Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Are Book Reviewers Out of Print? (by Motoko Rich, the New York Times)

Caption: The Los Angeles Times recently merged its book review into a new section combining the review with the Sunday opinion pages.

Are Book Reviewers Out of Print?

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Published: May 2, 2007

Last year Dan Wickett, a former quality-control manager for a car-parts maker, wrote 95 book reviews on his blog, Emerging Writers Network (emergingwriters.typepad.com/), singlehandedly compiling almost half as many reviews as appeared in all of the book pages of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Mr. Wickett has now quit the automotive industry and started a nonprofit organization that supports literary journals and writers-in-residence programs, giving him more time to devote to his literary blog. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, meanwhile, has recently eliminated the job of its book editor, leading many fans to worry that book coverage will soon be provided mostly by wire services and reprints from national papers.

The decision in Atlanta — in which book reviews will now be overseen by one editor responsible for virtually all arts coverage — comes after a string of changes at book reviews across the country. The Los Angeles Times recently merged its once stand-alone book review into a new section combining the review with the paper’s Sunday opinion pages, effectively cutting the number of pages devoted to books to 10 from 12. Last year The San Francisco Chronicle’s book review went from six pages to four. All across the country, newspapers are cutting book sections or running more reprints of reviews from wire services or larger papers.

To some authors and critics, these moves amount to yet one more nail in the coffin of literary culture. But some publishers and literary bloggers — not surprisingly — see it as an inevitable transition toward a new, more democratic literary landscape where anyone can comment on books. In recent years, dozens of sites, including Bookslut.com, The Elegant Variation (marksarvas.blogs.com/elegvar/), maudnewton .com, Beatrice.com and the Syntax of Things (syntaxofthings.typepad.com), have been offering a mix of book news, debates, interviews and reviews, often on subjects not generally covered by newspaper book sections.

For those who are used to the old way, it’s a tough evolution. “Like anything new, it’s difficult for authors and agents to understand when we say, ‘I’m sorry, you’re not going to be in The New York Times or The Chicago Tribune, but you are going to be at curledup.com,’ ” said Trish Todd, publisher of Touchstone Fireside, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. “But we think that’s the wave of the future.”

Obviously, the changes at newspaper book reviews reflect the broader challenges faced by newspapers in general, as advertisement revenues decline, and readers decamp to the Internet. But some writers (and readers) question whether economics should be the only driving factor. Newspapers like The Atlanta Journal-Constitution could run book reviews “as a public service, and the fact of the matter is that they are unwilling to,” said Richard Ford, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist.

“I think the reviewing function as it is thoroughly taken up by newspapers is vital,” he continued, “in the same way that literature itself is vital.”

Mr. Ford is one of more than 120 writers who have signed a petition to save the job of Teresa Weaver, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s book editor. The petition, sponsored by the National Book Critics Circle, comes as part of the organization’s effort to save imperiled book coverage generally. “We will continue to use freelancers, established news services and our staff to provide stories about books of interest to our readers and the local literary community,” said Mary Dugenske, a spokeswoman for the newspaper, in an e-mail message.

Coming as it does at a time when newspaper book reviews are endangered, many writers, publishers and critics worry that the spread of literary blogs will be seen as compensation for more traditional coverage. “We have a lot of opinions in our world,” said John Freeman, president of the National Book Critics Circle. “What we need is more mediation and reflection, which is why newspapers and literary journals are so important.”

Edward Champion, who writes about books on his blog, Return of the Reluctant (edrants.com), said that literary blogs responded to the “often stodgy and pretentious tone” of traditional reviews.

The brute fact is that while authors and publishers may want long and considered responses to their work, sometimes what they most need is attention. Last year, when Random House published “This Is Not Chick Lit,” a story collection with contributions from authors like Jennifer Egan and Curtis Sittenfeld, it generated a lot of online chatter as various bloggers debated whether the book was pretentious or a welcome correction to an oversubscribed genre. “All the slow but steady online exposure helped build a grass-roots thing,” said Julia Cheiffetz, the book’s editor at Random House, who noted that “This Is Not Chick Lit” is now in its sixth printing with 45,000 copies in print.

But while online buzz can help some books, newspapers can pique the interest of a general reader, said Oscar Villalon, books editor at The San Francisco Chronicle. Blogs, he said, are “not mass media.” The Chronicle, for example, he said, has a circulation of nearly 500,000, a number not many blogs can achieve.

