Everybody's a critic. If you doubt that, visit the Internet. You'll stumble on opinions galore -- informed and uninformed -- on just about anything you can imagine. And many things you've never imagined. Take books.
The Internet is the perfect way for someone who enjoys reading to recommend books to a passel of people at one time.
Reggie Keith teaches at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles. On his Web site, he has a suggested reading list of more than two dozen titles and he gives a synopsis of each one. His taste is eclectic. He speaks highly of theologians C.S. Lewis and Reinhold Niebuhr. He also prescribes wooo-OOOooo writer Whitley Strieber. Go figure.
An outspoken man, Keith even criticizes critics in a passionate essay, challenging movie reviewers to act out scenes and music critics to play the instruments themselves.
Keith doesn't link his suggestions to online book stores, but lots of critics do. Both Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble offer moneymaking incentives to people who send buyers their way.
My friend Hope Coulter, for instance, put up a site in November. A serious multitasker, Hope lives in Little Rock with her husband, Nate, and their three kids. Hope is a novelist and a part-time professor at Hendrix College. She is also executive director of the Arkansas Hunger Coalition. And she fiddles with her Web site, Armchair Books.
"I love books and I'm a big customer of Amazon.com," Hope says. "I thought this would be a fun and low-investment way to make a little money."
Setting up the site cost her about $1,800, for professional design and various registration fees. "I had the name," she says. "They come up with the logo and did all the links."
She sighs. "I didn't anticipate the maintenance cost." She pays $50 a month.
Every week Hope receives a report from Amazon.com. The online book store tells her how many people have visited her site, how many have bought the books she recommends (for which she gets a 15 percent commission) and how many bought other books (for which she gets a 5 percent commission).
The Seattle-based book company sends out commission checks every quarter. She got her first one recently, "for a whopping $27."
But she's hoping to lower her maintenance costs and to hang on long enough to make a little money. She advertised her site by sending out several hundred postcards to friends. "My expectations weren't high," she says.
Then there are people like John Regehr, a computer science grad student at the University of Virginia, who don't believe in making money from recommending books. Regehr has created a simple and engaging Web site built around his book recommendations. For the past three years or so, he's kept track of the books he's read by writing reviews and cataloguing them online.
Judging by his list, this guy is a reader.
"Are you an unusually fast reader?" is a question that folks have asked Regehr. His reply, "I don't think so; maybe a little faster than average, though. My secret is that I never turn on my television."
If you're intrigued by free-speech battles on the Internet, please tune in to the online show Navigator -- Live, 2 p.m. Eastern. My guest will be Mike Godwin, general counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Godwin, an activist for civil rights in cyberspace, is the author of "Cyber Rights: Defending Free Speech in the Digital Age." You can find a link to the Navigator on today's home page of washingtonpost.com.
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