May 18, 2013
Goodbye to All That
Posted on Sep 7, 2007
I knew very well when I took the job at the Los Angeles Times that getting ad revenue from publishers was all but hopeless. I had had to make tough decisions as a publisher myself about where to place ads and, for most books, buying ads in the Los Angeles Times didn’t make sense. The cost for a single full-page ad in its Book Review exceeded the entire advertising and promotional budgets for the vast majority of all books published. Given a choice between advertising in The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, publishers invariably and sensibly went for The New York Times. After all, The New York Times made sure that more than seventy-five thousand copies of its Sunday Book Review were separately available in bookstores across the country. Individual subscribers accounted for another twenty-eight thousand copies. In an industry where fifty thousand copies of a book sold within three weeks of publication is enough to make a book a national best-seller, any instrument of publicity that reasonably assures that the news of new books will get into the hands of readers disposed to buy them will always have pride of place with potential advertisers. That is why the prospect of commanding the attention of the one hundred thousand or so readers and separate subscribers to The New York Times Book Review offers the single most compelling reason for publishers to advertise in its pages (and to pay a premium for doing so) while ignoring the exorbitant fees more local papers charge. The Times offers a national audience in multiple markets and assures delivery to dedicated readers. Local papers can’t compete by offering meager coverage whose few pages are lost within the circulars and inserts of the typical Sunday paper.
During the years I edited the Los Angeles Times Book Review, it lost about a million dollars annually. The pittance the section received in the early years of my tenure, from the ads supplied chiefly by Barnes & Noble and Crown Books, dried up when B&N made a strategic decision to pull the bulk of its advertising from book sections in favor of placing ads in main news sections, and when Crown Books, owned by the feuding Haft family, declared bankruptcy. Nothing that has occurred in the more than two decades since Shaw’s 1985 survey suggests that book reviews are clinging to life on anything other than the sufferance of their respective papers’ managers. And now that support, always precarious, is at ever greater risk.
The argument that it is book sections’ lack of advertising revenue from publishers that constrains book coverage is bogus. Such coverage has rarely made a dime for newspapers. Nor will it. Book publishers have scant resources; their own profits are too slim and, besides, newspapers charge too much for them to afford significant print advertising. Just to pay for the real estate in the chain stores consumes a huge chunk of a publisher’s advertising budget. Moreover, their own marketing surveys consistently show that most people who buy books do so not on the basis of any review they read, nor ad they’ve seen, but upon word of mouth. What’s worse is that most people who buy books, like most people who watch movies, don’t read reviews at all. For those who do, however, reviews are an invaluable way of eavesdropping, as it were, on an ongoing cultural conversation of critical importance.
The obligation of America’s newspapers to cover this conversation—to cover the news of books—ought not to depend on the dollars that are (or are not) to be derived from publishers’ ads in the book supplement. It’s beside the point. Of course, if one were to make profit the measure of such coverage, then the model to be emulated is less that of the typical newspaper and more the model of a magazine like The New York Review of Books, the most profitable and erudite and influential review publication in the history of modern American letters. It enjoys a readership of 280,000—readers who remain loyal to its unflaggingly high standard—and has been in the black for nearly forty years.
At the Los Angeles Times, as at other newspapers, readers of the Book Review were a minority of the paper’s overall circulation. Internal market surveys at the Times consistently showed the Book Review to be the single worst-read weekly section produced by the paper. I was neither surprised nor alarmed. Since most people didn’t read books, I figured of those who did, only a fanatical few would go to any great length actually to read about them. The regular consumption of book reviews is an acquired taste. Since 1975, when the Book Review was created as a separate section at the Los Angeles Times, it had almost always been the least-read section of the Sunday paper. This was so at other newspapers as well.
This unhappy fact bears scrutiny. Among the paper’s most well-off and best-read demographic cohorts—whose members arguably make up any book review’s ideal readers—the Sunday Book Review was among the more favored of the weekly sections of the Los Angeles Times. Ed Batson, the paper’s director of marketing research, told me that in 2004 some 1.2 million people had read the Book Review over the past four Sundays out of 6.4 million readers. The core readership of what Batson called the paper’s “Cosmopolitan Enthusiasts” amounted to about three hundred and twenty thousand avid and dedicated readers for whom the weekly Book Review was among the most important sections of the paper. It was, in part, because of the devotion of this core readership that when, having survived three editorial regime changes, I chose to leave the Times in 2005, I believed that my work there had driven a wooden stake through the idea that no one reads or cares about serious criticism in L.A.
If newspapers properly understood such readers and the lifestyle they pursue, they would, in theory, be able to attract advertising from a diverse array of companies, including movie companies, coffee manufacturers, distillers of premium whisky, among others. Diversification of ad revenue is a key component of a winning strategy of growth. But apart from The New York Times, no newspaper has dedicated sales reps whose sole job is to sell space for book ads. And even The New York Times, with three such reps, finds it hard to drum up significant business.
