Writer's Bloc
My SFWA Bulletin Column

The Sad State of Book Reviewing

from The SFWA Bulletin #176, Winter 2008


Book Reviewing in Trouble

    Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the publisher of The New York Times, was once asked point blank if the Times Book Review had ever made money. "I think someone in the family would have told me," Sulzberger replied.

    Newspaper book reviews don't make money. Ever. Anywhere. And they are dying like polar bears in the Arctic.

    In the longest burst of concentrated pessimism since the Las Vegas Realtors Association looked at the latest foreclosure statistics, Steve Wasserman, former editor of The Los Angeles Times Book Review, took apart the industry with gloom that would make Miley Cyrus turn goth.

    He originally wrote the article for the Columbia Journalism Review but the Authors Guild thought the intersection of books and newspaper important enough to be made the banner article in their Fall 2007 Bulletin.

    In the 2000s the San Francisco Chronicle folded its book section into its Sunday Datebook. (One study found that close to 50 percent of newspaper arts and entertainment coverage is nothing but listings of upcoming events.) The San Diego Union-Tribune killed its stand-alone book review section. The Chicago Tribune moved its book pages to Saturday, the least-read day of the week. Newspapers in Raleigh, Atlanta, Orlando, Dallas, and Cleveland eliminated the book editor's position or cut coverage.

    The Times Book Review loses money despite having three ad reps. No other newspaper in the country has even one. Papers can lose one million dollars per year on a book section, as Wasserman did during his years in Los Angeles. Publishers don't appear to believe that newspaper ads can sell books. Well, not ads in book review sections, which studies have found to be the least-read section of the Sunday newspaper.

    Wasserman doesn't specially discuss genre but does talk about the battle between management, who want articles driven by popularity in the marketplace, and editors like him who want to start intellectual discussions on the most important books of this and past ages. He quotes Sifton's Law – named for editor and publisher Elisabeth Sifton but a truism rediscovered every decade for a century – announcing that: "There is a natural limit on the readership for serious fiction, poetry and nonfiction in America that ranges, I would say, between 500 and 5000 people – roughly a hundred times the number of the publisher's and the author's immediate friends." Who would doubt that this holds for literary f&sf as well?

    Wasserman is aware of those who proclaim that the internet will transform book reviewing and the intelligent criticism and discussion of books. The future tense is critical. He sees no signs that such a transformation has yet arrived. One spot he recommends is The Elegant Variation, marksarvas.blogs.com, a literary blog run by Mark Sarvas. (Literary, yes, but on the front page as I write is a long piece on Captain Kirk's Guide to Women, by John "Bones" Rodriguez.) There are communities of book lovers who thrive online and an amazing five million Americans are members of book clubs. Half of Americans may not read a book all year but those who do read are passionate devourers of the craft.

    Newspaper book reviews may not endure but books surely will.

Archer Medical Savings Accounts

    Although health insurance is high on the list of what all writers want their organizations to provide, peace in the Middle East based on a process for turning sand into Perrier is more likely. Insurance companies want to be able to harvest the vast majority of members, prefer employers who can handle payment collection and maintenance, and dread the thought of older adults with pre-existing conditions.

    Diane O'Brien Kelly's "Writing Is Taxing" column in the December 2007 NINK offers an alternative that may be attractive to many, the Archer Medical Savings Account or Archer MSA (formerly just MSA). It is designed for the self-employed (and employees of small businesses) with no other health or Medicare coverage.

    An Archer MSA functions in a manner similar to an IRA. Once you set one up with a "trustee" – a bank or insurance company, e.g. - contributions can be deducted from annual taxes, and distributions are tax-free. Distributions mean payments for qualified medical expenses, exactly the kind of drain on the wallet that writers fear. What qualifies? For a full list you need to check IRS publication 502, Medical and Dental Expenses, available online at www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p502.pdf. To oversimplify, the primary things not covered are cosmetic surgeries, health maintenance (swimming lessons or fitness club dues), and any medication that is non-prescription.

    Of course there is a catch. Several, in fact. The mandatory deductibles are very high. For 2007 they were $1900 for an individual plan and $3750 for a family plan. Limits on out-of-pocket expenses also exist. And you can only contribute in a given year up to 65% of the annual deductible for an individual plan or 75% for a family plan.

    Archer MSAs are not an emergency fix, therefore. Their value lies in long-term contributions and accumulations for future emergencies. Whether they would be better for you than simply socking the money away depends on your personal tax situation. You should also check IRS publication 969, Health Savings Accounts and Other Tax-Favored Health Plans for more details, found online at www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p969.pdf.

Cowboys and Aliens

    The western and science fiction genres rarely cross over, which is why I regretfully have to pass most columns on the fascinating historical information offered in Roundup Magazine. (The WWA looked at the steady fall in sales of western fiction and has transformed itself by welcoming writers of historical nonfiction about the west, many of whom, of course, share the same names as the writers of western fiction.)

    A review by Johnny D. Boggs in the December 2007 issue breaks with nonfiction by mentioning two novels that "show how science-fiction/fantasy and Westerns can work brilliantly together."

    Flight is by Native American author and filmmaker Sherman Alexei. (A brilliant short story writer, his movie The Business of Fancydancing is an especial favorite of mine.) The idea is a variation on a familiar theme, a modern consciousness finding itself in the bodies of figures in the past. Still, Alexei's use of a modern Indian teenager and a variety of contrasting personalities - including a white FBI agent investigating the 1970s Indian rights movement - make for what Boggs called "a literary tour de force, the most moving and insightful novel of the year – regardless of genre."

