I had dinner this weekend at the house of a writer friend whose articles appear frequently on a well known website and in several prestigious print outlets.  He had a non-fiction book out last year that got noticed in some circles but was ignored by The New York Times, where a certain reviewer recently commented privately, upon seeing the paperback: “I wish I’d reviewed this in hardcover.”

The book’s doing o.k. in the marketplace, but naturally my writer friend was incensed to have missed coverage from the newspaper of record.  Which got me thinking…

Brad Listi has started a column on this website entitled “The View from the West.” My view is very much eastern, very much old school, where a book review from the Times was the only sure sign that an author had arrived.  But maybe it’s time to rethink that, and this rethinking has been long overdue.

When I worked as an editor at Doubleday and later as an agent doing business with most major publishers, there was a constant lament about the Times’s cultural blindspots.  This lament was rarely given voice beyond whispered conversations because hope sprung eternal that the newspaper would come around in time to review an author’s next work, rather than consign it, too, to oblivion.

Well, good luck with that.  Many authors have waited their whole lives for a nod from the gray lady.

Meanwhile, the Times makes not even minimal concessions in the interest of literary fairness, often reviewing a book in the weekly edition and Sunday Times Book Review in the same week, blithely crowding out the works of authors whose careers could use a boost.

Then, too, there’s the latest biography of Ernest Shackleton (a new one every five years, it seems) or some other perennial figure that inevitably gets the nod over the first or third novel by — oh, take your pick; the unnamed are legion.

Not that I have anything against Shackleton, mind you.  But one does wonder about the priorities of New York Times editors.  For a while now, I’ve been receiving email alerts from the Times on the subject of writing.  Since April 22 (which is as far back as my records go), I’ve counted 29 alerts.  Of these, eight were writers’ obituaries and five were feature stories about dead writers (two of those on Irene Nemirovsky).

So, apparently, as a writer you have nearly as good a chance of making The New York Times after you die as you do when you’re alive.  Does that sound like the proper ratio for a cultural arbiter that claims to be in the news business?

The Nervous Breakdown, I think, presents a fair cross section of living writers who are part of the cultural conversation.  By my count, TNB has 262 contributors.  Of these, 112  have written freestanding books published by third parties.  (I’m not counting the self-published, the not yet published, those who have edited books, or those who are one contributor among many to a particular book.)

Of those 112 authors, The New York Times archive lists 27 as having been reviewed or mentioned in one of its print editions.  Do the math: that’s 24 percent.  And I’m including mere mentions here, not necessarily full-out reviews.

The newspaper’s defense, of course, would be to suggest (a) that TNB writers aren’t necessarily a representative sampling of the universe of writers; and (b) that the paper’s decision to cover or review particular authors will always be subjective.

To which all writers should reply: (a) TNB is a more representative sampling of writers than The New York Times will ever be because there’s no “survivorship bias”: all writers who meet certain minimal requirements are in; and (b) how the hell do the editors of The New York Times decide what to review, anyway?

Because, on the latter point, if they’re not reviewing or covering a representative sampling of up-and-coming writers and they’re not reviewing or covering most bestsellers (they’re not — trust me), then exactly how do they choose what to cover?

And, in any case, maybe it’s time at long last to say: who cares?


J.E. Fishman, a former Big Six book editor and former literary agent, is author of the thriller Primacy, which Publishers Weekly called "appealing" and Kirkus called "good, boisterous fun." His mystery novel, Cadaver Blues, was serialized in 2010 on TNB and you can still find it here if you dig deep enough. It's now available in ebook and paperback. His financial thriller, The Dark Pool, was published this year, and his new series of police thrillers, Bomb Squad NYC, will be published in February 2014. He blogs here and at the Huffington Post. Please visit and follow him at his very fancy and expensive official author website.

74 responses to “TNB 112, NYT 27”

  1. Amanda says:

    Every weekend, I sit at the breakfast table and yank the newspapers (NY Times, Globe and Mail) into their various sections, then stack these in two piles: going to read; and, not going to read.

    I am not going to read: business, sports, travel, and the twee and moronic “in focus” section devoted to minutiae ostensibly representing the pulse of my hometown.

    I am going to read: style (yes, shoes and pasta recipes are stupid…but…yeah, I won’t even make an excuse for myself), the front bit, entertainment, book reviews.

