Happy birthday to 'the house mag of the intellectual elite'

And, to celebrate, 'London Review of Books' takes its 12,000 articles online.
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The Independent Online

If Clive James's assessment of the London Review of Books as "the house magazine of the intellectual elite" is correct, the elite would seem to be getting bigger.

This is a text-heavy journal that regularly publishes essays more than 5,000 words long, with topics ranging from the legacy of Guantanamo Bay to the letters of Van Gogh, and contributors including academics as much as journalists. An unlikely recipe for success, yet as the paper marks its 30th birthday, circulation figures continue to rise. The most recent show fortnightly sales stand at 48,265, up 2,500 on the year before, with similar increases every preceding year in its history. As the author and poet Tariq Ali noted when he clambered on to a table at the LRB's 30th birthday party on Thursday, this is a magazine that "doesn't give a damn what anyone thinks".

It was in this healthy commercial climate that publisher Nicholas Spice took the decision two years ago to put the LRB's entire archive of 12,000 articles online, which go live for the first time this weekend. "It was a daunting prospect," he recalls when we meet in the magazine's recently refurbished Bloomsbury offices. "The idea of physically scanning and uploading each of the paper's 12,000 articles was met with some scepticism at first." In the end, the work was outsourced to Macmillan in India, while in-house web designers created a design that encourages users to delve further into the archive, linking to articles with thematic connections.

"We were nervous about that – the LRB is supremely refined in its editorial position and the idea of classifying articles in this rather crude way was thought to be rather infra dig." But the results have, so far, met with approval. Author and contributor Andrew O'Hagan was among the first to try it, and said: "It was wonderful: I felt like I was tumbling through the issues and down into the articles."

Digitalising the archive is the latest stage in a programme of expansion which has seen staff levels grow from 12 to 40 in the past 15 years, and their office space nearly double, with the expansion into a floor upstairs.

The LRB is fortunate in being owned by a small number of family shareholders with deep pockets. Chief among these is the formidable Mary-Kay Wilmers, 71, the editor who has been on board since its foundation. While many of her contributors and friends enjoy high profiles in the literary world, Wilmers has chosen to remain firmly in the shadows. Until now. With what some see as canny timing, the LRB's 30th birthday has coincided with the publication of her book, a biography of her cut-throat Russian ancestors, the Eitingons. Her great-uncle, Leonid, was Stalin's chief assassin, responsible for masterminding Trotsky's grisly end with an icepick, while his brother, Motty, was a ruthless entrepreneur, propping up Stalin's regime in return for sole rights to Russia's £700m fur trade.

Wilmers has undoubtedly inherited some of her relatives' steeliness. She originally joined as deputy to the paper's founding editor, Karl Miller, but in 1992 replaced him after "editorial differences" forced him to resign. Miller was then one of the leading figures of literary academia and journalism, having been Lord Northcliffe professor of English at University College London and books editor of the New Statesman and Spectator. But relations with Wilmers frayed and he eventually left. "Karl Miller was exceptionally gifted but also quite a difficult person," says Spice. "It would be completely disingenuous to say it was a totally amicable break up."

The London Review of Books was founded in response to the printing strikes at the The Times of 1979, which caused printing of The Times Literary Supplement to be suspended. It started with the encouragement and financial support of the New York Review of Books, and originally appeared within its pages as a 24-page supplement. That arrangement soon ended, although the paper retains a strong transatlantic readership, with more than half of subscribers living in America.

While the content is unapologetically high-brow, the LRB's prosperity is not just a happy coincidence. As Spice explains, it's the result of spending 23 of its 30 years doggedly looking for new readers through direct marketing. Every week leaflets promoting the LRB flutter out of upmarket magazines around the world, which Spice maintains is crucial.

"There are probably half a million people in the world who would get pleasure from reading the LRB, the question is how to reach them."

Many rival literary magazines have been forced to cut marketing costs, which helps explain their dwindling circulations. Ironically, this could have a knock-on effect on the LRB's own figures. "There's what's called 'churn' on the databases: a lot of people coming in and out, moving magazines. We rely on targeting other magazines' subscriber lists. If people stop promoting, fewer new readers are coming into that pool, and circulation starts to stagnate. That's a bad trend and means fewer direct marketing opportunities."

It is with this in mind that the LRB is now shifting its attention to the web, although there are no plans to make any changes to the paper's core product.

The intellectual elite will always want in-depth essays and book reviews, and they don't give a damn what anyone thinks.