At a luncheon in Manhattan yesterday, ‘New York Times Book Review’ editor Pamela Paul, who oversees all books coverage at the ‘New York Times,’ laid out the newspaper’s vision for the future of its newly-unified books desk.
by John Maher
At a luncheon hosted by the Publishers Advertising and Marketing Association (PAMA) at the New York Times headquarters on Wednesday, New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul explained the paper’s vision for the future of its books coverage.
Paul has overseen all books coverage at the New York Times since the paper’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, announced changes to the newspaper’s books coverage last summer. She has also previously spoken about some of the changes, including the unification of the paper’s separate books teams under one desk, and the deprioritization of reviews in favor of more custom-tailored and wide-ranging forms of coverage.
But after the Times eliminated a number of its bestsellers lists in January, many in publishing have found themselves asking questions about the paper’s coverage of books and worrying what the shift means.
“When I hear that [a media outlet is consolidating], as an outsider…my very jaundiced, skeptical take is, ‘Oh, they’re cutting back,'” Paul said. “That is actually not the case in this instance. It is the opposite.”
Paul stressed that the Times is actually expanding its books coverage, with the intent of becoming more “strategic” in how it covers particular books. Previously, the paper had three separate desks that covered books entirely independent of one another—the Business Day, which is where publishing reporter Alexandra Alter was assigned; the Daily Critics, comprised of Michiko Kakutani, Dwight Garner, and Jennifer Senior; and the Sunday Book Review—with very little communication between teams and some duplication in what was covered. That will now change, with all books coverage falling under a single Books Desk umbrella.
In simple terms, the Times is moving from a review-oriented strategy to a strategy that aptly covers categories that are of interest to their readers but are “review-proof,” or wouldn’t necessarily benefit from a 1,200-word review in the New York Times Book Review. (Examples include, with exceptions, mysteries, parenting books, business books, or health books.)
Previously, Paul said, the Times’ books coverage consisted “85% of reviews” with the rest being “a mix of profiles, industry news, features, and bestseller lists.” This approach, she said, resulted in “a lot of duplication.” In other words, at a Times that has rapidly expanded its digital strategy, the question will no longer be, she said, “Does this book merit a review,” but rather, “Does this book merit coverage?”
To this end, Paul noted that the Times has been, and will continue, hiring new writers and editors to write about books in different ways. Those editors and writers will be focused “across all genres,” Paul said, and covering—but not reviewing—books she feels the paper did not effectively cover in the past.
While Laura Marmor was brought to the Books Desk from the NYT Styles Desk as deputy editor of news and features, the biggest recent hire at the Books Desk was of new editorial director Radhika Jones, who came from Time magazine, where she edited features including the Time 100 Most Influential People. (Before Time, Jones was at the Paris Review.) Jones will be spearheading an upcoming redesign of the New York Times Book Review, which remains “central” to the newspaper’s books-related mission. The redesign will affect both digital and print and, Paul said, in an email to PW, be unveiled sometime this summer. David Kelly remains the deputy editor of the New York Times Book Review.
Paul also addressed concerns over the slashing of bestseller lists including mass market and comics. Regarding how the bestseller lists team compiles the lists, “their methodology has not changed,” Paul said, “and I can say that with a mix of total confidence and total ignorance.” She continued: “I will say, there does still exist that line between editors and the bestseller lists in that we don’t know their special sauce. We don’t want to know it, nor should we know it. We oversee them and they are part of our group, but we don’t interfere with that process.”
As for the reasoning behind which lists were cut, Paul said that cuts were made “strategically in a way that every book still has a chance to be on a bestseller list.” She then added: “There’s no book that doesn’t have a chance to get on there. It’s just that the competition is tougher.”