The metamorphosis of the book review

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September 17: When Maryglenn McCombs started as a book publicist roughly 17 years ago, newspaper book review sections were abundant. Today, book review sections exist as a shadow of what they once were, or not at all.

Top papers such as the Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post have dropped their standalone book sections and consolidated them into other sections over the last several years. The New York Times is one of the only that still boasts a separate book review section.

“It used to be there were so many book reviews out there and they had these big vibrant book review sections. It’s really hard to see what it has come to, there are fewer book sections and they appear with less frequency,” McCombs said. “It’s sad for lack of a better word, I hate seeing book review editors who I’ve worked with for years who are no longer employed by their papers – it’s really disheartening.”

The latest news in the book circle is the book review section the Wall Street Journal is launching later this month that will be inserted into its weekend section. Art Winslow, former literary and executive editor of The Nation, and current National Book Critics Circle board member, noted in an e-mail interview that this is possible for the Journal because it is one of the few print entities with a large enough circulation to challenge the New York Times’ “domination of book coverage.”

The demise of book sections stems from a variety of factors. What was once considered a self-sustaining entity lost ground as book publishers began to advertise less and emphasized getting authors profiled and interviewed on radio, Winslow noted. “That shift of promotional emphasis is part of the equation in the fall of book sections, while another part is newspaper publisher’s view of those sections as either money-makers or money-losers, rather than a service to subscribers who – just maybe – like to read,” Winslow said. “And again, it’s wrong to see the book sections as the sole casualties outside of the general context: newspapers closed overseas bureaus by the dozens, state-government reporters, et cetera, on their way to lower costs. Add to that the double whammy of dropping circulations and weak advertising, and it’s a perfect storm, particularly on the cultural side of reporting, which is often regarded as dispensable.”

For book publicists like McCombs, watching book review sections fade away has been met with sadness, while losing book reviewers – whom she has had standing relationships with for years – to layoffs, has also been felt. However, the wealth of book review blogs that now exist has balanced out the loss of these newspaper sections, she noted. “I really enjoy working with online book reviewers – it’s really easy to access their publication and get a feel for what their likes are and their dislikes are. I think on one hand, that is really great especially as a PR person,” McCombs said.

Book reviews were never the best way to get published from Stacey J. Miller’s standpoint. The founder of S.J. Miller Communications, specializing in publicity for trade books and self-published books, instead gets book publicity through author profiles, bylined articles and op-ed pieces written by her authors for publications. However, in Miller’s opinion, online book reviews are actually better than the traditional newspaper section. “Here’s why. Nobody who is not in the publishing industry reads industry reviews, or reads the review’s section of a newspaper, even I don’t,” she said. “However, if I want to buy a book, before I lay down my green cash I surely look at my online reviews.”

Not everyone, however, feels as if book review blogs should be held in such esteem. Lissa Warren, author of “The Savvy Author’s Guide to Book Publicity” and adjunct instructor at Emerson College, said in a 2008 Huffington Post article she thought that book review blogs could not replace book review sections. Instead, she noted they tended to be “self-indulgent” and needed to “move away from opinion in favor of judgment.”

Expressing an opposing sentiment, Winslow noted that platform does not dictate the quality of a review. As long as bloggers can dig at the heart of the matter, he said they can turn out just as high caliber criticism as other reviewers. “The in-and-out nature of much of what appears in many blogs argues against traditional criticism as a narrative format, but has its own value,” he said. “And, one can do both, the caveat being the time involved in writing longer pieces, potentially for no remuneration other than the satisfaction of tracing out a few ideas.”

It’s hard to know what will happen, noted Winslow as even book publishing is now being distributed through electronic means. “Resort to Web-based sites for literary criticism is the path of least resistance here, and probably the only possibility for growth,” he said. “The assembled section of varied reviews, curated by an editor who seeks out carefully chosen critics, will need an economic underpinning before it can be executed long-term with high quality, since reviews can take significant time and effort to produce, which is costly. It’s the same problem facing journalism in general: various people have touted foundation support, micropayments and other strategies to provide that economic foundation, but at the moment all is in flux.”

–Katrina M. Mendolera

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