Saturday, November 7, 2009

Laurie Hertzel - Book Editor for the Star Tribune


Laurie Hertzel is Senior Editor for Books/Special Projects at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. Her memoir of journalism, “News to Me,” will be published next year by the University of Minnesota Press. This essay is adapted from one she wrote last year for “A View from the Loft.”

Every Monday morning, an overflowing shopping cart of books waits for me in the mail room of the Star Tribune. That’s right, a shopping cart—just like those you see at Target, or Lund’s. It has a sticky, cockeyed wheel, and it is useful for moving large quantities of heavy objects around the building—such as books.

I have been the books editor here for something more than a year, and in that time I have faced this shopping cart nearly every day. On Mondays, it is overflowing. On really busy Mondays, a second cart shows up, also full. Later in the week, the cart might only be three-quarters full. But not a day goes by without someone—either me, or a news assistant—pushing it into the elevator and riding with it down to the book room to unload its cargo.

That small, locked room in the center of our basement is a blessing and a curse. It is a symbol of hope and despair. OK, now I sound melodramatic, but trust me: that room is packed with books. Tall shelves all around the walls hold review books and galleys, organized by pub month. Stacked on the floor and under my sorting table, are hundreds of sadder, other books. Those on the shelves still have a prayer; I think they might be worth reviewing, if only I could figure out how to shoehorn another review onto our pages. But those on the floor, sadly, don’t stand a chance. They’re too old, or too obscure, or too amateurish, or too textbooky, or too scholarly, or too lite.

Or maybe—and this is actually the case more often than all those others combined--they’re excellent, worthy books that we just don’t have room to mention. The good news (the hope part) is that there are still hundreds of wonderful, intriguing, intelligent books published every month. The bad news (the despair part) is that most of them never see the light of day, at least not in our paper.

And, increasingly, not in a lot of newspapers.

When our former books editor, Sarah T. Williams, left the paper in spring 2008, many of us fully expected her job to go dark. Everybody knows that these are tough times for newspapers, and we have watched a lot of jobs disappear over the last two years.

Across the country, many newspapers have eliminated the position of books editor. They’ve cut back on their books coverage or folded it in with other general arts and entertainment writing. It was, frankly, a very happy surprise when we didn’t follow suit.
For years, the Star Tribune has run two full pages of reviews every Sunday, and one review every Wednesday. None of that has gone away; as a matter of fact, in my time here I have added another day, running two short book reviews every Monday. We even squeeze in a review on the occasional Saturday. (So it’s good to read the paper every day.)

Over the last year, I have given a lot of thought to our coverage, to how best to balance the big national books that deserve mention against the more modest local and regional books, that also deserve it; how to balance reviews of literary fiction and scholarly nonfiction with reviews of perhaps more popular genres; how to be everything to all readers and writers. Which, of course, I cannot be.

You might have noticed some changes. Our reviews are shorter; it’s one way to squeeze one or two more onto the pages each week. We’ve become more interactive, updating our online presence and adding a couple of reader-generated features. We are on Twitter, and we have a Facebook fan page, which I update often. I also post book news on the new Star Tribune “artcetera” blog.

And I’ve taken a concept that started years ago—the “Bookmark” column, which highlights local and regional books—and expanded it to run every week. There is more than enough news to fill it.

I’ve also increased the number of reviewers I use regularly, and I use many more local and regional reviewers than previously. While the national writers are unquestionably excellent, there’s something to be said for having a more Midwestern sensibility to the pages. I try to review at least a book a week myself, though I don’t always meet that goal. I tend to bring home eight or ten books a week, read the first 10 or 20 pages of each one, in order to figure out whether or not they are worth reviewing, and then bring them back to the office and mail them out to reviewers.

And so I am fast becoming the person who has read part of hundreds of books, but who no longer finishes very many of them.

In the end, my goal is for the books presence in the Star Tribune to have the feel of a great local bookstore—some new books over here, some staff recommendations over there, some mystery here, some biography there, a shelf of memoir, a table of chick lit, some local stuff, a couple of best-sellers, and an array of quirky, offbeat books that you might not hear of anywhere else.

It’s true that the stacks of unreviewed books are much taller than the short stacks of books that I am mailing out for review. It’s true that I have to say no many, many more times than I can ever say yes. But it is because of this wonderful place we live, this wonderful state filled with writers, publishers, and avid readers, that I get to look up from my overflowing shopping cart and say yes as often as I do.

1 comment:

  1. I loved this inside peek at your job, Laurie.