Electric Literature Turns (Scrolls, Flips, ReTweets) the Page on the Lit Mag Genre

Scott Ballum

Although Electric Literature has been on my to-do list for a few months now, I admit that the vague notion I had of what they were about was extremely naive and limited. We've all see literary magazines before, even some that break the mold and do some really interesting things. But for the most part, the genre is pretty formulaic, and suffering serious blows as our demand for content goes digital, and print gets prohibitively expensive. As a casual fiction reader, I was interested in what some other Brooklyners were doing, but little more.

Sadly for me, I was missing out on something truly remarkable and innovative. While I wouldn't dare suggest the Electric Literature editors Scott Lindenbaum and Andy Hunter care more about literature than other literary magazine founders, I would say that their passion has driven them to be more creative in thinking about how to get it in front of readers' eyes, and who those readers might be. They also share a similar view of publishing with us at Sheepless, that maybe a magazine doesn't have to be what we used to think it meant.

Brazenly, their inaugural issue launched with short stories by Pulitzer-prize winner Michael Cunningham and four other remarkable talents. But what really separates them from the pack is their belief that "literature is what is important, not the medium": issues are available in paperback, as well as Kindle, eBook, and iPhone formats. YouTube videos have been created based on each of the stories in Issue 1. And to push the envelope further, they recently published an entire story in conjunction with a dozen other magazines and bookstores (written for the experiment by celebrated author Rick Moody) on Twitter - yes, 140 character at a time.

Electric Literature Editor-in-Chief and Co-founder Andy Hunter breaks down the who/where/why/what for us.

Sheepless: Your website mentions that you came from 'a cubicle job'. I'd love to hear more about your professional backgrounds, and how you met and decided to go into business together.

Andy Hunter: Scott [Lindenbaum] has been a sponsored snowboarder, musician, and a produced playwright. He has never had to work a cubicle job, god bless him, though he has put in his share of time as a janitor, line cook, and register jockey; I, on the other hand, have served a lot of time in those ubiquitous grey cells. Temp jobs, mostly, as well as a particularly bleak full-time stint as a file clerk. I was publishing a ‘zine back then titled Mommy and I are One. Eventually, a publisher who liked my ‘zine hired me, and I began a career as an editor.

Scott and I met in the Brooklyn College MFA program. We worked together on the Brooklyn Review, a literary magazine published out of the program. We brainstormed a lot about what we'd like to do with our own magazine, and finally we put it all together and started Electric Literature in the spring of 2009.

The secret about literary magazines is that barely anyone really reads them. Even the writers submitting don't read 'em. People think of them like health food: maybe they think they should eat it, but they're rarely excited to do so. Another thing is, they're expensive to produce. Printing bills can run about 5 grand an issue. Those were the two big problems we needed to solve. We decided to act like we were in a Hollywood blockbuster and a nuclear bomb was going to go off in Manhattan if we didn't succeed. It gave us the courage to approach writers like Michael Cunningham and Jim Shepard for our first issue, spurred us to innovate using digital distribution and print-on-demand, and keeps us working to come up with creative ways for writing to engage with the greater world, like Youtube videos, iPhone apps, or Twitter. While we use new media and new forms of distribution to promote it, our respect and love for writing and reading is at the heart of the enterprise.

I also love your reasoning behind digital releases and printing on demand: "Rather than paying $5,000 to one printer, we pay $1,000 to five writers, ensuring that our writers are paid fairly." Could you talk at all about where that funding comes from? I'm curious as to whether one 'issue' pays for the next, whether you have investors, or if you are funding the project yourselves in its initial stages.

We found investors and raised enough money to publish for one year (mid five figures), including $11,000 of our own hard-earned cash - and we aren't rich! It's a risky proposition, but, again, this kind of limitation keeps us hustling everyday; next August we'll have our day of reckoning, when each issue will need to pay for itself for us to survive. It's like a cliff visible on the horizon, and we're pedaling frantically to get enough lift to become airborne before we crash into it. It's a big motivator, but more than that, we're actually motivated by idealism: we want literary fiction to survive and even prosper in the digital age. There are many who think that's not possible, and we are trying to prove them wrong.

And finally, I'm curious to hear if you've had a significant increase in submissions since the Twitter experiment? As editors, do you read every submission, or do you have some team assembled for this potentially massive task?

We have seen submissions jump. We get over 150 stories a week. Fortunately, we have an elite group of about 30 readers poring through them, deep in the steamy bowels of Electric Literature, Inc. They are all volunteers, from all over the world. Every story is read by two people, neither of whom know what the other thinks. That keeps a story from suffering from an individual reader's bad day or subjective dislikes. Each reader gives a story a yes or no, and any story with a single yes is read by the editors.

I'm excited to feature you on Sheepless, thanks so much for taking the time to answer our questions. I actually first came across your postcard at the Brooklyn Flea this summer, so I'm partial to using this shot from your Facebook page. Would you mind captioning it for us?

This summer, Electric Literature put together a coalition of local independent presses to create pop-up indie bookstores at open-air markets in Brooklyn, in order to build awareness and generate excitement about the great books and magazines being published locally.

Post Script: Check out Electic Literature Editor Scott  Lindenbaum's audio interview with MediaBistro last week about the Twitter Experiment.