Save The Book Review, Save The World

May 1st, 2007 · 13 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

As we have seen over the past weeks, there has been much hand-wringing and navel-gazing on the topic of saving newspaper book review sections. To read some pundits, we need to save the world via book reviews (or, at the very least, literacy). We have been ranting about this topic for years now, and, frankly, someone’s gotta say it: just as declining circulation numbers and classified ad sales haven’t been a surprise, neither is the decline of book coverage, specifically reviews.

Saving book coverage in major newspapers as it is today will not solve the problem.

While it’s fun to discuss the cultural relevance and intellectual input of these sections, the truth of the matter is that most dedicated book review sections cater to a small slice of the reading public. They are simply not relevant to a wide swath of readers; in a world where business decisions are focus-grouped to death, it is safe to assume that, all save the World of Culture talk aside, book coverage doesn’t have the necessary audience to sustain the investment.

Some pundits have called newspapers the great democratizer of information. They try to extend this democratization to cultural coverage. Look at book coverage like you’d look at the Metro section. Diversity galore in the latter, but the former reads like it decided to cut out entire neighborhoods and topics (oh, we’ve decided that we won’t discuss murder, we don’t talk about neighborhood festivals).

We have long believed that the reason readers don’t value these sections is because the editors of book review sections don’t value the entire population of readers. Intellectual snobbery or editorial vision are both fine things, but not when you’re purporting to support the entire population of readers. You can be democratic or you can be elite. It’s really hard to be both, and elitism is the path chosen — and that’s not necessarily a sin — then there will be trade-offs.

All is not lost and we think book coverage in major media can be saved. The first step is to identify who is reading in your community and what they’re reading. You will quickly notice that this a broad group with diverse tastes. You will also need to accept that you won’t be able to please everyone on all levels, but maybe a little less enthusiasm about the next “who was Shakespeare, really?” expose and a little more enthusiasm about something else might help.

Okay, you know your potential audience. Now, how to serve them best? Your legal pad is surely filled with ideas now. Far too many to implement at once, or ever. Cross out the stuff you’re already doing, unless it’s something so new and innovative that it’s worth giving a chance. Look at what you’re not currently doing: covering a wide range of reads, better niche content, age-friendly information, more stories about local authors, more user-generated content, more local author-generated content, more conversation with the reading public (and, yes, writing public), more community building.

Then consider how to best do what you need to do? Is the print edition the best way to go? Online? A hybrid? How do you bring those people you’ve lost back? How do you reach the readers you’ve never had? How can you make your content so inviting, so interesting that you make other choices seem lame? Note: web-only content is not a special treat for your readers. You have an entire generation that turns to online sources as primary news media. The web is equal to or greater than your print media.

Last weekend’s Los Angeles Times Festival of Books was slated to bring in approximately 150,000 people. That number represents only a fraction of the Los Angeles reading public. Make no doubt about it, even for those who happen to be geographically close to UCLA, attending this event is a day-long affair. It’s clear that Los Angeles residents have a desire to be in touch with the reading community. And one thing the LATFoB does very well is highlight the diversity of readers in the city.

Would that the Los Angeles Times Book Review do the same thing. The recent clunky makeover does not disguise the fact that community and diversity are not part of the section’s plan. In a recent interview, editor David Ulin suggested that the time had come “…to start thinking as a community of like-minded readers and writers for whom books and literature are as essential as food.”

Actually, that should have happened ten years ago, when the first writing appeared on the first wall. Now publications like the Los Angeles Times Book Review are playing catch-up with the rest of the Internet. Ulin noted several reasons why this must be the case, concluding:

Because of this, we can’t help but move more slowly than a lot of web sites; when we publish web-only content, it is edited, copy edited, vetted and checked just like a piece written for print. We (our writers and editors) are individuals, but we are also speaking from within a larger institution, and all the paper’s ethical and structural guidelines apply.

He then goes on to cite innovations like LATFoB podcast and live chats as seeming innovations (surely not the case — they had these last year, right? Right?). He highlights an email interview as an unusual approach to communicating. Ulin may not be much of a web user, based on his statements, but surely he can find the right kind of people to help push his Review into the 21st century.

We have been a little too Cassandra on this topic, even for our own smug taste, but we have one more prediction. Saving book coverage in major newspapers as it is today will not solve the problem. Old-school book coverage — a one-way conversation if ever there was one — won’t work. Readers are desperately seeking community. The question now is whether the book editors of the world have the vision they need to bring those readers into a clean, well-lighted place.