    Emma Bull, long known for her work in our field, puts witchcraft into Tombstone, Arizona leading up to the shootout at the O.K. Corral in Territory. The gun battle itself won't occur until the sequel, which made Boggs take the praise down a notch, but he reported that she makes the blend work and leaves the reader wanting more.

    If Cowboys and Aliens sounds like a good name for a comic book, you're not alone, as that's the title of a graphic novel by Fred Van Lente, Andrew Foley, and Luciano Lima. The plot is exactly what you guessed it would be: cowboys and Indians have to team up to fight off an alien invasion in 1873. (The pitch: Independence Day in the old west.) The movie potential is obvious and Boggs announced that it has been swept up by DreamWorks and Universal Pictures. Googling gives few details, but a 2008 release date is mentioned.

Markets Outside the Box

    The Market Update in the January 2008 RWR listed several publishers wanting paranormal romance novels.

      Juno Books is "currently particularly interested in contemporary fantasy often referred to a 'urban fantasy' these days: a woman with 'kickassitude' and supernatural power (or some paranormal connection). But we are open to fantasy of any type, otherworldly or supernatural beings, alternate or secret history, magical or psychic abilities, occult detectives, paranormal action-adventure, supernatural horror, and encourage cross-mixes." Email for submissions or information: Paula Guran, editor@juno-books.com.

      Samhain Publishing is "seeking to expand our Interracial, Inspirational, Fantasy/Sci Fi romance lines. Calls for special projects include an anthology theme around psychic powers." Further details at samhainpublishing.com/submissions.

      Black Lyon Publishing wants paranormal romances of 60,000 to 80,000 words. Direct all queries to BlackLyonPublishing.com.

      Cerridwen Press is looking for paranormal and futuristic and urban fantasy. Check their submissions page for author information at www.cerridwenpress.com/submissions.asp.

Business Briefs

    Squibs from the December 2007 and January 2008 issues of NINK.

    Bantam Discovery is a new imprint that will publish titles simultaneously in mass market and trade paperback formats to test which format readers prefer. The test begins in February 2008 with The Adultery Club by Tess Stimson and Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen. Further tests will push beyond the woman's fiction market.

    The landmark Tasini v New York Times case, the one that said that publishers cannot simply use the work of freelancers electronically without paying them for the rights, is not out of the courts. The Second Circuit Court voided a 2005 agreement that would have given freelancers an eight-figure settlement because it found that registration of copyright is a necessity before a suit for damages. Any damages, not just punitive damages.

    Writers groups are outraged, and an appeal is scheduled. Not surprisingly, our own Charles Petit has a few choice words about this decision in his Scrivener's Error blog, at scrivenerserror.blogspot.com/2007/11/we-cant-hear-you.html.

    Looking for pirated content of your works? Attributor (www. attributor.com), created software that tracks copyright violations on the net, both print and in image and video. Jim Milliot of Publishers' Weekly described the service in November:

      Attributor, a new company that has devised a software program that can track where a publisher's content appears anywhere on the Web, went live last week. Although its first deals are with the Associated Press and Reuters, Rich Pearson, senior director of marketing, said he expects to be running a test with a book publisher soon. Attributor says it can help publishers with marketing, sales and editorial functions for the Web, but CEO Jim Brock acknowledged that the application most publishers have expressed initial interest in is compliance with copyright law. Once a book becomes part of the Attributor program, the company can determine where content is turning up illegally on Web sites.

      To test the software, in July, when pirated editions of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows were appearing all over the Internet, Attributor found a site that had posted the first 10 chapters of the title, plugged the content into its software program and found that 2,806 sites had lifted parts of the book.

Science Fiction Writers in the News

    Campbell Geesin's mammoth "Along Publisher's Row" column in the Fall 2007 Authors Guild Bulletin contains several quotes from names you should recognize.

    William Gibson. "My roots are in a genre. That is the funny thing. Novels are called novels because, ideally, they provide a novel experience. But in genre, you're sort of buying a guarantee that you are going to have the essentially the same experience again and again. It's a novel. It won't be too novel. Don't worry."

    Ray Bradbury. "The arts and sciences are connected. Scientists have to have a metaphor. All scientists start with imagination."

    Jane Yolen and illustrator Mark Teague on How Do Dinosaurs Go to School? Mark. "Sending the dinosaurs to school was Jane's idea, and it was a great one. It gave us a chance to explore a lot of the issues that kids face in school – mostly issues about how they are supposed to behave and how they aren't." Jane. "Despite many letters asking for a dino potty book, I am adamant about not doing that. That bad behavior would be too – well, yucky."


Organization, Publication, Address, Web Address

Authors Guild, Bulletin, 31 E. 32nd St. 7th Floor, New York, NY 10016, www.authorsguild.org/

Novelists, Inc., NINK, P. O. Box 2037, Manhattan KS, 66505, www.ninc.com/

Romance Writers of America, Romance Writers’ Report, 14615 Benfer Rd., Houston, TX 77069 [new address], www.rwanational.org

Western Writers of America, Roundup Magazine, MSCO6, 1 University of New Mexico, Albuquerque NM, 87131, www.westernwriters.org

Copyright 2007 by Steve Carper

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