This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

29 April 2001 — Suddenly, and in unnerving synchronicity, the book world went through one of those spasms of queasying, world–altering change last week, the kind that leave you worried about the greater culture.

In the space of just a few days, publishers of three of the four top stand–alone newspaper book–review sections in the country — the Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, and the most influential book reviewer of them all, the New York Times — decided it was time for drastic cutbacks in their books coverage. In fact, two of the four — the Globe and the Chronicle — decided they didn't even need stand–alone book sections. And the Times cut back its famous Sunday Book Review by two full pages.

Of the top free–standing book sections, only the Washington Post's Bookworld remained unscathed.

And those weren't the only book sections cutting back. Coverage in the San Diego Union–Tribune will also undergo major downsizing, and the Seattle Times just shrank its book section by two thirds. This, just after the demise, earlier this year, of the highly–respected pull–out section of the San Jose Mercury News.

And those are merely the famous sections.

What gives?

Publishers generally cite finances — costs have gone up and readership down. Plus, book sections rarely bring in much advertising — in fact, less now than formerly. The demise of independent bookstores has meant fewer small ads that can fit into a normal book section (which are not pull–out sections at most papers). Chain booksellers, meanwhile, usually want larger ads that would take up most of a normal book section. So, they run elsewhere in the newspaper (and get credited to other sections). And outside the larger markets, the chains don't run many ads at all.

But books coverage is profitable to newspapers in other ways. Reader surveys consistently show people like and want book sections, and believe a good book section reflects well on the intellectual quality of the entire newspaper.

What's more, book buyers are precisely the demographic most newspapers are after right now. And especially with readership down, it makes no sense to reject that part of the audience prone to reading in the first place — who, after all, is a more likely to buy a newspaper, someone who reads books, or someone who doesn't?

But advertising cash–in–hand apparently outweighs ideas of service to a readership.

Meanwhile, publishers rarely announce cutbacks to readers — those cited above were all leaked — and generally obscure what they're actually doing.

At the Chronicle, where books coverage will become part of the arts and entertainment section, executive editor Phil Bronstein denied that the amount of pages devoted to books will be lessened, but did say he'd use fewer reviews and more features. Insiders, meanwhile, said the section would be cut back by a third, from twelve to eight and a half pages.

At the Globe the book section will be absorbed into the "Focus" news analysis section. Editor Matthew Storin admitted there won't be room to keep both sections at their former size, and hinted the solution was for individual reviews to cover more than one book.

In any event, it seems bizarre that book sections in three of the country's leading book markets will be cut back. After all, in those markets in particular, the coverage of books constitutes important cultural news. But that's what makes this another one of those modern, peculiar, worrying moments. Newspapers rejecting news that doesn't pay for itself? Rejecting readers in favor of immediate profits? Replacing hard news with soft?

It's happening across the country, though, and the nonsensical nature of it makes it another one of those phenomenons that leave people feeling frustrated and powerless. At the New York Times, where the paper strangely reduced its most efficient section, "Books in Brief," three weeks ago, editor Charles McGrath said, "we haven't [heard] a peep" from readers. "Either they haven't noticed, which is distressing, or they're resigned."

But that tells us, at least, that editors were looking for reader reactions.

In San Francisco, they got some. As the Los Angeles Times reported, "a howl went up from Bay Area literati" at news of the cutbacks. Leading the opposition is author Diane Middlebrook, who launched a letter–writing campaign demanding that the Chronicle not "demote book talk to the status of infotainment."

Opponents will no doubt be labeled elitists, but why is it elitism to protest another dumbing–down taking place not because people are dumber but because it's more profitable?

So, what can you do about it?

Reader, write.

Last Week’s Column: BOOKS ON TRIAL As if in microcosm of the rest of society, the book business is in tumult over the rise of mega–corporations and new technology. And a spate of recent court cases may have just put the tumult into hyperdrive.


Write to Moby
Letters policy: All letters must be signed. Also, please say where you’re writing from — either an affiliation or hometown.
All material not otherwise attributed ©2001 Dennis Loy Johnson.