The fourth floor of the New York Times Building, where the eponymous paper’s newly-formed Books Desk keeps its nest, is, somewhat appropriately, under construction. One side of the floor is blocked off with yellow barricade tape. On the other side, the books team, led by New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul, is undergoing renovations of its own.
Those changes began last August, when the newsroom leadership decided that the paper’s books coverage, both in print and for the web, should be centralized to one desk. Previously, books reporters and editors had been in different departments: the Book Review, part of the Times’ weekend edition, remained strictly separate from the publishing reporter, who went between the paper’s Culture and Business Day desks, and the three daily critics, who remained firmly under the culture department’s wing. That made sense for a print-first enterprise. For the new digital-first Times, it was something of an albatross.
With the choice to combine books sections made, another choice was inevitable: how to combine. “You could say, ‘Let’s just take these three separate sections—which, again, were really derived from a print newspaper era—and shove them together and continue coverage as-is, coordinating more,’” Paul said. “Or you could pause and take a moment and say, ‘If you were starting from scratch and weren’t just pushing these three sections together, what would New York Times books coverage look like?’”
The paper opted for the latter, and began the process of discovering what that coverage would look like by expanding Paul’s duties from running the Book Review to overseeing all books coverage at the paper. (Her title, for reasons Paul chalks up to “the odd way of titles,” did not change.) That move was followed by the hiring of Time magazine’s Radhika Jones, in November, as the new editorial director of books, charged with helping Paul with the overall transition and spearheading a still-forthcoming redesign of the Book Review.
Jones was not the only hire; as Paul put it, “this is one of the cases in which centralizing and consolidating is not reduction. It’s expansion. Obviously, we need the staff to be able to carry that out.” That has meant bringing on faces both fresh and well-known at the Times over the course of the past year, including deputy editor of books features Laura Marmor (from the paper’s Styles section), Susan Ellingwood as news and features editor (from Opinion), digital staff writer Concepción de Léon (from Glamour magazine), fact-checker and occasional writer Lovia Gyarke (from the New Republic), and Book Review staff editor Lauren Christensen (from Harper’s Bazaar), among others. Earlier this month, senior editor Parul Sehgal, a PW alumnus, joined Dwight Garner and Jennifer Senior as a daily critic in the wake of the departure of longtime chief critic Michiko Kakutani—one of many writers at the Times to recently take a buy-out. Kakutani’s role will not be filled.
Once Jones was on board, she and Paul, along with the research wing of the Times, set out to investigate what current and prospective readers of the paper, both in New York City and elsewhere, wanted to see in terms of coverage. That research led them to a number of conclusions, many of which came in the form of questions: What should a reader of the New York Times read next? Why does this book—say, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad—matter? What is the role of books in our culture, and what is the relationship between books, the larger culture, and the news cycle? What are people across the world reading?
In short, the duo discovered the need for a paradigm shift in terms of how they were approaching the books that came across the Books Desk.
“It used to be that a book would come in and we’d say, ‘Should we review this or not?’” Paul said. “Now the book comes in and we say, ‘Should we cover this or not, and if so, what should that coverage be? What is the best way to tell this story, regardless of the medium?’”
Answering those questions means several different things, not the least of which is experimenting with new, non-review items, both in print and online. Two new columns Paul considers rousing successes are both in a question-and-answer format. One, John Williams’s author q&a “Tell Us 5 Things About Your Book,” runs in the Times’ daily Arts section each Monday. Another, Nicole Lamy’s book recommendation advice column “Match Book,” will move to print with the debut of the Book Review redesign.
That long-awaited redesign, which Paul and Jones said is incremental but slated to debut in November, will, as Jones put it, “make the mix a little bit different,” as part of an opportunity “to create a print product that’s a little more aggressively curated.” Some of this will, to the inevitable chagrin of the publishing industry, involve slimming down some of the more traditional areas of the Book Review, perhaps even its most traditional and consistent draw: book reviews. But Paul and Jones stressed that shaping the Book Review differently does not mean robbing the readers of what they want.
