The folly of downsizing book reviews

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FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, my first book was published in near obscurity. Only 15,000 copies of "The Black Echo" were printed, and the publisher didn't place a single ad for it in any newspaper in the country. It could easily have been ignored or forgotten or simply missed among the thousands of books published to little fanfare every year.


FOR THE RECORD:
Book criticism: An article in the Opinion section April 29 stated that the book critic of the Dallas Morning News quit rather than face significant space reductions. In fact, the paper's space devoted to books coverage hasn't been reduced. —


But even without an advertising push, the book got reviewed in newspapers big and small, far and wide. Across the country, newspapers had strong book sections and critics were always on the lookout for a new voice. The Washington Post's Book World devoted half a page to a review of my novel, predicting a bright future for both its protagonist and its author.

That review and others like it stimulated interest in what I had to say. They got the momentum going in the bookstores. Those reviews helped establish the voice of the protagonist, Los Angeles Police Department Det. Harry Bosch, and now, 12 books later, Bosch has led a full and adventurous (albeit tortured) life in Los Angeles. He has explored places and seen things in this city that most people who live here don't even know about. All the while he has tried to understand and make sense of his city and his place in it — just like everybody else who lives here.

I can't help but wonder, though, how long Harry would have lasted had he been born in today's newspaper environment. Across the country, papers are cutting back on the space, attention and care they devote to books. Recently, for instance, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution announced that the position of book editor would be eliminated in a cost-cutting move. Without a specific editor directing book coverage, the paper will rely more heavily on reviews from wire services.

But that's just the latest in an ongoing crisis. The Chicago Tribune announced last week that it was moving its books section from Sunday to the less-read Saturday paper — an edition that becomes almost obsolete by noon, when the early Sunday edition hits the stands. At the Raleigh News & Observer, the book editor's position was recently cut. At the Dallas Morning News, the book critic quit rather than face significant space reductions. Books coverage has also been cut at the Orlando Sentinel, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and other papers.

Even at the Los Angeles Times, the fine newspaper at which I am proud to have once worked as a reporter, the attention devoted to books is changing. Gone is the stand-alone Book Review. Two weeks ago, Book Review was merged with Sunday Opinion as part of a plan to save pages and save money.

There are many sound business reasons for these moves, and perhaps The Times is going about it in the best way possible — attempting to make sure that between the Sunday newspaper, the daily paper and its website, the Book Review content is still there for those readers willing to chase it down.

To be sure, a newspaper is a business, and book reviews have always been a loss-leader of sorts. Book sections have never generated much advertising, and no doubt publishing houses ought to bear some of the responsibility for the straits we're now in. Unlike films or automobiles or even food products, few books enter the marketplace with a budget for newspaper ads. This has become even more pronounced as more and more of the money that is set aside for promoting books is shifted into "co-op" — paying for position on the front tables in chain stores.

So I understand why newspaper executives think that space dedicated to books is space that loses money.

But maybe not in the long run.

The truth is that the book and newspaper businesses share the same dreadful fear: that people will stop reading. And the fear may be well-founded. Across the country, newspaper circulations are down — and this is clearly part of the reason for the cuts to book sections. At the same time, the book business increasingly relies on an aging customer base that may not be refueling itself with enough new readers.

In the past, newspaper executives understood the symbiotic relationship between their product and books. People who read books also read newspapers. From that basic tenet came a philosophy: If you foster books, you foster reading. If you foster reading, you foster newspapers. That loss-leader ends up helping you build and keep your base.

What I fear is that this philosophy is disappearing from the boardrooms of our newspapers; that efforts to cut costs now will damage both books and newspapers in the future. Short-term gains will become long-term losses.

I hope that will not be the case here. I am not a businessman or a newspaper executive, but I believe that the symbiosis between newspapers and books could still work and hold true. I see it happening in my own home. My 10-year-old daughter's love of reading books is slowly leading her toward the newspaper sections that are spread every morning across the breakfast table.

What is at stake is something more than the financial health of the newspaper and book businesses. The publishing industry has always relied on reviews and on the commentary of great critics in newspapers to champion the new voices of literature as well as regional and genre writing. The reading public has gone to these venues to make discoveries. Now where will new voices be discovered?

It reminds me of something detectives have often told me while I've researched my crime novels. They say that when they trace events backward from a crime, they often find that the victims made mistakes that put themselves in harm's way.

I fear that newspapers are doing the same thing, making mistakes that will ultimately hasten their own downfall.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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