File Under: Reviewing Reviewing

13 responses so far ↓

  • Deborah Smith // May 1, 2007 at 2:58 pm

    As a pop fiction author and avid reader of diverse fiction and nonfiction, I gave up on book review sections long ago. In my local paper, the Atlanta Journal/Constitution, book editor Teresa Weaver has consistently catered to obscure lit fic, politcally correct issue tomes, and windy, must-be-good-for-you-it’s-so-dull biographies. No entreaties could make her lower herself to cover genre fiction, although the occasional high-brow mystery passed her sniff test. Book lovers didn’t desert book sections. Book sections — and elitist editors — deserted book lovers.

  • Don Linn // May 1, 2007 at 2:58 pm

    Having come late to the book business (and having left early) I have always wondered why publishers of most stripes continue to try to hang on to old models when there are perfectly acceptable (and often less expensive) models for both content distribution and marketing/publicity to experiment with, test and adapt. The review kerfluffle is only the latest in a series of things that are being used to pronounce the death of Western Civilization and the end of publishing as we know it.

    Here’s a thought: Publishing as we know it has been dead for a decade or more and publishers need to catch up. Ask the RIAA how it feels to fight the last war over and over.

  • Kassia Krozser // May 1, 2007 at 9:51 pm

    Deborah — you should try living in L.A. You were far more clear than me. Book lovers haven’t deserted book sections. And don’t get me wrong, I am pro-elitist (being an intellectual snob and all), but am the broadest, widest reader on the planet. Unless you’re talking blood and gore, then you want my mom. I believe there is room for elitism and populism. It’s all about respecting readers, not assuming you know them.

  • Kassia Krozser // May 1, 2007 at 9:58 pm

    Publishing as we know it has been dead for a decade or more and publishers need to catch up.

    Don, are you trying to get me all excited?

    I did my first article about e-publishing in 1998 (being young and innocent at the time). I’ve been online regularly since 1992, 1993, about the time “Snowcrash” was first published in paperback as I remember a pizza addiction and online discussions with a friend in San Francisco. The medium was primitive, the obvious possibility was, well, obvious. Amazon went online not long after.

    My first inkling that readers, particularly, were moving online was in 1997 or so. Interestingly, the group that captured my attention was the romance reader. These were not hip college students or bored office workers. These were — and I am not being snide — middle-aged to older women from the Midwest. Online talking about genre fiction. Why? Nowhere else to go. These are the readers who have left the world of newspapers behind.

    They don’t need major media to guide them. That’s kind of sad, if you’re a newspaper publisher.

    And, yeah, the RIAA really is an example, though I’m convinced that the publishing industry is doomed to repeat the mistakes of its younger siblings. It’s very sad to watch an industry stand on the sidelines and wonder what’s going on midfield.

    Will be in touch soon — we’re finalizing dates for O’Reilly’s Tools of Change.

  • Dan Green // May 2, 2007 at 2:37 pm

    “the truth of the matter is that most dedicated book review sections cater to a small slice of the reading public. They are simply not relevant to a wide swath of readers”

    But do you really think that this “wide swath” is interested in book reviews at all? If the New York Times suddenly started reviewing Wal-Mart fiction, do you believe many of the readers of that fiction would begin reading the Times Book Review?

  • Kassia Krozser // May 2, 2007 at 3:47 pm

    Yeah, actually, I do believe this wide swath is interested in book reviews. Deborah Smith said as much in her comment. I think the success of many blogs/websites reflects this desire for better information about books by consumers.

    I do carve the NYTBR out of most of these discussions because it has far more publishing advertising support than is probably necessary (what I think of as preaching to the choir) — spreading the dollars around would be a great benefit to newspapers nationwide. That being said, while some readers are very much genre specific, there are many who read across the breadth of the literary spectrum. They are essentially disenfranchised by editorial refusal to acknowledge their existence. The fact that the addition of a science fiction column to the NYT family was news reflects this.

    As for Wal-Mart fiction, what you’re talking about is essentially the bestseller list with Wal-Mart-centric selectivity. In many cases, these books are review-proof, meaning they would hit the lists with or without critical recognition. In the meantime, a whole lot of good fiction, all types, languishes because it isn’t even given a chance. And even in a perfect world, not all books would get this chance, but it’s clear that lack of readership is killing book coverage in newspapers.

