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Power, Fear of N.Y. Times Book Review

Second of three articles.

December 12, 1985|DAVID SHAW | Times Staff Writer

Steven Brill can still remember a morning in Pittsburgh--seven years ago, during a New York newspaper strike--when he was on tour to promote his new book, "The Teamsters."

"I was in this bookstore," he says, "and the owner was telling me how 'wonderful' and 'marvelous' she thought my book was. But she didn't have it displayed prominently in her store. When I asked her why not, she told me, 'Oh, I couldn't recommend a book the New York Times hasn't reviewed."'

To most people in publishing--authors, editors, agents, publishers, booksellers and readers alike--if a book hasn't been reviewed in the New York Times (and, especially, in the Times' Sunday Book Review section), it doesn't exist. By virtually unanimous agreement--even among its competitors and detractors--the New York Times is far and away the most important book review medium in the country (just as its weekly best-seller list is far and away the most important best-seller list in the country).

Distant Second, Third

Time and Newsweek reviews are a distant second and third in importance, and newspapers like the Washington Post and--to a lesser degree--the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer and a few others have impact with some books in their immediate area, but it's the New York Times that influences book sales, spurs publishers to action, makes reputations and breaks hearts.

New York Times book reviews even influence book review editors at other newspapers, thus compounding their initial impact.

"If the Times gives a book a big review, I get 128 calls the next day from book review editors (and radio stations) everywhere," says Helene Atwan, director of publicity at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. "They all say, 'I can't find my copy of (whatever the book is).' Please rush me one by Express Mail.' "

Then those papers give the book a big review, too.

Like any powerful institution--indeed like the New York Times itself--the New York Times Book Review is widely feared and widely criticized. In the course of several weeks of interviews, a Los Angeles Times reporter was told repeatedly by people in publishing that they would discuss the New York Times Book Review only if they could do so anonymously.

"The New York Times has a reign of terror over the publishing industry," says John Baker, editor of Publishers Weekly. "Everyone is afraid to criticize the Times. Everyone's afraid that if they offend someone over there, their books won't get reviewed. There's a . . . fear of the Times among publishers and writers that's pathological. . . . "

The New York Times has the second-largest Sunday circulation of any newspaper in the country--1.6 million--and its Book Review, which can be purchased separately from the paper, sells about 77,000 additional copies, an increase of 20% in the last two years.

But the preeminence of (and the resultant paranoia about) the New York Times Book Review goes far beyond mere numbers. To begin with, of course, the Times is in New York, the center of the American publishing industry. Moreover, the paper's intellectual, often elitist appeal, its long history of excellence and its commitment to ideas in general and to books in particular transcend mere geographic happenstance.

"Books are special for us," says A. M. Rosenthal, executive editor of the paper. "It's harder to imagine the New York Times without Book Review than (without) any other section."

In that sense, the New York Times Book Review is sui generis .

According to a 1984 study in the Newspaper Research Journal, the average American newspaper uses three-quarters of a page to one page a week for book reviews. The Los Angeles Times averages slightly more than 12 pages in its Sunday Book Review; the Washington Post runs 16 pages in its Sunday Book World.

Operate Independently

The New York Times Book Review averages 44 pages.

The Post, Los Angeles Times and some other major newspapers also run book reviews during the week, but the New York Times is the only paper with three, full-time daily book reviewers who operate independently of the Sunday Book Review and who often review the same books that are then reviewed by free-lance writers in the Sunday paper--a practice that, in effect, acknowledges the power of the Times by dividing that power.

The commitment of the New York Times to publishing a quality book review is particularly noticeable in staffing.

Most newspapers have just one professional journalist working on their book review sections--and generally not full-time at that. A few papers--the Los Angeles Times among them--have two full-time professionals. The Washington Post has four.

The New York Times has 21.

Clearly, the New York Times Book Review is an expensive operation.

"We lose money, and we always have, but I don't know how much," says Mitchel Levitas, editor of the New York Times Book Review.

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