Sam Tanenhaus discusses how he thinks bookish things are going.
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Guest: Sam Tanenhaus
AIR DATE: 05/12/2012
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And though – for good or for bad, depending upon whether one is talking about personal satisfaction or professional success – though I’m not much of a “Gotcha” kind of broadcast interviewer (I am, after all, first and foremost a teacher), when today’s guest first joined me here at this table a half-dozen years ago, I thought I was being kind of smart-ass mean when I held up a most impressively garish, I thought, commercial out-take from the Sunday New York Times Book Review and asked Sam Tanenhaus – my guest then and now and the distinguished and highly regarded Sunday Book Review’s Editor then and now – rather snottily asked him whether this huge advertisement for television programs of all things was, God help us, a likely sign of the Times.
To which Sam Tanenhaus said simply: “Believe it or not…I hope so…because the number of pages we get from week to week, the amount of newsprint we have and space we can devote to reviews is premised in large part on the advertising we get…a huge ad like that, lavishly paid for, gives us more room to run more reviews and essays.”
So now, with reports of generally less and less book review space in the American press, I’ve just got to ask my Sunday Times Book Review Editor guest just how he thinks bookish things are going.
TANENHAUS: It is so interesting a time, Dick. It’s great to talk about this. I had forgotten that exchange, and I’m glad I answered it accurately. Every now and again I speak the truth. And it seems to …
HEFFNER: (Laughter) … I gotcha.
TANENHAUS: (Laughter) But, hmm, as you know, it just shows you how rapidly things are moving. When we had that conversation, I don’t know if there were e-books at that point.
And now they’ve almost overwhelmed the publishing industry. There’s a major law suit, you probably know … the Department of Justice has now brought a collusion suit again major publishers because of battles they’re having over pricing with the retailer Amazon … where so many people get their books.
And it looks as if books have now been pulled into the Internet battles that they actually are the web battles … that they’d actually been able to elude for a long time. It’s not clear whether in five or six years … we’ll even see bound books any longer. I mean we may see some, but they may be specialized books for collectors.
The percentage of book sales that are now e-sales, as they call them, is often 30%, 40% … even for really major authors.
I’ll give … something else … when I started the job I now have as Editor of the Book Review in the Spring of 2004 … almost exactly eight years ago. The big bully was Barnes & Noble because they had all those big chain stores that were driving out the corner bookstore and the independent book seller.
Now, Barnes & Noble has become, for many, this kind of icon of cultural seriousness. At least it was bookstore, because now people are getting their books online.
So those changes are having an enormous impact on the way authors look at their own work … “Is it really going to be read now on, on a kindle, or a nook or an iPad?” Will there not be a generation of readers who know the feel of, of pages and, and book covers and who have book shelves and, and book collections in their homes.
It’s actually changed the … the place the books occupy in the culture … which is not to say the printed word is going anywhere. Or at least the typeset word because it may just be a diode … you know a light emitted diode or something rather than a, a piece, you know, newsprint. Or of typesetting.
But words themselves are actually as healthy … they’re as … surround us as much as ever. And that’s a really good sign. But books are, are becoming a different thing.
HEFFNER: But my question … really had to do with book reviews in newspapers.
TANENHAUS: Book reviews in newspapers. Okay. Let’s … we’ll look back …
HEFFNER: As enthusiastic?
TANENHAUS: Ahemm … am I as enthusiastic as …
TANENHAUS: No. Not. And here’s why. When I started … again … in, in April, 2004 … there were stand alone Sunday book sections in the Washington Post … no longer. The Los Angeles Times … no longer. The San Francisco Chronicle … no longer. Chicago Tribune … no longer. Now the Wall Street Journal has started up a Sunday Book Section … that’s folded inside a weekend’s … actually I should say Saturday section … that’s actually quite good and has really good coverage, but there’s not much else around.
HEFFNER: Because it’s competing …the Journal … with The New York Times.
