It’s no secret that newspaper book sections are endangered. Earlier this month, the Atlanta Journal Constitution eliminated its book editor position, placing the fate of the paper’s well regarded book section in question. Many are assuming the worst, that the newspaper will eliminate the section entirely. There’s even a petition to protect the AJC book review.
With newspapers increasingly under fire from investors as once robust profit margins sag due to unprecedented competition from the Web and other forms of media and entertainment, many of these companies are looking to trim their operations in order to cut down on the costs of newsprint and personnel. Viewed in this light, book sections are dead weight.
The problem is that the book section business model is broken. As The Wall Street Journal reported (sub. req.) last month, publishers, the natural advertisers for book sections, don’t spend much on ads because they find the ads to be too expensive or ineffective. This fact puts book sections at a big disadvantage as compared to other parts of the newspaper, all of which must pull their weight. Business sections, for example, do well because the financial profile of their readers inspires a willingness among advertisers to spend big bucks to reach them.
The broken business model of book sections has led a number of newspapers to take drastic steps. To this end, the LA Times recently unveiled a combined books/opinion section. The Chicago Tribune, the LA Times’ sister paper, has taken a different tack, announcing that it will move its book section from Sunday to Saturday. The Tribune says that this move will “usher in a new era of the Tribune’s coverage of books, expanding our coverage of books, ideas and the written word throughout the newspaper and across the week.” In addition, “moving the section to Saturday will separate it from the Sunday newspaper, which already is bursting at the seams with essential reading, and make a prominent place for it on a new day of the week.” This is all well and good – and certainly better than eliminating the book section altogether – but as the Chicago Reader noted over a year ago, when the book section switch was originally floated, “Saturday’s press run is some 400,000 copies smaller than Sunday’s. The annual savings in newsprint alone would reach half a million dollars.” When the Tribune realized that stuffing an extra section into the Saturday paper would require them to pay their distributors more, they backed off, and converted the section to tabloid format, another newsprint saver. Seventeen months later, the paper appears to have realized that a switch to Saturday makes financial sense after all.
Ultimately, however, none of these measures will be satisfying to book section readers, and the fact is, except perhaps at the New York Times, there is little future for book sections showing up with our Sunday papers. The future of newspapers isn’t in paper, and the same is doubly so for book sections.
I’ve been surprised that the many blogs that have decried the disappearance of book sections are the same ones that point out the obsolescence of newspapers – particularly their cultural coverage – in the face of a wealth of online alternatives. If our newspapers are going to be obsolete, our book sections will become obsolete as well. The tricky solution to all of this, of course, is the very medium that continues to beguile newspapers: online. There are still challenges here – as yet online ads don’t pay nearly as well as print – but as book blogs have in some respects shown, there is a big audience for online book coverage, and online allows the discussion of books to break out of the “review” mold that may be contributing to the decline in the viability of newspaper book sections. The important thing to remember, I think, is that the disappearance of book sections isn’t a book section problem, it’s a newspaper industry problem, and the solution to book section woes will come with the solutions to the larger newspaper industry problems.