David L. Ulin, book editor of the Los Angeles Times, favors a quote from the father of general semantics, Alfred Korzybski, to describe his perspective on the current state of book reviewing: “It's not a matter of either/or. It's a matter of and/both.”
Since joining the Times in October 2005, Ulin has taken on the challenge presented to him when the stand-alone book review section died six months ago. The Times tried to save it, at one point combining it with the Opinion section in a flip-book format, but the shrinking newspaper business and falling ad revenues finally forced the closure of one of the newspaper's most prominent sections, the Sunday Book Review; but it also provided the catalyst for Ulin to re-create the Times's online book presence.
“When I came on board, all we did was to load whatever was in the paper about books to the Web site. No one was tending it,” Ulin says. “When the stand-alone was threatened, our online presence became a priority.” He decided to feature Web-only material, beginning with the Jacket Copy blog. “We had no idea what we were doing, but tried to figure it out as we went along.” A year ago, Ulin brought in Carolyn Kellogg as the dedicated blogger; she has helped him understand what he refers to as “the emerging style of blogging about books,” a more immediate, conversational approach.
In addition to Jacket Copy, Ulin has five online columnists writing about paperbacks, mysteries, sci-fi, children's and mythology. In March, Ulin will debut an online-only weekly essay by writers on writing. Contributors will include both new and established authors covering a wide range of voices and aesthetics. “While the book industry seems to be focused on contracting, we're expanding online. We think of book coverage in the paper in a complex mix of ways,” says Ulin.
Acknowledging that the physical size of newspapers is shrinking, Ulin takes a realistic, broad-ranging view of how book coverage will be presented in the future. “I'm committed to both print and Web. There are two readerships, and I'm not sure they're the same. My main interest is, how do we get the most book coverage to the most people?” Ideally, Ulin would welcome a return to the stand-alone book review. “But we don't have one now, and we're not going to have one,” he says.
Born and raised in New York City, Ulin knew since childhood that he wanted to be a writer and literary critic. As an inveterate reader, his awareness extended to publishers and imprints. “I loved paperbacks. I came to know the identity of Bantam and Pocket, and the structure of the industry fascinated me. My parents encouraged me to read the New York Times Book Review every Sunday, all the articles, the bestseller lists. And I was also a newspaper junkie, aware of how they covered literature.”
Before arriving at the L.A. Times Ulin freelanced for 17 years. In addition to serving as book editor of the Los Angeles Reader from 1993 to 1996, he wrote for the Atlantic Monthly, the Nation, the NYTBR, NPR and the Washington Post, among others. He has taught creative writing at Antioch University and University of Redlands, and is currently a visiting professor in the MFA creative writing program at Cal Arts. Ulin is also the author or editor of five books, and serves on the board of the NBCC.
“One of the things that worries me about the book culture is the notion that all change is bad. This is much more conservative than I would have thought,” he says. Certain comments about the recent collapse of the Washington Post's Book World don't sit well with him. “People are saying, 'reading is dead!' I finally ordered a Kindle and have to wait eight weeks for it, which indicates that reports of reading's demise are greatly exaggerated. Will I lament the loss of Book World? Of course I will—but let's think about what is viable now.”
Indications are that Ulin's Jacket Copy blog is an approach that is working and has achieved a solid following. It recently made the Top 5,000 list on Technorati.com, a considerable feat. Ulin acknowledges the importance of the Internet, but supports a combination of print reviews in other sections of the Times with a dedicated Web site to expand book coverage. He says, “The Web offers a truly interactive book culture. We take it seriously.”