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The Man Behind the Criticism: Sam Tanenhaus

An Interview with the Editor-in-Chief of the New York Times Book Review

Michael Orbach

Issue date: 2/8/07 Section: Knight Life
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The New York Times Book Review is considered by many to be the gold standard in book reviews (to quote a nameless author we interviewed: "You only know you made it when you're inside there"). And reaching over 1.7 million people every week, The New York Times Book Review is not only the most high-profile, but also the most read book review publication in the country. The Knight News recently spent a day in their office and spoke with Sam Tanenhaus, the editor-in-chief.

Michael Orbach: Okay, first question: How does the New York Times Book Review work? How do books get chosen? How do reviewers get chosen?

Sam Tanenhaus: Gallies and advance reading copies come in every day. Every week, the three of us: Bob Harris, the deputy [editor]; Dwight Garner the senior editor and I distribute them among the preview editors. Each of us may hold on to some. Dwight does a lot of fiction and all the poetry books; Bob does adventure books and I'll look at some histories, sometimes fiction and a range of things that happens to interest me. But the rest are distributed to the five preview editors. They spend time with the books and a couple of weeks later will report back individually [and] meet with the three of us. They decide what books we'll review.

That's something people don't understand when they wonder why there is more fiction, why isn't more fiction, why are there are more serious books, why there aren't more serious books; that has nothing to do with me, really. I decide what goes on the cover, how long a piece we might do, but as far as selection of books go, that is really made by the preview editors. Then, in that meeting where they tell us what books should be reviewed, they'll also propose names of reviewers and we may have a conversation and have other ideas. That will also depend on the length of the review we want, although sometimes that will also be dictated by the byline; if you're asking John Updike to review a book you're going to give him as much space as he thinks he needs. That's an extreme example. But often we will adjust the assignment to particular reviewers. Some excellent reviewers are happy to write short; some need more space and in a particular case where we think we have a really unusual match-up or exceptional contributor, someone we think doesn't often appear in our pages, that we've been following, we'll try to give him more room.
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Jacqueline Koay

posted 6/26/08 @ 7:12 AM EST

A very useful and insightful article! Especially for the first-time, self-published author like myself who have been told many times that it is IMPERATIVE that we get testimonials from the book review editors. (Continued…)

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