Tuesday, January 24, 2006

And then there were five ...

Apparently, there are now only five stand-alone newspaper book sections in this country. Booksquare offers some pertinent commentary. Naturally, I happen to believe that book coverage offers newspapers the perfect opportunity to take advantage of the internet. I also pretty much agree that "book sections will continue to feel the pain ... But that doesn’t mean that book coverage will die." Here at The Inquirer, despite having no stand-alone section, we continue to review at least as many books as ever. They're just scattered through the paper.
Nevertheless, I have long been of the opinion that the decline in circulation is directly related to the de-emphasis on book coverage (we are not perceived as reviewing as many books as ever). The connection is that book coverage has value for newspapers not by attracting advertising but by attracting people who like to read. Take away what they're interested in and they'll take their eyes elsewhere.

14 comments:

  1. Long live stand-alone books sections! I only buy the Times (UK) on Saturday for two reasons: the stand-alone books section and the su dokus. Is it a coincidence that they are in the same section?
    If you are a crime fiction fan, as I am, Sarah Weinman's round-up of the weekly stand-alones is very useful - but is this contributing to their demise, as people no longer have to buy all the weekly editions to read the bits they like?

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  2. I think much of the problem stems -- in this country at least -- from the fear among those who run newspapers that catering to people who read just won't cut it. You have to write about the latest fly-by-night rapper or ... you won't attract any younger readers. You don't attract them that way, either, since they don't care what you have to say about the rapper in the first place. Sarah's site is great, and I don't think in any way contributes to the demise of the stand-alones. Most book enthusiasts want as many sources for book info as they can get their hands on.

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  3. I don't have much access to the Times or the Post in my neck of the woods, but that doesn't mean I read more of their online versions. Despite all my computer use, I still prefer reading paper, and that includes book sections.

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  4. A related problem, as you know as well as anyone, Frank, is book publishers' reluctance -- hell, their outright refusal -- to pay to promote their own product. Aside from the New York Times, LA Times, SF Chronicle, and a few other places like that, they almost never advertise their books -- except for the high-profile, brand-name authors who don't need it anyway. Spreading a little dough in the form of advertising around newspapers and other publications, as other industries do, might help convince newspapers that book publishers think their product important.

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  5. I am the prototypical consumer newspapers can't figure out how to attract. I am 29 year old news junkie, with a graduate degree and a good income, but I don't subscribe to either of the major papers in my area- the SF Chronicle or the San Jose Mercury News.

    The key problem with the book section is the same problem that I have with the editorial section.

    First, there are a lot of different sources now. And lots of them are free. Some of my favorite blogs recommend books. The only fiction book I bought new at retail in the last year was based on a recommendation from Instapundit.

    But there is a deeper problem.

    Todays book sections remind me of Gibbon's description of the fifth century Christian church, in which factions fought in the streets over obscure points of theology. To the participants, the issues seem momentous. To us, the various sides of the issue seem barely distinguishable and entirely irrelevant.

    Likewise, it seems the book sections offer a range of discourse from extreme far left to hard left. To the rest of us, it is just a mass of indistinguishable grey goop.

    I can predict what books interest the typical editor, and predict the same tired tropes in the review. Furthermore, few of the books that are reviewed interest me. Gee, another book on gay indians? How about chinese lesbian peasants? Yawn. Left wing history accusing the US of terrible crimes? I could practically recite that review and don't even have to read it.

    Give me a reason to buy a paper and I will... but you haven't yet. And based on what I got when I sprung for a Sunday paper last week for the first time in four months, it may be a while before Legacy media gets the chance to make its case again.

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  6. Not sure how Books sections are doing over here in the UK Frank. I read London Review of Books on the Internet and Guardian Books in the paper.

    At least know that those who are reading really appreciate this type of content in newspapers. It teases idea of the reader to follow up. That's interactive.

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  7. Well, let's start with Adam: I believe the five are the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle.
    Melville is of course right and it's only getting worse, because publishers have in fact cut their advertising budgets recently. I subscribe to the TLS, which I continue to think is the best. (Like Bill, I like paper; unlike Bill I read a lot of reviews online.)
    Now for Strabo. You ought to check The Inquirer's book page from time to time. It definitely does not range from far left to hard left. Actually, I tend to avoid politics, not because I don't have a poltical position -- I'm a libertarian conservative -- but because I think newspapers exaggerate the interest people have in politics. I like to give it a rest, to the extent that I can. Which is not say I have't run reviews with a liberal perspective. In fact, there's one at the top of the current online book page. But I think what you'll find there overall is a pretty good mix unlike what you find most other places.
    Naturally, of course, I agree with cb.

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  8. Who needs a "book section" when you have "Brother's Judd"

    www.brothersjudd.com

    Who needs an editorial section when you have www.brothersjudd.com/blog

    No, I'm not affiliated. Just a big fan.

    It seems I've found another good blog here.

    Who will be interested in reading books when public schools no longer seem to able to teach people to read?

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  9. It is incredibly sad. I used to look forward to our book section, but now it's nothing but retreads of reviews I've already read. Even if I was never going to read the books that were reviewed, it was great to get a feel for something different.

