Sunday, August 28, 2011

Weighing in ...

... The future of book reviewing and one cranky man… | The Book Haven. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

If you click on the second link, you will see the comment from Jeff Sypek. To which I will now respond, in a way that I am sure would dismay most newspaper executives. To wit:

One must understand that the position of most such executives on this is a combination of vincible ignorance and hypocrisy. Notice that they never care if the local teams advertise in the sports pages (which, of course, they do not). Also, back in the day, when newspapers were practically the only game in town as far as advertising was concerned, to work in the advertising sales department of a newspaper meant managing an account. When it became necessary to actually start flushing out some business, newspaper advertising sales departments found they really couldn't do that very well.
My predecessor as book editor at The Inquirer, Mike Schaffer, told me that he had been called upon once -- by the advertising department -- to put out an entire section devoted to children's books, being assured that the advertising department would fill it with ads. To do that sort of section is a very complex matter, believe it or not. Mike, as professional a journalist as you are likely to encounter in this fallen world, pulled it off beautifully. How many ads did the section have? None.
I once proposed to the then editorial VP of Knight-Ridder an idea for K-R Books, a book section that would appear simultaneously in all 31 K-R cities every Sunday (the basic template would have come out of Philly, but would be modified by local content as well). I was told they couldn't possibly do that, since it would be to denigrate their other book editors. No problem a couple of years later, though, when they found it expedient to fire most of said editors.
I could go on, but the point is that a book section would attract more readers to a newspaper -- even a lot of people who watch baseball read -- and the more readers you have, the more advertisers you get.
Newspapers flap their wings hoping to attract young readers by reviewing pop music, but those (theoretical) young reader don't care what newspapers think about what they're listening to. I certainly didn't care that the local pop music reviewers thought little of Elvis when I was in high school. I also wouldn't have cared if they'd thought the world of him.
But the experience of listening to music is fundamentally different from the experience of reading. Readers want to know what others have to say about what they have read. It's an extension of the reading experience. Reading about the music you have heard is not an extension of the listening experience.
Maybe if more newspaper executives did some reading of their own, they would understand.


  1. Frank, this is more or less what I thought you'd say, but thanks for spelling it out--and for the very telling anecdotes.

    Your last point reminds me of how for more than 15 years, the Washington Post has been trying to lure young people with reviews of video games and hip-hop concerts, apparently misunderstanding how many outlets are already devoted to discussing those subjects with greater affection and thoroughness. Time has shown them to be unlikely and unsuccessful ways to lure new readers to old media.

  2. Frank Zappa characterized rock journalism as "people who can't talk speaking to people who can't write for the benefit of people who can't read." When now and then I notice the Post or (NY Times) coverage of such music, I generally think one of three things: that anybody old enough to work at McDonald's really shouldn't be writing these reviews, or; how odd to have op-ed columnists reviewing politics as it were theatre, and music columnists covering hip-hop as if it were politics, or; how oddly it resembles the old Legion of Decency reviews in diocesan newspapers, save that the offenses are no longer covered by "suggestiveness", but have moved on to derogation of protected groups.

    If I were asked to name the ads in the book reviews that I do read, I'd come up with a handful of categories of little interest: On-line or taped courses in big deep thought, blockbuster fiction by persons whose names are unfamiliar, and "sex for life" instructional videos, all in the NY Times Book Review. If I buy anything based on something in the book sections, it's based on a review, not an ad.

  3. It's hard not to feel as if the newspaper executive levels have not dug their own grave, by their disinterest in actual hardcore readers.

    As a former part-time music journalist who once worked for a regional concert and music review monthly (I also was on the production team, and did photography at the shows I also reviewed; we were a small, dedicated staff), I have seen how music journalism has often been undermined in exactly the same way that book reviewing has been.

