A parable: once upon a time, a farmer named Noah noticed a frightening change in the weather. A practical man, he began building a great ark with which to preserve his family and the creatures of the world. Until, one day, Noah’s boss saw what he was up to. “Noah, what the hell are you doing?” the boss asked. “The farm is what makes us money. That ark only costs us money. Knock it off, and return to the fields.” He did. And sure enough, the rain washed away the farm. Moral of the story: by the time an ark can prove its usefulness, it’s too late to build it.
What does this parable have to do with the publishing industry? Almost everyone in publishing is aware that change is inevitable—and some even fear the worst. But how many of us continue to simply work the fields as the skies darken? Perhaps Apple will build us an ark, or Google, or maybe Amazon. In any case, it’s safe to say that the ark, so far, is being outsourced. And while we may not know its final shape yet, we can be sure that the ark will be built according to plans that benefit its builder first and foremost.
This isn’t an essay on how to build an ark. It’s about two boys who built a raft.
Our company, Electric Literature, launched in 2009, was born from conversations Scott Lindenbaum and I had while editing the Brooklyn Review, the literary magazine published by the Brooklyn College M.F.A. program.
At the time we entered our program, there was a lot of pessimism about the future of literature. As young writers, we know how much hard work goes into writing a great story. Yet looking around, we saw only steadily diminishing returns for that labor. There’s no shortage of new literary journals, online and in print, of course, but most of them either can’t pay their writers or can only afford to pay them in complementary copies. So we asked ourselves, what could we do to expand the market for literary content, particularly short fiction?
Encouraged by reports of the popularity of cellphone reading in Japan and the introduction of e-readers in the U.S. marketplace, we conceived of Electric Literature with this mission: to use new production and distribution channels to help establish a vibrant market for literature.
Using digital distribution, we found that we could displace upfront printing and other setup costs, perhaps $5,000 for the average small literary journal, and instead we could put that money where it belongs, paying five writers $1,000 apiece for their stories.
At Electric Literature, we reject a future where a writer’s creative work is not compensated. And practically speaking, we can’t pay our writers without being paid for our books. So we set out to find a new way of doing business—and we did.
Paying for It
People often refer to Electric Literature as an “online magazine.” In reality, online is the only place we do not publish. Our content is available on the iPhone, iPad, and e-readers like the Kindle and Sony Reader, or as a PDF, EPub, audiobook, or as a print-on-demand paperback through Amazon. But we do not publish on our Web site.