The Future of Newspapers and Book Coverage: A Book Reviewer Roundtable

 

For decades, newspapers have provided the public with book coverage in the form of reviews, author interviews, and features. Over time, there has been a steady decrease in this print coverage. And most recently, we have witnessed a frightening decline across the entire newspaper industry coupled with a growing trend toward obtaining news and opinion from digital sources rather than in print.

Are we entering a world where book reviews (not to mention reviewers) are an endangered species? Are authors at risk of losing exposure to general readers? What’s ahead for SF and fantasy, in particular? To look at these questions, Unbound Worlds has brought together five science fiction & fantasy book reviewers from across the USA for a Q&A on this important topic. These reviewers and the newspapers they have reviewed for are:

Mark Graham (Rocky Mountain News)
Jim Hopper (The San Diego Union-Tribune)
Nisi Shawl (The Seattle Times)
Robert Folsom (The Kansas City Star)
Michael Berry (San Francisco Chronicle)


How long have you been reviewing science fiction and fantasy books?

Mark Graham
I started reviewing books at the Rocky Mountain News in February 1977. I’m not sure what the first SF/Fantasy title I reviewed was, but it may have been William Kotzwinkle’s Dr. Rat or Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Bird Sang, both in 1977, I think. I began reviewing SF/Fantasy almost exclusively in 1988 when my column, “Unreal Worlds” began appearing on a regular basis. The column ran in one form or another until February of this year when the paper went out of business.

Jim Hopper
Since 1987; Harlan Ellison’s Angry Candy was my first pro review. Arthur Salm gave me an opportunity a few months later, for a regular column, “Eccentric Orbits’ (my title, his blessing), which was every five weeks or so. During a regime change, when the Evening Tribune merged into the San Diego Union, becoming the Union-Tribune, the interim editor of the book section didn’t believe in SF or fantasy; she didn’t think anyone read it. After enough protests, she picked up Michael Berry as a regular. I was on hiatus for a few months, until that editor found a more suitable position.

Nisi Shawl
My first professional book review was published in Gnosis Magazine in 1996. I reviewed a few books for a local weekly here in Seattle, The Stranger, in 1999. In 2000 I began reviewing books regularly for The Seattle Times, and I’m still doing so despite the trend toward cutbacks in that area in the journalistic world. It was while I was at the Times that I was first asked to review science fiction.

Robert Folsom
I’ve been reviewing science fiction and fantasy books for nine years, notably for The Kansas City Star, where my column ran monthly. Within the past year, budget dictated it run every six weeks. I’m now a freelancer since I was recently laid off from The Star as part of a cut-into-the-bone workforce reduction.

Michael Berry
I began reviewing for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1987, and my regular column now appears at six-week intervals. I think that may make me the nation’s longest-running newspaper reviewer of science fiction and fantasy, but I’m a little scared to confirm that suspicion.

In the past few years, newspapers have seen a steady decline in revenue. With this loss in revenue, sacrifices have been made. At many papers, the book review section was among the first to be streamlined, downsized, or eliminated all-together. Are these newspapers saying that books are no longer newsworthy?

Michael Berry
I’m lucky in that The Chronicle is still committed to producing a weekly, tab-sized, stand-alone Books section. In terms of editorial space, the section isn’t what it was five years ago, but editor John McMurtrie has been able to keep it alive — albeit pretty much as a one-person production team — in a very tough economic environment.

The San Francisco Bay Area is a huge book market, with deep literary roots, and The Chronicle’s readers have intense feelings about the Books section and the newsworthiness of its contents. We experimented with a broadsheet format a few years back, and the negative reaction was swift and vociferous. I’m not sure what would happen if we suspended the section completely.

Mark Graham
There are probably two factors at work here. The first is lack of advertising revenue from book stores and publishers. With fewer book stores in existence, there are fewer stores to advertise, and with fewer publishers, there are fewer of them also. Thus, book review sections, however popular they may be with readers, don’t bring in advertising dollars. Also, editors and publishers, who may read a lot of newspapers and news magazines, don’t read a lot of books, especially fiction titles, so they have less interest in review sections. At least, those are my impressions.

Jim Hopper
No. The papers are not saying that books are no longer news, but they’re not giving many opportunities for reviewers to make any books newsworthy. They are carefully avoiding the notion that they’re all turning into USA Today, but the dominoes seem to have a certain lean. The U-T is buying more wire-service reviews, running them various mid-week days, making the word count up to about half, I think, of what the old weekly 4-page tabloid was ….and claiming they still want to keep reviewing alive. Poor performance for the fifth-or-sixth largest book market in the U.S.

Robert Folsom
I would paraphrase Otto von Bismarck and say, “Newspapers are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” And that’s when ad revenue is good! But ad revenue has been down, and that’s what has hurt newspapers’ bottom line. So when sacrifices have been made, they made no sense. It isn’t that newspapers are saying that books are no longer newsworthy; newspapers are simply floundering.

