Book Reviewers Decry Fewer Newspaper Pages

Book reviews appear to be an endangered species, at least for standalone sections of the newspaper. Recently the San Diego Union Tribune merged its books section with the arts pages. That is spurring debate about how readers will learn about the books.

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If you look forward to digging into the newspaper's weekend book section, you may be interested to know that book reviews appear to be an endangered species - at least those stand-alone sections of the newspaper containing book reviews. Recently, the San Diego Union Tribune merged its book section with its arts pages. That is spurring debate among writers, publishers and booksellers. How do readers learn about new books?

Martha Woodroof of member station WMRA went to Book Expo 2007 in New York to find out.

MARTHA WOODROOF: A hot topic at this year's book expo, the publishing industry's trade show, was the declining number of print newspaper pages dedicated to discussing and reviewing books.

Ms. JANE CIABATTARI (Vice President, National Book Critics Circle): Book coverage is part of our intellectual conversation. We need to keep ourselves asking the kinds of questions that are asked by good literature.

WOODROOF: Jane Ciabattari is the vice president of the National Book Critics Circle. This organization of more than 700 book reviewers has waged a vigorous campaign to raise awareness about the shrinking number of book pages in newspapers.

Ms. CIABATTARI: I believe that you don't need to necessarily have a book section support itself with advertising the way you might want a real estate section to. I think books and reading are something different, and they're special.

WOODROOF: As part of their campaign to save print book coverage, the NBCC held three panels on the topic at Book Expo. Highlighted is a recent example of newspaper cost cutting was the Atlanta Journal Constitution's decision to replace its dedicated book editor with a single arts, books and movies editor.

Melissa Turner, senior features editor for the paper, took part in one of the panels. Turner makes a point that all beat reporter jobs are now vulnerable.

Ms. MELISSA TURNER (Senior Features Editor): And we've been systematically losing readers over several years. And finally, the advertising is going with them, and newspapers are now taking notice. It is looking very narrowly if we just look at what's happening in book pages.

WOODROOF: Or only looking at print readership. Publishers have yet to figure out a way to monetize their Web sites, but online newspaper readership is growing - spurred sometimes by creative Web-only extras. At the Dallas Morning News, book editor Michael Merschel started the popular literary blog "Texas Pages," which he says gets 10 times as many views as the paper's other online book coverage.

Mr. MICHAEL MERSCHEL (Book Editor): There are things that I put up two, three, four weeks ago that I can tell that people are just now discovering on the blogs because they're moved enough to post a comment and saying oh, you're crazy. Or, oh, I really agree with that. To me that's heartening. It turns the book page experience and makes it more of a two-way conversation.

WOODROOF: Some other literary blogs - Book Slut, Book Daddy, Maud Newton, and Buzz Girl, for example - have earned their full cultural credentials. But, says Barbara Hoffert, editor of book reviews at Library Journal, librarians who buy lots of books professionally still rely on print book reviews because they're backed by the newspaper's reputation.

Ms. BARBARA HOFFERT (Editor of Book Reviews, Library Journal): There needs to be somebody speaking about the book who isn't just simply trying to spin it and sell it but wants to communicate its value to library readers in the library market.

Ms. CIABATTARI: My approach to the whole thing is that it's not the technology. It's the content.

WOODROOF: Jane Ciabattari of the National Book Critics Circle says whether it's online or on paper, the issue in any discussion of book coverage should be credibility.

Ms. CIABATTARI: People have a certain kind of trust in The New York Times or in the Chicago Tribune or the San Francisco Chronicle. They think that book editors there have a certain kind of set of standards and ethics that they kind of understand. We're living in a time where all forms of technology are going to be part of the conversation. At the moment, the endangered part is the newspaper book review.

WOODROOF: In an effort to put their considerable industry clout behind continued quality book coverage, the NBCC announced at Book Expo that it's creating a new award, recognizing excellence in a book-related publication, Web site or section.

For NPR News, I'm Martha Woodroof.

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