WASHINGTON, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA — When newspapers across the country have to cut costs, their book sections inevitably end up on the chopping block. David O. Stewart, president of the Freedom to Write Fund, which is dedicated to education and public advocacy on behalf of writers, says that he and the other members of the Fund became concerned about shrinking book review sections and the decline in newspapers’ cultural coverage overall. So they decided to create a new publication entirely devoted to book reviews.
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Stewart says they considered creating a print publication “for a few hours,” but no more than that. A website seemed simpler. And so the Washington Independent Review of Books went live in February 2011.
The title of the publication was a matter of some fairly extensive discussion. “Independent” was important, because, as Stewart says, the founding group grew out of an “organization of writers that essentially don’t draw paychecks writing. They’re freelancers or book writers or people who are used to scrambling for a living. And we thought that was part of our identity.”
The Independent Review, which puts ten to twelve new reviews online a week, is growing. The site attracts about 14,000 page views and 5,000 unique visitors per month. Traffic overall is up almost 50 percent since its launch in February. And it’s not just the numbers that matter; Stewart says the site’s readers are just the kinds of readers he wants: “educated and curious.”
A glance at the site will show a wide range of books considered for review. Recently Esther Dwinell reviewed a book about a former friend of Madonna’s who “struggles to find her own footing outside the pop star’s limelight.” Another review by Michael Fatsi takes a critical look at Bill Vlasic’s book about the American automotive industry, Once Upon a Car. Yet another review takes up a graphic novel version of The Canterbury Tales. “Independent” is right.
The Washington Independent doesn’t limit itself to just straight reviews; it also publishes author interviews and essays. One piece by Darrell Delamaide describes his journey as a novelist and the changes he’s seen in the publishing industry over the past three decades. Writing about self-publishing, he muses: “there is no high road or low road, just a broad digital highway that allows readers to find the books they are interested in and writers to find their audience.”
While his conclusion is perhaps debatable, the Washington Independent Review of Books itself seems to demonstrate Delamaide’s philosophy. There is no consistent style to the site’s reviews, and the pieces exist on a wide spectrum of “high road” and “low road.” For instance, contributor Gideon Rappaport reviews Paul Johnson’s Socrates: A Man For Our Times:
Who is Johnson’s Socrates? Partly the Socrates all readers of Plato know: original thinker, brilliant and methodical conversationalist, questioner of unexamined opinions, lover of Athens, supremely principled man. But also a conjectured composite of Johnson-approved qualities: man of the people, monotheist, rejecter of all received ideas, originator of the attractive ideas in Plato and responsible for none of the unattractive, rewriter of famous tragedies, cataleptic, equivocator about religion, devotee of three wise women, moral influence on the artists, politicians, generals, dramatists, and historians of fifth-century Athens.
Meanwhile, on the same site, Susan Storer Clark reviews the latest installment in Terry Pratchett’s fantasy-satire series, Snuff: A Novel Of Discworld:
As Snuff opens, Vimes–who is now Duke of Ankh, Commander Sir Samuel and so forth–is on his way to his wife’s stately home in the country for a vacation. This was not his idea; his wife and his employer… have maneuvered him into it. Soon he discovers the mutilated, eviscerated body of a goblin woman. In trying to solve her murder, he finds out that the goblins have been victims of genocide, and rounded up to be shipped away as slaves. In fact, Vimes is one of the few humans who consider the killing to be murder; other humans regard the goblins as vermin, even though they have a complex language, use many tools and create exquisite music.
“It’s easier to say what we don’t cover,” says Stewart, when asked if there is any limit to the types of books the site will review. “We’re not doing children’s books and we’re not doing romance. We do cover a few more esoteric things like poetry, but our basic view is that it should be interesting.”
As for Stewart, how he finds time to head the Washington Independent Review of Books is a little unclear. He said he spends about ten hours a week working on the site. He’s also an accomplished historian who has written three books: The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution (2007), Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy (2009), and American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America (2011). He previously wrote the monthly column on the Supreme Court for the American Bar Association Journal, and before that was working full-time as a corporate lawyer; he was a partner at Ropes & Gray until 2005.
The Review doesn’t currently pay contributors, though Stewart says that they would like to. He says he hopes to make the Independent Review large enough and noticed enough so that he can develop a revenue stream to bring in more money in coming years. The site has a few advertisements from organizations like Brookings and small publishing houses. The publication remains a non-profit, run mostly on charitable contributions from people eager to see the publication succeed. But, Stewart says, “Our budget is extraordinarily small.”
He declined to say how small.
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Name: Washington Independent Review of Books