Criticism & Features


Conversations With Literary Websites: The Millions

By Mark Athitakis

This post continues a series on Critical Mass featuring websites dedicated to book reviewing online.

When The Millions launched in 2003, it was among the first websites to include a variety of voices writing about about books. Today it features a mix of reviews of new books along with considerations of older ones as well as interviews, cross-disciplinary essays, and articles about the writing process. Founding editor C. Max Magee answered questions about the Millions from NBCC board member Mark Athitakis via email.

What was your motivation for launching the Millions seven years ago? Did you see a gap in literary coverage in other publications that you felt needed to be filled? If so, has the gap needing to be filled changed since then?

There wasn't much calculation behind it. The Millions started as a place where I could write about books on my own and be read by the dozen or so who happened to find the site. Over the years, as I became more aware of the possibilities of the medium and as more people became interested in the project, the site more or less organically grew into what it is today.

So, while I wasn't in tune enough with the full scope of the literary world when I first started The Millions to be aiming to take on any particular role, I have come to realize that avid readers are just like anyone else out there with a particular interest or favorite pastime. From the fertile soil of the internet has grown niche sites for people interested in everything from woodworking to motorcycles. So too for books. And by focusing fairly narrowly on books, The Millions and sites like it have perhaps been better positioned to grab the audience of avid readers than have publications with a broader focus.

The reviews and essays you run tend to focus on literary fiction and nonfiction. Are there particular kinds of books that you prefer to emphasize on the Millions, or is the coverage more a function of the submissions?

To a large degree, what we cover is dictated by submissions. I think that this is part of what keeps the site fresh. When you open the site in the morning, you don't  know what you're going to get. It could be a consideration of a 200-year-old book; it could be a look at a book that's coming out tomorrow; or, more often, it's a piece that in some unique way ties into the experience of being a reader or a writer or both. I like keeping things eclectic.


Stylistically, what do you look for in book reviews? Is there a particular type of book review—as distinct from an essay—that you feel works better for the Web than for a print publication?


To be honest, I'm not a big fan of book reviews, generally. We have some writers who are exceptional at writing book reviews, and I would happily read their thoughts on every book they pick up. However, I think the traditional newspaper book review can be rather boring.

When a review comes across my desk, I often haven't read the book in question (I can only read so much) and I may not be particularly interested in reading the book, but if I am still nonetheless interested in reading the review on its own terms, then the review is a success. Many, many book reviews, from those in newspapers to those on the lowliest website, do not pass this test.

I don't mean to say that we don't publish the occasional straight-ahead review––we do––but whenever possible, I like to bring something stylistically fresh to the table so that every reader who comes across the review has the potential to be engaged by it, whether or not they were interested in the book at hand.

By way of example, one of our most popular ongoing series is Modern Library Revue by Lydia Kiesling. This is a concept––rereading the classics from the Modern Library best 100 of the century series––that could be powerfully dull. But Lydia brings her own voice, humor, and experiences to every review.  The willingness to put yourself on the page alongside the book you are considering is something sorely lacking in the typical book review.

Another example might be our writer Garth Risk Hallberg's Bolano Syllabus. This piece, which tries to make sense of the late Chilean's rapidly expanding oeuvre and provides a roadmap for those interested in taking the plunge, is not strictly a book review, but any book review publication that wouldn't run a piece like this should reconsider its mission.

I also don't see any distinction that dictates that something will work for the Web and not print or vice versa. The Millions doesn't have a lot of multimedia frills. We don't take advantage of the medium as much as we could. So, were we in a world where such things existed in print, The Millions certainly could be a print publication with little or no change to the content we publish. Any question of polish in terms of copyediting, formatting, and the like is one of resources, not any inherent sloppiness of the online medium (we do our best).

Who are your reviewers, and how do you find them? Are they established writers, people who are starting their reviewing careers, people who aren’t particularly interested in reviewing per se but want to write about a particular book?

The site has been around for about seven years, and for most of that, the writers were people that I happened to know and who were interested in books and writing. As time went on, we also started getting more aggressive about reaching out to “name” authors with our annual year-end Year in Reading series. But over the last year, as the site has continued to grow, we have seen an explosion in the number of pitches we get from writers looking to get their pieces published on the site.

