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It’s Electric: Reading That is Bad for You

Launched in early June, Electric Literature is a bi-monthly short story anthology already making ripples in the industry for its unique approach to publishing, both in production and compensation.  The journal is available in numerous platforms; whether your cup of tea is the Kindle, an iPhone, Amazon, or a bricks-and-mortar independent bookstore, Electric Literature is cheap and accessible. Each issue contains five stories; for each contribution, the author is paid $1000. (Shocking, we know. How do they do that? Read on, friends…)

The premise is simple but brilliant: pick great writers and broadcast them to the wider world using technology that speaks to the contemporary consumer. Co-publisher Scott Lindenbaum explains that the Electric Literature iPhone application integrates the “same pricing model as iTunes, essentially $0.99 a story.” Though the anthology is still available in a bound print edition, mobile media speaks to the way we aggregate information now. “Literature is way out of step with what people are paying for their content,” Lindenbaum says, and there must be a way to bring literary geekdom back to pop culture.

It doesn’t hurt that Electric Literature has some literary heavyweights in its corner. Michael Cunningham and Jim Shepard have both acted as mentors to Lindenbaum and editor-in-chief Andy Hunter, who drove to Massachusetts for a coffee date with Shepard in order to pitch the project.  Cunningham, a professor at Brooklyn College where both editors received MFAs in writing, contributed an excerpt from his latest, yet-to-be-published novel for the first issue, a coup for the upstart journal considering Cunningham’s curriculum vitae.  (The story, “From Olympia, a novel in progress,” is affecting and elegantly written, with a story arc that feels effortless and characters painted in swift, confident brushstrokes.)

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The publication’s cover art, by Fred Tomaselli, and ad campaign, shot by photographer Chris Buck, inform the sensibility of Electric Literature. Claiming “Reading That is Bad For You” and featuring a merry, subversive group of black-eyed businessmen, boozing nurses, and toad-lickers, the print and banner ads are a far cry from the text-heavy (read: boring) advertisements in the back of your average Poets & Writers.

Besides its artistic merit (other contributors include Lydia Millet, T Cooper, and Diana Wagman), the magazine is a case study for other creative start ups. With an initial investment in the “low five figures,” Hunter and Lindenbaum managed to put together their first issue in a matter of months.  Since they avoid upfront printing costs — only printing issues when requested and paying the printer in bulk at the end of the month — and work with an independent distributor, they can afford their first priority: fair, even generous, compensation for writers.  Most importantly, the editors have maintained their enthusiasm for an industry suffering from “blood in the streets,” declaring,”the precedent we set now will inform the future.”

Electric Literature will be printed bi-monthly and accepts open submissions here.

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