Q&A: The Editor Behind the Book Review

Jen DeGregorio
From the November/December 2023 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

It’s been a little over a year since Gilbert Cruz became arguably the most influential person in the book world: the editor of the New York Times Book Review. Under his leadership the Book Review has grown to incorporate not only the Sunday print Review, but all the newspaper’s books coverage, including reviews by Times staff critics, industry news, special columns, and a variety of digital features aimed at curating reading habits, delving into the structure of texts, or otherwise feeding—and expanding—interest in the literary arts. Cruz succeeds Pamela Paul, who served as the Book Review’s editor for nine years. Previously a culture editor for the Times, Cruz discussed his vision for the Book Review, how he and his staff decide which titles to cover, advice for authors, and more. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gilbert Cruz, the editor of the New York Times Book Review. (Credit: Tony Cenicola)

How have you approached the editorship over the past year? What were your goals and what has been your strategy to manage the Book Review and the different parts of books coverage that has been brought under its umbrella?
My primary goal over the past year was really to just figure out how it all worked. It’s an operation here, the Book Review, and when I came on I started calling the entire book desk the Book Review, not just the print product that we put out on Sundays. So the Book Review is essentially composed of the reviews that run in the Sunday paper, which are largely done by freelancers, authors, and academics, and that’s the way it’s been for a very, very long time. A second part is our staff critics—Dwight Garner, Jen Szalai, Alexandra Jacobs, Molly Young, and now A. O. Scott. And they write whatever they’re interested in writing about. We’ve started running those reviews in the Sunday paper, which is something we had never done before in the history of the Book Review. So there’s the outside writers, our staff critics, and this very significant news and features operation. We have an editor who’s in charge of breaking news: You know, Random House–Simon & Schuster deal gets blocked by the government, Simon & Schuster is bought by a financial firm, or an author dies, or there’s a trend that’s happening we feel like we should cover, or there’s a profile of an author or a personality we feel like we should do. So those are the three main parts, and they’ve always been linked together, but the goal was really to make it feel as if internally this is one desk, one operation; everyone writes for the Book Review. It took many, many, many months to talk to everyone here and talk to a lot of people outside the Book Review to get a sense of how it’s perceived and figure out what the best road to walk going forward would be. 

Now that I’ve been in it for a year, one of the things I sold the staff on was: We have the Sunday print edition locked down. People love it; they’ve always loved it. Those people who are invested in books really pay attention to it. The thing we need to do is really start to focus a little bit more on our digital coverage and figure out how to bring in people who care about books who will never read the print edition of the Sunday Book Review, who will never subscribe to it, who will literally never see it but who care about books, who want to read about books. What are different ways in which we can start writing about books? What are different kinds of books we can start writing about? What are different ways in which we can promote our coverage? And we’ve just started on that. I’ve been a year in this job, and I think that work is going to be my primary focus over the next many years.

What role do you think the Book Review plays—whether digital or in print—in this current climate, in which platforms like Goodreads and TikTok are becoming integral to how many people’s reading habits are shaped?
I think Goodreads and TikTok are extremely popular in part because there is a feeling that the people on there are just regular people who care about books, and so the opinions you get are going to be a little less formal maybe than the opinions or the type of writing you would read in a place like the New York Times. I think the thing that has always been true of the Book Review and about book coverage, and really all of our coverage here at the Times, is that we like to think we have an expertise that—hopefully, and this is not true for everyone—will make us appealing to people who care about that sort of stuff. There are a lot of people who don’t care whether or not a person writing about a book has read all of the other books by that author, or many other books in that genre, and therefore can bring a different perspective to their writing on a particular book. And that’s fine. Everyone is free to choose their sources of information. But we feel like the thing that’s going to continue to appeal to readers going forward is that we have a 127-year history of covering books. We like to think we understand the industry. We understand what might appeal to people. And hopefully that makes us a source of information people want to go to in addition to Goodreads, TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube. We’re never going to be the sole source of information; I think there is no such thing as the sole source of information anymore. But one of the things I think is important for us to do is to make sure we’re in the mix when it comes to audiences below a certain age, let’s say.

