Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Man Bites Book

By Cornelia

As Patty and Paul have discussed here this week, there's been a depressing development on the book news front in recent days--the announcement that the L.A. Times plans to cut back its book review coverage.

In an article titled "Scarcity of Ads Endangers Newspapers' Book Sections" in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, Jeffrey Trachtenberg summarized the LAT's plans as follows:

Sometime this spring, the Los Angeles Times is expected to announce that it is folding its highly esteemed Sunday book review into a new section that will combine books with opinion pieces. That would reduce to five the number of separate book-review sections in major metropolitan newspapers still published nationwide, down from an estimated 10 to 12 a decade ago. The reason: not enough ads....

The 12-page section, to be introduced on April 14, will appear with the thinner Saturday paper, which will make it not only stand out more but also save money on printing costs because circulation is lower that day than on Sunday. Word of the plans for the book review was first reported on the Web site

There's no shortage of blame being heaped on publishers in press coverage of the LAT's plans.
In an article by the San Francisco Chronicle's Heidi Benson, Chronicle Editor Phil Bronstein was quoted as saying:

"if book publishers advertised, 'it would send a very good signal that they believe in their product.'"
I think the response of Paul Bogaards, director of publicity at Alfred A. Knopf, deserves a lot of airplay:
"Where are the ads in the sports section?" he asked.

Trachtenberg also quoted The Philadelphia Inquirer's books editor Frank Wilson, whose standalone 16-page book section was cut back in the early 1980s and folded into another section in 2001, as follows:

"I don't understand why newspapers, when they want to cut space... immediately think of depriving people who like to read."

The best statistics I can find on this seem to bear him out, especially in terms of age demographic. The only age cohort of newspaper readers which has not experienced heavy decline in the last eight years is the older crowd:

Age 65+ 75% reading newspapers in an average week between 1999 and 2003 (unpublished Scarborough Research survey)....

"The bright spot for newspapers remains, as it has for some years, older people. Readership for people over 65 is just barely declining - 1 percent since 1999 for both daily and Sunday."
Meanwhile, according to a 2001 survey by the Book Industry Study Group:

Customers 55 and older account for more than one-third of all books bought..... The mean age of book buyers:
1997: Age 15-39: 26.5% of the books bought
2001: Age 15-39: 20.8% of the books bought
1997: Age over 55: 33.7% of the books bought.
2001: Age over 55: 44.1% of the books bought
--Ipsos NPD reported in Publishers Weekly, January 6, 2003
Gee, do we think there might be some consumption-dollar crossover between those two groups of heaviest readers?

Maybe declining ad revenues for book sections are not the fault of book publishers, but the fault of the direction given to space reps selling ads for those newspapers.

Trachtenberg's WSJ article quoted Philadelphia Inquirer literary critic Carlin Romano as follows:

"...part of the problem is that newspapers often don't have a sales person who understands the intricacies of the book business. Even when publishers have money, he says, they go the New York Times Book Review or the New Yorker, both of which are national."
Not least since, as stated elsewhere in the same article, "The New York Review of Books, owned by Nyrev Inc., and Bookforum both saw their sales increase in 2006," and The New York Times Book Review's 2006:

"[ad] revenue from books was up almost 10%," says Todd Haskell, vice president, business development, for the Times. (The figure refers to the book-review section plus the paper as a whole.)
Could it be that ad sales are up for the NY Times, The New York Review of Books (founded during a newspaper strike in 1963), and Bookforum because readers want to read about books?

Los Angeles is one of the, if not THE, biggest book markets in the country. In 1997, according to the Christian Science Monitor, The top ten US cities by dollar volume of book sales and number of bookstores are Los Angeles-Long Beach; New York; Chicago; Boston; Washington, Philadelphia; San Francisco; Seattle-Bellevue-Everett; San Jose; San Diego.

The Los Angeles Times Festival of the Book, held annually on the campus of UCLA, hosts upwards of 150,000 visitors.

If the business leadership of the L.A. Times wants to pump up the paper's circulation and ad revenues, perhaps they should consider devoting MORE space to book reviews--especially online, if they're hoping to attract a younger readership.

A spring 2006 Newspaper Audience Database (NADbase) survey reported that:

Unique visitors to newspaper Web sites jumped 21 percent from January 2005 to December 2005, and page views increased by 43 percent over that same period, according to NADbase.... In markets across the nation, newspaper Web sites are providing a strong draw for younger demographics, in many cases expanding a paper’s reach among those audiences by 25 percent or better.

