Why publishing book reviews makes sense

Posted: September 30, 2007

So few book reviews, so many books.

No, it hasn't started appearing on T-shirts yet, but wait.

For the last half year, thanks in part to vigorous noisemaking by the National Book Critics Circle and its energetic president, Swarthmore grad John Freeman, the publishing world has done almost as much talking about the "book review crisis" as it has about the rectangular objects it sells.

So far in September, no fewer than five panels in New York, at venues from Columbia Journalism School to Scandinavia House, have been devoted to some version of the "The Vanishing Book Review."

Why? Because across the country, freshly written, independent book reviews, a staple of newspapers since the late 18th century, are disappearing. In many papers, they're the latest target of managers seeking to cut costs and maintain profit margins in an era of shrinking ad dollars. More and more book reviews that you read in Paper E have already appeared in Papers A, B, C and D.

Citing recent signs of crisis now counts as a ritual. The Los Angeles Times killed its stand-alone book section and combined its still-substantial number of book pages with its opinion section. The San Diego Union-Tribune also buried its stand-alone book section. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution eliminated the position of book editor. The Associated Press discontinued its book-review package. Even the New York Times Book Review, the largest and most powerful in the country, offers considerably fewer pages than it once did.

There is also an occasional countermove. Just the other day, California's Contra Costa Times, which had eliminated book reviews from its print Sunday paper, restored them after fiery local criticism. Subscribers made clear they wouldn't buy the Sunday paper if they couldn't lean back on the weekend and read book reviews.

Should anyone care except those of us who write, publish or review books?

Surprise - "On Books" votes yes on this question. As the panels demonstrated, there's surprising unanimity among working stiffs in book publishing and literary journalism about why elimination of book reviews is dumber than dumb from the standpoint of newspapers.

Let me then, from my position of unassailable objectivity, synthesize why many of us think killing book reviews is a no-brainer (that is, managers who do it have no brains).

First, the unsentimental, pure-money argument.

Benighted managers, we think, fail to notice that the five newspapers with the most coverage and staff devoted to books - USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post - are also the five newspapers with the highest circulations in the country.

Newspaper managers, or the marketing consultants they hire, don't usually break out the figures that way, but they should.

The five papers mentioned all recognize that the most important task in attracting advertising is not hunting for advertisers to take ads, or expecting businesses connected to every sector of editorial content to buy advertising to support that space (i.e., book publishers should buy ads to support book pages, sports teams to support the sports section).

The trick is drawing the kind of readers, and enough of them, to one's newspaper that advertisers (especially high-rollers) desperately want to reach. All five papers above understand that book coverage, like all coverage of what smart, successful sorts do, draws society's most highly educated, likely-to-buy readers, a group that also skews wealthy.

Having corralled those readers, the Times and Journal preeminently, and the others to a lesser degree, get Lexus and BMW and all sorts of nonpublishers to take ads.

Book coverage thus falls under a formula once expressed by a top New York Times editor, when he was asked how the Times won its creme de la creme slice of readership across the country.

"We cover success and consider it news, whether it's by writers, scientists or lawyers," he said. "Most papers think only failure is news."

The money argument in regard to advertising segues into another that literary and publishing folk make: How much cost-saving comes from killing book reviews?

Unlike national or foreign coverage, both also under siege in newspapers, book criticism costs virtually nothing once you've got staffers in place. The books come for free. That leaves the paper the reviews are printed on, the cost of staffers who might be assigned elsewhere, and the abysmally low fees for freelance reviews (don't ask).

Given the punch of such points, it's almost a blessing that cultural arguments for book reviews flourish, too.

If you don't serve readers, you don't attract readers.

If you declare in your Weekend section that people should do anything but read on the weekend - catch a movie, watch a DVD, hit the music clubs, go cycling - readers will listen, and many will stop buying your paper.

If you don't build the attention spans of young readers by treating books as if they're important, young people will spend four minutes with your paper, if that.

What? You say those sound like more financial salvos? That reminds me of a colleague's remark after one of our panels. We were reflecting on financial arguments for book reviews as opposed to cultural ones.

"Cultural arguments don't matter," she upbraided me. "Only money matters."

So I'll stop right there.


Inquirer book critic Carlin Romano is a former president and current board member of the National Book Critics Circle, a nationwide organization of more than 700 book critics, editors, reviewers and literary scholars. Contact him at 215-854-5615 or cromano@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/carlinromano.

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