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Vanishing Newspaper Book Reviews

June 20, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TERENCE SMITH: Book reviews are the latest casualty of the economic downturn in the newspaper business. In recent months, several newspapers have cut back their book review sections in response to higher newsprint costs and reduced advertising sales. Book advertising has rarely covered the cost of reviews, but in some newspapers books get a section, or a world, all their own.

In Seattle, for example, where the “Seattle Times” recently endured a costly seven-week strike, editors cut back book reviews by two-thirds earlier this year. Recently the “San Francisco Chronicle” also revamped its separate 12-page book review.

The paper now runs about seven book pages inside its weekly arts section, prompting angry letters.

One writer described the change as “a world-class disgrace,” another as “a slap in the face to the large and lively Bay area literary community.” In defense, the paper says, some reviews have been replaced with features about books and authors. And in Boston, the “Globe’s” freestanding book section has been collapsed into its Focus section.

Even the “New York Times,” which is known for its extensive and influential book review, has pared down. The section is currently running one page of its books-in-brief reviews, down from two. At the same time, other media cover books.

The bimonthly “Book Magazine” is filled with reviews and articles about authors. Oprah Winfrey, with her television show and magazine, has single handedly made celebrities of her favorite authors by selecting them for her book club.

WOMAN: Everyone in Papuhara has secrets, even the animals.

TERENCE SMITH: And online book retailers include reader and critic reviews on their Web sites. Even with fewer reviews, of course, there are still big books. “Bridget Jones’s Diary” was a hit on paper, is currently a success as a film, and a sequel is on the best-seller lists.

JOYCE CAROL OATES: When you read poetry…

TERENCE SMITH: Prominent authors…

NEWT GINGRICH: Thank you. Hi.

TERENCE SMITH: Political figures or controversial celebrities have no trouble getting attention for their books. But they represent a small fraction of the 50,000 books published annually. Of those, just over 2,000 get even brief notice in the larger newspaper book sections. That leaves another 48,000 titles struggling to find an audience.

TERENCE SMITH: For more on the role of book reviews, we turn to three guests who influence what gets into print. Jason Epstein spent a career in publishing, largely at Random House. He co-founded the “New York Review of Books” and is author of a publishing memoir, “Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future.” Matthew Storin is editor of the “Boston Globe,” and Deirdre Donahue, a publishing reporter at “USA Today,” has reviewed books for that paper for the past 12 years. Welcome to all three of you. Jason Epstein, there seems to be a trend here, and so I wonder what, (a), what you think of it, and whether you think book reviews are still important?

JASON EPSTEIN: Well, I think they’re, I think they’re indispensable. They’re not the whole story, but without books, we’d have no idea who we are or how we got here. In fact, without books, we’d have no newspapers, we’d have no NewsHour.

TERENCE SMITH: Matt Storin, do you have… First of all, Boston considers itself a quite a literary community.

MATTHEW STORIN: Yes.

TERENCE SMITH: Your book reviewer, Gail Caldwell, just won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, and yet the “Globe” is going to reduce the number of reviews. Why?

MATTHEW STORIN: Well, it’s very reluctant, Terry, as you can figure, and last year we made a number of expansions in what we do with the paper, both in business and our suburban coverage, and all of a sudden the bottom fell out, particularly of help-wanted advertising, and in high-tech areas like Boston, this was particularly painful. 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.

TERENCE SMITH: Why this, then? If… 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. Why books?

MATTHEW STORIN: No, as a matter of fact, it’s not really related to book advertising, although we don’t get a great deal of it. 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.

TERENCE SMITH: Mm-hmm.

MATTHEW STORIN: But when we had to make cuts, we had to make them in whatever places were available, and this section, which only four years ago we had established as a freestanding section, ultimately got on the target list because there was nothing else left. It was really the last thing that we wanted to cut.

TERENCE SMITH: So very much a bottom- line consideration for you.

MATTHEW STORIN: Very much so, and we hope it’s temporary. We expect it to be temporary.

TERENCE SMITH: Deirdre Donahue at “USA Today,” you take a different approach. Books are widely covered in your paper.

DEIRDRE DONAHUE: Yes. In fact, we are not cutting back on our book coverage, we’re probably expanding it, and we do do the traditional book review. We just recently reviewed Philip Roth’s book. So we cover the big hitters, but we also really try to write a lot of trend stories, for example. Just recently we ran a big story on the front page about World War I books. There’s tons of… Excuse me, World War II books — about why is it there’s this renewed interest in the world war generation? So I think that we also look at trends. We do very serious books, but we also do front page of the life section views of John Grisham. We try to keep it within the mix of entertainment as well.

TERENCE SMITH: And books as entertainment.

DEIRDRE DONAHUE: Yes. We like to review, for example, John Grisham within the context of the other John Grisham books. We do not… We feel that sometimes some book reviews, they talk down to the reader who actually enjoys pop fiction, and we like to feel it’s sort of a supermarket. You know, we provide the fromage, but we also provide, perhaps, American cheese.

TERENCE SMITH: Mm-hmm. Jason Epstein, given all the other sources that exist today– the Internet, television– for information about books, are newspapers and newspaper book reviews as important today as they once were?

JASON EPSTEIN: Oh, I think so. I don’t think that anything replaces them. I don’t think that the little television snippets or casual book chat can replace a serious book review. Not that all newspaper book reviews are all that serious. They have many kinds of audiences to appeal to. But, no, nothing will take the place of the book review.

