Vol. XXIII: The Problem(s) with The New York Times Book Review
And how readers can push for change
In its 127 years, The New York Times Book Review has published reviews, charted bestselling titles, and provided behind-the-scenes glances into the publishing industry. Yet the Book Review—just like the Big Five publishers—favors certain authors.
[Dear readers: This month’s issue includes discussions of transphobia and white supremacy.]
In the world of publishing, few review outlets are regarded as highly as The New York Times Book Review. As a reader, you may or may not pay attention to the Book Review, but the stories selected have likely ended up in your purview regardless. Influencing everything from bookstore layouts to social media posts, the outlet holds power in publishing.
Started in the late 1890s, the Book Review is not just an avenue for increasing sales, but is seen as an emblem of a book’s literary merit. The team reviews only a fraction of the hundreds of books they are sent each week, typically around 20. And not all reviews are positive.
However, in its lifetime, The New York Times Book Review has predominantly focused on white, straight, cis, male authors. The New York Times Best Seller list upholds the same pattern. And when the Book Review does select a book by a BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and/or disabled author for review, are they doing it justice? “I have yet to read criticism that understands my work or is prepared to understand it,” said Toni Morrison in 1981. “I don’t care if the critic likes or dislikes it. I would just like to feel less isolated.” We can’t help but wonder if she ever felt differently.
In today’s newsletter, we’re diving into the exclusionary and inequitable standards The New York Times Book Review and Best Seller list uphold and how we as readers can combat them.
A Deeper Look
Every Wednesday, publishers anticipate the release of the latest New York Times Best Seller list. Will the titles that they poured marketing dollars into earn a spot? Were the advances they gave the authors upfront worth the risk? Herein lies one of the main problems of The New York Times Best Seller list: It plays into a harmful publishing cycle.
Publishers hold The New York Times Best Seller list to the highest regard, nevermind the fact that the list isn’t even based on real sales data and that it’s possible for authors and shady companies to scam the list. And, overwhelmingly, books that make the Best Seller list are by white, straight, cis, abled authors. Why? Publishers put a huge amount of marketing resources into the few annual titles they deem worthy of making the list, and, as we know, these books are overwhelmingly also by white, straight, cis, abled authors. Marketing dollars lead to sales and sales lead to a book making The New York Times Best Seller list and a book making the Best Seller list leads to more sales, which only encourages publishers to repeat the cycle, justifying their actions in “proof of sale.” By elevating the same type of books over and over again, The New York Times only furthers the root of the problem.
The Book Review’s review section is no different. Throughout history, the Book Review has focused on books by white men, with women of color receiving the least attention (note: this study groups openly trans authors into their own category. While the methodology might not be the best approach, it does demonstrate the almost nonexistent presence of trans authors in the Book Review—a fact mirroring publishing’s wider lack of investment in trans authors.)
And then there’s the Notable Books list. At the end of each year, the Book Review shares 100 Notable Books. In 2021, they set out to announce “The Best Book of the Past 125 Years” in tandem with their 125th anniversary. Of the 25 announced finalists, 16 were authored by white men, four were written by BIPOC authors, and only two were written by women of color. One author was identified as having a learning disability, and zero were known for having a physical disability. Zero publicly identified as being members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Of course, this data might be flawed in that it depends upon public and open acknowledgment, as well as the assumption that gender and sexuality are binary/static. However, overarchingly it paints the picture of which books The New York Times Book Review favors.
These editorial choices become even more understandable (and upsetting) when we learn who is behind the content, including Pamela Paul, the former editor of the Book Review who has repeatedly expressed and upheld racist and transphobic rhetoric and values in her opinion pieces. Or when we look at greater patterns with The New York Times’ coverage, such as their transphobic rhetoric, which employees and contributors recently spoke out against (and Paul’s own next-day response “in defense” of transphobia). Such work does not exist in a silo—in fact, as the letter written by the contributors notes, these “opinion” pieces are used to back anti-LGBTQIA+ bills across the country.
Change clearly needs to occur.
We are looking for short (~150 words) writing submissions on any topic that are rooted in and/or guided by an intersectional feminist lens.
Each published writer will receive their choice of one of the following:
$25.00 gift card to bookstore of choice
$25.00 donation to organization of choice
Feel free to reach out with any questions and submit your pieces either at the link below or via email, with the subject line Collected Words Submission.
It’s never too late to be someone’s bookish valentine <3
The New York Times is well-respected by many, but this means that its problems are often dismissed, especially as it’s considered a strong source of news compared to right-wing and/or misinformed reporting. How can we readers take action to hold the outlet accountable?
Sign the letter from New York Times contributors and readers, demanding better editorial standards for reporting on trans, non-binary, and gender nonconforming people. Share the letter with your friends and colleagues, and amplify the message on your social and/or newsletter platforms.
Support their union—fair pay enables individuals who don’t rely on generational wealth to seek and maintain careers in journalism.
Read and amplify other review outlets. The New York Times Book Review isn’t the only one out there. Check out BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and disabled-owned/managed outlets, as well as those rooted in equity. Here’s a list of alternative outlets to get you started.
Don’t root book reviews in “identifiability” and call others into a conversation when they do. We’ve likely all seen reviews that give a book a poor rating because the reader “can’t relate” to the protagonist. And these reviews are often given by white/straight/cis/abled readers to books featuring BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and/or disabled characters. But the notion that every reader has to “relate” to every character is ridiculous—it’s both oppressive and ignores the fact that books offer so much more.
We can’t ignore the importance of social media, especially when it comes to pushing titles onto bestseller lists. By amplifying your favorite stories by BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and disabled authors, you increase the likelihood that they’ll make such lists—even if it’s been years since their publication.
As always, thanks for taking the time to read this month’s newsletter. If you haven’t yet read I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai, we’ll be diving into the book in our next issue. If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, don’t hesitate to get in touch via email, the comments below, or Instagram DM.
Olivia and Fiona