Between the Pages in Book World

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, September 10, 2006

Entering the offices of Book World, you step past the doorway of a storeroom holding thousands of books to a cluster of desks where editors discuss what is between the covers with a veneration for good work mixed with an irreverence about pomposity.

About 50,000 to 80,000 books are sent to The Post yearly; about 150 books a day go into that storeroom. The Post reviews or mentions about 2,000 a year.

How are those choices made? Book World Editor Marie Arana and her staff look at every book for significance, literary worth, variety and just a good read. But they also look for a little bit of magic.

Reviews range from sumptuous treatment on the Book World cover to a 200-word brief or an even shorter mention. Books are separated into genres -- thrillers, romance, science fiction, self-help -- to be included in roundups by devotees.

Mass-market writers who produce every year, such as Danielle Steel and James Patterson, usually aren't reviewed. "Their fans know them and are expecting their books, and a review isn't necessary," Arana said. And self-published books don't stand a chance unless they've been picked up by a large publishing house.

More than two months before books are published, Arana begins to look at the offerings as well as at book catalogues. She picks 35 to 60 books a week; they start out on the floor of her office.

She dips in and out of them and moves them to her bookshelves, where they start a journey from shelf to shelf. She keeps going back to them, reading a bit here and there, doing literary triage, until 15 to 20 are pulled out from the rest. Those get reviewed. Most of the rest go to libraries and hospitals.

How does Arana decide what to review? Not by blurbs: "They're incestuous, and you can't trust them," she said. Not by news releases: "I try never to look at them." And not in a vacuum: "The editors on my staff have a lot of say." And, please, not by calls from authors or their friends.

Arana reads the early reviews in Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly. She looks at books from the giant publishing houses of Random House and Simon & Schuster as well as those from small and university presses. Arana said The Post reviews more small-press books than any other large book review section.

"Variety is important," she said, from "chick lit" to policy tomes. "There are a lot of books on terror. We can't do them all." Her editors put their two cents in, and she assigns three to five books a week to each of the Book World senior editors: Warren Bass, nonfiction; Ron Charles, fiction; and Deputy Editor Jabari Asim, as well as others who edit part time. Francis K. Tanabe, senior editor and art director, just retired after 35 years in Book World.

Jonathan Yardley is the official book critic of The Post; he and longtime book columnist Michael Dirda, both Pulitzer Prize winners, consult with Arana on what they review and write about. (Yardley and Arana are married.)

At weekly staff meetings, editors are expected to bring several choices for reviewers. Those reviewers must sign a statement saying they have no conflict in reviewing a book. Occasionally reviewers have signed that statement knowing that they had a conflict, and Arana has found out only after a review has been published. Arana apologized in print after she found out that author Marianne Wiggins, who signed the statement, slammed a book by John Irving without divulging that Irving was a close friend of Wiggins's ex-husband, Salman Rushdie.

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