Thursday, January 29, 2009

All the King’s Men

The big news in the book world yesterday was the announcement -- long rumored -- that The Washington Post would discontinue the dead-tree version of its long-running book section. From Motoko Rich of The New York Times:
In another sign that literary criticism is losing its profile in newspapers, The Washington Post has decided to shutter the print version of Book World, its Sunday stand-alone book review section, and shift reviews to space inside two other sections of the paper.
On the surface of things, that announcement sounds somewhat scary. But once you get past Rich’s sky-is-falling opening paragraphs, you see that the situation is not quite so dire as it seems. For one thing, Book World will continue to be available in the newspaper’s Web version. For another, it will put in occasional appearances “as a stand-alone print section oriented around special themes like summer reading or children’s books.”

The fact is, book reviews aren’t the only things getting hit in the newspaper business these days: the entire industry is in crisis. The biggest problem: fewer people are reading newspapers. Advertisers know this, and so fewer of them are willing to pony up their currently scarce dollars to put an ad in front of maybe not that many people.

In the death spiral in which the newspaper business currently finds itself, shrinking book review space is the least of the industry’s worries. And, truly? It’s the least of our worries, as well. Newspapers in crisis mean reporters’ jobs in jeopardy and a threat, ultimately, to the way news sections are supplied with their material. And without real journalists digging up real news for real newspapers, we are ultimately going to be in real trouble. Really.

One of the things that just kills me is that the whole loss of book review space was avoidable. Book industry leaders, in their infinite wisdom, decided some time ago that, of all the products in the world that could be sold by advertising, theirs was immune. Newspapers aren’t cutting review space because they don’t like books: they’re cutting it because advertisers aren’t supporting said space. You don’t see broadsheets cutting their entertainment sections, do you? And why? Because movie companies know how to sell their products and keep the review pipeline open at the same time. Here’s the Times again:
As it happens, Book World never garnered much advertising from publishers, who generally spend very little on newspaper ads. Publishers now focus their marketing dollars on cooperative agreements with chain bookstores, which guarantee that certain books will receive prominent display at the front of stores.
So the problem of shrinking review space is solvable: if publishers started advertising their products in newspapers, said papers would happily increase the space devoted to book coverage. That’s just how it works: there is always a predetermined advertising-to-editorial ratio. And everyone goes away happy.

Meanwhile, back in reality, books coverage is really the teensiest problem on the print media’s plate. With readers falling away by the busload, newspaper publishers are busily rethinking everything about their business. People still need news, we know that. But how to get it to them? Television has proven to be a candy floss medium for news delivery. And bloggers can’t function in a vacuum. I mean, truly: imagine Watergate in the era of blogs. Wonderful! Now imagine it without Woodward and Bernstein. You see what I’m saying? Without them, we’re sunk.

So don’t go away sad or even mad. Go away and think about how you’d like news -- real news -- delivered. We need it: that’s clear. What is not yet known is exactly what form it will take. But whatever one it does? I’m betting books coverage will be a part of the package.



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