Percent* Increase in
25-34 Demographic

1) The Deseret Morning News ( Salt Lake City)
48.9 %

2) Daily Herald ( Arlington Heights, Ill.)
46.3 %

3) Tribune-Review ( Pittsburgh
42.8 %

4) The Tampa Tribune
36.7 %

5) The Boston Globe
30.8 %

6) The Hartford ( Conn.) Courant
29.7 %

7) The Star-Ledger ( Newark)
26.8 %

8) The San Diego Union-Tribune
26.0 %

9) The Salt Lake Tribune
25.6 %

10) The Seattle Times
25.1 %
We hear a lot about how newspapers are worried about declining revenues and declining readership. They want to develop a customer base that skews younger.

They want to compete against other media for our attention....

As such, it doesn't seem like rocket science to suggest trying to woo us as readers first, and consumers second.

Patty quoted from Tim Rutten's recent L.A. Times column about comments Charles K. Bobrinskoy, vice chairman and director of research for Ariel Capital Management, made during an interview with PBS's Frontline for its series on the state of the media. Brobinskoy thinks the paper should concentrate on covering "things that people in L.A. care about: style, Hollywood entertainment, local government, local sports, local issues like immigration…"

I think his first three topics aren't likely to expand the paper's readership... when I want to know about LA style and the doings of the Hollywood glitterati, which isn't often, I don't go check out, I switch from Jeopardy to Entertainment Tonight for a few seconds and then immediately have a burning desire to run from the room and take a scalding shower.

The only time I read People is when I'm stuck in a long grocery line and the quicker folk have snapped up all available copies of the Weekly World News. Guess what I read first? The book reviews... and that was true long before I ever thought I was going to end up writing fiction for a living.

I suspect that the 150,000 people who attend the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books each year feel the same way...


  1. The WEEKLY WORLD NEWS has a book review section? I am so checking that out!

  2. Sadly, they don't, but can you imagine how much their circulation would skyrocket if they DID?

  3. Wasn't it the LA Times that caused a fuss a couple of years ago because someone there said they should only review hyper-literary "worthy" books, because those are the only ones that matter? If so, I think we may have found their problem.

  4. See, I really think they need to be reviewing MORE books... especially "unworthy" ones. I love unworthy books. It's probably how I should describe what I write, most days.

  5. I've always been dumfounded that my daily paper has had a separate "sports" section. I find it totally stunning that of all the recreations available to us, all the social crap out there, THEY get special privileges and special treatment. By THEY, i mean "we" since I read the frackin section from time to time. But SPORTS? Why this gets a separate newspaper section over, music? What like poeple don't pariticpate as well as watch it? They don't spend money on it?
    And of course, speaking as someone who avoids 70% of that section because football is of no interest to me, NASCAR is of no interest to me, men's basketball ditto, and HIGH SCHOOL sports coverage ditto (which gets pages in the sports section, yes)I just never GET it. There's "business", and the "local news" (right) and BIG HEADLINE STUFF and then everything else gets to be in whatever the "social/life/entertainment" junk is - from movies and tv to dance, (performance and participatory) and all the "cute" stuff. But SPORTS gets its own section of the paper. I don't know what authority decided this but it's beyond absurd.
    I'm sure there are gobs of polls that can "prove" that more people watch football than read books, but that's not really the issue, is it? More people voted for "American Idol" than for president. AND?

  6. You're correct, Cornelia, Los Angeles is the largest book-buying market in the country, possibly North America. The Times Book Review section has a history of reviewing mostly non-fiction and "literary" fiction. Seldom are "main-stream" or crime fiction books reviewed. Still, I read the section religiously every Sunday and think it's appalling that soon it will be gone.

  7. I'm glad you could confirm that, Patty. I know I've heard it said often, but I couldn't figure out how to Google any research to back me up on that claim.

    And you bring up a great point about what gets reviewed... I think there's a real split between what's considered "literary/worthy" and what actually gets read these days. I posted a comment on Sarah Weinman's blog a couple of years ago about how I think genre fiction is to literary fiction as vernacular Italian is to "proper Latin." Maybe if more book reviews sections did criticism coverage of good genre work, their ad revenues would go up, too.

    Dan Brown and Danielle Steel are not the only things happening outside the pale of literature, and the stuff that gets written INSIDE it has bored me to tears since college.

  8. I love the book reviews in People!

    Newspapers are cutting all over. I was just told to decrease my column inches by four to five inches per article. I recently read that some old salt news guy said: "You can't tell the life story of a kitten in 12 column inches."