    For at least a couple years, me reading the books section has looked like this: flipflipflipflipflipflip (meanwhile, staring into space and donning The Dead Face). Nothing! Nothing interesting! Nothing review-worthy! Nothing incisive or compelling or off-putting or critical-minded, or even at least idiotic and reductive.

    I’m not sure what this says about the state of affairs with book reviewing, the bars and standards and markers and so on, which historically heralded an author’s arrival. But, it is a warning to book sections everywhere that I’ll soon relegate them to the “sports and business” stack, if they don’t shape up.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Well, the Washington Post relegated its Book World supplement to the trash heap years ago. Perhaps its fate would’ve been different if the editors asked themselves what people want to read rather than treating books like medicine to be taken.

  2. I’m so glad that you wrote this! I’ve been perusing the books section for sometime and I’ve been wondering if there is something I’m missing. Kind of like I’m going crazy. So, thank you for saving me hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on shrink, but for also outing something that is antiquated.

    Who cares. Yup.

  3. Matt says:

    I think I’ve discovered more interesting books via word-of-mouth or by just perusing library/bookstore shelves than I have by reading book reviews in any given newspaper or magazine. Something leaps at me from the shelves, or a friend wh’s taste I trust recommends something, or (and this is happening more and more frequently) someone I went to school with publishes a book.

    And based on the quality of some of the reviews I HAVE read, I’m generally inclined to follow this pattern.

    One day I’ll join that 112.

    One day.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      And when that day comes, Matt, I take it you won’t be awaiting the NYT review with bated breath.

    • Tom Hansen says:

      Yeah Matt, me too. I have an intense distrust (or maybe it’s paranoia lol) of the mainstream media, even the book reviews. So I try to come upon books via a more organic process, if that’s the right word, which has served me well. Sometimes it’s via the amazon “people who bought this book also bought” thing, or sometimes by just trolling the web or wandering bookstores. I remember when I was 13, in Tonsberg Norway, on vacation with my parents, and I came across a couple of English language books on the discount table outside a bookstore in the town square. Being the only English books, and both had interesting covers, I picked them up. They were Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre and Little Birds by Anais Nin.

      I think that was the beginning of my corruption. Haha

      • J.E. Fishman says:

        It’s always been true, I think, that word of mouth is the most powerful seller of books. Amazon, in some ways quite brilliantly, has worked this into their system. Maybe TNB needs to link directly to Amazon (or one of the big independents) to promote works by its authors.

  4. Greg says:

    I think those numbers say a lot about the legitimacy of TNB. That’s a hell of a lot of printed authors to be contributing to one site.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Agreed. It’s like a literary hive or, perhaps, to quote Theodore Sturgeon, a first step toward homo gestalt.

  5. Your piece hits on any number of points I’ve made in rants delivered to (sadly, yawning) dinner guests over the years. But it’s nice to see in print, and I couldn’t agree more. And I continue to read the NYTBR every Sunday, if only as an exercise in self-flagellation.

    Another facet of this argument is the lost art of reviewing itself. Unless you’re Walter Kirn (see Solaris a few weeks ago) few authors are willing to be truly critical of other author’s books. And when they do, they get hammered for having the gall. (You mean you don’t look upon every Ian McEwan sentence as having been handed down by god?) Most Times fiction reviews are lengthy and unnecessary plot synopses book-ended by a few clever comments about the reviewer’s cat. Frequently, the reader has no clue if the reviewer is recommending the book or not. Critical analysis has given way to striving for the cache that is appearing in the Book Review, particularly by being kind to a bad book in the hopes that your next will be looked upon more fondly.

    As you say, who cares? I certainly refuse to. At least until their is a sniff of possibility that they might review mine.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Seneca notes that all politicians are insecure because their self-esteem is externally derived — i.e. dependent on the opinions of others. He might have said the same for authors…

      But I agree that most reviews these days have become turgid. While it’s fun to read a zinger now and then, negative reviews don’t serve much purpose. But, then again, neither do milquetoast summaries. Maybe someone needs to reinvent the book review.

  6. Gloria says:

    I love writing for TNB. I feel like I’m a part of something huge and important. So there’s that.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Not to sound all, well, self-referential, but the more you feel that, the more it becomes something huge and important. Am I into Heidegger here?

