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A new-media read on books at Huffington Post

Amy Hertz, also editor-at-large at Dutton Books, envisions a site that goes far beyond traditional reviews.

October 21, 2009|James Rainey

The great thing about the wide-open space of the Web is that it's accepted practice -- encouraged really -- for anyone to walk in many worlds and take on many guises.

Rock stars can blog about politics. Politicians can thrill us with lists of their favorite rock songs. And the Huffington Post can create a new book section that both doubts and embraces the value of book reviews.

In recent days, founder Arianna Huffington trumpeted a partnership with the New York Review of Books, that redoubt of serious criticism, just about the time the website's new book editor seemed to disdain reviews, which she said "tend to be conversation enders."

Amy Hertz's cheeky dismissal of criticism was only one of the unusual aspects of her ascension as editor of HuffPost's 2-week-old Books. The other anomaly was her veritable dual citizenship: She assumes her new media role at the same time she remains editor-at-large for Dutton Books, a division of the Penguin Group, one of the largest trade-book publishers in the world.

This sort of two-timing (and the potential for conflicts of interest) might have been big news once in the media world. But the shock waves wrought by technological change now wash over us so quickly and continuously, we scarcely stop to note them.

So the arrival of HuffPost Books has some in the journalism world chilled at the prospect of less rigorous thinking about books even as many others are thrilled that the queen of bloggers and new media will devote a portion of her website to books. The site debuts after several years of declining coverage by newspapers, many of which have closed separate book sections.

When I talked to Hertz on Tuesday, she sounded slightly remorseful about the posting last week in which she suggested that reviews could be deadly. "Was it delivered in a cheeky way, meant to have some fun? Absolutely," Hertz said. "If I had known the cheekiness would upset some people, would I have cut it back? Absolutely."

But the editor, 46, said that the vast majority of the reaction has been positive, both to the new site and her admonitions about how to promote books in the Internet Age.

"There is a very hungry audience out there for many kinds of books and there are too few venues for their voices to be heard," Hertz said. "More than anything, we would love to have a broader range of books being sold and making money. How great would that be for the authors and for inspiring ideas?"

In her inaugural HuffPost editor's essay earlier this month, she gave an impassioned argument for the future of publishing, which included a detailed description of how she loves to settle in with a book for "a long, deep conversation of minds: the one that takes place between yours and the author's."

Hertz concluded, "while the Internet won't kill books, boredom, earnestness and despair just might."

It was in a subsequent essay to "my dear colleagues in publishing" that she irked some in her industry for the glib way in which she seemed to swear off book reviews and focus on other alternatives for engaging readers.

Hertz argued that authors, their editors and publicists should all be pushing their books on blogs, engaging their readers in direct conversations and opening their publicity campaigns months earlier than they have in the past.

A couple of book critics I talked to -- who said they didn't want to be quoted by name lest they harm their relationships with Huffington -- said they feel that coverage of books already stands in danger of getting less pithy, too lite. They see a surge in publisher-friendly formats, such as author profiles and Q&As.

"That's all about selling," one said. "But we need more about books than just that. Reviews carry a risk with them, but that's as it should be."

In fact, Hertz has instituted a weekly roundup of briefs that summarize reviews written by other news outlets. Through its partnership with New York Review of Books, the site also features long think pieces and reviews that reach from books to public policy and culture.

It's not reviews, Hertz told me, that she disdains. She merely wants to slay the arcane and ponderous essay in favor of pieces that "spark some real conversations."

The editor -- who has been in the book business since college and helped bring to print the Dalai Lama's "Art of Happiness," in addition to other bestsellers -- seemed surprised to even be asked if there could be a conflict between her duties as book editor and Web editor.

"Am I going to be spending all of my time on Penguin Books? The answer is no," she said.

Hertz told me she has had so many submissions -- "an embarrassment of riches"-- in the opening days of HuffPost Books that she can't find room for them all on the site, which does not pay for the pieces.

I've always marveled at the way Huffington has been able to make like Tom Sawyer -- so happily painting in her blog that she's got people lining up to help her for free.

I wondered if it was hard to ask writers, some of them struggling, to give their work away, even with the prospect that they might sell more books in the long run.

"I'm not going to answer that question one way or another," Hertz said. "I just don't think it's a useful question to ask at this point. It's a new world."

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james.rainey@latimes.com

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