Breaking into Arts journalism

Notes from a presentation given by Irish Times Books Editor Martin Doyle at Freelance Forum Spring 2019.

There has been a lot of articles published about the precarious and impecunious life of the Irish author or artist, far fewer of any on the similar dire straits of the arts journalist.
I freelanced for a year early on in my career. I can vividly remember hitching from my grandparents in Gorey in 1992 to interview the playwright Billy Roche in the Centenary Stores in Wexford, then writing it up longhand on the floor of my cousin’s box room in Willesden Green. The buzz I got from seeing it published in the Irish Post was tempered by the fact they forgot to put my byline on it. At least they remembered to put my name on the cheque. Another rite of passage was seeing my intro plagiarized word for word in the Sunday Indo.
But I got paid £150 for that piece. I’d be lucky to get the same today, 26 years later.
So I know they are like gold dust but my first advice is, if you can, get a staff job.
Every Saturday in Ticket we publish 10-11 book reviews of anywhere between 750-1000 words plus 3 or 6 short reviews of 170 words apiece. We also publish 2-3 book features and often an interview with an author. During the week we usually run 2-3 book features or interviews as well.
We usually pay €150 for a review of 700-800 words, €200 for 1,000, €35 for 170 words. An interview I think is about €250.
I appreciate that’s not a lot when you consider reading the book alone would probably take up to a day. So if you consider reading work, those figures are not going to add up.
Where do our reviewers come from? For fiction, many of our reviewers are writers themselves, people who love reading, understand what it takes to write a book, and can identify what works and what doesn’t and why, put the work in the context of tradition and the contemporary scene, and deliver all of this in a style that is attractive in itself.
I had a spat recently on Twitter with someone arguing that I should use more professional critics and fewer authors. I’d say firstly there are very few. The late Eileen Battersby was one. Sinead Gleeson another. But they are both writers too. Most if not all book critics or reviewers are writers too, I’d bet, just some have not yet been published.
Another point I’d make is we are in the business of selling papers. Big names are box office. Authors are maybe arthouse rather than blockbusters but I know I always want to read what Colm Toibin or Anne Enright has to say.
For nonfiction, we draw on a range of academics, writers, journalists and the odd politician.
Irish Times reviewers include some of our finest writers, including two of my predecessors as books editor, Fintan O’Toole and John Banville, but also Diarmaid Ferriter, Paschal Donohoe, Anne Enright, Sinead Gleeson, John Boyne, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne.
But I do also make space for new voices and there have been opportunities for young journalists or critics to show what they can do. I started on the books pages in 2013 and Sarah Gilmartin started around then too. She now has a weekly slot reviewing new fiction and last year edited the Stinging Fly short story anthology marking its 20th anniversary. More recently, Niamh Donnelly has started reviewing for me. A former Hennessy New Irish Writing short story winner, she is also a fine critic and new reviews regularly.
I get a lot of pitches from would-be reviewers, most often simply expressing a desire to review. I usually reply that I am already oversubscribed and it would be unfair on the existing reviewers who maybe only get one book a month to review to take anyone else on.
However, sometimes someone captures my attention. Maybe it’s a hyperlink to one of their reviews or another piece of writing that really impressed me, or they have a particular interest or speciality that relates to a book I want reviewed.
Generally though, somebody saying they would like to review does not make them stand out. If they say they would love to review a particular author or title because of some personal connection ‑ that makes me sit up more. If they include a link so I can quickly see more about the book and the author and who the publisher is and when it is coming out, that is helpful.
Some pitches, however, can take this approach to the extreme. One reviewer sends a list of about 20 titles with a detailed breakdown of what it’s about, why it’s significant and why he is the right man to review it. While it’s understandably broad as he is probably pitching to several editors, claims to expertise are less convincing if they are spread too thinly.
I’d also advise against being too ambitious. If you are just starting out, it’s unlikely that you’ll be commissioned to review a Booker Prize winner.
Short reviews are often a nursery slope for reviewers starting out. 170 words mightn’t seem a lot but it is striking how some reviewers can inject personality and attitude into such a confined space.
Reviews are a very crowded field but I get far fewer pitches for book features. One of the best I got recently was from Paul Ring who has just filed a fascinating piece on the rise of audiobooks.
Interviewers are also a bit thin on the ground. One of our regulars is now much less available as she has had to go back to her day job.
Pitching a review of a book that I know is coming out is less likely to prick my attention than a pitch about a book I haven’t hear of but that sounds promising, such as a recent one on the Fenian invasion of Canada.
Other advice when you’re pitching: get my name right ( that’s not vanity, it’s about your attention to detail), the name of the book and the author, when it is coming out. Don’t pitch the week before. We have much longer deadlines.
Familiarize yourself with the trade publication the Bookseller and keep an eye on publishers’ websites to see what’s coming up next month or next season.
If you fancy yourself an expert on Chernobyl or global warming and there is a major title on the subject coming out, you should know about it before you see it in the shops.
If you pitch and you don’t hear back, it’s not rude to politely send a follow up say a week later. I get hundreds of emails a day and it is hard if not impossible to answer them all. If it’s important enough for you to try again, it will prick my conscience to reply.