Thursday, October 12, 2006

Reviewing the State of Book Review Coverage

Reviewing the State of Book Review Coverage
With financial pressures mounting, will newspapers cut space?
by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 10/9/2006

The departure in September of Dallas Morning News book columnist Jerome Weeks and books editor Charles Ealy—two of 111 reporters who took voluntary buyouts from the paper—has brought the state of book reviewing in traditional media back into the spotlight.

Initially believing that no replacement would be named for Ealy, AAP president Pat Schroeder sent a letter to DMN editor Bob Mong expressing her "dismay and disappointment" with the situation. Schroeder was only slightly mollified to learn from Mong that an interim books editor had been named and that the paper will continue with book coverage comparable to what it has done in the past. The DMN typically devotes three pages to books each Sunday, and reviews business books on its business pages.

In her letter to Mong, Schroeder wrote, "...severely curtailing book coverage or eliminating it altogether, newspapers not only fail the communities they serve, they defeat their own interests in regaining those elusive and essential advertising dollars." But Mong told PW that advertising "does not sustain the paper's book coverage," though he added, "I'd love to make a presentation to publishers with our advertising people. I could talk about the benefits of reaching our readers both in the paper and online." He indicated that the paper has noted a "strong demand" for book coverage from its readers, who are generally affluent and educated.

For her part, Schroeder said, "I'm always amazed they say you don't see enough ads—but I don't see too many ads for sports teams. It's been a nagging concern for the last couple of years. We talked about it at our recent board meeting—people said, 'this is horrendous'—the real question is what to do." As a first step, Schroeder asked the AAP's Trade Committee, chaired by Hyperion Books president Bob Miller, to explore ways to facilitate more book coverage in newspapers and other media.

With newspapers under increasing financial pressure, however, is it reasonable to expect them to give extensive coverage to an industry where they get relatively little support? Among the remaining Sunday review sections, only the New York Times Book Review receives a significant number of ads. The Washington Post Book World has seen very little publisher support throughout its history. "It's been a real problem," said Book World editor Marie Arana. The situation is much the same at the San Francisco Chronicle, where, said editor Phil Bronstein, the section gets few ads. "It gets harder and harder to justify something that has no ad support," said Bronstein. "We continue to do it because we think it is important to the cultural community of the Bay Area."

The importance of books to the culture remains the driving force behind the Post's commitment to its 16-page Sunday review. Arana noted that longtime Post publisher Katharine Graham was adamant that "in a city as important as this and in an enterprise as important to knowledge and education as the publication of books, that the Washington Post would have a full-sized, dedicated book review section." Although ads are up slightly at Book World, they don't come close to underwriting the section. "It's not that we're steaming ahead happily without the ads, but it's what we have to do because the New York publishers have not been supportive for papers around the country. They basically support their hometown paper, the New York Times," said Arana.

Books remain an integral part of the Los Angeles Times, a paper that has generated its own headlines recently about its future within the media empire of the Tribune Company. "In a funny way, the publishing industry's terrible neglect of the L.A. Times Book Review was actually good preparation for this era for us," said Tim Rutten, associate features editor. "We learned a long time ago that if we are going to do a book review, we couldn't count on publishers' ads, because they don't advertise on the West Coast."

The Chronicle's Bronstein believes that if publishers supported its section, "it would send a very good signal that they believe in their product." Since the Bay Area is an extraordinary book community, he said, the paper intends to cover books "for as long as we can." How long will that be? "I just don't know in this environment," said Bronstein.

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