Out of Print
So many books, so little space: Why are newspapers ditching so many reviews?
Martin Levin, carrying an armload of books in padded envelopes, edges through a throttle of desks on the second floor of The Globe and Mail building. The new arrivals will join the dozen stacks of books that reach from the carpet to the underside of his desk. More books on top of a filing cabinet rise past his head, and the piles on his desk almost hide the terminal.
As books editor for the Globe, Levin receives 8,000 to 10,000 volumes a year from all over the world. As he wrote last November, they include “solemn hardcovers, jaunty paperbacks, academic tomes, lavish coffee-table books, and assorted book-like objects that bear only a physical resemblance to books.” Even excluding the book-like objects, Levin, with his colleagues Alison Gzowski and Jack Kirchhoff, can publish reviews of only a fraction of the titles the Globe receives: Levin recently calculated that in 2001, his section reviewed 639 titles in depth and briefly noted 686 others.
Most end up, though, in enormous staff book sales for charities, and so miss out on what industry members say is a crucial sales tool. And as Susan Wallace, sales representative at the Literary Press Group, whose members publish more than half of the literary works in Canada, says, missing out on reviews makes “quite a difference in numbers and sales.” In the late 1990s, United States market researcher NPD Group conducted a study for the Book Industry Study Group and the American Booksellers Association. Of the trade book buyers surveyed, almost 12 percent said they’d been influenced by reviews, many more than the 2.5 percent who bought a title after hearing the author on the radio or seeing her on television. Only 1.5 percent bought a book because it was on a best-seller list. Wallace remembers being in a small Toronto bookstore last year and seeing people coming in holding a review of Lilian Bouzane’s In the Hands of the Living God, in search of her book. As Jesse Stothers, editorial and promotions coordinator for tiny Thistledown Press, says, “Book reviews are more effective in creating sales than ads, which are so hard to track. You get more love out of the reviews. Say a novel produces a good review-I’ll put copies of that in the promotional material.” And Random House publisher Anne Collins cites the case of David Rakoff’s debut collection of essays, Fraud: “He was virtually unknown here in Canada, but received an absolute rave review in The Globe and Mail. The book went on to become a national bestseller.”
All publishers could tell similar stories of books spared the remainder bins by positive notices in one of the major papers, but as Levin’s own calculations indicate, the odds are that the vast majority of titles will end up in those charity sales. The fact is, as Scott Anderson, editor of the book-industry trade publication Quill & Quire, sighs, “A lot of authors don’t get a single review of their work.” And the Globe is the least-depressing example, reviewing more books annually than any other Canadian daily. In October 2001, in the midst of the high season for new releases, it carried 46 in-depth, single-title reviews. By contrast, The Toronto Star ran 20, the Winnipeg Free Press 13, and the Calgary Herald and The Vancouver Sun just 10 each.
One reason for the scant space is that there are fewer books editors now at the major Canadian dailies than there were a decade and a half ago. At the time there were 23 dedicated books-section editors. Today, there are 17, and of those only eight work a five-day week. Ken McGoogan, who spent 17 years as the Calgary Herald‘s full-time books editor until resigning in July 2000, laments that full-time books editors “have gone the way of the dodo.” His successor, Charles Mandel, works only half the week on books. Similar reductions have occurred at Halifax’s Chronicle-Herald and the Winnipeg Free Press.
And fewer editor hours can mean fewer pages. For example, the Calgary Herald produced eight pages in October 1997, but only seven in October 2001, while the space in the Winnipeg Free Press decreased from six pages to four in the same period.
In addition to page-trimming, some papers are saving money by picking up reviews from other publications, rather than commissioning their own. Academic and 2001 Governor General’s fiction juror Lynne Van Luven recalls with some unease how she was commissioned by the Edmonton Journal to review Timothy Findley’sSpadework. Her “somewhat tepid” review was also published in another Southam paper, Victoria’s Times-Colonist. “In the past,” she says, “his book might have been reviewed by one writer at the Edmonton Journal, another at the Times-Colonist. Now, one critical opinion goes out to two vastly different reading audiences in two different areas of the country. From the author’s point of view, they are receiving less various critical opinion. And if I was wrong in my assessment of the book, that means that I got to be wrong in two markets, as it were.” The overall result of these changes means Canadians have access to fewer opinions on a shrinking number of titles.
Of course, there’s some coverage of books on radio and television. A mention on CBC Radio’s This Morningis the golden mean for publishers. Random House’s Anne Collins mentions how the anthology Dropped Threads, about women’s experiences, got mixed reviews in print. Then, on February 1, 2001, “Shelagh Rogers did an hour-long coffee klatch on This Morning with [co-editor and contributor] Carol Shields and we also did a series of readings.” Two days later, the book sprang onto the Globe‘s bestseller list and stayed there for over 40 weeks.
