Two big things happened recently in the world of book reviewing, one quite good and one very bad.
We’ll start with the bad. On Jan. 7, the Dallas Morning News laid off 43 people, 20 from the newsroom. This included Mike Merschel, the Morning News’ longtime books editor.
Its publisher said that the paper will continue to cover book news, although I’m not clear on how that is possible without a books editor.
On the day he was laid off — which was also his last day of work; it was one of those “here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?” layoffs — Merschel posted on Facebook a big-hearted and eloquent farewell.
He wrote, in part, “The past 12 years, I got to cover books. The Dallas Morning News let me spend many thousands of dollars over the decade to work with the best critics I could find, which let me introduce a decade’s worth of great books and writers to a great city. … On top of all that, I got paid to meet literal, actual childhood heroes. (Norton Juster! Judy Blume retweeted me!) … I feel stupid lucky.”
As far as I remember, I never met Merschel in person, but we corresponded off and on for years, discussing issues important to our jobs. He was always friendly, thoughtful and upbeat.
In his Facebook farewell, he touched on a crucial issue: For newspapers, books coverage is expensive.
We pay freelance critics for reviews, and we also pay to mail books to those critics. We eat up news space without bringing in ads.
Which brings us, oddly, to the good news part of this column.
The Portland (Maine) Press Herald recently came to the conclusion that it could no longer afford to pay for book reviews.
The editors wrote to their freelance critics, telling them this, and one way or another the writer Stephen King found out and — well, let it be known, if your job is in trouble, I hope Stephen King finds out and is on your side.
He has more than 5 million followers on Twitter. He can get stuff done.
King doesn’t even live in Portland — he’s a Bangor man — but he cares about books, he cares about book reviewing, and he cares about authors.
On Jan. 11, he took up the cause and tweeted: “The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram will no longer publish local, freelance-written reviews of books about Maine, set in Maine, or written by Maine authors. Retweet this if you’re from Maine (or even if you’re not). Tell the paper DON’T DO THIS.”
Thousands upon thousands retweeted. (Including me.)
The paper responded in a novel way: If they had more subscribers, they said, they could afford to reinstate book reviews.
“These are challenging times for newspapers,” the paper tweeted. “But here’s an offer: If you can get 100 of your followers to buy digital subscriptions to the @PressHerald, we will reinstate the local book reviews immediately. Use the promo code KING. Deal?”
Deal indeed. In less than two days, the newspaper had met its goal twice over. Book reviews, at least for now, were saved.
I’m happy for Portland! But I’m sad for Dallas. And when the next newspaper announces cuts to its books coverage, I hope its readers rise up and contribute on their own. As fabulous as he is, Stephen King can’t do it all.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: www.facebook.com/startribunebooks