TANENHAUS: Well, yes, and you know … a, a viewer should understand … the reason this is happening is the result in large part of just the cost of printing paper and distributing it nationally. It really costs a lot of money to own forests like the New York Times … and do this.
And so what happens is the publishers of newspapers … now we’re talking about people much more important and powerful than me … the ones at the top of the … some of the corporate or organizational chain or looking at the expense of producing a single newspaper, or a weekly newspaper … you know, in which the Times book review appears. And looking to see what they can afford to do and what they can afford not to do.
Now luckily the Book Review in its odd way has situated itself in a place where it is journalistically important to the Sunday paper. This is the argument that one of the Editors, Joe Lelyveld made years ago …he would …. When he would meet with business people … at that point I think he was trying to raise the reviewer rates a little bit.
He said, “Well, the Book Review doesn’t make any money”. And Joe would say, “All right, take it out of the Sunday paper and see how many people want to read it.”
So in that sense we have a really strong position. Also we’re sold as a separate publication. Not many people know this, or they know it, but they don’t realize they know it.
When you go to Barnes & Noble, if there’s still one in your neighborhood … and you pick up a copy of the Book Review … which is often there almost as a kind of guide … you know, consumer guide … that’s actually been published a week in advance. And has a little price tag.
So we are supported in part by about some 25 thousand readers who subscribe to us the way they would to the New Yorker or the Atlantic Monthly or the New York Review of Books. We’re a publication that, that arrives in people’s mailboxes. And that generates some revenue as well.
But as far as being able to print and publish those days every week … if we did not have the kind of advertising support we do … the support of the book publishers who look to us to … just let the public know about important books and to … in … sort of enlarge the visibility of the literary conversation in the culture … doesn’t mean we do it better than other people, it’s just that more people see it in our pages.
As long as that stays in place … as long as there’s a belief on the part of readers and publishers and authors and writers, because they are our reviewers … that this is a valuable, important thing to do, we’re okay. But if there’s a … there’s no guarantee of it.
HEFFNER: Sam, you’re a betting man?
TANENHAUS: Nooo … I’m not.
HEFFNER: So you don’t want to bet on this?
TANENHAUS: Ahemm … I don’t. Ahemm …
TANENHAUS: Well, yes, but, you know, I’m a dinosaur and I’m just used to the, the culture I was raised in which is very much a print driven culture. And, you know, I tell people that when I was really young and imagined I’d like to be a writer or a literary person … I always assumed that I would occupy a marginal place in the culture. But it never occurred to me that I would actually be a kind of an anachronism.
And, and I don’t think that really has happened … actually. I mean the … as I was saying before the, the Internet and the web are keeping print … the idea of language and words alive.
Who knows … I mean it would be interesting to have, you know, the great prophet of all this … Marshall McLuhan here …
TANENHAUS: … more and more I think he was the guy who saw it all, the prose is impenetrable, but when you can understand what he was saying … he seemed to be the prophet, you know, and he said that the …you know, the Gutenberg transformation was one that hadn’t really been completed yet. Well, now we have moved to the next one. And it would be interesting to hear what he has to say.
HEFFNER: But you remember his great headline there … this thing he mocked up … he took the symbol of print … Time magazine folds … I mean this was, this was a gag on his part and he was saying it, as you point out … writing it a long, long, long time ago.
TANENHAUS: Well, he saw that the image … or predicted that the image was replacing the word. That’s not exactly what’s happened. And part of the genius of McLuhan, by the way, is that he saw … remember he’d been a Joyce scholar … scholar of James Joyce …
TANENHAUS: … and Joyce himself had an interesting kind of technological approach to writing. Remember those great pages in Ulysses where he, he replicates newspaper headlines … ahem, that he saw that, that art and technology were not as separable as we might think. That art has its own technologies.
Well, what we’re seeing now and, and he also argued, I think … or at least implicitly … remember he was appalled by all of this. He was not a champion of it. But he did see that technology also had its own aesthetic and that’s where the Steve Jobs and people like that of the world, you know, seem to be more and more important and, and … and are admired and, and, you know, often have a kind of visionary sense of what it is that … the ways in which people will consume or, or surround themselves with information.
