end of an era

The Millions Will Live on, But the Indie Book Blog Is Dead

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When the Millions launched in 2003, it was in every way an artifact of its moment: a labor of love with a blogspot.com URL, dedicated to one man’s love of literature. By day, C. Max Magee worked in a West Hollywood bookstore; by night (or whenever), he was the sole proprietor of the Internet’s newest hub for literary discussion, where year-in-reading lists and enthusiastic reviews ran alongside short, casual posts like this one:

I can’t believe I’ve never mentioned this: My landlord is the moderately famous French philosopher and Columbia University professor, Sylvère Lotringer. He co-wrote a book with Paul Verilio called Pure War, and gave us each copies when we signed the lease. He is married to Chris Kraus a novelist/filmmaker from New Zealand/Germany. Just now he called to talk about the plumber.

Back then, the Millions was just one site among many, at a time when every 20-something with something to say was self-publishing it online. Starting a blog was the last decade’s equivalent of launching a podcast, the go-to (generally unpaid) side hustle for young people with a lot of opinions. But over the next ten years, fueled by Magee’s relentless enthusiasm and not much else, the Millions grew into a unique and remarkable place. As of last year, the site was revered by almost everyone who cared about books, a coveted outlet for book publicists and marketers and a launching pad for the careers of multiple literary stars. Yet it retained the indie credibility of a passion project run by industry outsiders.

That outsider status might have ended last week, when Magee announced that the Millions had been acquired by the trade paper Publishers Weekly. And while the site’s new editor, Adam Boretz, a former Millions staffer himself, says there are no plans to change the site — “The Millions that you’ve known and loved will continue to be the Millions that you’ve known and loved” — there’s a consensus among readers, writers, publishers, and critics that something has ended. If not the Millions itself, then perhaps the culture and era that sustained it: an online Wild West full of hungry readers and exuberant writers still young and innocent enough not to mind working for (almost) free.

“We didn’t have the aspiration of becoming professional book critics,” says Jessa Crispin, the founder and editor-in-chief of the now-defunct blog Bookslut. (Like many pioneers of the book-blogging golden age, Crispin is now a professional book critic, as well as an author.) Bookslut was launched in 2002, as the engagement-driven, social-media-centric Web 2.0 was just coming into existence. “Everyone was online blabbing about something,” Crispin remembers. “It might as well be about books. It was a completely unprofessional, pointless activity — that we all really enjoyed.”

That fun-first feeling is palpable among the reminiscences of Millions staff. C. Max Magee, speaking by phone, describes the early days of the site as a quest “to recreate the feeling of the independent bookstore online, almost like an Entertainment Weekly for literary fiction. I didn’t go into it thinking that it was going to be anything other than my personal blog.” Lydia Kiesling came on board as a writer in 2009 and took over as the site’s editor a few years later. “You could just kind of write something that was in your head and it didn’t have to be perfect,” she says. “It was just the casual musings of people who were pretty serious readers and writers.”

Eventually, and especially after a 2010 redesign that gave it a more polished, magazine-y look, the Millions amassed both a stable of talented contributors and a dedicated readership. Jynne Dilling Martin, a publicist at Riverhead Books, remembers the impact as virtually immediate: “They were really early champions for more undiscovered, groundbreaking work. It was — and still to this day is — a resource for readers as well as the media to discover who the emergent voices are for any given generation.”

And yet it seems that the people who ran the Millions were the last to realize that their little literary salon had become kind of a big deal. “The first time someone emailed me to ask if I wanted to see a forthcoming book,” says Kiesling, “I was so flattered and amazed, and I didn’t understand that it didn’t mean that I had to do something with it! I would get emails from someone being like, ‘I’d love to send you this book,’ and you don’t realize until later that they’ve sent that email to everyone.”

That the reviewers who ran the Millions might not have been savvy enough to spot a mass press release encapsulates the outlook that so charmed a community burned out on cynicism and snark. While other outlets butted heads over the right to be contemptuous and the still-thriving Gawker published a polemic against smarmy positivity, the Millions sidestepped the debate entirely. The sincerity of the site was singular, and refreshing — although some people remained skeptical. “There was a point where someone described us as ‘professional,’ meant in a pejorative sense,” Kiesling says. (That someone was Crispin, who says she always thought the site’s inoffensiveness was calculated, maybe even corporate, before adding, “But that’s just me being an asshole.”)

