Apparently, when you're in the book reviewing business, you just can't win. Mostly, over the past year, we've heard about what we, as a culture, are losing in terms of book coverage. To wit: several major newspapers have faced major cutbacks and/or other changes in their book-reviewing departments. The Chicago Tribune moved its Sunday stand-alone section to Saturday, for example; the L.A. Times merged its stand-alone book section with its “Currents”; the Atlanta Journal-Constitution closed, at least nominally, its book department. Not surprisingly, the reaction—from the book community, anyway—has been swift and fierce: this is the death knell for serious criticism, many of us cried, which means, of course, it's also the death of serious literature. It's that damn Internet: it's killing us.
But then, last week, the New York Times Book Review unveiled something new—a “split” paperback bestsellers list, with one list covering mass market paperbacks, and another for the more upmarket trade paperbacks (something, it must be said, that PW has been doing for years). You'd think that would be good news, right? It is, after all, a way for one of our most venerable book review institutions to expand the number of books it mentions and whose success it notes. It may not be more reviews, but it heralds more books.
But then, this is the publishing business, and so there have been some naysayers. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised, given the hue and cry that resulted from the Times's decision to create a children's bestseller list back in 2000 —a “crass, commercial move” to garner more children's advertising, the critics said. But it should also be noted that it was a way (a) to bring more attention to children's books, which, if you haven't heard, are one of the few growth markets we've got, and (b) to free up all those spaces that the Harry Potter books were hogging in adult fiction. The Times's latest decision about paperbacks serves the same purpose: yes, it gives more play to the crass, commercial titles—whose publishers just might advertise more often—but it also gives space to the more so-called literary books we wish we sold better. Isn't this the definition of win-win?
Unfortunately, in order to create that new list, the TBR editors have to give up a page that would otherwise go to reviews—and, for many readers, a thoughtful, reasonably detailed review is the most persuasive means of inspiring a buy. Still, I can't get too exercised about the argument that by increasing the number of bestsellers we're diminishing the value of the term. Diminishing the value to whom? To other reviewers? To the 50 or 100 people who have the luxury to worry about such things? If calling a book a “bestseller” attracts more readers, isn't that a good thing? And now, with trade paperbacks having their own list, there's a better chance that nonseries, more “literary” titles will make the list, which in turn will alert more readers to them.
Besides, while reviewers may lament the lost page of reviews, I promise you most readers of the newspaper will barely notice. Because, like it or not, most readers—i.e., potential book buyers—don't parse reviews and word counts the way we do: they just know they saw the book mentioned. That may sound crass and commercial, but it's also just plain true.
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