    The parallels are striking—but that's not really surprising, since we live in a culture in which the arts, in general, are considered luxuries, not essentials. We live in a culture in which the arts mean nothing to the powers that be if they cannot be categorized, commodified and made a profit on. A culture in which, online or offline, artists are now defined as "content providers."

    So none of this is really a surprise. At least not to me, who has been a creative practitioner as well as a journalist about creative practitioner.

    As for Harlan Ellison's rant, there's a reason that clip gets watched—BTW it's a small clip from a longer, very excellent biographical documentary about Harlan that is worth viewing in tis entirety—and that's because Harlan is right in every detail about getting paid. Online venues that do not offer payment for writing only perpetuate the problem.

    I get asked almost every week by some person to use my creative work, and they never want to pay me—even though I am a professional creative who is trying to make his living from his art. I have taken to responding: You must pay me something; I am open to what form that payment takes, but you MUST pay me in some way. I don't work for free. Harlan is right in that all those folks who do work for free are part of the problem, not the solution.

  4. Ellison is welcome to speak for himself, but not for everyone. And yes, I want to be part of the problem: when something is broken, it's time to look for other models.

  5. Looking for other models is great. What did you have in mind? There are indeed other models that I know of that have been tried, and many of the more utopian ones have run aground on the problem that if one lives in the present world, one has to somehow pay the bills. That's not even economics, it's the second law of thermodynamics.

    Meanwhile, the current model is indeed problematic and needs to be addressed. At least Harlan is addressing it. He may not speak for everyone, but he does speak for many.

    Well of course not everyone has to agree with his opinion, although I find many who don't think there's anything wrong with the current system are often those most invested in the status quo; which is true for every institution, of course, not just for writers and editors.

  6. I want to riff a little off what Frank has said, and also what Art has said.

    Your points, Frank, are well taken--but by us in this thread. The people who were at the Inquirer when you made your proposals are gone now--the point being that there is no time for wisdom, in the sense that those who made their bad decisions, even hypocritical decisions are gone, and new, bad decision makers who have their own agendas are now running things.

    Things have changed. It used to be that you, Frank, could now go into the president's office, show him or her what you just wrote above, and say, "I told you so," and be listened to--intently, like it was a serious matter and you had some important input. But that was probably two ownerships ago now, and more management teams ago--so there is no one to say that to, but us in this thread.

    It's the same all over. In the car business, we who deal with customers know how to keep customers happy, and somehow have to do it with the formulaic finacial managerial mood of the day working against us, even firing us at times. It would be better if car people ran car dealerships, because we know immediately when someone does not know how to handle a situation. It used to be that if a strong sales manager was challeneged by someone in the office, invariably, the office person was instructed to handle the situation, that because it was a sales organization, the sales manager's wisdom held sway, just as the parallel position in newspapers would. Nowadays, the office person is likely to have more power, and thus ignorance enters into the operation, even at the sales management level. So many people, who don;t know what they are doing, get jobs that we in sales know they cannopt handle, but jobs they keep until the statistics show they are not up to snuff. I so often can say, "I told you so--first day, remember?, and you said for me to be patient." You can almost depend upon the ownership detaching from the necessary wisdom, because their philosophies come from outside the car business level, at dealer group and manufacturer levels. Some dealers adjust better than others, but the detachedness is too severe in this money-run world, with too many only looking at the short term dollars they see themselves picking out of people's pockets, paying no attention to the big money in lost business they have no idea either how to keep or what is being lost and why.

    And I hope you feel like chiming in at this point, to say how the newspaper business used to be managed by newspaper people. Because that's my point, that the money flow, the short-term-put-money-into-my-pocket-this-minute mentality is destroying businesses. There is no room to argue that, if we are in it for the long term, we are better off doing things the "right" way--because no one is in anything for the long term any longer.

  7. Art, things work just fine for me. I pay my bills (usually). I just don't care to do so by writing. Maybe writers wouldn't exhaust their imaginative capital quite so soon if they sold batteries or worked in a nursing home periodically.