Kudos to Kelsey Piper and Buck for this idea. See Buck’s shortform post for another formulation.

LessWrong is trialing a new pilot program: paying USD500 for high-quality book reviews that are of general interest to LessWrong readers, subject to our judgment and discretion.

How it Works

  • Pick a book that you want to review.
  • [Optional] Contact LessWrong (Intercom in the bottom right or team@lesswrong.com) to check in on whether the book is on-topic (to reduce the probability of not getting the bounty).
  • Write the review and post it on LessWrong. Contact LessWrong to let us know you’re submitting your review for payment. Optionally, send us your book review before posting to get free feedback. (In fact, feel free to send us your draft at any stage for feedback.)
  • If we like your book review and it’s the kind of post we had in mind, we pay out the $500.

The program will by default run for one month (until October 13). At the end of the month, a bonus $750 will be split evenly between the top three book reviews received, as judged by us.

Desired Reviews

Most non-fiction topics related to science, history, and rationality will merit payment if the book review is of sufficient quality. By “quality” I’m referring to both content and form. Do the inferences seem correct? Does the reviewer seem to be asking the right questions? Does the summary feel informative or lacking? Do I feel confused or enlightened? Is it riveting or a slog to get through? On the writing side, relevant aspects are sentence construction, word choice, pacing, structure, imagery, etc.

I don’t want to be too prescriptive about form since I expect that being of sufficiently high quality (nebulously defined) is enough to make for exceptions, but generally, I’m interested in book reviews that:

  • Convinces the reader that the topic is interesting, usually by explaining how the topic is relevant to the user’s life or other interests.
  • Summarize the core claims and arguments in the book so that others can benefit without having to read it.
  • Perform an epistemic review of the book–which, if any, of its claims seem correct? Book reviews that involve a degree of fact-checking/epistemic spot checking will be considered favorably.
  • Describe what the reviewer has come to believe and why.

(An extra great format is to compare and contrast two or more books on the same topic.)

Examples of Desired and Undesired Book Reviews

Since it’s hard to give an explicit definition of “quality”, I’m going to fall back on examples and hope that these are better than nothing. Generally, the book reviews tag is a good guide to the kinds of book reviews that are popular on LessWrong and that we want to incentivize.

Below I’ve listed specific book reviews that were either particularly great or kind of poor. Again, most of these came down to quality rather than topic. 

Positive Examples

These book reviews all present engagingly on a topic of interest. They’re not difficult to read, and having read them, I know something more about the world than I did before. 

Negative Examples

I am reluctant to name and shame particular essays on LessWrong, and instead, direct people to view the book reviews tag sorted by karma and look at the lowest scoring posts (you’ll have to click load more to get the entire list). Karma is a strong correlate of quality (whether or not the bounty is paid out is not strictly contingent on the karma it gets, but is influenced by it).

Importantly, quality is not the automatic result of effort. Someone could expend a lot of effort writing an extremely long and detailed review that no one wants to read because it’s tedious or because the English is grating. To be explicit, the bounty will not be paid out just because someone put a lot of effort into their review. 

However, to make it easier to produce high-quality reviews, anyone writing a book review for this program is welcome to avail themselves of LessWrong’s feedback service, even if they don’t yet have 100+ karma. Just ping us on Intercom.

Why are you doing this?

Foremost, we want more valuable content on the site. We are beginning to experiment with offering people monetary compensation for their hard work. I estimate that our best blog posts generate much more than $500 of value. However, $500 is maybe enough to symbolically thank our writers and incentivize them.

Beyond the first-order benefit, there could be additional benefits, as listed by Buck:

  • It might encourage people to practice useful skills, like writing, quickly learning about new topics, and thinking through what topics would be useful to know more about.
  • ...sometimes I worry that rationalists are too interested in thinking about the world by introspection or weird analogies relative to learning many facts about different aspects of the world; I think book reviews would maybe be a healthier way to direct energy towards intellectual development.
  • It might surface some talented writers and thinkers who weren’t otherwise known to EA [or LessWrong]

 

Of these, I’m especially interested in helping to develop new strong writers and researchers. 

We’re starting with compensation for book reviews as these feel like a more “approachable” kind of content for people to target writing. By being a more specific format, I imagine that it will be easier for people to get started than if the directive were “write good posts”. 

Conditions

This list will be expanded as things come up that I didn’t think of.

  1. You may submit multiple book reviews, although we might apply a higher quality bar for each subsequent submission.
  2. At this time, we’re not paying for reviews of fiction.
  3. At this time, we’re only paying for reviews of book-length written material (not podcasts or documentaries). If you listened to the audiobook version of a print book, that's fine.
  4. Your book review must be published after the posting of this announcement, i.e., no submitting book reviews you wrote a month ago and already published elsewhere on the Internet.
  5. You may review a book that was already reviewed on LessWrong (or SlateStarCodex/ACX), however your review must add significant value beyond the existing review(s).

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