For Ontario viewers, there are TVO’s Studio 2, a nightly hour-long magazine show, and Imprint, a weekly half-hour program about books and authors. But Salman Nensi, president of the Book Promoters Association of Canada and managing director of the Omikron Group Inc. publicity firm, says that while a mention on either show is welcome, “the numbers aren’t anywhere close” to those of a review in a major paper. There’s also CHUM Ltd.’s new digital channel, BookTelevision, which Allison Whitehorn, publicist at McClelland and Stewart, says is “very useful. They’re always open to new authors. [President] Daniel Richler’s very creative.” However, as Nielsen Media Research shows, fewer than 33,000 people across Canada tuned in to BookTV each day last November, compared to the 250,000 who pick up, say, the Saturday edition of The Vancouver Sun-and that’s in just one city. Since the venerable Books in Canada suspended publication last year, there are only a few other print publications that specialize in books coverage. BC Bookworld and the Literary Review of Canada are two examples, but they have either low frequencies or small circulations or both.
Hence, fewer reviews in daily newspapers tend to equal lower sales for Canadian trade publishers, a group that is almost perpetually a few steps away from the remainder bin itself. The economic landscape has become even more bleak in recent years. The giant bookstore chain Chapters, launched in 1995, hurt small publishers by establishing its own wholesaler, Pegasus Wholesale Inc. Pegasus demanded colossal bulk discounts from publishers, often more than 45 percent. It placed huge advance orders for new titles; even small presses responded with large production runs, but Pegasus delayed its payments-and returned high numbers of unsold books.
Worse yet, Chapters’ nearest rival, Indigo Books, took it over in January 2001, creating a near-monopoly. Most independent bookshops suffered. September sales revenues for book and stationery stores outside Quebec decreased by 8.4 percent in 2001, despite the back-to-school rush. The implications of this for authors are bleak.
Of course, books editors and reviewers don’t-and shouldn’t-see themselves as extensions of the book publishers’ sales operations. Last November, deciding which books to review, Levin observed in the Globe: “Sometimes it feels almost criminal, like bookslaughter, to decide which books make the cut.” But he also wrote that he and his colleagues “don’t review books in order to sell them….We review books in order to inform our readers about works that, in our better or worse judgement, are important or interesting or odd enough to merit our consideration and theirs.”
More recently, his Globe colleague, Jeffrey Simpson, addressed this same theme: “The smaller space for books diminishes a piece of the country’s intellectual space to discuss ideas, to discover what others are writing and debate the future,” he wrote. “If the space shrinks for discussing the ideas in books-a discussion that might interest readers to buy books-then the country’s entire intellectual space diminishes. English-speaking Canada, which is largely a cultural extension of the United States, can ill afford this.”
Some newspaper executives counter that in the current market, they can ill afford to devote staff resources and space to an industry that even in good economic times is hardly a big advertiser. For example, Hugo Gurdon, managing editor of the National Post, confirms that “the sections newspapers include is, to some extent, determined by the ability of those sections to attract advertising.” He says that the paper is now playing to one of its greatest strengths: financial coverage. This may possibly account for why its books coverage, which averaged two and a half reviews per week late last year, is now one and a half per week. Karen Funnekotter, assistant to Brendan Hughes, vice-president of advertising at the Calgary Herald, says, “Book publishers have not been advertising a lot over the past few years. They normally send their book to the editorial department and try to get them to write up a review in the paper, which most papers do not do.” Has the new ownership at her paper been a factor in the reduction in coverage? “A change in ownership for any company always means a new direction, so that would not have impacted the publishers if they were doing any advertising to begin with.”
From another corner, the Globe‘s Simpson has written, “Book pages seldom, if ever, make money. Even though newspapers pay shockingly low fees to reviewers, book pages are often a loss leader because the advertising from publishers and retailers cannot support the cost of the pages.” He points out, however, that “the theory that sections must pay for themselves doesn’t stop newspapers from carrying sports pages, which almost never generate enough advertising to support high costs. The same can often be said for the frothy ?style’ or ?fashion’ sections that grace weekend papers with pictures, trends and clothes, but few ads. Newspapers publish these sections presumably to round out their overall editorial product because readership is comprised of a series of audiences with different interests. But book pages are apparently thought of as space for eggheads whose numbers are few. So these pages suffer when cutbacks are mandated.”
Of course, cutbacks also hurt the reviewer-writers themselves. Not only are there fewer opportunities to write, but also the compensation is lower. The Post, for example, started out paying freelance reviewers an adequate $1 per word, then dropped as low as 30 cents. But surely most writers don’t depend entirely on book reviews for a big part of their income? Bryan Demchinsky at The Gazette in Montreal says that, for literary journalists especially, there is less space. His regular columnist of 2001 has been forced to step aside to make room for a staff member. The cuts affect “a small but very vibrant, important cadre of people,” he says, including freelancers like Wayne Grady, David Homel, and Donna Bailey Nurse. Children’s author Janet McNaughton says that in order to review Canadian titles now, “you have to write for no money, or very little money, if a person feels it’s a matter of principle to-books just won’t get reviewed otherwise.”
An article that ran in Quill & Quire in January 2000 by Ken McGoogan bears this out: “[I] badgered and browbeat author-friends and talented newcomers alike to write reviews for a pittance; I coaxed and cajoledHerald colleagues to write them for free on their own time.”
So while publishers and retailers are hurting, it’s ultimately the writers who absorb the worst of the impact: a double blow, really. For their dwindling reviews they receive little or nothing. And their books are left heaped in books editors’ offices, silently clamouring for attention.
Allison Elkin was the Spring 2015 co-chief copy editor of the RRJ.