize an inverse relationship between an author’s bravado and the value of their writing.
E-mail is a tyrant. Also a convenient excuse and a time waster. Ditto to Facebook and Twitter, though I am trying to use the latter a bit more strategically for networking. Goodreads, on the other hand, has been a great way to plug into the literary community now that I don’t attend a physical book club and have few book-loving friends.
It’s nigh on impossible to say no to free books. But I must learn how to do so. Especially after I realized I have 12 book reviews and three articles facing me within the next month. (And that’s setting aside for the moment all the e-books I’ve downloaded from NetGalley and Edelweiss with rapidly approaching expiration dates.)
Review books make good gifts. ARCs technically can’t be resold, but provided they’re in good condition they are often worth passing on to others. And if they can be matched up with suitable owners for a birthday or Christmas gift, all the better.
Be faithful in the small things; you never know what opportunities will lead on from them. For example, I started off writing mini-reviews for one magazine, and now have secured two feature articles with them. I reviewed a self-published work of fiction and, months later, out of the blue, the book’s new publicist got in touch saying it was going to be republished and asking if I was interested in writing the jacket copy, at a much higher pay rate.
Having your paid work, volunteer work, and hobby all overlap is fun, but it also means that you treat all your hours as potential work time; very little of it really feels ‘free’ anymore. Evenings and weekends often present themselves as extra time to catch up on work.
This is an emotional rollercoaster. For every good experience there’s one that makes me wonder why I’m doing this. I’m very sensitive to criticism, you see, and being asked for corrections – even minor ones – on a review irks me. Having some of those aforementioned self-published authors object to what I said about their books has been particularly annoying. Yet if I look at things from their perspective, I can see it must be excruciating for them, too: in some cases they’ve devoted years of their life to this project, only to have it be picked apart by a stranger.
There have been some real highs, though. Interacting with authors via Twitter or e-mail and finding real connection and friendship, albeit virtual, has been great. I was delighted to be able to give Nina de la Mer’s Layla and Kseniya Melnik’s Snow in May some much-deserved publicity here on Bookkaholic. Authors Paulette Alden (see my review of her short story collection, Unforgettable) and Maya Lang (whose debut novel, The Sixteenth of June, I previewed in my Best June Books feature and later reviewed on Goodreads) have been particularly warm and gracious.
Most recently, learning that film director Sofia Coppola had read a piece of my writing was a notably random and gratifying experience.
It’s hard to make a living from book reviews. Very few venues still pay for book reviews – why would they, given the abundance of people who review for free on Amazon and Goodreads, among other websites? American print and web publications still seem willing to pay for writing, but in the UK, paid opportunities are virtually nonexistent. I’m very lucky that I have a generous partner whose full-time salary just about supports us both. This has meant that, over the past year, I’ve been able to think of my writing as a sort of training process. Every opportunity is welcome, but I’m not strictly dependent on the money I make. Instead, I’m learning; I’m honing my craft; I’m building my portfolio; and all along I’m hoping that better things come my way.
I nearly laughed aloud last August when a friend introduced me with “This is Rebecca. She writes about books for a living.” It seemed ironic to me because, especially back then, I wasn’t ‘making a living,’ not by any stretch of the imagination. However, I’ve come to think about what I’m doing in a slightly different way. I might not be making a living as such, but I’m making a life – one based around books. I must never forget what a privilege that is.