The incredible vanishing book review

Readers respond to Kevin Berger's story about smaller book review sections in the age of market research.

Published July 23, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Read the story.

I'm the book editor at the Seattle Times. I thought the article on incredible vanishing book reviews raised some good issues. But it said that the Seattle Times' book review space had been trimmed, while failing to note that most of that space has been restored. We got most of our section back on May 27. This represents a commitment on the part of the management to books coverage in a very uncertain economic situation.

Most of us who have been in newspapers for a long time have experienced the wax and wane of space and resources. Things come, and go, and then come again. Any newspaper editor who has two brain cells to put together knows that you don't want to alienate your avid readers. As far as the current squeeze on books sections, I believe that this, too, shall pass.

-- Mary Ann Gwinn

It's an honor to be included among the Boston Globe, the San Jose Mercury News, the Seattle Times and the Chicago Tribune in any discussion about newspaper trends. But in this particular case, when the subject is the "disappearing" book review, I don't think we belong.

We haven't decreased the amount of space that we devote to book coverage at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. We've actually gained a little ground in the past year, moving out of the weekly Arts section (where we had a page and a half of book reviews) and into a perspective-style section called @issue (where we have a full two pages almost every week, along with some space on the cover).

Also, we've continued to produce two special book sections a year (in the spring and the fall) that are about eight broadsheet pages.

And in addition to the weekly space, we've begun running occasional reviews and author interviews in the daily Living section, and we plan to do more of that.

No one knows what adjustments newspapers will have to make in the future to survive and thrive, but we're still very committed to books coverage as part of the mix.

-- Teresa K. Weaver, Book editor, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

As a lifelong newspaper reader and consistent book buyer, I might be one to decry the reduction of space devoted to books in major newspapers. I do understand that a newspaper should increase readership, which must come from those who are not already subscribing. If the book review became more representative of the market the paper is trying to reach, it might get a more positive response in market surveys. Every week I throw aside the Los Angeles Times Sunday book review in frustration because the reviews are written to give you the least amount of information about the book, and give you no desire to actually read them. The reviewers seem to be more interested in making themselves sound good rather than the books. The review sections primarily appeal to a small elite that will always subscribe to the paper anyway. Why not include some books that the average reader might enjoy? I don't mean trash fiction, there has to be some room in between Jackie Collins and Salman Rushdie.

-- Peggy Powers

I am a regional book publisher. For us, it is impossible to get books reviewed in national media such as the N.Y. Times, Library Journal and Publishers' Weekly. But what astonishes me is that I can't get regional papers such as the Charlotte Observer interested in North Carolina books either. Although I am a regular subscriber to the Observer, the newspaper's editor told one of my authors she doesn't care about news from Blowing Rock, N.C.! I have a feeling that most of the reviews published in some of these local and regional newspapers are downloaded from news services.

-- Rao Aluri

The continued shrinking of space for book reviews is distressing. But much of this comes from the inability of "book review" editors to acknowledge the reality of today's book business and find a middle ground. The disparity between what is reviewed and what the public is reading is enormous. Equating "popular" with "not worthy of attention" only guarantees a growing irrelevance that will spell doom for book reviews. Imagine movie reviewers ignoring the top 10 grossing films. Would anyone expect newspaper publishers to allow that to continue? And reading the head-in-the-sand professions of staying the course from Chip McGrath and Steve Wasserman lets us know what the end result is ultimately going to be. How sad -- and how culturally destructive.

-- John Cunningham

Mr. Berger does an admirable job of describing (yet again) how corporate-controlled media is Philistine and generally awful. Yet he doesn't really answer this question for me: Should we care that book reviews are declining in popularity?

For me, a voracious reader when I have the time, book reviews are usually about as useful or illuminating as movie reviews: one man or woman's opinion about a given thing, which, while somewhat interesting, does little to tell me whether or not I'd like the book or learn from it. Why do we need book reviews at all? Wouldn't it be a lot easier if the author himself or herself simply wrote a short description or teaser about what is in the book and let us judge for ourselves? Does a prescreening process really help our culture move forward or does it keep it flaccid, centrist and staid? Also, many book reviews I've read, from the New York Times Book Review section on down, are nothing more than essays that tangentially relate to what the book is about, or even worse, are capsule summaries of the book's story and/or conclusions. In other words, they are spoilers.

