To Our Readers:
A couple of years ago, two book critics named Margo and Ellen sat down to lunch in St. Petersburg, Fla., with two people from The Poynter Institute, Bill Mitchell and Julie Moos. Together, the four figuratively sketched out on a paper napkin the vision for a new column.
That column was called the Book Babes. And, in spite of its playful name (the Babes considered themselves beyond the age when being called one disparaged our professionalism), it had a serious purpose. Designed as a point-counterpoint between two journalists and book critics, the column would discuss the world of books and book publishing in relation to the news media.
For the past two years, these exchanges have been posted weekly on Poynter’s Web site, a side dish to Poynter’s main event as monitors of the journalism profession.
The conversation occasionally addressed individual books and the Babes’ critical take on them. But more often its focus was the symbiotic relationship between the book industry and the media.
In a nutshell, here’s what we Book Babes think: It’s the economy of scale, stupid. While other entertainment media spend big bucks finding big audiences, books don’t sell that way (except, maybe, on Oprah). Reading is an individual sport and a reflective pastime in which books build their following one by one. Sure, print technologies have changed a lot since the days of Gutenberg. But the model for book publishing still harks to the past, before marketing budgets were put on steroids. A low-margin industry, book publishers can’t afford big-budget marketing and traditionally depend on word-of-mouth and other media — newspapers, magazines, radio, television — to peddle their wares.
At a time when the nation is plagued more by aliteracy than literacy — that is, an apathy to reading rather than the inability — we continue to advocate for reading as both an essential part of our culture, and an endangered one.
We have charted our concerns and questions from various angles. We have talked to book critics, authors, booksellers and publishing people, all in an attempt to reflect their perspectives and learn from their views. We went to The New York Times to talk about book coverage with the top brass and set off a firestorm among the literati when those editors suggested that most contemporary fiction was not all that good. We spoke at last summer’s BookExpo in Chicago, where we hardly drew Bill Clinton’s crowd but did have C-SPAN’s Book TV there to videotape not only Bill, but us, too. When the National Endowment for the Arts documented a dramatic decline in leisure-time reading, we wondered how — and if — the media could help turn this problem around.
Last summer, Good Housekeeping Magazine brought us aboard to write a monthly Internet column for their readership, offering us the chance to talk directly to booklovers and recommend our favorites. Our 2004 list of holiday picks became the second most popular item on the entire Good Housekeeping site.
The Book Babes recently passed their second anniversary. In dog years, that meant we were in adolescence, with all the boundary-testing that this part of life implies.
Our arrival at this restless stage happened to coincide with the launch of The Book Standard, a new Web site that covers the book business and features the most up-to-date data on book sales from The Book Standard’s sister operation, Bookscan. When The Book Standard asked us to write a weekly column on this new site, we saw it as an exciting opportunity to expand our reach, both in terms of subject and audience.
But we had to make a choice: Easy as it looks (could that be a sign of our expertise?), the Book Babes’ conversations require thought and some reporting — not to mention a few on-location treks. We decided that we couldn’t manage two different columns once a week. So we have chosen to cut back our weekly efforts here while we find our sea legs over there.
We still will weigh in at Poynter Online from time to time, and those columns will be sent directly to those of you who have subscribed to us. We hope our subscribers also will elect to follow us on our new home, The Book Standard.
The Book Babes have had long and valued connections with The Poynter Institute. Ellen attended a writing and editing workshop there in the 1980s; Margo became book editor of the St. Petersburg Times, which Poynter owns, in 1990. We are both veteran admirers of Poynter’s call for high journalistic standards.
No matter where you find us — here at Poynter, at The Book Standard, at Good Housekeeping — The Book Babes will try to inform and entertain, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.