Four books into my career, I’m still learning to discern promotion that is paid for from that which arises ‘independently’ from the community. When I wasn’t invited to do events at interstate bookstores as a debut author in 2016, and again as a sophomore in 2018, I assumed it was because the booksellers weren’t interested in my work. Now that I’ve just completed my first interstate book tour, and am casually employed at a bookstore that sometimes hosts events, it’s glaringly obvious to me that most bookstores don’t have the budget to cover the costs. It’s also obvious that, even if they are covered by a publisher’s marketing budget, the onus often remains on the author and their networks to ensure that events are well-attended. While an event in my home state was at capacity, thanks to family and friends, I opted to cancel two others when my publicist informed me of the low booking numbers.
The bookstore where I work publishes a seasonal catalogue, which I have occasionally helped to write and proofread. While I am not involved in selecting featured books, I know that the staff who do so take pride in hand-picking the catalogue’s contents. On a recent book-signing visit, I asked the staff behind the counter of a Melbourne bookstore whether they ever wrote reviews for their store’s website and catalogue. They told me that they didn’t, and that for them these reviews weren’t ‘reviews’ so much as copy.
Bookstagram was already a thing, and had been for a while, when I joined Instagram in 2016, partly in an effort to boost my profile and connect with readers. I was not pressured by my publisher to do so, but after they asked me to fill in an author questionnaire with a section for social media handles, and to take a selfie with my first ever advance review copy, I thought it seemed a worthwhile endeavour. In some ways, it was: I enjoyed seeing pictures of my book in other people’s homes, and getting acquainted with authors, booksellers, and readers outside my immediate social bubble. The space appeared comparatively grassroots at the time – no #sponsored, or #gifted, or #adprcopy tags, and only rarely a ‘thanks @publisher for sending my way’. BookTok wasn’t a thing yet. Podcasts kind of were, marginally.
While the term ‘influencer’ commonly evokes lifestyle gurus with followings in the millions, earning thousands per post, in niche markets, influence typically looks more modest and may intersect with roles associated with more gravitas – for instance, activist, artist, critic. According to a 2019 survey cited in Olivia Yallop’s Break the Internet (a book that, in the interests of full disclosure, was #gifted to me by my publisher), 71% of Instagram influencers don’t identify with the term, preferring titles such as ‘content creator’. Yallop explains: ‘Creators carefully cultivate authenticity and intimacy, and the label “influencer” exposes the persuasive machinery beneath.’ To identify as an influencer is to acknowledge, perhaps even flaunt, the decisive nature of one’s social capital, undermining the sense of peer affinity that might have initially attracted followers, and replacing it with a dynamic more deserving of wariness: that between business and consumer. #awkward
In the ever-shifting landscape of digital marketing, where individual creators and businesses alike scramble to take advantage of new platforms, there is an inevitable lag between influence and its regulation. Over the past decade, media-regulating bodies worldwide have attempted to introduce disclosure standards around sponsored content. In response to 2014 complaints against numerous British Youtubers, whose Oreo-licking challenge videos were found to be part of an undisclosed ad campaign funded by the multinational snack foods corporation, Mondelez, the UK’s Advertising Standards Association introduced the world’s first influencer regulation. In 2017, the US Federal Trade Commission followed suit by taking action against a pair of online gaming influencers for failing to comply with their Endorsement Guides.
More recently and locally, a ‘platform and media neutral’ best practice guideline was established in March 2020 by the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA), a self-regulatory body for advertisers and marketers. In July of the same year, the Australian Influencer Marketing Council (AiMCO) launched its first code of practice for influencers that included advertising disclosure requirements as defined under Australian Consumer Law and that cited ‘transparency and accountability’ as core principles. AiMCO’s guidelines, like AANA’s, are best practice – which is to say, following them is voluntary. They do not yet have a code of practice specifically for podcasting.
I began listening to literary podcasts in 2020, a time when I indiscriminately craved the company of human voices on walks around my five-kilometre zone. Unlike the Sex and the City recaps and histories of Yugoslavia that I tuned into during the same period, the sound of authors conversing made me feel connected to a community that no longer existed irl, without depressing me as much as all those kitchen table book launches did. I could even believe, through hearing others discuss their craft and influences, that I was learning something – which, in a time of low productivity, was valuable.
