It is no secret to anyone that a lot of academic work is performed behind-the-scenes and for free--e.g., the peer-review process for articles. However, peer-reviewing a proposal or manuscript for a book publisher is another basket of mortarboards: in return for several weeks of work, and depending on what's being reviewed, the reviewer receives at least a token fee or the equivalent in books. This is not the road to wealth (although it may contribute to a shortage of space on one's bookshelves), but at least it does (somewhat) reflect the amount of time the reviewer has to invest in the project. (Whether or not the academic on the receiving end will be grateful for the result is, of course, an entirely different matter...)
This morning, Palgrave Macmillan sent out an email inviting us to sample Palgrave's Open Review, which gives interested academics the opportunity to comment on chapters of books and/or proposals already accepted for publication. This trial has the laudable goal, as they explain, of encouraging "greater accountability," "the possibility of additional perspectives," and "a greater focus on developing works and encouraging debate." Now, I like Palgrave Macmillan; I've published a chapter in one of their collections; and I might someday even want to send them a book proposal. But as I checked their FAQs, something became very clear: all of this debate &c. is to be conducted for free. I idly began to wonder if one of the attractions of open peer review for publishers would be saving a few dollars on reviewers' fees and books. Not that it would be much money, mind you--it's not as though this were a particularly lucrative activity in the first place--but it would be some. Since the goal of open reviewing is, in theory, to attract a crowd, I can see why a publisher would feel disinclined to compensate everyone for their time.
But then, that's it: I'm also disinclined to offer my time for free, as there are several other productive activities I might be doing with it. "It's just one chapter! Be generous," you say. "Don't be mercenary," someone else says. Er, well. Academics spend enough time donating their labor that I cannot work up much enthusiasm for a scheme that allows publishers to transform a previously-compensated (even if only skimpily so) activity into yet another unpaid "service." If a friend or colleague requests my input, that's one thing; if a business requests it, that's quite another.