Do you think about how the New York Times Book Review speaks to the audience of writers who are readers of the Book Review, and, if so, what do you hope the writing community gains from being engaged with the Book Review?   
One of the interesting things about the Book Review is how many writers we use over the course of a year. We have the staff critics, but even if they review a book a week, they can only review so many books over the course of a year. So really the bulk of the reviews we run are written by outside contributors, and those are novelists, narrative nonfiction writers, academics, professors in writing programs across the country. I feel like the New York Times Book Review has always been a home for writers who want to find a different way to practice their craft and to be part of the conversation that is constantly happening about books in this country. When we are assigning reviews, when we are thinking about who our readers are, we are not thinking about any particular type of person other than someone who is enthusiastic about books and who wants to read about books. I hope writers who have an interest in being part of that conversation, that we’re finding those people, that we’re continually finding new people to be part of the voices we’re platforming here at the New York Times and that people continue to reach out to us and raise their hand and say, “Consider me [to write] a review.”

What makes a good book review, in your opinion? 
I think what makes a good nonfiction review is different from what makes a good fiction review: When it comes to nonfiction, for example, obviously putting it into context, having a genuine understanding of the history of the topic that is being written about, that the reviewer is not coming to it cold, an ability to identify what new information is in the book—because often nonfiction books hit the same topics over and over again, but there is new research, or there’s a new spin—and an understanding that sometimes people read nonfiction reviews because they’re not going to read the book. Sometimes you just want to read a couple of tidbits from the book because you’re a person with a family and a life and you don’t have time to read all these nonfiction books.

When it comes to fiction, I think what makes a good review is an ability to identify a couple of different things: an ability to describe for the reader tone and style and how that might make you feel, which I think is important for the highest forms of criticism. I think it is an ability to give summary or give plot without giving the whole thing away, because you need to give people a taste of what the book is about without ruining it for them, particularly in these spoiler-obsessed times. And then I think it is a sense of fairness, an attempt to try to understand what the author was doing and then grappling with whether or not that author succeeded. Sometimes they do succeed; sometimes they do not. And taking the book on its own terms rather than unfairly bringing standards to the book that should not be applied.

What about poetry? What role do you think poetry plays in the Book Review?
One of our top editors here, Greg Cowles, is our poetry editor. Honestly he would be better positioned to talk about that. I don’t assign poetry. Luckily part of the way the Book Review works is that we have our preview editors. We have a poetry editor; we have a children’s book editor. We have an editor who is expressly concerned with nonfiction; we have editors when it comes to fiction who are more knowledgeable in certain genres. I am the person who is running this desk and running the staff, but it is really in those assigning editors below me that the expertise shines through.

So it’s important for poetry to be in the mix, but maybe it’s not necessarily your favorite?
Oh, absolutely. We have a poetry columnist, Elisa Gabbert, who we run four times a year. We just ran this incredible Dwight Garner close read of a Rita Dove poem, “American Smooth,” which was a giant interactive project that took months to put together. And so we take poetry very seriously, and we put resources into covering it.

That Rita Dove project was really interesting. How did you come up with that?
During the pandemic, when I was head of the Culture desk, we started this series called “Close Read,” and it was primarily our art critics trying to approximate what it would be like to take your hand, bring you to a museum, and walk you through a painting: “Look at this. Look at this.” And as you scroll—because everything we do is mobile-optimized, it really was a vertical scroll experience—the camera, as it were, zoomed in, zoomed out on different parts of the painting. And as you did that, there would be commentary from the critic that would say, “Now look at this. The painter was trying to do this.” So that is an interactive technology we started using several years ago in the art space. Very quickly we thought it could be used in various other spaces, and one of them was poetry. And we tried to encourage our critics, really all of our writers, to think about different formats and different ways in which they could write about books. The job is not just to write about books in review form; there are all these other ways to write about books. And, you know, Dwight is now a book critic. He used to be an editor here at the Book Review. He knows a ton about fiction, and he knows a ton about poetry. He reads a lot of poetry. And Rita Dove, one of the more well-known poets of this century, just seemed like someone to focus on. 

