Rude Remarks

Pay to Play

December 04, 2014

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Pay to Play

Like most of the readers and writers I know, I’m still painfully agnostic about the self-publishing trend. Clearly, some publishers are more obstacle than ally. But by bucking one set of gatekeepers in the form of print houses, authors have lent even more power to the second human wall a book needs to punch through: those bloody reviewers.

In defense of gatekeepers, ever since the act of self-publishing became slightly less shameful than stealing your mom’s bestiality porn, the volume of human pleas for immortality has become crushing. Amazon tells me it’s processed 123,039 new book releases in the past 30 days alone. (Authors: pause for a moment to marvel at your own cosmic uselessness.) If your book doesn’t boast even an indie publisher’s stamp of approval, the road to first notice is more brutal than a Chinese traffic jam.

But never fear: you can always pay someone to read your book.

Allen Thomas spent a decade writing and trying to sell Liberal From the Waist Down, the nonfictional story of Tyler, a carny’s kid who grew up to be a conservative male stripper.

“In defense of gatekeepers, ever since the act of self-publishing became slightly less shameful than stealing your mom’s bestiality porn, the volume of human pleas for immortality has become crushing.”

This biography is unique in that it takes such a subject seriously: Tyler is a son of the South, who grew up poor but not liberal (how dare he?), and who left the military to become a bodybuilder. Because his ectomorph’s build made getting show-huge a struggle, Tyler had to put food on the table through a sidetrack into male exotic dancing—a sidetrack that became permanent. Tyler is a stern promoter of personal responsibility who’s also game to enjoy sex with any woman who freely offers; since it’s his job to arouse the lonely, this isn’t seldom. Through his own work ethic and dedication to his craft, he builds his own small business, hiring a variety of co-strippers to become the adult entertainment king of Jacksonville, Florida.

Ordinarily, such a hypermasculine specimen of homo sapiens is a sideshow freak or cartoon villain in someone else’s story. Thomas made him the center of almost 400 pages.

Strangely enough, he couldn’t find a publisher.

Once Thomas settled for self-publishing with Amazon, he couldn’t find a reviewer, either. But Amazon had no qualms about doing a little pandering themselves: among the pricey services they provide for self-published authors is a hookup with Kirkus Reviews, known as the “gold standard” of pay-to-play book reviewing. Several such for-pays have sprung up on the heels of e-books, but Kirkus, founded in 1933, is still the most prestigious.

Some of the prestige lingers due to the fact that not all Kirkus reviews are paid for by the author. The system is two-tiered: If you have a traditional publisher, your editor sends Kirkus the galleys four to five months before publication. Kirkus decides whether or not to review your book, and the review is fed to industry eyes before you go to press.

If you do not have a publisher, you’re shunted into the “Kirkus Indie” system—which means, on one hand, that your book is guaranteed to be reviewed. If the review is unfavorable, you can ask Kirkus not to release it. But it also means that if the review isn’t released, you’re out $425, because that’s the fee that Kirkus Indie charges you for the privilege of getting a professional review. (Although, since the anonymous reviewers whom Kirkus employs only pocket a fraction of the fee, I’d call it more of a “harried, begrudging synopsis” than a proper review—but technically speaking, sure, it’s professional.)

Thomas says Amazon hard-sold Kirkus to him: “The CreateSpace rep knew just what buttons to push when he told me that movie producers and other high-echelon entertainment types looked at book reviews from Kirkus when seeking ideas for possible screen adaptations.”

But a generic liberal-artsy reviewer pulled out of a hat wasn’t too likely to recommend Tyler’s story to Spielberg. When the review appeared, the anonymous reviewer complained that the protagonist “drips with machismo, fixated on appearance and sexuality”; the introspective ending was “surprising,” coming from such a lout. Thomas didn’t wind up circulating the review. For that amount of money, it would have been nice for the book to be read on its own terms.