Critical Mass

Adventures in E-Reading: Q and A with Electric LIterature

By Jane Ciabattari

Over the next month or so we're going to be offering a new series of guest posts (read the first series,”The Next Decade in Book Culture here). Our question: How are you handling the rise of the e-book? Are you reading on Kindle, the Sony Reader, the Vook, have you reserved an iPad?  Are you buying e-books? Reading e-galleys? And how's it working out for you? Let us know your quibbles, quirks, happy and not so happy adventures in e-reading. NBCC president Jane Ciabattari pitched some questions at Scott Lindenbaum, founding co-editor of the innovative new literary quarterly Electric Literature.


Q. What possessed you to start Electric Literature last summer? How do you see the short story fitting into today's cultural mix?
A. As writers, we didn’t want to go down without a fight. We thought we saw a way that fiction could be marketed and distributed, with efficiency, via new technology, and we didn’t see anyone else doing it. We thought we could start a great journal in a new way, but we also wanted to set an example, and hopefully see others follow suit.

Q. As a new quarterly short story anthology you've been distinguished by an anthology approach to distribution: paperback, kindle, eBook, audiobook, iPhone, YouTube collaborations. What's the timeline on your first issue, and adding various distribution apps?

A. Last summer when we launched EL there was a lot of gloomy talk about how trends in digital media were going to destroy the publishing industry. It struck us that all these forces which were being identified as a threat to reading, publishing, and literary culture, if embraced, could be used in the service of keeping literature a vital part of popular culture in the digital age. At the same time, it was important to us to create a model that would treat writers fairly, and pay them fairly for their work. We had no interest in the everything-is-free model which (still) is crippling journalists and journalism.Here’s what we came up with: For the paperback version, we use a print-on-demand service. This means that every book printed already has a buyer. Overruns, warehousing, and wasted materials aren’t a factor. Our other formats are digital. This publishing model eliminates nearly all upfront printing costs. Instead of paying $5000 to a single printer in exchange for a few boxes of books, we pay 5 writers $1000 and EL is immediately available to millions of people, all across the globe, in any format they might want to read in. Writers are paid fairly and readers are given choices.
When we launched in July, EL was available in paperback, on the Kindle, as an eBook, and the iPhone. Now we’re up on the Sony store for the Sony Reader, a company called Shortcovers distributes us on the Android, and we sell digital subscriptions, in multiple formats including ePub, directly through our website. In August we started our YouTube channel. In December we published Rick Moody to Twitter and grew our following there. In Feburary we launched our audiobook, available on both and on iTunes.
Most exciting is our new video and audio-enhanced iPhone app, which hasn’t yet been officially announced. It’s called “ElectricLit FREE” and includes free content by Jim Shepard and Matt Sumell, plus pictures, audio of readings, and video animations. Readers can purchase complete copies of EL directly through the app. When we put out a new issue, it becomes automatically available for purchase on the phone, and we will always be adding cool new content. Andy and I have dreamed about an iPhone app with this kind of functionality since we launched, but it took months to find capable programmers who would work within our budget. Lucky for us, there are still some tech people out there who care about literature. We’re psyched for the iPad; ElectricLit FREE is designed to be compatible.

Q. I read Rick Moody's “micro-serialization” on Twitter at @ElectricLit. There was some blowback on that, right? (I was fascinated by how I could distinguish his tweets from the usual in the stream by texture, sort of like 80% dark chocolate from M&Ms). How many followers do you have now on Twitter? Will you do another Twitter story? Anything else like that in the works?
A. The Rick Moody Twitter experiment did create some blowback—basically, we flooded Twitter with the story, which annoyed some people—but for us it was awesome. At the end of the day, everyone was talking about a short story, and how literature can adapt to new mediums. The story went out to more than 40,000 feeds on Twitter, and our feedback was 90% positive. Since then EL has netted over 150,000 followers, more than any other literary publisher in the world. Some people have asked, “Does this mean that a platform like Twitter will be the way that literature is published in the future?” Absolutely not. But by engaging with social media we are able to expand our reach, and now when we advocate for literature more people hear us. For instance, this week we’re guest curating a website where authors write a 500 word story about a thrift-store or found object. The story gives meaning to the object and then the whole package is auctioned off on eBay. Proceeds go to charity. It’s a great experiment that lives at the intersection of literary work, new media, and online consumer culture. We got to pick the objects and five of our authors—Rick Moody, Stephen O’Connor, Marisa Silver, Jenny Offill, and Matt Sumell—wrote pieces. Tweeting about this to so many people via @ElectrcLit helps turn more people on to the Significant Objects project, and to our writers.

