Sunday, May 06, 2007

There’s No Substitute for Quality

Until now--and mostly due to time constraints--I’ve stayed out of the debate over declining books coverage in American newspapers. Concerns about this have been building progressively over the last couple of years, but were thrown into high gear by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s recent decision to eliminate its book editor position (despite the fact that the Georgia capital is No. 15 on the list of the most literate U.S. cities). Since the AJC’s staff-cutting, money-saving decision, the National Book Critics Circle has launched a Campaign to Save Book Reviewing that has provoked protests and petition drives (see here and here), and drawn support from such literary heavyweights as Richard Ford and Michael Connelly.

It’s true that while newspapers in other countries (notably Spain) are enhancing their coverage of books, U.S. dailies (and weekly papers, too) have been de-emphasizing or out-and-out eliminating their reporting on, and criticism of newly published works. The New York Times earlier this week noted that
The decision in Atlanta--in which book reviews will now be overseen by one editor responsible for virtually all arts coverage--comes after a string of changes at book reviews across the country. The Los Angeles Times recently merged its once stand-alone book review into a new section combining the review with the paper’s Sunday opinion pages, effectively cutting the number of pages devoted to books to 10 from 12. Last year the San Francisco Chronicle’s book review went from six pages to four. All across the country, newspapers are cutting book sections or running more reprints of reviews from wire services or larger papers.
Illogically, this is happening at the same time as the number of books published in the States has exploded beyond the ability of even conscientious critics to keep up.

The basic problem seems to be that, in a nation where profit is championed over public service, book reviews simply don’t make their newspaper hosts enough advertising dollars to justify their existence. Independent bookstores, trying to save themselves from the encroachment of behemoth chains such as Barnes & Noble and online giants like Amazon--which are able to discount their products so heavily that they drive autonomous competitors out of business--simply can’t afford to buy display space in daily papers that are, themselves, in financial decline. And big book retailers don’t spend enough on advertising to justify, on their own, newspaper coverage of new releases. At the same time, neither large book publishers nor small ones spend a great deal on promoting their products through newspapers or any other media, much to the consternation of authors. The result of all this, is that newspaper owners don’t see book reviews as revenue producers. So why shell out the bucks for them--especially when you can pick up syndicated reviews for considerably less dough?

Edgar Award winner Connelly (Echo Park, The Overlook), opining recently in the Los Angeles Times, chided newspapers for cutting back on book reviews, which can help otherwise unpublicized books reach an audience. But he also warned that immediate cost savings could ultimately prove detrimental to the papers:
The truth is that the book and newspaper businesses share the same dreadful fear: that people will stop reading. And the fear may be well-founded. Across the country, newspaper circulations are down--and this is clearly part of the reason for the cuts to book sections. At the same time, the book business increasingly relies on an aging customer base that may not be refueling itself with enough new readers.

In the past, newspaper executives understood the symbiotic relationship between their product and books. People who read books also read newspapers. From that basic tenet came a philosophy: If you foster books, you foster reading. If you foster reading, you foster newspapers. That loss-leader ends up helping you build and keep your base.

What I fear is that this philosophy is disappearing from the boardrooms of our newspapers; that efforts to cut costs now will damage both books and newspapers in the future. Short-term gains will become long-term losses.

I hope that will not be the case here. I am not a businessman or a newspaper executive, but I believe that the symbiosis between newspapers and books could still work and hold true. I see it happening in my own home. My 10-year-old daughter’s love of reading books is slowly leading her toward the newspaper sections that are spread every morning across the breakfast table.
Publishers defend themselves against charges that they’re denying readers books coverage, by saying that there’s now a superfluity of literary blogs available for people who really care about the written word. So why duplicate efforts in the daily broadsheet?

To that point, I have a few responses.

