Keyed to a report that the Los Angeles Times is about to downsize its book section, the Wall Street Journal has an interesting story about the dwindling state of newspaper book sections. Not counting book review sections that are folded into other sections of Sunday papers, it turns out that with the demise of the Times' section, there will only be five standalone newspaper book sections left in the U.S.
My question is: Why are there that many?
Bibliophiles will throw the book at me, but really, the book section is the classic example of the ways that newspapers cling to a bygone era. I guess the theory is that it's a good thing for newspapers to support literary efforts, being in roughly the same business and all. Or it's the same high-falutin' attitude that keeps classical music news and reviews roughly equal in weight to pop reviews in many papers—even though the audiences aren't even remotely the same size.
But beyond that, why do books get this special treatment? Why not a separate weekly section devoted to movies, or music? Or, to be really radical, a separate section to review video games? You laugh—but video games are a bigger business than movies or music, much less books, and probably would attract far more readers (young ones, no less) and advertisers.
As the Journal story points out, most book sections are starved for advertising—another sign that they're an anachronism. I suspect they're starved for readers, too. One might suggest that they're high-value readers—but clearly advertisers don't see it that way. The Journal says that publishers much prefer to spend their marketing dollars to get their books prominent placement in the big chain bookstores.
The only standalone book section that seems to be a success is the one published by The New York Times, which acts as sort of a trade magazine for the New York-based publishing industry, has plenty of ads—and often has more good writing and reading in it than most Sunday newspapers have in an entire edition. But that's the exception. Newspaper book review sections are yet another thing that newspaper managers should take a cold-blooded look at when they're looking to shift resources into higher-impact products. And while they're at it, take a look at the book section's equally anemic, anachronistic cousin, the Sunday magazine. At most papers, both have long outlived their usefulness.