The First Time (TFT) was one such podcast. Founded in 2018 by a pair of writer-friends, Kate Mildenhall and Katherine Collette, TFT has been described as ‘Part reality series…part writing master class’. TFT’s initial focus, as the title suggests, was on the first-time publishing experience, and much of its appeal came from the platforming of debut authors and de-mythologising of the publication process through informal catch-ups between Mildenhall and Collette. Over time, their net widened to include live-recorded episodes and lockdown specials with authors, debut and otherwise.
In March 2022, TFT introduced their ‘Masters Series’: feature-length interviews with established ‘masters’ such as Christos Tsiolkas, Tim Winton, and Helen Garner (also, curiously, Holly Ringland, whose bestselling debut came out in 2018). Shortly thereafter, TFT began airing catch-up episodes accompanied by ‘Featured Book’ segments: ten- to fifteen-minute interviews with recently published authors about their latest releases. While Masters interviews were, and remain, independent, Featured Books are paid for by publishers, or occasionally authors themselves.
No formal announcement was made at the inception of Featured Books that the segment was sponsored. Nor has TFT’s website been updated, at the time of writing, to reflect the shift to sponsored content, either in their ‘about’ page or through the addition of an ‘advertise’ section with a downloadable kit (of the kind offered by Kill Your Darlings or Australian Book Review, for example). Typically, on both the podcast and attendant social media, Featured Books’ financial backers are introduced by the phrases ‘brought to you by [publisher]’ and/or ‘supported by [publisher]’, with a few exceptions – one 2023 episode is ‘brought to you by’ a PR agency and the featured author, while one from 2022 bears no introductory phrase. As a fairly media-literate, semi-regular listener, I did not immediately clock these phrases and the ensuing interviews as paid-for spots. The language is understated, euphemistic – not jarring in the way of, say, the host of Casefile shilling security systems midway through narrating a triple-homicide – so that the segments coalesce quite seamlessly with TFT’s non-sponsored content. I certainly didn’t have pay-to-play in mind when, in February 2023, I sent a pitch in response to a call-out to authors interested in appearing on the podcast.
Last year, I briefly worked at a small bookstore whose owner had a fondness for sending non-urgent after-hours texts to me and his only other casual staffer. One Sunday evening, while I was at the beach with a library book, he sent a fifty-line text listing the books we stocked in high levels, reminding us that Christmas was approaching, that we must sell the listed books so as not to be stuck with them in January, and that there was ‘no point’ recommending books that we only had one copy of. The message ended with a reminder of our staff discount and a directive: start buying and reading!
My current employers don’t send me non-urgent after-hours texts. I read what I want. Yet I’m aware, every time I see the teetering pile of advance review copies in the staffroom, of the glut of new books, the majority of which I’ll never have the time to read, even if I wished to. If I do opt for an ARC over a book bought with my staff discount/borrowed from the library/gifted by my publisher/whatever, it’s usually because something surface-level, like the title, appeals, or maybe I’ve seen a deal announcement, or encountered the author’s work before, or heard things from a friend or colleague. It’s not a perfect system. It’s not even a system. It’s guided by marketing, mood, and to some extent, social circles. But nobody is paying me to read these books, or coercing me to read certain books over others in the interest of job security. Even so, I don’t need to have liked a book, or even to have read it, in order to recommend it. In reality, hand-selling books that I genuinely like is only a small part of my job. ‘Bestsellers are chosen. Nothing you do matters,’ R.F. Kuang writes in her 2023 bestselling publishing-world satire Yellowface.
Like Yellowface, my latest release features a racial misrepresentation plot. Prior to composing the back cover copy, I was advised by my editor to signpost this plot, as well as to make the book – a novel-in-stories – sound more like a novel than a collection of stories. Ensuing coverage, critical and puff, has drawn attention to my book’s parallels with Yellowface. Bookstagrammers have complained that my book doesn’t live up to the back cover copy’s ‘Yellowface vibes’. If a customer came into my workplace wanting a book like Yellowface, mine would probably be an easy sell. The copy is both convenient and constricting. I resent its flattening effects, its way of encouraging assumptions, of cementing categories, even as it makes the job of selling easier. I have not yet read Yellowface.
