Publishers, review your support

<p>A complaint frequently heard in South African literary circles is about the scarcity of book reviews in the newspapers.&nbsp; It's a complaint I often make too, but when you actually count the number of newspapers and magazines that carry book reviews, you discover that the majority of them do in fact carry such pages. The real problem relates more to the space allocated, the length of reviews, and the quality.<br />
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About a decade or so back, the <i>Mail &amp; Guardian</i> stood out as the newspaper in South Africa to give substantial space to book reviews &ndash; two pages each week and once a month there was an eight-page books supplement. Now the newspaper produces about two pages; at one point it was only a single page.&nbsp; The <i>Sunday Independent </i>has one page; the <i>Weekender</i> has two pages; and the <i>Star</i> one page per week.</p>
<p>A big factor that has affected newspapers in South Africa, as elsewhere, in the past decade has been the arrival of the internet, with newsrooms no longer being a main source of information. With the internet also came the battle for advertising. Newspaper production costs have risen steadily and competition has increased. Most newspapers run on a tight budget and in a country such as South Africa where newspaper readers are more interested in motoring and sport, anything to do with arts and culture is going to suffer.&nbsp; South Africa is not a book reading culture and no newspaper editor is likely to scrap a page of sports news for book reviews.<br />
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The length of book reviews can also vary considerably. In highbrow newspapers such as the<i> Sunday Independent</i>, <i>Mail &amp; Guardian</i> and the <i>Weekender,</i> book reviews tend to be lengthy and in-depth, while in the lower market newspapers, such as the <i>Citizen</i> or the <i>Sowetan</i>, book reviews are shorter. In the middle market the <i>Star</i>, reviews are also generally short, but every two weeks it publishes a full-length 1,200-word review. <br />
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Another frequent complaint about book reviews is, as already stated, the quality. If one defines a review as a critical evaluation from an informed standpoint, then the quality of the locally published book reviews is definitely in decline. Once again the issue of budgets comes into play. Historically, the majority of book reviewers in South Africa were academics and writers who were paid, if not always handsomely, for their professional insight. In South Africa, however, the practice of not paying book reviewers is becoming more common &ndash; the reviewer simply keeps the review copy as payment. There are exceptions, such as the <i>Sunday Independent,</i> which does pay its writers and occasionally publishes literary journalism by writers such as Andre Brink or Nobel prize winner Nadine Gordimer. <br />
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Sometimes reviews, especially of overseas works, are obtained from the wires, but more often book reviews are now produced by in-house journalists. But this is not to say some in-house journalists are not qualified to comment on books. Arja Salafranca, writer, poet and lifestyle and arts editor of the <i>Sunday Independent,</i> regularly reviews for its sister newspaper the <i>Star</i>, as well as the online literary site,<a href="http://www.litnet.co.za" target="_blank">www.litnet.co.za</a>, and as a writer and reader feels qualified to do so. She says: &ldquo;Although I'm generally not paid as a reviewer, I do take this type of journalism seriously. I often choose to review South African books, mainly fiction, so giving local writers exposure and criticism. It's important that local readers know who is out there. We do have a burgeoning number of authors in this country who are being published in numbers unheard of up to about five or so years ago.&rdquo;&nbsp; <br />
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But Salafranca touches another issue here, of whether the writing of book reviews &ndash; or of any literary commentary &ndash; is considered as &ldquo;serious&rdquo; journalism in the newsroom.&nbsp; It is, after all, something churned out on the side, usually for non-payment. Selfless reviewers such as Salafranca are diminishing and the professional book reviewer is certainly becoming an endangered species.<br />
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Needless to say, this situation can prove extremely frustrating for publishers. But what some publishers fail to realise is that the books editor is not their unpaid marketing manager. No books editor is obliged to a review a book, and even if they do, it is not their role to ensure that it gets a good review.&nbsp; There is a bit of a tendency in South Africa for publishers, especially the smaller ones, to rely a little too heavily on the media for exposure and promotion. Furthermore, unlike their US and UK counterparts, South Africa publishers generally do not take out adverts on newspaper books pages.</p>
<p>Newspapers in South Africa, as elsewhere, are operating in an extremely competitive environment and cost containment is crucial. They are businesses run for a profit and they have to answer to shareholders. At the same time, however, combating illiteracy in South Africa is a priority, and developing a book-reading culture should be encouraged by the media. But publishers could also come to the table and make an effort to advertise on books pages &ndash; one option might be to try to negotiate reduced advertising rates.</p>