On the other hand, committed readers who take the time to find a literary blog may be more likely than a casual reader of the Sunday newspaper to buy a book. “I know that everyone who comes to my site is interested in books,” said Mark Sarvas, editor of The Elegant Variation, a literary blog that publishes lengthy reviews.

And newspaper book reviews, which are often accused of hewing too closely to “safe choices,” could learn something from the more freewheeling approach of some of the book blogs, said David L. Ulin, who edits the book review at The Los Angeles Times.

“One of the troubles with mainstream print criticism is that people can be too polite,” Mr. Ulin said. “I feel like an aspect of the gloves-off nature of blogs is something that we could all learn from, not in an irresponsible way, but in a wear-your-likes-and-dislikes-on-your-sleeves kind of way.”

Maud Newton, who has been writing a literary blog since 2002, said she has the freedom to follow obsessions like, say, Mark Twain in a way that a newspaper book review could not, unless there was a current book on the subject. But she would never consider what she does a replacement for more traditional book reviews.

“I find it kind of naïve and misguided to be a triumphalist blogger,” Ms. Newton said. “But I also find it kind of silly when people in the print media bash blogs as a general category, because I think the people are doing very, very different things.”

One thing that regional newspapers in particular can do is highlight local authors. “While I’m all for the literary bloggers, and I think the more people that write about books the better, they’re not necessarily as regionally focused as knowledgeable, experienced long-term editors in the South or Midwest or anywhere where the most important writers come from,” said Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of The New York Times Book Review.

Many local authors view the decision at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as a betrayal of important local coverage.

“With the removal of its cultural critics, Atlanta is surrendering again,” wrote Melissa Fay Greene, author of “Praying for Sheetrock” in an e-mail message. “We all lose, you know, not just Atlantans, with the disappearance from the scene of a literate intelligence.”

Of course literary bloggers argue that they do provide a multiplicity of voices. But some authors distrust those voices. Mr. Ford, who has never looked at a literary blog, said he wanted the judgment and filter that he believed a newspaper book editor could provide. “Newspapers, by having institutional backing, have a responsible relationship not only to their publisher but to their readership,” Mr. Ford said, “in a way that some guy sitting in his basement in Terre Haute maybe doesn’t.”

Che: Okay, here I attached Dan Wickett's response in his own blog.


When the New York Times Calls ...

... I call back.  Turns out when the bit of back and forth about print reviewers and bloggers was going on last week, the New York Times was paying attention.  I was asked to answer some questions by Motoko Rich Monday and it has led to some information about the EWN being included in an article in Wednesday's paper.

I really cannot complain as Motoko has made me look pretty good in the deal, noting I personally read and reviewed nearly half as many books as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution did during 2006.  Granted, the bulk of last year's reviews were mini-reviews, especially compared to those written the previous five years, and those written so far this year, but the total number makes things sound good.  She was also kind enough to note that I've moved on from my former position into my current job of running Dzanc Books, though without mentioning the name Dzanc Books, so I'll do so again here, Dzanc Books

I think the article comes across pretty even-minded, especially when one considers it's appearing in a newspaper, and while it's one that still has a stand-alone, Sunday Books section, it's still a newspaper.  And what appears to be the consensus among print reviewers, bloggers, and readers of both, is that the newspaper business is in trouble, which is leading to the book review sections being in trouble.

Not surprisingly, I found the comments of Maud Newton to come across as the most rational, saying she'd never consider what she does a replacement for a traditional book review and “I find it kind of naïve and misguided to be a triumphalist blogger,” Ms. Newton said. “But I also find it kind of silly when people in the print media bash blogs as a general category, because I think the people are doing very, very different things.”

Some things I said that were not able to be squeezed into the article:

- I absolutely do not want to see print reviews disappear.  The first thing I do every Sunday morning is grab the Detroit Free Press and turn to the book page (yes, page).  I follow that up by going online and looking at the new book pages/sections of 8-15 papers from across the country.  Yes, I'm doing this online, but really only because I don't have access to the printed copies of these papers. 

-  The loss of any of the voices that have developed over the course of the last 30 years in various editors, freelance reviewers, etc. is just a waste of what I'm interested - coverage of books and the literary world.

-  That I had in fact signed the petition for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and sincerely hope that the editor there be put back in her original position.

I thank Motoko for finding some interest in this site, as part of the story, and sincerely hope that those of you bouncing over here for the first time because of the link she provided have a chance to look around and hopefully like things enough to come back every so often.

Che: and, I found this published slightly before the NYT.



