When this weekend’s Wall Street Journal hits stands, those in publishing will be quickly flipping to the new stand-alone book review section, called Books, which appears in the paper’s revamped weekend edition, now named WSJ Weekend. Robert Messenger, the new editor for Books, talked with PW about what he plans on reviewing, the importance of keeping long-form book coverage intact, and how he’s not competing with the Times’s Book Review.
While the question of how many reviews Books will run week in/week out and the length of those reviews is still evolving, Messenger said he’s focused on a mix of longer essays and shorter reviews. To that end, this week’s section will open with a 2,000-word essay by James Grant on the Library of America’s new edition of writings by John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society and Other Writings, 1952-1967. While Messenger said the exact makeup of the review will change, the loose format will include a lengthy main essay in the 1,800-2,000-word range, with room for other substantive essays that can run anywhere from 900 to 1,600 words.
The inaugural Books section will be six broadsheet pages, and, though the edition will focus on a few long pieces—Messenger said likely two or three—there will be notable space dedicated to reviews. Messenger said that the section will likely cover more nonfiction than fiction, but will, as the NYTBR does, collect shorter reviews of multiple books and group them together. These groupings, Messenger said, may vary in highlighting four new books, or four recommended books. Mostly, Messenger said, he wants to “bring novels to readers’ attention.” And, while nonfiction titles will likely be handled on a peer-reviewing system—with specific books paired with someone considered knowledgeable or noteworthy in the title’s topic area—regular reviewers will handle the fiction titles. And the section will be reviewing children’s literature. Hardcovers will be the focus, but the paper will review original trade paperbacks and will look for books from independent houses.
The bestseller lists, which the Journal has traditionally run on Fridays in the Weekend Journal section, will now appear in Books. (The Weekend Journal name, incidentally, will also be dropped, and the Friday arts section will now be called Friday Journal.) Books will be running six lists: fiction, nonfiction, business, a nonfiction gainers and losers, comparisons list, and (forthcoming) e-books. The nonfiction gainers and losers list will highlight titles that have shot up the charts or precipitously fallen off. The comparison list will change and might, for example, run the top 10-selling titles in two different cities. The e-book list will not appear on Saturday but will run at some point in the near future. A spokesperson for the paper confirmed that the numbers used for the lists will continue to be provided by Nielsen BookScan, which currently provides the data for the paper’s bestseller lists.
When asked how much Books would resemble the NYTBR, Messenger said that while he’s “a big fan of the Times Book Review,” his section will be different. He said that while he’s aiming for “the same highbrow audience,” readers can expect a more dramatic mix of review lengths. And despite the lack of advertising dollars, which has doomed most book review sections, Messenger believes it’s something readers still want. Readers, said Messenger, “are hungry for more book coverage.”
So what kind of ad support is Books drawing? The paper’s spokesperson said that five publishers have placed ads in the first week’s edition of Review (the name of the section the pull-out book review appears in). All the same, Messenger said, support is coming from management; as he put it, his section “is about servicing the reader and that message comes from the very top.”