Over the years, I have appeared on several podcasts. On two occasions, I’ve received payment for these appearances: once in 2021, in place of a cancelled live event for a writers’ festival, and once in 2020, for the SRB’s own podcast. All other appearances have been unpaid. Some invitations have come through my publicists, in response to pitches they’ve sent. Others have come to me directly, unprompted. I’ve never paid to be on a podcast, nor has my publisher paid for such appearances, to my knowledge. My publisher is independently owned and my fiction literary; our pockets aren’t that deep. Prior to TFT, I’d never pitched to a podcast, but I’d pitched to other outlets. My pitch included all the things I assumed a literary podcast pitch should: info on my then-forthcoming publication, some talking points, why they’d suit TFT, and a mention of Mildenhall’s unsolicited praise of my previous novel.
After three weeks, I received an email from TFT’s producer with an attached media kit, quoting a $600 fee for a ten-minute interview, some social media coverage, and a couple of links. I was encouraged to pass the kit on to my publisher to foot the bill and make the relevant arrangements. I wrote back to TFT, letting them know of my discomfort with their move to spon-con and failure to flag it more explicitly, particularly when soliciting expressions of interest. This isn’t something I’d likely have done as an early-career author. Collette, to her credit, responded to my email with one of equal length, which mentioned plans to discuss monetisation in a future episode and invited further engagement. I sent a reply expanding on concerns about transparency, cultural integrity, and unexamined hierarchies, as well as suggesting that TFT survey their listenership to gauge advertising preferences. Collette’s next email was brief, casual in tone, and ignored my points and suggestion. A third email, in which I questioned whether elaboration was forthcoming, went unanswered.
I was still rankled when, a couple of weeks later, I saw a tweet by Mildenhall soliciting information on average marketing budgets for trade-published titles, and responded by asking on Twitter/X whether her question was related to TFT charging $600 for sponsored interviews. Call it a bid for public accountability, or just the Sagittarian urge to poke the bear – this is another thing that I probably wouldn’t have done earlier in my career. In response, TFT referred again to their future episode and suggested that they had dealt with all my concerns satisfactorily. When I restated my unaddressed points, TFT emphasised their status as community-building women writers juggling multiple demands and claimed not to have the capacity for further communication. The interaction culminated in Mildenhall, from her personal account, expressing the opinion that it was ‘unethical’ of me to ‘publicly share private emails’.
On March 13, 2023, TFT released an episode, ‘Money, Money, Money plus Featured Book River Sing Me Home by Eleanor Shearer’. Jokingly referred to by the hosts as their ‘awkward money episode’, the episode stands as TFT’s public statement on pay-to-play podcasting. The hosts’ rationale, as I understand it, is that paid-for interviews offer a way to filter an overwhelming amount of requests for coverage while offsetting the costs of production, and that TFT doesn’t offer information on their website about booking fees, or even the existence of their pay-to-play model, because a) ‘most outlets’ don’t; b) they receive requests across a range of platforms besides their website; c) they are ‘busy women’ who don’t have time for website upkeep; and d) they want to be able to ‘back-and-forth’ about rates. ‘Sometimes that doesn’t work for people,’ Mildenhall says of TFT’s preference for private negotiations. ‘They find out there’s not a spot for them, and they get upset.’
It’s a rationale that’s unsatisfying on many levels, from the vague invocation of ‘most outlets’, to the curious need for expressions of interest in the face of such an ‘overwhelming’ onslaught of requests, to the somewhat insulting implication that ‘busy women’ need not aspire to such a basic marker of professionalism as an up-to-date website. Then there is the failure to consider why ‘back-and-forthing’ may be an aggravating process, beyond its potential to end in rejection.
There’s a reason why Australian freelancers for The Guardian have been campaigning through the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance since June 2021 for a collective agreement to codify minimum rates. The need for standard rates, and for the protection offered by this transparency, is not exclusive to The Guardian. A few months back, I had a pitch accepted by a national publication within forty-eight hours, only for the editor to go silent for over two weeks when I enquired about pay, despite a follow-up email. Before sending a second follow-up, I asked a friend who’d published with the outlet what they’d been paid. In response to my second follow-up, the editor confirmed what my friend had intimated: the publication did not usually pay for articles that tied into book promotion. After I made a case for the general readership appeal of my article, stating that I did not work for exposure, and quoting what a competing publication had paid me for similar work in the past, the editor offered to extend my article by 400 words and pay me thrice as much as their competitor. The ‘back-and-forthing’ may have worked out in my favour on this occasion. But was I impressed with the publication’s professionalism, or convinced that they valued freelancers? The process was frustrating, time-consuming, and highlighted my vulnerability to the whims of an employer.
