Columbia Journalism Review is holding a symposium tonight on the decline of book coverage, especially book reviews, by newspapers. The panel, at Columbia School of Journalism, springs from a piece in the current issue of the Review by Steve Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "Goodbye to All That: The decline of the coverage of books isn't new, benign, or necessary."
The panelists include Wasserman; Peter Osnos, founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs, a publisher; Elizabeth Sifton, senior vice president of Farrar Straus & Giroux; Carlin Romano, the longtime book critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer; and Mark Sarvas, literary blogger.
I mention this not because I think anyone is going to race to the airport to catch the shuttle to New York, but to note that discussion of this subject has been active lately. Earlier this year, the National Book Critics Circle raised a ruckus when the Atlanta Constitution reassigned its book editor and cut back its book coverage.
If you can take Wasserman's self-important pomposity, his piece is worth reading. However, even though I was the Globe's book review editor for many years, I find the prevalent moralizing and hand-wringing on this subject naive and annoying. Dr. Johnson may have exaggerated when he said, according to Boswell, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money," it's surely true that even fewer people have been publishers of books, except for money. There have been great nonprofit publishers -- Beacon Press is one, and many university presses -- but there have been even fewer great nonprofit newspapers. Can you name one, besides the Christian Science Monitor?
We may moan and whine and wag our fingers over declining coverage of books, but it isn't happening because newspaper publishers and editors aren't interested in books. It's because hard choices are being made on costs and space, as ad revenue and circulation drops. Speaking as one who began his career in book publishing, and has spent the last 16 years at the Globe editing and writing reviews, and writing stories about authors and publishing, I yield to no one in my love of books or belief in their importance. But if newspapers don't find a business model that works, all the moralizing about what sort of content is in them will be beside the point.