Choosing and reviewing books for all tastes

How does one choose approximately 1,000 books out of an overall annual book production of almost 60,000 books? How can one approach bad books which are still best sellers? And what is the target audience of the literary supplement of a leading newspaper, such as El Pais, which is addressed to all of the Spanish-speaking world? Javier Rodriguez Marcos, head of El Pais’s Babelia literary supplement, was in Athens last week as a guest of the 30th annual League of Athens Publishers book fair. Despite his impressive resume, he is only 37 years old. He has already published numerous poetry collections and has been honored with literature prizes. He has put his signature to academic texts, has edited architectural magazines and has also worked as a literature critic for the cultural supplement of another large Spanish newspaper, ABC. He has been in charge of Babelia for the past few years. Marcos believes that a newspaper’s literature supplement should be addressed to all people. «The great challenge is to combine the prestige sought by well-informed audiences with the ability to reach the average reader with clarity. What we keep in mind is the newspaper’s average reader, a reader without a face. We know his general characteristics and are aware that he is hardly interested in culture and literature. The texts are written in a way that will motivate both somebody who hears of a book for the first time as well as a writer to head to the bookstores.» The role of advertising Marcos has no illusions: He knows that literary supplements are not the publishers’ sole means of promotion and evaluation. Advertising as well as visits to the bookstores are very important. Besides, in a typical year Babelia presents a maximum of 1,000 books, out of an annual production of 60,000. Despite this, book launches are a calm and concentrated way to spread the word on books, although there are many people who don’t take this into account. «Advertising has the weakest influence,» said Marcos when asked how market laws influence book critics’ selections. «That might be because the largest Spanish publishing house, Planeta, does not publish literature. As far as well-known writers are concerned, the newspaper will cover their activities because the average reader wants to hear about, for instance, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book. But as to how the writer’s reputation influences the book critic, I’d say that there is no censorship. At the most, the critic might censor himself.» He added that the El Pais book critics are usually well-known writers. «Critics who are also writers always appeal to the readers, but it is important not to have a conflict of interests. Usually prose writers write about poetry or foreign literature and do not present books launched by the publisher who publishes their own books.» When asked about El Pais’s way of dealing with a commercially successful yet bad book, Marcos used the case of Dan Brown’s international best seller «The Da Vinci Code» as an example. «We turned our attention to the book long after it was released and we saw it as a social phenomenon, like a soccer championship. We asked a book critic who specializes in best sellers to write about it by analyzing the phenomenon and we dedicated a lot of space.» El Pais seeks ways to promote and review books in the belief that books are not merely commercial products but are also part of society.