Another one bites the dust

The Los Angeles Times Book Review will appear for the last time in a standalone section this Sunday, July 27. Book coverage will continue in the Calendar section of the paper, but 2 of the 5 full-time book review employees will be laid off. Some former editors are justifiably upset about this move. This latest cut is just another blow to the rapidly dwindling field of print book reviews. NPR’s On the Media talked to one former LA Times book review editor, Steve Wasserman, about the state of “vanishing reviews.”

Yet as the print book review as we know it disappears, at least the LA Times, for one, is building a new media space for book coverage; they’re blogging about books. Can we blame them for shifting from old media to new media as the rest of the world does the same? Maybe one reason it’s upsetting for publishers is because we’re losing one of our standard metrics for measuring book exposure. Yet our books are getting exposed in so many new ways — many of them electronic, which can be viral (in the good way) and spread like wildfire. Of course, many of us still hold romantic views of all print media, partly because we count ourselves among them. If newspapers fail, are books far behind? They’re both paper!

Former president of the Association of American University Presses Sandy Thatcher’s got an idea for how to help keep book coverage in print: get locals to write book reviews for newspapers, write a book review for your local paper yourself. He’s practicing what he preaches and already seeing results.

Ron at GalleyCat urges us to keep in mind that what we’re experiencing is really a transition, not a deterioration. Speaking for myself (and not necessarily UNC Press) I lean towards the “get over it” approach. After all, we’re now even seeing book trailers before blockbuster movies in the theaters these days. (On the other hand, keep that up, and we’ll have more websites discussing book trailers instead of the books the trailers are supposed to promote! And yet on the other hand AGAIN, why would that be bad?? Isn’t all publicity supposed to be good publicity?)

I think it all comes down to how we cope with change — as individuals, as institutions, as a society. Change is inevitable, and sometimes it sucks and sometimes it’s great and sometimes it’s a whole lot of both.

I might just have a hundred posts in me on this topic, but I’m going to stop for now and ask for your opinion. Let’s talk. It’s probably safe to assume that if you’re reading this post, you like books. Do you feel the sky falling? Or are you optimistic about the future of books/book reviewing/book publishing? How much does book publishing depend on book reviews? How much do you as a reader depend on book reviews? How does “new media” affect your personal book purchases?

— ellen

3 Comments

  1. Just to get things going, here are my (more than) two cents:

    I should probably read more book reviews before purchasing books. I don’t. I read mainly fiction, and tend to buy either authors I know and like, or books that look interesting at a book store. I do read book reviews after I’m done reading a book, mostly to see other interesting opinions about them.

    A few friends and I had a discussion about this a while back and came to the conclusion that none of us buy books based on other peoples’ recommendations, even if we know they have pretty similar tastes to our own.

    There are so many people posting opinions about fiction online that it seems unnecessary to hear the opinions of a few newspaper-chosen experts. This is probably not true of professional literature – reviews in academic journals are a different story.

  2. Hm. Do “shelf talkers” at bookstores influence you? (Shelf talkers are the little mini-reviews and recommendations indie bookstores will often post on a bookshelf at the location of a book a staff member recommends.) I’m always curious to know what the bookstore staff recommend. What about reader reviews on Amazon? Not before you buy?

    I read most of my news online these days, but book review sections are one of the first places I turn to whenever I do pick up a print newspaper.

  3. I often have a hard time reading the tiny hand-written comments on shelf talkers. As for book reviews on Amazon – sometimes, but I’ve found myself disagreeing with so many that it doesn’t really make sense to go by them…

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