As far as all that goes, it, it does make me wonder “Well, would James Joyce actually have liked reading on an iPad?” You know he had terrible eyesight. But you know what I mean … all the manipulation of text that you could do … manipulation of images and text … this kind of thing.
That, there maybe a future in all of this … that somebody like me can’t really see, because I’m stuck in my older ways, and, you know, maybe have narrow views.
Do I wish there were a dozen more book review sections? Yeah. I do. You know, if … when a book was published … a major book was published, oh, even 10 or 15 years ago … an author could count on maybe a 100, 125 separate book reviews …
TANENHAUS: Yeah. I mean small papers all over the country that you don’t’ think about … regional papers … there’d be a book reviewer in … oh, in Cedar Rapids … you know, or, or Wichita, Kansas there’d be somebody there, writing the book review … and you’d be surprised.
When my Whittaker Chambers book came out … it was a big thing for me … it was, you know … I first …
HEFFNER: It was a big book.
TANENHAUS: … ambitious book and, and so I followed everything and here comes the review from, from San Diego and Pittsburgh and Tampa and Miami and Orlando … two reviews in two Houston newspapers. This kind of thing.
And the number would start to pile up. Nowadays, I talked to a very distinguished historian the other day … I was visiting up at Yale, I was a guest of John Lewis Gaddis who wrote an important biography of George Kennan.
And I said, “Well how many reviews did you get?” Twenty. You know … there just aren’t …
HEFFNER: It’s incredible.
TANENHAUS: … Yeah, I mean he was guessing … don’t quote me.
TANENHAUS: But the, but the number was very small. It’s easier now … dare I say … to be on a television program … maybe not one so distinguished as this …
TANENHAUS: … to get on television and talk about your book than it is to see somebody review it in, in a major newspaper.
HEFFNER: Sam, what’s happening in the large communities where you ticked them off before … book review … gone … book review … gone … what’s happening? Does the Times substitute … since you are a national journal.
TANENHAUS: Well, and you can read us online. But we’re just talking about print now … right?
HEFFNER: Just talking about print.
TANENHAUS: Well, ah, the Chicago Tribune I believe is starting up some book pages again, if they haven’t done it already. So that’s a good sign.
The … in Los Angeles, they’re actually starting a, a web only Los Angeles review of books … that I … is very ambitious … if you see the contributors … quite impressive.
And I don’t know how connected that is to the Los Angeles Times. The, the LA Times and Washington Post still review books. But those book reviews will be disbursed or scattered …
TANENHAUS: … through the paper. That’s the difference. So that “yes” there’s coverage … and there are real wonderful reviewers and critics who are very seriously writing about them. You know Jonathan Yardley is still reviewing books in the Washington Post.
You … what you don’t’ see is the Washington Post Book World …that’s what’s gone. So … enterprising editors and journalists are finding ways in print to review books and write about books … what you don’t have is the one place you can go to where you can go to where you’ll see 16 pages or 20 or 24 that, you know, you … or 28 … you used to see in those publications.
Now, that said, I think … you know, you’re a kindle guy … you know a kindle reader … we have to accept that many people are doing a lot of their reading online and they’re seeing book reviews of all kinds in the web … there are those who say “tell us …” people all the time … there are those who say the most important reviews any author gets are the write up … are the reviews on Amazon dot com … where people, you know, give them stars and write them up.
HEFFNER: Dear God …
HEFFNER: … is all I can say about that.
TANENHAUS: Well, you know, you don’t feel the authority in it … actually some of them are pretty good, I’m quite impressed.
When my last little book came out I looked at some of the Amazon reviews … and before the ideologues who are just, you know, waging their own battles … got in … and the more interpretive, analytic review around … I was really impressed by a lot of them.
But … yes, it’s not the same as having … you know, a Murray Kempton or a Richard Rovere or someone like that … and Edmund Wilson writing in a really authoritative way … not that we don’t’ have authoritative critics …
HEFFNER: Mentioning all dead writers.
