Notebook: Return of the Freestanding Book Review!
by Ann Kjellberg, editor
“Renewal” isn’t a word that comes up too often in the world of books coverage, but the book world had happy news recently when The Washington Post resumed publication of its freestanding eponymous book review, Book World. Physical copies of Book World will be distributed as a separate broadsheet section to local Post subscribers on Sundays, and reviews will land all week on Book World’s new digital doorstep. Reminiscing for the occasion about his early days at Book World, which he joined way back in 1978, still-regnant Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda used words like pneumatic tube and linotype and rolodex.
Book World met its demise as a cost-cutting measure amidst a convulsive book review contraction in the mid aughts. The Boston Globe shut down its freestanding book review in 2001; the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune in 2007; and the San Francisco Chronicle in 2008. In 2007 alone, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Raleigh News & Observer eliminated their book editor positions; the only full-time book critic at The Dallas Morning News accepted a buyout offer; and the Orlando Sentinel, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune dramatically reduced coverage, all this even before the 2008 recession and its catastrophic plunge in advertising revenue, setting off dire predictions for civilization which in some ways seem to have been realized. (Here’s one, in The New Republic, that we can assume to have been written by its then literary editor, Leon Wieseltier.)
One culprit that was cited for the enfeeblement of the print book review was the siphoning off of publishers’ advertising dollars by the then-mighty chain bookstores, which secured “co-op advertising” fees from publishers for prominent placement of their books. (Still-standing chain CEO James Daunt of Barnes and Noble has suspended the practice. One wonders how much the murky fees that Amazon demands of publishers for “marketing”—equaling, to some unknown extent, prominent search placement—has supplanted this budget line.) But as Steve Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, pointed out, the book reviews always lost money. He quoted former New York Times Book Review editor Mitchel Levitas: “We lose money, and we always have, but I don’t know how much.” When Wasserman pigeonholed then newly named Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., with the question of whether the Times Book Review had ever turned a profit, Sulzberger replied, “I think, Steve, someone in the family would have told me if it had.” (Way back in 1985 the LA Times itself found a year in which its own book review, alone among the flock, had inched out of debt.) So when San Francisco Chronicle editors justified laying off the paper’s book critic John McMurtrie in 2019 citing book reviews’ sorry click results (“that level of non-engagement cannot continue”), they were not exactly up on the history.
Although some book-review watchers optimistically hoped that moving books coverage to other sections would reach new readers, there was also a fear that the subtle transition from critical appraisal to coverage of authors as public figures was not in the interest of maintaining a robustly critical public. “Book reviewing is a training for controversy,” said The New Republic’s cri de coeur. (The New Republic keeps on its website a famous—in the guild—1915 rant by Rebecca West calling for “harsh criticism,” without which ideas are met with “merely a chorus of weak cheers, a piping note of appreciation” until “a book is suppressed by the police.”) Said former New York Times Book Review editor John Leonard during a change of leadership there, “I’d hate to see it go in for more interviews, author photographs, publishing news, even the gossip—anything that cuts down on anything devoted to the review of books. I hope it won’t go that way, but the whole culture is going that way, in a celebrity-fucker direction.”
Newspaper publishers either saw the expenditure on book criticism as part of their larger mission—the National Book Critics Circle declared, in one of its frequent protests of book review closures, “the robust discussion of books is vital to a good society”—or a potentially valuable loss leader. Steve Wasserman wrote that, though his book review’s readers were a small fraction of the total readership of the Los Angeles Times, they were among the most dedicated, and also the most affluent. He argued that they were an untapped advertising resource, ignored due to the newsroom’s prejudice against coverage of culture. Perhaps part of the Washington Post’s calculation in reviving Book World is that for the very committed, rather old-fashioned potential print reader, the prospect of a stand-alone book review with their lazy Sunday morning might be the tasty morsel that makes the sale.
