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So What Do You Do, Tom Lutz, Editor of Los Angeles Review of Books?

This editor's set on keeping the literary culture alive with this one site

- October 26, 2011
Tom Lutz's most recent book is called Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers and Bums. Considering Lutz has been working 60-70 hours per week to get the Los Angeles Review of Books off the ground, in addition to his teaching duties at University of California-Riverside, "doing nothing" is the antithesis of Lutz's modus operandi.

Spurred by a desire to give Los Angeles a larger voice in the literary conversation and to push back against the widespread shuttering of book review sections nationwide, Lutz launched the electronic version of the magazine in the spring. As advertising revenue increases, he hopes to pay contributors on par with the market. For now, the fledgling site has been buoyed by the largesse of marquee writers and reviewers who have been willing to work pro bono. And that's been the most pleasant unexpected development.

"The quality of people that I've got working for me, most of whom I met sort of accidentally since I started, has been great," Lutz says. "People who read something and decided they wanted to be part of it and joined it, an incredible group of people who are turning this out each day. That's been a spectacularly wonderful surprise."

Name: Tom Lutz
Position: Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Resume: Has taught creative writing at the University of Iowa, Stanford University, the University of Copenhagen and the California Institute of the Arts. Author of American Nervousness, 1903: An Anecdotal History, Cosmopolitan Vistas, Crying: A Natural and Cultural History of Tears and Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums.
Birthdate: March 21
Hometown: Cedar Grove, New Jersey
Education: Bachelor of Arts in English and journalism from University of Massachusetts. Masters and Ph. D in English from Stanford University.
Marital status: Married
Media idol: William Dean Howells
Favorite TV show: Web Therapy
Guilty pleasure: "Watching Burn Notice."
Last book read: American Idyll: Academic Antielitism as Cultural Critique by Catherine Liu
Twitter handle: @lareviewofbooks

Beyond the title, what else distinguishes the L.A. Review of Books from the New York Review of Books?
We are based in Los Angeles, and the world really does look different from here than it does in New York. We have less of a relation with the established big six publishers. We have a kind of wider sense of the publishing world and a desire to look out from L.A., rather than look at L.A.

And you thought that was missing before?
Well, I started this as I watched the book review supplements at all the Sunday papers dying: the Atlanta paper, the Boston paper, the Chicago paper, the Washington paper. And then the Los Angeles Times folded its Sunday supplement section into its arts and book section which is about four pages long now. And that was my interaction with the literary culture: the Sunday Times Book Review. So, I thought future generations should have the same chance to be introduced to a literary culture as I had.

What were some unforeseen developments, both positive and negative, that you encountered in getting the publication off the ground?
[Laughs] I thought it'd be easier to raise money for it. To me, it seems like it was a really good idea, and that's why I'm doing it. I thought it would seem like a really good idea to people with a lot of money. So, the difficulty of raising money was an unforeseen development.

"I thought future generations should have the same chance to be introduced to a literary culture as I had."

What's been your feedback from writers and readers?
Very enthusiastic, from all over the world. From people reading in India and Japan and Europe, South Africa. Really kind of a great response from readers. Every once in a while somebody is unimpressed, some reader, lets me know. That's interesting, too. Publishers seem to be very happy to have another outlet. And academics, who don't always have a voice in a public forum, are happy to be working with us. Going through that editing process to see that people will read them. So, all of those responses have basically been very good.

The banner on the website says it's the temporary home of the review. When will the permanent website go live?
We're getting a walk through from our Web company in a week, so we'll see what kind of shape it's in then. We've been saying for a while now that the full site will be up for the New Year, and we seem to still be on schedule for that.

Are there sections that you think will be of particular interest to readers?
I think as the site goes up, our scientific fans will have a vibrant section. And our young adults, readers and authors, will have a kind of lively section. Right now, since we're limiting ourselves to a piece per day, there's not enough time to have a full communal interchange, but they will on the full site. That's what I'm looking forward to. And, of course, there's going to be more interactive features in every way and a lot more audio/video material.

What's your operating budget?
Right now, we've taken in a couple hundred thousand dollars, and we have an aspirational budget of $2 million a year.

Will the site's online content continue to be free?
We're developing some content for sale in the Kindle single model or as apps. We're developing various ways to sell some content, and we've been talking editorially perhaps with things we think will be a big response, putting them out a few weeks early as paid items and then throwing them up on the site after that. We're trying to develop an audience, so we don't want to draw up a pay wall anytime soon. We're following the general trends there.

"We're letting our writers, our reviewers, make some of those editorial decisions. That, I think, is part of why writers are happy with us."

When is the print edition of the review going to first publish?
We're not sure exactly that there will be a print edition. We're going to see how we do with the electronic items. Mike Davis is serializing his book with us; we have a couple other serial possibilities in the works. So, we'll eventually publish those in print editions, but we'll see how things go. There was a lot of clamoring in the beginning, because the people who were leading the charge were traditionalists in the sense that they were missing their print edition. There's less clamor for it now, and I think once the full site is up there will be even less because people will see the value. And, as tablet use goes up for reading, I think people will be less interested in the print editionn.

What's the name of the Mike Davis book?
"The Ghost of Wrath" is the working title. It's a biography of Harrison Gray Otis. He's one of the founders of the L.A. Times. Mike's argument is that nobody ever wrote a biography of him, because he always seemed like a cartoon evil character. Mike has found some very interesting Civil War exploits of his and he's becoming a very interesting character.

What's the vetting process for books to be sent to you and reviewed?
We're on everybody's mailing list, so we get pitched I don't know how many books a day. Maybe a hundred? It's a heavy road. Some of them come as books or galleys, so we have our editorial meetings and we look through the stack and pick out what we feel we should cover. And then we put out a call for reviewers. Since we can't immediately offer people a big check for it, we're relying on people's desire to review the book rather than on our desire to have it reviewed. So, we're still not reviewing everything we'd like. We're letting our writers, our reviewers, make some of those editorial decisions. That, I think, is part of why writers are happy with us, because we do like to let our writers' passion determine the length of the piece that they write, the kind of piece that they write. Less of giving a rating to a particular piece, to say read it or don't read it; we're not that kind of review. We're more like a literary conversation, and that's why we're doing it.

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Cameron Martin is a freelance writer and contributor to The New York Times, The Atlantic, Yahoo! Sports and Barnes & Noble Review.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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