The Value Of Readers

October 27th, 2006 · 12 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

We have been following recent discussions about the decline of book coverage in major newspapers with interest. As always, we remain surprised by the lack of discussion about content when it comes to reviewing and discussing books in newspapers. Is it possible that newspapers don’t value book coverage because their readers don’t value book coverage because that coverage is perceived as being targeted toward “someone else”?

Someone else, of course, is that narrow strata of readers who are clamoring for yet another expose of the real Shakespeare. Or a translation of a great Hungarian novel about oppression, strife, and disaffected youth at the turn of the century.

We are not saying that niche novels do not deserve coverage by newspapers. Inf act, without reviews by major newspapers, these works might never come to the attention of the public. But the general tone of book sections in newspapers is elitist. There is no shame in elitism — we practice the hobby of snobbish intellectual elitism daily — but newspapers are all about casting a wide net. The New York Times might print a display ad of the new Nora Roberts book because her contract with her publisher compels them to purchase the advertisement, but the NYT will not review Roberts. She is perceived as not worthy of the time and effort.

This discounts the millions of readers who purchase her books, makes them believe that the newspaper perceive them as not worthy of the time and effort. Lack of genre fiction coverage is endemic to the industry. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: genre fiction readers buy a lot of books. Many of them read voraciously outside their genre. Over and over and over again, we ask our friends if they open the Los Angeles Times Book Review section on Sunday mornings. Nobody does — it doesn’t speak to them on any level.

Our friends, by the way, read just about everything under the sun. Except, it appears, the LAT Book Review. That should tell the newspaper something very important: do a better job of reaching the audience.

We have posited that newspaper book review sections are killing themselves by exclusiveness. Part of this is the lack of advertising dollars coming in from the publishing industry. Scott Esposito said:

To suggest that newspapers should curtail their book coverage because the publishing industry doesn’t correctly “support” them with advertising is ridiculous.

However, you will note that arts coverage in newspapers is often supported by industry. Granted, we live in L.A., where the motion picture industry throws dollars at the “Calendar” section like they grow on trees. But if you look through the Calendar, you will see that arts dollars are coming from the opera, playhouses, performing arts centers, museums, concert venues…and sometimes a book ad for an author like James Patterson, someone who surely doesn’t need the exposure. The dedicated book review section has a fair bit of advertising, but, not surprisingly, the ads are completely out of sync with the content.

But Scott’s right — the coverage of books in newspapers should not be dependent upon ad dollars from the industry. This means, of course, that those ad dollars need to come from somewhere else. Which means that the section must be perceived as valuable to readers, because if you’re selling with the intent of catching eyeballs (and, like publishers, newspapers are not charities), then you need to have those eyeballs.

Books coverage doesn’t have to be fair and balanced across all genres, but it needs to be valuable to the people who matter most. We have all seen that readers are migrating to online venues to get their book news. Look at the genre fiction arena: you have robust communities that aren’t getting support from their local newspapers. These readers are long lost. Maybe it won’t be the next time, but there will be a moment in the near future where Nora Roberts’ publisher takes a look at effective use of advertising dollars and realizes that the community they’re trying to sell isn’t reading the NYT for book information. The publisher will go online, as well. What happens when the paper loses those advertising dollars?

We like to be snobby, but we have to be realistic. Newspapers are businesses who are losing readers and advertising dollars. But a lot of people still rely upon newspapers for information. Books tend to be the only major entertainment media where reviews are not done across the medium. In order for the readers to value book coverage, the coverage needs to value the readers. All of them.

Elsewhere:

[tags]books, reviews, book reviews, publishing, newspapers, new york times, los angeles times[/tags]

File Under: Reviewing Reviewing

12 responses so far ↓

  • Lauren Baratz-Logsted // Oct 27, 2006 at 8:48 am

    I’m sure you can already guess where I’ll come down on this, but I’d just like to point out one thing: You mention Nora Roberts who, if reviewed by the NYTBR at all, is reviewed with a shorty among a grouping of shorty reviews. But there are other genre titans whose every books are reviewed in full by the same paper: John Grisham, Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy. Further, the paper does offer regularly featured columns on two genres and have done for at least the 23 years I’ve been reading it: Crime and SF/F. But there’s no room for Romance and no room for a full page on Nora Roberts, unless of course it’s a paid ad.

