Electric Literature is an online literary magazine built on the principle that great stories should be available digitally. In 2009, Electric Literature launched a quarterly journal that could be printed on-demand, downloaded onto a Kindle, read on an iPhone, viewed as an e-book, and listened to as audio. The magazine was on the iPhone before the iPad came out; their app looked clean and minimalist and functioned without glitches. The New Yorker soon noticed Electric Literature—not only for its embracing of technology, but for its unusually high writer pay-rate: $1,000 a story.
After six in-every-format issues, Electric Literature produced its final quarterly magazine. In its place they created Recommended Reading, a digital magazine hosted by Tumblr that publishes a short story every Wednesday. Some weeks a curated, previously published story, some weeks a story discovered by Electric Literature’s editors, Recommended Reading is readable as an e-publisher and on Kindle—and not in print.
In 2009, at the release party for the quarterly’s second issue, Electric Literature co-founder Andy Hunter said: “You have to defend the things you love, even if defending means reinventing it.” And I wondered: In “reinventing” the short story, might something be lost?
Aspen Matis: I came across Alexa.com’s computer-written site-traffic summary of ElectricLiterature.com and found it, uh, interesting. Strangely specific:
The site is relatively popular among users in the city of New York. Compared with the overall Internet population, the site’s users are disproportionately childless, and they tend to be highly educated women between the ages of 25 and 35 who have incomes between $30,000 and $100,000 and browse from work.
So what do you guys think—is this accurate? Do you picture your readers as childless women in Manhattan?
Ben Samuel: I don’t think either of us picture our readers as childless, just slacking off at work reading fiction. But, aside from the childless thing, it’s great that they’re reading at any time, I suppose.
Halimah Marcus: Yeah, we definitely skew younger. But in terms of male-female, I thought we were pretty equal.
Samuel: But I think women read more than men. In general. I guess one takeaway—so the Brooklyn Bookfest? There’s all these other magazines, and people congregate at Borough Hall, all these publishers, so everyone has merch, and they have tote bags and stuff like that. But one store last year had a onesie for, you know, babies. Which I guess is not something that we should offer ’cause everyone’s childless.
Marcus: They sell onesies for babies, we now sell flasks. So I guess maybe we did know. [Laughs.] Somewhere in the back of our minds.
Samuel: Childless drinkers.
A. Matis: Okay. From the onset, Electric Lit has had an iPad app and a Kindle app and, when you guys put out a quarterly journal, readers could even choose to print the magazine on-demand. And I wonder what the most profitable route has been. Have all these offerings been profitable?
Marcus: The online edition of our new magazine, Recommended Reading, is numbers-wise the most popular, although it’s free so it’s not the most profitable. It’s difficult to monetize the Internet. But it’s a great way to distribute fiction.
A. Matis: And Recommended Reading is just one piece of fiction a week?
Samuel: One piece.
A. Matis: How long?
Marcus: Anywhere from 1,500 to 10,000 words. The longest we’ve published so far is 7,000. And we’re also planning on publishing some flash-fiction soon. So: basically anything. And Electric Literature is in the process of becoming a non-profit, a mission-driven organization. Recommended Reading helps fulfill part of our mission: to support other independent publishers and help demystify for them technology and digital publishing. For example, a publisher or magazine that has never put out an e-pub can partner with Recommended Reading, and we produce an e-pub and a Kindle edition of an excerpt from their magazine or press. Then they can track that data and see if that’s something they might want to do in the future.
Samuel: We still do pay writers, as well. Which is something that’s essential to our mission—supporting not just other publishers, other journals, but also supporting the writers who are creating the work in the first place.
A. Matis: And animators, too, right? Who makes those animated shorts you put up?
Samuel: Writers we publish pick one sentence from their story and then we give it to an animator to create a unique work of art inspired by that sentence. It’s kind of fun. And then you get to bring artists together.
Justin Matis: What’d you think of the movie Howl, the parts that animated Ginsberg’s poem? I never actually was a poetry guy myself, but the animation in that film—although not literal in its depiction of the poem—helped me feel the language in a deeper way.
Samuel: Yeah, absolutely. If you’re just saying “apple, here’s a picture of an apple,” it’s really not going to be a compelling work of art. But if you’re saying “here’s Apple in the context of this story,” you can create something with greater depth.
A. Matis: So have you guys seen Howl? What did you think of Eric Drooker’s animation?
Samuel: It was good.
A. Matis: It was good, yeah. And it was actually Ginsberg who selected Drooker as the animator for his poetry. It was the first animated poetry I’d ever seen. A lot of critics panned the film, though. They said: “Poetry is not a comic strip.” But Ginsberg picked this guy. And his interpretation of “Howl” is mesmerizing.
Marcus: Our single-sentence animations aren’t meant to be interpretations of the story, and they’re not really meant to help you understand the story. They are a separate art piece that’s spawned by a sentence, which is why we don’t animate the story; we animate a sentence. So ours are actually somewhat different from those Howl animations. The author selects a sentence and we give that sentence to the animator and then they pretty much have free reign. We ask them to read the story and to allow the tone of the story to influence, but beyond that they just kind of go wild.
