Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Books aren't news

I have been reading A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, the 1995 book by John Allen Paulos, best known for his book Innumeracy. The book has a few useful insights, but over all I have found it to be disappointing. One chapter that did interest me has to do with the way books are covered in newspapers, which is virtually not at all.

"Every gritty detail of murders, drug deals, and other abuses makes the paper," Paulos writes. "Every TV program on every cable channel has a brief synopsis in a weekly or month guide. Every miniuscule variation in the stock price of hundreds of penny-ante companies is right there in the papers every day. I can't believe the readership for a daily stream of nationally syndicated, very brief reviews of new books would attract fewer readers than these features do. Besides, newspapers have a vested interest in a more literate reading public."

What he writes was true in 1995 and is even more true today. Even many of the larger newspapers have eliminated their Sunday book pages. For the same economic reasons, book publishers spend little to promote even their most significant titles, taking out ads in only the biggest newspapers. In most cases, it is left to the authors to promote and sell their own books.

Newspapers may write articles about local authors when a new book is published, but even that is no sure thing. With self-publishing so common today, there are usually more local authors with new books than papers can keep up with. Sometimes a brief mention of a book-signing is the best an author can hope for, and that may not even tell readers what the new book is about.

I reviewed books for a mid-sized midwestern newspaper for nearly 40 years and got away with it only because I was paid to peform other tasks, like reporting, editorial writing and copy editing for the newspaper and just wrote reviews on the side. In other words, the newspaper got local copy they didn't have to pay for. It worked. I got to write about books, something I love to do, while building up my library at the same time. Newspaper readers got a weekly book column. All the paper had to do was provide a little space each week.

Even then, I mentioned only about 50 books a year, just a fraction of the more than 50,000 that are published. Since I retired in 2010, nobody has stepped in to do even that much on behalf of books. There is, however, a column about fantasy football.

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