July 09, 2008



To succeed with this, they'd need to go further than merely moving to the web; as dismal as online book coverage might sometimes seem, there's already more than any person can really keep up with.

What you write about forging new models is absolutely right: in addition to devoting themselves to writing the best content - in itself a MAJOR undertaking - they'd need to constantly ask themselves (and their readers) some variation on the question, "Would readers want to do this, and what's stopping them?" Most attempts to build community or introduce clever online tools fail because however neat the tools are, nobody sees the benefit of using them.

Even some of the well-established newer forms of online communication are starting to seem dated. What was groundbreaking, like signing up for a bulletin board or forum, is now a hassle. Every site wants to send you email updates; email is becoming crippled. "Live" online events have a mixed track record because people expect the technology to fail them, they're not free at the time, or the event is all PR.

The thinking to be done on it is a real project that will take creative thought, not something where they can merely apply the obvious online technology to an online review and watch a community build around it. They won't just be leaving a dwindling print model, they'll be battling hackneyed online ones. It would be a very fun project to work on.

Brooklyn Bibliophile


You're putting forward some intriguing ideas here, and I'm open to most of 'em. But I'd like to know just how much money the LATBR would save by shifting from print to on-line. There would need to be a strong bottom-line argument that would auger well for the kind of high-quality, imaginative book coverage you envision.

You're already doing some of this with TEV, by the way, and kudos to you for your fine efforts. In key ways TEV and other quality book blogs are paving the way. Personally, though, I'd like to see more non-fiction showcased here, which would nurture the kind of on-line book utopia you're mapping out here. With a few rare exceptions, the audience for literary fiction is quite limited; and since we're living in a golden age of American narrative non-fiction, more coverage here of writers like, say, Jon Krakauer and Honor Moore and Atul Gawande would bolster the good health of our books culture.


I have a friend who does research and development for a major chemical company. He gets paid nearly six figures to go into lab and try to reproduce a reaction that the company has used for decades. He does this from scratch as the procedures for the reaction have never been written down or catalogued. What might take a few days to a week, takes years. He likens his company to a corporate juggernaut, having built up its size and momentum in its heyday. Now, he's waiting for the thing to hit land, scrape the countryside like a glacier, and beach itself ten miles inland, and die a slow, agonizing death.

The more I learn about the publishing world, the more I think of what my friend told me about his job. Publishing is this huge, bloated corporate juggernaut relying on writers they believe will save it from hitting land. Asian immigrant novelists, memoirs (including four memoirs about women eating Chinese food in China), writers' platforms. When Emily Gould gets "low six-figures" for an unwritten memoir when 1- she herself admits that her life hasn't been all that interesting and 2- can't write very well, if the NYT piece is any indication, we really have to question the efficacy of the whole industry.

When musicians started feeling artistically raped by the music companies, they went independent or sold their wares online. As a writer trying to break in, I am feeling the strain of not having a "platform" or audience, not wanting to keep a weekly blog per S&S's new requirement, not wanting to take anything else away from my life for the sake of publishing, because, at the end of the day, it's always been about the writing.

Not only do I believe that online-only book reviews are the way to go, I imagine that downloading a novel to your Kindle (or other such device) will be the norm. And what does that cost? Very little. A start up offering editorial services and online-only or Kindle-solely novels would make a killing and let the juggernaut crash and burn.


I can't argue with what you say; I think it's right on. Most reviews I read are so truncated they're limited to a synopsis of what happens. I don't care to know "what happens," partly because if I know too much, I won't discover that in the book -- or because I can already find that information on the back of the book, or by seeing the attached description on Amazon. I'd rather read a review AFTER I've read a book, to see it in a new way, consider what it's done, hear what others say, enter into a discussion on its craft. I think the web might allow a lot of this to take place. And it might do so in a way that is unique, if it is copy-edited and brought together under one editor's vision.


I'm so very torn on this subject. As both of my standard-delivery (flung from a beat-up old pickup truck every morn') Times newspapers (LA and NY) get smaller and smaller on a daily basis, I wonder about all the people we're cutting off from any access to intelligent conversation - not just on books, but all the arts, and news as well. I grew up in an extremely poor household, my lifeline was the newspaper subscription I worked as a teenager to pay for. I am well aware of the technological changes that have come, but can't help but think about further disenfranchising the lower classes. Cynics will say those people don't matter, and that they don't read, but in going completely digital I think we're continuing a trend that is going to leave the lower classes utterly out of the loop. Short of issuing $100 laptops to the citizenry, I don't see any way this is going to turn out as a positive move. God help us all.