It is an unfortunate truth that a mass readership will always elude any newspaper section dedicated to the review of books. Nevertheless, I was convinced that because readers of book reviews are among a paper’s best-educated and most prosperous readers, it might be possible to turn a cultural imperative into a profitable strategy. Such a strategy would require commitment and vision from the overlords of the newspaper—qualities that, if history is any guide, are always in short supply.
News That Stays News
Carlin Romano, the book critic of The Philadelphia Inquirer, ran up against this widespread prejudice time and again. “I remember once putting on the cover of my section a translation of Tirant Lo Blanc, a Catalan epic, on the dubious argument that maybe, you know, it’s the next Cervantes and it will endure in the culture.” (Published in 1490, Tirant Lo Blanc had, in fact, strongly influenced Cervantes when he wrote Don Quixote a century later.) “I got called into the office on that, and someone said, ‘Have you gone crazy?’” Romano goes further: “Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of American newspapers in the 1990s is their hostility to reading in all forms.” This is the taboo that dares not speak its name.
I wanted to say goodbye to all that. Where everyone else was going faster, shorter, dumber, I was intent upon going slower, longer, smarter, on the perhaps foolhardy presumption that there were enough adults out there in Newspaper Land who yearned to be spoken to as adults. During my years at the helm of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, I always did have an Ideal Literary Editor in my head. I often tried to imagine what I might do if I had been, say, the literary editor of The Times of London in 1900 when a then-obscure Viennese doctor named Sigmund Freud published his first book, The Interpretation of Dreams. Suppose I’d had on my desk only two books—Freud’s and, say, the next surefire best-selling novel by Mrs. Humphry Ward, the Danielle Steel of her day. Space is, as ever, limited. Mrs. Ward’s publisher has announced an unprecedented first printing of one hundred thousand (the equivalent of at least a half million today) while Freud’s book will start off with well under a thousand copies (of which it will take his independent publisher the next six years to sell a paltry 351 copies). I have to choose which to review. I like to think I would have chosen the Freud. I like to think that I would have had the perspicacity to ask George Bernard Shaw to undertake it. And I like to think that I would have asked Shaw to write a long essay—some 2,500 words, more if he thought it warranted—in which he would declare the book a masterpiece, of lasting merit, and predict that it would go on to influence the whole of the twentieth century. As indeed it would. Who, today, remembers Mrs. Humphry Ward? Or, for that matter, the editor who chose her book over Freud’s?
From time to time, occasions for such choices presented themselves during my tenure as editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. To be honest, it was less a matter of serendipity than my own willfulness. Two instances stand out. In 1997, Penguin announced that it would be releasing a volume of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s selected writings. Years ago, Carlos Fuentes had told me of this remarkable seventeenth-century Mexican nun and poet. I had never heard of her. Nor was I alone. Much of her work had yet to be translated into English, even some three hundred years after her death. It was, Fuentes said, as if Shakespeare had still to be translated into Spanish. The whole of Spanish literature owed a debt to her work. Thus I decided that an anthology of her writings, translated by the excellent Margaret Sayers Peden, and published under the imprimatur of Penguin Classics, ought to be treated as news. Big news. After all, about a quarter of the readers of the Los Angeles Times had Latino roots.
Octavio Paz, Mexico’s greatest living poet and critic, contributed a lengthy essay praising Sor Juana. But when I showed the color proof of the cover to my superiors, I was met with baffled incomprehension. Sor Juana who? A nun who’d been dead for almost half a millennium? Had I taken complete leave of my senses?
Dispirited, proof in hand, I trundled up to the paper’s executive dining room to brood upon the wisdom of my decision. When Alberto Gonzalez, the paper’s longtime Mexican American waiter, appeared to take my order, he exhaled audibly and exclaimed: “Sor Juana!” “You’ve heard of her?” I asked. “Of course. Every school child in Mexico knows her poems. I still remember my parents taking me as a small boy to visit her convent, now a museum. I know many of her poems by heart.” At which point, in a mellifluous Spanish, he began to recite several verses. So much for my minders, I thought; I’m going to trust Alberto on this one.
After Paz’s paean appeared, many people wrote to praise the Book Review for at last recognizing the cultural heritage of a substantial segment of the paper’s readers. Their response suggested that the surest route to connecting with readers was to give them the news that stays news.
In 1999, Modern Library announced the imminent publication of a new translation of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma by Richard Howard, America’s most gifted living French translator. Such a translation of one of the classics of Western literature was, I felt, news. And so I commissioned a lengthy essay by Edmund White which turned out to be so laudatory that I published it prominently in the Sunday Book Review. The next morning, Michael Parks, then the editor of the entire paper, waved me into his office as I happened to walk by. With one eyebrow cocked, he looked at me and said with a kind of weary bewilderment: “Steve, Stendhal? Another dead, white, European male?” I explained my reasons. He didn’t seem convinced.
Readers all over Los Angeles, however, came to my aid. Thanks to them, the Stendhal was flying out of local bookstores and rising steadily on the paper’s best-seller list. Our review was followed by considerations in The New York Review of Books and The New York Times Book Review. Sales took off, prompting The New Yorker’s Talk of the Town to print an item tracing the trajectory of the book’s unexpected success and crediting the Los Angeles Times for having helped to spark the sudden national interest.
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