Back From the Dead: The State of Book Reviewing

Jane Ciabattari
From the September/October 2011 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Five years ago the country’s stand-alone newspaper book sections began to disappear, the remaining pages devoted to books shrank drastically, and the jobs of most staff critics and editors were eliminated. The remaining book editors are often one-person operations, reviewing as much as assigning, creating podcasts and videos, blogging and updating Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. Many of them incorporate the reader-friendly approach and informal language of the Internet, and some have hired literary bloggers or use them regularly as freelancers.

The exception, of course, is the New York Times Book Review. “Being the ‘last stand-alone’ feels rather lonely,” says editor Sam Tanenhaus. “We here are all pleased, however, that other newspapers continue to review books, often copiously.” Before the newspaper instituted its paywall earlier this year, the New York Times Book Review boasted a readership of approximately one million for the print edition and one million online. “Presumably there is some considerable overlap,” adds Tanenhaus, who says that estimates of how readership has been affected by the paywall are not yet available.

“Our job remains what it has been for a hundred-plus years,” he says. “To offer informed criticism of a wide array of books, which themselves often present the most interesting and up-to-date news and assessments of the culture and embody its diverse impulses, high and low, unexpected and familiar.” At any given time, Tanenhaus says, some two hundred books have been assigned, mostly for long reviews, but also for the chronicle of four or five briefer reviews published every two or three weeks. Six “preview editors” seriously consider fifteen to twenty books a week. Tanenhaus, deputy editor Bob Harris, and senior editor Alexander Star look at fewer, though all three of them participate in every assignment discussion. 

Like other publications, the New York Times Book Review is using new journalistic forms and media. The editors regularly post online video interviews, a weekly podcast hosted by Tanenhaus, slideshows, and blog posts (earlier this year the Paper Cuts blog was folded into the ArtsBeat blog). Each Sunday’s issue is posted on Friday afternoon with a popular preview e-mail blast that reaches more than a half million readers. And there are plans to run some online-only reviews.

On the West Coast, the San Francisco Chronicle holds firm with a weekly eight-page tabloid pull-out section, publishing six to eight reviews a week, along with a list of compelling first sentences from new books and a new feature in which a notable Bay Area denizen writes about her most treasured book. Contributors to the new feature have included Isabel Allende, Peter Coyote, Yiyun Li, and David Thomson. John McMurtrie, the Chronicle’s book editor, says that no matter what platform readers are using—iPads, iPods, bound books, or e-readers—he sees his job as “not just trying to foster a conversation of ideas, but also trying to encourage readers to value that contemplative time that’s needed to take in the stories they’re reading.”

The Los Angeles Times book section, folded into the paper’s arts section in 2007, now has more than a hundred thousand Twitter followers and has brought on staff literary blogger Carolyn Kellogg, who founded its popular Jacket Copy blog as a freelancer.

The Washington Post, which lost its stand-alone Book World in early 2009, gained a critic of rock-star proportions last August when staff book-review editor and weekly reviewer Ron Charles created his “totally hip book reviews” video series on the newspaper’s website.

The Wall Street Journal took the contrarian path last fall and launched Books, a print book section sandwiched into its Weekend’s Review section. “We’re solely focused on print readership,” says the paper’s book editor, Robert Messenger. The book review reaches two million readers—a little more than half of them are subscribers to the print edition. “We post our content online in a similar format, but our core concern is subscribers. That was behind the decision to re-create the Saturday paper. People liked the Saturday paper. The readers like book reviews.”

The Wall Street Journal publishes daily reviews, special Friday reviews, and a minimum of six pages on Saturday, with a mix of lengthy reviews (nine hundred to two thousand words) and roundups of shorter reviews. “This is a reader-oriented model, like book reviews have been for a hundred fifty years,” Messenger says. “A book comes, I commission a review, [and there is] a lot of back-and-forth. Many reviewers are grateful for revision, for editing. We review books in a literary manner. It’s an old-fashioned approach: hard reading, hard writing, hard editing, fact-checking, proofreading.”