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Print Book Reviews Shrink While Online Versions Grow

July 28, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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The Los Angeles Times published its last standalone book review section Sunday due to a growing shift of readers and writers to review forums on the Internet. A literary agent and an editor debate the virtues of keeping reviews in print versus fostering book dialogue online.
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RAY SUAREZ: Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times published its final standalone Book Review section and announced its future book coverage will be combined with the other arts in their calendar section. And that newspaper is not alone.

Jeffrey Brown has our Media Unit story.

JEFFREY BROWN: In our ongoing coverage of the media, we’ve been reporting on the financial problems and editorial changes at the Los Angeles Times, and this latest move certainly must be seen in that light.

But the decline in newspaper coverage of books, as well as other arts, is now widespread and has been going on for some time.

The demise of the Times Book Review, in fact, leaves only three papers with separate book sections: the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.

But even as newspapers struggle, reviews and discussions of books online are on the rise. We talk about these changes and their impact now with Steve Wasserman, who edited the L.A. Times Book Review for nearly nine years, until 2005. He’s now a literary agent in New York.

And Kassia Krozser is founder and editor of Booksquare.com, a Web site that reviews books and focuses on the publishing industry.

Well, Steve Wasserman, you and some fellow former editors at the Los Angeles Times sent a letter to the paper recently calling this a, quote, “philistine blunder.” Now, that’s pretty blunt.

STEVE WASSERMAN, Former Editor, Los Angeles Times Book Review: Yes. Stronger language perhaps could have been used, but we thought this was the most moderate language we could use under the circumstances, since the Times in its wisdom has decided to end publication of a section which was first seen in 1975 and continuously published as a weekly section devoted to the review of books ever since until Sunday.

Money lost from the book review

JEFFREY BROWN: But if it's a section that was not making money, and the paper is under enormous financial strain, what's the argument for maintaining it? Why not do what they've done?

STEVE WASSERMAN: First of all, some facts. The paper continues to make hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Its present owner, Sam Zell, a real estate mogul from Chicago, unwisely took on billions of dollars worth of debt to purchase it from the old Tribune Company. In order to service that debt, he has to come up with interest payments of about $1 billion cash.

Separately considered, of course, the Los Angeles Times Book Review never made any money and very few, if any, separate book sections of any newspaper has ever made any money, if separately accounted for, just like most sections of newspapers, the sports section, the business section, never carried enough ads to pay for themselves. That's simply not the way newspapers made money.

So it's something of a red hearing to argue that the paper should abandon the coverage of books, a very important beat in an era which sees more books published than ever before in the whole of the American publishing industry.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Kassia Krozser, you live there in Los Angeles. How do you see the demise of the book section in the newspaper?

KASSIA KROZSER, Editor, Booksquare.com: Well, I think it actually died a long time ago. When they tried their crazy idea of putting it on the flip side of the Current, that was pretty much the death of the L.A. Times Book Review. You know, if you go through the Sunday paper, you're lucky if you can even find that section.

And I do think it's better that they're moving it into the calendar section, all of the book coverage that they will continue to do, because people will actually be able to find it. Half the time people throw away the Book Review section because it's mixed in with ads. At least it will be a part of the paper now where people can actually find it. And I think that's really important.

Pros, cons of the Internet forum

JEFFREY BROWN: When you think of this more broadly, Kassia, starting with you, is something lost here? Or is just -- are we seeing a shift to where you are, online?

KASSIA KROZSER: We've seen a shift for the past, oh, close to 15 years. Amazon announced its presence in 1994. Craigslist took over the classified advertising business in a big way by the late '90s.

And if you go online, you see an extremely robust, intelligent community of people who love to talk about books. You've got great writing going on, you've got great discussions, but most importantly you've got great community. People are engaged from all levels, from the publishing industry down to the reader. And I think that's really, really incredibly cool.

JEFFREY BROWN: If all that is going on online, what's lost if papers don't have their own special sections anymore?

KASSIA KROZSER: Steve is probably going to disagree, but I say nothing.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Let me ask -- go ahead, Steve.

STEVE WASSERMAN: Well, to oppose the Internet I suppose would be like to oppose climate change. I have no problem with the vast democracy wall that the Internet provides on which everyone, every crank and every sage can post his or her pronunciamento.

But what's lost here is the discriminatory filter provided by people who have embraced journalism as a craft. What has been lost here is the authority, such as it ever was, of newspaper people trying to do a job well done.

