As the book season kicks off, it seems a good time to rephrase the mournful question “Why is it so hard to sell a good book?” and ask, more pointedly, is the problem with books or with The New York Times Book Review?
Other than a handful of Broadway theaters and Wrigley Field, the Book Review is one of the few cultural touchstones to remain almost pristinely intact through most of the century – indeed, Times Books will in November publish a hundred-year retrospective of the Book Review. Not only does it look pretty much the same as it always has (even with its new four-color pages), it has never really been challenged as the main imprimatur for good books. Arbitrating sensibility and taste, it has consistently been able to sell books and to confer on a serious writer a showbiz-size reputation.
From John Leonard’s exuberant rule (1971-75) to Harvey Shapiro’s mordant literary reign (1975-1983) to city-room apparatchik Mike Levitas’s era of big-name-writer hagiography (1983-1989) to the politically correct era (1989-1995) of Rebecca Sinkler (perhaps most noted for her abrasive management style – “everybody’s bad dream of their homeroom teacher in the sixth grade,” in the estimation of one book editor), the Book Review stayed serene in its status as the national literary magazine.
Three and a half years ago, for the first time in modern memory, the TBR went outside for its editor. Chip McGrath, a 23-year veteran of The New Yorker as well as William Shawn’s designated successor (McGrath lost that role after The New Yorker was sold to the Newhouse family), was, by wide acclaim, a true “class” hire. It is therefore ironic that he has come to receive much of the blame for the diminishing influence of the Book Review – in this era of Oprah and Amazon.com – and for hastening the demise of good books in the marketplace. The invective directed at McGrath from the book community can probably best be explained on the basis of economic self-interest.
“The Book Review just doesn’t sell books anymore,” says David Rosenthal, the publisher of Simon & Schuster’s trade division.
I had not been up to the TBR’s offices on the eighth floor of the Times building since John Leonard’s reign. Then the offices were among the more commodious at the highly linoleumed Times – an open, airy space with (notable for the Times) some potted plants.
This same space, I thought as I arrived to chat with McGrath last week, had quite possibly not been cleaned since I was last here. In the course of a generation, it had turned from a literary oasis into something like a welfare office – a dark, claustrophobic, quite possibly unhygienic warren. The message seems very clear: While the rest of the media has become slick and packaged and formulaic, the TBR is staying loyal to the squalor and eccentricities of the human condition.
McGrath’s gentle demeanor – he has an exposed, boyish, hopeful face – managed to turn me from the avenue of my intended line of questioning, namely, “What’s happened here? Hello? You’re not even trying.”
Instead, I asked, “Who do you think your reader is?”
McGrath folded his hands and cocked his head. “It’s a serious, literate general reader,” he surmised. “He’s me. He’s the people who work here.”
I was afraid of that. Among the present senior editors at the Book Review is a man I have known since I first came to New York. I have learned to keep my eyes peeled for him on the Upper West Side and rush, on his approach, to the other side of the street. Failing that is to be trapped in the most torporous conversation available in the city.
I asked McGrath what he thought TBR’s mission was. He answered in the negative, saying he didn’t think the Book Review should be a consumer guide. He accented the words consumer and guide as though they were particular modern ills.
I mentioned that as I had been leafing through a few months’ worth of issues, I had been struck by the great number of books reviewed in the TBR that have probably sold fewer than 15,000 copies; many have most likely sold just a few thousand.
He shrugged: “It makes not a whit of difference to me what a book sells.” I believed him.
I said, “But if you don’t sell books, or create an environment in which to sell books, publishers won’t advertise with you.”
“I don’t feel the book industry is my constituency.”
“The reader, then,” I said. “The things that appeal to readers: What happened to the essays, the controversies, the interviews, the author photographs?” Indeed, the present graphic style of the Book Review mimics nineteenth-century line drawings, and the newly introduced color, instead of being used for vividness and immediacy, seems to have been employed for its sobering effect.
This was the only time he set his lips. “I wanted to devote more, not less, space to reviews.”
I brought up TBR’s reviewer policy. In the Book Review, books tend to be reviewed not by journalists with the stylistic sense to make a review entertaining and readable but by people in the “field” of the book being reviewed, who tend to be as flat-footed as the “co-author of three textbooks in psychology” whose prose I had recently endured.
We talked about the books he thought the TBR had “made” during his tenure. There were only two he could think of, My Old Man and the Sea (“I forget the author”) and Dreams of My Russian Summers. Neither, he acknowledged, was what you would think of as a big book. I steered the conversation back toward advertising and the publishing business. He seemed genuinely unconcerned about the Book Review’s steep falloff in advertising pages.
