Book reviews, future of -- from another source

Peter Osnos, of the Century Foundation, has a remarkably welcome column about newspaper book review pages: how newspapers might get more ads in them, how they could make the pages more interesting in a world where Starbucks has suddenly become a major player on the bestseller lists and how publishers could actually help in all this even with their tiny publicity budgets.

It's a welcome column, not just because it covers some of the points I've made about book review pages and their money sources, but because it actually advances sensible arguments not previously heard in all of the cutbacks and wailing over same. The notion, as advanced by Jay Trachtenberg in The Wall Street Journal, that the publishing industry has only itself to blame for cutbacks in ads (and therefore cutbacks in book sections), is pretty thin -- if not outright nonsense.

One of the more intriguing suggestions that Mr. Osnos offers is based on the education-industry ads that the NYTimes developed into what are now several pages for its Week in Review section. These can't be high-cost display ads (many of the little colleges couldn't afford them), yet they've become a standard feature of the section, certainly something of a moneymaker for the Times, otherwise they wouldn't continue. Mr. Osnos also notes that many small-press and university-press ads run in The New York Review of Books -- for what, again, must be relatively low rates. Yet they make money for the NYRB.

Why not something similar for book pages across the country?

In my experience, the weakness in this idea -- or the change that newspapers would have to make -- is that no single ad person handles book-related ads. They provide such small revenue. When I was the theater critic and tried to get The Dallas Morning News to collect all of the theater ads into a few pages in its Guide listings section -- the better to emphasize their presence, make them more like the Times' Broadway directory -- I found the ad department to be set up almost as if it were designed to frustrate what would seem to be a perfectly sensible idea. There was no single, point person to handle such ads; they came from different sources, were handled in different ways, ended up in different locations.

In short, newspapers generally don't have anyone trained to deal with such areas -- unlike the staff they have for car ads -- because the arts & entertainment field (except for movie or restaurant ads) is so nickel-and-dime. It would take some re-education (not impossible but necessary) for anything like Mr. Osnos proposes to get off the ground and the newspapers probably believe it just wouldn't be worth it.

But as he writes:

"Books, as has been said many times, have proven to be durable objects of popular interest against the onslaught of movies, television, and the Web. Book review sections and pages are vulnerable to the pressures of economics, but they always have been. What we need is for the people on both sides of the proverbial divide, the people who make and sell books and the people who publish newspapers and magazines, to realize that protecting and supporting book reviews is worth the trouble."

Thanks to Bill for the link.

March 13, 2007 6:08 PM | | Comments (2)



Interesting and different.

I applaud the idea; most of us in the small press world would welcome the ability to get "ink" without sacrificing our entire promo budget for one 1/16 page ad...If we have to choose between that one ad and the rest of what we do, direct mail, postcards, co-op in stores, website links/search engine placements, we'll choose those we can track more easily, to see if they produce sales or even any ripples of interest.


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