Is the Book Review Really Dead?

The news that the Los Angeles Times Book Review, after more than thirty years, would cease publication in its freestanding format and merge with the opinion section of the newspaper made headlines from GalleyCat to an interview with former book review editor, Steve Wasserman, on the NewsHour. This is not shocking news to anyone who has been following trends with book review sections lately. It just seems like the latest in a growing list of newspapers shrinking coverage for books.

In recent years, the Boston Globe's book section was cut in half and folded into the "Ideas" section; the San Francisco Chronicle's book section was cut, but after public outcry from their readers, restored, though in a slight four-page edition; and the Chicago Tribune's book section was moved from Sunday to Saturday, the day of the week with the lowest circulation.

Now just a year after the highly publicized and protested news that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution had eliminated its book review editor, Theresa Weaver, the Hartford Courant has laid off its book editor, Carole Goldberg, and major cuts were made at both the Raleigh News & Oberver and Newark Star-Ledger. Chris Watson was abruptly let go from the Santa Cruz Sentinel (but was then given the opportunity to continue writing two weekly columns on books, with less column space and only on a contract basis). And Marie Arana, long-time book editor at the Washington Post Book World, one of the last freestanding book sections in the country, will take a buy-out at the end of the year. The future of that section also seems unstable.

It's clear that this recent list of cuts and restructuring is not going to end soon. Because space is so limited, it's become more difficult for publicists to count on securing coverage for university press titles in many of the traditional venues we counted on for so many years. Reporters I talk to and the editors I meet with who still have book sections remain very interested in MIT's titles and are always looking for interesting and timely books and authors to feature on their pages. But vying for space on these pages has become very competitive and editors simply cannot cover all of the titles they would like to cover given their space restrictions. We now have the challenge of looking for alternative places for getting attention for our titles. "While it is true the review sections in many print media have either evaporated or shrunk, the internet provides a vast wealth of opportunity to publicize our authors' ideas," Christian Purdy, Publicity Director at Oxford University Press, commented on the situation. "Also, many traditional print publications are becoming much savvier with their online presence and with a growing readership for many loyal readers. This too can be new fertile ground for review attention." The Boston Globe has a wonderful blog (Brainiac), as do the New York Times Book Review (Paper Cuts) and the Los Angeles Times Book Review (Jacket Copy)—just to name a few. All of these blogs seem to be thriving and even growing with interesting content and large readerships.

To make up for the decreasing review coverage, more and more publicists and authors are looking to online sources and broadening the focus of pitches to newspapers and magazines beyond just contacting the book review editor. Ranjit Arab, Publicity Manager at the University Press of Kansas, says they've seen the writing on the wall for some time now. "We've really made a concerted effort over the last few years to find ways of offsetting dwindling review space," he said. "That has meant getting more coverage off the book pages, encouraging authors to contribute op-ed pieces, and targeting any number of high-profile blogs and Web sites—all of which can impact a book's success just as much as a review in a mid-major newspaper." At Princeton, this dip in both major and second-tier newspaper coverage has also sent their publicists and authors to the internet as well and is allowing them to be even more creative on with their pitches, according to Andrew DeSio, Princeton's Publicity Director. "Places such as TruthDig and Bookslut are great for general book coverage, but also more targeted blogs such as Marginal Revolution, Brad DeLong, Dani Rodrik, and Econlog are great for our economics books and Kaus Files, Bloggingheads.tv, Daily Kos, and Instapundit" for political authors, DeSio said. "Finding targeted, renowned, and influential blogs/websites is indeed the way of the future. Also, we've been pitching for more off-the-book page coverage at the newspapers, as book reviews aren't the only places that feature books. Op-eds have also been very effective at creating awareness of an author or book."

One could argue that it is the newspapers themselves that are in such peril and it's not the death of the book business. It is also important to notice that some book sections are actually expanding their sections. The Wall Street Journal has expanded its daily book coverage and given it more prominent placement in the paper, and the Austin American Statesman has a new-ish regular feature dedicated to university press books. Online, NPR has also just launched a regular book review feature on its website. Cleary this is not the norm, but it's important to note that there are still some thriving book sections—both online and off.

Some still view a review in the print version of a newspaper as more authoritative than a blog post or online only review, but I think this perception is slowly changing as websites are becoming more relevant and exciting content is being posted online. I doubt that the thrill of a call confirming a pending review in the New York Times Book Review will cause publicists to simply shrug rather than do run down the hall screaming with delight, but it's time to stop complaining and to look in a new direction, while continuing to engage with the reporters and editors we've been working with in the past. "Personally, I find this media proliferation exciting," says Arab. "It is shaking up the old model, taking away influence from a few traditional sources and putting it in the hands of some new players, so it's not a matter of publicity outlets disappearing—they're simply reemerging in other forms. As long as we continue to publish timely and interesting books, we shouldn't have any trouble attracting the outlets that reach our intended audiences."

Colleen Lanick
Publicity Manager, MIT Press