10 Things You Didn’t Know About How the NY Times Book Review Works
Pamela Paul on what goes into those pesky year-end lists
Pamela Paul, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, hopped on reddit yesterday afternoon to answer questions about the Book Review and the recently published list of their editors’ picks for the 10 best books of the year. In addition to recommending a number of great books and writers (Nora Ephron, Christopher Hitchens, George Orwell, George Eliot, and more), dubbing Colson Whitehead one of the greatest novelists of our time, and suggesting that, of the Times‘s Top 10, a Trump supporter might most enjoy The North Water, Paul shed a little light on how things work at the Book Review (a question that some of us have been asking ourselves lately!). Below, find a few things you may or may not have known about how books are assigned, reviewed, and considered for the year-end lists of the paper of record.
Way more books come out every year than you think.
“The Book Review at The Times reviews about 1% of the books that come out in any given year.”
Planning for the Year-End Notable Books List starts in January.
“Basically, the entire year is a winnowing process that culminates in the 10 Best Books. We start thinking about it in January. As we see books that we think are true standouts, we put copies aside so that all editors can read through contenders throughout the year, and weigh in. Books come on and off that list of contenders, and in the course of the year, we check in on it periodically and update it, depending on how people respond to individual titles. Toward the end of the year, around October, the process becomes more intense. I would describe the overall system as democratic, with a decisive wielding of the autocratic sword at the end. Ultimately, hard decisions have to be made, and not every editor at the Book Review will end up with all his or her favorites on the final list, but will hopefully have at least one book he or she lobbied hard for make the final cut.”
“Each week, we go through the previous issue and denote certain books as ‘Editor’s Choices’—these are the 9 books we especially like from that issue. At the end of the year, we pull together all of our Editor’s Choices and narrow them down to 100 Notable Books of the Year—50 fiction and 50 nonfiction. From those, we pick the 10 Best.”
The Book Review editors are probably hanging out right now.
“At The New York Times Book Review, we have no staff critics—we are all editors and we sit together and we talk all the time. I like to get up and walk around and have actual-human-contact with people. Our staff critics at The Times mostly work from home, though they do come in and we do talk to them, often on the phone. We are all people who like to talk about books, and having conversations around them—what books are you seeing, what looks good, what are you hearing, what do you like—are things we could talk about all day. Except we also have to read. And write. And edit.
Book reviews are generally a top-down process.
“Here at the Book Review, the editors select which books we want reviewed, and then we find reviewers to write about them. We review all genres, though our tastes reflect the tastes of our editors and those of readers of The New York Times. The staff critics for The Times choose which books they want to review themselves.”
“Each editor here handles a number of titles in a given week. They will come up with a list of possible reviewers and then bring it to my deputy and me. We then talk them over and sometimes add our own names to the list. Then we establish the order in which we approach people with the assignment. Sometimes, the first person on our list is too busy or has a conflict of interest (knows the author, shares an agent, blurbed an earlier book of theirs, etc.) and is disqualified, so we move to the next person on the list. In terms of finding reviewers, we are always on the lookout for smart new voices. Sometimes we find these among new authors, sometimes writers in other publications, sometimes people reach out to us directly with clips and a description of the kinds of books they’re interested in reviewing and their areas of expertise.”
There is lots of mail (you probably actually knew this).
“We have our mail opened several times a day. On most days, we have three large carts piled high with boxes and envelopes, plus 10-20 Postal Boxes filled to the top. So picture that!
There is a (loose) definition for “Best Books.”
“I like to think [the ten best books of the year] have little in common other than a high standard of ambition and excellence. By “Best Books,” we mean books that are extremely well executed in every sense: the scope of the work, originality of thought, writing on a sentence level, storytelling. It’s not necessarily about which books have the most “important” message or a position we agree with. It’s about books we think will stand the test of time, and that people will want to read 5, 10, 20 years from now.”
End of the year lists can have nothing to do with how books were reviewed.
“It is often the case that books we like don’t necessarily get hugely favorable notice in the Book Review. One recent case: Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See got a negative review in the Book Review. But we still named it one of the 10 Best Books of the year at the time. Our 10 Best is when we editors get to exert our own opinions, no matter what our reviewers say.”
The best book reviews are emotional.
“I think the biggest mistake reviewers make is conflating a book review with a book report. Generally speaking, readers don’t want to know what happens in a book, and they certainly don’t want (nor should they get) plot spoilers. I hate that personally as a reader! Let me discover for myself. What I’m more interested in a review is seeing a writer engage with a book—intellectually and often, emotionally. I want some depth and context: What else has been written on the subject? What has this writer done previously? What kind of research did the writer do? I want to know what the writing is like—give me some examples, quote from the book, describe the style. I want to know what the writer does well and not so well. I want judgment. I want to know if a book is well done and if it’s worth my time. Is this a book I’ll actually want to read, or just read about? Hopefully, at least ONE of those things.”
Don DeLillo might have been in the Top 10 this year.
“Zero K was one of the finalists! Almost made it.”
When it comes to reading, Pamela Paul is just like us.
“One year, when I didn’t have a job and I didn’t have a partner and I didn’t have kids and before the Internet, I read 76 books for fun, including “Moby-Dick.” That hasn’t happened since. I try to read a book a week, but big books sure do slow you down. As does life. The big sacrifice is TV; I never get to watch TV.”
“I’ve always wanted to read Dumas—one of those authors I’ve never actually gotten around to. But I also think life is too short to finish a bad book, unless you’re really getting something out of it.”