      • Gloria says:

        No. You’re totally right. The only reason anything becomes huge and important is because enough people get together at around the same time and agree that it is so.

  7. Uche Ogbuji says:

    I’ll admit the first idle thought I had: whether some proportion of the other 154 TNB contributors have a Gray Lady mention. I can claim one for the very non-literary occasion of having been interviewed in 1999 as an expert on the Y2K bug.


    I suppose the equivalent of a writer’s having had a bad review in NYT is the reporter’s having taken the pains of reporting my mention that I myself have been guilty of date bugs in my own code (shouldn’t be news: every programmer has).

    Anyway what was funny about it was when the incredulous correspondence came in from folks who knew me. “You were in the NEW YORK TIMES!” I was truly baffled. I guess 9 years in the US was not enough to understand the power of the mere name of that journal. When I’d mention “Ummm,, not the first time I’ve been interviewed, you know,” the response was always “Yeah, but this is the NEW YORK TIMES!” Yeah. I still don’t really get it.

    I think that universal search and syndication, courtesy the Internet, is rapidly spelling the end of such reputational hegemony in news and opinion sources. The number of links, retweets and all that is rapidly becoming far more important than the name at the top of the masthead, and though some people seem to see this as a trend to the vulgar, I disagree. Maybe it’s my tech background, but I’m all for it.

    Just today Alex Chee mentioned this article from the NYT:


    Reads to me like sour grapes from the declining incumbent. For my part, I’m fine with such a trend in headlines, because I know there is a lot more to the matter than all that.

    So yes, as long as TNB continues to produce god content, we’ll always be on the right, emmm, trend curve. And I don’t see why it’s impossible for us to surpass the NYT in even more commonly measured metrics some day.

    Viva la revolución!

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      The Internet, it’s been said, is more a niche medium than a mass medium. In that regard, better to have the right, dedicated eyeballs on one’s work than the dour gaze of the gray lady. Right on, Uche!

  8. Becky says:

    I think TNB’s origins factor in heavily.

    Let’s see if I can synthesize this…

    I believe Brad found many members of his original stable of writers among the unwashed masses who were just slugging away at Myspace blogs. Some of them were writers proper; others were just gifted people who enjoyed writing. That is, TNB’s spirit was not lit culture political.

    When you’re talking about the cultural discourse and the people who factor in, the internet changes that. I, for example, learned more about political theory and political realities and rhetoric from the internet than I did from higher education. I don’t just mean governmental politics. I mean creative politics, interpersonal politics, all kinds of politics. Thinking in general. The people who made the most convincing arguments or introduced the most radical new thought or really took me to task were, technically speaking, nobody in particular.

    So what if you could put them in one place? The best and most articulate of the interwebs? That’s sort of how I view TNB. Or its spirit, anyway. There are great brains out there. Many of whom are writers and many of whom are really good writers but who have no intention of being writers proper. How do you amplify those voices? How do you let people contribute to discourse in a meaningful way without saying to them, “Hey. Until you have more journal credits, we’re not really interested in the quality or importance of what you have to say.”

    Whether we like it or not, a book is no longer the best way to make oneself heard. The internet haschanged that. No going back now. And TNB takes advantage of that in a seriously noble way.

    But don’t tell Brad I said that because it causes me physical pain to compliment him.

  9. I review a book weekly for a newspaper. Not the New York Times mind you but still. I make it a point to review books not on the mainstream’s radar because, to me, these are the best books written by the best, most interesting, most unique writers.

    As a reader, I can say that I’ve purchased more books in the past year by hearing about them on TNB than from anywhere else. From that point, I flip the book over and find out who the blurbs are from and buy their books. Same thing I used to do with music when I was 16. Flip inside the cassette credits. See who is on the Thank You list. Go buy their album. It’s cyclical.

    I’m not sure major newspapers are keeping up with the times.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      It’s probably always been true, when it comes to the arts, that most people need to be told what to consume or read. There’s something to be said for the reviewer taking it as his mission to introduce readers to undiscovered talent. So good for you, Jeffrey, for looking outside the mainstream. The mainstream doesn’t need any help. It’s flowing fast enough by definition.

