Structural challenges in newspaper publishing and their consequences for the book industry

It is conventional wisdom in the publishing business that newspaper reviews, even negative ones, can help to sell books. But while book publishers are beset by structural changes to their industry – store closures, the rise of cheap digital books, and the strong growth of cut-price bookselling through online bookstores – the newspaper business is suffering an even more painful struggle, to evolve or die. The result is reduced coverage of books in the Australian press at a time when the book trade is battling extremely difficult conditions. That is bad news for many publishers and authors. More broadly, it is bad news for the national cultural conversation.

In 2008, the British literary journalist William Skidelsky foresaw the consequences for literary culture of the decline of newspapers:

The old financial model of newspapers is looking increasingly unsustainable, and this makes it inevitable that editors and proprietors will start questioning – if they haven’t done already – the worth of book reviews. What is their purpose? What value do they add?

His comment was made in the context of the U.S. press where, since the late 1990s, many newspapers have cut space for reviews. Even venerable titles, such as the Washington Post and the New York Times, have rationalised their book coverage, as they contend with the long-term decline in traditional newspaper readership and the threats and opportunities of a wired world.

The Australian newspaper industry is caught up in the same legacy-media conundrum. Yet for a good part of the first decade of the new century, our major newspapers were relatively sheltered from its impacts, thanks to the mining boom and the resulting buoyancy of the Australian economy. Literary pages actually increased in a number of newspapers, including the Age, the Weekend Australian, and the Canberra Times. Then adverse signs began to appear. The Bulletin, which historically had played a central role in the idea of a national literature, closed in January 2008. In late 2011, the Australian Literary Review lost its funding from the Group of Eight universities, and was shut down by its publisher, the Australian newspaper. Some of the well-made lifestyle supplements that had flourished in boom time, such as the Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘Essential Style’, also disappeared.

In hindsight, the Australian newspaper business model hit the wall somewhere around 2008, as the global financial crisis began. The nation’s GDP per capita peaked in 2007, then fell markedly. Measures of business confidence plunged at the same time. While both recovered, the sudden drop exacerbated the long-term trend of declining newspaper advertising. At almost the same moment, the advent in Australia in 2008 of the iPhone and other smartphones saw a steep increase in internet connections, with more readers migrating from print to online media. The result is a newspaper industry now forecast by respected market research group IBISWorld to shrink by more than five percent per annum, while the Australian economy grows at 2.4 percent annually.

Within major newspaper organisations, the response has been to cut underperforming print sections, reduce staff, tighten contributor budgets, and share more copy and editorial staff. News Ltd has moved to seven-day operations at several of its mastheads, reducing duplication of feature and review coverage between weekday and Sunday papers. Across its major morning tabloids in Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, there has been a far-reaching standardisation of lifestyle and personal finance sections. Fairfax has also increased sharing of copy between sections, explaining to investors that it is ‘optimising’ its metropolitan newspapers for the online era, to ‘provide flexibility to move the business to a digital-only model if that is what is required in the future’.

As this statement suggests, such moves are not merely about cost-savings. Cross-platform integration is at the heart of the new approach, reducing reliance on distinctive local mastheads as the entry point to content, and elevating websites associated with the newspaper groups. To a reader dipping into their morning paper over breakfast, the changes are not necessarily apparent, but when sister newspapers from different cities are compared, the evolution of the family likeness is obvious. In News Ltd’s morning tabloids, the food section ‘Taste’ and the personal finance section ‘Your Money’ are standout examples of content with a high degree of uniformity across the group. Both sections are also associated with high-profile websites, and Increasingly, such integration is driven through the NewsLifeMedia division, formerly News Magazines, now the hub of an integrated network of news and lifestyle publishing.

Standardisation has not yet gone so far at Fairfax, where the independence of the metropolitan titles has been an important part of the company’s brand. Yet there is growing uniformity between the papers’ websites, as well as increased copy sharing between print sections. The copy-sharing strategy has had direct impacts on the Saturday book sections of the Fairfax’s morning papers in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra.