A. Matis: And then you’ve got other videos on your YouTube channel that aren’t animated.
Marcus: We just have a few videos on there that aren’t animations, like “Can a Book Save Your Life?,” [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-BSUmLAQG-4] which I’ll let Ben talk about, because he went to the shooting range for that. [Laughs.]
Samuel: Yeah, weird place to be, a shooting range in Chelsea, showing up with just armfuls of books. And having this marksman take them out. But it was actually born out of an idea: one of our founding editors, Scott Lindenbaum, was out with Jason Diamond from Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and they were talking about how many enormous books were published this year, just like really thick titles, and that one of them might actually be able to stop a bullet. And instead of letting that speculation die there we went through with it.
A. Matis: The YouTube channel and tweeting an entire new story and the one-sentence spawned animations and all the apps and the shooting range—these seem like a huge amount of effort just to get people to read stories. Do you ever feel like saying, “Fuck it. If you don’t want to read the story, your big loss.”
Marcus: No. [Laughs.] I mean——
A. Matis: How many bells and whistles need to chime and blow before you just read the fucking story?
Marcus: Well, we don’t think of them as bells and whistles because they’re interesting in and of themselves. The animations are a great way to share art with our audience between issues, which was especially important when we had a quarterly journal, but they’re also just great works of art that we’re proud to have produced and proud to share. And tweeting a story—we’re interested in experimentation. So it’s not just a gimmick to get people to read a story. It’s a sincere effort to discover what is available to us in digital publishing that no one’s thought of yet.
Samuel: And Rick Moody also wrote that story for Twitter, intended for it to be published in tweet-format. Because each segment of the story is a tweet written by a character, Twitter is the only place it could really live and be published to be honest to the story. And, additionally, as publishers and as people who care about literature, we’re using technology and the trends to bring literature where readers are. So if people are on twitter all day long and if they’re on the train on their iPhone already, why not just bring books to them in the format that they’re used to using?
J. Matis: Your Kickstarter pledge drive was successful: you set a $10,000 goal and raised $18,872. And only 32 percent of publishing projects on Kickstarter get funded. To what do you attribute your success?
Marcus: It was a lot of small donations. We thought a lot about the rewards and the incentive levels we offered, so that people could participate and contribute to the campaign by giving five dollars, and that would still be valued. We reached our initial goal of $10,000 in just over 48 hours. That was a situation where our engaged readership really showed up. And that’s where you can see the fact that we’re tweeting all the time and engaging with people on Facebook and with our videos—they feel like part of our family.
J. Matis: And the people who made larger donations—did they send in manuscripts for editing? That was the highest incentive level, yes?
Samuel: Yeah. It will be nice to see the work of our readers.
Marcus: And the feedback from the people who bought those levels has been wonderful. Like one person who bought the reward said that he had submitted to Electric Literature in the past and gotten a really encouraging rejection letter that made him feel appreciated and encouraged, and so he wanted to have us edit his manuscript. So that validates all the time we spend writing rejection letters [laughs].
A. Matis: So I want to understand where Electric Lit’s at, now. You’re no longer paying writers $1,000 per piece—that was when you were a quarterly?
A. Matis: So what do you pay now?
Marcus: We pay $300 for an original story to the writer and $100 to the animator for their animation.
A. Matis: So why did that change?
Marcus: Because we started offering the magazine for free.
A. Matis: How were you paying $1,000 a story? Most lit mags seem to pay nominal fees, maybe a hundred bucks.
Samuel: For a small magazine to pay that rate is pretty remarkable, but because we used a progressive model we didn’t have big upfront expenses and we could translate those savings into payments to writers.
A. Matis: What upfront expenses?
Samuel: Printing costs. Instead of spending five thousand dollars to print a run of a magazine and trying to sell all of those magazines and store them and ship them—we spent that same $5,000 on the actual stories.
A. Matis: And, as you’re not selling magazines, how do you make money? Advertisements?
Samuel: Yep. Sponsorships. Publishers, tech companies, that sort of thing can pick up a sponsorship within the story, within our newsletter.
Marcus: We just started doing sponsorship from independent bookstores. Since it’s a digital magazine, we wanted to figure out ways to support independent booksellers. This issue is sponsored by Word Books which is in Greenpoint.
Samuel: So we can be a free online magazine and still support and work with independent bookstores. Which is great.
J. Matis: As a nearly-nonprofit, what’s the most ridiculous cost-cutting measure you endure to keep your budget down? Is there anything extreme you guys do, like use 20-year-old computers?
Marcus: We use our own computers. [Laughs.] And volunteers. We use interns and people who love the magazine and work for free, and we’ve downsized. Our staff was 10 and now it’s six.
J. Matis: Last question, but the most important. If you had to redesign your logo and use, in it, an electrical socket that wasn’t from North America, which electrical socket—
Marcus: Do you have visuals?
J. Matis: —would you choo——
Samuel: Do we each get to pick one?
J. Matis: Yeah, sure.
Marcus: Or should we agree.
Samuel: We’ll have to discuss. Get back to you.
Samuel: I mean. Clearly Denmark.
Marcus: Oh yeah! Denmark is cute. [Pause.] Ummmm, Israel kind of looks like an alien.
Marcus: I like Denmark, too. The smiling. Yes. I’m going to go with Denmark.
Samuel: Alright! Denmark. Consensus. That’ll be for the international edition.