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“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” –Oscar Wilde
Recently writer Michael Connolly, who’s written, among other things, the mystery The Overlook (Little, Brown and Company, coming May 22nd, 2007), and The Lincoln Lawyer (Little, Brown and Company, 2005) published the opinion piece “The folly of downsizing book reviews” in the Los Angeles Times. As he explains, newspapers around the country, including the Los Angeles Times, as well as the Chicago Tribune, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the Orlando Sentinel, are cutting back on the space devoted to book reviews. At the Raleigh News & Observer the book critic position was simply eliminated. Fortunately the Washington Post Book World is still around, as is the Times Literary Supplement, although I worry about their futures.
Good reviews of Connelly’s first novel, The Black Echo (Little, Brown and Company, 1992) gave a big boost to his career as an author. Reviews helped sell it and subsequent books. By cutting book reviews newspapers are hurting authors, but they’re also shooting themselves in the foot.
In a world where today’s bottom line–not tomorrow’s–is all that matters the long-term consequences of cutting the book section aren’t something a newspaper’s accountants aren’t ever going to consider. This is surprising, especially since publishers and film studios obviously recognize the value of reviews. Back in 2001 Sony invented a film critic, named David Manning, to give good reviews to Sony Films. There are even more books published every year than there are movies produced, and newspapers actually need to encourage reading. As Connelly explains, “People who read books also read newspapers. From that basic tenet came a philosophy: If you foster books, you foster reading. If you foster reading, you foster newspapers.”
What Connelly doesn’t mention, although I think it’s implied in his argument, is that no one writes in a vacuum. Writers are, by necessity, also readers. Encouraging reading, especially critical, thoughtful reading, is helping to train the next generation of journalists. Newspapers depend on readers, but they depend on writers as well.
It may seem ironic that I, an author of a blog (albeit one about books), would come to the defense of newspapers, but I believe the more individual voices get added to the conversation the better. The Internet is a wonderful tool, and I love visiting sites like Bookslut, Book Sense, and, before it became defunct, MobyLives, to get my book news. I found Connelly’s article in Arts & Letters Daily. But newspapers are, or at least used to be, the voice of a city or region. They help create a sense of community. By cutting book reviews newspapers are sending the message that reading doesn’t matter to the community. Even if they’re published both in print and on the Internet or, if things go the way they seem to be going, solely on the Internet, a newspaper should be a way to keep up with and learn about your neighbors and your neighborhood. If an author lives down the street from you and writes books about your city, wouldn’t you at least like to know about it? As Connelly mentions, newspapers that are cutting their book critics but keeping some book reviews rely on a wire service. This is more than cost-cutting; it’s eliminating a unique, local voice. Local authors, who might not get national exposure, will disappear because their books won’t be reviewed in the one place they should be: the local newspaper. And rather than having a multitude of opinions (one critic might hate a book while another loves it) there will be homogenization as all papers carry one view pumped out of the same spigot. This is bad for publishers as well. While it means there will be fewer bad reviews it also means fewer good reviews, and possibly even simple bland, neutral plot summaries aimed at niche markets like horror, mystery, or romance. A good review might prompt us to pick up a book we wouldn’t even notice in the bookstore, or that we might skip over because we don’t normally read horror books, mysteries, or romance novels. Publishers can’t attract new readers if they don’t aim beyond the core customers who are already buying books.
Newspapers, fearing ever-increasing drops in circulation, are welcome to stop publishing book reviews to save a few dollars here and there. Ultimately, though, they’re just giving us readers one less reason to pick up newspapers, which will cause more drops in circulation. Readers matter because readers are the bottom line.