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.

Staying Afloat

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.

Why? Because we believe that the Web is an environment where free content is abundant, and because it is easier to access free content than paid content on the Web, people don’t pay.

But despite talk of how people expect digital content to be free, people are in fact quite used to paying for it. We pay for apps, ringtones, songs on iTunes, and, yes, books, whether on devices or on our phones. When single-click purchasing from a trusted merchant is available and easy to navigate, charging for content is viable. And while many consumers do expect online content to be free, most expect to pay for content on their devices. Publishers should attempt to preserve and exploit this precedent.

Electric Literature was the first literary magazine to publish on the iPhone. We sold more than 3,600 copies of our first issue on that platform alone—that’s more than the subscriber base of most established literary magazines, and almost five times more than we sold on the Kindle.

So far, some publishers have been reticent about pushing their content via smartphones, concerned that this practice will “cannibalize” hardcover sales. But we don’t believe these are the same customers. Our experience is that apps especially connect with younger readers. And by embracing apps, publishers can take an active role in defining consumer habits on these devices, and grow a nascent market that is surely crucial to our future.

Right now, as a culture, we are just beginning to figure out what all these new mobile devices will be used for. Smartphones may already be ubiquitous, but consumer behavior—that is, what we do with those smartphones—is still being determined. If young people think of their iPhones as e-readers and not just as gaming or texting devices, literature will have a bright future.

Big Game Hunting

Getting Electric Literature started wasn’t easy. When we began, many people advised us to become a nonprofit. But we decided that our time would be better spent finding readers for literary fiction than by courting donors and preparing grant applications. We found some investors willing to take a risk and raised a startup fund in the mid-five-figures, enough to publish for about a year. But that looming fiscal precipice turned us into real hustlers.

Sitting in a cafe and plotting our strategy, I asked Scott: “If this were an action movie and an atomic bomb was set to detonate if we failed, killing us and everyone we love, what would we do?” We resolved to be fearless, and we began pitching writers at book signings and reaching out to every distant connection we had. It worked.

Pulitzer Prize–winner Michael Cunningham, the chair of our M.F.A. program, defied the skepticism of his agent and publisher and gave us a story. I drove to rural Williamsburg, Mass., in a rented car just to buy National Book Award–finalist Jim Shepard a cup of coffee. “I’d rather be the one guy who drives six hours to ask you for something,” I told him, “than be one of the thousand guys who ask via e-mail.” He gave us a story, too.

Lydia Millet, Diana Wagman, and T Cooper rounded out the issue, all fine writers who could be published anywhere. Since then, we’ve featured stories by MacArthur “genius” grant winners Colson Whitehead and Lydia Davis, international figures like Javier Marías, and literary heavyweights Rick Moody and Aimee Bender.

Our first contributors were motivated by our optimism. We launched at a time when there was precious little of that, especially in the world of literary writing. But in many ways, we benefited from the despair that was gripping the country after the financial meltdown. The media was good to us, eager to cover innovation in publishing, however small. Even our office furniture was scavenged from the offices of collapsed hedge funds.

Promote or Perish

After landing Jim Shepard and Michael Cunningham for our debut, we thought we had it made. But shortly after the launch of Electric Literature No. 1, I found myself lying on the couch at 3 a.m., googling “how to deal with failure.” Despite all the work we had done to raise money, procure great stories, and master an impressive array of new publishing formats, our sales sucked. It felt as if the lacerating truth was about to come out: no one cares about literature.

Every little thing we did—landing a positive mention on the Washington Post Web site, releasing a video, publishing a new issue, holding a contest—would bump up our Web traffic and increase book sales. But within a few days, that bump would disappear. When we started, we thought we’d spend 80% of our time discovering great new writing and discussing literature. Instead, we learned that promotion is a publisher’s biggest challenge. By the end of our first month, we were spending 80% of our time on promotion.

We also discovered another challenge. The traditional mechanisms that have historically sold books—eye-catching covers, store displays, browsing customers, and knowledgeable clerks—simply don’t exist in the digital space. Few people read book blogs; the Kindle and Apple stores both favor blockbusters over the neglected gem; and most books quickly disappear amid the millions of undifferentiated titles. To find an e-book, readers have to know what they are looking for—and it’s the publisher’s job to help them.

Solving this problem will be critical for publishers in the digital age. The real world systems that, somewhat mysteriously, allow a small book to become a hit must be emulated digitally. Publishers need to build or embrace online systems that create communities around books, the ability to share with friends, digital book clubs, viral buzz, and intelligent recommendations.

