The future of book reviewing is online.
I say this not as a cheerleader for all things hi-tech (hell, I don’t even own an iPod), nor as some prophet of the post-physical book, but because the model of book reviewing we’re used to – delivered by the priestly class of critics; limited by paper, ink, column inches; determined by the latest microtrend and by who an author’s agent had lunch with – is clearly history.
Even before the meltdown in the publishing industry, book reviewing was in trouble, with major newspapers downsizing or eliminating their reviews, even as the number of books published every year continued to climb. Just this month, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution changed its “Arts & Books” section to “Arts & Leisure,” Maud Newton reports that book reviews are in trouble at alternative weeklies, and the Washington Post’s Book World lost its editor and may fold. [Jan. 28 update: Book World is folding.] Fewer and fewer books are getting reviewed, even in venerated outlets like the New York Times Book Review or Book World, while review editors focus on books with the greatest sales potential and authors with “platform,” i.e. high visibility for reasons other than literary talent. Publishers, needing to make good on bloated investments in veteran authors and Next Big Things, devote little effort to getting reviews for lower-profile authors. As a result, reviewers have increasingly converged on the same handful of titles, and book reviews have become homogenous and predictable, an echo chamber in which mediocre but heavily promoted books stand a better chance than obscure works of great originality.
Needless to say, this model doesn’t serve authors, readers, or literary culture very well. And now it seems to be in its last throes.
The past few years have seen some positives, like the success of social networking sites like Library Thing and Goodreads, as well as book coverage in newer publications like The Believer. People still read, and they still want to talk about books – how will the dwindling supply of coverage keep up with this demand?
Enter Rumpus Books.
At The Rumpus, we believe that a healthy literary culture is one which embraces writing of all kinds, by authors of all stripes – young and old, established and emerging, traditional and experimental, writing from the margins or from (or about) the heart of mainstream culture, published by “major” houses or by smaller presses. We don’t believe a book is “dead” two weeks after publication, and we’ll often review books out for a year or longer. We believe an author’s reputation, or previous sales, are irrelevant to a fair assessment of his or her work, and should play no role in the decision to review it. On the subject of decisions, we believe in making as few of them as possible: In the new world of reviews, the more the better, to reflect the immense range of writing and reading in America.
We believe the best people to write about books are people who love books. Most of our reviews, therefore, will be by working writers, and largely determined by what they, themselves, decide to read, rather than vice versa. In this way, we hope to incite a big, messy, unpredictable conversation about what’s new, exciting, and consequential in contemporary literature.
At Rumpus Books you’ll find reviews, sure, and lots of ‘em. You’ll also find interviews with writers, some you’ve heard of and some you haven’t – and not just when they have a new book to publicize. You’ll find our blog – The Blurb – in which we discuss the state of our writing culture, our literary community, and the writer’s life. In the coming months, we’ll add other features, like a “bookroll” for easy access to our archives, and reviews of Lost Classics. We’ll have the Unreview (stay tuned!), and video clips of readings. We’d love to hear your suggestions and comments – just drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To authors, we say: Send us your book or your galleys. We make no promises about how, or if, it will be reviewed, except that it will have nothing to do with who you are or whether anyone else has reviewed it.
To editors, publicists, and agents: We’re eager to hear about your new books, and we hope to review many of them. But we don’t care how big an advance you gave an author, or who blurbed them, or whether Oprah has expressed interest. Send us your catalogues, or drop us a line.
And to readers and lovers of literature: This is for you, and for all of us who want to save book culture from the doldrums of downsizing. We still read, all of us, and despite what we’ve been hearing the reservoir of new writing is deeper and more diverse than it’s ever been. We hope to bring a great deal of it to your attention.
Rumpus Books is open for business.