Monday, June 15, 2015

Paying for it: Bitter Lemons, Kirkus, and the purchased review

Let me start with a thought experiment. Suppose that The New York Times instituted a new policy. Suppose they charged theaters $1000 per review—but guaranteed a review in return, that would be printed online. Furthermore, if it was an Editor’s Choice, it would also appear in print.

Obviously, the first reaction to the policy would be outrage, on the part of theaters, on the part of critics. But what would the practical implications of such a policy be? I can only speculate, but I suspect far more theater would be covered. Much of it would be bad, or boring. There would be more reviewers employed. And, here is the thing—a few shows, maybe more than a few, that would never see the light of day in our current system, would receive some attention. Maybe some writers or directors or actors or designers would find themselves employed, who would not be employed. Artists that might be otherwise invisible might be seen.

True, there would be a financial barrier to those who want a review, but to be honest, there is already a financial barrier. Most theaters that get reviewed in The New York Times pay for a publicist, and they pay much more than $1000. And most shows that are reviewed tend to have larger budgets. Not all of them, not mine certainly, but most.

It would be hard for me. I do my own publicity, usually, because I can’t afford a publicist. And the very fact that I am often reviewed in the The New York Times is something I am proud of. It would make my position less special. And there might be a lingering doubt, even with a good review—was this show well reviewed because of merit, or because money was involved.

Of course, nobody at the The New York Times is about to adopt this policy. Their financial situation may be precarious, but it is not so dire that they are about to throw away years of tradition. But a crisis exists in reviewing, partly because of the financial crises that most print publications are experiencing. There has always been a glut of product compared to the number of established reviewers available. That imbalance has only grown exponentially, becoming a systematic problem with no easy solutions.

This is not a crisis just for artists, but for art. Because the worst thing that can happen to an artist is not to receive a bad review. The worst thing is receiving no review at all. The worst is having one’s work be invisible. And yet more and more work is invisible. And the more work that is invisible, the less we are able to find artists whose work does not fit the existing conventions or expectations. The more the status quo simply perpetuates itself.

Bitter Lemons, a Los Angeles website, has introduced a new policy, similar in some ways to my thought experiment. You can purchase a review from them for $150. It will be, they assert, an unbiased review, written by professionals, with no guarantee of an endorsement.

This is not a new idea, in the world of book reviews. Kirkus provides a similar service, for books. For $425, they will review your book, with the same professional reviewers they use for major releases. However, as anyone who had had a book published by a small press knows (or self-published), Kirkus overlooks the great majority of books.

I know the significance of those reviews first hand. I have had two books published by Hungry Tiger Press, a small press. The first was reviewed by School Library Journal and Booklist. Both were nice write ups, and as a result the book (Paradox in Oz) is now on its fourth printing, with copies in libraries across the country and across the world.

By the time the second came out (The Living House of Oz), the world had changed. Self-publishing was more common, and as a result, I believe, a small presses like Hungry Tiger were overlooked. No one chose to review the book. Copies barely appeared in libraries, and the Hungry Tiger never sold out the first printing. Why? No one official had endorsed it. The same writer (me), the same illustrator (Eric Shanower), and the same quality of book. I actually prefer it, though Paradox has definitely become a favorite among Oz fans. However, it was at least equally worthy of review. But the timing, the other books in the queue, etc, prevented it from seeing the light of day.

Is purchasing a Kirkus review a cure for that? Unfortunately not. If it were, I might be endorsing Bitter Lemon’s decision full-throatedly, quite frankly. I will admit something. When I published The Golem, Methuselah, and Shylock, via Theater 61 Press (the publishing branch of the theater company), I knew no library journal would review it. Books of plays are almost never reviewed, and such a small press as our own was not going to break through. And yet I knew the value of ending up on a library shelf. So I paid ($350 at the time). The result was a mixed review. Not a rave, but if it has appeared among the normal Kirkus reviews, it would have resulted in a number of library sales. But—more importantly, the review was labeled clearly, to distinguish it from their other reviews. So almost no one read it.

Was it an unbiased review? I believe so. I understand the arguments about the slippery slope of getting paid by the people receiving the review. But frankly, no one would be served by purchasing a biased review. And yes, Kirkus gives an option: if you don’t like their review, they won’t print it. So one is unlikely to see an out and out pan among what they call their “Indie” reviews.

But the practice also feels exploitative. Not because they are excepting money for reviews, but because they separate those reviews from the reviews the write without being paid to do so. They say they are maintaining their journalistic standards by separating out their purchased reviews from those books they voluntarily choose to review. Perhaps. But in so doing they are also taking money from desperate artists, caught in the system. And not giving much in return.

This brings me to Bitter Lemons. Unlike Kirkus, they don’t have paid/unpaid wall. On the other hand, they don’t need one: all the reviews will be paid for. And though they have a certain following in Los Angeles, they do not have cache of the major print publications. Paying for a review in The New York Times—or The Los Angeles Times—is one thing. But from a well respected blog? That gets into much more iffy territory.

And of course it comes with a stigma: you paid for it. You are not worthy of a regular review. If you were worthy, reviewers would be reviewing you for free. They would rush to see your show and put words in print, because they would sense the importance of the work. They would have heard from…someone.

This is of course bullshit. Plenty of worthy work goes unseen. But still, it is a mantra fervently believed, especially among many critics. There is a true blindness that many critics have to their own blindness that I find disturbing.

But my own critique about Bitter Lemons new policy is not that it is inherently immoral, or a breach of journalistic ethics. To call it biased is to ignore the accepted biases in reviewers, pre-existing slants mostly based on reputation, or a taste for one type of art over another, or one set of ideas over another, or perhaps one gender over another. If anything, I suspect the Bitter Lemons reviewer will have that same doubt most hold lingering in the back of his or her mind: why did this artist have to pay for it?

Does self-interest pay a part in their decision? I cannot know what lies in their heart, but I suspect it plays a part, as it does in us all. But I don’t particularly care. What I do care about is whether this is a model that can break through the barrier for those whose work is rendered invisible. This I doubt. Ironically, if it were, their business model would be an ineffective one. Because in order for it to be effective it would have to adopted by every large publication as well. And then: $150 for a single blog review when I can get a reviewer down from the LA Times for just $800? Who wants to shell out on the little stuff?

But if the Bitter Lemons policy inspires people to reexamine the reviewing model we have, just a little bit, I welcome it. Sadly, all I have seen are angry denouncements. Which is an easy way to avoid the real problems in the system as it stands.

Funny thing, after all this time, one of my picture books, Fractions in Disguise, was recently reviewed by Kirkus. It was published by a mid size publisher, Charlesbridge, which is now associated with a very large publisher, Random House. It was a starred review, a rare honor. If I had paid for that review, nobody would have seen it, even starred. But because I was associated with a larger publisher, everybody saw it.

You can find it now at a library near you.

No comments: