Last spring author and historial David O. Stewart spearheaded the launch of the Washington Independent Review of Books, a Washington, D.C.-based website featuring reviews of new books and podcast interviews with writers. Stewart answered questions from NBCC board member Mark Athitakis about the site.
The website mentions that it was inspired in part because the editors were “dismayed by the disappearance of book reviews and book review sections in the mainstream media.” Newspaper book sections have been struggling for a few years now. What prompted you and your fellow editors to finally launch the site?
We began trying to figure out how to launch the website back in 2009, when book review sections were being axed with seemingly gleeful abandon. I was struck, personally, by how many book reviews had vanished between 2007, when my first book [The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution] was issued, and 2009, when the second one [Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy] came out. We spent a year trying and failing to raise money from foundations, and then finally decided to do it ourselves. Once we made that decision, it still took about eight months to get everything together for the launch, which has gone way better than I expected . . . so far.
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?
All of the above. We find reviewers through our sister/sponsoring organization, American Independent Writers, and through other writers groups. They sometimes are friends, or other writers we have met or know about, or people who e-mail us out of the blue and offer to take on a review. If you have credentials, or credibility, we may well take a chance on you—always reserving the right not to run a review that does not turn out well.
The site is sponsored by a nonprofit, the AIW Freedom to Write Fund. What kind of support does the fund provide, and what would be involved in making a review site like yours financially sustainable in the long run?
We are a very low-cost operation, and so far we have been passing the hat to keep ourselves afloat. We invite donations, and a few people have been very generous. Over time, we need to develop revenue streams, and intend to do so. We already have an advertiser on the horizon, and relationships with booksellers so we get a slice of every book purchase made through our site. The operation will need to evolve. With the Internet, though, it’s pretty tough to predict what will be the answers next month, much less next year.
WIRB includes reviews that have a natural appeal to a DC readership, but you also run features and reviews with writers who have a national (if not international) profile. What do you do to strike a balance between covering popular authors and giving the site a local focus?
We want an audience beyond DC, and have been gratified to find that people in Alaska and New Mexico and overseas are enjoying the site. We choose our books and our feature pieces without regard to whether the author or book has a Washington connection – of course, because many of our people dwell in the community of Washington writers, we tend to know what books are coming out by writers in this area. Washington has a vibrant book culture, and we are one expression of it.
What were some of the unintended problems and surprises in the early weeks of the launch?
The mysteries of RSS feeds, embedded links, website layout, and other things that “writers of a certain age” should not have to think about. Then there was the day our hosting service went down. The technical side of the operation has been the biggest challenge for me. We have been blessed that a couple of our leading lights – Josh Trapani and Gene Taft – have taken special care to keep us up and running. The biggest rewards have come when a piece touches a reader. A friend I have not seen for thirty years loved our Q&A with Alice McDermott (who wouldn’t?). Another reader was knocked out by a review of a book about aging. At some level, we’re a bazaar of people’s inner lives, which is a great place to hang out.
Stylistically, what do you look for in reviews? Is there a particular type of book review that you feel works better for the Web than for a print publication?
A book review is a book review is a book review. We encourage our reviewers to write a bit shorter, since we assume that attention spans on the web are limited. Mostly, however, they don’t write shorter. When the review is good, we’re happy to run it long. Indeed, one of our five most-read reviews was twice as long as our recommended length. If the book is interesting and the reviewer nails it, we go to bed happy.
Unlike a lot of literary websites, you include plenty of podcast interviews with authors, like a recent one with Jim Shepard. What's the appeal of that particular format? What prompts you to decide whether an author ought to be covered in a review, written Q&A, or podcast?
Podcasts are just another way to reach an audience, and we have been lucky to connect with a couple of terrific radio interviewers, Steve Usery and Vick Mickunas, who share their shows with us. Our editorial board, which is led by Harriet Dwinell, Becky Meloan, and Linda Morefield, chooses books for review through a very careful and collaborative process, scanning all of the publisher lists for forthcoming books. Joye Shepperd directs our feature pieces (such as Q&As), which are selected on the basis of which writers have interesting books out right now, or are simply interesting writers. It’s a treat to be able to make those things happen, which is why we’ve been able to get such talented people to pitch in.