Book reviews and ad revenues

Jay Trachtenberg has an article in the Wall Street Journal this morning about the decline in newspapers' book pages, tied to the LATimes' re-vamp of its 30-year-old book section. Needless to say, everyone in the publishing industry is e-mailing it to everyone else because of Mr. Trachtenberg's charge: Publishers have shifted their ad dollar to buying in-store display space, and this loss of revenue accounts for the dying book reviews. The industry has only itself to blame.

"Even those who say they still support book-section advertising say it's only effective as part of a larger marketing effort. Michael Pietsch, publisher of Lagardere SCA's Little, Brown imprint, says advertising in book reviews can help drive sales if the author is well-known and if it's done in conjunction with online campaigns....

"New York publishing houses have always cried poverity when it comes to advertising. Every book requires a different ad, as in the movie business, but the publishers don't have the studios' deep pockets. And unlike other advertisers, publishers can't do brand-building: No one buys a book because it comes from Random House or Simon & Schuster."

But the weakness in Mr. Trachtenberg's argument is apparent in that paragraph: Ad revenue from books has always been a trickle. Book publicity is a relatively minor factor when it comes to newspaper revenue. And, it's been argued, even to book sales.

I'm perfectly willing to be corrected on this point, but I don't believe any newspaper's book pages (unless they're absolutely miniscule) are supported by the publishing industry -- and that includes the well-known freestanding book sections in New York, LA, Chicago and Philly. It may be that those sections have had such razor-thin budgets all along that a decline even in the small area of book ads has been enough to threaten the sections' very existence.

But I repeat what I said last year to Pat Schroeder, president of the American Association of Publishers, when she protested to The Dallas Morning News about its arts coverage cutbacks:

"In my experience, newspaper arts coverage -- including the book pages -- is supported by movie ads (and to the degree that they're part of the same pages, restaurant ads). Publishers and booksellers will never have the kind of ad budget to support book pages across the country. But there are significant services of big-city newspapers that have never been supported by ad revenue: op-ed pages, letters page, investigative reporting, editorial cartoons and the like. These were once considered the mark of serious newspapers educating and leading their communities, but it's precisely these money-losing areas that are being gutted by papers under the gun to keep up ridiculously high profit margins for Wall Street."

One might suspect the Wall Street Journal of an unwillingness to accuse newspaper owners for their years of over-the-top profits and their gouge-the-customers approach to ad rates as possible factors here. They begin losing that revenue to online sources and in-store displays (among other things) and promptly start gutting their cultural coverage in response. One might.

But Mr. Trachtenberg does quote the Chicago Tribune's managing editor-features Jim Warren on the time-honored value of the book pages to the newspapers' own mission and audience: "A book-review section is a small but important symbol of the support of literacy."

Or, as the Philly Inquirer's Frank Wilson puts it later: "I don't understand why newspapers, when they want to cut space, they immediately think of depriving those people who like to read."

To continue with my argument: "Reader outrage can actually influence a newspaper's decisions, but I suspect that trying to combat that revenue vise by appealing to a newspaper's traditional higher calling is not going to work. As I pointed out, though, the NFL doesn't support even a tiny fraction of the massive outpouring of free sports coverage it gets from papers, TV, radio and the internet. It's other advertisers who covet that football-fascinated audience. If the AAP wanted to do anything, it could try to convince advertisers that the readers of books pages may not be the young illiterates with poor impulse control that marketers currently want but neither are they the old and the dying, as conventional ad wisdom has it. They're a well-off, often media-savvy and intellectually- and socially-involved audience.

"This is not some wildly unconventional, radical re-think: TV networks have come to respond to an older audience (the kids are all off in the clubs or on the computer anyway) and has long positioned 'geezer' ads for its news programming. Why not the arts pages?"

Mr. Wilson does suggest another possible way out of this trap: online syndication -- in effect. If newspapers are supposedly shifting some of their attention and staffing to online resources and if publishers are using web campaigns more, then why can't the Philly Inquirer tap into these two trends and franchise its reviews to other papers, with them adding their own local reviews?