Arguably the one durable free-standing book review, that of The New York Times, founded way back in 1896, owes its longevity to the proximity of the local business: publishing, a blessing and a curse. Charles McGrath, who had been in line to helm The New Yorker until a bloody succession battle freed him up to run the Book Review instead, told The New York Observer when he stepped down after eight years that he was too thin-skinned for the work. “You’re painfully aware that no matter what you do, you make somebody unhappy. A lot of people feel that part of their job is to let you know in various ways how unhappy you’ve made them. That’s wearing.” McGrath’s predecessor John Leonard, who in spite of the brevity of his tenure is often recalled as the post’s most dynamic occupant, said “The job wears you out. I lasted five years. It’s not so much that the books keep coming, but the complaints keep coming. You can never satisfy the publishing industry.” David Kipen, then book critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, attributed a certain wariness at the Times to reviewers’ “not wanting to have drinks thrown in their face.” Blaming this familial proximity, the requirement that the Times “cover the waterfront,” in McGrath’s phrase, for a bit of a lackluster product (most famously by Elizabeth Hardwick, whose 1959 lament of the Times’s mediocrity became the seed of the independent New York Review of Books) has been recurrent, and indeed the tension in newspaper book criticism between the demands of high-level appraisal and of meeting a general audience has been a perennial theme. The Washington Post has always seemed to have a good command of the formula, hence perhaps part of its confidence in resuscitating its section.
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In tandem with the revenue hit to books criticism in the early part of the century came competition from other fronts. Book bloggers, who worked for free and captured the longed-for younger demographic, were first to challenge the hegemony of print critics, who, as one of the few variables in books’ reception on which publishers could train their attention, had once commanded the lion’s share of promotional energy. From there self-designated arbiters expanded their sway through unfettered access to the megaphones of Amazon comments, Goodreads, BookTube, and Bookstagram, culminating in the dizzying ascent in recent (is it only?) weeks of BookTok. Summarizing twenty-five years of book publicity for Publishers Weekly, Sophia Stewart has written that “the practice of book reviewing, which also influences literary consumption, has been largely democratized … largely thanks to the book blogs that blazed a trail for nonestablishment reviewing in the internet’s earliest days.” Book reviewing by pros, where it persists, has become but one of many inputs. In a panel on bookselling and translation, legendary bookseller Sarah McNally of McNally Jackson in New York said, echoing many in the business, “In the last fifteen years, we’ve watched almost every place from which people used to get book news stop providing book news … Back in the day, a cover review in The New York Times would have sold more than the Booker, but a cover review at the Times isn’t impactful anymore.”
As the algorithms become more sensitive, they create more opportunity for self-making, nudging aside the advantage to celebrity that was an early beneficiary of social media. (Celebrity recommendation, via book clubs, has been moving books toward cash registers since the analog days of Oprah Winfrey, but Instagram has given it a blast of oxygen.) Branding, the publicity-watcher Sophia Stewart tells us, is now all. Helene Atwan, recently-retired director of Beacon Press, told me that over the course of her career she’s seen ballooning opportunities to put books in front of all sorts of readers, in spite of the relative diminution of the availability of book reviews. The personal recommendation, always books’ most powerful friend, now has almost limitless scope. A cheering enthusiasm for books among young people, even physical books!, has been one of recent decades’ most encouraging signs, tied to an unknown degree to these new digital powers.
Perhaps the Post is also responding to this unplanned-for robustness of the book market (current paper shortages are actually attributed, in part, to what turned out to be unwarranted pessimism in American paper manufactury about the death of the physical book), alongside bullishness elsewhere in book reviewing: formerly for-the-trade early reviewers like Shelf-Awareness, Kirkus, and the American Library Association’s Booklist have built reader-facing identities; the Chicago Tribune grew back its book section and bought a local book fair, experimenting in 2013 with producing a joint literary journal; 2018 saw expanded books coverage at the Times, the Atlantic, New York, and Buzzfeed; and just last May the Atlantic expanded again. (We had a fun virtual panel about the state of book reviewing with Booklist’s Donna Seaman and Laurie Hertzel, books editor of the eventually revived reviewing stalwart Minneapolis Star Tribune, at Seminary Co-op.)
All this is a gleaming silver lining to a digital reading environment that otherwise still holds ominous capabilities (susceptibility to disinformation, enthusiasm for conflict, siloing of opinions). To put a book in someone’s hand is to begin them on a larger journey, rather than lock them into a digital image or a character-limit. A section devoted to considering books within an institution committed to covering everything, especially in the setting where the nation’s decisions are made, is a welcome thing. One hopes that, like the durability of books themselves, it is a sign we have an intestinal resistance to “sea change in the culture of literacy itself,” in which “our overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant,” that was once dreaded by Steve Wasserman.
Ann Kjellberg is the founding editor of Book Post.
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