If they go, I, for one, won't miss them one bit.

-- Mark Solomon

I find it extremely ironic to read about the disappearing books section in American newspapers in the same online publication that minimized its own books section just a year earlier.

-- Zachary Woodruff

This article struck home for me. As a regular reader of the Chronicle, I was stunned by the evisceration of the book review section. The rest of the paper's "new look" is irrelevant to me, although I'm a little bemused by the waste of ink and newsprint on the greatly expanded section for lifestyle features.

To me the book review section was the delicious dessert saved for last. My Sunday routine always included setting it aside until I'd finished with the rest of the paper. It would then set it on my bedside table to be enjoyed in small bites throughout the week. I don't have time to read 20 or 30 books a week, but by reading the reviews I felt I was keeping in touch with developments in the artistic and intellectual life of the planet. I especially valued the reviews of nonfiction.

Now this pleasure is lost to me. What's even more galling than embedding the previously stand-alone section within the entertainment pages is the drastic reduction in the number of reviews, and the dumbing-down of the range and quality of the books covered.

And since the Chronicle has recently acquired a monopoly in the Bay Area, I don't even have the option of going to the competition.

-- Roy Jimenez

I have to be honest about Mr. Berger's bemoaning the loss of a book review section in many print newspapers. I am about as disappointed as I was when I found out that another politician was having an affair with his intern. The truth is I simply don't care.

As a lover of books, and the New York Times Book Review Section, I have not limited my attention to that publication as my sole resource for book reviews.

Mr. Berger leaves out the impact of the Internet on book lovers. The Internet provides easier access to a more diverse set of opinions about books than the New York Times could ever do on its own.

I don't think that book review sections need to go the way of the buggy whip, but strictly from a consumer's perspective I haven't lost any ability to read about books because the New York Times has cut two pages from its book review section.

While I appreciate Mr. Berger's view that newspapers have lost their muckraking ethic for a more corporate casual appeal, his article seems to suggest that we should be on our knees praying for the return of old-style newspapers. This kind of attitude may be more provincial to those people who depend on the newspaper inudstry for a paycheck, than it is for the consumers of intelligent information. That being the case I can understand the need for concern, but Mr. Berger only hints at that, while using the loss for the readers as his main issue. I don't see any loss at all.

-- Gene Curry

Who are these so-called intellectuals that relied on the Chronicle for their book reviews? As a Bay Area native I learned at the tender age of 18 that compared to real big-city papers like the L.A. Times and New York Times, the Chronicle is a joke. I don't read it, none of my friends read it and my parents (both Bay Area natives) don't read it either.

With so many other resources available to book lovers (i.e., this Web site) I really couldn't care less that the Chronicle is cutting back on its book review section.

-- Aran Johnson

Your article is well-written, thoroughly researched and -- what's that journalistic phrase -- oh yes, old news. Ten years ago, my job with a New York publishing house instilled in me a love not only for books, but for the major newspapers that would lovingly and respectfully seek out the best and brightest, the new and the noteworthy, the fiction and the non.

Since then, it's been painful watching the papers erode into graph-happy news-nugget delivery devices. I miss the visual poetry of a great newspaper, with its deep reservoirs of interest about all aspects of society.

But what could we expect? First, the creeping influence of television resulted in USA Today; now, the Internet (including, it must be said, Salon) has fragmented ad dollars and readerships to the point at which daily print can stay alive -- not robust, by any means, but breathing -- only by appealing to the lowest common denominator.

I enjoy Salon and other Internet publications, and over time have managed without much trouble to transfer my daily-reading interests to the monitor (if nothing else, it keeps the printer's ink off my fingers). But it's ironic, and a little depressing, to boot up with a cup of coffee only to find a lengthy wail about the fall of an industry your own existence, however inadvertently, helped to topple.

-- Erich Van Dussen

By Letters to the Editor

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