OPEN UNIVERSITY FEBRUARY 15, 2007
by David A. Bell Three cheers to Jeff Herf for his call for an American Review of Books. Like other OU contributors, I couldn't agree more about the crying need in American intellectual life for a magazine of this sort.
I do wonder, though, what form it should take, and whether a paper version similar to Britain's TLS would be financially viable. The TLS is supported by the Times of London, is printed on cheap newsprint and runs a fairly large number of ads. Even so, it charges an exorbitant $180 per year for subscriptions in the U.K. (in the U.S., where it has a separate print operation, a year currently costs $135, although I paid $155 last fall). This is a lot more than Americans are used to paying for magazines. And the economics of weeklies like TNR are hardly encouraging, either (I seem to recall that the year I worked as an intern at TNR, 1984-5, was the only year in its history that the magazine actually made a profit).
My own sense, as a long-term advocate of electronic publishing, is that a weekly book review will most likely only make financial sense on the Web, in tandem with a system that allows readers to click on a link and instantly purchase the book in question. Or download a copy.
For readers who might react with horror to this last idea, I will just point to the coming revolution in reading that is being wrought by electronic ink, which does a far better job than LCD technology in allowing one to read "on the screen" with a degree of comfort and ease that approaches that of paper. I wrote about one such device, the Irex
Iliad, last year in TNR Online. Another, the Sony Reader, is the first "e-reader" not to have flopped in the market. Sony not only claims to be making money from the device, but to be selling more e-books than music tracks through its Sony Connect store (of course, the number of either still pales before what is being sold on iTunes). Other, similar devices are expected to come on the market soon, including one sold directly by Amazon.
Economically, an Internet-only book review would have far lower fixed costs than a printed magazine. And if the editors could work out an arrangement to receive a certain percentage of the purchase price for each copy of a book downloaded through its site, it might even end up with that holy grail of literary magazines: a profit.