Archive for August 23rd, 2011

The future of book reviewing and one cranky man…

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011
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By "Drew" at "Toothpaste for Dinner" blog

More lamentations on the demise of the book review industry – if it was ever an industry – and the elimination of free-lancers and staff at the once-great Los Angeles Times Book Review (I wrote about that here, and I wrote about the demise of the Washington Post Book World here).

Richard Rayner and Susan Salter Reynolds, evacuees from the L.A. Times Book Review debacle, have been absorbed by the Los Angeles Review of Books. “Once you step past the rubble, the smoking ruins,” Reynolds says, “you see that there are still places for book reviews that care more about readers and writers than bottom lines and bean counters, more about the future than fashion, more about the thrill of reading than the so-called death of the book. The Los Angeles Review of Books is such a place and I am delighted to be a part of it.”  One problem:  It doesn’t pay its contributors. Just like other online sites.

Their editor-in-chief Tom Lutz writes:

Book review supplements have been shuttered at the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere, all for the same reason: the sections were not (and never had been) profit centers. Traditionally, of course, the editorial side of the paper dictated what to cover and the business side figured out how to pay for it. This allowed decisions about what was “fit to print” to operate independently from the courting of advertisers. Zell came to the Times vowing to break down what he called this “artificial wall” between editorial content and advertising sales, a misunderstanding of the most basic precept of ethical journalism. Worse yet, each section of the paper, it was decided, needed to make its own profit or die, like subsidiaries of a company. Since book advertising had never fully supported the Sunday supplements, they were preordained casualties.

Of course, sports sections aren’t asked to support themselves by the advertisements of sports stores or the manufacturers of catcher’s mitts, so this standard has always been unevenly applied.  It’s a shortsighted policy in any case.  As the ever-wise Jeff Sypeck commented on my earlier post about the L.A. Times:

“As I see it, one of the ironies here is that the paper is gutting the section that attracts obsessive readers–not just of book reviews, or books, but potentially the entire rest of the paper. (I’m reminded of your post from earlier this year about how one Washington Post blogger made fun of Donald Hall while the newspaper devoted virtually no coverage to the artists and writers who received the National Arts and Humanities Medals.) I often think that the final obituary for the newspaper business will conclude that, among other causes of death, they chased imaginary audiences of people who otherwise don’t really read instead of catering to the inquisitive, hard-core readers they already had.”

Much is made of how difficult it is to support oneself as a book reviewer.  Heavens,  I’m surprised that they even tried.  During my free-lance days, my book reviewing was my high-profile prestige work, a habit supported by magazine features that paid better.  As Edward Champion puts it so pointedly on the website Reluctant Habits:

"We'll be living in small ghettos..."

The dirty little secret is that freelancers get paid hardly anything. A fortuitous freelancer can count on a sum just under $200 if a review is commissioned by the Dallas Morning News, the San Francisco Chronicle, or the Philly Inquirer. But shouldn’t one expect more from three of the top 50 United States newspapers? If we translate that $200 into labor — let’s say that it takes about fifteen hours to read a book and five hours to write the review — the freelancer basically earns around $10/hour before paying taxes. You could probably make more money working at a touchless car wash. Small wonder that so many, including yours truly, have dropped out of this dubious racket, leaving it to increasingly sour practitioners. Book reviewing has reached a point where those who are left practically have to beg editors to get into a slot. And if book reviewing has become a vocation in which veteran and novice alike must debase themselves for scraps, one must legitimately ask if there’s any real point in such an uncivilized and undercompensated trade carrying on.

A few years ago I asked Adam Zagajewski about the future of poetry poetry-lovers in the world of tweets and sound bites – but his words might apply to book lovers as well:

“We’ll be living in small ghettos, far from where celebrities dwell, and yet in every generation there will be a new delivery of minds that will love long and slow thoughts and books and poetry and music, so that these rather pleasant ghettos will never perish — and one day may even stir more excitement than we’re used to now.”

On a less cerebral note, Harlan Ellison rants on youtube about the about the unpaid labors of writers.  It’s been viewed more than half a million times: