Reviewers & Critics: Jennifer Day of the Chicago Tribune

Michael Taeckens
From the July/August 2015 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Jennifer Day is the esteemed books editor of the Chicago Tribune, the Midwest’s largest daily newspaper. She was initially hired as the editor of Printers Row Journal, the Tribune’s stand-alone Sunday books section that launched in 2012 (just as other stand-alone book-review sections were in the process of folding, if they hadn’t already). Printers Row Journal is jam-packed with enticing literary features—reviews, essays, Q&As, local lit coverage, a weekly original short story in booklet form, and much more. 

Day was born and raised in Dearborn, Michigan, a suburb on the edge of Detroit. She studied journalism and Russian at Wayne State University on a full-ride scholarship. Day credits the university’s daily newspaper, the South End, with teaching her how to be a journalist in a large city—knowledge she used on the job at the Toledo Blade and in the Houston Chronicle’s Washington, D.C., bureau before moving to the Tribune.

You’ve been a journalist for more than fifteen years—what different beats did you cover before you assumed the role of books editor at the Chicago Tribune?
I was a reporter for the Toledo Blade before moving to Washington, D.C., for a fellowship with the Washington Center for Politics and Journalism. As a fellow I worked in the Houston Chronicle’s Washington bureau, covering a range of assignments, including immigration policy, banking regulations, and fallout from the Clinton impeachment trial. It was around this time that I sold my first book review: Front Row at the White House by Helen Thomas. I worked for several years as a freelance journalist, floating between areas of interest: books, science and medicine, and food writing. While working for the University of Michigan—my career has been fairly circuitous—I created a lifestyle magazine for people living with cancer. I had been freelancing for the Chicago Tribune for a while, and the editors there knew of my experience in launching a magazine for a targeted audience. In late 2011, when an editor's position was created as part of the launch of Printers Row Journal, a new Sunday book section, I was thrilled to be invited to apply. Since then, my job has evolved to handle books coverage for both the Journal and the Chicago Tribune.

Did you always have aspirations to become a book reviewer?
No, actually, when I was just starting out, I thought I was going to become a political reporter. And to clarify, I think of myself more as an editor than as a reviewer—although I love writing about books when I can carve out room in my schedule. I spend most of my time shaping the overall direction of our books coverage and working with writers to sharpen their reviews and stories. I enjoy the assembly of talent. I find it deeply satisfying to ferret out weak points in a piece so we can adjust and strengthen it.

Printers Row Journal launched in 2012. What was the motivation behind its formation?
Printers Row Journal was the first in a series of offerings designed to provide Tribune readers with more targeted content that could supplement their daily newspaper subscriptions. It was only natural to look at a books section first, because we know our audience is filled with book lovers. We meet many of them at our annual Printers Row Lit Fest. The editors who conceived Printers Row Journal were looking to capture the excitement from that event and to build on it year-round.

Kudos to you for including an original short story in each issue of Printers Row Journal. Who are some of the authors you’ve published thus far?
Each year the newspaper hosts the Nelson Algren Short Story Contest, which was founded in 1981, so the Printers Row Journal fiction supplement is a natural extension of that tradition. We kicked off the launch of the Journal with the original Algren contest winners, including Stuart Dybek, Louise Erdrich, and Peter Trachtenberg. Since then, we’ve continued to highlight a strong mix of up-and-comers such as Claire Vaye Watkins, and more established writers such as Carol Anshaw. I’m delighted to be working on a few forthcoming supplements that will delve into the works of so-called “lost” authors, or authors whose works were published decades ago and never received the sort of recognition they deserved.

When did the Printers Row Literary Festival begin and how involved are you with it?
Printers Row Lit Fest is the largest literary festival in the Midwest, and it celebrated its thirty-first anniversary this year on June 6 and 7. About 150,000 come down to the South Loop’s Printers Row neighborhood to wander through 170 exhibitor tents and attend talks featuring about 200 authors and presenters. I plan editorial coverage surrounding it and host a couple events. The Lit Fest has long been my favorite of Chicago’s summer festivals; even before I lived in Chicago, I’d drive into town to geek out at the author talks. It’s a wonderful exchange of ideas.

