Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Our endangered biblioecology

Posted by metaphorical on 16 May 2007

“I don’t understand why newspapers, when they want to cut space, they immediately think of depriving people who like to read.”
  — Frank Wilson, book-review editor, Philadelphia Inquirer

Sunday marked the last standalone book review section in the Chicago Tribune. Back in April the paper announced that beginning 19 May, its book section would move to Saturday, which “will cut circulation of the section roughly in half,” according to a comprehensive round-up of the dramatic decline in book reviewing by Art Winslow in the Huffington Post last month.

Is that better or worse than running book reviews on Sunday, but not as their own section? Readers of the Los Angeles Times will be able to judge for themselves. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal back in March,

Sometime this spring, the Los Angeles Times is expected to announce that it is folding its highly esteemed Sunday book review into a new section that will combine books with opinion pieces.

The Journal reports that

the book review as a separate section is endangered not only at the Los Angeles Times but at other major newspapers like the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and San Diego Union-Tribune.

The Philadelphia Inquirer did this some years ago (though it is flirting with the idea of reversing it). The upshot is that you can now count on exactly one hand the last review sections standing.

That would reduce to five the number of separate book-review sections in major metropolitan newspapers still published nationwide, down from an estimated 10 to 12 a decade ago. The reason: not enough ads.

The toll is taken throughout, not just in separate review sections. Winslow found book reviews hurting everywhere, it seems:

among the most recent examples is the mid-April decision by the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to eliminate its book editor position, leaving the fate of book reviews there in doubt,

Elsewhere, at the The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., book editor Peder Zane’s position was recently cut.

In the fall, book critic Jerome Weeks of The Dallas Morning News left the paper rather than face the dramatic cuts in arts coverage that were imposed.

The Village Voice as well “booted out its book editor in a reorganization.” Then there are the newspapers that have made their cuts a different way— in the length of the reviews.

At the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, book editor Bob Hoover observed that 250 words is getting to be the standard length for reviews at his paper.

Some papers have cut their local reviews in favor of wire-service ones. Winslow mentions the Cleveland Plain Dealer and five others.

The two articles chronicle a virtual plague sweeping through American newspapers, a sort of reverse Dutch elm disease that will leave more trees standing — not just with the fewer pages they will need to print, but, inevitably, the fewer books that will get sold. For make no mistake about it — even as book publishers find other ways to market books more efficiently, they are more concerned with margins than total revenue:

The shift away from traditional advertising hasn’t helped the industry sell more books. Bookstore sales in 2006 dropped 2.9% to $16.1 billion from $16.6 billion in 2005, according to preliminary estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

What neither article talks about is the residual damage this loss of review sections will do to the industry as a whole. The book world is a complex ecosystem that includes not just publishers, bookstores; and other stores, such as drug stores, supermarkets, newsstands, and WalMarts that incidentally sell books; but also writers and readers.

Some writers I know (such as Vivian Gornick and Francine Prose, whose classes I took) burnish their reputations as well as help keep the rent paid by writing reviews. Sophisticated reviews like theirs don’t just move books but ideas as well. Books are an essential part of the ongoing consideration of ideas that constitutes the essence of culture. A good book review not only describes the contribution a given book makes, the review itself moves the discussion forward.

Indeed, it seems obvious that the books that will be most greatly harmed here will be the ones whose ideas and contributions can’t be summed up in a headline news scroll. The big popular books sold on the front tables of Barnes & Noble may do as well or better than ever, but literary books, non-fiction books on unpopular topics, and first-time authors of all stripes will surely suffer.

The same populist triage of our culture is taking place in newspapers themselves (an irony made apparent in the Frank Wilson quote that starts this entry) and elsewhere. I hope to write something soon about how new postal rates new trigger another plague, this one killing small magazines and their publishers.

2 Responses to “Our endangered biblioecology”

  1. […] post by metaphorical Share […]

  2. delightful observations. Especially your title page quote from Orwell.

    Elizabeth the Bibliophile

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