The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the L.A. Times will cease to publish its book review as a separate section. That would mean that the only stand-alone newspaper book reviews remaining are the NYTBR, the Washington Post Book World, The Chicago Tribune Sunday Book Review, the San Diego Union-Tribune Sunday Book Review, and the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review — I’m a bit astonished tha the Chronicle Book Review is still among that list, as I’ve been hearing rumors about plans to eliminate it from time to time for at least twenty years. (“‘You constantly have to justify your existence,’ says Oscar Villalon, who edits the book section at the San Francisco Chronicle. ‘Why? We don’t bring in ads.'”)
The problem is that book publishers are no longer advertising in the book review supplements (except for the NYTBR, which is still pulling ads, probably mainly because it has national distribution at actual points of purchase). Newspaper ads are expensive and rather ineffective, since you are paying to reach a broad readership rather than a focused demographic of people who actually buy books. Instead, publishers are using most of their money to pay for favorable placement in book stores. This system of paid store placement is just another way that the industry favors the big players and works against such traditional staples of publishing as word of mouth.
I know from my experience as a publisher that most book reviews are really recycled press releases. For years the newspapers’ book review departments and advertising departments operated much too closely together to produce a product that could attract readers on its own right — most book reviews aren’t worth reading.
Still, I’m sorry to see the book reviews go. It’s just another example of the shift from content-based publishing to the current system, which consists of filling books with words in order to sell covers, author photos, and marketing bullets. Maybe the blogosphere offers a ray of hope, a chance to replace the old book reviews and revitalize the publishing industry.
In any case, books will survive. Recently a publisher told me it wants to reissue a book I had done some 17 or 18 years ago. Did I still have the word processing files? I did — but they can no longer be read without special software. That speaks volumes (so to speak) about the world of electronic publishing. Compare that record of obsolescence within decades to a Gutenberg bible or one of the early Asian books — printed books are a perfected technology, one that still works, after hundreds and hundreds of years.