Is cutting book coverage a mistake or a necessary sacrifice?

Mark Graham
Of course it is a mistake. But so is having a city lose a 150-year-old daily newspaper which has a format that is easy to read and has my book reviews in it.

Jim Hopper
Necessity. I look at motorcycles-for-sale in the classifieds. Two years ago, there were twelve to twenty inches; on Saturday, 4 April this year, there was one. Single. Ad. For a Harley. Classified advertising has traditionally been the lifeblood of local newspapers; when three fingerflicks and a buttonpush can put a potential buyer in touch with a hopeful seller–for free, no charge, gratis–classified ads die on the vine. My local, the U-T, last time I advertised, offered two lines for five times for any vehicles, asking under $5K, at no charge…and still that income is swirling around the drain.

Nisi Shawl
This is a pretty deep question. Of course I think books merit more coverage than they’ve ever gotten, not less, because I’m a book person. However, not everyone is. There are some fairly intelligent people who just don’t care for books–my youngest sister, for one, for instance. I think it’s a question of brain physiology, frankly, and I’m content with my own wiring while not eager to insist that everyone else share my obsessions. So cutting book coverage is a choice, and one that I wouldn’t make if it were only up to me. But it’s not.

Robert Folsom
Cutting book coverage in print is a huge mistake. Why should a bibliophile pick up a paper’s Sunday arts section if there isn’t going to be coverage of diverse genres? If it’s a necessary sacrifice to lay off book editors and reviewers, it completes a vicious circle: fewer readers and subscribers.

Michael Berry
Well, I have a vested interested in the continuance of book coverage, so I’m going to come down firmly on the side that cuts are a mistake. Compared to other beats, books coverage is ridiculously inexpensive. Publishers provide all the raw material, there’s no travel involved, and a couple of staffers and a team of freelancers can put together a decent weekly section.

What do readers lose when book coverage is cut? What does the newspaper lose? Is there anything gained?

Robert Folsom
Enjoyment is what readers lose when book coverage is cut. Have a cup of coffee, enjoy the book news and reviews, maybe discover something new. That’s important to a reader. Take that away, and a newspaper loses one more reason for a reader to pick it up in the first place. Is there anything gained? Maybe for the reader who may go online to find information about books and authors they’re interested in. Unfortunately, that may not be the local paper’s website, from which many papers are trying to derive income.

Mark Graham
Readers lose the access to both news of important books and opinions about them, but they also lose exposure to new ideas and titles they might never hear about. Of course, this hurts new authors much more than established ones. The newspaper loses part of its reputation and its responsibility to keep its readers literate, not just abreast of current affairs. The only thing gained is an occasional tree, because the pages that are cut from the book review sections are usually cut from the newspaper, making the paper smaller forever.

Jim Hopper
Readers lose in breadth of opinion and variety of insights as well as losing the quantity of notices of new books. The newspaper loses readership, and alienates some of their readers; this I know through conversations with friends who are now former subscribers.

Michael Berry
Readers lose the regular affirmation that literature is an important part of everyday life, that books are worth as much attention as sports, business or celebrity gossip. They lose the chance to support local authors and visiting writers when they sign at area bookstores. They lose exposure to the non-bestsellers that aren’t mentioned on Oprah or stacked on pallets at Costco. As for the newspapers, they stand to lose some of their most valuable readers — the educated, affluent, engaged consumers.

Nisi Shawl
What’s lost to the reader is some access to the universes that can be found inside books. There is a truism in marketing that it takes multiple exposures to make an impression with a product or idea. Books are both products and ideas, and often a reader will come to a book after having seen or heard about it multiple times: in the paper, on the shelf in a store, via a response to a search engine query, peering over the shoulder of someone riding a bus, during a radio interview with a favorite musician, so on, so forth. Losing one opportunity to receive superficial knowledge of a book may mean that you don’t bother to find it and engage with it more deeply, to buy, borrow, or download it.

What’s lost to the newspaper is a chance to serve their readers. What’s gained? The ability to keep publishing, and to keep serving their readers in at least a limited way.

Simply by looking at bestseller lists and counting the number of SF/Fantasy titles, it seems that SF/Fantasy readership is healthy and most likely growing. But many media outlets choose to ignore the genre in favor of what they would consider “literary” or mainstream. Why do you think that is?

Nisi Shawl
Whole books could be written on that subject. Greg Bear has spoken at length about the connection between the disenchantment with science and progress resulting from two world wars, and the distaste for SF/F in academic and literary circles.

