Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The shifting nature of NPR book and publishing coverage . . .

It was around nine years ago that I first began freelancing, again, for the NPR Arts Desk. My first assignment (and the beginning of my modest evolution into the emergency back-up Lynn Neary, the national reporter on books and publishing) was to do a piece on A.S. Byatt's A Whistling Woman.

Dame Byatt is a dense, detailed writer who makes her readers work. I love reading her, loved talking to her, loved producing the piece in collaboration with then-NPR-book editor, Loretta Williams. I looked for the piece in the NPR archives, so you could hear it if you wished, but it has disappeared.

Dame Byatt has just come out with The Children's Book, a sprawling story of family-life in Victorian/Edwardian England. Of course, I wanted to do a story on it--I'm forced into reading books with maniacal attention when I report on them, and I knew anything by A.S. Byatt would, personally, reward a lot of work.

A lot's changed in NPR book and publishing coverage in the last nine years. First of all, the Arts Desk was rolled into the National Desk, in an effort to make arts coverage more a part of news coverage. Then, the last dedicated books and publishing editor, the glorious Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr, was regretfully let go in the Great NPR Purge occasioned by the economic downturn. (Jeffrey, by the way, has happily fetched up as multi-media producer at WDAV in Davidson, North Carolina). This left just a couple of desk editors to work with reporters assigned to all arts stories.

Then there's the fact that fiction has, for a long time, received less and less air-time nationally. Nine years ago there was a kind of unwritten rule that novels would get fully produced pieces by reporters, while non-fiction would be covered with host two-ways (meaning either Morning Edition or ATC hosts themselves would just chat with the authors about their books.) This has long been abandoned. Fiction coverage is declining; non-fiction coverage dominates.

The biggest change in NPR coverage of books and publishing, however has to do with the change that has taken (and, most definitely, is still taking) place within the publishing industry itself. NPR, these days, has to cover not just books and magazines, but also the ever-changing ways books and magazines are produced, marketed and distributed. Americans don't just read now (I've learned from reporting); we gather information--a lot of which reaches us digitally. The way the messenger brings us our messages has become a large part of the story of publishing.

Whenever a local reporter works nationally, she (in my case) first pitches a story idea to her NPR editor. If the editor likes it, then she (my usual editor now is Laura Bertran) checks with Morning Edition and All Things Considered to see if they're interested. As each show controls its own content, this prevents editor and reporter from wasting their time producing a piece that never makes it to the air. (Yes, it's rather a clunky system, but it does work well, once you've gotten used to it.) If a show bites, then Laura and I go to work.

So, back to A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book. I pitched it to Laura, she took it to the shows. No show wanted it, so she sent it to, where a staff of about 100 hard-working websters labor mightily to produce NPR always on.

Last Thursday, as I was walking back into my office after sacred daily gym time, my phone was wringing. It was Joe Mazzoni, arts editor for "Would you do a piece for us on A.S. Byatt's book?" he asked.

You bet, I said. Very happily. Both for the chance to cover that particular book, and for the door that had just opened for me to go on covering books that on-air NPR no longer has air-time for.

So here's the deal, as I see it, re books and publishing: We are in the middle of a real true information revolution. As the editor of Orion Magazine, Chip Blake, put it it an interview: The Gutenberg paradigm is dead.

This isn't bad, it's change. I, for one, find it daunting, a bit sad, and terrifically challenging and exciting.

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