This poem in particular was appealing to Dwight because not only could he analyze the poem, but [it had] supplemental stuff that makes these features sing. So it’s a poem about dancing, which meant you could incorporate images of people dancing, you could incorporate archival images of Rita Dove and her partner in a dance class. There’s a way where it wasn’t just, “I’m scrolling through lines of text for ten minutes straight.” For it to be a truly successful feature it has to have a lot of other different elements. A lot of conversation goes into it, and a lot of back-and-forth, because you need to write to the images for this thing to really succeed. It’s not just like writing an essay. 

Poetry is often underappreciated, and a lot of people are afraid to approach it, so I think offering people that entry point to understand how someone might start thinking about it is really helpful and demystifies it a little bit.
Absolutely. That was one of the goals of it. And you know, this is not plucking an obscure poem out of nowhere, because I also don’t think that would be particularly valuable to readers. I think it is saying, “You might have heard this name before; you might have heard of this poem before. Let me, a critic at the New York Times, walk you through this in a way that hopefully teaches you something about it and doesn’t overwhelm you and sort of invites you in and says, ‘Let’s take this journey together.’” That might sound like highfalutin talk for just a web feature, but that is the feeling it’s trying to evoke in the way it’s designed.

Moving back to the reviews side of things: Our readership is the community of writers, and for many, a review in the New York Times is kind of the epitome of success. What is your strategy for choosing or having a mix of folks to review over the course of time, over a year, say? And how could writers position themselves to get a review in the New York Times?
Writers cannot position themselves to get a review in the New York Times. And the reason for that is I don’t think it’s a great idea for writers to interact directly with the New York Times when it comes to their own book. I think that leads to nothing but heartbreak. And this is for writers who have the ability and privilege to have been published by a publisher, big or small, that has a publicist who is able to do outreach on their behalf. One of the realities of publishing is that there are a lot of books published every year. And the New York Times Book Review already covers, I would say, more than almost any other outlet out there covering books over the course of a year, whether it’s through profiles, roundups, or individual reviews.

I can talk a little bit about the process, because it is a process. We are largely linked to release dates. Some parts of the year are busier than other parts. Our preview editors, as we call them, are looking months ahead. We have a feed essentially: I have so many e-mails, and my deputy editors have so many e-mails—pitches, pitches, pitches, books, books, books that are coming out. And these are all logged in a system, and as we look at books coming out we assign them to preview editors. The job of a preview editor is to read into a book. They’ll read the first fifty or one hundred pages of a book, hopefully, and they will decide whether we should review it. They make that decision based on: Is there new information here, if it’s nonfiction? If it’s fiction is it a surprising, exciting voice, something new here? Does it feel vital? Does it feel like it’s going to be something people are talking about? If it’s a debut, is it a debut that is undeniable? 

So they read into a book. They cannot read the whole book because if they read the whole book we would have to cover half as many books over the course of a year than we currently do. Once they decide whether or not to review a book, they come up with a list of potential reviewers, and these reviewers are based on: If it’s fiction, has this author written a book on a similar theme or that takes place in a similar town or is written in a similar genre or there’s just something that feels that this person would be a good match? They have a list. They bring this list to a meeting with me and my deputies and other preview editors, and we go through it. And other editors say, “Actually I think this person might be someone you might want to consider; why don’t you try this?” And then they go down that list. And sometimes the first person on the list says yes, and sometimes you have to go through five people before you get someone.  