MATTHEW STORIN: I agree, Terry. I think that the… There are many audiences for books, of course, and the Oprah show and the Imus show, some of those other television broadcasts, may appeal to a wider audience that is not heavily into books, but for your core book audience, I think newspaper reviews are probably their primary means of finding out what is new and what is good.

TERENCE SMITH: Deirdre, you still have limits, obviously, on space. How do you decide what books to review and which not to review?

DEIRDRE DONAHUE: Well, we have two book reviewers, and we also have other people who contribute to the, you know, to the coverage. We like to provide a mix. We like to provide… We like to write about books that seem to connect with readers. For example, we were one of the first to review “Angela’s Ashes,” and I don’t think anyone thought that, you know, a memoir by a 66-year-old retired New York City school teacher would end up becoming a global best-seller. I think that we, we like to try to sort of, you know, when you open up a book, what jumps out. You know, I remember there was an excellent book called “There Are no Children Here,” and that was a book where I started at 11:00 in the morning and at 4:00 I was still at my desk reading it. It was very compelling, about, you know, two boys growing up in a housing project in Chicago.

TERENCE SMITH: Jason Epstein, do reviews, do you think, still sell books?

JASON EPSTEIN: Well, I’m not sure that they… I think what really sells books is word of mouth, what people tell other people. I don’t think book advertising helps very much. We do it in a limited way for other reasons.

TERENCE SMITH: Too limited, I would say, for Matt Storin, from what he said before.

JASON EPSTEIN: Well, of course, but we, but book publishers don’t have much money either to throw around. 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, but I think book reviews are important not simply for the promotional value, because they contribute to the dialogue, that ongoing, open-ended Socratic dialogue that is our culture.

TERENCE SMITH: What about that, Matt? They introduce ideas, and sometimes, of course, they’re news.

MATTHEW STORIN: They can be wonderful to read, and they do, for some people, they substitute for the book, of course, for reading the whole book, and to get to your earlier question, Terry, there’s no doubt that at least some reviews do sell books, although I agree with Jason that word of mouth is very important. The way you can tell is that we’ll run a review of a book that we happened, at least versus some of the other papers we see, to be the only paper to review that day, and we can tell from amazon.com, where they keep track of sales, that a book will start moving based on the publication of that review.

TERENCE SMITH: Deirdre Donahue, there are all these other sources, not only for information about books, but reviews. Amazon.com does something different, and other Web sites like it: They run reader reviews rather than critic reviews.

DEIRDRE DONAHUE: Yes.

TERENCE SMITH: What does that reflect?

DEIRDRE DONAHUE: Well, actually I think it’s very interesting, because I do think that perhaps, you know, John Katz, the media critic, has written very interesting about this, that we’ve become something of a less hierarchical society, that there’s less of the oracular critic telling the masses what to buy; that in fact people, partly because of the Web, are very interested in interacting, and they are…

For example, I think the explosion of book groups, the fact that people are having them, whether Oprah Winfrey or your local bookstore or my sister’s book club — it’s that idea that people want to sit and they want to read the book, but then they want to share their opinion, and it’s interesting because I do think it reflects a certain interactive quality in our society that has… It’s interesting because I do think that this is unusual and this is growing, that people want their opinion to be heard, that whole thing with amazon.com.

You know, I remember doing a story, a big story on “Cold Mountain,” and I had gotten some people from amazon.com, some of the people, some of the people who had written in, and these wonderful, very passionate responses to the book, and these were people who had read the book and then wanted to express how they had felt about it, and some of it was very insightful.

TERENCE SMITH: Jason Epstein, what do you think of that trend? Is it a substitute for, you know, a serious review of a serious book by a serious author?

JASON EPSTEIN: No, of course not. It’s part of that ongoing Socratic dialogue that I mentioned earlier, but it’s not the most important fact by any means. What you want of a serious book is a serious commentary by someone who knows what he’s talking about.

TERENCE SMITH: Matt Storin, you suggested earlier that this trend might be reversible if there’s a change in the advertising, in the bottom line. Is that correct?

MATTHEW STORIN: Yes. I’m personally committed to restoring at least what we were doing, and we’re still going to run a good two dozen book reviews a week of one kind or another.

TERENCE SMITH: Deirdre, what do you see as the future trends? You’re dealing with this every day.

DEIRDRE DONAHUE: Well, I think one of the things that torments all book reviewers is the idea that there’s this brilliant first novel, it’s not getting a lot of promotion– you know, the fact that that book’s not getting the attention it deserves, and it could be a classic, and it is true that the mid-list author suffers. I mean, it is terrible. If you have an established reputation, you know, you’re golden, you get the review, but the idea that sort of young writers or unknown writers, you know, that there’s less space, less interest in them, and I think that’s something that really torments people, the idea that there could be… Where is the place for reviews of people who don’t, you know, you don’t recognize their name and they haven’t won the Oprah lottery?

TERENCE SMITH: Good question. Jason Epstein, what’s the answer?

JASON EPSTEIN: Well, I have… I have a hunch that this electronic future we’re heading into, if we aren’t already there, is going to answer a lot of these questions because it is going to be possible to sustain at various levels that dialogue that I’ve been talking about over… From one Web site to another, and who knows what that’s going to be like?

TERENCE SMITH: All right. So that may be the brave new future.

JASON EPSTEIN: I wouldn’t be surprised.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. Thank you, all three, very much.

JIM LEHRER: For the record, it’s not just the book review sections that are suffering from the slowdown in advertising. In recent days, the “New York Times”, which also owns the “Boston Globe” and other media outlets, announced it will cut 1,200 jobs as part of a cost- savings plan. Knight Ridder, the nation’s second-largest newspaper chain, announced 1,700 job cuts.