A high proportion of book reviews which appear in Saturday’s Age, Sydney Morning Herald and Canberra Times are now items shared between the papers. Over three consecutive weekends, from 27 October through 10 November 2012, these newspapers collectively published 77 book-related articles and reviews (Table 1). This figure, however, includes duplicated articles published in more than one paper.

Table 1: Number of reviews published each week

Note: Interviews with writers are included in the count for this table but not by-lined columns written by literary editors or contributors. There are four short reviews of fiction books and four short reviews of non-fiction books published weekly. In all the tables, these short reviews are counted as one.

27 October 20123 November 201210 November 2012Total
The Age
The Canberra Times8119
The Sydney Morning Herald57820

Total number of reviews/articles: 77

The number of pages devoted to books over the three weeks in the Age was nine, eight and eight; in the Canberra Times there were six, eight and seven; in the Sydney Morning Herald there were six, six and seven. (Over the same period, the Weekend Australian devoted eight pages to books each Saturday.) The Age published a total of 29 articles, the Canberra Times 28, and the Sydney Morning Herald 20. Across the three weeks, there were nineteen articles shared by two or three papers and 30 that were unique to one paper (Table 2). In other words, nineteen articles accounted for 47 of the 77 pieces published. The Sydney Morning Herald fared worst, running twenty reviews and articles during this period, only two of which were unique to that paper (Table 3).

Table 2: Uniformity of reviews

27 October 20123 November 201210 November 2012Total
Reviews duplicated in three papers

Reviews duplicated in two papers23520
Reviews in only one paper791430

Total number of duplicated reviews/articles: 47

Table 3: Book reviews that appeared in only one paper

27 October 20123 November 201210 November 2012Total
The Age4
The Canberra Times36817
The Sydney Morning Herald0022

Total unique reviews: 30

All tables prepared by Matthew Ricketson, December 2012

The Sydney Morning Herald’s literary editor, Susan Wyndham, is forthright about the challenges she faces. Her section’s pagination used to run at between six and ten pages, but in the first half of 2012 the number of pages was cut to six or seven. She was told that the reduction was based on the decline in advertising revenue across the paper, economies in print and product costs, and the reduction in the newspaper’s staffing. The results are plain: on the last Saturday of October and the first Saturday of November, in the busiest period of the year for book releases, the Sydney Morning Herald did not publish a single review that was exclusive to its pages. Wyndham said:

There is an absolute rule that there is as little duplication [of commissioning of reviews] as possible. So we share almost everything. I’m very disappointed by all this. I absolutely understand the company’s financial imperatives, but as a literary editor I believe it is very important for the culture that the newspaper carries a diversity of voices, both for readers and for authors. What if the three newspapers carry the one negative review of a book? That would mean too much weight being given to one view. In their own way, the diversity of literary and cultural ideas is as important as the diversity of political ideas on the opinion pages.

The Age and the Canberra Times have managed to run more reviews specific to their publication or shared with only one other paper. Nonetheless, the Age’s literary editor, Jason Steger, noted:

We look at as many books as we can, but it’s fair to say we are no longer scrutinising as many as we have in the past. And because we are increasingly sharing reviews, it means that we do not have as many critical voices as we used to. If there is less critical coverage of books, writing and writers, then that is a great shame … There are still many readers who are very interested in books and writing and ideas. Rather than reduce our coverage we should perhaps be increasing it.

All these changes to newspapers have occurred in parallel with increased structural vulnerability in the book industry. Nielsen BookScan data shows that in 2012, sales through Australian bookstores dropped 9.3 percent in value. Anecdotally, it was one of those years in which big names like Jamie Oliver and Bryce Courtenay (not to mention print editions of the ubiquitous E. L. James, author of the Fifty Shades series of erotic novels) dominated by a long way, and the spread of sales among other titles published in the peak pre-Christmas period was not as strong as publishers had hoped. The industry journal Bookseller and Publisher called 2012 ‘one of the toughest years in the trade in a long time’.

