By Cornelia [This is cross-posted from the group blog I'm Wednesday's posting child on, Naked Authors] As Patty and Paul have discussed here this week, there's been a depressing development on the book news front in recent days--the announcement that the L.A. Times plans to cut back its book review coverage. In an article titled "Scarcity of Ads Endangers Newspapers' Book Sections" in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, Jeffrey Trachtenberg summarized the LAT's plans as follows:
Sometime this spring, the Los Angeles Times is expected to announce that it is folding its highly esteemed Sunday book review into a new section that will combine books with opinion pieces. That would reduce to five the number of separate book-review sections in major metropolitan newspapers still published nationwide, down from an estimated 10 to 12 a decade ago. The reason: not enough ads.... The 12-page section, to be introduced on April 14, will appear with the thinner Saturday paper, which will make it not only stand out more but also save money on printing costs because circulation is lower that day than on Sunday. Word of the plans for the book review was first reported on the Web site LAObserved.com.
There's no shortage of blame being heaped on publishers in press coverage of the LAT's plans. In an article by the San Francisco Chronicle's Heidi Benson, Chronicle Editor Phil Bronstein was quoted as saying:
"if book publishers advertised, 'it would send a very good signal that they believe in their product.'"
I think the response of Paul Bogaards, director of publicity at Alfred A. Knopf, deserves a lot of airplay:
"Where are the ads in the sports section?" he asked.
Trachtenberg also quoted The Philadelphia Inquirer's books editor Frank Wilson, whose standalone 16-page book section was cut back in the early 1980s and folded into another section in 2001, as follows:
"I don't understand why newspapers, when they want to cut space... immediately think of depriving people who like to read."
The best statistics I can find on this seem to bear him out, especially in terms of age demographic. The only age cohort of newspaper readers which has not experienced heavy decline in the last eight years is the older crowd:
Age 65+ 75% reading newspapers in an average week between 1999 and 2003 (unpublished Scarborough Research survey).... "The bright spot for newspapers remains, as it has for some years, older people. Readership for people over 65 is just barely declining - 1 percent since 1999 for both daily and Sunday."
Meanwhile, according to a 2001 survey by the Book Industry Study Group:
Customers 55 and older account for more than one-third of all books bought..... The mean age of book buyers:
1997: Age 15-39: 26.5% of the books bought 2001: Age 15-39: 20.8% of the books bought 1997: Age over 55: 33.7% of the books bought. 2001: Age over 55: 44.1% of the books bought --Ipsos NPD reported in Publishers Weekly, January 6, 2003
Gee, do we think there might be some consumption-dollar crossover between those two groups of heaviest readers? Maybe declining ad revenues for book sections are not the fault of book publishers, but the fault of the direction given to space reps selling ads for those newspapers. Trachtenberg's WSJ article quoted Philadelphia Inquirer literary critic Carlin Romano as follows:
"...part of the problem is that newspapers often don't have a sales person who understands the intricacies of the book business. Even when publishers have money, he says, they go the New York Times Book Review or the New Yorker, both of which are national."
Not least since, as stated elsewhere in the same article, "The New York Review of Books, owned by Nyrev Inc., and Bookforum both saw their sales increase in 2006," and The New York Times Book Review's 2006:
"[ad] revenue from books was up almost 10%," says Todd Haskell, vice president, business development, for the Times. (The figure refers to the book-review section plus the paper as a whole.)
Could it be that ad sales are up for the NY Times, The New York Review of Books (founded during a newspaper strike in 1963), and Bookforum because readers want to read about books? Los Angeles is one of the, if not THE, biggest book markets in the country. In 1997, according to the Christian Science Monitor, The top ten US cities by dollar volume of book sales and number of bookstores are Los Angeles-Long Beach; New York; Chicago; Boston; Washington, Philadelphia; San Francisco; Seattle-Bellevue-Everett; San Jose; San Diego. The Los Angeles Times Festival of the Book, held annually on the campus of UCLA, hosts upwards of 150,000 visitors. If the business leadership of the L.A. Times wants to pump up the paper's circulation and ad revenues, perhaps they should consider devoting MORE space to book reviews--especially online, if they're hoping to attract a younger readership. A spring 2006 Newspaper Audience Database (NADbase) survey reported that:
Unique visitors to newspaper Web sites jumped 21 percent from January 2005 to December 2005, and page views increased by 43 percent over that same period, according to NADbase.... In markets across the nation, newspaper Web sites are providing a strong draw for younger demographics, in many cases expanding a paper’s reach among those audiences by 25 percent or better. Percent* Increase in 25-34 Demographic 1) The Deseret Morning News ( Salt Lake City) 48.9 % 2) Daily Herald ( Arlington Heights, Ill.) 46.3 % 3) Tribune-Review ( Pittsburgh 42.8 % 4) The Tampa Tribune 36.7 % 5) The Boston Globe 30.8 % 6) The Hartford ( Conn.) Courant 29.7 % 7) The Star-Ledger ( Newark) 26.8 % 8) The San Diego Union-Tribune 26.0 % 9) The Salt Lake Tribune 25.6 % 10) The Seattle Times 25.1 %
We hear a lot about how newspapers are worried about declining revenues and declining readership. They want to develop a customer base that skews younger. They want to compete against other media for our attention.... As such, it doesn't seem like rocket science to suggest trying to woo us as readers first, and consumers second. Patty quoted from Tim Rutten's recent L.A. Times column about comments Charles K. Bobrinskoy, vice chairman and director of research for Ariel Capital Management, made during an interview with PBS's Frontline for its series on the state of the media. Brobinskoy thinks the paper should concentrate on covering "things that people in L.A. care about: style, Hollywood entertainment, local government, local sports, local issues like immigration…" I think his first three topics aren't likely to expand the paper's readership... when I want to know about LA style and the doings of the Hollywood glitterati, which isn't often, I don't go check out latimes.com, I switch from Jeopardy to Entertainment Tonight for a few seconds and then immediately have a burning desire to run from the room and take a scalding shower. The only time I read People is when I'm stuck in a long grocery line and the quicker folk have snapped up all available copies of the Weekly World News. Guess what I read first? The book reviews... and that was true long before I ever thought I was going to end up writing fiction for a living. I suspect that the 150,000 people who attend the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books each year feel the same way...

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Comment by Robert K. Foster on April 22, 2007 at 8:37am
I agree with you that newspapers seem to be shooting themselves in the foot at almost every turn nowadays but what about readers like me who avoid reviews like the plague? It's hard to hear about books anyway but I don't go looking for book reviews. I guess I am in the minority on that. I would rather use the old [ check the cover, check the back cover, check the end leafs, open the book to a random page near the front of the book and read a few paragraphs, then decide ] method of buying a book.

I would still like to see coverage of books and "reading" in general though.
Comment by Cornelia Read on March 9, 2007 at 4:46am
Thanks for the comment, Jack. I've worked at a few newspapers over the years, mostly really small ex-hippie weeklies around the country, where I'd be excited to earn something in the high two figures for an article. The business side is stupid everywhere, in this racket. I always think they'd be a lot happier selling BMWs.
Comment by Jack Getze on March 9, 2007 at 1:15am
Interesting, scary stuff for us authors. And I would not count on the management of the Los Angeles Times to do anything smart. I was a reporter there from 1969 to 1977, and I left in part because of a major change in editorial policy that came down from the business side. I know of no less than 30 editorial staff writers who left within two years of me. They have been stupid for a long long time.

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