One of our most effective promotional tools is our Single Sentence Animations, in which one of our authors chooses a favorite sentence, and we give it to an artist to riff on. The results have been featured everywhere from USA Today to Entertainment Weekly. These little animated films are not advertisements—they are stand-alone creative works, with their own power. This makes them more satisfying, and more likely to be shared.

Using video to revitalize books is not a new idea, but we found that this is generally an awkward fit for fiction, a medium whose magic is that it can conjure in the mind of each individual reader a unique landscape. Video homogenizes that experience, substituting the filmmaker’s imagination for our own. But videos can complement the written word if they are a departure, not a re-enactment, and our animations have proven to be the kind of cultural cross-pollination that engages new audiences.

Risky Business

The strength of small presses is that we can be nimble. What we lack in financial power, we gain in flexibility—in other words, we don’t need corporate approval to build the ark.

From staging public readings to indifferent crowds in Washington Square Park to harassing passersby in the name of fiction, some of these “nimble” moments felt like we were in Spinal Tap. But the gambles always paid off when we followed through, like the time in late October 2009 when Rick Moody gave us Some Contemporary Characters, a short story written expressly for broadcast on Twitter. It consisted of 153 haiku-like tweets of 140 characters or less.

At the time we had only 3,000 followers on Twitter, and because the story was excellent and deserved more attention than that, we enlisted bookstores, other literary magazines, and enthusiastic readers to serve as our copublishers. We used third-party software to distribute each tweet across all the copublishers’ feeds simultaneously. We dubbed it “micro-serialization.” We broadcasted one tweet every 10 minutes for eight hours a day for three days.

Our open intent was to “flood” Twitter. Our hope was that every book-loving person on the service would take note. And we did receive significant early publicity in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. But the broadcast itself was a white-knuckle ride.

From the home base, we could see our subscription numbers rise, our Web traffic spike, the number of followers doubling, then tripling, then a deluge of positive comments and re-tweets. But it wasn’t all good news. Users who followed a number of our copublishers, especially industry professionals, book buyers, and book bloggers—were annoyed to see each tweet repeated in their personal feeds. Halfway through the story’s transmission, the event had been declared a failure, and one industry newsletter declared, “We may not have to think about [Twitter fiction] for a while.” (For more, see Rick Moody’s “Soapbox,” this issue)

If we had worked at a corporation, that’s when we would have been shut down. The failure label would have stuck. Instead, with our nerves frayed and guts churning, we kept tweeting.

By the time it was over, more than 60,000 people had read Moody’s story and discussions raged online about how literary content could utilize new mediums. We documented our increases in subscriptions, followers, and Web traffic, and we tallied the comments on Twitter. The positive comments outweighed the negative by 9–1. We brought this to the media, and a backlash-to-the-backlash campaign kept us in the news cycle for another two weeks. Today our Twitter account, @ElectricLit, has more than 150,000 followers—more than any other publisher in the world.

This experience showed us that risk- taking requires a willingness to fail. Failure is the inevitable first step to success, and an experiment only truly fails when it yields no useful results. We were fortunate that we didn’t have to worry about being fired during the maelstrom. In an environment where people are afraid of losing their jobs, the risk involved with experimentation is a strong disincentive. Yet without experimentation, traditional publishers will not successfully adapt to the digital age.

Platform Diving

Recently I was speaking to Michael Reynolds of Europa Editions, which has sold about 700,000 copies of The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Michael asked me, “How does an e-book differ from an app?” I told him, “If you had sold 700,000 Hedgehog apps, then tomorrow you could have Muriel Barbery send all those readers a text message recommending Europa’s next book, and when they tapped that text message, it would bring them to a page where they could buy it.”

We think of every iPad and iPhone screen like a dorm-room wall, postered with items that define the owner’s interests and obsessions. At Electric Literature, we want to be on that wall because getting an app on a reader’s iPad is infinitely more valuable than getting a book on their shelf. A book on a shelf cannot tell your reader that the author has a new book coming out, or allow them to buy the author’s earlier work. It can’t send them a text message letting them know about a reading near their home. It can’t offer them free excerpts of new books, videos, photos, gossip, audio, and news. It can’t deliver, instantly, with the touch of a finger, any book in your catalogue. Our ElectricLit app does all those things.

Simply put, an app is a platform, and the larger a publisher can make that platform, the more powerful it can be for them. An app provides a publisher the means to transition from a business-to-business model to a business-to-customer model. At a time when book retailers are struggling, that’s a critical opportunity.

This fall, Electric Literature will launch electricpublisher.com, to help others build apps for their literary works. We hope to begin leveling the playing field between Condé Nast and the Kenyon Review. We’re building apps for authors, like Stephen Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries, and publishers, like Melville House and Kaya Press.

