Are Newspapers The Best Place To Learn About Books?

March 19th, 2007 · 6 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

There has been much talk these past weeks about the decline of the newspaper book coverage. The reason, as we’ve been noting for quite some time, is that the advertising dollars simply do not support the the same kind of coverage that motion picture dollars support. You’ll also, if you take the time, notice that music coverage in most newspapers isn’t quite as robust as you’d imagine.

Why would today’s reader turn to his or her local paper to discover new books?

The reason, naturally, is that motion picture studios use co-op dollars to partner with local theaters, creating advertising along with time and date information. Books and music don’t have this sort of immediacy. Hmm, not quite true. The same kind of cooperative partnerships that motion pictures enjoy with local theaters are enjoyed by books and CDs…only the co-op dollars are spent in-store (though, as the music store becomes more and more an artifact, the economics are changing).

In-store displays command most of the marketing budgets for books. While review copies are sent to and fro by marketing staffs, whether or not they land on the desks of grateful recipients is questionable. One thing most reviewers complain of — an irony if ever one existed — is that there are simply too many books. Even the legendary Harriet Klausner (yes, she really is real) cannot keep up with the publishing industry output. She tries, oh, she tries, but it’s clear from her slapdash reviews, often riddled with errors, that fast trumps quality in her quest to maintain her top billing.

In many instances, authors take on the role of marketing professionals, some successfully, some not so much. Once upon a time, perhaps roles were clearer: one person wrote the book, one person edited it, and another made sure the general public handed over cold, hard cash to read it. Increasingly, these roles are consolidated on the shoulders of the authors, yet their share in the proceeds of their effort is not increasing. This may be why some authors are seeking other opportunities in the form of increased shares in the success of their books.

But we’re talking about newspapers, not royalties. Why would today’s reader turn to his or her local paper to discover new books? Is a static review, out of context and minus community, really that effective? Sure, we imagine there are some who have the necessary luxury of time required to read a newspaper cover-to-cover. We, being overbooked and understaffed, consider it a small victory when we skim the headlines; we read news online. It’s more immediate and allows us, should we choose, to go deeper into the story.

As newspapers grow reluctant to devote column inches and entire trees to book reviews, they’re likely to be more receptive to devoting online space (much cheaper) to reviews, interviews, and, yes, community. Discussion. Back-and-forth between readers (still, may we note, the most important link in the publishing chain). Yes, they’re going to want advertising money from publishers. Web servers and bandwidth do not come free, though they do come relatively cheap.

There are other places where good, healthy book discussions can take place, online and offline. Going to a bookstore gives you more interaction. Joining a bookclub yields more recommendations. Listening to NPR or public radio even. Conversation is the key. As we lament the decline of newspaper coverage of books, we wonder if these reviews are really as useful as they might be. We also wonder if there’s a better way.

Of course the answer is yes. More thoughts to come. We promise.

File Under: Reviewing Reviewing

6 responses so far ↓

  • David Thayer // Mar 19, 2007 at 5:40 pm

    Harriet Klausner reviews two books per day. I’m sure the New York Times does that many on a given day so it’s really unfair to suggest newspapers are falling behind. Harriet doesn’t have to go to all those meetings. What’s the morning book? What’s the evening book? Who picked Niagara to beat Kansas? Her mind is clear.

  • Shanna Swendson // Mar 20, 2007 at 8:58 am

    Even if newspapers aren’t the best place for readers to learn about books, newspapers might want to consider whether book coverage is a good way of attracting readers. After all, people who are into books do actually read, and if they read books, they might be interested in other pieces of paper with words printed on them, like, oh, say, a newspaper. With declining circulation numbers, it seems foolish to cut coverage that’s most likely to draw people who are more likely than others to read a newspaper.

    I also find the “publishers aren’t buying enough ads to support a book section” argument to be a bit silly. Just about every newspaper has a dedicated daily sports section, and how many of the ads in that section are bought by the teams covered in the section? Instead, the section is supported by advertising that targets the demographic that reads the sports section (in our paper, it’s liquor stores and auto parts stores). Why can’t the book section be supported by advertising targeted to the reader demographic? In addition to the book ads, bookstores could advertise, as could businesses that sell coffee, tea or chocolate. Then there are optical shops. And any other business that wants to target an educated, informed demographic.

  • Sue Sparks // Mar 21, 2007 at 5:16 am

    Here in the UK the Saturday edition of The Guardian has a whole Review supplement and the Financial Times’ Saturday magazine has review articles which group books together in a themed way, as well as individual reviews. (For those who don’t know the paper, it does review a wide range of fiction and non-fiction, not just business books). This supports the argument that book reviews bring in advertising money by appealing to their largely upmarket readers, not by specifically attracting publishers’ cash.

  • Jan Whitaker // Mar 21, 2007 at 5:39 am

    I feel like a member of an endangered species to admit that I DO read book reviews in newspapers. It doesn’t bother me a bit if it’s only one opinion I’m reading, as long as it’s an intelligent one. Of course it bothers me if I think the reviewer only read the book flaps. I also read book catalogues. I want to know what’s out there and it’s a lot quicker to read a review than to join a book group. Don’t let the newspapers die!

  • Kassia Krozser // Mar 21, 2007 at 8:26 pm

    Setting aside the peanut gallery (reviewing Harriet Klausner…it feels like a one-man play, doesn’t it?), I have to disagree with you, Shanna. The sports sections of newspapers are indeed supported by advertisers who want to reach the supposed demographic. The key point, however, is that sports sections attract a lot of readers. I know that advertisers pay close attention to these things.

    I do agree that book publishers shouldn’t be the target of advertising sales departments, but…

    I’ve spent the past several years polling my book reading friends and they simply don’t look to the Los Angeles Times Book Review section as a resource. My particular circle largely consists of well-educated, reasonably well-compensated women. Most have the kind of disposable income that advertisers want. Yet they aren’t reading the book review, so why would advertisers try to reach them there? It’s simply that these are not the best areas for eyeballs, and I think it’s the way these sections are written, not that people aren’t interested in the content.

    Sue — yes, I read the Guardian’s coverage regularly. It’s broad and interesting. In fact, the breadth of literary coverage is a key selling point. The interesting, well, that’s a bonus. I like the way the paper approaches book coverage. If US newspapers created that kind of fun, I might have written a different post!

    Jan — it’s okay, we’ll take you anyway! I don’t think newspapers will die, but I think they’re changing. And they need to change. It’s a different world than it was ten years ago. I think the process of reviewing is adapting as well. It’s good, it’s really good. But scary…

  • Big Bad Book Blog » Blog Archive » Big Bad Book Blog Links 3-23-07 // Mar 23, 2007 at 8:23 am

    […] Booksquare: Are Newspapers The Best Place To Learn About Books? There has been much talk these past weeks about the decline of the newspaper book coverage. The reason, as we’ve been noting for quite some time, is that the advertising dollars simply do not support the the same kind of coverage that motion picture dollars support. […]