TANENHAUS: Well, there’s some good ones, too. I mean The New Yorker has some really good critics, I think …
HEFFNER: Now, now … again … in the cities where the real review …the weekly review disappeared from the newspaper. Have you filled the space … has the Sunday New York Times Book Review sold more copies there?
TANENHAUS: You know, I … that’s a question I can’t answer. I don’t’ know. I know the number of stand alone subscribers … the ones who’d subscribe to just that magazine. That number has not changed. Oh, I mean except in the most fractional way in the eight years I’ve been doing the job.
So we’re not selling them more that way. Now, you follow the Times very closely and you know … we not only have national editions printed on printing presses across the country … but also some that include local content. If you get the San Francisco or Houston editions of the New York Times … Chicago, as well … you’ll see pages written by journalists in, in those cities.
HEFFNER: You know …
TANENHAUS: A … books …
HEFFNER: … I didn’t know that.
TANENHAUS: Yeah. It’s something … it’s … it is still in a kind of development stage, but it’s definitely happening. There’s not as much direct book coverage that way. I think people probably do look to the Times …and remember it’s not just the Book Review … it’s also the daily New York Times … you know, we’re publishing reviews …you know almost every day of the week.
HEFFNER: More now. Am I wrong or right?
TANENHAUS: Ah, I think it’s about the same number. Well, there’s so many different sections of the paper though … you’re right. See, in some ways we’re doing that the other big newspapers are, too. You see books reviewed in the Styles Section, for instance, and … by often very good critics … one of our favorite reviewers, Liesl Schillinger … also writes about books …
TANENHAUS: … in, in the Style Section of the magazine.
HEFFNER: But this is what worries me … if you’ll forgive me for worrying about the fate of your publication. I do see reviews all over the place. Do I have to worry about whether I’m going to continue to see the Sunday New York Times Book Review?
TANENHAUS: Do you mean reviews all over the rest of the newspaper?
TANENHAUS: I don’t think so. I mean to me, the more the merrier. I’m all for it. If books are being written about in other parts of the newspaper … in some ways … since, you know, I’m a book writer myself … it may be more helpful for the careers of successive books if a columnist of a Paul Krugman or a Maureen Dowd or a Gail Collins … David Brooks and all the … all the rest … if they devote a column to a book …
HEFFNER: Well …
TANENHAUS: … that could be more useful than getting a …
TANENHAUS: … a glowing review on the cover of the Times Book Review.
HEFFNER: That’s David Brooks thing … very much. Writing about a book, usually a research study …
HEFFNER: … that peaks his curiosity.
TANENHAUS: Yeah, but you know, there it is … I think he even wrote a … he didn’t like Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom very much …
TANENHAUS: … but he did write a column about it. I remember … not long after I started at the Book Review … when Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America was published … Frank Rich wrote a column about it … I remember that had a real impact … somebody else in the paper did, too. And those … that commentary I think had as much to do with the success of the book as the very, very long review we ran by a great critic Paul Berman. Not to say it wasn’t an excellent essay … it was … we were very proud to publish it. But it was that other attention that other voices were bringing to it that accounted …that helped account for the extraordinary success of that novel.
So, all that is to the good, but, of course, we still want to have our Book Review. I have a proprietary interest in it. I want it to keep going. And so far the signs are, are pretty good. We’re actually getting …. some more support from publishers than we were … oh, say … in 2009 and 2010 … particularly because there’s been some recovery in the economy and also the … what e-books have done.
This is one of the, the great paradoxes of, of journalism, of books and I suppose … of business … is that because e-book sales are rising so dramatically …
TANENHAUS: … the publishers are chasing that opportunity. And what … that is to say … if that’s how they can sell the books, then they’re going to publish them simultaneously with the hardcover books and also rather than follow the conventional procedure whereby the hardcover book came out in January and then the next January, the paperback came out … or September to September instead of waiting … you waited a year … that’s when you introduced the new version.