But I don't see how this differs from what happens today with papers like the Morning News augmenting their own dwindling freelance reviews with wire copy. Perhaps Mr. Wilson may elaborate on his brief suggestion in the WSJ.

March 6, 2007 8:14 AM | | Comments (2)



I know. I know. I know. I'm despicable. A bad person. Horrid. Morally bankrupt. Worthy only of scorn, ridicule, rage, finger-wagging, hand-wringing, blog heebejeebies, hatred, and letters on etiquette.

Beyond that...

(The one thing I'm not is Your Fellow Traveler).

Beyond that...

I note that whenever there's an article published like this one, well-written, thoughtful, and sincere, it misses one point that I would argue goes to an issue that is at the heart of this conflict but only rarely gets articulated.

Two words: Corporate Culture.

The tension and the struggle that exists between Corporate Culture and the World of Books has the World of Books constantly limping along with its panties in a knot about "what happened."

What happened is that the paradigm of Corporate Culture is so institutionalized it simply doesn't know what you're talking about when you're suggesting a shift in paradigm struucture in order to keep the World of Books alive and well and living in Manhattan and not all that far from Wall Street thusly the WSJ does get involved here. As it should.

In the old days, the suggestion that the money get put over here, or get shifted over there used to be something the people in the world of books used to comprehend because there was an editorial connection or a bridge between the making and the buying of books.

Corporate Culture bought the thing like it would any other gas station.

Today, the people who sell the books. whether they're publishers or publicists, understand the rituals, hierarchies, temples, rules, and regulations of Corporate Culture. They're quite successful at it and can fit into any lunch at Tavern on the Green. They, too, find the numbers game in publishing to be worrisome. But when it comes to the editorial dynamics of what makes books sell, they're treading water like everyone else. What makes a book well-written remains an exotic animal they'd like to tend to, but that animal's sensibilities are so prone to changing its spots, they're not on familiar ground.

Corporate Culture is what demands their attention and Corporate Culture gets tended to not the World of Books that understands the economic shell game that must be played in order to survive in the World of Books. Corporate Culture's economic paradigm is very tediously strict in terms of where and how Capital is invested.

I would suggest that there is an enigmatic connection between a book that has a voice that speaks to a critic who has a voice as well. Both are rare and need to be treated with everything from respect to renumeration. This is rare as well. It does happen but in the World of Books it is the exception, not the rule.

Today, the publishers are employees. They do not usually OWN publishing houses and certainly not multiple publishing houses that are a part of international conglomerates with stockholders with solid credentials on Wall Street, Boards of Directors with the Real Money (Real Money that is subjected to shell games FAR more convoluted than anything publishing could comprehend), and investiture in MEDIA.

Hence someone like Rupert Murdoch is quite capable of approving what Judith Regen does on one hand and firing her on the other.

When the spots change color in Corporate Culture, the things That Happen will see events like a new (female) talking head at CBS. That is a Dog and Pony Show they can fathom as they stand back to count those numbers coming in.

Supporting good writers who are critics covering good writers who are simply being good writers within the context of Corporate Culture demands numbers publishing simply doesn't have to bring to the table to negotiate and Corporate Culture knows it. Numbers are what they do and what they tend to. Not critics and not writers. Often, not publishing houses.

This paradigm translates to the World of Books in visceral ways.

They would say: In order for us to justify a management structure that facilitates newspaper focus on books, prove to us that critics sell books. There are two realities here. Critics hate this. They really do because from their perspective (isolated) they have authority and gravitas. But the extent to which they actually SELL numbers of books that Corporate Culture understands is questionable and no paradigm exists for anyone in the World of Books to come to the Corporate Media Table with charts and graphs that prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that critics sell books thusly a change in focus is necessary.