The rise of e-readers, the challenges posed by Amazon’s dominance in the marketplace, and the public’s sudden love affair with self-published e-books have all contributed to the uncertain climate. The publishing industry is also still suffering the effects of the closure of the Borders and Angus & Robertson bookstore chains in 2011, which left publishers struggling to find retailers for their usual print runs. Not surprisingly, BookScan’s 2012 summary showed that overall sales volume fell by 6.3 percent. For the largest publishers, whose traditional publishing model depends on print runs routinely in the tens of thousands (for mass market titles, at least: initial print runs for literary titles are much smaller), these problems in the supply chain are proving intractable. According to the director of non-fiction publishing at Pan Macmillan, Tom Gilliatt: ‘Lack of shelf space, retailer conservatism, customer caution are some of the main problems preoccupying us; media changes are just part of the woes that afflict book publishing at the moment.’

The changes at Fairfax are being felt by publishers, particularly at small to medium–sized firms with modest budgets for advertising, or no budgets at all. For them, reviews and other newspaper publicity are a vital marketing tool. At Hardie Grant Books, a leading mid-sized trade publisher based in Melbourne, marketing director Roxy Ryan said: ‘Before, there were options. If you missed out on a review in the SMH you could go to The Age. One person now seems to decide for both. Fewer books are reviewed and the section is less local.’ The problem was only exacerbated by the Canberra Times’ inclusion in the copy-sharing arrangements, she said.

The commercial impact of a book review is difficult to define empirically, although many researchers have tried, counting reviews and comparing the counts with sales data. In The Culture and Commerce of Publishing in the 21st Century (2007), Albert Greco, Clara Rodriguez and Robert Wharton survey the scholarship in this field and conclude, with respect to the American publishing industry, that reviews ‘help a book’s sale chances, but even exceptionally positive reviews … cannot guarantee success in what is an exceedingly crowded market.’ That view broadly aligns with industry wisdom.

Publishers and literary journalists alike are clear that reviews are more important to some types of books and authors than others. For a new or little-known author, a newspaper review not only introduces them to a potentially large audience but helps create an enduring public profile, since the review becomes part of the digital archive available online. Additionally, published reviews of first-time authors are more likely to be positive, particularly where fiction is concerned. Literary editors are interested in unearthing new talent for their readership: there is little point dedicating newspaper space to negative reviews of books by newbie authors no one has heard of.

For trade non-fiction – particularly books about issues of the moment or by or about celebrities – radio and television publicity is often more crucial than reviews in achieving sales momentum. But fiction is a different matter, particularly literary fiction, which depends on the oxygen of the books pages more than any other form except poetry. While publishers increasingly use Twitter and other social media to build strong communities of readers interested in more literary forms, they acknowledge how important the books pages are to their endeavours. Take Sleepers Publishing, a Melbourne imprint run by Louise Swinn and Zoe Dattner. Sleepers exemplifies the Melbourne model of tiny independents publishing literary fiction to dedicated audiences who are comfortable with discovering new books via salons and social media. There is even a Sleepers short-story app for the iPhone. Yet traditional forms of literary validation remain important. One of the biggest things to happen to Sleepers was its author Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming winning the Age Book of the Year Award in 2009. Swinn acknowledges the authority of newspaper reviews. ‘Broadsheet reviews for us are the most important,’ she said, pointing out that review lines from papers such as the Age, the Canberra Times and the Guardian feature prominently in the publicity on the Sleepers website.

Traditional newspapers’ combination of credibility and reach still matters, despite the growing number of dedicated literary bloggers and tweeters, and sites like Goodreads. As Tom Gilliatt said:

It doesn’t tend to be literary fiction that goes viral on social media. Quiet domestic drama is not going to create the viral impetus in the way a work of zombie erotica will. But generally speaking, when a literary title like Anna Funder’s All That I Am has already reached a critical mass of readers, it’s then that social media can help sell more copies of it.