These include young writers who seem to have grasped that, with a little inherent talent and a willingness to reach out to different websites, they can in short order get their writing into a variety of venues and read by a lot of people.  But we also hear from more established writers who like the site and have a piece that for whatever reason is a good fit for The Millions.

I can't say that anyone I encounter is really attempting to embark on something so narrowly defined as a reviewing career. I think that many freelancers have internalized the notion that the ability to write on a broad array of topics and in a variety of styles can only help them.

As an editor, what sort of guidance do you most commonly have to give to contributors, particularly new writers?

I've touched on this a little already. Every person who has written for The Millions loves books. And the same is true for those who read the site. We are a community of people for whom reading is a transporting pastime that adds meaning to our lives. Essentially, I expect that to come through in the writing on the site. All it is, really, is acknowledging that you have something more than a professional relationship with books. I'm not saying that this isn't something that other publications do too; I'm just saying that it is something we always try to do.


Specifically, this means being willing to write in the first person and/or being more adventurous stylistically. And it goes back to the “test” I brought up earlier. Your review should engage someone who's not necessarily interested at the outset in the book you are considering. At the same time, there are no rules. If it's good and it reasonably fits with what we do, I want to publish it.


The Millions has ten regular paid contributors. How did you come to the point of being able to pay contributors, and how has paying writers changed the books coverage on the site?


Once I had people writing for the site regularly––at the time, mostly they were just friends of mine––it was important to me that I pay them. First, as a motivation to stay involved in the project. I've been involved in far too many that quickly fizzled because people didn't feel engaged with it. And second, because, even though I knew we couldn't pay much, it was important to me that I indicate that their writing was valued.


I don't really believe that not paying writers is a legitimate business model. My feeling is if the site makes a little money, it should be shared with those who write for it. The way we've set it up, our regular writers share in a percentage of the (still quite modest) amount of money the site brings in. If the site makes more money, they make more money, and everyone is invested not just in getting their writing out into the world, but also in the success of the whole project.


Paying our writers hasn't changed the books coverage on the site at all. It's just served as a way to keep some of our most talented writers involved in the site and has given them some ownership over the project.


Some of the essays that are book-related but not book reviews per se—Edan Lepucki’s Ceasing to Exist: Three Months in the Social Media Detox Ward and Confessions of a Book Pirate, to pick two recent examples—seem to generate much busier comment threads than any particular review. Are there particular types of pieces that you know will generate more of those conversations than others? Do you calibrate your coverage with that in mind?


Sometimes, when reading the first draft of a piece like that, I know it's going to ignite quite a lot of conversation (other times I'm taken by surprise). I don't know if there's really a formula for this, but it has to do with successfully tapping into the zeitgeist of a particular moment. This isn't an exact science. There are plenty of times when something that, on its surface, wouldn't appear to get people talking, nonetheless strikes a chord. A pair of recent pieces by our writer Kevin Hartnett, In Our Parents’ Bookshelves and Reading War and Peace, fit this profile.


However, among our regulars, we've come to realize that a piece's success is not determined by the number of comments. Sometimes, a writer says something so well, that she has opened and shut the book on it. What else is there to say? There is no comment-equivalent to nodding. But other metrics let us know these pieces have been successful too.


We don't calibrate our coverage toward seeking a response. It's not hard to generate comments; it's not hard to foment outrage. But the result down that road is something that becomes predictable and hollow. We want people to be surprised every time they open the site. And if they feel compelled to comment, that's great.


Speaking of the comment threads, what obligations do you and your contributors feel you have to participate in those threads and keep the conversation going? When it comes to building a community on the site, what works and what doesn’t?


I tell our writers that it's up to them. Some of our writers love to jump in and answer questions, make follow-up points, and defend against detractors. Other writers stay away. I don't think either one is the “right” thing to do.


As far as building community. I think simply that showcasing writing that strives to engage with the reader will encourage readers to participate in the community of the site in whatever ways are made available to them. Essentially, community follows from good content.