John I would be hard pressed to say that lower income households have a more difficult time accessing the internet than picking up the paper. I don't know about parents in such households, but as a teacher I know that their kids get a majority of info from the internet. Between time at school or hanging out with the one friend who is fortunate enough to have a computer there is plenty of exposure to whatever they choose. Yes, it is not so easy for their parents but one thing the literary community (publishers, critics, authors, et. al.) has done poorly over the past few years is appeal to the "next generation" of readers. And papers have failed miserably at this type of forward thinking. Essentially any move made with the book review should not be aimed at pleasing its readership (such as lower class adults) but setting up a readership for the future. This is why Mark's ideas, at least on the surface,sound great. Limited access is a way of the past for any business or art. Yes, lower class adults may not have access to the internet but there kids do and going digital does not "leave them out of the loop".

Great ideas Mark.


Before any online effort can be truly successful, the very process of print journalism needs to be turned on its head.

Whether the subject matter is books or cars or real estate, blog posts that take days to get up and that are edited to within an inch of their life don't foster the immediacy, urgency, and ongoing dialogue that the best online communities provide.

You may knock The Guardian's blogs, but you can't knock their success in creating a sustained readership that is engaged and commenting every day. They seem to have let their hair down a bit, loosened those neckties, and are having a go without all the formal constraints of a newsroom. Is it brilliant? No. But they seem to have recognized that the same formalism that applies to print simply cannot apply to the online world. Yes, insane resources and deep pockets go along way to staff such an effort and I am aware that is much of the struggle at the moment.

Online communities thrive on good content that is updated constantly and is directly relevant the readership. That’s where any paper’s online community-building efforts need to start if they are ever to find that magical formula of well-edited but relevant, immediate, and prolific posts.

Jake Seliger

I see the question as fundamentally about who newspapers serve: your proposal makes vastly more sense for regular readers of books, book reviews, and articles about both, but for random people who happen to be flipping through the paper, real offline book coverage remains essential. Are newspapers that cover books fundamentally addressing specialists or generalists? At the moment, the answer seems to be "generalists," and I'm not sure that shifting toward specialists by way of longer pieces on the web will help—though it's the coverage I'd be more interested in, I'm not sure most people would be.

This issue became apparent when the NBCC hosted its "Good Reads" panel in Seattle, which I wrote about here. Beforehand, someone (I think from the bookstore) asked how people had found out about the program. The person queried: Internet—a few hands, including mine, went up; word-of-mouth—a few hands, again; then, The Seattle Times—the vast preponderance of the hands went up. Without being pejorative, I'll note that those hands were mostly older and mostly, I perhaps unfairly assume, read the print edition. If the Seattle TImes jettisoned the print edition of its book review, I bet it would lose a lot of eyeballs on book coverage. If the L.A. Times did the same, I think it would too.

Could the L.A. Times do both—maintain the print edition and expand online? Maybe. I'd like to think so. But innumerable articles have observed that online news hasn't brought in nearly the advertising of the dead-tree edition, though various others have pointed out that newspapers don't make much money from book reviews anyway. Given that, I'm not sure it's practical, but the fragmentation of media sources means that we might be splintering into our online tribes whether newspapers try to prevent this or not. This might not be a bad thing.

"But we would argue that the conversation should begin with the ways one might do this, not the reasons one can't." I agree: but I worry about where the audience really is. Personally, I'd love to see better, deeper online coverage. I'm just not sure that my view as a book fanatic is representative of the larger public.

Willem Vanden Broek

I didn't have the energy to wade through all these posts, and so only have a general sense of the content of this discussion, but this illustrates my point. Slate had an interesting article a while ago on the way we read online (http://www.slate.com/id/2193552/): we want short paragraphs, short sentences or fragments, bullets, hyperlinks, etc. I myself find it difficult to read substantive, involved, considered, longish articles online; if I want to concentrate, I'll print them out. And do much better. My bread and butter for keeping up with what's being published remains the reviews in mainline newspapers (NY Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, The Independent, The Telegraph, what's in the London Times) and links to longish material (e.g., from Arts & Letters Daily) as well as periodicals (New Yorker, NY Review of Books, much of both now online, the New Republic). (One of the downsides of this method is that I'll see seven reviews of each big book and no reviews of many others no doubt deserving my attention.) Still, I would be sorry to see these kinds of relatively considered reviews (whatever their faults) disappear in favor of chit-chat, bullets, and short paragraphs. No doubt I'm missing a lot in the blogosphere, but I find it hard to track down amongst the masses of ephemera. I do of course "read" TEV.


I'll have much more to say about all this later, but I think the graying of newspaper readers is a factor that can't be underestimated here. The average age of a newspaper reader, according to a 2005 Carnegie Corporation study, is 55. Not only are these people dying out, but smug organizations like the NBCC don't seem to understand that sustaining the lifeblood of literary criticism involves encouraging the younger voices -- particularly those that are different -- to read, to think, to express, to commune. The laughable roundups that one now finds at Critical Mass amount to nothing less than an aging insider's group stroking their own egos. And some of the attitudes from hoary, play-it-safe academics like Sven Birkerts are equally dismissive. This is a group that has been out of touch with the emerging generation of readers for some time and who have no real desire to promote younger critics (save through the ridiculous paperwork requirements of the Balakian Award). If this collective bunch can't be bothered to appeal to this audience, they really have no right to bitch.

