Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Enough About Me #23: In Which the Author Learns from Conversations with Newspaper Editors that It Can Be Easier to Get into Harvard than to Get One's Book Reviewed

August 29, 2005
By Adam Langer

Back in my bachelor days, it was often easy to tell what my friends really thought of me by the people with whom they tried to set me up. One good friend generously offered to send me on a date with her best friend, while another suggested an evening with a distant acquaintance she described as “kind of attractive and interesting, but not in any conventional way.” In the latter instance, my best friend, who was then a police officer, advised me to avoid the date altogether. “Warning! Warning!” he yelled, pretending that he was responding to a bomb scare. “Cordon off the perimeter! Secure the area!”

In similar fashion, book-review assignment editors can often seem like the yentas of the critical process, sometimes unconsciously revealing how they view an author by whom they assign to review a book, by how much space they allot to the review, by where they position the review and, most importantly, by whether they assign the book at all. For example, the Chicago Tribune, which just published a review of The Washington Story, has assigned long reviews of both of my novels to authors of national stature, one a National Book Award–nominee, the other the winner of a National Jewish Book Award. The Miami Herald’s editor assigned both books to herself, and gave them a fair amount of space. On the other hand, one editor of a mid-market daily paper, who has allegedly made disparaging remarks about me to mutual acquaintances, assigned a tiny capsule review of the first book to a college intern, and has decided not to review the new one. Not that I harbor a grudge or anything.

Often, the critic is perceived as being all-powerful, while little consideration is given to the person who assigns a review to that critic. But, generally, it is that assignment editor who is making the most important decisions—whether to give the book a 1,500-word front-page treatment, bury it inside with a 150-word capsule or, in the great majority of cases (more than 90 percent for just about every publication), given how many books are published and how little space most editors have to work with, ignore it altogether, donate it to the library or sell it to the Strand Bookstore. (Not that I know any critics or editors who’ve done that. Ahem.)

In the past week, I’ve been corresponding with 11 book section editors from daily newspapers to try to get a sense of how the assignment process works. The answers should make any writer thankful that their books get any attention whatsoever. With rare exception, even small newspapers are inundated with hundreds of books every week; if they’re lucky, they can assign perhaps five percent of them to critics. Based on a comparison of percentage rates, it would be more probable for an author to be admitted to Harvard (which traditionally has an acceptance rate of 10% of its applicant pool) than to have his or her book reviewed by The Austin American-Statesman (2.25%), The Baton Rouge Advocate (7%) The Capital Times (4%), The Denver Post (3.75%), The Kansas City Star (.9%), The New York Post (4%), The San Diego Union Tribune (3.33%), The Rocky Mountain News (3%) or The St. Petersburg Times (1.67%).

Some conclusions drawn from discussions with these editors (who were chosen based on the fact that they responded to my e-mails) are liable to strike fear in the hearts of publishers, publicists, editors, and writers everywhere. Among them:

1) In most publications, more than 90% of books get tossed because review sections don’t have sufficient space.
2) Editors rarely bother to read press releases.
3) Editors often assign books without having read more than a book jacket or a chapter here or there.

Here’s a look at some of the aforementioned editors, which should give some idea of what all of them are up against. I’ve edited their remarks for the sake of clarity, pacing, brevity and, in some cases, my own amusement.

to read the rest (and it's fascinating stuff):

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