Monday, May 14, 2007


"While I'm all for the literary bloggers, and I think the more people that write about books the better, they're not necessarily as regionally focused as knowledgeable, experienced long-term editors in the South or Midwest or anywhere where the most important writers come from."

*****New York Times writer Sam Tanenhaus.

As the the New York Times recently noted, the number of newspapers who take the time to review books keeps declining as the number of online book reviews multiplies. The question is not whether this is a tragedy. I think we can all agree that it is both sad and chilling to see more and more newspapers give short shift to the book world.

The question is whether newspaper book reviews are inherently more knowledegable or in any way superior to online book reviews.

I'd have to say from my own experience that I've had at least two book reviews, one online and one in a newspaper, where I suspected that the reviewer hadn't actually read the book. The former because it picked up a factual error made in Kirkus and repeated it verbatim, and the second because it was very vague and could have applied to almost any mystery. And this is not sour grapes, because both those reviews were very positive.

In general, though, I have to agree that for the most part the newspaper or magazine reviews I've received have been detailed, intelligent and insightful. But while I've probably seen a few more "hurried" reviews online, there have been some that have knocked me out with their depth and acuity. And don't forget that many online reviews are written by bookstore owners and librarians.

Okay, let's get our own crime reviewer, Hallie Ephron to weigh in:

It's like reading a murder mystery -- with newspaper book review sections falling prey to a serial killer. Recent victims:Atlanta Journal-Constitution eliminated job of book review editor; the LA Times merged a standalone book review section with opinion pages, cutting the number of pages devoted to books; last year the San Francisco Chronicle's book review section went from 6 pages to 4. Similar stories from the Raleigh News & Observer, the Dallas Morning News, Orlando Sentinel, Cleveland Plain Dealer. The usual suspects: lack of advertising revenue, competition from online. Let's face it, news pages are shrinking, too.

The National Book Critics Circle has launched a "Campaign to Save Book Reviews." See

For authors, if the publisher isn't behind you with a 6+ figure advance, breaking out seems impossible. There's nothing more daunting than that moment, right after your first book comes out, you walk into a big box book store and look around...seeing it as you've never seen it before. SO MANY books chasing so few customers and $$.

Newspapers may be endangered species but the circulation of most regionals swamps most blogs. So in terms of bang for the buck, newspaper reviewers win, hands down. Having said that, blogs and online reviews can generate buzz...if anyone reads them.

I know I'm supposed to feel distraught about this - and I do in a general, "into what cultural abyss is America descending?" way - but I'm not sure that the decline of newspaper book reviews is going to affect me professionally. Of course it's a drag to think that more ink was spent on Paris Hilton's recent travails than on the thousand or so books published this week - many funny, smart, entertaining, or educational - that writers like us sweated over, maybe for years. But how many of them were going to get reviewed in mainstream newspapers anyway? Maybe newspaper book review pages are shrinking because they'e too busy reliving The Civil War, World War II and the Kennedy administration. And reviewing the umpteenth bio of the same dead white guys.

I confess I do read Marilyn Stasio of The NY Times, and if I had a prayer of getting a review from her I'd walk a hundred miles on broken glass to get it, but seriously, how many books can she review in a week? In a year?

So, I love the online reviewers. They're filling a need. I don't care what their day jobs are, or where they went to school. (Isn't it a little ridiculous to think that someone has to have gone to Yale to review a mystery?) Like anyone else, some reviewers are good and some are less good, but if they know their stuff -mysteries, romances, kids books, whatever - then I'm glad they're doing what they're doing.

So how do newspapers decide what to publish? When I was learning about journalism, back in my radio days, we were taught that you gave the public what it "should" want to know about. That somehow, the people who were making the editorial decisions were the ones who were trained to decide what was best and necessary for people to read about. Remember when Michael Dukakis ran for president?(okay, you don't, but trust me on this one) There was discussion about how "eat your peas" he was. In other words, that he would say things you needed to hear, but didnt necesssarily want to. That's what newspapers used to do--decide what was important, and print that.

Now, that in mind. Things have changed. There are 300 cable channels. Newspapers are drying up and dying as people turn to the internet. So, to stay alive, newspapers are printing what they think people WILL read. Want to read. And "they" have decided, apparently, that people don't want to read book reviews. Simple as that. They're selling, we're buying, they've decided we ain't buying book reviews. (Plus, why pay a book reviewer?)

So it's so sad, because a review is so often more than just about the book. It can be writen by someone who offers context, breadth, connections. I'm not saying there's anything less--reliable? educated? insightful?--about on line reviews. It's just another medium, after all.

I don't think that problem is the advent of on-line reviews--you gotta love them. They can be wonderfully smart, they're honest, they're from the heart as well as the brain, and they're free of "the man." It's just too bad that curling up with coffee and the newspaper book review section on Sunday morning could be a thing of the past. Or maybe--it'll just be I'll get cozy with my laptop. (Though that's hard to share with my husband.)

I think the bottom line with the continued decimation of the book review page, we all need to be grateful for the online reviewers -- many of whom don't even get paid but review as a labor of book love. Thanks guys!

1 comment:

  1. As someone who faithfully reads Hallie's reviews, I must say I agree that newspapers have a wider audience, however, bloggers are able to micro-market readers. Books are mostly sold through word-of-mouth, e.g. The Red Tent, Water for Elephants, Prep, and often by bookstore clerks handselling them. I think that's the role bloggers have undertaken, to be virtual handsellers and we can expect more of it in the years to come. And if any publishing house wants to send me ARCs, I'd be happy to review them!