Tuesday, September 04, 2007

No one reads anymore, etc.

Blah blah no one's reading anymore blah blah coverage is dwindling blah blah blah. Wasserman, it seems, feels much the same way I do: that the complaint, oft heard of late, that book coverage in newspapers is declining is less a byproduct of cultural malaise than it's the creaking noise of a crumbling institution (print). Just because you don't read about books in your local rag doesn't mean there aren't other ways to learn about them... get with it, folks. No one will wait for you to catch up.
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.

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