The recent announcements that several newspapers are making major changes in the way they cover, or, more accurately, won't cover books, provoked the predictable reaction in Publishing Land. For anyone who loves books, this is a disaster, most said.
Obviously, I'm not happy that there will be fewer venues discussing books in a serious way. Obviously, I don't like that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution closed down its book department, that the L.A. Times Book Review merged with “Opinion” or that the Chicago Tribune will move its book review section to Saturday (fewer readers). And, obviously, I support the petition circulated by the NBCC that argues on behalf of the need for book criticism. It, and the organization's recent demonstration in Atlanta, are amazingly passionate gestures—not to mention an object lesson to the slacker generation about how much some book people love their jobs, no matter how poorly paid. But let's face it, media moguls are unlikely to reinstate book review pages and departments because Richard Ford has made it clear he'd like them to. And although some might try to argue otherwise, book reviewing is not a right guaranteed by the Constitution, nor is it ever likely to be considered an act of public service. Besides, the newspaper business isn't doing this terrible thing to us; they're just, like everybody else, trying to figure out how to adapt their business models to a changing world.
Still, it's no wonder that critics are upset—the changes were Topic A with many visitors to the L.A. Times Festival of Books the other weekend. (Interesting note: a paper that has cut its book coverage is the sponsor of one of the most extensive, vibrant and exciting book fairs.) But it's the reaction of publicists that I find the most interesting. Some publicists, especially from small and medium-sized houses, are understandably concerned that it will be even harder to get their books noticed; others say that it was exactly those midlist, independently published books that weren't paid any attention by traditional reviews outlets, anyway. Now that they're slowly dismantling, I'm reminded of the old joke about the restaurant that serves lousy food—and in such small portions.
I admit that on some days, I have a very Pollyannaish approach to all this, and can even believe—okay, make that wish—that traditional, learned book reviews won't be dead forever and that the Web is no graveyard, in any case. I also hope that the remaining book reviews will pay attention to people like the guy who spoke up at a an L.A. panel about how “boring” and “exclusionary” traditional book reviews are—and change.
So let's stop breast-beating and begin brainstorming.
Just last week, Atria announced it had made a deal with a book blogger to guarantee reviews. I'd call that a good start, as are L.A. Times Book Review editor David Ulin's plans for the Times Web site. And—here's a novel thought—maybe publishers could start to pony up for ads to replace the reviews they couldn't be sure sold books in the first place. Didn't a famous and ultimately well-reviewed poet once say something about the line being drawn, the curse being cast? Let's move onward: the times, they are a-changing.
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