As a minority, I’d like to add another consideration: SF/F is one of the few literatures that can by its very nature challenge the status quo. It doesn’t always do that, but it can. Perhaps there’s a reluctance among established institutions to accept SF/F because of that potential. Perhaps it is much more acceptable for the academic and literary establishment for me to write long, beautiful laments about the current position of African Americans than it is for me to write compact, beautiful extrapolations about what an African American space colony would be like.

Just a theory.

Michael Berry
Part of the problem, I think, is that it’s often really difficult to summarize an ambitious work of science fiction or fantasy, more so than the average “mainstream” novel. “Quick: Tell me about Neal Stephenson’s Anathem in 100 words or less.” There’s obviously some snobbery involved, too. Some critics, especially those over the age of , say, 50, are unable to see beyond SF/F’s pulp roots. But I think many who grew up in the Eighties and Nineties are able to see the literary value of the genre’s most influential works.

Jim Hopper
A lot of book-section editors came through journalism school; most of their bosses did, too. SF/F is not taught in most journo schools; if it’s not taught, it must not be significant. Richard Tregaski’s Guadalcanal Diary was Journalism. Reporter, imbedded, on the beach in a war. Journalism! Study this, people, learn how to write with immediacy, with feeling, with the cold dispassion that may well get you sometime into history books!

Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Slaughterhouse Five is Not Journalism…it’s SF, even though dear old Junior wrote it about a really horrible historical incident he witnessed, and he participated, in a grim series of events. I’m personally glad I was never at either place in either time; still, it seems to me as if Slaughterhouse Five may be the more truthful account.

Robert Folsom
Media outlet editors. It seems that to be an editor at a media outlet is to operate from an ivory tower and necessarily be out of touch with the masses. They may think their mission is to educate through erudition. But observe what people are reading on the bus, or someone on the street tells you what he or she is reading, and it likely isn’t the “literary” work that was reviewed rather wordily by a media outlet.

Mark Graham
It is simply a generational thing. Most editors and publishers are even older than I, and they have always considered SF/Fantasy a second-class citizen. Sadly, they are not being replaced by younger folks who might feel differently. Instead, the newspapers are going out of business, killed by the Internet that these same younger folks embrace.

Do you think SF/Fantasy will ever be considered mainstream? Or is it already mainstream by public opinion, but not yet by critical opinion?

Jim Hopper
It is already mainstream by public opinion, and some “mainstream” genres (thrillers particularly) incorporate some SFnal elements pretty often as greater or lesser plot elements–John Birmingham’s Without Warning, for example, or almost any Michael Crichton, Dean Koontz, or, in particular, Laurell K. Hamilton, whose books would’a been in paperback on the thin racks outside of the view of the doorway three decades ago.

Mark Graham
Many SF/Fantasy authors are considered mainstream already: Dan Simmons, Christopher Moore, Joyce Carol Oates, James Patterson, Jonathan Carroll and James Lee Burke immediately come to mind, but there are many others. On the other hand some authors will always be categorized regardless of the quality of their work. I think this matters much less than it did a generation ago.

Robert Folsom
Oh, SF/fantasy is definitely mainstream already, certainly by public opinion. And it’s enlightening to hear how specific people’s tastes are when it comes to sci-fi and fantasy. A fantasy fan told me she likes her heroes to be 100 percent good. None of this anti-hero stuff for her! Critical opinion may never catch up.

Michael Berry
I think SF/F is moving steadily toward the mainstream but will never quite arrive. Concepts that would have been almost incomprehensible to mainstream audiences a few decades ago — time travel paradoxes, alien invasions, alternate histories — are now punchlines on “The Simpsons.” Literary writers from Philip Roth to Margaret Atwood produce novels that are indisputably science fiction, even if they’re not marketed as such. Genre-enthusiasts like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem openly praise old-school pros like Michael Moorcock and Philip K. Dick, giving them the props that eluded them early in their careers.

How do you view the internet as a medium for book reviews? And what other forums do you see opening up as a place where books are discussed and reviewed?

Robert Folsom
The Internet is a wonderful medium for book reviews. It’s democratic, for one thing, and you get to see how well-informed readers are, how well they know their stuff, either in response to a review or reader-generated on fansites, for example. Genre-specific blogs are great, too. It’s a comic expression that everyone’s a critic, but the Internet lets everyone be one.

Michael Berry
Online reviews aren’t immune to Sturgeon’s Law, but there’s plenty of quality in their top ten percent. Space is never an issue, and online critics are able to employ more idiosyncratic voices and outlooks than most of their counterparts in print. I don’t spend a lot of time on book review sites, but I do get a lot of tips through the recommendations I find on writers’ personal sites.

Mark Graham
With the deaths of so many metropolitan dailies, the Internet, which helped to kill them, is one of the few forums left. Some magazines remain, but most of them have shrinking readerships. I don’t see any new forums opening up.

