Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored

 

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  #245
by Pat Holt

Friday, June 22, 2001

 





THOSE DYING BOOK REVIEWS, PART I: 'A WORLD-CLASS DISGRACE'

    Matthew Storin of the Boston Globe
    Jason Epstein of Random House
    The Self-Sabotaging Element
    Oasis
LETTERS

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THOSE DYING BOOK REVIEWS, PART I: 'A WORLD-CLASS DISGRACE'

Well, if you were gnashing your teeth at the News Hour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV Wednesday night - I mean the piece about book review sections that are dying or diminishing in American newspapers - let me join you.

It's not a new story by now, but what a heartbreaker it was to hear reporter Terry Smith explain that book review space is croaking all around us and that severe cuts have most recently been announced at such newspapers as the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe and Seattle Times (see #242).

Of course, "book coverage" can be found in other areas, he said, referring to articles (not reviews) in Book magazine, book club selections (not reviews) by Oprah Winfrey and "customer reviews" (NOT) at Amazon.com.

But even as newspapers dramatically cut back on book review sections and pages, he said, some editors believe they are making compensations. "In defense, the [San Francisco Chronicle] says some reviews have been replaced with features about books and authors."

(Great, more features. I remember that announcement: The editor argued that a traditional book review section has too many book reviews for the modern reader's attention span, so less challenging "feature stories" such as Q/A formats have been added.)

Smith also mentioned that readers are angry at the cutbacks. One person called it "a world-class disgrace" that the San Francisco Chronicle terminated its 12-page Sunday pull-out Book Review and was now using only 7 pages of book coverage inside another section.

So here, on Lehrer's News Report, was the chance for a newspaper publisher (Matthew Storin of the Boston Globe) and a book publisher (Jason Epstein of Random House) - both of whom stated right from the start that they believe book reviews are "indispensable" - to tell us why book review space in newspapers is being hacked to death, and what they intend to do about it.

Matthew Storin of the Boston Globe

Storin could not emphasize enough how much the Globe has been "very reluctant" to make the cuts. Last year "a number of expansions" had been added to the rest of the paper, he said, but then "all of a sudden the [financial] bottom fell out, particularly of Help Wanted advertising, and in high-tech areas like Boston, this was particularly painful."

(Granted, classifed ads form the great barge on which the newspaper ship floats, but this sounds suspiciously like that new American pasttime - when in doubt, blame the dotcoms.)

"We've made a number of other cuts here and there, perhaps not as visible, before we've had to make this one in our book section," Storin said.

Smith asked: "Why this [the Book Review], then? I understand that the pain has to be spread around, but I don't suppose if tire manufacturers take fewer ads, you cover fewer sports."

"No, as a matter of fact, it's not really related to book advertising, although we don't get a great deal of [book ads]," said Storin. "In fact, I tallied up that our book section probably costs us about $900,000 a year to produce, and the advertising is somewhere just over $300,000.

"But when we had to make cuts, we had to make them in whatever places were available, and this [book review] section, which only 4 years ago we had established as a free-standing section, ultimately got on the target list because there was nothing else left. It was really the last thing we wanted to cut."

I wish Smith had probed a little more here: Did the sports section, for example, take ANY cuts? After all, with its large staff and daily publication, Sports may be an even worse money loser than the Book Review.

Here's the usual answer to questions like that: Sports builds circulation, so leave it alone. Everybody reads Sports, whereas very few people read the Book Review. Ergo, we cut Book Review, not Sports.

But the answer to THAT is, why look at the Book Review circulation as a negative? You bet it's small - that's one reason why it's an almost perfect demographic. Think about it: people who buy and read hardcover books are the most affluent, well-educated and powerful decision makers in the business/academic/science/nonprofit community.

In fact, why advertise ONLY books to this financial elite? Why not advertise cars, jewelry, cruises, computers, all the top-of-the-line stuff at special Book Review ad rates that could motivate advertisers of upmarket goods to zero in on this unique audience? (More about this later.)

Well, Smith didn't touch on any of that as he drew this conclusion: "So [terminating the Book Section] was very much a bottom line consideration for you."

"Very much so," replied Storin, "and we hope it's temporary. We expect it's temporary." Hm. And what might change it? Are you going to wait for the economy to turn around?

The problem I think that hits people in Storin's position is that their paper is having so much financial trouble that they can't think beyond the traditional numbers.

It might have been embarrassing if Smith had tried to push Storin into talking about what a newspaper means to a community: Why it's losing circulation (if it is) and not getting enough advertising; what it stands for - reading, for god's sake! - and how it might work with unlikely allies, just as independent booksellers have done, for a principle that's larger than itself, to keep the Book Review a healthy and visible section of the paper.