First off, let me say that there are some splendid book news and review sites out there. In many respects, blogs and other Web sites--unrestrained by column inches of newsprint--have been better about reporting on genre fiction than have newspapers, which were trimming coverage of crime fiction, science fiction, and the rest well before they started cutting back on reviewing as a whole. On top of Bookslut, The Elegant Variation, and Edward Champion’s Return of the Reluctant, all of which The New York Times mentioned, I have to commend and recommend Bookgasm, Marshal Zeringue’s Campaign for the American Reader, James Marcus’ House of Mirth, C. Max Magee’s The Millions, January Magazine, and former Dallas Morning News books columnist Jerome Weeks’ Book/Daddy. Then there are the sites devoted specifically to crime fiction, such as Euro Crime, Independent Crime, International Noir Fiction, Material Witness, Reviewing the Evidence, and Shots. And let us not forget Salon and Slate, neither of which is exclusively devoted to books, but which do excellent jobs of incorporating books coverage into their broader mix.

In addition to those, however, there are many sites that demonstrate the Web’s immaturity, yet generate both traffic and attention--and take away from the comparative excellence of their competitors. What distinguishes the more exclusive former category of sites from the latter, in most cases, is that they are masterminded by people who have written for print publications, and recognize the value of both editing and correct spelling. Not to mention accurate punctuation. It’s a conceit of this uniquely democratic system known as the World Wide Web that conventional rules ought not apply, that blog authors who are lazy with their grammar and satisfied to print press releases as “news,” are somehow on equal footing with people who have been well trained in journalism or writing of some sort, or can at least boast significant experience in working for publications that enforce exacting editorial standards.

Which is why I don’t buy the argument that it’s OK for U.S. newspapers to dump their original books coverage because there’s still ample writing about books on what George W. Bush mistakenly calls “the Internets.” Yes, there is plenty of stuff ... but that’s like saying that you can cure starvation in Africa by sending over thousands of tons of Doritos. Quantity in both cases is not the same as quality. A good deal of what passes for “reviewing” on the Web would never pass muster with a trained newspaper or magazine editor. It is simply not good enough, usually because it is done by amateurs who want to see their opinions in print, but don’t really have anything interesting to say, or who don’t know how to say it in an interesting manner. They’ve often failed to get their work published in existing print vehicles, so they turn to blogging and then turn up their noses at the alleged stodginess or exclusivity of book review sections. Don’t even try to defend equivalency between the majority of book blogs and the majority of newspaper books pages: It can’t be done without defying reason and provoking guffaws.

Newspaper books pages are not all stellar commodities; there are some that exist only because of tradition. But many are worth the paper they’re printed on, and they deserve to be financed and defended as important. Especially with the tremendous number of books being produced and sold in the United States these days, readers need arbiters of quality--or perhaps the truer description would be “first defenders against crap.” Furthermore, they need reviews that are not only competent, but credible--not penned by some neophyte who simply wants to call him- or herself a critic, or who wishes to curry favor with an author or publishing house. (Hey, we can get free books if we say nice things about so-and-so!) Newspaper editors can be arbitrary and stupid, just like the rest of us; but they can also serve a valuable function in weeding out either vacuous or self-serving criticism.

Don’t get me wrong: you needn’t have been published regularly in a newspaper or magazine to become a decent books critic on the Web. But there ought to be someone, somewhere in the publishing process who can ensure that the rules of English are obeyed, and sloppy thinking or point-deflating errors are expunged. Salon and Slate, which have adapted a print-media model for Web publication, offer just such gatekeepers. Many other blogs are written by folks with strong editorial credentials. Sadly, though, others are not, and have nobody on hand to ask for better work from their contributors. Until blogs strive for at least a similar level of excellence in prose and seriousness of purpose that print-media editors are paid to guarantee, bean counters cannot in all honesty contend that readers who are denied their newspaper books pages can get the very same sort of material from the Web.

READ MORE:Curtain Rods of the Book World,” by Colleen Mondor (Chasing Ray).


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