Innovations in Reading Award Winner Scott Lindenbaum Explains the Origins of Electric Literature

Jul 19, 2011

Of all the industries altered by an increasingly digital world, few have had to adapt as heavily as those in mass media. When it comes to film, music or the traditional printed word, the Internet has transformed the way we consume popular culture, some industry figures would argue much for the worse. Writers Andy Hunter and Scott Lindenbaum, however, have found ways to embrace both digital and print media with their innovative literary anthology 'Electric Literature.'

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By Eric Garneau

Electric Literature in all its formats

After careers in editing and professional snowboarding, respectively, Andy Hunter and Scott Lindenbaum began publishing Electric Literature in 2009. The quarterly anthology was conceived as a direct response to an 'uninspired, gloomy' New York literary scene; its goal is to embrace popular digital multimedia formats but also to maintain a presence as a physically printed object. Electric Literature works hard to engage readers in as many media as possible, and so far its work has paid off. Earlier this year the National Book Foundation awarded Hunter and Lindenbaum one of their 'Innovations in Reading' prizes, yearly grants given out to individuals or organizations that have 'developed innovative means of creating and sustaining a lifelong love of reading.' Your website states that your anthology's 'delivered in every viable medium.' Which media do you consider viable?

Scott Lindenbaum: The question of viability has to do with our business model as a publisher. We pay our writers $1,000 per story because we believe that writing has great value, and we want to see that value reflected in real terms. Paying the writers means that we have to charge for the issues. Viable mediums are those mediums through which readers are willing to pay for content. Many people are quick to call Electric Literature an online magazine. Of course, this is the only place we don't publish. A precedent has been set that if content is online it should be free. The New York Times has struggled with this perception for years. However, on devices like iPhone, iPads and Kindles readers expect to pay for speedy content delivery, from ringtones to eBooks to in-app purchases of all varieties. Of course, readers still pay for paper books. Paying for content is good for writers. We don't want to live in a world where writing has been devalued to the point where it's no longer a profession. What would you say are more popular, your traditional printed issues or your digital copies?

SL: Our print editions used to be the most popular format, but the market has changed significantly since we began in 2009. Smartphones are now almost 40% of the total U.S. cell phone market. The iPad, which didn't exist when we began, is in its second iteration, and the Kindle is almost four times less expensive today than it was in the fall of '09. Also, PDFs can now support multimedia, which allows us to distribute enhanced versions of our magazine to users without devices, and ePub is a much more widely accepted and understood format. All of this, and a general comfort with eReading as a phenomenon, has pushed our digital sales way up. If you make two categories - paper and digital - then today digital greatly outpaces paper. Many of our subscribers request enhanced PDFs, which can be read on any number of devices and screens or the text can be printed out. The next most popular digital format is our free app Electric Lit FREE. Between publishing quarterly and including only five stories in each issue, you're careful not to overload your readers. Do you find that's helpful to their continued interest?

SL: We publish five stories per issue, which is very limited. This prevents our issues from becoming too big and intimidating. We don't want readers thinking of EL as health food. For example: 'I know I should read this, that it would be good for me to read this, but I really don't want to read this, so I won't read this.' Reading EL should feel like an indulgence. The short form helps whittle down the intimidation factor often felt by average readers when they encounter longer novels or other journals that are hundreds of pages and contain a mix of content and styles. EL is always around 120 pages. We often hear from readers that it's the first journal they've ever read cover to cover in one sitting. This is positively reinforcing for the reader.

Though it's important not to overload the reader with too much information per issue, the pace of culture does not really allow a publication to simply pop its head up four times a year and spend the rest of the time hard at work in the editorial office. The age of the social network means that readers expect a way to regularly engage with Electric Literature, even after they've finished reading the issue. For this we have our blog The Outlet and our events coverage section The Dish, both of which are fed into the EL iPhone/iPad app. Our readers can engage with the culture of EL a few times a week through these channels by checking out reviews, excerpts from forthcoming books, interviews, pictures from previous readings and the general goings on of the NYC literary scene. We also maintain a twitter feed with 150,000 followers, more than any book publisher in the world. Often we use this to present links to other great literary content on the Web. It's an enriching way to stay engaged with all the things we hold dear between issues. How do you spread awareness of Electric Literature, both among consumers and creators?

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SL: Because EL is supported by its readership, reaching new readers is paramount. This happens both in digital space and in the tangible world. Digitally speaking, we release five videos for every issue. We call these Single Sentence Animations. An author chooses a sentence, then we give that sentence to an animator, who riffs on it, and then we give the film to a musician, who scores it. What we end up facilitating is a cross-media collaboration that serves to capture the attention of four very different audiences: fans of the writer, fans of the animator, fans of the musician and fans of Electric Literature. We then blast these videos out onto the Web, and since they're collaborative projects, not ads, they get posted on high traffic websites as legit creative content. Our animations have been feature on The New York Times blog, The New Yorker blog, The Huffington Post and even on mainstream media sites like Entertainment Weekly, as well as on hundreds of writing, reading, art and industry sites. All these videos are then embedded in our digital editions of the magazine as bonus content.

In the real world, we throw parties and events with a similarly collaborative spirit. Our aim is always to knock the starch out of the collar of the lit scene and to get writers, editors and publishers in the same room as fine artists, actors, musicians, DJs, filmmakers and journalists. It's this spirit and our attentiveness as editors that have helped spread awareness about our project among the writing and reading community. In 2009 it was difficult to solicit work from our favorite writers, but with every issue it gets a little easier. You recently won the National Book Foundation's Innovations in Reading award. Which of Electric Literature's innovations are you most proud of?

SL: I'm most proud of our perpetual optimism. It's an innovation of spirit that's carried us a long way. We never long for eras past or bemoan the present state of the industry; instead we shape the literary world as we'd like it to be. Andy and I are both writers. Our goal has always been to create the kind of world that we'd be comfortable writing in. Understanding that publishing in the 21st century is something that goes beyond the book was an essential realization for us. We're always asking ourselves, what's possible? This attitude has created a certain amount of gravity around EL, and we continue to attract talented and positive-thinking people into our orbit. Is there anything further you'd like to tell our readers about Electric Literature or about the place of a story in a digital age?

SL: I just started reading an advance copy of Peter Nadas's book Parallel Stories. It comes out this fall from FSG. The novel is 1,133 pages long, and I'm reading it in print. The actual book is massive. Last weekend I traveled to Vermont with a friend of mine and we went record shopping. I bought a copy of the Tom Waits album Small Change on vinyl, and also some obscure Paul McCartney stuff. This is all to say that there will be a place for physical media objects in the era of everything digital. Vinyl sales are booming in the age of iTunes, and so too will book sales boom; however, books will have to make the leap that vinyl made, which is from practical delivery mechanism to art object. What we get with the book is physicality, aesthetic beauty, tactile satisfaction. As digital reading becomes more mainstream, the expectations placed on the physical book to provide us with bookness will only increase. This is why McSweeney's will survive the digital age. If I'm honest with myself, I'm carrying around this Nadas novel expressly because it's so massive. There's a gravity there that I can't get with an eReader. I listen to Small Change on vinyl because I enjoy the process of taking it out of the sleeve and putting it on the platter. The analog and digital worlds are complementary. One does not supplant the other.

Read about another winner of the National Book Foundation's award, young adult literary journal YARN.

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