C. Max Magee started The Millions as a literary blog back in 2003. Eight years later, the site has taken on the pleasingly reliable aspect of something sturdier than a blog: it publishes work by sharp, well-known writers; it has a dependably high level of quality and polish; the pieces read like edited, carefully considered work; and it combines the best of a print publication with the best of a webby thing.
This description seems ripe to be called “back-handed” by faithful defenders of the interwebs, but I mean it as a totally fore-handed compliment. The Millions is a great site. If you’re into good writing about good writing, and for some reason you haven’t checked it out, I highly recommend it.
Magee, who co-edited The Late Great American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books and who has written for many publications, graciously agreed to answer some questions by e-mail.
One of the things I appreciate about The Millions is its similarity to certain qualities of a printed publication – the writing is polished and edited, many of the pieces are long and detailed, and it has less of an impulsive, tossed-off quality than a lot of stuff online. How did you initially envision it working, in comparison to something like a book review or magazine, and how has that evolved?
The site started out as a blog in 2003 and wasn’t always as polished, but almost from the beginning I had traditional print publications in mind as models in terms the quality and depth of the writing. I didn’t really have a fully formed vision for the site at the outset, and I didn’t have any expectation that I would be doing it for this long. So, much of what you see evolved pretty organically as the site got bigger and attained a wider readership and more writers got involved in the project.
What has your experience with The Millions taught you about building an audience online? How about the economic realities of making the enterprise survive?
There’s something to be said for writing pieces, clicking “publish” and letting the universe sort out the rest. In the early days, it was all about participating in the community of sites that were out there writing about similar topics. These days, to the extent that we make an effort to build our audience, being active on Twitter and Facebook helps. I strongly believe, though, that if you publish good work online, people will find you.
The economics are getting better. Books are not a lucrative niche relative to many of the other niches out there (tech, celebs, etc.), but in the last couple of years, I think certain advertisers have come to see the value in reaching readers of sites like The Millions. Having said that, the sums involved aren’t huge. We are able to pay our staff writers for their efforts, but we are not yet able to pay our many guest writers.
The Millions compiles a Top 10 list of books purchased through Amazon by readers of the site – a nice example of the way that readers are a more prominent part of the equation online (or at least on your site). What does that kind of feature contribute to the site? How does it contribute to decisions you make as an editor?
I just happen to think it’s fascinating data, and I wanted to share it with our readers. The lists also let readers see what their peers are reading, and I frequently refer people to the lists when I’m asked for a book recommendation. The lists certainly don’t drive our coverage, but I do take note of when books seem to be rising in popularity even though we haven’t covered them much or at all. When that happens, I might look at covering that particular book.
You were the championship judge in the Tournament of Books at The Morning News, helping to choose between Freedom and A Visit From the Goon Squad. What was that experience like? Did you have a favorite book or books that you wished had made it deeper into the bracket?
This was my third time judging, and it is always a fun experience, though a little nerve-wracking since it feels like such a big stage. This particular matchup was tough because it felt like Freedom had received so much coverage already, and I knew the challenge would be to write something fresh about it. Like many Tournament readers, I would have liked to see Skippy Dies go further.
You co-edited The Late Great American Novel, a collection of essays published this year. Did working on those essays change your view of the novel and its current health as an art form and a cultural force?
Editing the book certainly made me think more on the topic. I still feel that the book is an extremely important and vibrant concept but that whether you consume it by turning pages or touching a screen matters less and less.
What makes a good editor?
At a high level, good editing starts with being able to identify good ideas – looking, for example, at a list of five ideas sent by a writer, and knowing which one will be the winner. When you’re writing, you can get buried in the piece, and so a good editor can also help a writer make connections and see new angles. The perfect situation for me is when it feels like a writer-driven collaboration, with my editorial input helping to focus and tighten the writer’s brilliant idea.
What books are you particularly excited about right now?
Check out our most recent top 10. That does a pretty good job of summing up the books that are piquing my interest right now.
To read past interviews, go here.
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