Paid or Unpaid?

Our address was chosen at random to take part in a nationwide time use survey run by NatCen Social Research in conjunction with the University of Oxford. On last Sunday and again this past Friday, we had to fill out the entire day’s activities in 10-minute blocks; for the whole week we also had to note our hours spent in paid work. My husband’s graph looked pretty standard, but mine resembled a Morse code message. Overall I did 35 paid hours –making for a fairly normal working week – but it was spread across the days, often in evenings or in odd chunks here and there.


Is there a Morse code message in my weekly working pattern?

Having my paid work, volunteer work and hobby all overlap in the realm of bookishness is convenient, but it also means I treat all my hours as potential work time. I consider my unpaid reviews (e.g. for Nudge, For Books’ Sake, The Bookbag, Shiny New Books and Third Way magazine) to be ‘work’ just as much as those I’m paid for, so it can feel like I put in much more than a 40-hour week.

The truth is that it’s hard to make a living from book reviews. Very few venues still pay for reviews – why would they, given the abundance of people who review for free on Amazon and Goodreads, among other websites? I’ve found some American print and web publications willing to pay for writing, but in the UK, paid opportunities can seem few and far between. My more reliable source of income is editing academic journal articles.

There’s one exception to the rule: self-published books. Indie authors have to do all their own marketing and publicity, so are eager to garner professional reviewers’ opinions. Several of my main gigs are for independent companies that provide book reviews to self-published authors, for a fee. There have some a handful of gems over the past 20 months, but there have also been some books so utterly terrible that they should never have seen the light of day.

I wrote to Ron Charles, the Washington Post’s book editor, last year and asked for his take on the situation. Here’s an excerpt from what I wrote to him:

“It seems to be an irony of this life that the books I want to be reading and most enjoy, I usually don’t get paid to review; while many of the books I am paid to review (most of them self-published) range from okay to terrible. I wondered if you might have any advice for me – specifically, whether there is still money to be made from reviewing for traditional print media.”

He let me down in the nicest possible way:

“The short answer is, ‘No.’ There has never been much money to be made reviewing books, and, lately, there’s almost none.  The collapse of almost all the nation’s book sections along with the rise of a million book blogs and a trillion customer reviews on online bookseller sites mean there’s very little demand for professional book reviews. For people who want to read about books, this is largely a good thing. For people who want to support themselves by writing about books, it’s problematic. If you write well and enjoy it, that may be enough. Or you may find some new way to write about books that could draw an online audience. I wish the best!”

Do I have some novel way of writing about books? I doubt I could make that case. I write for pay when I can, but for the most part I just follow my tastes and amass all the free new books I can – through the unpaid review venues mentioned above, from the library, via giveaways, or as electronic downloads from NetGalley and Edelweiss. Although I’m a writer, I’m first and foremost a reader; it’s an essential part of my identity rather than a professional goal.


Many of you may be bloggers who have a day job and review books purely for the love of it. I’d be interested to get some feedback from any of you who write book reviews, especially if you get paid for some but not for others:

  • Do you feel varying degrees of pressure depending on the audience or venue you’re writing for?
  • Does the knowledge that an author (perhaps a self-published one) is paying for your opinion mean that you approach the work differently?
  • Do you see a future for paid book reviews?

7 responses

  1. Great to see you have your blog up and running! I can’t throw any light on your book review questions I’m afraid. I just write fairly short book reviews on Goodreads as my friends say they like to read them. I think I’d feel bad if I had to say a book was dreadful, but that doesn’t really happen as I wouldn’t have read the book in the first place, or would have abandoned it very early.
    Your form completion reminds me of Mass Observation questionnaires. The Mass Observation archives are such a rich source of information, and the Simon Garfield MO Diaries are superb, as are the Nella Last books (televised with Victoria Wood as Nella).


    1. Hi Penny! I think the project is quite similar to Mass Observations. They do comparisons with other English-speaking countries about things like number of hours spent on housework, hours spent reading or watching telly, etc. They’re also able to follow trends over time, seeing that men are doing a higher percentage of housework than they were in the 1960s, for instance. We’re each getting a £10 gift certificate for taking part, but I think I would have done it even without that incentive. I actually enjoy filling in surveys, and it will be interesting to see what the results show.


  2. Hi Rebecca, So pleased to see you’ve started your own blog, I enjoy reading your writing. I’ve never been paid for a book review. I started on Bookmunch and once I felt confident enough I started my own blog. I didn’t do it for an audience or to take away from professional reviewers – indeed, part of the reason for starting my own blog was to address the disparity in coverage for books written by women – mostly I did it to force myself to write regularly. I saw it as practising a skill. I’d like to think there’s a future for paid book reviews but I think it’s going to come from excellent online journals rather than mainstream media.


    1. Naomi, I am so impressed at how much time and work you put into your blog — and for no compensation! You’ve done so much with it in just over two years. I can tell you are really doing it for the love of writing, and the goal of celebrating women writers. One day you will be paid for your writing through book sales 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks Rebecca, it’s really kind of you to say so. As for your last line, here’s hoping! 😉


  3. Well I’m just a dumb Goodreads reviewer, so I’ve got no pressure at all! An author being aware of my review wouldn’t change how I go about things, except if perhaps it was a donation or the like; in that case I would put more thought into things rather than just throwing out a general impression as I normally do.

    I do believe that paid reviews or even unpaid quality reviews will have a place (advertising models and the like?), simply because there will always be those individuals who place a value on the learned review and will compensate it appropriately. I mean Goodreads has thousands of people putting out blargh reviews, but how many of them are worth following (I do recognize I’m one of the blargh people, btw)?

    One of the books I’m reading right now is of Katherine Anne Porter (her short stories rule), and the second half of the book consists of author studies, reviews, interviews, etc. The following response she provided speaks somewhat to what you’re musing upon:

    “As to criticism being an isolated cult, for the causes you suggest or any other, serious literary criticism was never a crowded field; it cannot be produced by a formula or in bulk any more than can good poetry or fiction. It is not, any more than it ever was, the impassioned concern of a huge public. Proportionately to number, both of readers and publishers, there are as many good critics who have a normal audience as ever. We are discussing the art of literature and the art of criticism, and this has nothing to do with the vast industry of copious publishing, and hasty reviewing, under pressure from the advertising departments, or political pressure.”

    She goes onto say in answering the next question that Literature is absolutely a profession and no, you cannot make money from it. LOL. Grain of salt, though, these questions and answers were written in 1939; I’m sure the economics have improved given that we have the internet nowadays. Right?


    1. I love that quote from Porter! However, I think if anything it is more difficult to make a living from writing now than it was in her time. In the summer of 2013 I was at an arts festival and saw the British journalist Bidisha speak. She said there is no money to be made from journalism any more, and anyone who wants to do it for the love of it or as a calling must have a day job to pay the bills. It was rather sobering. Thank you for your comments!


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