I do not see foreign coverage being replaced by the activity of individuals on the Internet bloviating about this or that.

And despite the robust nature or at least the very excited nature of the conversation on the Internet, the best criticism still being written today is being published, say, in magazines, James Wood in the New Yorker, or Leon Wieseltier in the pages of the New Republic, or Christopher Hitchens in the pages of the Atlantic.

And it will be a long time before the Internet gives us a forum in which such people unsupported by institutions can deliver us that kind of literary criticism. At their best, the newspapers were an exercise in delivering to us that kind of informed criticism, which was the work of professionals who had devoted a lifetime to the consideration of literature.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me let Kassia Krozser respond to that.

KASSIA KROZSER: Well, I would probably disagree with him on the writing -- the level of writing on blogs, or Web sites, or online publications, however you want to do it. There's some really good writing; there's some very thoughtful writing; there's very well-informed writing.

Now, I would absolutely agree that there could be stronger editing and maybe some better curating, especially on certain Web sites, but that doesn't take away from the fact that these are people who understand literature, they understand non-fiction, fiction, books.

They understand what they're reading, and they're able to communicate their passion for books to their readers. And that's something that I really found missing in the L.A. Times Book Review and other book reviews, is that there's no passion for what is being read, no excitement.

And that's what we're getting online is, people are excited about books. They want to talk about books. And that's really incredible. And that's something...

JEFFREY BROWN: Steve Wasserman, let me ask -- I'm sorry to interrupt, but, Steve, let me ask you...

KASSIA KROZSER: That's OK.

Content of coverage is paramount

JEFFREY BROWN: When you look at the larger picture here, I mean, is there a potential impact or real impact on what books get written and how much reading goes on?

STEVE WASSERMAN: Los Angeles has steadily seen an increase in the number of readers and even writers who live in Los Angeles. Very often, over the last 10 or 15 years, it's the second-largest book-buying market in the country, second only to the New York metropolitan region.

Every year since 1996, when I and others helped to found the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, some 140,000 people from all walks of life attend the two-day fair at the end of April on the UCLA campus; 400 writers from all over America participate.

And the internal marketing surveys of the Los Angeles Times have shown, despite the steady loss of overall circulation, some 300,000 people every Sunday did try to seek out the lowly Book Review, sandwiched as it was between the real estate section and the calendar section, and proclaimed it their most favored section next to the main news section.

The best book blog cannot yet compete with the number of people who steadily read the Los Angeles Times Book Review, besides which, this argument is bogus. It's not about opposing the Internet. I'm all for two, three many opinions. I'm certainly for informed consideration, and I'm certainly for good writing written with passion.

If the Los Angeles Times Book Review in its past didn't evince such passion, that's a criticism of the incompetence or inabilities of its editors and its contributors to summon up such passion.

But the important point here is that the Los Angeles Times, as well as other newspapers around the country -- the Hartford Courant, which only recently let its book editor go -- has constricted its space not only in the print medium, but they've not added people to expand what they do online either.

The Los Angeles Times fired 40 percent of its Book Review staff, and it has not added people to increase coverage online. It's not about the instrument with which the news is conveyed; it's about the content. And content is king.

Reconciling print, online tastes

JEFFREY BROWN: Kassia Krozser, go ahead, final word.

KASSIA KROZSER: I strongly agree with what he was saying about increasing the coverage, and I think that using the L.A. Times is a great example in comparing it to the Guardian in the U.K.

If the Times would put the resources into developing an online community that can co-exist with their continuing book coverage -- because they tell us that they're going to continue book coverage -- I think that that would really strengthen the Times and complement the Book Festival, which is one of the greatest events going on in this city right now.

And I think that the Times really, to put it bluntly, doesn't understand the Internet. And a lot of newspapers don't understand the Internet. And all of these pieces go together. People want to read in different ways. They want to read reviews. They want to read about books. Some people want to do it in person; some people want to do it in the paper; some people want to do it online.

All of these things need to co-exist. And I think that's where a lot of newspapers failed their readership, in that they didn't understand that we want to get information in different ways at different times.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we have to leave the argument there, but I want to thank you, Kassia Krozser, Steve Wasserman. We'll all keep reading and watching. Thanks.

KASSIA KROZSER: Thank you.

STEVE WASSERMAN: Thank you.