Those numbers are elusive. They may, in fact, be there, but they're only there to such varying degrees it would be quite impossible to convince Corporate Culture that it needs to shift its focus to make money AND produce good books. For one thing, they CARE about mass markets not good books. And Corporate Culture is offended when Outsiders (they may look the part but publishing insiders are minor, minor plays in Corporate Culture, and most of them need to make appointments to see Rupert because he's busy with serious matters) assume they know how to make the money and can dictate those terms to the Media Grand Pubahs who understand (in spite of appearances) their tenures are tenuous.

Of course, everything suggested in your focus and thrust of argument makes sense to anyone in the World of Books. But not enough sense (or numbers) to translate into reason or motivation for Corporate Culture to change a paradigm that supports them. The rise in the price of stock is what supports them and anything that doesn't directly attend to that is seen as fundamentally ephemeral if not, indeed, frivolous. These values may be culturally shallow to the point of absurdity but most culures have serious investments in human absurdity whether they are aware of it or not which is why there are critics and writers to point that out to them.

Not that it matters one whit. They have the Real Money and Everyone Else does not.

Mr. Weeks,

I looked you up on the Internet today, because I heard your critique of Larry McMurtry's new book this morning on KERA. It reminded me how much I miss reading your book reviews and weekly column in the incredibly shrinking DMN. One of the first things that popped up was your Bookdaddy blog of January something where you talked about the cuts in the arts & reviewing staff being justified by the lack of advertising support for the pages.

I did really like Guide LIve when it first came out and had lots of reviews & critiques in it. And I was surprised that I liked it, because I dreaded the latest "redesign" of the DMN. It was so obvious that the paper was floundering about, trying to find a market.

So it was kind of freaky to open up my WSJ this morning and see the story about publishers not supporting book review sections. I've always been an avid book review reader, even when I know I'll never read the book. I read reviews of books (and to a lesser extent plays and movies) because they're interesting and I learn something and am entertained. I've often clipped reviews in the past, filed them away, come across them again, and tracked down the book.

I'm not a McMurtry fan, so I listened to your review this morning knowing that I wouldn't read his latest (and it doesn't surprise me that he's so obviously running out of steam. I'm just not impressed by McMurtry worship. I know it's heresy, but I don't think he's that great a writer. His writing is too flat for me; it's all there on the page, one-dimensional. And I rarely care about the characters.).

But I enjoyed your review, and it wasn't entirely because I agreed with your opinion about his writing.

What's kind of funny about this whole advertising/book review thing to me, is that my husband and I probably spend several thousand dollars a year on books. We spend more money on books than on clothes or just about anything else. Frequently those are books that I know from reviews. If I don't read or hear reviews, how do I have a clue that I want to read a particular book? I don't want to just buy books I've seen at Barnes & Noble.

And I don't even know how to express how disappointed/angry/frustrated I am by the current DMN. I've taken it for almost 30 years, starting in Dallas in the late 1970s and continuing through moves to Midland and Tyler. But I'm very close to giving up on it. It's such a shadow of its former self. The science and religion sections were also favorites of mine, and they are gone now, too. It's sad on Sunday to see how thin the paper is after the classified ads and inserts are removed.

Anyway, I enjoyed hearing your review, and I'll now make a point of checking out this blog. I really do miss reading your reviews. I hope you have gone on to bigger and better things. You're an excellent writer and reviewer.


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Pat Barker, Frankenstein, Cass Sunstein on the internet, Samuel Johnson, Thrillers, Denis Johnson, Alan Furst, Caryl Phillips, Richard Flanagan, George Saunders, Michael Harvey, Larry McMurtry, Harry Potter and more ...


Big D between the sheets -- Dallas in fiction


Reviewing the state of reviewing


9/11 as a novel: Why?


How can critics say the things they do? And why does anyone pay attention? It's the issue of authority.

The disappearing book pages:  

Papers are cutting book coverage for little reason

Thrillers and Lists:  

Noir favorites, who makes the cut and why



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This page contains a single entry by book/daddy published on March 6, 2007 8:14 AM.

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