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The Decline and Fall of the Book Review Section...and What It Means to Publishers

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There's been a lot in the news lately about major-market newspapers that are downsizing, relocating, or completely doing away with their book review section. The Atlanta Journal Constitution dispensed with its book review editor position. The Chicago Tribune moved its Sunday books section to Saturday (which has a lower circulation). And the Los Angeles Times reduced its number of book review pages, folding what used to be a stand-alone books section in with another (though it plans to supplement online).

The general consensus in the publishing industry--at least, from what I've heard at the water cooler--is that, while it doesn't sound the death knell for books (or, for that matter, literacy in America), it certainly ain't good. At a gut level, we know that these sections are necessary--that they're a key means of getting a certain kind of book in front of readers, and that if they're struggling, we're struggling...or, we soon will be if we don't capitalize on other ways to get the word out about our titles. But absent from the discussion thus far is what it actually means to publishers to have fewer books reviewed in America's top papers on a weekly basis.

So what are the consequences of all of this streamlining? Well, obviously, competition for reviews is keener--and it was already pretty fierce. What's more, if a book is lucky enough to get reviewed, the review may be shorter since some book review editors remain committed to covering the same number of books despite their reduced number of pages.

What's wrong with a shorter review? For starters, it means the book may not be reviewed as well (by which I don't mean favorably), since it's hard to evaluate a 350 page book with lots of characters and a complicated plot in a few hundred words. You need the space for description, which means there's little room for actual evaluation of the book--so reviews become mere summaries, which are far less interesting to read (translation: fewer people will want to read the already-struggling-for-eyeballs book review section), and far more difficult to quote (even for those of us who have learned how to wield an ellipsis like a sword).

And if there are fewer quotable parts? It means fewer reasons for publishers to take out an ad--there's just less to crow about--and fewer ads mean fewer book review sections will survive because many of them rely quite heavily on their advertising revenue. A vicious circle, to be sure. And don't even get me started on the fact that, if fewer books are being reviewed, a bad review hurts more since there will be fewer good ones to offset it.

The problem may not be as new as people are making it out to be. These sections have been struggling to survive for years. It wasn't that long ago that the Boston Globe folded its stand-alone Sunday books section into its "Ideas" section, and let's not forget the public outcry that arose when the San Francisco Chronicle basically tried to do the same. But the fact that it's not "new news" doesn't undercut the fact that it's a problem--and a significantly more complex one than many seem to realize.