Q. What's coming next? iPad option?
A.Our new iPhone app will run on the iPad. But we’re also exploring some other ideas about how storytelling can take advantage of the specific functionality the iPad will offer. Ask us again in a few months and we might be able to reveal more.

Q. What works best for your readers? Do you have a percentage breakdown?
A.Our most popular format for individual issues is paperback. I personally still read most of what I read on paper, but that doesn’t mean that my experience is the only proper experience, especially for younger readers. But more than 75% of our subscribers choose digital. Part of this is likely the cost—a digital subscription is half the cost of a print subscription—but I think it also shows that peoples reading habits are being redefined. Last holiday season, when we were experiencing our first big ramp-up, there was a lot of hype about the Kindle, but we found that our most popular digital format last year was the iPhone.

Q Michael Cunningham was your teacher in the MFA program at Brooklyn College and contributed a novel excerpt to your first issue. How did his support help out the launch?
A.Having Michael on-board from the beginning certainly helped build momentum for the magazine. He really believes in what we’re doing, and he asked us to take his involvement as a vote of confidence in our project. He took a risk entrusting us with his writing, and we cared deeply about fulfilling our part of the bargain, which was motivating.

Q. You've published Colson Whitehead, Lydia Davis, Aimee Bender, Jim Shepard. How many newer voices are you including in the mix?
A. At the beginning we published known writers because we needed credibility and, frankly, because we knew they could write well. But we’re completely committed to including new voices. Though issue three features new stories by Rick Moody and Aimee Bender, it also features a story by emerging writer Matt Sumell. He doesn’t have an agent, or a book. He’s just a great writer. We’re really into the idea of someone picking up EL because they want to read something new by an author they already love and then discovering a gem by someone they’ve never heard of.

Q. How many stories do you publish each issue? (And how many submissions do you get?)
A. Just five stories per issue.  All fiction. We thousands of submissions for each issue. We have a team of about 7 volunteers that work with Andy and I in the office during the week, and over 30 readers who check in from all over the world. Every story submitted is read by at least two readers in a double-blind system that prevents one reader’s opinion from influencing the other. If a story receives a yes from anyone, it is immediately bumped up to Andy, myself and our associate editors for consideration.

Q. You pay for stories? (You have a subscription discount for writers, a cool way to gain support; do many writers take advantage of that?)
A. It’s really important to us that writers get paid for their work. From Lydia Davis to Matt Sumell, we pay the same rate to all of our writers: $1000/story. We don’t charge reading fees, but we hope that anyone who is submitting to EL will also be interested in what we publish, so we offer a discount to any submitting writer. We would love it if more writers took advantage of this and subscribed to EL. We publish great short stories that any writer would enjoy and could learn from, it’s affordable, and presumably if you want to be published in a journal, you’re interested in its contents. Sadly, though we sell many subscriptions, the writer’s discount is rarely used.

Q. How are you financing Electric Literature? (Grants, subscription sales, single copy, downloads, fundraisers?)
A. Electric Literature is not a non-profit and we are not university-supported. This means that we solely support ourselves through finding readers for literary fiction, i.e. selling copies. This is good, because it forces us to always ask ourselves, “What do our readers want?” and not “What do our donors require?” EL is set on moving literature out of the ivory tower and delivering it back to popular culture.  We don’t sleep much.