More than a decade ago, Morgan Entrekin, the publisher of Grove Atlantic, had a vision: to make a Huffington Post for the book world. Then Bookish came along, he said, and he thought, “Cool. They’re going to do that, and so I don’t need to.” But when Bookish failed, Entrekin revisited the idea, calling on longtime friend, veteran journalist, and magazine editor Terry McDonell to partner with him on the project.
That project, Literary Hub, which launched in 2015, has since become one of the premier literature-focused sites on the web.
Getting the Hub Running
With a monthly visitor count nearing those of such competitors as Book Riot and the website for the New York Review of Books, Literary Hub has, in its three years in operation, quickly risen to the top of literature-focused websites in the U.S. The site has also started two verticals: CrimeReads, which focuses on crime books, mysteries, and thrillers, and which has outpaced the web traffic of Criminal Element, Macmillan’s long-running crime-book–focused website, only a few months after its launch, according to market intelligence platform SimilarWeb; and Book Marks, a book-reviews aggregator that, last month, debuted a widget that the company informally calls a “Rotten Tomatoes for books,” which has already been adopted by the American Bookseller Association’s IndieBound and IndieSource platforms, HudsonBooksellers.com, and Ingram’s e-commerce tool, iPage, in addition to 126 indie bookstore sites, according to Lit Hub. More partnerships are in the works.
Lit Hub’s success came quickly, thanks, in part, to Andy Hunter, the founder of Electric Literature, and the many-hat-wearing publisher of Lit Hub and its two verticals, as well as Black Balloon Publishing, Catapult, Counterpoint, and Soft Skull Press. In fact, in the early stages of the project, Entrekin tried to poach Halimah Marcus, now executive editor of Electric Lit, to be Lit Hub’s editor-in-chief—a role now held by Brooklyn magazine and The L magazine founder Jonny Diamond. That brought the project to Hunter’s attention, and he brought his website-launching and audience-development know-how to Lit Hub. Hunter and company “built the website,” he said: “We had the content strategy, we hired the editorial team, and we had the growth strategy to make that happen.”
That said, the oil that makes Lit Hub’s engine run is its vast portfolio of publishing partnerships. The site counts more than 100 publishers, magazines, journals, and literary organizations among its partners, according to its website; publishing partners provide exclusive excerpts from upcoming books, which make up a significant portion of Lit Hub’s editorial output. (Unlike Electric Literature, which is a nonprofit, Literary Hub is registered in the state of New York as an LLC.) Those partnerships came about thanks to Entrekin’s reputation as a publisher of principle. That was instrumental, he said, in ensuring that bigger publishers would play ball.
“Somebody later said, ‘You’re like Switzerland, Morgan,’ in that we’re big enough, and people know that we can execute,” Entrekin said. “But we’re also kind of neutral. We’re not a threat to them. Because it’s not like I’m going to go poach their major commercial writers, because I wouldn’t have the means to do it even if I wanted to, and I also consider it bad manners.”
Hunter agreed. “Everybody knows Morgan values culture and art,” he said. “That’s clearly what he’s in it for, and he’s demonstrated that for his whole career. So people trust him that he’s not going to sell it to Amazon.”
A Rotten Tomatoes for Books
In fact, counterbalancing some of Amazon’s sway over the industry—especially at the consumer level—is part of what Book Marks, which likely ranks as Lit Hub’s most ambitious project to date, is all about. Lit Hub and CrimeReads, for their part, are primarily web publications, producing original, mostly book-focused pieces and syndicating book excerpts from partners in “the service of literary culture.” Book Marks, however, is different; it’s as much a utility as it is a publication. And that has become even clearer since the launch of its widget.
“We went through a number of phases with Book Marks, and this is the closing of a major one—being able to disseminate all of this information that we’ve been building up over two to three years,” said Book Marks editor Dan Sheehan. “This was always an end goal of sorts, before we figure out what the next stage is.”