We’re doing this because we believe a thriving independent press is critical to our culture, and, in our experience, the app model represents a significant revenue stream for publishers. At its core, the app is a virtual catalogue that makes collecting e-books as easy and irresistible as touching them. Apps also take full advantage of the long tail, serving as an engine for monetizing the backlist. And unlike at the big digital stores, our e-books won’t get buried by blockbusters or lost in an undifferentiated sea of titles.

Our platform will only grow stronger as we collaborate with partners to develop the most robust, community-centric e-reading experience available. The more presses, authors, and magazines that use our technology to build their own apps, the more functions we can add, like lending books to friends, reader discussions, and sharing on social networks. We’re also discussing ways to include bookstores as well. We are taking on iBooks and Kindle in a bootstrap revolution we believe could grow into a takeover of digital publishing.

The Future Is Personal

What can book publishers learn from the Electric Literature experience? As Sara Lloyd noted in her “Book Publisher’s Manifesto...” a publisher’s historical role is to “produce, store, and distribute” books. But our experience suggests that publishers of the future must become trusted curators, hubs for communities, and more effective promoters.

There’s been some debate about the benefits of publisher branding in the book world. But smaller presses with strong identities have had success in capturing loyal readers: McSweeney’s readers, for example, know and trust Dave Eggers. If a press has no personality or point of view, readers have nothing to identify with. For indies, creating an identity shouldn’t be hard—we are a small, ragged, distinctive lot. But in the future, larger publishers can benefit as well. Why not create more boutique imprints or raise editor’s profiles?

Our experience suggests that the future of publishing is not about selling a person a book as much as it is forming a relationship. It’s about creating communities where publishers and authors talk to readers, and they talk back, to you and to each other. This dialogue may even include sharing writing, mashups, and unauthorized sequels. The more inclusive and personal you are, the more readers will identify with your press, and the more they’ll trust you—especially in an age of too much content—to provide them with books they know they’ll love. Readers today aren’t just customers—they’re fellow enthusiasts.

Books Are Dead, Long Live Literature

Those who claim the novel’s time has passed ignore its value. Nothing captures the quality of consciousness like fiction. Only a great novel can make you truly feel what it is like to be someone else, alive in a different place and time. Literature exercises our empathy, salves our loneliness, and helps us learn how to live. Without Flaubert, Balzac, Dostoyevski, and Joyce, our understanding of human psychology would be greatly impoverished.

What doesn’t really matter, though, is how people choose to read. Literature is important; the choice of paper or plastic is not. For hundreds of years, the best way to transmit complex information was to cut down a tree, pulp it, stain symbols onto the flattened pulp, bind it together, and distribute it. Industries grew to support that process. That is no longer the best way to transmit information, and paper books will inevitably evolve into objects and collectors’ items. Text, on the other hand, only becomes more useful with technology.

After all, digital text is easily searchable, linkable, and sharable. Textbooks and manuals may become dynamic, with text, video, and interactive elements in discrete modular units that can be recombined in configurations that suit a task or course. Memoir can include home movies, photo albums, and perfect copies of diaries and letters. Nonfiction can contain pertinent documentation, news articles, and broadcasts.

While there will be exceptions, long-form literary fiction, by its nature, will resist multimedia. We live in a hectic, fragmented world, but people still find time to linger, take walks, and lie in the sun. There is a compelling argument to be made for slowing down. As life becomes more harried, literature becomes even more useful. We need the deep understanding books bestow on our condition, and the contemplative quality of immersing oneself in reading, now more than ever.

In an atmosphere of distraction, however, we may have to consciously make literature a priority.

Ark or Surfboard?

Last year in Samoa, a group of surfers survived a devastating tsunami by riding the wave. To us, the digitizing of content is also a tsunami, and no seawall of any height or thickness will protect the entrenched.

We started our company because we believe that the way publishers, authors, and readers behave now will set lasting precedents. Publishing is not the most lucrative profession. Most of us were drawn to it out of a love for books. And when something you love is threatened, you must defend it. We believe the future is not something that happens to us but something we create.

As publishers, we are stewards of our collective written culture. When we innovate for the survival of our industry, we are ensuring the viability of what is most precious in our product: the creation and transmission of human knowledge, experience, and feeling. And when we give readers better, easier, more satisfying ways to use it, we ensure the continued vitality of literature.

At Electric Literature, we’ve embraced the idea that the forces that threaten literature—digital distribution and the potential distractions of YouTube, Twitter, video games, cellphones, and the like—can instead be marshaled in its defense.