Conflicts are very important: If you share an agent, if you share an editor [with the author being reviewed], you obviously can’t review the book. We ask questions like, “How well do you know this person? Is there anything in your relationship with this person, if a relationship exists, that would prevent you from judging this book fairly?” And so there are a lot of questions that happen with that. Usually that is the process. Sometimes I or other editors say, “You’re saying we should skip this; maybe we should reconsider.” And then sometimes we say, “It doesn’t sound like you’re very enthusiastic about this book; maybe we should skip it after all.” 

So that’s how it goes. A book is assigned to an individual, that individual gives it a fair shake, makes a first pass on whether or not we should review it, comes up with some ideas for reviewers, discussions are had, an assignment is made.

Do you have any preference for whether the reviews are positive or negative, or are you really just leaving that to the reviewers and their expertise?
If we’re asking someone to review a book, then we’re asking for their opinion. Look, this has happened to me; it’s happened to other editors here—when we love a book and we assign it to a reviewer, and the reviewer is like, “I hate this book, and I’m going write that I hate it.” And at that point, you can’t say, “Well, why don’t you have my opinion?” It’s like, “Well, we asked you to do it. And this was your takeaway.” The opposite has also happened, where we’re like, “This book is crap.” And then a reviewer will love it. It feels to me like it would be betraying the process that we’ve set up to try to impose our opinions on outside writers. That’s not what we do here; that’s not what we should be doing. So it happens all the time that we love a book and the reviewer hates it, or we hate a book and the reviewer loves it. And them’s the breaks. We wish it were different sometimes, but that’s how it goes. It’s different when it comes to our staff critics because you can have a conversation about, you know, “Do you really want to review this book?” A critic’s like, “Well, you know I wasn’t enthusiastic about that author’s last book; maybe I shouldn’t review this book.” But, you know, once you’ve picked an outside reviewer, unless they really just do a terrible job [or] they’re extremely difficult to deal with, we trust their judgments.

I am curious about the New York Times best-seller list. Is that linked to your department?
It is not. The New York Times best-seller list runs and always has run, at least in the modern era, in the print Book Review. But there is a separate team that is outside of the Book Review—does not interact with the Book Review—whose job it is to put it together, who does the work and has done the work for a very long time of reaching out to bookstores and looking at sales and then coming up with what we consider to be a strong and representative list of best-sellers in America. It often reads differently from other best-seller lists that exist. But I think the fact that every author, or at least every publishing house, continues to put “New York Times best-seller” on their cover means that it must be doing something right. I have no interaction with it, which honestly I prefer. There’s no interaction or conversations that happen between the Book Review staff and the people who put the best-seller list together. 

So whose job is that to come up with the list, if it’s not the book staff?
There’s a team of three people. I don’t know how public we are about them. I think people in publishing know who they are because they reach out to them when they disagree about spots [on the list]. But there’s a staff of three, I think it’s three, people here. The fact that I can’t even answer precisely how many people shows you how little interaction I have with them. But they’ve been doing this for a very long time. And I think it’s healthy, actually, to have a divide between the Book Review staff and the best-seller list because it is our job to cover books. It’s not our job to cover whether a book is a best-seller. We try to make judgments based on: Do we think a book is good? Do we think a book has merit? Does the author have an interesting story? And sometimes it is a genuine phenomenon. We did a giant profile of Colleen Hoover last summer. Her success and her influence in publishing is undeniable, and it’s undeniable because she is a best-seller of the likes we have not seen in quite a while. But I don’t think the Book Review editors should be in the practice of having information about what books are selling, like precise numbers. That’s just not our job.

Do you think it’s important to have a mix of small presses and/or university presses with the Big Five publishers in the Book Review?
We meet regularly with small presses and academic presses to hear about what they have coming every season. We see it as part of our mission to know what’s coming when it comes to small and academic presses and then really try to cover the books we think are the most notable in those spaces. We are a general-interest publication. It is not part of our mission to primarily cover obscure books that no one is going to read, but it is part of our mission to—when it comes to small, independent, and academic presses—hopefully find the best stuff that is happening there and put it in front of a large audience. There are five giant publishers here in America. They have a giant market share; they have giant marketing apparatuses. We’re always going to be playing in that space in some way because the biggest authors writing the biggest books every year are often published by those publishers. But if we’re not doing a good job of highlighting the best that is coming out of small, independent, and academic presses, then I think everyone here would feel bad about what we’re doing.

