How the Web can help the WaPo (and other papers) write a new chapter about the world of books

Book lovers mourned, some angrily, the Washington Post’s decision to kill off its free-standing Book World, which, until Feb. 22, was part of the paper’s Sunday print package. But the good news was the Post’s promise that the estimable literary section would stay alive online. “We intend to develop a strong, easy-to-navigate, well indexed Book World site,” new Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli (who wielded the ax) wrote in a response to the 122 Book World contributors who protested the decision.

But just how “strong” will Book World be online?

When the Los Angeles Times eliminated its free-standing print Sunday Book Review in 2008 as part of its nonstop cost-cutting, the section was reincarnated online as Books in the Living section of the Times website. In addition to reviews, book-sale reports and a literary calendar, Books features a blog called Jacket Copy. But the blog, with its multiple authors, lacks personality. Overall, the online Books isn’t capitalizing on the strengths of the Web – particularly community building – and it doesn’t seem to have preserved the critical authority that was a hallmark of the print Book Review. Browsing through the skimpy site, you get the feeling it’s produced on a shoestring. There is no Steve Wasserman or Digby Diehl – past editors of the Book Review – setting and executing high standards.

The Washington Post is not going through the same financial duress as the LA Times, which is a helpless appendage of the fast-sinking and bankrupt Tribune Co. But the migration from print to online life, whatever the circumstances, is always tricky.

The print Book World was distinguished by both its gravitas and sprightliness. Holding it in your hands was like eavesdropping at a literary salon through which passed the likes of Morris Dickstein, Dahlia Lithwick, Laura Miller and George Packer, not to mention section regulars like critic Jonathan Yardley and essayist Michael Dirda, both Pulitzer prize winners. The only thing missing was the well-stocked bar.

Happily, Yardley and Dirda will continue to appear in the online Book World. Strangely, though, the lustrous brand name “Book World” seems to have been dropped. The departmental logo is now just “Books.”

It’s too soon to make sweeping judgments about the online Book World (or Books), especially whether it will meet the same fate as the online version of the LA Times’ Book Review. But it is dismaying to see how dull the newly unveiled site is, even in its pupae form. Yardley and Dirda are there, thank goodness, but they’re barely promoted in 8-point type.

The blog Short Stack, created back in 2007, is now daily, but, like the similar LA Times blog, has multiple authors, which impedes it from developing a personality to which readers can relate and react. The blog also seems to be limited to one entry per day. That’s way too leisurely to grab users’ attention and get them to join in what is now basically a one-way conversation. Why not at least add a paragraph or two at the end that wraps up always plentiful literary and publishing news and gossip?

The Post – and the LA Times – could learn some lessons about creating an online book section from the Guardian in the UK. Its site is big and splashy, but has enough gravitas to do a “Top 10” on books about Rome that includes Robert Graves’ “I Claudius.” The entire section draws loads of comments from users. (You have to wonder if some other newspapers that have eliminated or cut back on book coverage couldn’t learn from the Guardian too.)

For all their literary excellence, the print Book World and the Times’ Book Review weren’t suited for reader participation (beyond rationed letters to the editor). The medium was truly the message – a one-way message.

Kassia Krozser, founder and editor of the lively blog booksquare.com (“dissecting the book industry with love and skepticism”), said in a discussion on PBS’ News Hour last July: “What we’re getting online is, people are excited about books. They want to talk about books. And that’s really incredible….”

And how. Librarything.com, one of the earliest reader sites, claims 500,000 users. It recently sold a 40 percent stake to AbeBooks,com, which specializes in selling used, rare and out-of-print books

Fast-growing Shelfari.com last year completed funding whose investors included Amazon, the champion online bookseller.

Book World shouldn’t mimic sites like Librarything or Shelfari. But it now has a potential audience of 10 million unique visitors – more than 10 times the potential readership it had in the Post’s Sunday print edition.

What an exciting new chapter this could be in Book World’s life – if only the publishing and editorial bosses at the Post inspire it to be written.

About Tom Grubisich

I write about hyperlocal grassroots sites regularly for Online Journalism Review. What I've seen checking out proliferating sites has not been encouraging. The content is generally dull "happy news" or aggregated wire stories and doesn't seem to tap into what's special about the communities being covered.

I am senior web editor at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., where I help develop blogs and other content aimed at broadening the Bank's audiences around the world.

Earlier in my career, I was managing editor of news for Digital City/AOL and before that co-founder of the free-circulation weekly Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. Earlier yet, I was a reporter and editor at The Washington Post. For more information, consult, Who's Who in America (2008 edition). I'm reachable at [email protected]

Comments

  1. Good piece. Two WaPo-specific thoughts:

    1) Why not have Yardley and/or Dirda blog full-time. I’d rather read a blog centered around one of them than a group blog with no personality.

    2) The problem with making the Book section look better online is that the Web site staff is small and getting smaller. Until print and Web teams are merged and cross-trained, it’s going to be hard to pull the resources together to do anything more than what they are doing.

    But books coverage is definitely a WaPo strong point and an opportunity for them to create a strong online destination. Too bad advertisers aren’t exactly clamoring to fund it…

    rw

  2. Lindsey Davis’s top 10 Roman books leaves out Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – sign of the (shallow) times.