The New York Times is going very big on events for subscribers and breaking out more of its sections to anchor them.
The latest addition to a year absolutely packed with Times events (in the last 18 months there have been more than 130, equal to about seven per month, and there are five more to come this year) is its Books section. The paper’s well-known, year-end list of its favorite books — now officially set at 10 and split evenly between fiction and non-fiction, where previous years varied — was revealed to subscribers during a live event here. It was a first for Books and The Times didn’t pretend it wasn’t a bald attempt to give readers what they’ve apparently said they want: access.
Beth Weinstein, the paper’s events director, took the stage first to let the roughly 50 people in the audience know that they were the “very first people to see this list outside 620” referring to The Times headquarters on Eighth Avenue. There was little reaction to this among the audience, many of whom looked to fit the bookish stereotype — round eyeglasses were everywhere, as were literary tote bags (three for The New Yorker and two with the same young, smoking Joan Didion) and yes, even several tweed jackets.
The event also served as a taping of the Books Review podcast, so something of a two-for-one for The Times’ business, where the topic was essentially why the books on the “10 Best” list made it. A panel of The Times’ six book editors was led by Pamela Paul, who leads all of the paper’s book coverage and is herself an author, and they all got a turn to explain why the books on the list were so fabulous.
More interesting were the moments of insight into the process of the section itself and the actual work of being a book editor. For instance, there are always books that spark bidding wars between publishers and are most often “disappointing,” according to editor Tina Jordan.
One such book this year was “Asymmetry” by Lisa Halliday, inspired in part by her affair with the late author Philip Roth. “Our expectations were on the low end,” Jordan said of the book. “We all knew it was coming, as the book by the woman who had an affair with Philip Roth… [all of the publishers] wanted it.” But she, and pretty much all of the Books staff, ended up loving it and on the list it sits.
The Times is definitely on to something with the idea that readers want insight into the nitty-gritty of the editorial process. After the podcast portion of the talk wrapped, questions from the audience included whether book publishers campaigned for books to get on the list (too many books to feel pressured); why is there more memoir than current affairs (good books have trends of their own); how many books do the editors get (thousands, so much that someone’s sole job is to open all of the book mail twice a day).
As for how they get through them all, none of the editors had a strategy to speak of beyond reading constantly, because nearly all the books they receive get read all the way through.
“Our readers are depending on us to weigh in,” Paul admitted, “even if it’s terrible.”
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