In the summer of 2009, Andy Hunter and Scott Lindenbaum published the first volume of their literary journal, Electric Literature. You may have heard that 2009 was not an auspicious one for publishers—let alone folks trying to launch new literary titles. However, by offering more than the paperback option—in fact, by making their journal available on multiple mobile devices—its founders have not only built a reputation and a business: they’ve also been able to pay writers $1,000 per story. That princely amount, almost unheard of in the world of literary journals, has drawn top-tier talent to the publication, which, along with all their other innovations, means we thought it would be a good idea to ask co-editor Lindembaum for all their startup secrets.
Q: Let’s start with numbers. How many print copies of Electric Literature do you sell, versus everything in the digital space—from eBooks on the Kindle to purchases made through your website or your iPhone app, et cetera?
A: The 2,000 print copies we sell include bookstore consignments, issues sold at events, and print subscriptions. Our combined digital sales average about 5,000 copies per issue. It's a bit complicated because we do single-issue sales and subscriptions. For instance, all iPhone/iPad sales are single issue downloads. We've sold over 8,000 copies of Electric Literature #1. The breakdown of Electric Literature #3, which was released in February 2010, goes like so: over 6,000 copies in combined circulation, in all formats. Print sales make up 1,640 copies—about 1,200 through subscriptions, and the remainder from bookstore sales and single copy sales at events, or through Amazon. Digital sales for Electic Literature #3 stand at 4,760—with 70 percent coming from subscriptions, and the remainder of sales through the iPad/iPhone, Kindle sales, Sony Reader, and individual eBook sales.
Q: Your team built that free app on the Apple store, from the ground up. Now, with your Electric Publishing arm, you’re getting into the business of making apps for other publishers and authors. How’s that part of the business doing?
A: Basically, what we’ve done for Stephen Elliot’s The Adderall Diaries, is we’ve licensed our iPhone technology to him, for a fee of $600. It’s a self-contained app, a version all to itself, with built-in e-reader functionality, a reading group, and other stuff. Once we came up with this platform that we're using, which was very successful for us, we thought, “Why hoard it?” Everybody is hoarding their creations: it’s like, now they have built the wheel. Again. Everybody’s app does what everybody else’s does. “We built the wheel! And it looks exactly the same!” [laughs] Everybody’s paying developers over and over again to meet the same demand over and over again. We had a couple of additional ideas—about making an app into more of a subscription thing, instead of a single app for a single issue of the journal, which is not sustainable.
So with our new website Electric Publisher, it’s just all about licensing. We’re working with other publishers and journals, like Melville House, and Open City. After a New York Times story about the new site, we had 150 inquiries, almost immediately. With literature, you can't just be, like, shooting the moon for the money. Of course it’s nice to be profitable, but it’s never gonna be like an international bank or something or even like a movie company.
Q: You still pay well for the stories you publish, and so you’ve attracted big names like Rick Moody, Lydia Davis and Javier Marias. Has it been a challenge with their agents to get agreements to publish across every medium?
A: One thing we come up against again and again, in the industry, is that everyone is at a different point with their assumptions. You'll get an agent saying “oh we love what you guys are doing; we want you to publish one of our authors.” Then they pause over the international electronic rights. But, you know, electronic rights, by default, are not bound to space. It’s confusing for them, because they’re trained not to give away anything for free—and to sell other rights again and again. So they’ll ask, “What, are you going to make a video game out of this?” And, I don't know, you have to say: “You may be slightly confused about the demand for a video game based on the work of Javier Marias. Like: don't worry, this is not going to cannibalize your hardcover sales in Spain.” But it also makes sense; everybody's afraid of “doing it wrong.”
Q: You secured funding in the “mid-five figures” for the first year of Electric Literature. Did you guys pay yourselves at all, to start out?
Well, because Andy and I are scrappy, we raised barely enough money to pay for writers, office space, and our designer to lay everything out. We were collecting about $1000 a month in stipend, each. Most of the money we raised was going to creating issues and the loose infrastructure to work online. I was teaching at Brooklyn College, and Andy was freelancing as journalist--putting together another magazine for an NGO at the UN at the same time. And so we hustled our asses off, to get people like Michael Cunningham and Aimee Bender in the first issues. But we found that publishing the work isn’t enough. We still spend 80 percent of our time doing promo and marketing.
Q: You need those big writer names, right out of the gate. But going forward, are you going to start trying to break new voices?
A: Yes, we're gonna be breaking new voices. As you rightly pointed out, to establish your journal as a serious place to publish, you have to come swinging as hard as you can, right out of the gate. And the question gets asked, why don’t you distribute individual stories digitally, the way iTunes sells individual songs. The reason we don’t do that is so we can start breaking new writers. We won’t break up the stories, because the 1,000 people who download an excerpt from Michael Cunningham’s new novel are also downloading the story by an unknown writer. In issue 3 we published Matt Sumell, who had been unpublished, aside from one or two credits here or there in small magazines. We’re going to be giving that fifth slot to somebody unknown, now that we have that platform.
Q: So is the journal breaking even yet? Did you guys quit your jobs?
A: The journal is breaking even and doing phenomenally, one year in. And so we quit our jobs in January. When we released the iPhone app, we knew the iPad was coming, too, and so we looked at each other and said: in 2010 we can break even. That's kind of awesome, and kind of scary. We can't really pay ourselves very much. But at that point, we knew we had to spend so many hours a week just working to keep media machine going. We knew we’d have to spend 70 hours a week in the office, over the next four or five months. It was like putting all the chips, but you think, “I'm holding a good enough hand.” And we worked hard enough, I guess, that we could manage a second capital raise, and so we no longer work other jobs.
One of the things we say is: “don't ever make the mistake of thinking the medium you're reading in is a political argument. However you want to read--if you want to read, it's great. We're going to be there to offer you great content in any medium you prefer. When you kind of snob out about the politics, you are making a set of assumptions that doesn't have to do with your readership, but about you. But you’re not buying you’re journal, you know? Because of our print on demand service, I want to say we’re the only literary magazine in the country where, if you walk into our offices, we don’t have stacks of cardboard boxes filled with old issues.
Q: So what’s next?
A: We have something else that's cooking, that we’re spending about 80 percent of time on now. It’s a project nobody knows about. We’re going to have a launch on December 20th. It’s a completely new platform for storytelling we're very exciting about. It’s actually what helped us get that second round of investment. I can't really talk about.
Q: You’re actually going to make that Javier Marias video game, aren’t you?
A: Well, I will say it’s going to be more in the spectrum where storytelling meets social media. It won't compete with what we're doing in the apps or in print, but further expand that.