    Thank god for blogs. there are at least six different authors that I wouldn't have discovered (at least as early a I did) without them. But heck, who needs books when you can fill your life with pictures of Jack Abrahmoff and the latest Howard Dean essay.

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  10. As a reader and frequent critic of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, I think it's really important (and I didn't go off on this rant on my site!) that book reviews in newspapers try to reach the widest audience possible. The lack of serious coverage of genre fiction, for example, creates a sense of exclusion. Most people I know (and I'm counting the readers here) don't bother with the Times Book Review because it doesn't speak to them. These are smart readers -- readers who buy a lot of books of all types. The LAT tends to get a bit too giddy about new books on Hollywood, but less so about books that the vast majority of their subscribers want to read. A strong mix of literary, genre, and non-fiction would do the LAT some good.

    I'm of the Book Review Is Dead, Long Live The Book Review School. Just as the novel is alive and well and really doing great things, so can book review sections of newspapers.

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  11. Five years ago I did a lot of reviewing in Canada for papers like the Ottawa Citizen and the Vancouver Sun and the National Post. Those papers have all had their reviewing space and budgets cut radically. At one point there were an average of 100 to 150 reviews a week being commissioned in Canada, now that number is around 50-75.

    It is not just an American problem.

    One reason I suspect the stand alone book review is declining is a tendency on the part of book editors - no doubt present company excluded - to on the one hand look for reviewers with "credentials" and on the other fail to value "stars".

    There is a certain craft to reviewing which is divorced from expertise. To write a readable 700 word review is tough. All the expertise in the world is not substitute for the ability to pith a book and have something to say about it.

    People who can do that and hit deadlines are gold for book editors. But there is a tendency in book pages to value diversity more than competence. This means that instead of ensuring that good reviewers get a steady supply of books to review, the exact opposite tends to happen. Book editors begin to wonder if their regular reviewers are not appearing too often.

    It is a vicious circle. Amusingly, I was interviewing Nicholas Shakespeare a few years ago and he told the story of being a book editor who had both Anthony Powell and Auberon Waugh working for him. He was in his late twenties at the time. Once in a while, Powell and Waugh would enquire about the same book. Nick's was not and easy job.

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  12. There are stand-alone book review sections in many weekly magazines. Declaring an interest here, my own publication, Nature (www.nature.com/nature - but subscription or site-licence only, I am afraid) carries 4 pages a week of books & arts (mainly books), heavily skewed towards reviewing books that can be read by anyone with an interest in science rather than books for science professionals. Many other publications cater for declared specialist interests in this way, which is one way for Strabo to read about books on topics he is interested in (i.e. pre-define the topic of interest and subscribe to a magazine).
    I understood Frank's post to be about something a bit different. The reason I enjoy the Times weekly books supplement is because it is so varied (well, they do have their share of one-legged black lesbian social worker vigilantes). I am never going to read even a fraction of the books reviewed, but I do love reading the reviews and features, and I learn a lot about things I would never have time or inclination to read a whole book about.
    As for book purchasing choices, I am completely hooked on Amazon. I don't get why people are so down on Amazon (unless they are independent booksellers). If you use it appropriately, you can find out about many books relevant to your tastes (yes, so it tells you about books you've already read/purchased also, but that's quibbling). If the book is out of print, it links you to Abe books and the whole network of small second-hand booksellers. An example, I brought "Lottie and Lisa" by Erich Kastner, which is out of print (amazingly) for one of my daughters last year from a tiny bookshop in Hereford. I would never have managed to get there to buy the book (or known it existed in their stock) without Amazon.
    Sorry, I am digressing (if Kevin from Contemporary Nomad read this comment he would feel aggreived that I told "him" he was going off at a tangent).
    My point is, anyone who loves books can get a lot of pleasure from a weekly browse of an eclectic set of reviews/features, chosen by a good book-review editor, with no need to read the book(s) in question (but of course, one can read the book if the review stimulates an interest). There are plenty of sources on the Internet, whether online shops, blogs or websites, to discover and buy books according to one's particular interests.
    Sorry for the long comment, I have probably broken a golden rule of blogging. I do believe that brevity is the soul of a good point, so apologies.

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  13. Now, isn't this interesting? All these people passionately concerned about not only books, but how they get reviewed and otherwise "covered" by the various media. Newspaper managers: Are you listening? Newspapers are meant to be READ, READ, READ by people who READ, READ, READ. Wouldn't it be wise to pander just a bit more than you do to such people? Among the problems of newspaper book coverage -- aside from its paucity -- is, as more than one person has said, its sameness. By that I mean primarily that the scarce space in newspapers coast to coast will be allotted to the same high-profile authors. Book editors get their early signals from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus and other outposts and they're all getting the same message. Apparently they feel they will be perceived as not doing their job (perhaps by their supervisors) if they do not cover these MUST books (the only ones, perhaps, the busy supervisors have heard of). The result: Worthy but
    less highly touted books -- especially novels -- do not even get a consideration. I hasten to add that this is NOT a problem with Frank's coverage. You take a look at his book pages, with its wild garden of plants both familiar and exotic, and then look at book pages of similar size (if you can find them) in other newspapers.

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