Good Book Reviews Are No Longer Enough

Today's authors can't rely on the merit of their pages. Literary coverage has grown, but reaching readers is as difficult as ever.

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As a longtime publisher of what is known as "serious" non-fiction, I am acutely aware of how sensitive most authors are about book reviews. After extended periods of research and writing, it is unnerving to find your work in the hands of someone else to pass judgment. Authors of established distinction feel the sting of a critical review, or worse, being ignored, especially by the Sunday New York Times Book Review, which remains for many writers the arbiter ne plus ultra. It is time--probably past time--to declare that traditional book reviews are no longer the dominant measure of a book's impact, or even necessarily the most effective way to reach the intended audience. Last week I wrote about changes in publishing since I started in 1984, but left out for consideration here the subject of reviews and book coverage in general, including publicity over the airwaves and on the Internet.

It is no revelation that newspaper- and magazine-based book reviews have been drastically cut back over the past decade. Highly respected weekly sections in newspapers such as the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune are now folded into other parts of the paper, and while the quality of the reviews can still be impressive, they no longer have the visibility they once did. The New York Times Book Review certainly has the most influence, but its page count is limited by the amount of book advertising it attracts. Recently, the section editors decided to turn over six pages to bestseller lists: print hardcovers; print paperbacks; mass market; advice, how-to, and miscellaneous; print children's; print hardcover and paper combined; e-book bestsellers; and combined print and e-book bestsellers.

The challenge for authors and publishers is to catch the attention of the people at all these enterprises who choose among the cascade of books that arrive every day.

Is all that data what readers want? The editors clearly feel that it is, even though it is also featured on the paper's website. No matter what your view, the net effect would seem to be that fewer books can be featured in reviews. The newspaper also divides the daily and Sunday departments, so some books can be reviewed twice. A recent first book by a young historian got a daily, a Sunday, and a Sunday business review, a bonanza for the writer, but it could be argued more than its fair share. (Sales were, nonetheless, modest.)

So does the reduced space for reviews in so many publications mean that books are being covered less than they were? The answer, actually, is no. The New York Review of Books continues its unique blend of social, political, and literary criticism. The Wall Street Journal recently added a Saturday review section that is notable for its eclectic selection of titles and the quality of the pieces. Books are prominently featured in such magazines (and associated websites) as the Economist, The Atlantic, the New Yorker, Foreign Affairs, Harper's, the New Republic, and Foreign Policy. Every major digital publication provides significant book coverage, including Slate, the Huffington Post, and the Daily Beast. NPR.org has a lively book portal that complements the extensive play that books receive on programs such as All Things Considered, Fresh Air, the Diane Rehm Show, and many others. The Washington Independent Review of Books, which launched this winter, seems typical of efforts across the country to provide forums for meaningful book reviews and discussion. Galley Cat, a publishing newsletter that is part of Mediabistro, recently assembled a list of what it described as the "best book reviewers on Twitter," with dozens of names.

Presented by

Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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