The subscription e-newsletter platform Substack has already made its mark on the media business, but will it do the same for book publishing? Authors including Elle Griffin, John McWhorter, Maggie Stiefvater, and Matt Taibbi use the service to serialize new books or publish short stories exclusive to their newsletter audiences, but to date, the platform is still only dipping its toes into the book business. Still, Substack provides authors—the latest of whom is Anand Giridharadas, an editor-at-large for Time, political analyst for MSNBC, and former New York Times correspondent—with some interesting options upon which to capitalize.
Giridharadas will serialize the first two chapters of his 2014 book, The True American: Murder and Mystery in Texas, in his newsletter, The.Ink, which goes out, he said, to an audience of "tens of thousands" of free subscribers and a smaller list of paid subscribers. The book, PW wrote in its starred review, "follows the encounter between Mark Stroman, a racist ex-con in Dallas who went on a killing spree targeting men he wrongly thought were Arabs after 9/11, and Raisuddin Bhuiyan, a Bangladeshi-born convenience-store clerk who was shot by Stroman but survived." It is, our reviewer said, "an affecting story of forgiveness and redemption" centered around "the author’s penetrating portraits of the two men." The book has sold nearly 15,000 copies in all print formats at outlets that report to NPD BookScan.
Over the course of eight days, Giridharadas will publish the first two chapters of the book—each one focusing on one of its two principal characters and broken into four newsletters each—in both text form and audiobook segments, which will also be offered free of charge via Audible. (The first installment was published today.) The excerpts will be sent via newsletter and live in blog form as web pages on The.Ink, hosted by Substack. Giridharadas will also open his paid subscriber Zoom sessions to all for virtual book club discussions beginning on August 31. The arrangement is particularly interesting considering that the book has already been published—and that its publisher, W.W. Norton, greenlit the project without any licensing fees.
Giridharadas said that, considering the white supremacist trend in conservative politics in America and current events in the Middle East, the book is even more timely now than it was in 2014. He said that he and his literary agent at the time, Steven F. Wasserman at Brown Rudnick, had trouble finding a buyer, with Norton making the only offer. (Giridharadas is now represented by Lynn Nesbit at Janklow & Nesbit, and is currently at work on his second book for Knopf.)
"In retrospect, it was a very weird time for the book to come out," Giridharadas said. "Because it was very much about these two men and these currents in America, post-9/11. But within a year of it coming out, the summer of 2015, the kind of ideas, resentments, and I would even say political philosophy that animated Mark Stroman—that way of looking at the world was now a dominant political tendency in American life at the highest levels of presidential politics. That stuff had always been there in America, but it hadn't been in the place that it very quickly was: literally eating and swallowing one of the two major political parties."
Giridharadas saw the possibility of a new audience now, but "books only land once, and in this case, I had this ongoing frustration or sense of a missed opportunity." So he contacted Norton, telling them he wanted "to give this book another shot at the conversation, and to land in the conversation now that these very dark portents of the book have have kind of materialized and become not fringe-y things but central things."
At first, Giridharadas said, he and his publisher talked about "very conventional things, like, do I write a new foreword? Or do we reissue the book with a new cover?" But Norton didn't see a reissue as the way to go.
"In this case, we chose not to reissue," Alexa Pugh, v-p and publishing manager at Norton Trade Paperbacks, wrote in an email to PW. "One of the first (though not only) things we look for in a reissue candidate is the need to refresh the package to appeal to a new readership, often a more modern one if the book was published many years ago. But we agreed that the cover has held up nicely since it original publication in 2014, which lent support to the idea of pursuing a different method to get the book back out there. We also saw other ways that Anand could make the connection to current events outside of adding new material to the book itself in a new edition, such as through the book club he’ll be conducting as part of the newsletter campaign."
Ultimately, both parties landed on using Giridharadas's newsletter, which he launched last August, positing that its intimate nature, and the personal connection he has developed with its readers through it, would be their best shot at bringing the book back into the conversation. It was a new arrangement for both parties, and not without its challenges. Giridharadas, for one did not like the idea of licensing the content. But Norton agreed to let him reuse the first two chapters without any financial arrangement. Pugh noted that Audible "was also happy to coordinate with us" to include audio excerpts matching the serialized chapters at no cost.
"We’re always looking for new and creative ways to brings more readers to our backlist, especially as signs show that’s where readers’ attention has been turning," Pugh said of the arrangement. "Anand pitched this idea to us and it seemed like a fantastic way to directly target a key audience—fans of Anand’s work who may not be familiar with or had the opportunity to engage with The True American—at a time when the themes of the book seem more relevant than ever."