A Literary Journal on Every Platform: Electric Literature

It may seem foolish to start a literary journal at a time when fewer people are reading books, and doomsayers fill column inches with “death of literature” jeremiads. But Andy Hunter and Scott Lindenbaum have developed a new approach that seems to work: find great short fiction and get it to the people wherever they are. They’re also producing a number of more experimental approaches to narrative and technology that… well, we’ll let Andy tell you himself.

-Ryan Chapman

Chapman: Give us a brief overview of Electric Literature and how you distribute the work to readers.

Andy Hunter: Electric Literature was created as an optimistic response to the fear many were feeling in the face of a changing medium: what the obsolescence of the printed word meant, specifically, for literary writing.

Our mission is to use new media and innovative distribution to keep literature a vital force in popular culture. To date, we have published Michael Cunningham, Colson Whitehead, Lydia Davis, T Cooper, Rick Moody, Jim Shepard, and Aimee Bender, among other great writers. We have more than 150,000 readers following us on Twitter (more than any other publisher in the world) and are successfully expanding readership for short stories through YouTube videos, iPhone and iPad apps, micro-serializing stories over Twitter, and other ways of using new technology and mediums to promote literary content.

We believe that digital publishing is dynamic and full of opportunities, and ultimately stories are more buoyant without the weight of paper. For example, instead of paying $5,000 to a printer, we can pay $1,000 to five writers. We distribute everywhere in the world, in every viable medium—eBook, iPad app, audiobook, Kindle, and even print-on-demand paperback.

Chapman: Are you seeing more sales electronically or in print?

Hunter: Shortly after we launched, 60 percent of our sales were digital. Now that number has grown to 80 percent. Recently our iPhone/iPad app has been getting up to two thousand downloads a month, far exceeding our expectations.

Chapman: What are some other projects you two have been working on?

Hunter: Broadly, EL is a company dedicated to bringing narrative to new platforms. That began in the form of our eponymous quarterly short-story magazine, and next year we’ll be publishing a couple of books as well. We’re also using the technology we developed to create iPhone/iPad apps for people like Stephen Elliott (author of The Adderall Diaries), The Kenyon Review, and other authors; and independent publishers use what we’ve built to create book apps with multimedia, reader discussions, and other cool features built in.

On top of that, we’re working on a project that uses a video-game 3-D-rendering engine to create a virtual narrative: part Pixar film, part game, part theater, wherein the spectator is an invisible, intangible voyeur in a vividly imagined world. It will be released in the fall of 2011.

Finally, by the end of the year, we’re launching a whole new platform for narrative that we hope will change everything. It includes a Web, iPhone, and Android application. It’s top secret, but we really, perhaps delusionally, believe it will have an enduring effect on the future of storytelling. We couldn’t be more excited, or more stressed out, about creating it.

Chapman: Who, outside of publishing, is producing work that inspires you?

Hunter: An informal office poll has yielded the following results: We’re inspired by Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, Werner Herzog filming a 3-D movie in a cave, the new Big Boi album, and the Fred Tomaselli show at the Brooklyn Museum.

Chapman: Most of your notoriety derives from your atypical distribution methods for short fiction. But on the editorial side, are there certain writers you’re excited about publishing?

Hunter: It sounds like diplomacy, but we’re excited about every writer we publish, from international superstars like Javier Marías to young up-and-comers like Patrick deWitt, Matt Sumell, and Carson Mell. We have forty-five readers spending a ridiculous amount of time sorting through more than three thousand submissions each issue, so discovering great new writing is extremely meaningful to us. It’s also meaningful to have, for example, a story in Electric Literature no. 1 that was culled from an early draft of Michael Cunningham’s new novel, By Nightfall. The chapter in question was cut down quite a bit in the final novel, but the original is absolutely beautiful, and it is only preserved in our anthology.

Chapman: What do you think publishing—however you define it—has done well the past couple of years? What has it done poorly?

Hunter: It’s done a good job supporting blockbuster best sellers. I’m tempted to say it’s done everything else poorly—but that would discount the incredible, and basically noble, efforts of all the people in publishing who care deeply about literature, who are in it for the right reasons, and who struggle every day to preserve a tradition that they love. I hope that in the long run the painful changes the industry is currently undergoing will empower those people.

Chapman: What’s one thing you would change about publishing, if cost wasn’t an issue?

Hunter: I’d like to see an independent platform for buying, sharing, and reading books. Something which places large and small publishers on an equal playing field, and which is integrated with Facebook and other social networking so that books could be shared, discussed, and recommended among friends. There are so many ways that books are discovered in the real world—book clubs, knowledgeable store clerks, browsing, and sharing—which are critical to sales of all but the biggest, most hyped books. These systems don’t really exist online, and without them, readers gravitate to the best-seller lists—the sales figures on the Kindle and iBookstore support that. There might be a million books on the Kindle, but when people don’t know what to read, they go for the most popular. In a bookstore, there’s a much greater opportunity for a fortuitous discovery. A small book can be discovered and grow into a phenomenon. We need to ensure that possibility is emulated online. Amazon and Apple are retailers and hardware manufacturers, not book lovers, and a sale is a sale. Publishers, authors, and readers need to help build an ecosystem that supports literature. This means even big publishers need to start working with, and encouraging, the innovators who could be potentially disruptive and keep the book market vital, flexible, and competitive.

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