I asked a trick question: “What’s a page cost these days?”
He looked at me blankly: “I have no idea.” Which, I thought, rather summed things up.
As I left the interview and took a last look at the office, trying to memorize the details of the squalor, I felt at once guilty about my own clear bias toward commercial realities and deeply annoyed that these people, who had at their disposal one of the most powerful tools ever created to promote good books, were squandering it.
But is he to blame? It is, after all, Chip McGrath’s fate to be presiding over the Book Review during one of the most transforming periods in the book business – the rise of superstores (and the near-death of the independents), the emergence of online book sales, and the consolidation of publishing houses.
The heart of the Book Review’s commercial function has been to serve the nation’s thousands of independent bookstores as a catalogue and a guide. Advertisements in the Book Review are never principally targeted at the reader or the “end user” but at bookstores that make their own ordering decisions. In less than a decade, however, the independent bookstore’s position as the outlet for the great majority of the trade books sold in the U.S. has been reversed. Now the chains – Barnes & Noble, Borders, various regional chains, and other nonbook retail outlets like Target or Sam’s – account for the majority of trade-book sales. The chains tend to order on the basis of computer models: How many copies of an author’s last book did we sell? How many books have we sold in the past on this or that subject? What kind of promotional allowances are we getting from the publisher?
Another transforming development in the book business – largely made possible by the rise of the chains and the standardization of ordering processes – is the commodification of books: Tom Clancy, Stephen King, Patricia Cornwell, and the Dummies are the killer brands.
“Good reviews don’t sell brand-name books, and bad reviews don’t hinder their sales. But more fundamentally, good reviews have less and less of an effect on any book’s sales,” says Simon & Schuster’s Marion Maneker. Now the publicity challenge is to get “off-the-book-page” coverage. News stories, feature stories, People magazine interviews, and, of course, Oprah. Increasingly, reviews – that deliberate form of critical discourse in which, in the best of the genre, a book is used as a way to open a window on larger ideas and concerns – don’t mean jack.
The New York Times Book Review is about a culture in which books and authors and new ideas and literary controversies and gossip occupy the same place as religion does in the life of another kind of culture. But book culture has changed in a swift and unsentimental fashion. It is not that there is no interest in the elements of book culture, but to a larger and larger degree the world of books has been subsumed by the general media. Plenty of information about books can be found on the ever-expanding television dial. Books are part of the mix of narrative enterprises covered byEntertainment Weekly. And even the most specialized book-culture appetites can be fed by the Internet: Wanna chat about books? Want to read a review? Want to write a review? Well, go to it, any time of the day. One effect of this convergence, if you will, is that books are no longer seen as a separate category, as a form with a specific virtue, but as “products” competing in the vast new marketplace of ideas, information, entertainment, and other intellectual property.
Notably, though, there is one aspect of the Book Review – an aspect that is not remotely interesting to McGrath – that does cut through the static, that is, according to Simon & Schuster’s David Rosenthal, “the most important economic driver in the book business”: the New York Times best-seller list, or “The List.”
Even though there are hundreds of other best-seller lists, The List is the basis on which superstores, chain retailers, and more and more independents discount titles. If a book makes The List, it automatically becomes a loss leader at more than 70 percent of book retail outlets and, hence, stays on The List.
“We don’t review most of the books on our best-seller list,” McGrath says proudly.
Clearly, if you imagined revamping the Book Review, if you called in consultants and designers, held focus groups, tested prototypes, this is where you’d begin. You’d use The List as the core brand, as the franchise around which you’d package your other content. Of course, you’d extend The List from 15 to 50. You’d create special categories: Business Books. Political Books. Biographies. Mysteries. On and on. And, obviously, you’d go with photographs. You’d go with interviews. You’d hire name writers. You’d make a deal with B&N or Amazon or C-span – you’d make as many deals as possible.
This is too obvious for the present Book Review not to get. It is not far-fetched to analyze that its current state is, in fact, a reaction to what it knows is in store for it. The pride it takes in its own obsolescence is, in a way, with a little critical interpretation, heroic. An order of martyrdom. One of the virtues, in fact, of the New York Times is that it does hold out longer than most institutions against the tides of change and commercialism. But the world is as it is.
Full disclosure: In its July review of Michael Wolff’s book Burn Rate, the Book Review noted that “he casts such an unforgiving eye on the people around him that his tone often smacks of vendetta.”