No Strings Attached to Amazon’s Gift to Los Angeles Review of Books

Shortly after Amazon yanked 5,000 Independent Publishers Group titles off its virtual shelves in a contract dispute, the retail giant offered an olive branch of sorts to the world of letters: a $25,000 grant to the Los Angeles Review of Books, the non-profit online literary review that planted a flag in the scorched earth of Sunday books supplements in 2011.

“It’s a pittance for them,” said Steve Wasserman, former editor of the shuttered Los Angeles Times Book Review, who nonetheless applauded Amazon’s recognition of LARB.

“Criticism is the oxygen of literature,” he said. “I’m happy to see the establishment of something of really grand ambition.”

Amazon’s generosity won’t impede LARB’s ambition to support the independent booksellers in its chokehold, however: it will keep up its affiliate program with anti-Amazons IndieBound and Powell’s, which pay the Review royalties on sales that come through the site.

“They’ve asked for nothing in return,” LARB founder and editor Tom Lutz told Off The Record. “Except the press release.” The Amazon gift will pay writers and editors and go toward the site’s redesign, scheduled to launch April 18.

“Like all corporate sponsorships, they are interested in associating their names with enterprises that reflect well on them and we’re glad Amazon thinks that of us,” Mr. Lutz said. (Other recipients include the 92nd St. Y, 826 Seattle and The Moth.) He added that he hopes it is the first of many corporate underwriters.

The redesigned site, done pro bono by  Ted Perez, will be easier to navigate by genre than its Tumblr-powered beta mode, part of the organization’s overall mission to foster conversations among readers outside the literary community.

For example, Mr. Lutz said, “I’m hoping in our young adult pages young readers will interact with us in the way that young readers interact with each other.” In a new educational pilot program, LARB will encourage local public school kids to apply their native YouTube reaction and reply video making to book reviews, teaching them how to marshal evidence for why, say, Sarah, Plain and Tall sucks. The best videos will be featured on the site.

The new site is also designed to hold essays that respond and refer to previously published reviews, building a linked web of critical conversation. To that end, expect LARB to keep up its preference for essays over a “thumbs up/thumbs down” thing. Mr. Lutz sees the Review as a forum for discussion, rather than a place for reductive dismissals.

“In a world where 3 million books are published every year,” he added, “99% of books die a natural death without any help from us.”

“Readers seek to find other readers and share the experience they’ve had reading things,” said Mr. Wasserman, “especially in a region as vast and sprawling as L.A.”

For the same reason, Mr. Wasserman helped design the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which draws 130,000 readers to the University of Southern California’s sunny, indoor pursuits-unfriendly campus each year. At the 17th annual event later this month, LARB will carry the torch for literary criticism.

Mr. Lutz is scheduled for two panels, “California Literature,” and “Publishing: The New Shape of the Book,” and the Review will co-host the Young Literati after party. Although less than a quarter of LARB’s readers live in California—Mr. Lutz called its name a “steampunk” reference to the literary tribes of the past—a strong local presence helps attract financial support.

Off the Record asked Mr. Wasserman, now back on the East Coast, what distinguished the California literary scene from New York’s.

“Frankly, what residents in neither city want to admit is that the two are coming more and more to resemble each other,” he noted. “Who could say that the values to be seen in Vanity Fair are that of Times Square and not Hollywood and Vine?”

“Susan Sontag once called California ‘America’s America’,” he went on. “By that I think she thought it was the place where people went to rid themselves of the weight of history and start afresh.”