LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA — Tom Lutz, nonfiction author and creative writing professor, offers a startling statistic about the book business on his new website: “twenty times as many titles are published each year than were in 1980, and we have one twentieth of the serious book reviews.” The Los Angeles Review of Books, an online magazine launched by Lutz in April 2011, is his attempt to pick up some of the slack.
Lutz runs the site when he’s not teaching classes at UC Riverside–he refers to his current lifestyle as “the year of no sleep”–assisted by a relatively large group of part-time editors (both paid and volunteer). LARB has also attracted an impressive list of 250 contributing editors who are given first pick at the essay assignments: from popular authors like Chris Abani to specialists like biologist Marlene Zuk.
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The LARB calls itself “the first major, full-service book review to launch in the 21st century, designed to exploit the latest online technologies in ways that respond to a significantly transformed publishing world.” As of this writing, the site is still in beta mode (read: hosted on a free Tumblr site), with not much more than a clean table of contents and modest blog attached. But the current plan is to launch a full website by December, featuring original audio and video pieces in addition to the essays. Readers also will be able to see the reviews in text-only format, allowing for a cleaner reading experience without any multimedia distractions.
Lutz cites the shrinkage and steady retreat of book review sections from newspapers as “the single most motivating factor” for his founding of the site. “I grew up reading The New York Times Book Review, and it was my introduction to literary culture,” he says. “I want for future generations to have that same possibility.” He adds that the few small traditional review sections that are left tend to play it safe and mainstream, all covering the same few best-sellers. LARB will largely let its contributors guide its book selection process, and writers’ individual voices will not be streamlined. “We’re really more interested in being an online site of book conversation than we are in being a kind of ‘review of record,'” says Lutz.
A glance at the site’s table of contents shows a great variety of content thus far. Rob Latham muses on several J.G. Ballard books for the science fiction section. Barbara Ehrenriech‘s essay “Man is Not Cat Food” incorporates five different non-fiction titles on the fraught relationship between humans and animals. Prolific music critic Greil Marcus reviews Keith Richards’s autobiography; screenwriter Howard A. Rodman writes an obituary for his favorite obscure Parisian bookseller. And LARB’s inaugural post in April was, appropriately, a fascinating cultural-historical reflection by Ben Ehrenreich entitled “The Death of the Book,” which isn’t at all what it sounds like.
Still in its beta stage, LARB currently posts about five to seven pieces a week. Most of the writing so far has been donated pro bono or for small honorariums, but LARB hopes to pay its contributors at substantial rates by the end of the year. The sources of LARB’s seed funding are disclosed on its website: UCR’s College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; the Rosenthal Family Foundation; the UC Humanities Research Initiative; and several other individual and family donors. The site also notes, “We hope to become a largely self-supporting nonprofit institution–through advertising, click-through sales, syndication, and subscription–within a decade.”
It’s still quite early in LARB’s lifespan, of course, but Lutz is very optimistic, especially about the prospects for click-through sales. When readers click on links to Amazon, Powell’s, or IndieBound, and end up making a purchase of any kind, LARB will get a percentage of that sale; Lutz says the commission is sometimes as high as 8 percent. In addition, LARB is also directly reaching out to book publishers to strike similar deals with them, especially for e-book sales. As Lutz says of the book industry, “It’s a landscape that’s changing fast, and to the benefit of affiliates like us.”
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