Jim Hopper
There is so much dross on the net that finding real reviews is a bit tedious. I’ve seen a few on author’s sites, but they are all (surprise!) very favorable. I do like sniffing, when I’m at loose ends, at author sites, but the screen just doesn’t compare, to me, with print-on paper tangibility. I’m somewhat over 50, bought pulps new when Willy Ley was still writing for Galaxy, and I still, dinosaur that I am, would rather put a book or a newspaper or a magazine in my pocket than show off my gigapixel 10.8 KVA 29-gram iridium-ion smartscreen methane-powered thumbnail projector to read “Jabberwocky” in 1440pt. Type on the nearest wall.

Nisi Shawl
The internet is a fantastic medium for book reviews. And there are so many different ways it is being used to review books, from private blogs to list serves to online magazines to online editions of print publications; from PDFs to podcasts to awards lists and more. I think that there is room for both professional and amateur reviewers on the net, and benefits to having both.

Old forums continue, of course, blending in internet usages in interesting ways. I attend numerous science fiction conventions, and there are always panels about recommending books, always well attended and lively. They used to include handouts of lists the panelists prepared beforehand, but now the lists arise out of the discussion and are collated and presented online afterwards. They are available to anyone who attended the panel plus anyone else who knows where to look.

I’m not aware of new forums arising, but I’ll bet there are some.

Although there must be many to chose from, name one of the most memorable science fiction/fantasy books you have reviewed during your career?

Mark Graham
After reviewing at least 1000 SF/Fantasy titles, this question is almost impossible to answer. It would be easy to list dozens. But I will give you two, even though I was only asked for one.

Terry Brooks’ Running with the Demon. I was a girls’ track coach and Nest Freemark, a high school athlete with a supernatural talent resonated with me. I think despite the popularity and importance of The Sword of Shannara, this is Brooks’ best book.

Christopher Moore’s The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove. I coached along side of Dave Sanders who was killed at Columbine 10 years ago. It was while reading Moore’s book that I discovered that I could laugh again, and that it was all right to do it.

Jim Hopper
Anathem, Neal Stephenson, is one of the most recent memorable books. I love books that teach me things, or remind me of things I’d had revelations wrapping my mind around. Second, for especially people who don’t think SF is Lit, is The Wreck of the River of Stars, by Michael Flynn. Twain, Conrad, Hemingway and Heinlein would all be jealous, and all be delighted with this emulation.

Nisi Shawl
That is so very hard. I tend to be most moved by audacity, and there are two particularly audacious books I’d have to pick: Life, by Gwyneth Jones, depicts the progress of a genetic mutation that wipes out the passing on of sexual secondary characteristics in humans, and it does so both believably and with deep, very real emotional engagement. Thirteen, by Richard K. Morgan, features a black supersoldier of the future coming to terms with a society that no longer needs him or his kind. Morgan is white, and he took quite some risks writing from this viewpoint. I think he mostly pulls it off. (Thirteen is also one of the best love stories I’ve read since the Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane mysteries of Dorothy Sayers.)

Michael Berry
The science fiction series that gave me the greatest amount of reading pleasure in the last 10 years was Kage Baker’s novels about The Company and its time-traveling, immortal cyborgs. I came to the sequence late, starting with Mendoza in Hollywood, which didn’t really grab me. Then I read The Graveyard Game, was completely captivated, went back to the beginning for In the Garden of Iden and stuck with the whole series until it culminated with The Sons of Heaven. I’ve never understood why Baker hasn’t enjoyed a wider readership. The main Company sequence is one of the rare multi-volume sagas that keeps all the promises it makes in its early installments.

Robert Folsom
Whew! One of the most … Dhalgren, the 2001 re-release of Samuel R. Delany’s 1974 novel. I had the pleasure of interviewing Delany for that edition, and I asked him what he thought of being called “the James Joyce of science fiction.” He said, “When people say that, they mean it as a compliment, so I simply say, ‘Thank you.’ ” Of course, Delany is his own man, his own writer, but I can see why readers may reach for the Joycean comparison. They each have their innovations.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are the views of the individual reviewers and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the newspapers for which they review.

Asset 3
Asset 3
Asset 3
Asset 3
Asset 3
Asset 3
03
03
05
05
Asset 3
Asset 3
Asset 3
Asset 3
Asset 3
Asset 3
Asset 3
Asset 3
03
03
05
05
Asset 3
Asset 3
Asset 3
Asset 3
Asset 3
Asset 3
Asset 3
Asset 3
03
03
05
05
Asset 3
Asset 3
Asset 3
Asset 3
Asset 3
Asset 3
Asset 3
Asset 3
03
03
05
05
Asset 3
Asset 3
Give Gifts Give Gifts Give Gifts Give Gifts

Check out our Ultimate Gift Guide to find the perfect presents.