    It’s also clear — you see it on your own site — that it’s not because the readers don’t exist. It’s because the newspapers made editorial choices, choices they are fully entitled to make, that exclude or alienate certain readers. If readers don’t feel comfortable, they’ll go where they do. Which is why newspapers are playing catch-up to blogs and other sources of information.

  • Dan Green // May 2, 2007 at 6:13 pm

    I just think that “wide swath” covers an awful lot of territory. Some genre readers surely do feel that their favorites don’t get reviewed in the newspapers, and it would be optimal of course if they did. On the other hand, I doubt the *widest* swath, the Wal-Mart readers, etc., consider book reviews relevant to their interests at all.

  • Don Linn // May 3, 2007 at 7:12 pm

    In response to Dan’s comment, I would argue that the wide swath is exactly who publishers and book reviewers should target if they’re in the business as a business. Might it offend out sensibilities? Yes. Might it sell more books and generate more interest in reading generally which would in turn attract more readers? Almost certainly.

    And smart niche (genre) publishers can find their audiences on the web if they make the effort.

  • Kassia Krozser // May 3, 2007 at 8:05 pm

    Sorry, Dan, to leave you hanging all day. I know you were waiting (g). I’m with Don in that wide swaths are essential. However, I’m also thinking we’re using slightly different definitions of Wal-Mart readers. I have what I think is a natural aversion to shopping there (not to mention all my crazy political issues), but I also know college educated, middle class, as defined by where they live, people who shop at Wal-Mart. They buy books there, though, yes, the selection is limited; but their time is also limited.

    These are the people going online for more information about books. I think my example of older women in the Midwest is telling. I think the proliferation and success of blogs about literature is telling. I believe these Wal-Mart readers comprise more of our audience than we realize. That’s a good thing.

  • David Queenann // May 4, 2007 at 4:50 am

    I read everything. I am a gourmand who also likes gourmet when it comes to literature. I read pulp fiction and literary classics. I’m not enamored of the anemic sensibilities of literary reviewers, and frequently disagree with them, but they do provide useful information, and when you divine which one’s have similar tastes to yours they can be very useful. I don’t see reviewing books any different than reviewing movies, and a broad swath of movie-goers actually do pay attention to reviewers whose taste they have come to trust. Why not a New York Times review section that deals with popular genre fiction? It would probably draw readers. But then, I don’t own a television and haven’t seen a movie in several years, so I’m probably out of touch.

  • Kassia Krozser // May 6, 2007 at 11:08 am

    I read everything. Literally. Everything. Lately, for reasons unknown, people have been playing the “would you rather be deaf or blind” game. Random people who have no reason to know one another, yet they have latched on to this game. Collective unconscious, I guess.

    I always choose deaf. I realize that there are ways to “read” without using my eyes, yet I am not in an emotional place where I am willing to accept those options.

    I digress. I believe most readers go far broader than the literary establishment believes. Sure, there are those who read one thing and one thing only (I have a sister who, sigh, only read Mary Higgins Clark; I do not understand this as we have the same mother, but you can never account for your siblings). And I agree that part of reviewing is developing a trust relationship with a reviewer. In fact, that is what makes those who review well so effective — they offer a perspective that largely agrees with that of their loyal readers. If I trust the taste of the person making a recommendation, I will give that recommendation more weight.

  • Notebook » Stop Press for May 2nd through May 8th // May 8, 2007 at 5:32 pm

    […] Newspaper reviews are not democratisers – Booksquare looks at shrinking review pages, and critiques the kneejerk response. […]

  • Deborah Smith // May 9, 2007 at 9:28 am

    Hey, Dan — Are you saying there’s either one extreme or the other? On one end is the so-called “Wal Mart reader” who you assume is a neanderthal barely able to look past the wrestling magazines and Harlequins? And the other extreme is made up of brilliant readers who wouldn’t touch pop fiction if it fell in their laps on a desert island? IMHO, there’s a huge middle ground of diverse readers who get completely ignored by book review editors at the major newspapers. Weaver, at the AJC, has such a narrow focus I can almost predict which southern lit authors she’ll review every year. Same crowd, over and over. If you don’t like them, or like other authors and genres in addition to the annointed “good” writers, you’re out of luck. Would it kill book review editors to do round-up columns on pop fiction? And wouldn’t it make sense to provide local and regional readers with even brief info on ALL local and regional authors? Few newspapers are elitist when it comes to general news and lifestyle topics. No newspaper in its right mind would hire a music critic who only reviews classical music or an arts critic who only discusses the Old Masters. So why should book pages be some bastion of highbrow literary fiction to the exclusion of all other tastes?