NPR & Books: No Hard and Fast Rules

We regularly get questions about how NPR handles books. I asked my able assistant, Lori Grisham, who has a masters degree in journalism, to look into it. Here's what she found. Happy Thanksgiving, Alicia Shepard

On average NPR's mailroom receives about 100 books every day from eager authors and publishers hoping NPR will give some attention to their books.

Nathaniel Horton sorts through books in NPR's mailroom.

hide captionNathaniel Horton prepares to deliver books throughout the building. The mailroom has received as many as 200 books in one day.

Wayne Huang/NPR

"NPR covering a book, moves books," said Joe Matazzoni, who edits the Arts & Life section of NPR.org. "It's known in the [publishing] industry."

But occasionally, a listener or author will write the Ombudsman's office questioning how NPR decides what books to cover.

There is no formula.  It depends on the topic, the buzz in the book world, and/or a host or editor's particular interest.

NPR's listening audience is roughly 27 million. And online stats are also attractive for authors and publishers. The Books section is regularly one of the 10 most-visited Web pages on NPR.org, according to Sondra Russell, a Web metrics analyst for NPR. "It averages about 1 million visitors a month," she said.

More books are covered online than on-air. In the last year, NPR has ramped up its digital presence, according to Matazzoni.

Web-only features related to books now include: Books We Like, What We're Reading (on hiatus until January), a weekly New in Paperback series, and an NPR Bestsellers series.

There are also seasonal specials, such as the Summer Books 2010, and the Best Books of the Year series. Arts section editors recently asked NPR’s audience for new ideas on the Monkey See blog and through a listener survey.

The free bookshelf at NPR.

hide captionOne of several free bookshelves at NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Lori Grisham/NPR

A Long Journey

Most books arrive by UPS, according to Ernesto Permodo, who works in NPR's mailroom. The mailroom staff divides books into editorial department bins and distributes them. Then interns and staff filter through and select books that look intriguing. These lucky few are then considered for stories on the Web, Morning Edition, Talk of the Nation, Tell Me More and All Things Considered.

"Some publishers will send the exact same book to every department," said Perdomo. "And it ends up on the free shelf in a week or so."

Most books do wind up on several "free shelves" throughout the building, where staff can help themselves to rejected books and also CDs.

"While many books end up on the giveaway shelf, many also go home with editors and writers," said Matazzoni. "Others are on the shelf because we've covered them on-air or online. They've served their purposes, and now we're allowing others to enjoy them."

As for multiple submissions of the same book, Matazzoni said that serves a purpose as well.

"It makes no sense to blast copies of a book out at random," he said. "It can make perfect sense to send books to multiple individuals on the same show as well as to multiple shows and to online and to selected correspondents. Shows and individuals have different personalities and tastes."

A Feature is Born: The NPR Selection Process

There are no hard and fast rules about how a book is selected. Books that do make it on air or the Web come through a variety of avenues.

A book might catch NPR's attention if someone thinks it would make a strong audio story. An example is Susan Stamberg's interview with playwright Harold Pinter's wife, Lady Antonia Fraser about her book Must You Go? My Life With Harold Pinter.

"She's a wonderful writer. I've interviewed her in the past and I knew she was a good talker," said Stamberg. "In addition, I lost my own husband three years ago and what she did was basically create a memoir of their life together," she said. "It very much connected with me."

Or a book might get selected if the release is likely to make a splash in the book world. This occurred when Washington Post writer Bob Woodward's book, Obama Wars, made news in September.

Selecting books is a strategic decision, said Laura Bertran, supervising editor of arts. "It's not about being comprehensive because we are small and we can't be," she said. "All of the choices are based on what we think will interest our listeners."

A book is sometimes selected because of a host's personal interest.

"I have to want to read the book," said Neal Conan, Talk of the Nation's host since September 2001. "I have an interest in ancient history, so we do a lot of ancient history." That was the case when Conan interviewed Adrian Goldsworthy in September about his book Antony and Cleopatra.

"I know Goldsworthy's work well. I've read both his biography of Caesar and his book on the Fall of the Roman Empire – and we've tried to get him on the show in the past," wrote Conan, who reads at least two books a week for TOTN. "Goldsworthy is a wonderful story teller, a quality that helps a lot in a live radio program."

Robert Siegel, host of All Things Considered, recently interviewed Tim Wu about his book The Master Switch. His interest was sparked after two NPR colleagues recommended the book.

"I thought the opening chapter," wrote Siegel, "was terrific and decided on that basis to read on and do the interview."

In addition to two-way interviews between hosts and authors, ATC also features book reviews by commentator Alan Cheuse. Cheuse, a George Mason University writing professor, started reviewing books in the 1980s. In addition, NPR runs reviews by Maureen Corrigan, a critic-in-residence at Georgetown University.

NPR has one reporter, Lynn Neary, dedicated to covering books and publishing. Neary said as a reporter she’s always looking for ways to bring multiple voices and sound to her radio pieces.

That’s why she selected Paul Auster’s new book Sunset Park.

“It was a great opportunity for an in-the-field piece,” she said. “The book is set in a Brooklyn neighborhood not far from where he lives. And we went to Sunset Park and walked around that neighborhood.”

Michel Martin, host of Tell Me More, said for her, it's all about timing. That's how she came to do an interview about Divorce by Deployment by Percell Artis, Jr.

"Newsworthiness is key," wrote Martin. "For example, in 2007, I did a self-published work – by a returning war veteran who described the strain of multiple deployments on his marriage. It was the first time I had seen a work like that on that subject, so even though it was not extremely polished, I thought it had news value."

Sometimes there is buzz around a book's release, and that ignites a competition among shows and hosts to cover it, Bertran said.

NPR has a "Dibs List" to deal with such cases. A reporter, editor or host indicates "an initial expression of interest," for a book said Bertran. Whoever asks first gets the right to do the book.

Every few weeks, NPR's arts and digital arts desks hold a book meeting to divide up coverage responsibility and discuss how NPR can better cover the book world. Show representatives and staff Web writers try to limit duplicate reporting.

"It takes the decision-making to a broader level than just a few people picking and choosing," Bertran said. "The goal is to mix it up."

The Dibs system works much of the time, but it's not foolproof. Some books still make it onto multiple shows. NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard investigated listener concerns when ATC host Michele Norris' new book was discussed on four NPR programs.

Some listeners also wonder if there's a "pay-to-play" model at work since so many books are never covered. The question is: Do authors and publishers pay NPR to be featured?

"You often interview authors and discuss their writings on many of your programs," wrote David Coffman of Claremont, CA. "Since this seems to me to be a de facto recommendation, I would be most interested in knowing if there is indeed an indemnity paid by the publisher or agents/managers for this prime-time notice?"

Bertran said, "Absolutely not."

"Our job is to produce interesting and informative radio and online articles and we work very hard to make that happen," Bertran said. "We have no other agenda."

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