Sheehan handles nearly everything at Book Marks but the tech side, including all editorial efforts, organizing partnerships, uploading individual titles onto the site, and managing interns and assistant editor Katie Yee, who was brought on earlier this year to meet what Sheehan called an increasing demand for book pages on the website. “The rate at which reviews come in and the number of publications we track and the speed at which we want to get these books up has made it so we have had to expand,” he said.
Though some of the editorial content on Book Marks includes cross posts from Lit Hub and CrimeReads, most is syndicated, in snippets, from reviews across the web, from outlets ranging from the New York Times and the Washington Post to Rain Taxi and 4 Columns. (Trade magazine reviews, which typically do not have author bylines, were discounted at first but added later, including those of Publishers Weekly.) Once there are three or more syndicated reviews for a single book, they make it onto that book’s page on Book Marks, where they are excerpted, linking out to the original reviews on the websites of their publishers. Each review is also assessed and categorized by Book Marks as a rave, positive, mixed, or a pan. (An initial letter-grade system was quickly scrapped following negative feedback from the industry.)
“A lot of our day is taken up by tracking and adding reviews from all these different sites,” Sheehan said. “We’re in the process of lowering the criteria [for creating book pages] from three to two reviews because we’re expanding, and a lot of it has to do with manpower and internal bandwidth. And what that allows us to do is get more genre books up on site and more small press and university press books up there, and create individual pages for them the same way that we would for Sing, Unburied, Sing or Lincoln in the Bardo.”
The range of the book pages on Book Marks is broad—from contemporary, big-name literary books to classics—and so is the range of reviews. (A favorite cited by Entrekin is “Joan Didion trashing J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey in the National Review in 1963.”) Sheehan also noted an intentionally expanding representation of small, university press, and genre books.
It is those book pages, and the database that comprises them, that are made embeddable in the form of the widget. The idea, Sheehan said, is to give both industry insiders and everyday consumers a fair idea of the critical conversation surrounding a book, while also giving book critics and reviews more cultural attention.
“Part of this is to refocus people’s attentions on how interesting books sections around the country could be and how much these critics have to say,” Sheehan said. “And hopefully, with that, it translates into more page views and, therefore, more attention and a move away from trying to collapse these into generalized culture reviews sections. There’s real use to Amazon and Goodreads—I use Amazon every day to get specific publisher details and information. But if you actually want to know what you’re going to spend your $16 or $20 on, they give you a very skewed, specific, subjective impression of how worthwhile a book is. But what we’re doing is spotlighting the critical conversation, and there hasn’t been a place where people can get access to that in a clear, concise, aggregated way.”
That there now is such a tool has not escaped the industry, and early partners have expressed excitement. “Industry reviews like those at PW, LJ, SLJ, and Shelf Awareness, among others, have been enhancing the customer experience on iPage for years,” said Margaret Harrison, director of digital services at Ingram. “Now, by adding national reviews aimed at consumers, we are giving our customers even more resources to support their business and boost product awareness.”
Hunter wants to give those resources to even more readers. “The greatest thing about it is that it helps drive sales of the good books,” he said. “So, the books that are the best are the books that are going to benefit from this most. Once you get it on the independent bookstore sites, and you get it on Ingram, then you can get it on Baker & Taylor. And then when you get it on Baker & Taylor, you get it on Edelweiss. We can hopefully put these everywhere.”
For Entrekin, that means getting publishers involved, too. “Over the next year, 24 months, what we hope to do is we’re going to make it available to the publishers,” he said. “We’ve had publishers large and small who are interested in putting the widget up, and authors. We’ve been in conversation with the Authors Guild. I’m pretty excited about it. Being able to go to Goodreads and Amazon and see how readers are responding to your book is wonderful, and it’s a great enrichment of the conversation around the books, but I think to also have the ability to go see what the professional reviewers who aren’t anonymous are saying about a book is going to be a great addition to that conversation. So that’s the intention. We’re excited, and we’re on our way.”