Do you want to talk about your personal reading habits, what you like to read, who you like to read, whether just for fun or how you approach it as part of your responsibility as an editor?
I’ve always been someone, long before I had this job, who just read all over the place. I love nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, biographies, literary fiction, and genre fiction. I mean, I am a big horror person, and I always have been. And that’s something that I care about. And that started when I was a kid and I was reading Stephen King and Ray Bradbury and Edgar Allan Poe. I’ve always been someone who leapt back and forth between fiction and nonfiction and classics. Now that I have this very specific job as the editor of the Book Review, one of the things I have discovered is—and I feel like I was misled—I have no time to read. When you have to manage a department, part of your job is going to meetings, part of your job is answering e-mails, part of your job is trying to figure out issues with staff members and problems that arise. And then hopefully at night, after I put my kid to bed, I have a couple of hours when I can read. I always wish I had more time to read. 

It’s hard for me to talk about this year, because I don’t think it’s good policy for me to say what’s coming out this year that I’m reading, because people often read into that: Oh, does that mean it’s going to be on our notables list or our top ten list? So I prefer not to do that. But I’m often reading ahead a few months as to books everyone here thinks are going to be talkers. And then I’m reading backward, the books I missed this year that editors on the desk were, like, “You gotta read this; this is an amazing book.” Or a book that we wrote an amazing review of. I try to be as up-to-date as possible. Sometimes that means I’m only reading parts of books, and I’m reading parts of lots of books and not finishing books. It is hard to run a department like this and a publication like the Book Review and read every major book that comes out in a year. It just is. I wish reality were different. Because one of the appeals of working on the Book Review is the idea that you’re just going to get to read all the time, and that’s just not often the case. Every week I have to plan and host a podcast, which takes up a ton of time. And often I’m reading books for the podcast. If I have Ann Patchett coming on, I would like to have read most of Tom Lake. I think it would be weird to interview an author and not have read their book. But that means a lot of times I’m reading books for the podcast that are completely separate from other books I should be reading.

Do you have a sense of what the most popular features of New York Times book coverage are, such as the traditional Book Review content versus some of the newer kinds of initiatives such as the podcast, for example? 
Book reviews always live and die based on the author or the topic, and I don’t think that’s anything that’s going to change. If we have a review of an author who people are very familiar with, or if it is on a topic people are really interested in, then digitally those tend to have more readers than books no one has ever heard of or authors who no one has ever heard of. That’s just logic. All that being said, one of the delights is finding a review of a book on the homepage of the New York Times, which is a very powerful promotional space, and seeing readers come to it because of a headline we put on it, because of the deck we have on it that gives a brief summary of what the book is. So, you know, reviews are always hit or miss. Some of them get a super [number] of readers, some of them not that many at all. I do think that we are finding, in these early days, that—as with “What Book Should You Read Next,” when we try to help readers make sense of this very large world of books—the features we do that help readers with that problem tend to be pretty well read. 

Has there been anything that’s surprised you in the course of your work: what readers like or how the publishing industry works? 
I think something that surprised me—and I knew this because my first job in New York was at Entertainment Weekly, and I was an assistant there, and it was my job to open all the book packages, all the Jiffy packs, and so I knew then how many books come out every week, or how many galleys are sent out every week—so I guess maybe I was re-surprised once I was confronted with mailbag after mailbag every day, of just how many books come out in this country every week, every month, and every year. And so part of the important thing we do here at the Book Review is going through all that mail and trying to pick the most important things. I’m constantly surprised at just how much is published. And it’s overwhelming. And luckily we have a decent-size staff that is able to go through all this stuff and say, “This is important. This is not important.” I walked in this morning, and I went into our galley closet, and there were a lot of packages. Just a lot of packages. In terms of the staff that I have, one of the—I don’t know if I’d call it surprising—but one of the delightful things, was just how open everyone here seemed to be to experimentation. 

