Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Reviewing the Book Review

It hasn't been a good summer for mainstream book reviewing. First, the LA Times cut back its book coverage. Then, The Washington Post consolidated its arts coverage by splitting up its book coverage and moving the remaining pieces to other section, including moving the fiction coverage to "Style."

For book lovers, these are not welcome moves.

Tom Lutz, editor-in-chief of the inchoate LA Review of Books, took the occasion of the LA Times reduction to write about the goals of the new publication (and to announce that they had brought onboard two columnists recently The Times recently laid off). In short the LA Review of Books aims to maintain a space for the kind of serious book reviewing that has been in decline over the last couple of decades.

This, I think, is an admirable goal, and I would certainly like the site to succeed. Still, two questions remain unanswered it Lutz's essay.

1. Why will the LA Review of Books succeed where mainstream reviewing has failed?

2. Will the writing and reviewing in the LA Review of Books mirror mainstream reviewing or will it do something else?

While the first of the questions is about money and the second about content, they are deeply linked. The unknown here is the market for literary journalism.

The LA Review of Books, Lutz says, will employ a hybrid model to generate revenue, which will include advertising, merchandise, subscriptions, affiliate incomes, fundraising, and grants. This already is acknowledgment that, as a commercial enterprise, literary journalism is untenable; you do not need grant money and non-profit money if there are buyers for your product.

That is, unless your product is really different than what has already failed. From what I can tell, the style of the first 100 posts in the LA Review of Books does feel considerably more modern than, say, coverage in the NY Times. The topics are more diverse, the writing more personal and freeform, and the general spirit more experimental. Unfortunately, I doubt that it is any more viable as a commercial product.

What I think Lutz doesn't really see (and that Edward Champion pointed out in his response to Lutz's essay) is the problem is not that there isn't cultural space for book reviewing and journalism, it's that it is happening everywhere---from book blogs, to Amazon, to GoodReads, to #fridayreads.

One of the reasons that book reviewing had a home in newspapers in the early 20th Century is that there was no where else to turn. Now, reviewing is everywhere.

My sense is that the kind of writing that the LA Review of Books wants to preserve needs preservation for a reason--it is no longer able to survive in the main of American cultural life. And that's not saying it isn't valuable, only that it  needs propping up by extra-commercial forces for it to survive.

What I would like to see, and I readily admit that I don't know what this would look like, is writing about books that engages with readers to the point that those readers (and the advertising dollars their attention brings) can support it directly (one possible example is Martha Southgate's essay about The Help in Entertainment Weekly). This would not only mean a future for professional literary journalists, but also that what they write can be culturally current and accessible.

The long and short of it is that people still read. What they want to read about what they read is still very much a mystery and the crux of the problem for contemporary book reviewing.

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  1. I think that one of the problems with book reviewing in newspapers is that they are written by other authors who know they'll get their turn being reviewed.

    I also think that reviews in general are a long lost art form. I keep saying that I don't write "reviews" but my thoughts and impressions of a book. I know that my blog posts will not stand on their own as an independent piece, but a proper review should.

    By the way, I nominated you for Best Bookish Miscellaneous Blogon the book bloggers appreciation awards. Keep up the good work.

  2. I would say that The Millions follows a model similar to the one you have described, and I'd argue that they are fairly successful at it.  I have been looking for similar sites, though, and have found them somewhat lacking. 

    There are a number of pop-culture themed sites that include literary coverage, which seems to suggest that that such coverage is definitely something they want to promote, but that they can only survive by paying attention to the broad cultural spectrum.  I'd love to see a change in that.  But they'd have to have more readers to make it feasible. What direction would they have to go in, I wonder, to achieve that? What approach is going to draw in the readers?On a related note - did you see that USA Today has launched a books page?

  3. Cassandra-

    I think The Millions is great, but, and you can correct me if I'm wrong (congrats on that great interview by the way) is that they don't pay most of their writers (or at least not much).
    The point I was circling, and perhaps not clearly, is that there is a connection between an economic model and the content. The question within the question is "Is there an economic model for book coverage that can support paying writers non-nominal amounts"? Lots of people are crushing the erosion of mainstream book coverage, but these folks aren't in the non-profit business.
    And I did see that USA Today launched a books section. I guess that's good, but I'm not sure that it is a terribly interesting/different kind of section.

  4. I don't think that you're wrong (staff writers are paid, I think). And thank you. 

    I guess I was thinking more of the economic viability of the site and not about whether or not it paid writers. It is not an area that I have a lot of experience with. In looking for a forum outside of my blog in which I could write something and get a broader audience, I didn't pay a lot of attention to whether or not I got paid. I'm trying to get back in the writing game, not make a living. If I were, though, I'd probably have a different opinion. 

    I was a bit underwhelmed by the USA Today site, but I think it's interesting that they are launching now when everyone else is closing shop or cutting way back. That stood out to me. 

    I'm very interested in the discussion that you have going about how to make literary journalism pay - both for the publication and the writer.  I'm very interested in seeing where it goes. 

  5. Perhaps the answer is to get a group of said journalists together on one platform, split the responsibilities of running the site, guarantee regular content, and split profits from advertising and affiliate sales.  A collective model.  Thoughts? 

  6. Hmmm. The crux of the matter (and this is a point that I am sort of stealing from Ed Champion's essay) is that I don't think you can say something is "economically viable" and "most writers aren't paid" in the same sentence. That's not viable concern, but a volunteer organization with a paid staff. This might be the best possible arrangement.

  7. I do think it's pretty easy for critics and other interesting parties to slam newspapers for cutting coverage when they have no idea themselves how to make it work. I might think that the LA Times should have multiple full-time reviewers, but if they don't write things that can support their salaries, it's very hard to say they are doing anything wrong in letting them go. Just because people are smart and work hard doesn't mean what they do has a market.
    I do think there is a possibility for models in which pay is tied to "performance" (ie direct purchases of content or some sort of distributed income). One outlet I think is really interesting is the "Kindle Single" model, where writers can sell their wares directly. I would pay 99 cents to read, say, Ron Charles' review of the new Eugenides novel. Are there a few thousand other people that would as well? That's the big mystery here. How many people want to read about books? And what kind of writing will they read?