On the demise of the Washington Post Book World

booksthumbiconThe persistent rumors have now been confirmed: the NY Times reported today that the Washington Post Book World will soon cease to be a separate entity in print. Book World will continue its independent existence online, but otherwise Post book coverage will be folded into other sections. As the Times story notes, publishers tend to pony up very little money for ad space in newspapers, and so folks in the newspaper business have had an increasingly hard time justifying turning over all those column inches to book coverage, especially in the midst of a financial crisis.

As a fledgling book critic, I’m never happy to hear news of newspaper book sections suffering cuts. But the news hardly comes as a surprise, and it’s possible to take at least some consolation in the fact that no one at the Post lost their jobs this time. It’s also encouraging that the paper plans to continue covering books in a dedicated and coherent fashion online.

Many of the early commentators on this matter seem to share the point of view of National Book Critics Circle president Jane Ciabatti, who the Times quotes as lamenting the death of the print edition because “it carried an authority that has not yet its parallel, online or off.” I find this comment very telling. Ciabatti is right on about one thing: there isn’t yet any site on the web that can boast of the kind of concentrated audience and authority that stand-alone print sections like Book World have enjoyed in the past. But, as the fairly widely-read book blog Elegant Variation put it today, “The future of book reviewing will not be found in print dailies…it’s online.” Sooner or later, a book reviewing website will become sufficiently popular and widely-read to achieve a position of substantial influence among dedicated readers. It’s possible that the site will be the online incarnation of an old newspaper books section—but it strikes me as more likely that it will be a new and independent operation, something born on the web and better suited to exploiting the advantages of the online environment. A good model for this would be the indie rock website Pitchfork, which started out as an amateur project, and in less than a decade became the most influential single voice within the indie rock subculture. With old models of distribution rapidly decaying, the time is ripe for an ambitious editor to bring a book site of similar importance into being.

But it’s also important to note that, despite its influence, Pitchfork is far from the only game in town when it comes to shaping indie rock opinion. Pitchfork makes and breaks bands on a regular basis, but so do music bloggers, and there are now any number of other paths by which a band or musician can come to the attention of fans. And like it or not, serious book lovers, much like indie rock fans, now constitute nothing more than another subculture. When it comes to the fate of the Book World, I think it’s not really the demise of the print section itself that Ciabatti and many others are mourning; rather, it’s the death of a world in which mainstream publications like the Washington Post could serve the role of cultural gatekeeper for a broad audience of readers. But today’s audiences are fragmented and diverse, and most consumers of books, music, and the arts are not particularly interested in being treated as an indistinguishable part of an undistinguished mass. And why should they be, when there’s a whole world of diverse and fascinating critical voices already out there on the web for readers to turn to?

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