[We recently launched]—and maybe it will work and maybe it won’t—an audiobook-of-the-week feature, which is a short weekly feature in which we write, in three hundred words, “If you care about audiobooks, this is the one this week you should pay attention to.” That’s an experiment. The important thing about experiments is understanding that sometimes they work and sometimes they fail, and when they fail it’s okay to not do them anymore. But having a staff, in a space that is as tradition-bound as books, that is so open to experimentation—a couple of us are trying TikTok recommendation videos; that could be embarrassing. I don’t think it’s been embarrassing—and the goal is, like, we know we’re passionate about books, we know there are so many people out there who are passionate about books: How can we match those two things together? Because at the end of the day, all anyone on this desk wants to do is think about books and talk about books, and it’s crazy that those are jobs, and I love it.

What goals do you have for the Book Review going forward?
My primary goal is to make the Book Review the most-read digital book publication around, and it’s a very simple goal. I think the way we do that is really to start expanding the types of books we cover and the ways in which we cover those books. So this year, for example, we started running this digital feature—it hasn’t run in print, and it never will run in print probably—called “What Book Should You Read Next?” And that’s a digital feature that’s updated every month or so. And the goal of this is really to give readers a sense of what books are being talked about now or what books they should be reading if they want to be in the know. Why is that important? Because the New York Times Book Review, over the course of a month, writes about many dozens of books. And if you are someone who’s just looking for the next book you want to read that is right for you, it’s not very helpful to have to go through several dozen reviews or pieces. Like, “What should I read next? I guess that I’ll read twenty thousand-word reviews and then I can make a decision.” 

It should be part of our goal here and our value to a reader to help curate even further all the books that are out there, and tell them, “If you like this type of book, then maybe you should read this. If you’re looking for a big historical biography this summer, then Jonathan Eig’s King: A Life might be for you. If you are a person who likes seafaring adventures, then David Grann’s The Wager might be for you. If you are a person who likes reading about rich families with problems, because who doesn’t, then Jenny Jackson’s romantic comedy might be for you.” So it’s really understanding that people out there in the world who are looking for books don’t have the time to read all of the things we publish. That doesn’t mean the things we publish don’t have value; they do. But there has to be a way in which we’re making it a little bit easier for readers and potential readers to solve this problem, which is the problem in the life of anybody who cares about books: What do I read next? So how do we become an even bigger digital publication than we are now? Start thinking about how we are helping readers solve problems. 

That was one of the things I knew I wanted to do as soon as I started. We’ve made a couple of strides here and there. But over the next many years, that’s going to be at the forefront of my mind. That’s goal number one. Goal number two is really to increase our output when it comes to essays and long-form pieces about intellectual life in America. One of the reasons A. O. Scott came over [to the Book Review], after being one of the more famous movie critics in the world after almost a quarter century, is because he loves books and he wanted to write in a different mode. He wants to write a two-thousand-word piece about D. H. Lawrence. He wants to write a four-thousand-word piece about the crisis in reading. He wants to be able to turn around a quick appraisal after someone like Cormac McCarthy dies. We want, at the same time that we’re trying to help people figure out what to read, to increase the types of stories we run that help people understand what it is that they’re reading. And we have to do both of those things at the same time.

Do you have any parting words for writers about a life in literature?  
I think the New York Times Book Review is an incredibly important publication, an institution in the world of books. It’s also important to know that one’s value as an author, hopefully, is not wrapped up in what the New York Times Book Review or the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal or any other place says about your book. I understand that reviews and coverage have an effect on sales and whether or not a person maybe gets their next book under contract. And at a certain point we can’t control that. Our job is to write about books for our readers. But if I were an author, I would try to keep my heart as safe as possible. Because what we think about a book at the New York Times is not always what a book actually is.      


Jen DeGregorio is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.