  • ed // Oct 27, 2006 at 9:13 am

    Actually, the NYTBR under Tanenhaus DID review Nora Roberts:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/10/books/review/10SCHAPPE.html?ex=1162094400&en=77bfaebbb906df1e&ei=5070

  • Karen // Oct 27, 2006 at 10:15 am

    Well, I dunno, I read the LAT book reviews. The coverage seems better since Ulin took over, and not particularly elitist, although I like about a new translation of a great Hungarian novel about oppresion, strife, and disaffected youth at the turn of the century. Reviewing Nora Roberts would do … what? Increase her readership? Increase readership of the book section? Give the book section more credibility? Make it more relevant to contempoary life?

  • Lauren Baratz-Logsted // Oct 27, 2006 at 12:31 pm

    I stand corrected, Ed. 🙂 One full-page review, compared to reviews for every book Grisham/Crichton/Clancy come out with.

  • ktwice // Oct 27, 2006 at 12:38 pm

    Thanks, Ed. Missed that one. And, yes, Lauren, I knew where you were going. It’s an ongoing issue — the ratio of books written by women to books written by men.

    However, the critical point is not that Nora Roberts (or James Patterson or John Grisham or Tom Clancy) would increase readership — these particular authors are beyond needing reviews to sell books (though certainly fair game when it comes critically analyzing their work). If readers feel excluded from the book review section — and the LAT has improved somewhat since Ulin took over, though I have a habit of picking up the section during the bad weeks. They remain a little too oriented toward “Stardust Lost: The Triumph, Tragedy, and Mishugas of the Yiddish Theater in America” — which is probably a great book if you’re interested in the subject — than reaching out to a broader readership.

    To bring in readers, I really believe that book review sections need to mix it up a bit. If you want to introduce a broader audience to Yiddish theater or disaffected Hungarian moroseness (yes, being Hungarian, that is a topic near and dear to my heart), then you need, well, a broader audience. Creating a review section that says to a large segment of the book-buying public “nothing to see, move on” reduces the potential audience for that book.

    Newspapers are advertising-supported businesses. Advertisers go where the readers go. Readers go where they find content that interests them. Arts coverage in newspapers needs to pay for itself, just as news coverage does. If you increase the readership of the book review section, then you increase the value to the people who pay the bills. And I really think that has to start with valuing readers — all of them.

  • Daniel Scott Buck // Oct 28, 2006 at 6:08 pm

    Look for the comment by Barking Kitten about how the NYT reviewed Updike four times. And then vomit:

    http://bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com/2006/08/why-do-critics-ignore-certain-books.html

  • Lynne W. Scanlon // Oct 29, 2006 at 5:52 am

    I agree that newspapers should cast a wider net. I think editors should be routinely nosing through self-published books online and searching (hard) to find good books by struggling authors, as well as letting readers know when the a hot new book from a hot old author is available.

    “The dedicated book review section has a fair bit of advertising, but, not surprisingly, the ads are completely out of sync with the content.”

    Doesn’t this go to reader demographics? Advertising is all about demographics. I know readers expect to see only ads for books in the book review section, and that’s the way it is for the most part in the New York Times Book Review (well, there was that ad by Lulu, not selling the books, but soliciting authors), but I could understand it if ads for cars, trips, jewelry, etc., were there, too. Someone is holding the line.

    I blogged recently about trying to make money off my “literary” blog. I went out and got two “sponsor” ads (a smart CPA whose clients include authors) and a search engine optimization service (who can help drive traffic). I’d be seen cartwheeling around New York City if I could snag an ad for an international airline. My visitors are from around the world. I’m not holding the line.

