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The New York Times Book Review’s Retirement Plan

30 April 2013

From The Guardian:

Not long ago, an old friend with whom I’ve lost touch, the writer Susan Braudy, surfaced in the letters column in the New York Times Book Review. This is a kind of pitiable place for writers to show up. They are usually either protesting their treatment by the Book Review, or, at least in the years before Amazon, begging for copies of their out-of-print books.

My old friend, however, had a grander mission, one that seemed to have weighed on her mind for many years – how to get the Times to be more joyful and energetic about promoting books.

. . . .

Her letter reminded me that the New York Times Book Review still occupies a whale-like place in the minds and careers of all diligent book writers in America.

. . . .

And then, a few weeks ago, I noticed, in a small announcement in the New York Times, the appointment of a new editor at the Book Review – once a major transfer of power in New York. Indeed, the editor of the Book Review, and his or her general literary disposition, is pretty much synonymous with the Book Review itself.

. . . .

[New editor Pamela Paul] has, pretty much, no writerly or literary credentials. She’s written some straightforward, but non-literary nonfiction – a book about marriage, a book about parenting, and a book condemning pornography – and she’s been the children’s book editor at the Book Review for a short time. Her resume includes two years as a blogger at the Huffington Post, which, it doesn’t seem entirely churlish to point out, is not a job, and a stint writing a column for the Times’ Style section.

Anyway, it’s a perfectly reasonable but not distinguished freelance journalism career. So why a major post in the world of literary journalism?

. . . .

The entire newspaper is challenged by falling advertising, but the Book Review is really at the end of this road. Practically speaking, it has no revenue.

This is a long slide, reflecting not just a hard market but the manners of a bygone world.

. . . .

In a way, it might be a good thing to have recruited a new editor without literary conceit whose success depends less on taste than it does on the Book Review’s very survival. Maybe, she has a really smart and aggressive new approach, which she’s sold to the Times’ management.

On the other hand, the approach so far seems just to give less space to reviews. The bestseller lists, derived from overlapping and trivial new methods of categorization, now fill most of the back pages.

. . . .

Book reviews, I am afraid, are a downer, an outdated form. Literary editors – hell, literary people in general – are mightily outdated, too.

And while the NYTBR has been at the very center of the book business in New York and has been the most influential voice in book culture for the better part of a century, it is surely hard to say quite what to do with this weighty history. Not to mention, how to squeeze a buck out of it.

Link to the rest at The Guardian and thanks to Tom for the tip.

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7 Comments to “The New York Times Book Review’s Retirement Plan”

  1. if authors knew the internal workings of the nyt book review, the under the table machinations over the years to dun some and raise up pets, one would see the petty regionalism that has been the review’s bones… during a time when many people, now white haired, liked to be told what to read.

    The writer of this piece is correct. That time is gone. The nyt never reached for the younger reader, just kept drumming the same old same old as their readership literally shuffled off the planet. It’s not just revenues down with nyt absurd ‘pay to read online’ model [fine, we just go to washington post for news breaking], it’s that their book review articles are too long and way too selfabsorbed about right/wrong, good/bad… the old tropes of the moralists hidden under the guise of ‘discussing lit-er-ay-chur.’

    A review cant survive on being a ‘tastemaker.’ The gates are gone from the gatekeepers who set themselves up as such long ago. The nyt once was the great ‘grey lady.’ Now, it’s merely gray in more ways than one. Including several of their very aged and creaky writers who havent been outside their narrow circle of flashlight on the ground for decades. They’ve NO idea of the cultures across the USA that have and will continue to find nytbr reviewers irrelevant, while those cultures go on to be vibrant, and jumping with life.

    Sad.

    Just my .02

    • Good points, USAF.

      Contrary to the implication of the article, I’ve heard a couple of very reliable people say that a publisher that regularly buys ads in the NYTBR has few problems getting its big books reviewed.

      • Speaking as a (British-based) journalist, I find this hard to believe. Surely all big publishers have regular adverts in the NYT? I can only speak for the British national press and their review systems, but advertising and editorial decisions are never mixed (nobody in editorial even knows what is being advertised in the paper that week) and no reviewer I’ve met would compromise his or her professional integrity through such pressures. After all, they make their living from reviews and will not always be working at the same publication. If they get a bad reputation, their career is over. I’m sure unscrupulous reviewers do and have existed, taking backhanders for positive reviews (I knew of one now ex-journalist who did it – hasn’t worked since), but these are a rarity.

