WaPo Book World: History Repeats Itself

To jump off from the previous post, in 1973, Washington Post cut the standalone Book World section, leaving at the time only The New York Times Book Review and The Los Angeles Times Book Review as the only standalone sections published in this country.

Does this sound familiar? The parallels increase once you plunge into Ronald Smothers’s New York Times 1973 article on the initial folding. The article is behind a paywall, but there are some interesting facts: (1) The section was closed because of the high cost of paper and because the tabloid format was a waste of space. (2) If you think the current dilemma of 12 tabloid pages is bad, consider that the 1973 cut reduced books coverage to a four-page pullout in the Sunday Style section. (3) Carol Nemeyer, then the staff director of the Association of American Publishers, is quoted: “a danger signal to publishers who see the outlets for advertising and media reviews diminishing.”

And of course, the article contains much of the same arguments. Former Book World editor Byron Dobell — perhaps the Steve Wasserman of his time — noted, “A book review supplement should not have to pay for itself in advertising any more than a sports section should.” In November 1973, then Book World editor William McPherson disseminated a letter, reading, “These are parlous times….Will the books that most of us hear about be the major selections of the major book clubs, the highly touted bestsellers, what George Plimpton is advertising on television, and certain sensational items like The Sensuous Woman?”

Now keep in mind that all this was occurring when there weren’t any of those pesky bloggers banging out diatribes in Terre Haute basements.

Book World, as we all know, was revived as a standalone section in the early 1980s. And in an era of Kindles, G1s, and iPhones, what’s not to suggest that Book World won’t emerge yet again as a standalone section in a new format?

I get very well that the Jane Ciabattaris of the world are terrified of the present. But fear and desperate anxiety has rarely solved anything. Instead of ranting and raving about doom and gloom, and starting meaningless email campaigns, it might help to be more constructive and pro-active about current realities. Yes, Book World has taken a hit. But it’s not nearly as severe as the one leveled in 1973. Yes, you won’t see a standalone section anymore. But what about the hundreds of reviews that are still going to be published this year?

Literary journalism isn’t going to go away if we keep fighting for it, but we must consider the present realities. Hysteria certainly didn’t work for Book World in the 1970s. But adjustment and reaching out to readers did. Let us learn from the lessons of history. This time, we even have a better way of getting the word out.

[RELATED: Kelly Burdick has some interesting ideas over at Moby Lives.]

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2 Comments

  1. Interesting history–I didn’t know about the 1973 move. And I join you in hoping that literary journalism takes the cue to innovate and evolve. But I’m not sure I understand your targeting of Jane Ciabattari, et.al. You may not like the methods of many who decried Book World’s closure–but they are not the enemy of the future you want to see.

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