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Going Mobile 

Literary Web sites take the show on the road

Wednesday, Oct 30 2002
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During the mid-to-late-'90s heyday of online publications -- when everyone kept saying that books, magazines, and newspapers would go the way of the dodo -- readerly Web sites flourished like post-nuclear cockroaches. Every print paper and journal launched its own site, online-only publications like Salon (November 1995) and Slate (June 1996) arrived, and forums like the Well (begun in 1985 and part of Salon since 1999) gave everyone a chance to voice his opinion. At first some sites thought they could get paid subscribers, just like those old dead-tree mags, but not enough people bit. (Salon's trying again.) Now there seems to be a move back to print, as evidenced by the physical version of one prominent bookish Web site, Readerville.com, among other new rags.

Readerville.com isn't the only Web site with paper-route dreams. A recent pop-up ad on Salon asked readers about launching a print version, but Patrick Hurley, the company's senior VP of business operations, explains in an e-mail that though the response to the idea was "encouraging," the "costs of doing so are just far too prohibitive." Nerve.com (founded in 1997), which bills itself as "literary smut," started a print mag in May 2000 and stopped publishing after the July 2001 issue; its out-of-date Web site mentions a relaunch in spring 2002, but that plan is currently on hiatus. A spokeswoman says there's no set date for Nerve to be back in print, though that's still the goal. Another new rag, the slim but thoughtful San Francisco Reader, got under way in June as both a free printed magazine and a Web site, although the real focus is the version you can hold in your hand.

Why the about-face? In a note on Nerve.com, the publisher, Rufus Griscom, explains: "We love print magazines -- the nap, the crinkle, the color saturation, the weight. We are discovering, like Patrick Swayze in Ghost, that physical existence has its advantages." One of those advantages is mobility: You may take your laptop to the nearest cafe and peruse your favorite sites there, but you won't want to hold it up during a long Muni ride. Another is distribution -- in the places where people buy and read books (bookstores, cafes, retail outlets), publishers can get their offerings into the hands of sympathetic types. Finally, corporeal pages are handy; you can write on them, fold the corners down, tear out a page to bring to a store.

To me, though, the real reason is quality. I'm not sure why, but the print magazines just seem better. It's not only that I have a long commute and like to keep occupied by reading; rather, the stories on those tangible pages go deeper, perhaps because it takes longer to produce a physical magazine -- there's not the sense of rush the Web imparts. Plus, type on paper is easier to read. If you want to talk about books, go online, but if you want to read about books, pick up a magazine.


Not every bookish Web site has a print edition, of course. Among the locally based sites, CentralBooking.com, started in 1998 by Kevin Smokler (who also writes book reviews for the Chronicle), is its cheerful, passionate self on-screen only. It's bright and friendly, if not particularly insightful, and feels a little like the grad-school database project it once was. Bookmuse.com, founded in February 2001 by Kristine Ball, is also resolutely online. With a professional look (and teeny type), it's astoundingly thorough but can be dry and humorless. Both offer reviews, chats, interviews, author biographies, and opinions. They're virtual book clubs, a place to meet like-minded people and gab.

Readerville.com started out the same way. Begun in the spring of 2000 by Karen Templer, a veteran of Salon's Table Talk forum, it is, to my mind, the liveliest and smartest of the local book sites. It's handsomely designed, and though Smokler calls it "academicky," it's not stuffy. Templer began Readerville because, to her, Table Talk felt like the "bastard child of the real endeavor" -- she wanted the forum to be front and center. She took the hugely popular techie Web site Slashdot.org as inspiration, explaining, "There wasn't anything like that for the book community."

But as we all know (and please stop telling us), the Web wants to be free, and it's hard to make a living running a free site. Neither CentralBooking.com nor Readerville.com accepts advertising (Bookmuse.com does). So Templer put together The Readerville Journal, in part as a "natural extension" of the content, but also as a way to make money through advertising. Of course, we're in the midst of the worst advertising slump in history, so it's hard to imagine how any new print publication can survive. The Readerville Journal has enough funding to take it through a couple of issues, and is actively searching for more dough. "We don't need really massive funding," Templer says, hoping that those like-minded individuals with money to spend will step up to the plate.

Fortunately, the pub has quality on its side. The premiere issue is out now, and it's terrific. Unlike the Web sites, I actually want to read it. I did read it, in fact -- every word of it. Even the author bios are interesting. The writing is sharp and professional, and most of the story ideas (the librarian on Buffy the Vampire Slayer; the "exciting" life of a memoirist; a profile of Felix Dennis, publisher of Maxim and avid book collector) are clever and well executed. One of the best pieces is an interview with Jeffrey Eugenides, author of the recently published Middlesex, done by Elizabeth McCracken, herself a talented novelist. Most author interviews are boring and obvious, with useless questions like "What are you reading?" McCracken, on the other hand, came up with insightful queries about the "original seed" of the book, how living in Europe affected the story, and whether knowing about the publishing process makes it harder to do a second book. On Readerville.com, I've dipped into stories here and there, but I've never wanted to spend hours reading it, a cup of tea by my side. With The Readerville Journal, I was genuinely sorry to finish, as I am with a good novel.

For those of us who like to read from paper, the launching of print publications like The Readerville Journal (and San Francisco Reader) is a good thing. Don't get me wrong: I'm no Luddite, smashing computer screens and hoping for a complete return to hand-cranked printing presses and town criers. I am, however, a believer in continuity. When an online publication goes defunct, sometimes it disappears from the Web, as if it never existed. But a print publication can stay around forever, whether on dusty library shelves or in a box in someone's basement. If these new print vehicles continue to be as good as their initial issues promise, they might have long enough lives to warrant such an archive.

About The Author

Karen Zuercher

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