    Lynne AKA The Wicked Witch of Publishing

  • Arethusa // Oct 29, 2006 at 5:21 pm

    I don’t know. Maybe I am beyond elitist as I found the national newspaper book reviews–retrieving from memory as I haven’t properly read one in an age–not elitist but mind-numbingly staid. Yet another Shakespeare/Lincoln/Trudeau biography, the latest from Joyce Carol Oates/Stephen King/John Updike, some foodie book, lots of political non-fiction, maybe something about small fishing towns in Labrador. If there was a Hungarian novel it would have been by a 1st gen American or Canadian because there’s no way in hell they’d review a translated work. (Unless the author was dead and hopefully a Nobel Prize winner.)

    Barely anything from small presses, nothing foreign, nothing *new*. Just the same old, same old. I’m more concerned about the gender disparity than anything else, although more genre work would be nice as well.

  • ktwice // Oct 29, 2006 at 7:50 pm

    In defense of the LAT, today they reviewed a Soft Skull Press title. That’s pretty cool. I think it was the most interesting thing they reviewed, but that’s because I thought Antonia Fraser nailed the Marie Antoinette story, and the review of Sena Jeter Naslund’s recent biography neglected to note the existence of this fairly recent work. Also they were far better than normal on the gender disparity issue (I have a theory that it’s not intentional on the part of editors — they’re just drawn that way, it’s not an excuse, but it helps explain the problem).

    Staid is a good response — there isn’t a lot of personality in many of these reviews. I’m not sure who the audience is supposed to be.

    Lynn — I’m not sure that readers expect to see only ads for books, but that’s what they get.

    Now for the biggest issue from today’s LAT books section: where the hell is it? I carefully peel apart the paper on Sundays because the actual content is wrapped in layers of ads and a less-than-careful consumer will lose both Comics II (another rant) and other sections. Maybe one reason for the decline of readership is that people accidentally trash the section with other ads!

  • Deborah Smith // Oct 31, 2006 at 8:11 am

    As a longtime romance novelist (though my big fat southern novels don’t quite fit the public perception) I’ve often gnashed my teeth over the self-destruction and hypocritical snobbery of newspaper book pages. Here in Atlanta the sports teams can’t pass gas without it being front page news, but the book pages editor won’t sully herself to put genre fiction on the two lousy pages the paper calls a book review section each week. If genre fiction is reviewed in major papers at all it’s usually just “smart” fiction aka sci-fi and mystery, which is deemed to be of interest to intellectual slum readers, not the hoi polloi. Romance novels, which comprise a solid majority of all books sold, and which are read by tens of millions of women from all educational and economic levels — women who often read avidly in other genres as well — are completely ignored. Nora Roberts doesn’t need more help selling her books, no, but doesn’t it strike anyone as incredibly, overtly sexist that she routinely outsells the Big Boys like Grisham, Clancy et al yet can barely get noticed in the mainstream media? What does that say about the value of having testicles when you put your name on a book?

  • adam smith // Apr 12, 2007 at 4:27 am

    Doesn’t this go to reader demographics? Advertising is all about demographics. I know readers expect to see only ads for books in the book review section, and that’s the way it is for the most part in the New York Times Book Review (well, there was that ad by Lulu, not selling the books, but soliciting authors), but I could understand it if ads for cars, trips, jewelry, etc., were there, too. Someone is holding the line. info

  • Al Heath // Feb 10, 2008 at 5:37 pm

    Uh–what ARE the demographics? As between mature (i.e., beyond teens) women and men, who does read what? Who supports fiction in general? What are the stats on “masculine” novels? Amongst non-fiction books, where does the bulk of the readership go? Is the aspiring writer still best advised to write a book on Lincoln’s doctor’s dog? Who reads (gasp) “literature”–the “best” books, etc.? Anybody still reading Virginia Woolf, et al?