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."