        In the UK, big books always get reviewed because that is what is expected by the audience, but other than these big names most reviewers have to choose a handful of books out of a mountain of arcs to read and review each week. They choose either what looks the most interesting, or what has a particular buzz going around about it. The rest are just unlucky. If publishers could buy positive reviews in newspapers by placing adverts, then there would never be a bad review of any big six book ever. It smacks of a conspiracy theory to me, but I am only speaking from somebody who has worked in UK newspaper newsrooms. The US newspaper industry may differ, but I doubt it.

        • the nytbr has for decades solicited reviews from certain persons, as eds. see fit. There’s no conspiracy; it is a long held way of doing business, to choose reviewers which already slants the review by whom one solicits and pays. That UK newspapers with their bk reviews have a clean and clear record of such is … great. The reality though is far more gritty in a world where ‘appearances’ used to rule.
          In the US, ‘big books’ dont ‘always get reviewed. Norman Mailer, a giant, comes to mind, as do many other ‘bigbook’ writers. There has been absolutely a relationship between advertisers and reviews, nonetheless. As a journo, we know that each ‘news’ oriented paper has a place for ‘dunce stories’ and blood and murder stories, for buffoon stories, for we love your dog stories. The newspaper book reviews are no different and the terrain across these elements and more is planned out, not an accident.

          As a Contributing Editor of a national book review that is decades old and not tied to a newspaper of so-called ‘news’ or what passes as ‘inch deep news’ nowadays, the way reviews are treated there is FAR different than any of the national newspaper chains I’ve written for or been reviewed by.

          At the nationally distributed review, the philosophy is to bring readers to great books, not to spend a moments’ time in dunning. There’s far and away enough, in fact a tonnage overweight of bloated and ostentatious dunning, in literally now, millions of forums online, as well as in newspapers etc.

          Our mission too, is not to be pressed into the faux or twee crap about if one isnt critical of whatever, surely the sky will fall. It wont fall. And readers who love books will find new books, hopefully, by our shining light on them. Not because of pitiful though understandable human affectations.

          Just a .02 of a reality lived

  2. My .02 PG? Thou hast nailed it.

  3. “The nytbr has for decades solicited reviews from certain persons, as eds. see fit. There’s no conspiracy; it is a long held way of doing business, to choose reviewers which already slants the review by whom one solicits and pays.”

    Do you have evidence of this? Has anybody that has ever worked at the New York Times ever said this is what happens? If this was how they were doing business, don’t you think a rival newspaper would have pointed it out by now? Or do you somehow have special knowledge that thousands of journalists around the world are not privvy to? You are entitled to your opinion and belief in how their book review system works, but that is all it is, opinion. Unless you have sat in on an editorial meeting at the NYTBR, or spoken and discussed with actual New York Time reviewers how the system works, you can hardly claim that it is the way they do business. You may suspect it is, you may have heard it is, and you may even be right, but opinion isn’t fact, no matter how much you believe in it, or how long you have lived in your “reality.”

  4. Although I can’t quite follow your emotions on this… Like many pros in the field, I’ve listened to those solicited to write reviews, Robert. Authors who are well known and are credible. And been a friend to managing editors. I’ve my own experiences too, in how reviews can roll.

    On a parallel: Given the most recent criminal activities of some of Rupert Murdock’s hires, as the saying goes, this failure to follow ethics and to operate under the table in a highly competitive field re newspapers… is not new, it is very old style for some to move in ways that are not clean ethically; it is only that these particular ones at Rupert’s joints, with more to come, were caught with their pants down.

    Cleanliness and extreme competitiveness, and advertising dollars as life’s blood of newspapers is why some publications that are hard hitting, insightful, and not preening anyone in particular and far more honest, take no ads. The idea of taking money, trying to outdo competitors, draw even more ad revenue, and then knighting or beknighting whomever, mayors, moguls, authors, musicians, theatres… is a difficult business at best.

    The fact that the Chi Trib, LAT, and other former venerably thought of newsp are up for sale, the fact that the RMN and many other newspapers of over 100 years duration have gone down the tubes and folded utterly, [all of which once had ‘book review’ sections, but no more] is not only because advert dollars were taken off by ‘craigs list’ as some unastute observors like to parrot. It is the readership that is not interested in what ‘used to be’ the way of news print on paper or online, the quality of the stories, the predictable tropes, the boring book reviews that tell more about the reviewer than the books, the lack of investigative reporting on corps who are also advertisers… the sad part is that many reporters on the beat were true and blue, but their bosses and especially their owners of the rag, were not.

    Always an .02

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