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NY Times Book Review Selection Process

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Several of the book blogs recently pointed out the number of New York Times notable books that were written by staffers and even editors of the Grey Lady. For example, Paul McLeary wrote in CJR Daily, that “six of the 61 books on the nonfiction portion of the list were authored by Times staffers, and another four by regular contributors to the paper.” McLeary pointed out that although the newspaper is a major journalism outlet in this country and works with hudnreds of talented writers each year, “for the Times‘ to compile a list of notable books in which one of every six is the work of a staffer or a contributor seems to stretch the limits of credibility. After all, thousands of nonfictions books were published this year. Surely, a few of those would seem to qualify in front of some of the books written by Times contributors.”

In response to all the discussion on the book blogs and criticism emailed directly to the paper, Byron Calame, the New York Times public editor responded with an article entitled The Book Review: Who Critiques Whom – and Why?. Calame explains that the book review staff takes pains to distance themselves from the literary world and anything that might be misconstrued as conflict of interest. “Yet eliminating all connections appears nearly impossible. Mr. Tanenhaus [editor of the Book Review] and Dwight Garner, the Book Review’s senior editor, are authors themselves and both have the same agent, the powerful Andrew Wylie. This gives me some pause.”

Calame then goes on to describe some of the questions book reviewers are asked when discussing a potential assignment and the “Kenneth Starr” inquiries used to guage the relationship. For example, if the reviewer knows the names of the writer’s children, that’s too close.

For the most part, Calame writes, “readers, it seems to me, are generally well served by the Book Review screening process.” However, he does point out some instances where it could be improved.

This is an interesting article about how amazingly important decisions about books get made.