Recommendations 6/20/2021: What Else Could We Do Here?

A remedy for the great disappearing book section?

Remember Stand-Alone Books Sections?

When I wrote the first installment of The Biblioracle for the Chicago Tribune almost 10 years ago, it was part of the stand-alone Printers Row Journal book section. Printers Row was 24 pages of original content plus a weekly short story bound in a keepsake booklet. It came out weekly and was the best book section in the country for regular people who read books.

(I like the New York Times Book Review quite a lot, but it’s wrapped up in a whole set of publishing industry insider hoo-hah, and broader cultural dynamics that makes it “important,” but not geared to the vast majority of readers.)

Anyway, Printers Row looked like this:

Much of the Printers Row content was written by freelancers, people like me, most of them writers and scholars from or connected to Chicago. Printers Row was a hub that brought together the voices of the city explicitly around the discussion of books. I don’t actually remember what year Printers Row was cancelled as a stand-alone section because I choose not to remember the anniversaries of bad things, but it was years ago. Books coverage migrated to other sections of the paper, and yours truly has been moved around section-to-section a number of times.

The ending of the stand-alone section inevitably led to a gradual decrease in the work produced by freelancers, as the budget was cut over and over. At this point, I am pretty much the entirety of the freelance budget for books coverage at the paper. I am grateful to still be allowed to do this week-after-week, but it feels like only a matter of time that a paper which can allow Mary Schmich to walk away (as she did this week in announcing her choice to take a buyout) will decide that The Biblioracle is not a necessity.

I am likely saved by being a very small budget line item, and thanks to folks like you who have expressed support to the powers that be for my work. I intend to keep submitting columns to the paper as long as they will have me, but after six months of noodling away here, I’ve started to wonder if there’s a way to rebuild at least a little bit of what was lost when Printers Row Journal became a casualty of a quest for higher and higher profits.

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A Phoenix from the Ashes?

What if this little spot could become a somewhat bigger spot with more book-related content, with voices other than mine? What if there was a way to reconnect some of the people who were such wonderful contributors to Printers Row through The Biblioracle Recommends?

There’s a number of questions that have to be answered for something like this to come into life: Who is going to do the work? How are they going to get paid? Is there even demand for such a thing?

Maybe I’m kidding myself, and Printers Row Journal disappeared not because the Tribune’s owners were penny pinching, but because there just isn’t an audience for book-related content.

Here’s an additional rub. Right now, I’m in the midst of a transition of my own (not-so-gory details here), and as much fun as I have here weekly, I don’t have the bandwidth necessary to do what must be done to build something here solo.

My questions for you.

Right now, the only question that matters is: Is there a sufficient paying audience to take a run at building a haven for readers on this platform? Doing some rough math, I calculate that it would take at a minimum 500 subscribers at around $5 per month to bring in the kind of revenue that will allow me to engage someone else to provide book-related content another 1-2 days a week in addition to this Sunday roundup. This probably wouldn’t be enough to make it viable longterm, but it would be sufficient encouragement to give it a shot at building something sustainable.

The only way to preserve these parts of our culture in a world where even newspapers are turned into investment vehicles for hedge funds to engineer profits is for consumers to directly support the stuff they want to stick around.

So, two questions:

  1. Is this kind of enterprise something you could see paying at least $5/month (more if you’re so inclined!) to support?

  2. What would you want to read in this kind of publication?

If you have any thoughts at all about these questions or suggestions for how to manage these things, please feel free to share them in the comments, by responding to the message, or emailing me at biblioracle@substack.com.

I’d love to make something exciting happen, and lord knows I’m accustomed to failure, but it’d be good to know what kind of void I’d be leaping into. We couldn’t find a benevolent billionaire to save the Tribune, but maybe a bunch of individuals working together can save part of its spirit.

Thanks in advance for any and all input.

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Links

My column this week is on two books that help us think: Lost in the Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life by Zena Hitz, and How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education by Scott Newstok.

Oprah’s got a new Book Club pick, The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris.

Acting on a suggestion in the comments, I created a Bookshop.org store for the reissues of the wonderful books of Laurie Colwin. Buying from there will generate donations to Open Books.

Janet Malcolm, one of the great magazine writers of all-time has passed away. The Journalist and the Murderer is her most famous book.

Tressie McMillian Cottom, MacArthur Genius, and author of Thick, just announced two new books. Very exciting for fans like me. I interviewed Prof. Cottom for Public Thinker last year.

People are really suckers for dog books. The Washington Post rounds-up nine new ones for this summer.

I once wrote a short story (gently) mocking the trend of dog books. Here’s a recording of me reading “My Dog and Me” when I appeared on the Thacker Mountain Radio Hour. The dog in the story shares my dearly departed Oscar’s name and likeness, and penchant for barking at the Double Jeopardy sound, but the resemblance stops there.

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Reading Companion of the Week

From Lisa a triptych of Oliver who passed away last year at the age of 19 after a career of reading (the Chicago Tribune), writing, and wonderful companionship.

Send pictures of your reading companions to biblioracle@substack.com.

Recommendations

All links to books on these posts go to The Biblioracle Recommends bookshop at Bookshop.org. Affiliate income for purchases through the bookshop goes to Open Books in Chicago. The tally up to $74.25 for the year.

As always, recommendations are open for business. Supply is still on the low side, so wait is minimal.

Want a recommendation? Click here!

1. The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante
2. The Great Unexpected by Dan Mooney
3. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
4. Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen
5. The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott

Sandy G. - Naperville, IL

I think Sandy will enjoy an absorbing drama of a life lived interestingly, The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields.

1. Secret of Happiness by Joan Silber
2. Second Place by Rachel Cusk
3. Scorpionfish by Natalie Bakopoulos
4. Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg
5. Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

Cheryl F. - Evanston, IL

Sticking with a theme this week, I’m recommend Sigrid Nunez The Friend about a woman and a dog she doesn’t want.

1. Her Here by Amanda Dennis
2. The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay
3. Long Division by Kiese Laymon
4. White Noise by Don Delillo
5. CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders

Cassie B. - Central NY

Those last two titles let me know that Cassie is a good candidate for Pasha Malla’s strange and absorbing satire of collective politics and consumerism, People Park.

Live well and prosper,

JW

The Biblioracle