    On a positive note, some of the book blogs have a rocking readership and are kind of filling the book review print dearth.

  9. Whoops, forgot to sign out as nakedauthor up there... Edgy, you have excellent taste, as always.

    And Andi, I'm with you on the whole sports section. I so don't care. I'd prefer an opera section, a zucchini section, a political satire section... I'd even rather read Ann Coulter, which is saying something. Plus, she makes great kindling when you're trying to get the fire started in your Weber.

  10. Now, just a gosh darn minute!

    I yield to no one in my love of Book Reviews (even those with flabby writing), and I agree wholeheartedly with Cornelia's blog.

    BUT lay off the sports section, ladies.

    Historically, some of the best American writing has appeared in the sports pages of both newspapers and magazines.

    If you don't believe me, go back and read Red Smith's columns in The New York Herald Tribune. I can recite from memory his lead from the most famous baseball game ever played (The Bobby Thomson "shot heard round the world" in 1951). Smith's story, "Miracle of Coogan's Bluff," written on deadline for the daily paper began:

    "Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again."

    So many others. Grantland Rice and Bob Considine and W.C. Heinz and Dick Young and Heywood Broun and George Plimpton and Frank Deford and Hunter S. Thompson and Roger Angell and Jim Murray here in Los Angeles. John Schulian and Gay Talese and Richard Ben Cramer.

    Great writers all. Great enough so that, even if you don't give a hoot about stock-car racing, you'll devour Tom Wolfe's profile of Junior Johnson, "The Last American Hero."

    I can't recite the lead from memory but like a souped-up car, it's poetry in motion. The one phrase I remember is "that old mothering North Carolina sun exploding off the windshields."

    The best sportswriting (and there's less of it these days, I'd concede) has a beautiful simplicity. Who could possibly forget John Updike's famous farewell to Ted Williams ("Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu")? Here's Updike's description of Williams's refusal to come out of the dugout and tip his hat after that last magnificent home run.

    "T]he other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters."


  11. That is good WRITING, Paul. Box stats are not good writing, and there's precious little style on any sports page being written today. Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe rock, but they're a lot more interesting to read when they're talking about Nixon or Ken Kesey or Bauhaus than about sports.

    Plimpton, however, was a god in that department. OPEN NET is one of my favorite books ever.

    Still, I just don't see why sports as a topic gets its own whole section in a newspaper. If I had to give up sports coverage or books coverage, I wouldn't need any time to decide.

    I don't know why anyone wants to read Marmaduke or Family Circus or Andy Capp, either, though.

  12. Sorry but what i said had nothing to do with the quality of the WRITING on the sports section. I question the existence of one at all. And I read sports books, LOVE sports photography (and own several books about the Olympics and other sports). You miss my point, which is that SPORTS gets to be as important as ALL other cultural/recreational/enjoyment/leisure activities squished together.
    I said NOTHING about writing quality in that section - please don't make me out to be badmouthing sports writers.

  13. Review space, library funding, indie bookstores. I'm really hoping this swing of the pendulum swings back quickly.

    If not, maybe it will be the review blogs that take the place of newspaper review columns. It sounds different than sitting around the living room sharing that section of the paper with family on a Sunday morning, but then, when I think about our last Sunday morning when my oldest was home from college, everyone was sitting around in pjs in the living room, reading each other different bits from various internet news sites, flipping screens around to show video clips...granted, we're a kind of techie family (aside from me) and have more than one computer floating around the house, but I could see that as the future.

    Just don't screw with Sarah Weinman and the others out there and I'm still a happy review reader.

    But Cornelia, babe, please...Ann Coulter? You'd never get the stink off the Weber - what are you thinking?

  14. In our society sports trumps culture. Look at the huge number of dollars funneled into sports programs at schools versus money put into other programs.

  15. Yes, yes, yes, Paul!

    Red Smith is one of the reasons I became a journalist! Albeit a sh***y sports writer.

    Also, newspaper sports photography is some of the best photography happening today--and delivers on a daily basis. In my humble photojournalist opinion.

  16. Just for Edgy Mama...

    Herewith, the lead of Red Smith's profile of pitcher Dizzy Dean from The New York Times in 1974...

    "Jay Hanna Dean, who was also known as Jerome Herman Dean but answered more readily when addressed as Dizzy, was born in Lucas, Arkansas, or maybe Bond, Mississippi, or perhaps Holdenville, Oklahoma, sometime in 1911 or thereabouts, and approximately nineteen years later pitched his first game in the major leagues. He knocked off the Pittsburgh Pirates on three hits."