It is not only literary fiction by new authors that has much to lose when books pages are reduced and fewer reviews are published. Specialist and scholarly non-fiction are also affected. The Canberra Times, with its resident audience of policymakers, academics and technicians, has made such titles a mainstay of its literary pages. Its traditional concern with national policy reached into corners of Australian life and public administration often ignored by the Sydney and Melbourne press. The Canberra Times has long been a go-to paper for publishers struggling to achieve coverage of titles about serious issues or lesser-known but still significant lives. For readers with old-fashioned newspaper habits, its books pages have been all the more memorable for the joy of the unexpected find.

But the changes at Fairfax mean that the Canberra Times’ future place in Australian letters is no longer clear. In August 2012, the literary editor’s position was made redundant. Gia Metherell, who had held the position since 2004, left the paper in September. She had first heard of these changes in June, just before Fairfax Media’s editorial restructure. She was informed that in future the Canberra Times would carry the same books pages as the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. According to Metherell, Fairfax Media’s Metro editorial director, Garry Linnell, told her: ‘Why should we pay three times for reviews of the same book?’ Linnell cannot remember saying this but agrees with the sentiment he is quoted as expressing.

When word got out about Fairfax’s plans there was a fierce response from Canberra’s cultural community, which caused Fairfax’s management to reconsider, promising that two or three locally sourced reviews would continue to appear each week, commissioned by the paper’s editor, Rod Quinn. Metherell’s comment: ‘In my time as literary editor the Canberra Times would have reviewed just about every Australian debut author of any serious intent. What we have now is fewer voices examining fewer other voices.’ As at early December 2012, the paper’s literary pages had held up better than many Canberrans feared. The paper still has at least as much space for reviews as its sister publications in Sydney and Melbourne, and still runs more one-off reviews (many more, sometimes). Nevertheless, in some weeks it has run four or five reviews sourced from the other papers.

Copy sharing works out just fine for book publishers when positive coverage is replicated across papers, but it is an all-or-nothing scenario. And its impacts extend well beyond the literary pages, according to Ryan, who noted that standardisation of the food and lifestyle sections by both News Ltd and Fairfax had had implications for Hardie Grant’s extensive food and wine list, particularly at a time when food magazines were also falling over. (Recent casualties included Australian Good Food, which closed, and Masterchef Magazine, now published occasionally.) While online and social media had proved ‘a bit of a saviour’, influential websites that could make or break a book were ‘few and far between’ (Mamamia is one such). To Ryan, newspapers are still an important part of Hardie Grant’s marketing model, one that she is not prepared to give up on, particularly in the current difficult climate.

The picture is not all gloomy. The Weekend Australian gives no sign of reducing its literary coverage, and its current literary editor, Stephen Romei, is notable for his nuanced selection of books for review. Some of the morning tabloids, notably the Herald Sun, have ramped up their books coverage significantly.

Nevertheless, authors, publishers and booksellers will be on guard to see how the three Fairfax papers treat their literary sections this year, especially when the Sydney and Melbourne papers change over to a tabloid format. What is at stake is not only a vibrant local publishing industry but also a vibrant cultural conversation. It is often said that the newspaper industry is not just another business. The same is equally true for books.

Works Cited

Nigel Fitzpatrick, ‘Newspaper Printing or Publishing in Australia,’ IBISWorld Industry Report C2421(October 2012).
Albert Greco, Clara Rodriguez and Robert Wharton, The Culture and Commerce of Publishing in the 21st Century (Stanford University Press, 2007).
‘Nicole Sheffield CEO of expanded NewsLifeMedia,’ Mumbrella (2 March 2012).
‘Nielsen BookScan figures: overall sales down, top 10 up,’ Bookseller & Publisher (19 December 2012).
‘Pre-Christmas survey 2012: moderate expectations’ Bookseller & Publisher (19 December 2012).
William Skidelsky, ‘Critical Condition’ Prospect (February 2008).
‘Taste newspaper liftout now weekly’ Taste (February 2010).