Kiesling says that in her early years she still thought of the Millions as “a dorky book blog,” and found it “baffling” to see book jackets bearing blurbs from the site. But in retrospect, she adds, its influence is undeniable. (And Kiesling herself is now one of the site’s success stories; her recent novel The Golden State bears a blurb from Millions colleague Edan Lepucki.)

And yet, even as online cultural criticism grew more cynical and outrage-driven, the Millions continued to feel in some ways like a relic of a more innocent time. It was a place where writers might thoughtfully expound on the nature of scathing reviews (one piece by Emily St. John Mandel began, “Publishers Weekly doesn’t like my work very much”). But it rarely doled them out; debate was generally animated by good faith and a real enthusiasm for reading. What passed for a contentious comment thread on the Millions was quite civil by most standards. If Magee’s energy single-handedly kept the site afloat all those years, its audience came, and stayed, because it was a pleasant place to be if you wanted to talk about books.

“It didn’t feel like it had some big point more than to sort of reflect the appetite of a bunch of intelligent readers,” says Laura Miller, Slate’s book critic and a longtime Millions fan. “The kind of readerliness of the Millions, I just feel like that’s not really in fashion anymore — the idea that you would just write about a book because you liked it, and that would be good enough.”

It’s impossible to have a conversation about this golden age of blogging without also bringing up the not-so-golden practice of asking writers to work for free. On one hand, the Millions is one of few sites where the concept of being paid in “exposure” actually held (and holds) legitimate promise. Mark Sarvas, critic and proprietor of the now-defunct literary blog the Elegant Variation, credits the site’s longevity to its curated stable of excellent writers. “Max had a good eye for talent,” he says. The roster of authors who got their start as contributors includes New York Times best sellers, Booker Prize nominees, and Emily St. John Mandel, whose Station Eleven was a National Book Award finalist. (Publishers Weekly liked it too.) “I really think of it as the place where I learned how to write nonfiction,” says Mandel.

But it’s also true that the site’s sustainability depended on attracting young writers who were willing to work for no or low pay in exchange for the mere possibility of a career boost. Reasonable people can disagree on whether such an arrangement is always detrimental to the literary sphere; certainly, the Millions couldn’t have existed in its current form without it, especially in a world where readers still balk at paywalls or subscription models. But what seems undeniable is that unpaid (or unreliably paid) blogging is a young person’s game. To a one, the Millions staffers I spoke to described loving their time at the site — but also finding the commitment impractical, and then impossible, as the responsibilities of adulthood, career, and family (particularly children) began to accrue. Magee, a father of three, was one of them. “As far as feeling like I needed to step back or shut it down, that all came from pressures from my own life,” he says. He began quietly looking for a buyer in early 2018, but he was prepared to be picky. “People said, ‘Maybe a publisher will buy you,’ but that always felt very tricky for the site to navigate as compared to a publication.”

Considering the history of the Millions as a leading independent reviewer — and the importance of the site’s credibility as a publishing outsider — the deal with Publishers Weekly came together with remarkable ease. According to Magee, the credit goes to former Millions staffer Adam Boretz, who fortuitously joined PW as an editor around the same time that Magee told his colleagues about his plan to sell. “I basically suggested, ‘Hey, maybe you guys want to buy the Millions,’” Boretz says. Just a couple months later, the sale was done — and Boretz was back at the site, only this time as editor-in-chief.

All told, the subsumption of the Millions by PW seems to say more about the people who ran it — and the finite nature of energetic, young, pre-settled-down adulthood — than about the future of the site, which Boretz says should be indistinguishable from its past: “The writers will be able to write what they want to write. The process hasn’t changed and what we’re looking for hasn’t changed.” (The one exception to that rule, about which there will be no complaints, is that Boretz has plans to eventually pay his writers more for their work.) For now, it looks like the Millions will be that rare ancient beast that evolves just enough to outlive the extinction of its contemporaries — or maybe a sort of internet clubhouse, built by a handful of digital kids who have now vacated to make room for the next generation.

“The blogs are like mayflies, either new blood will come in or it’ll die out,” Laura Miller says. “But maybe these things are best when they’re short-lived?”

It remains to be seen whether the best days of the Millions are behind it, and how much of its magic depended on its founding generation. But either way, a threshold has been crossed. The Millions is no longer a slapdash indie operation, and the young and struggling are unlikely to recreate the era in which it thrived. The age of book blogging is dead. Long live … Bookstagram?

The Millions Will Live on, But the Indie Book Blog Is Dead