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Meet Tom Lutz of Los Angeles Review of Books in Hollywood

Today we’d like to introduce you to Tom Lutz.

Tom, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I grew up on the East Coast in a hot mess of a family and lit out for the territories the first chance I got. I spent a decade wandering around the country and the world, working as a cook, carpenter, and musician before going to college and then graduate school, finding a way to turn my love of reading and writing into a way to make a living.

I built a career as a literary scholar, but since coming to LA 20 years ago, I’ve been writing less for academic audiences and more for the general public, and helping to bring the gospel of great writing to people through Los Angeles Review of Books, which started in my basement in 2011.

I also teach at UC Riverside, where I am Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing.

Has it been a smooth road?
Like most people, I was often in my own way.

LARB was born just as many similar businesses were dying, and we knew we were swimming against the tide. We had to build a business — a nonprofit business, but a business nonetheless — in a disrupted, inhospitable environment.

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into the Los Angeles Review of Books story. Tell us more about the business.
Los Angeles Review of Books was born seven years ago, just as the book reviews at newspapers all over the country were folding. My introduction to literary culture was from my newspaper’s book review, and as a writer and literary historian, I know how important book reviews are to the cultural ecosystem. Something had to replace and improve upon the old Sunday supplement as it disappeared, something that was responsive to the new publishing landscape and new technologies, and so I talked a bunch of friends into helping me launch LARB. We wanted to do something with a West Coast sensibility, but directed to the whole country and beyond. And in fact, we do have as many readers in New York and in Europe as we have in Southern California, and are read in over 150 countries around the world.

We keep growing: The LARB/USC Publishing Workshop helps train the next generation of publishing professionals. The LARB Radio Hour is on KPFK and podcast networks. The LARB Quarterly Journal prints the best new fiction, poetry, and essays. The LARB Channels cover everything from religion to philosophy to new music to politics.

LARB has become required reading for the book world and feels a strong responsibility to spread the literary word.

How do you think the industry will change over the next decade?
Newspapers, magazines, and book publishers know the old business models no longer work. Digital culture has disrupted journalism as much as it has the music industry and other businesses. Los Angeles Review of Books had to figure out a new model, using a combination of a public radio-like membership program, events, grants, advertising dollars, and reader support. It is still a daily struggle to make it all work, but we are getting there. (If you haven’t become a member yet and care about books and reading, come join us!)

Publishing will continue to change fast. There have been enormous changes in the last ten years, and there will be enormous changes again in the next ten. Amazon will continue to dominate the industry over the decade I would guess, but new players will emerge to challenge them. The old world — of printers, book publishers, conventional distributors, and bookstores — will continue to be part of the picture, but never again be the dominant force. The production of books will continue to decentralize, I think, but the distribution will look more like Amazon than ever, even if there are one or two new competitors in that space. The most disturbing trend is that writers (and musicians and all other artists) have lost significant ground, and it is hard to see how the income they have lost over the last decade can be replaced. Publishers used to call the shots, and they had some incentive to keep authors happy — they didn’t want their best authors jumping ship for another publisher. But when the distributor has all the power, they don’t have a direct relationship to the author, they don’t care who publishes the book, and the person who loses out is the writer. In short, the technology will get better, prices will stay low, and writers will all need day jobs.

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Image Credit:
Maxine Hong Kingston, Juan Felipe Herrera, TC Boyle, Taylor Negron & Laurie Winer, Jesse & Yarrow Lutz

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