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On the death of literary website Readerville


After nine years, the website Readerville has decided to call it quits. In my visits, which were admittedly occasional, I found it to have a good literary take on books and solid connections to the New York community of writers and readers.

Although I do not know editor Karen Templer at all, I do have an idea of what it took, in 2000, to build a website -- it took a lot. In the mid-90s, I learned HTML to create a tiny, two-issue webzine, using dial-up and compressing image files on a computer that had less power than your kid's iPod. Back then, I said that if someone made a software program that would let people put stuff -- writing, pictures, music files -- on the Internet, magazine-style, they'd be rich.

I was wrong. Because the people who made those software programs -- we call them blogging platforms -- (mostly) did it for free.

Now the barriers to entry are so much lower than they were in 2000 that it's probably best to say that there are no barriers. Anybody can set up a free Wordpress blog, share photos with Flickr, Tweet away without spending a dime.

Plus, someone who wants to put something on the Internet today doesn't need to know how to ftp to a server. But when Templer got started, understanding the technology was just as important as having an idea of what to do with the technology.

Readerville had clearly evolved since 2000; it used blogs to drive many of its content areas and it had an elegant design. But its large and somewhat fuzzy mandate was a little lost. Was it a weblog making recommendations about books (or film or technology), or was it a community of readers? It seemed to try to tie its blog comments into its message boards. That's where the community part comes in -- in a message board system, which in most cases feels a little, well, 1996. (Believe me, I realize I'm posting this on a blog that looks a little 2005).

As the technologies that drive the Internet have evolved, those enterprises that come in later have a head start. Goodreads, LibraryThing and Shelfari are three sites with slightly different bells and whistles, but  similar mandates -- connecting people through books. Like Readerville tried to do -- but these sites have the advantage of both better coding and a more sophisticated perspective on social networking's best practices.

All of which is to say that what Readerville did was hard and that it accomplished much. Nine years is a long time to keep a website vital and engaged, and they get my thanks.

But chances are there will be one -- or two or 12 -- sites that will pick up where they've left off.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: marksdk via Flickr

Comments () | Archives (10)

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Hi. This is Tim, the guy who founded LibraryThing. I think the story is a little more complex than you portray it.

Readerville's death baffled many members. The financial aspects—how a simple blog and forum site with negligible traffic needed thousands of dollars a month to run—made no sense. '

So too did the owner's attitude toward the community. In fact, quite few members tried to save Readerville. They offered money and all sorts of help. When the site first declared it was closing a member set up an alternative site, with exactly the same functionality, and free (not $8 month). Nobody expected to make a dime—they just wanted to preserve a valuable community. The proprietor went after them for trademark issues.

We also tried to get involved. LibraryThing offered free hosting, and help coordinating people to help. The good will alone made it worthwhile. I spent a lot of time working on the problem. In the end, I decided the problem was neither technical nor financial.

It's notable that the site's final blog post closes with red text, warning anyone from using the name Readerville, and does not allow comments. I think that about sums it up.

The owner never released any financial information or specific information about traffic, so saying "how a simple blog and forum site with negligible traffic needed thousands of dollars a month to run" is completely guesswork on both counts.

Readerville was Karen's project and hers to run (and close) as she wished.

Frankly, Tim, I don't particularly care how legitimate your beef is. I wish you luck in a community as challenging and vital as Readerville was. If LibraryThing's tone is anything like yours, I'm glad I've never wasted my time with it.

Tim Spalding wrote: "So too did the owner's attitude toward the community."

Only someone far outside the community could draw such a baseless conclusion. For those of us who've been there for the whole nine years, I would have to think that we collectively regard Karen Templer not as "the owner," but something far beyond that.

To me, she is the hostess with the mostest, and whose good manners surpass anyone I've ever known, online or off. She created Readerville out of her heart and soul, and did everything possible to maintain her vision of a community with its roots in literature, as well as "the social life of the mind." Her insistence on civility among members never faltered, nor did her OWN civility ever wane.

I praise Karen for her inspiration to so many of us, and am grateful that I don't have a cynical bone in my body where she is concerned.

Karen has every right to have trademark clams, copyright claims, and claims of the heart, over Readerville's origins and legacy. She built the stadium: we just got to see the bands.

Re Tim's remark:

>When the site first declared it was closing a member set up an alternative site, with exactly the same functionality, and free (not $8 month). Nobody expected to make a dime—they just wanted to preserve a valuable community. The proprietor went after them for trademark issues.

I would just like to correct this comment, which I assume refers to my site, BookBalloon.com. Karen never went after us for trademark violations (or anything else), and had no reason to. There was a lot of confusion when Readerville announced it was in trouble last year, and various people undertook various initiatives to preserve the community. I think Tim might have conflated a couple of different episodes.

BookBalloon has tried hard to maintain good relations with Readerville over the past 14 months. We have frequently recommended Readerville and remarked on articles that have been posted there. Many of our members were also members at Readerville.

And by the way, we also love LibraryThing, and it's recommended as one of our favorite sites for book lovers.

Say, Tim guy-who-founded-LibraryThing, were you by chance wearing your cranky pants yesterday? Or, are you manifesting hurt feelings over some long-ago perceived injury. You sound like a fellow with chippy shoulder.

That aside, and I confess readily it stuck in my craw --

Adios, Readerville.

There's a short story by Clarín in which a boy leaves his small rural village to go on to better things, to get an education in fact. As the train (or the wagon or whatever mode of transport it was, I don't recall) passes a field the boy glimpses Cordera, a cow who was a good friend to him. Of a sudden, the boy intuits that his life is changed forever; even if/when he goes home, it never will be the same. The title of the story is "Adios, Cordera."

Adios, Readerville indeed.

First and foremost, Karen made a heroic effort to make Readerville work, in several differening guises. And through that effort, Karen's distinguishing qualities shone through.

>But chances are there will be one -- or two or 12 -- sites that will pick up where they've left off.

Herein may lie the key to understanding why online book groups, including Readerville, have so far failed to live up to their hyped potential of the '90s when so many of us - including Karen (if I'm remembering correctly) - congregated at Salon's TableTalk.

From the energetic and of substantive discussions of TT, there has been a distinct trend away from the seminal community to many communities, and away from involved discussions requiring a degree of commitment to twitter-like posts about books.

The Readerville community was incomparable. Goodreads, etc., are fine for cataloging books, but I've never felt any sense of community on them. When I found out Readerville was closed, I felt a terrible sense of loss.

Well, its been a great 9 years. Despite pulling my hair out at times, I was thrilled to be part of a community like Readerville. It was a treasure trove of books, authors, writing I have never been exposed to before. And not only that, there were people who enjoyed discussing it! I felt priveledged to know the many fine writers who frequented the site, as well as the many many readers who participated in the discussions. And we had some doozies. There were people who kept me in stitches, there were people who managed in a few words to open my eyes to something new. I do not really miss what readerville became the last year or so, but I do very much miss that community of readers and writers, which did much to expand my mind (and empty my pocketbook but thats another story) I am thankful to those people, some of whom have become dear friends in real life.

I do hope folks will pop by Bookballoon. Its format and topics are similar to the ville before the last format change, and there have been some very good monthly book discussions.


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