Following up on the handful of low-key resolutions I made at the start of the month, I can report that three of my volunteer reviewing positions plus a paid one all seem to have come to a natural end, so that frees me up a little more to seek out big-name opportunities and focus on reading more of the unread books in my own collection plus library copies of books by the authors I’m most keen to try.
Now that nearly one twelfth of this ‘new’ year has passed, I feel like it’s time to set some more specific goals for 2016.
Be more strategic about which books I review in full on here. So far it’s just been a random smattering of books I requested online or through publishers. Overall, I don’t feel like I have a clear rationale for which books I feature here and which ones I just respond to via Goodreads. Perhaps I’ll focus on notable reading experiences I feel like drawing attention to (like The Goldfinch recently), or target some pre-release literary fiction to help create buzz.
Start writing more concise reviews. The task of writing just two sentences about my top books from 2015 got me thinking that sometimes less might be more. (See Shannon’s Twitter-length reviews!) Ironically, though, dumping a whole bunch of thoughts about a book can feel easier and less time-consuming than crafting one tight paragraph. As Blaise Pascal said, “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”
Redesign this blog and get lots of advice from other book bloggers on how to develop it. It’s my one-year anniversary coming up in March and I want to think about what direction to take the site in. I feel like I need to find a niche rather than just post at random.
Update my social media profiles and pictures. In some cases I’m still using photos taken of me nearly three years ago. Not that I’ve changed too much in appearance since then, but I might as well stay current!
Make it through my backlog of giveaway books. In the photo below, the books on the left I won through Goodreads giveaways, and the pile on the right I won through various other giveaways, usually through Twitter or publisher newsletters.
Although there is no strict compulsion to review the books you win, it’s an informal obligation I’d like to honor. Before too many months go by, then, I’d like to read and review them all. That’ll help me meet the next goal…
Get down to 100 or fewer unread books in the flat by the end of the year. Although this seems like an achievable goal, it does mean getting through about 100 of the books we own, on top of any review books that come up throughout the year, not to mention my Kindle backlog from NetGalley and Edelweiss (so I am definitely NOT counting those in the 100!).
Weed our bookshelves. Alas, it’s looking like we’re going to be moving again in August, so before then it would be great if I could reduce our overflow areas so that everything can fit on our four matching bookcases with little or no double-stacking. I’ll start by picking out the books I’ve already read and don’t think I’ll read or refer to again. Which brings me to a related goal…
Start a Little Free Library or make another arrangement for giving away proof copies. Advanced copies technically should not be resold, so ones I don’t want to keep I tend to give away to friends and family or to a thrift store if they don’t too obviously look like proofs (i.e. they have a finished cover and don’t say “Proof copy” in enormous letters). I figure if a charity shop can get £1 for the copy, why not? It’s a perfectly good, readable book. However, I should really come up with a better solution. If not an LFL, then maybe I could arrange to keep a giveaway box outside a charity shop or at the train station wherever we next live.
Take control of my e-mail inboxes. There are currently over 11,000 messages in my personal account and nearly 1,100 in my professional account. I attribute this partly to sentimentality and partly to fear of deleting something important I might need to reference later.
Find a way to incorporate exercise into my workday. I really, really need a treadmill desk. Or any piece of exercise equipment with a ledge that would hold a Kindle or laptop. That way I could continue reading and writing so that working out wouldn’t feel like lost time. Otherwise I am far too sedentary in my normal life.
What are some of your updated goals for 2016 – reading-related or otherwise?
I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions – I prefer to set challenges and commitments at any time of year – but I have a few professional and reading-related goals that I will share here for the sake of accountability.
- Target a few more big-name publications. My work will appear in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Los Angeles Review of Books in the early months of 2016 – that’s progress, but I’d like to work on getting some other noteworthy publications.
- Assess which freelance gigs are working for me and which ones are not worth it. Sometimes I look at the number of hours I put into a project compared to the ultimate payment amount and think I must be crazy to continue with it.
- Find ways of being paid into my British bank account rather than hoarding lots of dollars in an American bank account where they’re not doing me much good.
- Focus on reading more of the books I actually own. This means cutting down on NetGalley and Edelweiss requests and volunteer reviewing!
- Keep an ongoing priority list of books and authors I want to try, and make steady progress through it. On the list so far: Elena Ferrante, Matt Haig, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Wallace Stegner, Tim Winton, and Nell Zink.
What are some of your goals for 2016 – reading-related or otherwise?
When I was growing up, my mom instituted a Thanksgiving ritual whereby each family member was given five dried corn kernels and we would go around in a circle and each say one thing we were thankful for, repeating the cycle until we’d all thought of five reasons to be grateful and added our corns to a communal basket.
I recently read The Gratitude Diaries by Janice Kaplan. For her one-year experiment in changing her attitude, she kept a daily gratitude diary in which she wrote one to three things she was thankful for every evening.
I’m not the world’s most optimistic person, and sometimes I can only see the bad side of my position as a freelance worker: uncertain income, loads of little piecemeal assignments not adding up to a proper salary, the dread of IRS calculations, no vacation time, feeling cut off from humanity and stuck in the house, and so on.
But in the spirit of Thanksgiving corns and gratitude diaries, I’d like to offer five reasons why I’m very grateful for what I’m doing now.
- A truly flexible schedule. No day is ever exactly the same as the next. It’s no problem at all to fit in doctor’s or vet’s appointments; I’m always in for workmen and deliveries. Chores, errands and bits of food prep can squeeze in wherever they need to. I can get up and make a cup of tea whenever I like. I generally find time to have the cat on my lap for a couple of hours every day while I read. And sometimes I even get the luxury of a nap!
- None of the petty crap of a 9-to-5 job. Boy, I sure don’t miss commuting to London, having a boss and annoying colleagues, putting on a faux-helpful demeanor for customers, and watching the clock in near-existential despair. Yes, I have employers nowadays, but it’s really completely different – they’re just names on the other side of e-mails. I am my own taskmaster; the buck stops here. Plus I almost never bother with makeup.
- Varied work. On most days I split my time between editing scientific journal articles, reading for work and pleasure, writing book reviews, and blogging. Even if I’m preparing multiple reviews at the same time, assignments feel distinct depending on the venue. Writing a strictly structured 350-word review for Kirkus is nothing like writing 950 words with a theological slant for Third Way magazine, for instance.
- Occasional affirmations. The majority of my freelance queries are met with silence if not outright rejection, but every so often I get a ‘yes’ that can make my day and keep me going. Although it’s not a paid assignment, I was particularly pleased when Third Way magazine asked me to write their 2015 Year in Fiction roundup. I’ve also recently started working with Publishers Weekly, the Times Literary Supplement, Stylist magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
- Life revolves around books. I’m surrounded by books all day, every day – much more so than I ever was in my six years of working in libraries. I’m always deep into 10 or 15 books at a time, with stacks of print and virtual books waiting for me. I get paid to read books and write what I think about them. Isn’t that amazing?!
From The Gratitude Diaries I learned that thankfulness appears to boost the immune system, lower stress, attract others’ help, and spark 20% more progress towards goals. Really, why not try it?
As one man Kaplan met puts it, “I’m happy, healthy … and in the most productive moment of my life. If I don’t walk around the street buoyant and jubilant, then what’s wrong with me?”
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.
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?