  10. Sung J. Woo says:

    …often reviewing a book in the weekly edition and Sunday Times Book Review in the same week…

    I understand that it’s a business, and having two reviews of Stephen King’s Under the Dome, one in NYTBR and one in the paper, will garner more eyeballs, but man, this pisses me off more than anything. Great piece.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      The strange (funny?) thing is that the NYTBR, I believe, spent a good deal of time ignoring Stephen King. Now that he’s an icon, they’re giving him their attention.

      This reminds me of the great poet Philip Levine, with whom I once took a class. He said only after he was well established and no longer needed the money did he start winning prizes. For years he was so desperate for cash that he was working on road gangs doing manual labor. Then, when he finally won a significant prize, he was a tenured prof and didn’t need the support. He took the prize money and bought a boat.

  11. Zara Potts says:

    I concur with Jeffrey.
    I too do some reviewing for newspapers here in New Zealand and I have to say the process is pretty simple. I am just sent a book to review and I read it and then write about it. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of consultation about why or whether it deserves it or so on. But I have found the reviewers here are loath to review anything from small or independent publishing houses. BUT if you hassle them enough -they’ll do it.
    And yes, I too have purchased a lot of my reading material over the last year through the recommendations of TNB writers.

  12. Quenby Moone says:

    I love this breakdown of the…breakdown of NY Times’…relevance? And then the Breakdown swoops in and nabs the brass ring?

    Anyway, I love the NYT for a huge number of reasons, and am disgruntled for many reasons as well, some of them because they are failing where they once succeeded. I think you hit the nail on the head with its lack of attention to anyone but those narrow few who rise through the noise there. Who is digging for new interesting voices? Who has their ear to the ground so they can drag some amazing, albeit unknown, author to the massive readership willing to support them by buying real books, of which the authors will receive a real cut?

    I think the Gray Lady is showing her age; places like TNB offer the space for writers to shine despite a lack of attention from her or her ilk.

    The other problem, of course, is the glut of writers. Good lord, anyone with an internet connection and a dream can “write.” The rest of the writers have to swim through a remarkable river to find any eyes at all, not just ones who can gain you more exposure like the Lady.

    Awesome. High praise well deserved for the Breakdown!

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Well, I read the NYT every day, too. It’s sad, however, to see them working their way to irrelevance. They still have that residual power to make a career, but they squander it. Just as, I might add, they squandered the franchise of the bestseller list, which they practically invented. But don’t get me started on that. It’s another essay.

  13. Simon Smithson says:

    I think about 75% of my recent book purchases have come through TNB. Once the conversation gets going, titles flood in – I’m packing a mix of books that TNB writers have either written, or recommended.

    That being said.

    Even here, half a world away, the name New York Times carries cachet.

  14. Thanks for this, Joel–even less for the valid criticisms of the NYTimes (which I hate to criticize in some ways because print media is in such peril and I feel genuinely sad about that and I do like the Times and feel it has fought the good fight in its own way), and even more because of the amazing stats of TNB contributors. Wow, we are at the right party, aren’t we? Rock on TNBers.

  15. Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

    This is sufficiently depressing and accurate enough to remind me why – (I’m a North Jersey native) – when I think of progress, I don’t think of New York. I don’t look back. At all.

    On the flipside, if a bunch of us TNBers coordinate publication dates for our breakout literary masterpieces and then organize a suicide pact, we might actually take the New York Times front page.

    That’s the thing about living in Los Angeles. There’s hope. (Or a screenplay.)

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Funny. I think, sadly, few American readers would have paid any attention to Stieg Larsen if he hadn’t died before his trilogy was published. I’m surprised no one, in their comments here, has picked up on my (very minor) analysis of the Times’s emphasis on dead writers. Just got another “Writing” alert today. An obituary.

  16. Tom Hansen says:

    Thank you.

    “then exactly how do they choose what to cover?”

    I think it goes something like (insert editor name) from (insert big publishing house) said if you review this for me I will do you a solid. Of course it must have a certain element that would make it worthy of NYT space, which seemingly means written by a celebrity or be about a famous subject.

    Interestingly, none of it has much to do with literary merit.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Well, I have to say that when I was an editor at a big publishing house it didn’t work that way. Its more internal corruption than external. It’s the corruption of lazy minds.