You do a thorough job of covering the local literary scene and reviewing books by local authors. Does that regional focus extend much beyond the Chicago area?
Chicago is the heart of the Midwest, and I feel it is the newspaper’s responsibility to cover the region’s literature as part of its cultural heritage. I try to reflect that in our short story supplement, too. Obviously, we cover a wide range of books, but midwestern authors have the edge when I’m deciding what to include in our pages.

How many books do you receive a day?
I’ve lost count. Honestly, it depends on the time of the year somewhat, but the number is truly staggering. We keep a shopping cart in our storage room and fill it almost daily with books we won’t be able to cover. 

How many reviews do you feature during the week and how many on the weekend?
In the Chicago Tribune we feature one book review on Tuesdays and two to three reviews (plus best-seller lists and a book-club feature) on Saturdays. In Printers Row Journal we feature roughly ten reviews; an author Q&A; essays; stories about the local literary scene; John Warner’s Biblioracle column, which offers readers personalized recommendations; our “Me, My Shelf and I” feature, highlighting someone’s private library; and a bunch of other short features, including paperback roundups and best-seller lists. The Journal also features a weekly short story, which comes as a separate booklet inserted into the middle of the book review.

What influences you when choosing books to review, other than a need to cover books by well-known authors?
I talk to a lot of people I respect about what they’re reading. I keep an eye on social media feeds, too, to see what books people are talking about. I read prepub reviews and pretty much anything I can get my hands on that might give me a hint about what’s worth reading—obviously, that includes the giant stacks of galleys, too.

Do you keep diversity—gender, race, smaller presses, and so on—in mind when assigning reviews?
Absolutely. I consider our pages to be a conversation, and that conversation is only interesting if the voices are diverse and representative of a wide range of viewpoints. I’m a woman and I grew up in the most segregated metropolitan area in America. I can’t help but be aware of this and I’m always looking for ways to be more inclusive. As for smaller presses, it is, again, about the quality of the work, but the fact that the Journal has more space has allowed us to devote more room to books that are a little bit further off the radar.

How much space do you have for reviews of books that typically don’t draw significant review attention—poetry, essays, children’s books? Do you ever review self-published books?
Yes, we regularly publish essays on a range of topics. One of the most popular things ever to run in the Journal was an essay by Michael Robbins on sound in poetry. We also run a regular roundup that rotates among children’s books, YA, science fiction, crime novels, spiritual books, comic books, audiobooks, and more. We run brief mentions of local authors who self-publish, but we don’t typically review them.

What do you look for in a freelance book reviewer?
I look for freelancers with a compelling voice, with something fresh to say, and the writing chops to argue their points effectively.

Has social media been a boost or bane to your role as a book review editor?
I think it’s a boost. Anything that keeps the literary conversation rolling, that draws attention to all the excellent work out there, is worthwhile.

How can publishers and publicists work better with you?
The first thing that comes to mind is pretty basic, relating back to your earlier question about the deluge of books: Please put the book’s pub date somewhere obvious on both the ARC and the press release. Don’t make us hunt for it.

Where do you see book review coverage in ten years?
As long as we have books that are trying to make sense of the world, we will have critics trying to make sense of the books. More of this conversation will likely move into the digital universe, and I frankly think that offers some interesting possibilities. Here at the Tribune, we’ve taken the first steps toward building a digital portal for book lovers with a new app called TribBooks. A new version with special features pegged to Printers Row Lit Fest and expanded Printers Row Journal coverage will be rolling out shortly.

Michael Taeckens has worked in the publishing business since 1995. He is a cofounder of Broadside: Expert Literary PR.