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The Book Review in Quarantine

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There’s a corner of The New York Times newsroom unlike anywhere else in the building. Each desk is covered in piles of books, galleys and bound manuscripts. Boxes filled with pages waiting to be flipped through line the floors. Sliding bookshelves are closely guarded by day and locked up at night. And yes, at The New York Times Book Review, there is always a dumpster full of galleys waiting to be recycled.

But that corner has been untouched for months. The shelves are now mostly empty and remain secured. Like most New York Times journalists, the editors who work on the Book Review have been working from home during the coronavirus pandemic. The transition to a completely remote production has been difficult in a way one might expect: Access to physical books is limited.

Before the coronavirus, the Book Review would receive hundreds of books and galleys (a printer’s uncorrected proof) in the mail every week. Books were entered into a database and divided between bins and shelves for preview editors, who look over galleys more thoroughly and decide if they warrant a review or some other form of coverage. Specific genres were set aside for columnists, like crime novels for Marilyn Stasio. The rest would head to a big blue dumpster.

Whether the galley was sent from one of the big five publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster) or a small press, every book passed through the hands of at least one editor for consideration.

This is a point of pride on the desk. “It didn’t matter what publisher the galley came from, how big, how small, whether you’d heard of the author or hadn’t, the book was going to get a fair shake,” said Tina Jordan, the deputy editor of the Book Review.

The Times closed its office to most employees in March. Now, editors work from home and don’t have the cues of the Book Review’s physical layout.

“In the first week that we left the office, 167 packages of books arrived on the desk that no one was there to open or look at,” said Pamela Paul, the editor of the Book Review.

In the absence of shelves, desks and bins that are overflowing with galleys, preview editors now download the proofs from a handful of online platforms for the book industry.

“We comb through all the publishing catalogs, we go through our emails and we scour news stories to try to create a list that replicates that physical bookshelf,” Ms. Jordan said.

Despite the adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” there’s actually a lot that editors can pick up from a printed book. It often arrives with press materials that provide context, and its cover — whether finished or temporary — can convey a strong message from the publishers. Blurbs from other authors and notable people situate the book in a larger cultural conversation.

These days, all of those materials are delivered in separate digital files, which makes it harder to present as a package.

“I liked a physical galley because I liked to underline things, dog-ear the pages and put stickies in it,” Ms. Jordan said. “I’ll be really honest with you: I’ll be very glad when we’re back in the office.”

With a digital database, every book is just a cell block on a spreadsheet. Everything looks the same.

“There’s a constant worry, ‘Are things falling through the cracks in a way they wouldn’t if we had physical record of them?’” Ms. Paul said.

Editors remain vigilant in their efforts to ensure lesser-known books that deserve a review get their due. After all, shining a light on an unknown author or book is a favorite part of the job for most preview editors.

“It’s so gratifying when you know you’re doing a real service when you bring a book — that otherwise wouldn’t have gotten attention — into the spotlight,” said Lauren Christensen, an editor on the desk. “That’s why the Book Review exists.”

A return to the office is still uncertain, and not every journalist’s home is conducive to the work that is required. But Ms. Christensen said she had found her particular line of remote work productive.

“I just sit here with my books and read all the time,” she said.

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