  17. jonathan evison says:

    . . .thanks for crunching those numbers, mr. fishman . . . pretty impressive percentage for TNBers . . . neither wallace stegner nor richard yates were ever reviewed in the NYT, and their legacies seem to be alive and well . . . while there may be some backscratching going on, i’ve also seen some rabidly indie titles from small presses make the cover of NYTBR in recent years (including a few from soft skull) . . . it is what it is . . .

  18. Ben Loory says:

    personally i’ve always preferred the new york review of books

  19. J.E. Fishman says:

    Yeah. I like their technique of having reviewers do multiple books in a single review. But sometimes the books themselves seem to get lost in their essays.

  20. Wendy Chin-Tanner says:

    Cachet is another word for cultural capital, which, as the term capital implies, is largely built and maintained on the basis of economic power. Institutions that carry cultural capital represent, reproduce, and disseminate discourses that reinforce the current status quo or hegemonic order in which they rest on top. The publishing industry is an industry like any other, but because it is a form of cultural production, many of the seams of its economic exigencies and relations of power are hidden beneath the fine fabric of “aesthetics”. What we must remember is that these aesthetics are a reflection of the systems and institutions from which they come.

    The NYT is showing the chinks in its armor, revealing itself to be irrelevant, out of touch, and insular. People are seeing through the veil. They want change. To change a system, you need catalysts. And I think we have some: globalization, information technology, and the resultant shifts and disruptions in how publishing used to work.

    Someone mentioned in the comments above that technology has widened the pool of prospective writers, making it more difficult for the talented to get recognition. I disagree. Now more than ever, good work has a chance of rising above the Rabelasian crowd, regardless of whether or not its author has the right pedigree, whether that be the choicest MFA or the ethnic flavor of the month. What we need is to support the newer, more open gatekeepers of cultural capital, such as TNB, so that when the dinosaurs finally fall, we have more evolved successors.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      I agree with most of this, Wendy. In one of the comments above I used the word “corrupt” when “insular” — your word — is probably a better choice.

      With regard to whether these times make it easier or more difficult for new talent to prosper, there is certainly a good argument to be made that barriers are falling as the old guard teeters. It’s also true, however, that a talent for self-promotion is as important as artistic talent. Perhaps it’s ever been thus. Perhaps Da Vinci and Austen were only half as talented as some contemporaries of theirs who didn’t have the gift of getting noticed.

      There is also the issue of the gatekeeper. I’ve been one of these at different points of my life: editor, agent, even buyer for the book section of retail stores I used to own. In a complete free-for-all, those with the talent of self-promotion win. When there are gatekeepers, “mere” artistic talent has a chance.

      But those gatekeeper have a solemn duty, I think — a duty to something bigger than the old way of doing things.

  21. Wendy Chin-Tanner says:

    You’re right about self-promotion, Joel. It’s depressing but true. Also depressing and true is that the form that this self-promotion now takes (thanks to the cultural pervasiveness, I guess, of things like reality tv and social networking sites blurring the boundaries between the public sphere and the private sphere, the personal and the professional) makes it even harder for people who are unwilling to sell themselves along with their product to swim to the surface. A sobering thought. But do you think that there is a difference between genres in terms of how much self-promotion is necessary (fiction versus poetry, for example)? This is a great topic. Joel. Thanks for making me think and procrastinate.

  22. J.E. Fishman says:

    Nassim Nicholas Taleb — of whom I’m a big fan — notes in one of his books that a physicist can calculate the effect of a pool ball hitting another pool ball with certainty. By the time the seventh pool ball is hitting the eighth, you’d need a supercomputer to do it accurately. By the sixteenth pool ball, you’d need more power to calculate than humans have at hand. His point is how complicated economic life is and how arrogant those who claim they can predict the future of the economy.

    I mention that here because even our little world of books is too complicated to make anything but broad generalizations. Some people just plain get lucky, others know what levers to pull, some hit the zeitgeist, others are always a year behind it, etc.

    Yet, with these caveats, I’ll venture to say that self-promotion savvy aids all genres. But it’s also important to note that genres have relative audiences. In other words, the greatest self-promoter of poetry in 2010 will almost certainly sell fewer books than the greatest self-promoter of romance. Does that mean that poets should all become romance writers? Of course not. We all need to do what we’re called to do, or the product is inauthentic. But, still, it helps to know the scope of one’s potential audience.