“We can maintain our core review coverage and also add some other elements that just provide some different entry points into the whole landscape of books,” Jones said. In other words, removing one book review from each issue to make room for a column like “Match Book,” which can recommend more books than a review because of its format, is hardly heralding the end of the book review at the Times—which, as Paul points out, still holds “the last freestanding newspaper books section in the country.”
And, on the web, the Times is not constrained by the spatial limitations of print. There, in theory, it can post as many reviews as its writers wish to write, while the Book Review can take advantage of the space left by some of the cuts. In doing so, and with help from the cross-pollination created by bringing all books writers under one desk, it will be able to make such moves as showing book covers with far more frequency, running more author profiles, and making the back page of every issue visual—be that a graphic review, a sneak peek at an upcoming photography book, or something completely different.
Some of this is intended to move away from a book reviewing structure that had, as a result of catering to both print and digital audiences while the daily critics remained utterly separate from the Book Review staff, grown unruly. The Times had something of a reputation in the industry for double-dipping with reviews; sometimes, two freelancers would review the same title, one for the Culture pages and one for the Book Review. While Paul said that those choices will be more deliberate and coordinated under the new structure, she did not rule out the possibility of publishing multiple reviews of the same book in the future.
As for the Times bestseller lists—which, famously, are governed by an algorithm that the paper’s reporters and editors know nothing about—Paul maintains that publishers and authors (whom, she stressed, comprise only a subsection of the Book Review’s audience) were the only readers who showed any particular unhappiness about the axing earlier this year of such rankings as the mass market and graphic novel lists. She said that the Books Desk as a whole is providing a similar function for its readers in what she believes are much better ways.
“Many readers of the print Book Review don’t like flipping through ten pages of lists,” Paul said. “We’re going to have some kind of ‘new and noteworthy’ column [in the redesign], which is, frankly, a much better way to find out what’s new, where there’s actual description and an image of the book and a much more useful sense of what the book is about than a teeny little microdescription on a bestseller list.”
The Times is, however, planning to launch an audiobooks list. “Audiobooks!” Paul enthused. “People thought books on tape were done for, and it’s huge and thriving.” That means the Times will be growing its coverage there, too.
But other growing categories, like e-book only and self-published books, will not be covered. “Frankly, many, many, many books have been thoroughly vetted and edited and worked on collaboratively, and we only review about 1% of those books,” Paul said. “For our editors to pay attention to the number of books that are coming out from every big publisher all the way down to the smallest indie publisher, and for them to do that job well, is job enough.”
While some may worry that readers are less interested in reading about books in a time of political turmoil, the Times has found that readers are just as interested as ever before. They seemingly fall, Paul said, into two categories: those interested in books speaking to the state of the world or the zeitgeist du jour, and those looking for escape. That opens up a range of coverage options: pieces highlighting titles such as 1984 or John Farrell’s Richard Nixon, investigations of what people are reading in Russia or Turkey or China, an ever-increasing focus on genre categories including science fiction and crime, or marked-up draft pages of works in progress such as those that ran in the Book Review’s recent poetry issue.
“Sometimes it may seem like, ‘Well, what is the point of reviewing this small, charming debut novel that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything that anyone is thinking of at this particular moment? But it’s a lovely novel and we’re going to review it,’ ” Jones said. “Twelve years from now, when that writer wins the Pulitzer Prize, we’re on the record as having reviewed that novel, and we can bring that knowledge to bear.”
And the industry will, Paul insists, be there in 12 years for the Times to cover, undoubtedly in newer ways. The drumbeat of doom and gloom that accompanies the day-to-day existence of the book industry is, she noted, perennial. But as far as she’s concerned, that industry—like the paper that houses the Books Desk that covers it—is anything but failing.
“I am ever bullish on the book industry, because I think that people like to hear stories, and books remain one of the great ways in which to tell them. And as everything else gets faster, quicker, shorter, smaller, people look for balance in their lives and want to turn to books for a broader context, deeper context, a sustained narrative,” Paul said. “People looked at retailing, they said, ‘It’s dead, it’s gone, it’s done.’ And yet independent bookstores are thriving. Amazon is getting into the retail space. This could be a new area of growth. I don’t feel worried.”