Critical Mass

Six Questions for James Mustich, Editor of The Barnes & Noble Review

By Scott McLemee

Now a few months shy of its second birthday, The Barnes & Noble Review has established itself as an important source of online critical commentary on new books, publishing about as many pieces each week as newspaper book review sections once did, back in typewriter times. Its editor-in-chief, James Mustich, was for twenty years the publisher of A Common Reader, a catalog remembered for its ardent advocacy of books that might otherwise go unnoticed. Ten years ago, a New York Times article on Mustich quoted a line by Christopher Morley that seemed to express his attitude: ‘‘When you sell a man a book, you don’t sell him just 12 ounces of paper and ink and glue, you sell him a whole new life.’’ Something of that spirit comes through at The Barnes & Noble Review, which Mustich produces with the help of a small staff in New York.

Full disclosure: I have contributed to B&NR. Even fuller disclosure: My initial contact with it was charged by mild dread.

My suspicion was that favorable reviews would be preferred, and critical ones discouraged, in the interest of the parent company’s bottom line. For the record, then, let me say that say that Mustich and colleagues have only ever behaved like capable editors at any other publication where I have ever reviewed—assigning books on the basis of my previous interests, then going over the submitted piece to tighten it, or tweeze out the occasional repetition. They have never tried to influence my judgment. (The first attempt would have been the last.) And while the site obviously doesn’t hurt its corporate sponsor’s business, it’s not as if the reviews it runs can’t influence readers who decide to take their money elsewhere. 

James Mustich recently answered a few questions by email. A transcript of the exchange follows.

Q: B&NR launched in October 2007. What is the backstory? Did you have any reservations whether about starting an online publication or editing a review sponsored by a major bookstore chain?

A: The backstory is simple: Steve Riggio, the Barnes & Noble CEO, and I have known one another for twenty-five years or more. He admired A Common Reader, the catalog I ran for two decades. When that business came to an end in 2006, I did some freelance work for B&N, and somewhere around that time Steve floated the idea of an online book review. We had shared many ideas about books and bookselling across our long acquaintance, so we pretty quickly arrived at a common conception, which, essentially, was to build a site that we’d go to ourselves to find interesting things.

I had no reservations on either of the scores you mention. Regarding the first, I relished the opportunity to do something innovative and ambitious online. Regarding the second, I had no reservations at all: Steve envisioned a real, substantive review, and he asked me to develop it because he knew that is what I would deliver.

Q: B&NR runs a lot of new content each week, in various formats. What’s the mix or menu you have in mind? Also, my impression is that your editorial apparatus there is not that large. Just how many people are involved in bringing it out?

A: Each week we publish five full-length reviews (1000 words) and, in our Spotlight feature, six shorter reviews (250-400 words). We also run two fresh pieces weekly from the following array of recurring features: a 1250-2500-word piece by one of our columnists, a rediscovery piece of similar length on a classic or backlist title, an in-depth interview, an email dialogue, or a cartoon review by Ward Sutton. Our regular columnists are:

Eloisa James, Reading Romance
Paul Di Filippo, The Speculator
Brooke Allen, Reader’s Diary
A. C. Grayling, The Thinking Read
Robert Christgau, Rock & Roll &

and, starting in June. Michael Dirda, Elective Affinities.

Plus The Long List comprises 50 books, about 25% of which are fresh each week (these aren’t reviews but scouting reports—quick takes on books we think belong on readers’ radar).

The staff consists of myself, Bill Tipper (Managing Editor), and Deirdre Sonsini (Content Coordinator), who handles the paperwork and much of the communication with publishers. Together, Bill and I do all of the scheduling, assigning, editing, and brainstorming, while Bill does most of the production work, with a few hours help each week from Pearl Chen.

Q: How do you understand the relationship between B&NR’s two roles—as critical venue, on the one hand, and as foyer leading into an e-commerce site, on the other? Do Barnes and Noble count on a certain number of people buying a book in spite of a negative review, just to defy the critic?

A: As I indicated above, a substantive review site was what we were after from the beginning. The key, of course, was to find the best writers we could, and in planning stages I reached out to a few people I had corresponded with in the past—Brooke Allen, Max Byrd, Katherine Anne Powers, David Abrams—and to others whose work I had admired, llke Eloisa James and Alexandra Mullen and Veronique de Turrene. Michelle Goldberg and John Freeman were both instrumental and extraordinarily generous in helping me cast a wider net; through the widening circle they helped set in motion we soon had people like Eric Banks, Michael Dirda, Chris Hayes, Ezra Klein, and so on contributing to the site in the very early days.

In addition to filling our columns with their own superb writing, Amy Benfer and Paul DiFilippo were remarkable allies, leading us to other splendid reviewers. James Atlas introduced me to Dan Menaker, who introduced me in turn to several other willing contributors. I’m certainly forgetting someone I should be mentioning here—but you get the idea: with people like this reviewing for us, there was no chance of our running press releases. We’ve added considerably to our roster of writers since we started, but our quest for quality has remained the same. And as I trust you will attest, Scott, through your own experience writing for us, our editorial pen is in the service of clarifying a writer’s expression of his or her thoughts about a book, rather than in the service of directing that thinking.

As to my understanding of the relationship between the Review’s role as both critical venue and foyer for an e-commerce site, I’ll just say that in my opinion a vibrant, candid, and imaginative conversation about books is beneficial to bookselling, no matter what an individual review may say about a particular book.  Making home to such a conversation speaks to a respect for readers that in the long run is good for business, at least as far as I can see.

Q: Do you have numbers on traffic to the site? Is it possible to tell whether you have a distinct audience of people who come to the Review itself?

A: As a matter of policy we do not share any metrics, but I am glad to say that traffic has been growing month-to-month over the past year and a half, and that a steadily increasing number of readers are coming to us directly rather than via the main B&N site.

Q: You indicated recently that the plan was to add a comments section for B&NR. Is that still the plan? If so, will it be moderated?

A: Giving our readers a voice is indeed in our plans, and you can expect to see commenting in place by summer’s end. As to moderation, readers will have to be signed in before they post a comment, and the posts will go through the usual language filters and will be followed by us (and I daresay responded to from time to time).

Q: Do you have any interest in adding audio or video to the menu? Or would that mean spreading your editorial attention span too thin?

A: We certainly have an interest in adding both, and hope to be experimenting with them before the end of the year. I’ve been delighted to work with Ward Sutton on the illustrated book reviews he’s been doing for us, and I would like to explore some innovative uses of video and audio approaches in an additional effort to extend the kind of “voices” a book review adds to its chorus.