Jake Seliger

"In key ways TEV and other quality book blogs are paving the way."

This has been on my mind, and while there's certainly much truth to it, it's also true that most link roundups point to media sources like newspapers and magazines. I'm reminded of the New Yorker's article, "Out of Print":

And it is true: no Web site spends anything remotely like what the best newspapers do on reporting. Even after the latest round of new cutbacks and buyouts are carried out, the Times will retain a core of more than twelve hundred newsroom employees, or approximately fifty times as many as the Huffington Post. The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times maintain between eight hundred and nine hundred editorial employees each. The Times’ Baghdad bureau alone costs around three million dollars a year to maintain. And while the Huffington Post shares the benefit of these investments, it shoulders none of the costs.


But Huffington fails to address the parasitical relationship that virtually all Internet news sites and blog commentators enjoy with newspapers.

Although I wouldn't describe TEV's relationship with other media "parasitical," given how much original and excellent material appears here, it is nonetheless true that newspapers and magazines continue to produce the bulk of what's worth reading about books. I attribute this in part to the fact that they can pay their contributors, who therefore can spend more time and effort on their work. For example, I tend to write fewer, shallower blog posts when I have a lot of work to do, and longer, deeper posts when I have less. But I inevitably have to go about making money, as do most bloggers, and I'm just not sure where the time and consideration to do the best work possible is going to come from without someone paying the writer.


My book review reading habits are the same as my newspaper reading habits: I scan the first couple paragraphs of each review as I scan newspaper headlines, and then I read those pages that are likely to matter to me.
Worthwhile reading can neither be defined by a single person nor by a single Review, and though I do use newspaper book reviews and other literary news sources to create my personal reading lists, I know I am much more likely to read a book that has been recommended by a friend, someone who knows my taste.
It is for this reason that I find Amazon so useful: they collect data about me from my purchases, and thus are able to recommend titles I may not have on my "list" which I will most likely enjoy. This practice has been much more widely employed in regard to music: Pandora and Last.fm are invaluable when it comes to seeking out new music.
Pandora calls itself the "Music Genome Project." Why not apply this idea to book reviews? If there existed a site on which critics posted their reviews, cataloged them by genre, and tagged them with names of similar authors, titles of similar books, and on which members could search for reviews based on their own catalog of interests, I would certainly take part. Members of such a network could even contribute to refining the "genome map" by rating whether or not recommended reviews were or were not relevant.
This would be a massive undertaking. But maybe this thing I speak of exists and I am living in the dark. If so, will someone let me know about it?

Christine Carey

That's a brilliant idea.

Emmy G.

Personally, I hope the Los Angeles Times Book Review section continues in the paper edition. For some of the same reasons that I like to read books, I like to read the paper version of the newspaper, at least for the city in which I live. (I’m okay with reading newspapers for other cities online.)

I realize that you’re concerned that the reviews and the Book Review section as a whole are getting shorter. But (like Willem Vanden Broek), though it's cheaper, I don’t think an online format is good for extended reviews. Clicking through screen after screen of print (for example, in movie reviews for Salon.com) just makes me dizzy. Reviews represent a lot of work, and I think they somehow deserve the dignity of being published in print as well as online.

I think the online format is better suited to things such as breaking news or blogs, where immediacy is essential, or to short customer reviews. (These can take work too, of course.)

The two formats may work well together – as Jake Seliger notes, many online venues link to newspapers and magazines that are able to pay people for longer work.

Of course, paper newspapers may not be sufficiently profitable for their owners and shareholders, and online is better than nothing. But endlessly cutting the paper, and jazzing it up in a desperate attempt to make it attractive to the imagined tastes of younger readers, just alienates current subscribers such as myself.

I wish the owner of the L.A. Times cared more about journalism and quality than about making large profits. Maybe somehow we can keep the Book Review section and change the ownership.

Debra Darvick

I think it all comes down to the purpose of a book review. To sell books? Generate ad dollars? Enable an author to write home to Ma: "See? Finally! All those years eating beans and sleeping on friends' couches paid off." Drag an author's ego through the muck?

Like Megan above I usually choose books based on friends' recommendations; and via trips to the library (how quaint!) and reading reviews.

I have a novel in the agent pipeline and am already considering how I will reach my readers when the time comes. (Some may think going the agent route as quaint as standing amidst the library stacks swooning like a kid in a candy store.)

The move to the internet is inevitable. But what will be the best use? The use that generates sales, fame, ad dollars and franks to go with those beans? One might harbor the infinitesimal hope that whatever new paradigm develops, it increases a love of reading -- that lifelong addiction to becoming lost in the world of another's words.

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  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe


    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."