Saturday, November 08, 2008
Pulling Back the Curtain on New York Times Book Reviews
President of Westwind Communications
At a recent Harvard University speech, New York Times Book Review Editor Barry Gewen revealed unknown details about The New York Times Book Review’s “inner workings.” Authors wanting to get the scoop on the process will find insight into the minds of the reviewers at The Gray Lady. These inside secrets from that speech and gleaned from other sources may give authors a better idea if their book ever has a chance at making the cut.
As a book publicist, I talk to authors and clients every day and most have two ultimate goals:
Get on Oprah and get reviewed by The New York Times Book Review. As one of the most influential and widely read book review publications in the industry, a write-up in the New York Times usually results in a strong sales surge and other media outlets writing about the book as well.
In the New York Times article, “Secret Workings of ‘Times’ Book Review Exposed!,” Gewen discussed who takes part in the review, how books are ultimately chosen, and how unglamorous the job really is in the Times building.
Gewen says The Book Review does not print the names of its editors except when they write articles. Furthermore, he stated that there are only about 17 people on the Review roster including support staff.
First named is Editor Sam Tanenhaus who came to the Times with intentions of creating “fireworks,” but found that with all of the “disgruntled authors, agents, editors and publishers who call to complain about coverage,” reality can be wearing. “There is no bitchier industry than publishing,” Gewen said.
In addition, preview editors – Alida Becker, Rachel Donadio, Dwight Garner, Barry Gewen,
Jennifer Schuessler, and one other editor - are responsible for “choosing books, finding reviewers, and editing.”
There is also Deputy Editor Robert Harris and Senior Editor Dwight Garner, as well as copy-editors, an art director, a children’s editor and a clerk on the team.
The process of deciding what gets reviewed and what doesn’t is quite demanding work. “It begins with the clerk who goes through the pile of 750 to 1000 advance manuscripts that the office receives each week,” says Gewen. However, don’t expect your self-help book, reference guide or travel manual to get any attention in the initial review by the clerk. Those books are “tossed.”
Then, the rest of the manuscripts are taken to Tanenhaus’s office where the senior editor and deputy editor divide them up and get rid of more.
This leaves the six preview editors with about 25 books to look through. Keep in mind this winnowing process has just cut upwards of 750 or more books! Gewen said he spends at least a half hour on each book and chooses four or five, then rejects the others. Reasons most often cited for exclusion, “too narrow for us” or “workmanlike.”
In an interview with Tanenhaus by Michael Orbach of “Knight News, “If a writer is not bringing something new to the conversation or is not very well-established with a following, long-awaited book, or has really superb narrative or analytical skills, there's a good chance the book won't get reviewed.”
In another article that tries to depict the workings of The New York Times Book Review, “The
Book Review: Who Critiques Whom- and Why?” by Times Editor Byron Calame, Tanenhaus continued to say that books often get rejected because they “lack originality” or are “packaged assemblages of smaller pieces.”
And for those of you authors who want your first novels to be reviewed, Tanenhaus said, “It has to be strikingly good.”
Competition amongst similar books plays a role too. Often authors and even publishers are unaware of another book on the same topic being published at the same time. So the New York
Times may decide which one is plowing new ground and is the better of the bunch. It may only review that one book and ignore the others.
Of his job Gewen said, “One has to have a hard heart at the Book Review.”
Finally, after the preview editors choose their book selections, they meet again to discuss possible reviewers, all of whom have their own ideas of who to consider. Once they’ve made their picks from lists compiled from “scanning magazines and other publications” and talking to editors and friends, editors go to their own offices and start trying to reach people.
Overall, Calame said in his article, “Much of the judgment about the books falls into the realm of opinion - and beyond the public editor's mandate.” As for the process, he believes that the Times editors “genuinely care about general readers and the literary world, and want their choices to have credibility.”
Though choosing books to be featured in the Book Review is a time-consuming, important task, according to Gewen, the Review is isolated from the rest of the building and its influences.
Gewen said “The Sunday Magazine lives in an office down the hall” and “pays the salary of all the rest of us.” Furthermore, he said, “There is a real class division here.” The Review editors are not in the luxurious offices as the rest of the magazine staff, but they pride themselves in believing they are “smarter” than the rest.
The New York Times Sunday newspaper circulation is 1.5 million. A 1/5 page size ad in the Book
Review (1 Column X 10.87 inches) will cost a whopping $8,830 for small presses. If you’re a major publisher it’ll cost even more! Check out the rate sheet at: http://www.nytimes.whsites.net/mediakit/pdfs/newspaper/rates/2008/RateCard_Books08_EW6.pdf
The Bottom Line: If you’re an author with expectations of having your book reviewed by the New York Times Book Review there is hope. Just don’t send them a self-help book, a travel manual or self published book. And if you’re a first time novelist, save the postage and send a resume instead since it might first help to get a job at the Times. It’s proven that Times staffers have a nice edge in the review process… not that I could blame them.
Or take the advice of Garner: When asked in another “Knight News” interview by Orbach, “What’s the way to get your book reviewed?” Garner said, “Write a good one. Really.”
One More Thing: Book reviews in newspapers are dying. The Los Angeles Times published its last standalone Book Review July 27, 2008. Newspapers around the US are cutting in-house book reviewers and running syndicated reviews. Why? First they can save money and as for the pressure to save money, it’s all about a shrinking news-hole caused by advertisers shifting dollars to the internet and TV. Furthermore, conglomerates who own media outlets try to squeak the last dollar out of everything. And, finally it’s the same thing plaguing the book industry in general, sadly, a decline in the number of readers.
Scott Lorenz is President of Westwind Communications, a public relations and marketing firm with a special knack for working with individuals and entrepreneurs to help them get all the publicity they deserve and more. Lorenz has handled public relations and marketing for numerous authors, doctors, lawyers, inventors and entrepreneurs. As a book marketing expert Lorenz is called upon by top execs and bestselling authors to promote their books. Learn more about Westwind Communications’ book marketing approach at http://www.book-marketing-expert.com or contact Lorenz at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 734-667-2090.
New York Times Article
Knight News- Garner
Knight News- Tanenhaus
Byron Calame’s article