Literary Slicks

October 12, 2004
Category: Uncategorized

Howdy Margo,

With all the talk about blogging and the alternative universe, we haven’t paid much attention to how the old media works when it deals exclusively with books. Ever since the demise of Book Magazine last year, I’ve wondered whether a general-circulation magazine for book lovers could survive in our TV-mad culture. Sure, there are hundreds of literary reviews, but those are focused more on writers than readers, and often subsidized by grants or other benefactors. What about the frankly for-profit ventures? Is there any hope?

Absolutely, says Jerome Kramer, former editor of Book Magazine (and, full disclosure, a guy who gave me some plum assignments writing about Jean Auel and Ursula K. Le Guin). During the magazine’s five-year history, Kramer saw circulation grow to 150,000 and then over a million after Barnes & Noble chipped in and started peddling the magazine in its stores. Although this makes it look like Book Magazine stumbled on its own rapid growth, Kramer says, Au contraire. Unlucky timing — the magazine redesign was launched the same month as 9/11 — was as much to blame as anything, he says, and he’s still convinced that there’s a place for a magazine that adapts his formula of looking at pop culture and entertainment through “the portal of books.” 

All the same, Kramer is bemused by a paradox that book editors understand all too well. “Books are an entertainment business that’s peculiar because people who are in the business don’t like to think of it as entertainment,” he says. And after B&N joined the party in 2000, the magazine began featuring commercial writers on its cover and playing to a wider audience, which may have alienated some of the so-called “core constituency.” It’s that familiar conundrum: Can you win over the same folks who read People magazine without turning off the so-called serious reader?
  
Interestingly, that’s not the issue for Bookmarks, a 2-year-old entry in the book magazine sweepstakes that I’d choose as most likely to succeed. Maybe I’m showing my stripes as a sturdy-shoes journalist, but Bookmarks won me over because of its utility, not its glitz. It’s built a circulation of 30,000 with a sensible approach: to serve as a way station rather than a final destination for readers.

“We’re coming from the perspective that readers want to read less about books and more the books themselves,” says Jon Phillips, the magazine’s editor, who says he co-founded Bookmarks with fellow Harvard Business School grad Allison Nelson after stints in banking and high tech had lost their thrill.

Son and grandson of a librarian, Phillips qualifies as a “serious” book reader — serious enough to make a habit of clipping reviews out of the newspaper and heading to the library for more context about authors and their works. As such, he didn’t think that what the world needed was more 1,000-word reviews, profiles, or think pieces. Instead, his bimonthly compiles and summarizes the reviews in major newspapers and runs features that put context on books and authors, both current and classic. 

If there’s any surprise with the magazine, it’s that even though Library Journal picked Bookmarks as its magazine of the year in 2002, only about 500 of the 10,000 libraries in this country currently carry the magazine. Am I missing something, Margo, or isn’t Bookmarks the kind of reference that any reader would like to have when they’re trolling the stacks?

Hey Ellen,

Bookmarks covers a lot of territory — far more than Pages Magazine, which adheres to Book Magazine‘s formula of feature articles on books and authors. Bookmarks’ New Books Guide, with its excerpts from reviews that have been published around the country, is especially tantalizing. Many times, though, I wish a Web link was provided so I could go and read the whole review. And, yes, I agree, it is a perfect vehicle for libraries since it organizes books in such a Dewey Decimal kind of way. These places are crazy, in fact, not to make it available to their clientele.

It’s useful for members of book clubs looking for book suggestions, handy for someone who has just read a recent book and wants to see how it was critically received, and a boon for librarians who need to answer such questions as, which graphic novels should I choose? (a feature in my latest copy).   

But Rolling Stone, it’s not. Will there ever be a magazine that manages to create the kind of excitement that RS once built around music? Well, possibly.
 
Small, literary magazines maintain a dedicated readership but, as you point out, they never appeal to a wider public, which is hardly surprising, given their more scholarly approach. That’s never going to pull in the crowds. Book Magazine wanted to attract a mass readership by being more entertaining, and for a time, at least, it pulled in more than a million. Look at Oprah — she manages to draw millions to her book shows and spark enthusiasm for some pretty heady material.

The reading public is out there. Someone just has to create and sustain a magazine that features high quality, must-read material about books that isn’t afraid to go out on a limb. Where is Tom Wolfe when we need him? 

Margo,

It’s Oprah that draws people to books, not books who draw people to Oprah; her book club shows have among the lowest ratings of any of her shows, but being Oprah, she can do whatever she wants (and that she puts some of her substantial clout behind books is a glory to behold). So her example doesn’t work.

The closest thing to a template for success is best found in the magazine world itself, where I’d nominate perhaps an odd candidate but the one that at this juncture covers books with both intelligence and gloss. I’m talking about Entertainment Weekly, which, for all its strengths, is still no Rolling Stone in its heyday. But hey! That was then and this is now.

No single instrument serves as the kind of cultural barometer that music was in the 1960s. For books to become that totem, it would require a population that not only reads but is intellectually curious on a scale far grander than we see now.

I root for the time that a latter-day Book Magazine makes its debut. Meanwhile, I think Bookmarks gives the market just what it needs. And, if we’re going to vote for hipsters who can make reading appeal to not just the smart, but also the young and beautiful, Tom Wolfe may not be the answer. I’m thinking Nick Hornby, with all his movie spin-offs.