Sunday, May 06, 2007

Book Reviews by Sara Paretsky

Oh, how we love to gloat over the good ones, and fume over the imbeciles who misunderestimated our work in the bad ones. And oh, how those days are disappearing fast. All over the country, newspapers are closing their book review, shortening the sections, folding the reviews into a few short lines on entertainment pages, or using canned reviews of 100 words or so from a barrel of syndicated words.

The Chicago Tribune is talking about moving its book reviews from Sunday to Saturday--they'd print 400,000 fewer copies because the Saturday paper has their smallest distribution. This is the most important newspaper in the upper Midwest in terms of its circulation reach. When I was trying to sell my first novel, New York publishers didn't want to buy it because, they said, a book set in Chicago had regional interest only and not enough people read in the Midwest to merit publishing a book set here. Perhaps the Tribune agrees that there aren't enough Midwest readers these days, so why tell us about books? Let's hope not; you can always let them know before the old review section is put in cement booties.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution just folded its book review section completely, claiming it was unnecessary. You can read about books in the blogosphere, they say, which is true, if you have the time and the savvy to thread your way through that needle and get to informed reviews from sites that have access to enough new titles to let us readers know what's out there. Newspapers get review copies of books. Bloggers don't. And we don't have the paid staff to winnow through them and make sure the interesting voices in the crowd get heard.

Readers and writers are signing a petition beseeching the Journal-Constitution to rethink this policy. If you want to join Mike Connolly, me and others on that, it would be a mitzvah.



Annie Chernow said...

This trend is really disturbing... As a reader with a long established Sunday morning coffee/book section first ritual, I'm extremely unhappy with the Trib's decision. Truth is, I've not cared for their Sunday Books section much in recent years, except for Dick Adler's contributions. It seems to have dumbed down, and has lacked the substance one would expect from a major big city newspaper... But to go to Saturdays and not even have a separate books section any longer is really worrisome. The Trib says they will actually be "expanding coverage of books, ideas, and the written word" by doing this and adding a blog. So I may have to reserve final judgement until the changes are clearer. But I'm not holding my breath...

Many of us depend almost exclusively on our _local_ papers for reviews of books by _local_ authors or ones with _local_ settings. Except for specialized periodicals like Crimespree, Deadly Pleasures,, where else will we hear about these new books and authors? This is my main concern.

It does appear though that the Sun-Times does not have the same cutback plans, at least according to editor Cheryl Reed, quoted today at David Montgomery's Crime Fiction Dossier: Reed writes:

Concerned about the security of the book pages here, I asked Sun-Times Publisher John Cruickshank, a bibliophile and frequent reviewer in these pages, whether there were plans to cut books coverage here. His response: "The Opinion and Books sections of the paper have never attracted much advertising, but they are at the core of any paper's identity and the engagement a paper has with its community. We are committed to these sections because they are integral to the basic character of the Chicago Sun-Times."

And, another bit of good news is that the Sun-Times is actually adding a reviewer, Dana Kaye (one of my fellow Crimespree reviewers) later this month

Another issue, and perhaps not unrelated, why is it that recently so many authors on tour are not only skipping Chicago these days, but much of the Midwest? Is it because we don't buy as many books in this part of the country? (Don't look at me. I'm certainly not in that group!)


The Home Office said...

Thanks, Sara, a truly worthy cause. Here's the comment I included with my signature:

Newspapers depend on people who read; they have no other reason for existence. Encouraging reading, in all its venues, should be thought of as a means of self-preservation, not a waste of newsprint

Barbara D'Amato said...

I agree, and I signed the petition before I Gaaaahed.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

On other writer blogs there has been a long and ongoing debate among authors about whether or not advertising sells books. Many writers think it's a waste of money and would rather their publishers spend the marketing budget elsewhere.

That might be a sensible position in the short view--it's true that a print ad probably won't sell enough copies of your book to justify its cost. But what print ads have been doing is keeping newspaper book sections afloat. Those marketing dollars are, in fact, going elsewhere and the book sections are sinking fast.

Economics aside, I would argue that a newspaper can't consider itself important if it doesn't have a strong commitment to covering the arts, books included. It is part of the public trust you inherit when you go into the newspaper buisiness. I'm afraid the definition of strong commitment, however, will vary wildly from boardroom to boardroom.