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New Book Club Gets a Jump on Critics

News and Trends

Online Only, posted 8.03.10

When the Rumpus, an online magazine, announced in May that it was starting a fee-based book club, editor in chief Stephen Elliott thought he might sign up a couple of dozen devoted readers. But by the end of June about three hundred people had agreed to pay twenty-five dollars a month (thirty-eight dollars for readers outside the United States) for an experience Elliott describes as one of a kind. While there are plenty of other online book clubs—Salon and Flavorpill are two newcomers—the Rumpus Book Club offers a compelling twist on the model. Members pay for two things: advance copies of new books, mostly fiction titles, which they’ll receive a month before the official publication date, and access to the people who’ve written them. “I don’t know that anybody’s ever done a book club quite like this,” says Elliott, the author of six books, including the memoir The Adderall Diaries (Graywolf Press, 2009).

The magazine’s staff members encourage discussion of the books through weekly blog posts, and at the end of each month, the featured author participates in a live conversation, moderated by Elliott, on the Rumpus. Part of the idea of the club is to get ahead of the critics and give readers a chance to weigh in on new literature, so members are invited to submit reviews of each new title and also talk about the books on Twitter (using the hashtag #RumpusBookClub).

For the club’s inaugural reading list, Rumpus editors chose John Brandon’s novel Citrus County, published by McSweeney’s Books in July; Doug Dorst’s story collection, The Surf Guru, published by Riverhead this month; and Tao Lin’s novel Richard Yates (Melville House) along with Lan Samantha Chang’s novel All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost (Norton), both forthcoming in September.

“We’re interested in finding those gems buried beneath the celebrity memoirs and the handful of books from authors with big advances,” Elliott says about the selection of books. “Our favorite [way of choosing titles] is when someone we really trust tells us that they’ve come across a book that was earth shattering.” He cites novelist Cheryl Strayed’s recommendation of the memoir The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch, forthcoming next March from Hawthorne Books (club members will receive the book in February). “One thing you can always be certain of is that we will never make a decision based on anything other than quality,” Elliott says.

About a month after the launch of the Rumpus Book Club, the magazine announced the creation of the more targeted Poetry Book Club, which charges a twenty-dollar fee to U.S. members (thirty-three dollars for international shipping). Poetry selections, which began in July with Shane Book’s Ceiling of Sticks (published next month by the Bison Books imprint of University of Nebraska Press), are made by an advisory board of poets including Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Camille Dungy, Brian Spears, and Matthew Zapruder. There’s also the promise of a series of onetime special guest “choosers” who will also moderate author conversations.

Information on how to join either club—month-to-month and yearly options are available—is available on the Rumpus at therumpus.net/bookclub.

Kevin Canfield is a freelance writer in New York City.

“We’re interested in finding those gems buried beneath the celebrity memoirs and the handful of books from authors with big advances.”

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