The folly of downsizing book reviews

Newspapers that cut back on book coverage may be cutting their own throats.

By Michael Connelly

MICHAEL CONNELLY is the author of 17 mysteries, most of them featuring LAPD Det. Harry Bosch. His next book, "The Overlook," will be out next month.

April 29, 2007

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, my first book was published in near obscurity. Only 15,000 copies of "The Black Echo" were printed, and the publisher didn't place a single ad for it in any newspaper in the country. It could easily have been ignored or forgotten or simply missed among the thousands of books published to little fanfare every year.

But even without an advertising push, the book got reviewed in newspapers big and small, far and wide. Across the country, newspapers had strong book sections and critics were always on the lookout for a new voice. The Washington Post's Book World devoted half a page to a review of my novel, predicting a bright future for both its protagonist and its author.

That review and others like it stimulated interest in what I had to say. They got the momentum going in the bookstores. Those reviews helped establish the voice of the protagonist, Los Angeles Police Department Det. Harry Bosch, and now, 12 books later, Bosch has led a full and adventurous (albeit tortured) life in Los Angeles. He has explored places and seen things in this city that most people who live here don't even know about. All the while he has tried to understand and make sense of his city and his place in it — just like everybody else who lives here.

I can't help but wonder, though, how long Harry would have lasted had he been born in today's newspaper environment. Across the country, papers are cutting back on the space, attention and care they devote to books. Recently, for instance, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution announced that the position of book editor would be eliminated in a cost-cutting move. Without a specific editor directing book coverage, the paper will rely more heavily on reviews from wire services.

But that's just the latest in an ongoing crisis. The Chicago Tribune announced last week that it was moving its books section from Sunday to the less-read Saturday paper — an edition that becomes almost obsolete by noon, when the early Sunday edition hits the stands. At the Raleigh News & Observer, the book editor's position was recently cut. At the Dallas Morning News, the book critic quit rather than face significant space reductions. Books coverage has also been cut at the Orlando Sentinel, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and other papers.

Even at the Los Angeles Times, the fine newspaper at which I am proud to have once worked as a reporter, the attention devoted to books is changing. Gone is the stand-alone Book Review. Two weeks ago, Book Review was merged with Sunday Opinion as part of a plan to save pages and save money.

There are many sound business reasons for these moves, and perhaps The Times is going about it in the best way possible — attempting to make sure that between the Sunday newspaper, the daily paper and its website, the Book Review content is still there for those readers willing to chase it down.

To be sure, a newspaper is a business, and book reviews have always been a loss-leader of sorts. Book sections have never generated much advertising, and no doubt publishing houses ought to bear some of the responsibility for the straits we're now in. Unlike films or automobiles or even food products, few books enter the marketplace with a budget for newspaper ads. This has become even more pronounced as more and more of the money that is set aside for promoting books is shifted into "co-op" — paying for position on the front tables in chain stores.

So I understand why newspaper executives think that space dedicated to books is space that loses money.

But maybe not in the long run.

The truth is that the book and newspaper businesses share the same dreadful fear: that people will stop reading. And the fear may be well-founded. Across the country, newspaper circulations are down — and this is clearly part of the reason for the cuts to book sections. At the same time, the book business increasingly relies on an aging customer base that may not be refueling itself with enough new readers.

In the past, newspaper executives understood the symbiotic relationship between their product and books. People who read books also read newspapers. From that basic tenet came a philosophy: If you foster books, you foster reading. If you foster reading, you foster newspapers. That loss-leader ends up helping you build and keep your base.

What I fear is that this philosophy is disappearing from the boardrooms of our newspapers; that efforts to cut costs now will damage both books and newspapers in the future. Short-term gains will become long-term losses.

I hope that will not be the case here. I am not a businessman or a newspaper executive, but I believe that the symbiosis between newspapers and books could still work and hold true. I see it happening in my own home. My 10-year-old daughter's love of reading books is slowly leading her toward the newspaper sections that are spread every morning across the breakfast table.

What is at stake is something more than the financial health of the newspaper and book businesses. The publishing industry has always relied on reviews and on the commentary of great critics in newspapers to champion the new voices of literature as well as regional and genre writing. The reading public has gone to these venues to make discoveries. Now where will new voices be discovered?

It reminds me of something detectives have often told me while I've researched my crime novels. They say that when they trace events backward from a crime, they often find that the victims made mistakes that put themselves in harm's way.

I fear that newspapers are doing the same thing, making mistakes that will ultimately hasten their own downfall.

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