Back From the Dead: The State of Book Reviewing

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

Trust is a rare commodity, and many readers maintain an allegiance to familiar gatekeepers, most of which have added online book coverage in recent years. The American Book Review; the American Scholar (with weekly online columns by William Deresiewicz and William Zinsser); the Believer; Bookforum; Entertainment Weekly; National Public Radio (NPR); the New York Review of Books; O, The Oprah Magazine; Rain Taxi; and a slew of others continue to serve readers who remain faithful to their brands.

More than a million readers each month visit NPR’s online book section, which dates back to 2004 and began running online-only reviews in 2008. The site’s focus has been on literary fiction and newsy nonfiction, with small presses covered consistently. “We have a multiplatform, multimedia strategy that encompasses on-air, online, and mobile, audio, and print,” says Joe Matazzoni, senior supervising producer of arts and entertainment for “In digital we’re able to tap radio coverage—especially our strength in author interviews—and complement it with reviews. We collaborate and plan very closely with our radio colleagues.”

NPR’s recently updated site runs three online-only book reviews each week (and summer and end-of-year recommendations), plus All Things Considered and Fresh Air reviews. That amounts to eighty to a hundred book-related stories per month—coverage of a thousand to twelve hundred titles per year. The media organization’s hosts and show producers scan for upcoming books. “Lynn Neary is a dedicated books-and-publishing reporter, but she also does blog posts and writes web stories,” says Matazzoni. “Ellen Silva, a senior producer for All Things Considered, works closely with us on books content. Plus we can tap people like Maureen Corrigan, Alan Cheuse, and Nancy Pearl. In terms of dedicated staff, we have one online books editor who works with a part-time freelance editor and…a lot of other folks on the staff. We also have a circle of six to ten freelance reviewers.”

After nearly a century as a print publication, the Christian Science Monitor shifted to an online-only format in early 2009. “Once upon a time, the Monitor’s book section was reaching a relatively small and fairly well defined group of print readers,” says books editor Marjorie Kehe. “Today it still reaches many of those same print readers. But in addition it’s speaking to millions of new readers a year online.”

The Christian Science Monitors weekly mix of book coverage includes five or six reviews a week (the fiction reviews tend to be roundups), at least five blogs a week, a Reader Recommendation almost every day, and other features such as lists (five best books about baseball, six books to help you understand Libya) and quizzes (“Can you match the poet to the poem?” during National Poetry Month). “Quick, catchy features like these bring in a surprising number of readers,” Kehe says.

O, The Oprah Magazine covers a couple of dozen books each month, including at least four to six reviews per issue. The April 2011 issue devoted twenty pages to a special poetry section. “Books and reading are central to the magazine’s mission, as they are to Oprah,” says book editor Sara Nelson. The print edition of the magazine has sixteen million readers. draws five million unique visitors a month. All the reviews are posted online, and the iPad edition includes excerpts of the reviewed books and added content such as interviews and videos.

Magazines with influential culture sections, including the Atlantic, the New Yorker, Harper’s, the Nation, and the New Republic, continue to publish book reviews, and most have added online-only content. The New Republic’s Ruth Franklin reviews several books a month, and its online the Book offers several reviews a week (Adam Kirsch is a regular) plus classic reviews from its enviable critical archive, podcasts, and noteworthy videos, including ones of Allen Ginsberg singing Hare Krishna to William F. Buckley Jr. and John Updike discussing the Rabbit books.

The New Yorker supplements its reviews with the Book Bench blog, which was launched in May 2008. The blog is named after the wooden bench in the center of the magazine’s editorial offices, which overflows with books and galleys. “We like to think of the book bench as a state of mind, too: a place for considering literary matters great and small—and for occasionally baring our teeth,” staffer Ligaya Mishan wrote in the initial post.

Please log in to continue.
Don't yet have an account?