Now, the publishers tend to make them available in different formats, as they say, or platforms … simultaneously.
HEFFNER: What do you think of the economics of that?
TANENHAUS: Well, here’s what’s happened for us. Is it … means if you’re a publisher whose got a big new book … one that you and I are both interested in … Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power … right … the fourth volume of his enormous epic about the life of Lyndon Johnson.
Well, if you’re a publisher you just want to know … you want readers to know … this book is available however you want to read it. That’s the change that’s happened.
So … e-book form or hardcover form … so how do you get the word out? You take out an ad in the New York Times. You take out an ad in the newspaper.
So, we, we found the ironic consequence of the, the rise of e-books and of digital reading is that it’s brought more attention back to what we do because we still remain the place … not the only one … but one place where many readers go to get the news about a new book that’s coming out. So all of that has been to the good as far as we’re concerned.
HEFFNER: And you think … or let me put it in another way, I’m not going to ask you “do you think that” … what happens to the old line publishing? Its standards, its fact checking … its copy editing … all that in this new world. What have you observed?
TANENHAUS: Well, Dick, you’ve written a book or two … there was never a whole lot of fact checking going on in publishing houses.
HEFFNER: Let’s move then from fact checking …
HEFFNER: … to the …
TANENHAUS: … to the editing …
HEFFNER: … the copy editing.
TANENHAUS: Well, years ago editors … you know the really distinguished book editors became … who actually poured over the manuscript …
TANENHAUS: … the way my great editor, now retired … Bob Loomis did … went through it with a pencil. Those, those numbers began shrinking a while ago. Because the emphasis shifted to acquisition … your job as an editor was to buy as many promising books as you could.
And that meant also higher volume of books published and so more of the editing … the actual editing became in the alarming term “out sourced” to free lancers. Now some of the free lancers are really good. But it does mean … it does create a different relationship when you, as I have a strong feeling you will … talk to your great friend Robert Caro, who’s really a giant in our profession and he describes as his books were edited. How he and Robert Gottlieb his great editor would, really, almost come to blows over the choice between, you know, a semi-colon and a dash.
And if the editor and the author, two enormously distinguished figures in publishing … fighting it out at that level … you know, the micro level of publishing … no we’re not seeing so much of that. Now did we ever see a lot of it? No. But there was more of it, much more of it than we see now. And yes that’s a concern.
I … another thing I worry about is … in additional to books, is magazine editing. The New Yorker, for instance, has enormously skilled, experienced editors who’ve mastered their craft over many, many years … and to work with them, as I did on one occasion, partly just to see what it was like … is to be, you know, powerfully impressed by the range of skills and the seriousness they bring to it. Two people are fact checking it simultaneously … a copy editor is going over it, you’re working with the editor, in this case the great Henry Finder who’s their books editor and everybody’s communicating with everyone else, without any confusion … that’s a kind of institutional expertise that the Internet certainly does not encourage and that very hard driving, bottom line economics don’t encourage. Because all that stuff costs a lot of money to keep all those people on staff … the man or woman hours …the labor that goes into it and all the rest. Yeah, we’re losing a lot of that.
HEFFNER: And the pride in that … makes me think that pride does go-eth before the bottom line falls.
TANENHAUS: Could be.
HEFFNER: And I, I just … we’re at the end of the program … but I, I was thinking of Sam Vaughan, the late Sam Vaughan and a discussion he and I had here 100 years ago …
TANENHAUS: I knew Sam Vaughan.
HEFFNER: … about fact checking and what an important thing it was that the publisher takes responsibility. It was his book.
HEFFNER: Sam Tanenhaus, you’re just great to come here with me … and I hope that … well, I know you’re going to come back soon to talk about politics and thank you for joining me today.
TANENHAUS: Oh, it’s always great, Dick.
HEFFNER: Thanks. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
And do visit the Open Mind Website at thirteen.org/openmind to reprise this program online right now or to draw upon our Archive of 1,500 or so other Open Mind and related programs. That’s thirteen.org/openmind.