Electric Literature

Amid all the dismal reports about the death of fiction, here's a refreshingly bold act of optimism: a new bimonthly magazine called Electric Literature. And it's not just MFA kids self-publishing their diatribes against Mom and Dad. The first issue sports stories by such heavyweights as Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Cunningham and National Book Award finalist Jim Shepard.
With one foot in the past and one in the future, this new magazine is specifically designed for distribution on all platforms. If you're still enamored of paper, you can own the handsome print version for $10. But if you're too hip for that, download the e-version for $5. (An iPhone app is on the works, too.)

Publisher and editor-in-chief Andy Hunter, 38, used to work for the pop culture magazine MEAN before moving to New York, where he holds down a day job at an NGO at the United Nations. He and his co-publisher, Scott Lindenbaum, put up about 20 percent of the start-up money for Electric Literature and convinced investors to give them the rest. "We've been trying to do things as professionally as possible," he tells me by phone. "We were able to convince a few people of the prospects for literary fiction in the age of new media."

What makes this feasible -- or at least more feasible than some other start-up magazines -- is their print-on-demand structure. "A traditional literary magazine might print 4,000 at $2 each, and then those copies would either go through the mail or to bookstores with about a 50 percent sell-through. The rest would be pulped. But we don't have to do that because every copy is printed as it's ordered."

So far, Andy says they're doing better than they expected. "If there's any kind of hesitation, it's from people who don't really believe that a literary publication is viable. We started this publication to prove them wrong. There's a human need for storytelling that hasn't gone away just because print is having problems. We want to bring short fiction to an age that's more mobile and doesn't have the time to settle into a long text."

Every issue will follow the standard set by their debut: No poetry, no charcoal drawings, no essays, just five short stories, anchored by some big-name authors. (Andy drove five hours to meet Shepard in Western Mass. and convince him to contribute.)

What's most remarkable is that Electric Literature pays real money: $1,000. "We insist on being able to pay writers a large fee for their stories. We just don't believe that this sort of thing should be free." That fee scale has already brought in a large pile of submissions for the editors to paw through. The core staff is four, but they have about 10 "readers" to help them out.

They've got some creative marketing ideas, too, including an upcoming YouTube video based on Shepard's story and an army of street salesmen -- "the kinds of things that sneaker companies would do."

At the moment, they're thinking big -- 20,000 circulation -- and why not? They're off to a good-looking start.

-- Ron Charles

Twitter at roncharles

(Disclosure: An old student of mine, Jeff Price, was recently hired by Electric Literature.)

By Ron Charles |  July 1, 2009; 5:04 AM ET Ron Charles
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Thanks for the tip! Before we bash "MFA kids," though, it's worth noting that both of the "heavyweights" you mentioned started out as MFA kids. Everybody's got to start somewhere.

Posted by: satsuma | July 1, 2009 7:48 AM

I am wondering if you are familiar with one of my favorite new media publishers - Narrative Magazine, an online lit mag whose mission is to bring great literature to the world for free. They certainly are thriving, and and as a non-profit, all of their reading & contest fees go toward paying the authors they publish. Info at www.narrativemagazine.com.

Posted by: ellyd | July 2, 2009 1:26 PM

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