  23. Herman says:

    The Book Review in the Times on Sundays is still the most important provider of reviews. I enjoy the paper edition on Sundays tremendously. Parts of it always end up on my nightstand. I don’t do electronic devices in my bedroom. Two out three books I purchase almost every month (in a bookstore) are selections from the Book Review with satisfying results. The way books are selected for review appears to be unfair to lesser known or not so well connected authors. Perhaps that is something we as consumers must let The NYT know. Long live the Book Review on Sundays!

  24. Cara Powers says:

    When I first decided to start a book review blog I had no idea how to write a review. Naturally, I started regularly perusing the NYTBR. I found myself skimming the reviews, because they were just too boring. Plus, I never found a book that interested me in the NYTBR. (OK, maybe some non-fiction but I never got around to buying any of it) I like The Guardian’s books coverage so much better, especially online. They review a larger variety of books and treat books as fun and as culture. Some of the essays also spawn the most interesting conversations. Perhaps part of the NYTBR irrelevancy has something to do with America’s inferiority complex about our culture seen, a complex most often displayed by the kind of Ivy League educated English majors who become the editors of mainstream book review sources. I don’t bother to read mainstream American book reviewers anymore.

  25. Marni Grossman says:

    Yes! I love the NYT book reviews. But. I, like you, have often wondered why one book merits two reviews, one in the weekday Arts section and another in the Book Review supplement.

    But I have to admit: I always hoped that, one day, I’d get a favorable review from the Times. I’m old-school like that.

  26. Linda says:

    Remember that the first bias authors encounter is from the publisher. I remember reading how Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was turned down by dozens of publishers, some saying that they didn’t print regional books. Yet the same publishers constantly printed books set in New York City. So Charleston, SC is regional, but NY,NY is not. Never-the-less, Midnight went on to lead the NYT bestseller list for three years. The first hurdle is getting published. Unless an author fits their worldview, it’s harder than getting in the NYTs.

  27. Bruce says:

    I’m the author of four nonfiction books, all published by well-respected nation-wide publishers. My first book published in 1994 had “mo,” as my New York literary agent termed it, and indeed, it sold well, was positively reviewed in over 20 large newspapers across the country, made the top ten annual book list for pubs like the Seattle Times, a starred review in the notoriously-picky Kirkus Book Reviews, along with a number of national award nominations. Not so much as a sniff from the New York Times, although like some other comments here, I would have then sold my mother for a nod from the Gray Lady. My editor reported that his NYTBR contact said they had covered too many books lately on my book’s topic; my “timing” was just off. While authoring later books, I took employment as an editor for Publisher’s Weekly where I was assigned books, produced reviews, and was paid $40 per review (I then had to return the book to penny-pinching PW). Talk about word thrift–try capturing the essence of a book in less than 400 words. I groused about the NYTBR but never stopped reading it. Yes, it’s hopelessly quirky and occasionally produces snobby writing, but by in large, the writing is superb. I subscribe to the paper edition simply because reading it is pure serendipity–you may have no interest in the subject and never plan to buy the book, but the reviews are often deliciously written and you may learn a thing or two in the bargain.

  28. Tyler says:

    I learn more reading the book review than from most of the rest of the Newspaper. They’re great reviews:well informed and written, summarizing the high points and fearlessly delving into tangents. Why is this book important? What is it about? Why should I read it? The Times book review answers these questions better than most. That, and the Serendipity Factor of reading about something I didn’t know I was interested in.

    Let me rephrase my first sentence: I learn from reading the book review than from the entirety of the internet.

  29. […] 20, 2010 Writing at The Nervous Breakdown, J.E. Fishman asks: is the New York Times book review still relevant? The simple answer, of course, is […]

  30. nancym says:

    I just Stumbled Upon TNB and it’s love at first sight. (Or should I say site). Two things to say on this topic. First, I’m an avid reader. 3 to 5 books a month – all purchased at Barnes & Noble or various airport book stores. I live in California and read the NYT sporadically. I find the book reviews often elitist. If a book seems interesting – I’ll check it out on Amazon to see what real people are saying or post a question on facebook and see if any of my friends have read it. Books are the classic word of mouth experience – a professional review means less to me than a recommendation.
    That said, I’ve worked in marketing my entire career in the entertainment and gaming business. Execs and Developers always want WSJ, NYT, or the Today Show otherwise the PR campaign is a failure, when the reality is that passionate fans and mobilized bloggers can be more meaningful in terms of actually building awareness for a great product.

