The State of the Site: Year Four

Last Saturday was the fourth anniversary of the launch of the award-winning Seattle Review of Books. Four years! If the site were a president, its first term would be over. Were it a dog — say, a Greyhound (a dog I pick at random for no obvious reason) — it would be thirty-three. Were it a human, it would be starting to develop a rich cognitive model of self, something to carry it forward into its kindergarten years.

Anthropomorphizing a website is ridiculous, of course. We could pick plenty of four-year-old things that might portend a horrible future — but still, the exercise is interesting if we want to look outside ourselves, and think about what you could have been. It helps cast things in a different light.

The past year, since my last update, has been a busy one, both for the site and behind the scenes. Site co-founder Paul Constant is now a published comic book writer, and his debut series Planet of the Nerds has had a wonderful reception into the world (it's really good). Site Associate Editor Dawn McCarra Bass has started a company, and continues the great work of the Pocket Libraries program. My extracurricular activities have been less outward — I've been tinkering in the basement (more on that in a minute).

It has been our honor this year, as in those before, to report on the world of Seattle literature, to review books that shape and change that world, to comment, listen, and offer a platform to many who are working on so many important issues, using books as their platform.

Thank you, as always, to the writers and columnists that are our public voice. We couldn't do it without you, and we are so honored to be where you choose to shine. To Olivia Waite, Nisi Shawl, and Daneet Steffens, who cover our "genre" columns with such ease and aplomb, to Christine Marie Larsen, Aaron Bagley, and Clare Johnson whose visual work shows each week on the site. To Cienna Madrid who taught us so much about maternal sexual attraction to spiders. To our reviewers, and people who pitch us ideas: thank you. It is humbling to see your talent each day.

Also, there's a new face behind the scenes. Julie Yue (my day-job coworker at Textio) has just started helping us with some editorial work. There is no doubt you'll see her name more as we go, and we'll give her a proper introduction when the time is right, but I wanted to be sure to mention her in this note, and mark our appreciation at the start of her time with us.

I'm going to take a nerdy sidebar here for a minute: in December, our CMS broke. CMS is an acronym that means "Content Management System", or, the place we put all our junk that spits out the webpages you're reading right now. Since our launch, we were publishing on a scrappy system built by a small handful of devs, called Webhook. It was a nicely designed system that didn't find any commercial traction, so the founders went to work for other people. The site kept plugging along until December, when a service the site relied on was deprecated and we were unable to log in and use the service.

Hopefully, you didn't notice this. Right away, we started publishing manually. Back in 1995, I learned how to build websites by publishing hand-written HTML. I went back to my roots for this, and since then we strung together a temporary solution using Airtable, Github, and a few other handy services combined with old-fashioned hand edited HTML. It's still a manual process, but a manageable one.

Then, with a huge amount of invaluable help from my friend, compatriot, and one of those frontend dev/designer combos that make it all look so easy, Chris Drackett, we've been rebuilding the site.

When we launch the new version later this year, I'll explain more about what we did and why, but it's taking a while because we're addressing some issues with the way we structured data originally, and trying to make the site more friendly, more usable, and more extensible. We're taking the opportunity to build it better.

If you have noticed anything awry this year (our RSS feed, for one), this is why. We apologize for that, and if it were 1996 I'd put a little gif here, probably of a little stick man working with a shovel. I'm so glad it's not 1996 anymore.

It's been a good lesson, hand-writing HTML. It reminds me why we build CMS', what they are good for, and how we use them poorly. We evaluated dozens of replacement options, some of which we eliminated from consideration right off, some that we prototyped and played with before ending up on our solution of a Django backend, and React front-end.

There is a craft element to building websites that it is easy to forget with modern development techniques. We are building with craft in mind, but also relying on modern technologies to make the site easier to expand and update in the future. We'll say more when the time is right.

Four years. Four years! Four years of daily publishing. That's something, isn't it? An independant media voice in a city whose arts reporting has been woefully diminshed, at a time when the city is more populous and richer than ever. We find this unacceptable.

This time, next year, the election to remove the elephant in the room (the one that's sitting on the chest of the entire country making us gasp for breath) will be underway. Amidst this chaos (frends, it's gonna be nasty) the five-year state of the site message may be full of news of SRoB, but we hope to report a past year full of growth and expansion.

Friends, the state of the Seattle Review of Books is strong, but we are working on the foundation. We are workshopping the future every day, and can't wait to show you what we think it could be.