There is no question that the Book Section is an endangered species in newspapers. They have been moved to days with lower circulation or sometimes cut completely with the editors claiming lack of funding and readership has left them with no other choice. So how are other papers still doing it? Why are some book sections folding while others continue to stay strong?
I used to review books for a certain publication, but quit due to lack of assignments. Nicole still subscribes to the magazine and I, of course, persuse the book reviews and week after week, almost every single review was written by the editor himself. Why? My prediction is that it is a lot cheaper for him to review books than to hire a freelancer.
More and more I'm noticing book sections making creative decisions when it comes to reviewers. The trend seems to be getting staff writers to review books, even if they're background isn't in the arts. I've seen everyone from the business manager to the local news section intern review books for the publication and my assumption is that it is soley about the money.
I've previously written about reviewer credibility, but what about credentials? What background or experience is needed to review books? Is it about a person's ability to write or ability to read or both? When I apply for a freelance position, I send clips and a resume, things that I've built up after years of paying dues. But would it have been easier to get a job scrubbing toilets at the Tribune building and then walk into Elizabeth Taylor's office and say, "Hey, I could review some of those books for you?"
The other problem I have with handing out review assignments to any random staff writer is with reputation. All reviews are a matter of opinion, so if there is a different group of writers reviewing books each week, how do I know whose opinion to trust? Joe from accounting writes a rave review, but when I read the book, I hate it. So now I know Joe and I don't share the same opinion. What good does that do if he never reviews another book?
I understand that these creative liberties are taken in the interest of saving book sections themselves, but personally, I think there should be a stronger screening process when it comes to assigning book reviews. As a reader and a writer, I think reviewers should know good writing and what makes a good book. I think they should know what readers want to learn before forking over twenty-five bucks for a new hardcover. I think reviewers should pay their dues and learn from the ground up. I'm no more qualified to cover the Bears game than a sports writer is to cover the new Stephen King. Is it just me?