Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Book Recommendations: Who Needs Them?

News Item: 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...Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg in the Wall Street Journal.

Where does one go to get critical reviews of current books? Who decides which books get reviewed? Even I don't read the New York Times Book Review every Sunday. We have patrons who do, and others who read the New York Review of Books. We even have one patron who picks up the London Review of Books and the Times (of London) Literary Supplement.

But for most of us, we rely on the Courier-Journal's book articles, overseen by editorial page editor Keith Runyon...and most of those are syndicated wire service pieces. Do we really care to hear what others have to say about books, or would we rather stumble upon them and rely on the pretty cover and the dust jacket notes? Do we pick a few favorite writers and stick with them until they die?

Granted, if you're reading a daily books blog, you are faced with a gargantuan problem: there are simply too many good books out there to spend much time chasing down new books. We can't read every one we'd like to.

For example, I just finished reading Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides...four months after it came out. I stared at the book for 17 weeks before starting it, even though I knew I wanted to read it. It's a story I knew little about, the tale of the American conquest of the Southwest and the indigenous Indian tribes, most notably the Navajo. It's a compelling history that begins in 1846 with the Mexican War (a rather bloodless thing in New Mexico, though the bloodiest war the U.S. ever fought on a casualties-per-troop basis) and extends through the Civil War to the "Long Walk" that finally subjugated the nomadic Navajo units. Kit Carson plays a central role, in flashbacks to his journeys along the Santa Fe Trail and his scouting for the Fremont expeditions along the Oregon Trail, to his service as an officer in the U.S. Army throughout the 1860s. I recommend it, but I digress.

The decline of full-fledged newspaper book review sections is attributed to "not enough ads." A recent Chicago Tribune weekend edition went out with zero publisher ads. Why?

In an era of targeted marketing, publishers say the best time to reach readers is when they are in the stores with money in their pockets looking to make an immediate purchase. But with a sea of titles in the stores...the only way for publishers to stand out is to pay for real estate in the front and pile those books up high.

"You want to see your books in prominent places," says Tom Perry, associate publisher of Bertelsmann AG's Random House Publishing Group. "Such co-op advertising is where marketing dollars are going that might otherwise have been spent on advertising."...One publisher says that chain bookstores can charge $1 or more per book to stack titles in desirable locations, such as on a table at the entrance or in a display featuring new nonfiction titles.

One last pull-quote from the WSJ article: "I don't understand why newspapers, when they want to cut space, they immediately think of depriving people who like to read." (Frank Wilson, book-review editor at Philadelphia's The Inquirer.

As an independent, I lament the slow disappearance of book reviews, but the article is right. Publishers won't pay. When you see a bookstore advertising a book, there might be a token fee kicked back to the store by a publisher, but it is nominal. The most generous one will pay us $50 for a significant advertisement, which won't even buy one ad in The Tribune, much less help us pay for a campaign.

I also take note of where the money is going - to the chains. Read Stacy Mitchell's The Big-Box Swindle to see what kind of leverage the chains have on the publishers. A few years ago, the American Booksellers Association filed suit to level out the playing field, but the muscular response of the chains has once again cowed the publishers. Barnes and Noble is bigger than the top ten publishers put together, after all.

Now imagine this world, one where Wal-Mart orders 100 copies of a book per store at a discount of 55%. They don't pay for them until they've sold, and if Wal-Mart has to mark them down, they simply pay the publisher 55% of whatever price they sell it for. Oh, and if it doesn't sell, Wal-Mart just sends it back for 100% credit against the still-unpaid bill. Imagine what kind of store we could have if we only paid for books after they sold, could mark them down whenever we wished, and still make the same profit margin!

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