    • Aaron Dietz says:

      Beautiful thoughts, nancym–I’m glad you discovered us. You’ve summed up what’s been going on in books–people have moved on to other sources more relevant to them and the NYT has become, dare I say, marginalized? This could be good, or bad, depending, but either way–it’s an interesting change.

      And those Execs and Developers will be coming around soon. Which could be good. And it could be bad. But either way: interesting.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      I couldn’t agree more with your summary of entertainment marketing. Word of mouth will always be king because it’s peer to peer. Now do me a fave: go read CADAVER BLUES and, if you like it, start talking!

  31. Irene Zion says:


    I agree with you.
    The Times is old news.
    Old farts reading old fart books, ignoring the vast numbers of really good books out there.
    They do damage by exclusion.

  32. […] tip of the cap to J.E. Fishman, whose latest essay, “TNB 112, NYT 27,” has been linked all over the […]

  33. Art Edwards says:


    You are free.

    Now get down here in the muck with the rest of us. (At least it’s our muck.)


  34. I know a NYT review is what turns the wheel — adds a little grease — and can give the author instant literary cred. Yet the double review system of the NY Times speaks to the decline of the importance and power of their reviews. After years of attention to one author times two in any given week — it becomes apparent to the regular book buying reader — or the reader who has a stake in the publishing industry–that these reviews end up diluting the power of the Times, which is a shame.
    I don’t wish for the demise of any review outlet — certainly when so many newspapers are struggling. It’s just great to see that TNB can offer a wide spectrum of opinion and review.

  35. […] week at TNB, Joel Fishman called out the New York Times Book Review. Its methodology of selecting which books to bless (or damn) with a review, he suggested, has […]

  36. Love the piece. If you’re in the industry, you know it’s who you know that gets your book reviewed (or who your editor knows, etc).

    Yes, why do I see multiple book reviews of so-so books (it’s always weird when there is one glowing review in the NYT and one scathing, of the same book…but in that case, I trust the bad review)? Connections–and one reviewer was forced to review the book–didn’t choose to–and thus, is extra-critical.

    Being an Easterner myself, being a long-time New Yorker, of course I see the NYTBR as the “important” venue for reviews. But lately–not reading actual newspapers anymore because I think they’re messy–it is more important, IMO, to have wide-ranging Googleable reviews in a variety of publications–purely online, printed, etc.



  37. Chris king says:

    We are approaching the point that by complaining about the weakness of the formerly mighty, we perpetuate what is left of their importance. Let’s do move on. The Guardian (U.K.) and its reviews are still great, though.

  38. J.E., you hit the nail on the head. Couldn’t have said it any better. Not that I’ve written anything NYT worthy. But I’ve spoken to plenty of authors who deserve rock star status from not only the NYT, but their own publishers!

  39. Love this article!

    Question: is it East vs. West? David vs. Goliath? Or, more probably, low-brow vs. high-brow? Trying to understand the NYT is like being an 8th-grader trying to become part of the IN crowd.

    It’s my belief that every book review should be written as if two friends are sitting at a bar. Whether the bartender actually decides to read it isn’t important, but If done right he’ll at least know enough to talk about it.

  40. J.E. Fishman says:

    Probably it begins as all of those things. By now, however, in certain circles a kind of sclerosis has set it.

  41. […] creatures, must adapt or die.  (Same thing for whoever decides what makes the book review pages of The New York Times).  He also is concerned that global warming has made a hell of […]

  42. […] creatures, must adapt or die.  (Same thing for whoever decides what makes the book review pages of The New York Times).  He also is concerned that global warming has made a hell of […]

  43. […] creatures, must adapt or die.  (Same thing for whoever decides what makes the book review pages of The New York Times).  He also is concerned that global warming has made a hell of […]

  44. Order Used Abeka Curriculum Today…

    […]J.E. Fishman | TNB 112, NYT 24 | The Nervous Breakdown[…]…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *