Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Reviews Are Not In

Dave Rosenthal is the Sunday editor and an assistant managing editor at The Baltimore Sun and helps write the Sun’s book blog, Read Street.

Darlene Ryan was kind enough to invite me to be a guest blogger at PDD, most likely because of my Poe connections (or maybe because we're both Boston Red Sox fans). Living in Baltimore -- where Poe lived and is buried -- I've become familiar with the genius who has inspired so many other mystery and horror writers. And his name frequently pops up on The Baltimore Sun's book blog, Read Street, which I help write.

The Sun wasn't around when Poe was born, but it had been in business for more than a decade before his death in 1849. The paper has survived a Civil War and a couple of World Wars, a Depression and many recessions. But in some ways, the Sun and other U.S. newspapers face their greatest challenge today. Financial pressures, triggered by a decline in young readers and the growth of online competitors, have forced newspapers to shrink -- and that, in turn, has meant big changes in the way books are written about.

At the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Hartford Courant, full-time book editors have left and were not replaced. The Los Angeles Times eliminated its book review section and folded coverage into the lifestyle section. Other papers, including the Sun, have trimmed book coverage; we cut back from two pages to one each Sunday.

Some newspapers have started book blogs to supplement print coverage. But in a true nature-abhors-a-vacuum trend, dozens (if not hundreds) of independent blogs have sprung up. They're personal and funny and enlightening, like a conversation with a neighbor -- a counterbalance to traditional newspaper book reviews that have tended toward stuffiness. More and more seem to appear each day, fueled by publishers and authors eager to find new outlets to generate buzz.

Becca Rowan, creator of the Bookstack blog, told me in an email, "if the trend keeps up at this rate, I can see blogging supplanting the role of newspaper reviews, with the exception perhaps of the 'gold standard' reviewers like the Times and the Guardian. ,,, And though I grew up as a huge newspaper junkie, I rarely read the print versions of papers or book review pages." (She does profess to like Read Street, for which I'm grateful.)

So what happens now? I don't expect the financial pressures on U.S. newspapers to ease anytime soon, so book sections and pages likely will continue to decline. More newspapers may try blogs, which offer great advantages such as video, reader interaction and experimentation – like the U.S. map we created at Read Street of favorite bookstores. But even that will be difficult as staffs shrink, and lifestyle reporters focus on movies and pop music. And that will open the door for more and more bloggers -- and more and more independent voices.

Joshua Henkin, the author of Matrimony, may be one of the authors most attuned to -- and supportive of -- book bloggers. But he's dismayed by the decline in newspaper review sections. In an email exchange, he wrote: "The rise of book blogs is a good thing, it seems to me, but the concomitant decline of book sections in newspapers certainly isn't. It gets harder and harder for new writers to be discovered when the page space for book reviews keeps shrinking. ... So for a certain kind of book of literary fiction, book reviews are indispensable, and to the extent that book review sections are, in fact, being dispensed with, it's a loss for literary culture."

11 comments:

Lori said...

Welcome Dave. Do you have any thoughts on what type of books are getting reviewed in newspapers? I see a lot of literary novels and less genre.

Dave said...

You're absolutely right, and that's one of the reasons newspaper review sections are suffering -- they don't have as much variety as they should. There are exceptions. The Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel has been very strong in reviewing mysteries, and hopefully that won't change now that Oline Cogdill has taken a buyout. The Baltimore Sun usually has at least a short roundup each week on a theme such as mysteries. Horror and fantasy also get some attention, at least if the characters include vampires or Harry Potter. Romance, forget about it. Urban fiction, no way. This is an area where newspaper blogs can offer more options, at least by linking to other sites.

Judy said...

Hi Dave. I'd like to know what book blogs you read and has reading an author's blog gotten you to go out and buy their books?

Dave said...

I read some author blogs, including PDD, but mainly general interest ones. I have read books based on blog recommendations, but I don't think any came from an author's site in the past few months. Blogs I read regularly range from those with a literary tone (Paper Cuts, The Elegant Variation and Critical Mass) to those that are have a broader audience (Boston Bibliophile, Age30books, Bookninja, etc.). I have more than 30 on my favorites list, and it's growing all the time. From a reader's perspective, how do you keep up with the growth in blogs and find new ones?

Sandra Parshall said...

Dave, do you think online communities, such as DorothyL for mysteries, can keep a genre alive? Of course, people have to subscribe to DL to read it, and they have to be mystery readers already to even know and care about DL, so it can't sell a book to a general reader in the way a newspaper review might. Same goes for print publications like The Mystery News, Mystery Scene, etc. They reach the dedicated mystery fans, but they don't recruit new ones.

Some dedicated fans make a point of never reading the reviews posted on DL or on reader blogs because they aren't "professional" reviews. I look on reader reviews as a form of word of mouth, and I'm happy to have it, as both a reader and a writer. I'm sure that in some cases, these may be the only reviews a book will get.

Dave said...

Sandra, I think online communities are the best -- and maybe the only -- way to keep a genre alive if the trends in newspapering continue. Papers are across the U.S. will increasingly share general interest content -- in Sunday's Baltimore Sun, for example, the review of the new Philip Roth book is from the L.A. Times. That frees the paper's own staff to focus on local topics that are its strength. As papers narrow their focus in that way, I doubt they'll be looking out for broad genres. I'm surprised that readers of a specialty site would not read those reviews. I don't think reviewers for newspapers have any monopoly on wisdom. In fact, reporters often are thrown onto new beats and have to develop an expertise. Even our foreign correspondents would get a crash course in language and cultural studies before taking an overseas assignments.

Susan E said...

Thanks for the list of blogs you like. But all those websites are part of the problem. When do you find time to read the books if you're reading the lists? Do you have any tricks for managing all the information out there so it doesn't overwhelm you? One week of following DorthyL and I've added two books to a hip deep list of TBR books.

Dave said...

Susan, my TBR list keeps growing and growing, and I'm not the sort of person who can read more than one book at a time. One secret is to have grown children. I don't think I could have started the blog, in addition to my other job at The Sun, if I was still driving kids to baseball games and dance rehearsals. I still don't read as much as I'd like -- does any of us? -- but I try to limit my blog-reading to work hours, and savor the free time at home for reading (even if it's a few pages between innings of a televised baseball game).

olinecog said...

Good post, Dave. Very insightful. While it's true I took the buyout at the Sun-Sentinel, a decision that was one of the hardest I've ever made, I plan to continue to freelance my mystery fiction reviews to the SS as long as I can. The books editor wants me to and I want to. I also plan to continue contributing to the sun-sentinel.com/offthepage blog. I just got back from a 3 week vacation (I had filed my reviews thru Oct. 12)and am catching up writing reviews on books I read while gone, etc. The only thing that could stop me from continuing to freelance for the Sun-Sentinel is, addition to shrinking Books pages, newspapers also are cutting back or eliminating freelance opportunities. Those of you who are newspaper readers need to let your local paper know how important it is for books pages to continue.
-- Oline H. Cogdill

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Oline, thanks for sharing the good news that you will continue to review mysteries. This kind of information (from Dave and from Oline) makes the case for reading not only blogs like PDD, but the comments as well. How not to overload? Scroll scroll scroll, skim skim skim. I find the tidbits I truly need to know leap out at me.

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