Since none of that came out, Storin's position sounds reasonable, doesn't it? Poor guy - faced with "an economic downturn in the newspaper business," what else can he and others like him do?

Jason Epstein of Random House

Epstein, too, mourned the loss of book reviews. Word-of-mouth is very important, he said, but "I don't think anything can replace a serious book review." For one thing, he pointed out, "book reviews are important not simply for their promotional value . . . They contribute to that ongoing, open-ended Socratic dialogue that is our culture."

Gee, that sounds really important. That must mean you as a publisher advertise a lot to keep the Book Review going, right? Wrong. "I don't think book advertising helps very much," Epstein said. "We do it in a limited way for other reasons -- ."

"Too limited, I'd say, for Matt Storin," Smith interrupted, "from what he said before."

"Well sure, but book publishers don't have much money either to throw around," Epstein replied. "We've got to be careful, and we know that book advertising doesn't really produce the kinds of results that other forms of publicity and especially word-of-mouth produce."

Oh dear, oh dear. While it's true that the old adage in book publishing is that you launch the book with publicity, exploit word-of-mouth when and if the book takes off and tell the world how much you love this book by quoting all the great book reviews in a newspaper advertisement.

Indeed, only 15 or 20 years ago, a person could walk into an advertising manager's office at a major house and see many proofs of book ads - not full or half-pages usually, but 2x6" or 3x5" or quarter-page or 3x10" or 1x13" strips) tacked up on the wall awaiting delivery to dozens of newspaper book review sections and pages around the country.

Epstein is right in one sense - these ads were never very plentiful. But enough of them did exist, and from enough publishers, to convince newspaper editors that the book review section had the support of the mainstream industry in New York - that even if it never made a profit, the Book Review's pages were active and vital and important to both readers and advertisers alike.

After the big conglomerates moved in, however, "small" and midlist books seemed to lose the little financing they had to the big blockbusters, whose budgets did (and still do) yield big and splashy full-page ads. But these full-page ads are so few and far between that newspapers must compete mightily to get them.

And too, as mentioned in #242, when other kinds of book advertising (cable TV, radio, magazines) seem sexier, some publishers cut these newspaper ads down to one or none every season.

The Self-Sabotaging Element

If this sounds like a self-sabotaging impulse of both the newspaper and the book publisher in killing off the very book review sections each depends on, welcome to the very odd logic of the book publishing industry.

Book sections and review pages stumbled along year after year until finally they were abandoned for good, and, unsupported by book publishers and their own paper, were just waiting to be cut to shreds.

But enough gnashing of teeth. I do think it's important that we all - everybody in the book and newspaper industry - acknowledge aloud that the current decline in book review space is appalling and unconscionable; that it mustn't be left to dangle over the abyss that could banish book reviews even further from newspapers, and that it's time to find a creative way out of this mess.

Oasis

If we face the problem straight on, we may discover that the timing couldn't be better to bring book review sections and pages back to life; that newspaper publishers and book editors can and should set their sites on making a small but clear profit from book review sections or at least breaking even within a year; and that instead of panicking about newspaper layoffs (egad - this week the New York Times announced layoffs of 1200, Knight Ridder of 1700!), we try to view the Book Review as an oasis that's waiting there out in the blinding heat, if only we have the sight to recognize it.

How could this turn around? Let me try out my Great Idea on you next week.

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I want to thank Laree Draper for her letter on the problems between small publishers and independent bookstores. I have related concerns.

Although small presses have published several of my books, I self-publish most of them. One of my self-published books finished as a finalist in the 1996 Black Ice/FC2 Fiction Contest. Another earned me an invitation to read in the established and emerging writers series of the Poetry Project at St. MarkÝs Church.

I like to think these are respectable credentials. Nevertheless, many independent booksellers within driving distance of me will neither carry my books nor schedule a reading or signing to help the books sell. As a result, I find myself scheduling readings and signings at Barnes & Noble stores in the area. Believe it or not, some of their staff actually care about writers who are struggling to bring their work to the public.

Several months ago, before reading from my new novel, RELIC'S REUNIONS at the Harvard Coop, I approached the manager of a semi-legendary bookshop in Cambridge. In addition to refusing to carry IMPROVISATIONS, the book that got me a reading at St. MarkÝs Poetry Project, the store's manager refused to consider me for a reading series the store sponsors, then berated me for reading at Barnes and Noble, which manages the Harvard Coop. Given this warm welcome, I'm swinging a wide berth around the store the next time I visit Cambridge.

I'm disappointed that more independent bookstores don't support my work and, by extension, the work of other writers. Instead of shopping in stores - chain or independent - that disrespect my work and me - I shop where I feel comfortable, be it a chain store or mail order from small presses.

Most writers are voracious readers, and by driving us away, the independents I've dealt with are chasing away money as well as the literature of the future.

Vernon Frazer


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