Like Mark Sarvas, I’m not especially outraged at the latest batch of statements about newspaper book reviews from Lee Abrams, Tribune Co.’s innovation chief. Sure, his assertions read like a lot of off-the-top-of-my-head spitballing—I picture him pacing wildly around a room, flailing his arms Jim Cramer-like, while some poor intern struggles to type all of the chatter. But none of Abrams’ assertions demand throwing journalism into a wood chipper, the first idea that most print-media managers have in the face of tanking revenues and investor pressures. So, I’m willing to hear the guy out.
Here’s Abrams’ statement:
*Books: Heard a conversation about how Book reporting doesn’t generate revenue and may have to go away. WAIT! Maybe Book reviews and coverage are one of those things that don’t generate revenue right now, BUT–are trademarks for newspapers and elicit high passion from readers. At XM, we had Opera channels. Low listenership…HIGH passion…AND–it was one of those things that even if people didn’t listen or even like Opera, it was one of those things you had to have for completeness. Maybe Book sections in newspapers are just dated. Not the idea…but the look and feel. Maybe they’re modeled after a book store in 1967 whereas we’re in the Borders, Amazon, B&N era. Maybe they are too scholarly. Maybe they avoid genres like Christian books, Celebrity books and Popular novels, opting instead for reviews of the Philippine Socialist Movement in the 1800′s. The point here is maybe Book sections need to be as dramatically re-thought as Borders re-thought retail. Not dumbing down–but getting in sync with the 21st Century mainstream book reader.
The good news here is that Abrams recognizes that there’s a small but passionate readership for book reviews—one that can potentially be monetized—and that covering the literary world is part of the mission statement of any media organization. (At least that’s how I interpret “one of those things you had to have for completeness.”) I’m not even especially troubled by the notion of more coverage of popular/Christian/celeb books. In fact, let’s expand it—make the books editor at the daily paper the ideas person, the person who’s able and willing to jump on the blog and round up the relevant books and call the relevant authors regarding the issues of the day. That’s across the paper—world, national, local, sports, etc. (Slate and the Washington Post work together on something like this, compiling reading lists on varied subjects, and the print version often winds up in the Sunday Outlook section.) Five essential books on NASA; the two best books on the neighborhood that’s about to be re-zoned for a strip mall; a handful of books on gun control; a top-ten reading list of best baseball stories, and talk to the person out in the city who wrote one that maybe didn’t make the list. All of this supplementing the regular Sunday review.
Doing that won’t save the newspaper book review. But it might do one thing that book-review managers have clearly failed to do: Make a regular case for the relevance of books to the newspaper’s audience, across all sections. If the presence and relevance of books is in the face of readers’ (and managing editors’) faces on a regular basis, the book section looks a little less like a money pit—and if the books editor is doing his or her damnedest to follow the news throughout the week, it’s easier to be all about the Philippine Socialist Movement in the 1880s on Sunday.
Yes, I’m mindful that book review editors don’t have much time on their hands; I’ve met a few lately, and they’re much less cheery now than they were when I started writing reviews in earnest five years ago. But if productivity and relevance are the new mantras at newspapers—and they certainly are at Tribune Co.—the pressure is on book reviews to make a case for themselves. I’m not sold on Sarvas’ suggestion about fixing the L.A. Times Book Review (essentially, blow it up and start anew on the Web), partly because I don’t think the cost savings gained by being online-only are enough to finance a dream review, partly because going online means alienating a book-review readership that still embraces print, but mainly because going on the Web isn’t enough now. Book reviews are already online—the trick is to figure out how to get the tendrils of the ideas in books to run throughout the paper’s Web site, and make that role so strong that when the wood chipper does finally arrive, the person in charge of it thinks twice before tossing the book review in first.