Writers are generally well-acquainted with rejection. Mildenhall and Collette likely understand this, as they likely understand the frustrations of negotiating with outlets that aren’t transparent about their business practices. Given this context, a writer might reasonably feel less aggrieved by rejection than by having wasted their time pitching to an outlet they’d have avoided if its practices were better known. A writer’s grievance may be more acute still if they feel their time is being wasted by fellow writers who’ve built a platform off the appearance of candour and community-mindedness. Whatever one makes of TFT’s defence, the show’s ethos is undermined by an admission from Collette: ‘Obviously, at times, there is a tension between being a business and being transparent.’
Earlier this year, the owners of the bookstore where I am casually employed were embroiled in a case of unfair dismissal, the first of its kind since the introduction of new federal pay secrecy legislation in December 2022. Allegedly, a casual employee was dismissed after discussing her negotiated pay-rise and back-pay with other staff, an action that the business owners claim to have been ‘in total disregard for confidentiality’. If, as Collette claims, there is a tension between being a business and being transparent, it’s worth asking why this tension exists, and whom it benefits. Consumers? Employees? Business owners? Stakeholders?
Asking these questions of one’s cohort can be, to use TFT’s parlance, ‘awkward’. To paint a picture of this awkwardness: my latest book came out on the same day as Mildenhall’s. Our work has been mentioned in the same listicles. We have sat at the same table at Chin Chin on a sticky February evening while under the influence of free awards-ceremony wine. The producer who responded to my pitch, Jillian Langhammer, runs Literary Listings – a website dedicated to showcasing literary events around Melbourne. So much depends on this awkwardness. So much is forgiven by it. When a long-overdue discussion of money is framed as ‘awkward’ – the conversational equivalent of that winky tongue-out emoji – it can make even the most oblique and veiled disclosures seem like social transgressions. Rather than encouraging an interrogation of existing silences, a sense of ‘awkwardness’ normalises them, concealing how much remains unsaid.
Four books into my career, I’m at a stage where openly critiquing well-connected peers with a profitable media platform might limit some opportunities for me, might make some events uncomfortable, might lead some to label me antagonistic, unsupportive, a bad sport – might even cause this essay to be read less as a critique than an opportunistic attempt to extend my publicity cycle. But it’s probably not career-suicide. Four books in, I’m sufficiently fed-up with the status quo to accept that if I cannot hold my industry to a higher standard, I cannot expect improvement within this industry, let alone beyond it.
If there is a tension between being a business and being transparent, there is also a tension between being a business and being a community. It can seem prudent to ignore this tension in an industry as under-funded as publishing – an industry where authors regularly endorse the work of their friends and share each other’s pre-order links, where a packed book launch might simultaneously be a fun time, a networking hive, and a way into the Readings Top 10 Bestsellers of the Week list. Despite the implicit quid-pro-quo of it all, the coexistence of business and community can even feel enriching if we’re connecting with people whom we actually like and whose work we respect, with people we want to see succeed for reasons other than the possibility of success by association.
Yet there is an ick-factor that must be navigated. I noticed it as a younger author, overstating my keenness to read this or that artfully photographed book on someone’s profile, and posting artfully photographed books to my own profile, with exaggerated expressions of enthusiasm. I noticed it during lockdown, when others with books out shared photos of my new book, and returning the favour seemed charitable yet central to my diminished appetite for reading. I noticed it at a crowded launch early this year, spotting one of TFT’s hosts and confiding to the co-worker I’d come with that I ought to say hello, mention my forthcoming book, gauge interest. I didn’t. Partly because of the ick, partly because I was tired and hungry.
Business is not community service, but it’s tempting to confuse the two when the same constituency of readers and writers is the source of one’s livelihood and sense of belonging. So far, so ick. But what’s harder to stomach is the deliberate obfuscation – the way ‘support’ can serve as a metaphor for paid-for services and an appeal to community (e.g., ‘women supporting women’); the way ‘building a community’ can mean both establishing a business and a deflection of professional responsibility; the way business-related communications can become ‘private’ if their contents disrupt the illusion of community.
I don’t want to smile along with people of influence who describe money-talk as ‘awkward’, without examining how this awkwardness benefits them. I don’t want to pay for the privilege of providing content. I don’t want bosses texting me after hours about how I ought to spend my time and money. I want clear, coherent boundaries between pay and play, the artist and the advertiser, the small business owner and the casual employee catching some sun of a summer’s evening. I want to break the tension, permanently.
The First Time Podcast responds to ‘Paying to Play’ here.