Publish or Perish #1: Electric Literature Leads Us Forward

By Shane Solar-Doherty

This is the first entry in a series that I’m dubbing Publish or Perish. Each Friday Here and there, I’ll reflect upon an update or two that’s shaking things up in publishing. This one’s about Electric Literature and the crucial steps they’re taking to usher literature forward into a new phase of publishing.

I remember the first time I learned about Electric Literature. It was the spring of 2009 and I was flipping through the pages of the newest issue of Poets & Writers. Then there was this ad: A young woman, decked out in a hospital gown and puffing on a fat cigar, holding onto an IV pole, glaring at me like I’d made a distasteful remark about pissing into a bedpan. The caption read, “Reading That’s Bad For You”. I remember thinking, holy shit, and then immediately jumping online and going to their website. I remember both the doubts that were raised and the excitement I felt that this was the beginning, that the shift was being embraced, and the embrace was carried out not by a veteran publication, but by a fresh lit mag that hadn’t even yet published its first issue. To me, it sounded promising. Somehow I was rest assured, by the punkass gaze that the woman in the hospital gown was giving me, that this was going to work.

On Monday, Andy Hunter, co-founder of Electric Literature, wrote an absolutely incredible article for Publishers Weekly about how Electric Literature has adopted a model that is supported by, rather than struggling against, the changes in publishing, and how other publishers, lit mags, and authors can follow their lead and embrace the new publishing era. Hunter says that Electric Literature is “taking on iBooks and Kindle in a bootstrap revolution we believe could grow into a takeover of digital publishing.” That’s an encouraging sign for the future of the distribution of quality literature. I’ve plucked some of my other favorite quotes out from the article to share with you.

So far, some publishers have been reticent about pushing their content via smartphones, concerned that this practice will “cannibalize” hardcover sales. But we don’t believe these are the same customers. Our experience is that apps especially connect with younger readers. And by embracing apps, publishers can take an active role in defining consumer habits on these devices, and grow a nascent market that is surely crucial to our future.

If young people think of their iPhones as e-readers and not just as gaming or texting devices, literature will have a bright future.

In an environment where people are afraid of losing their jobs, the risk involved with experimentation is a strong disincentive. Yet without experimentation, traditional publishers will not successfully adapt to the digital age.

We think of every iPad and iPhone screen like a dorm-room wall, postered with items that define the owner’s interests and obsessions. At Electric Literature, we want to be on that wall because getting an app on a reader’s iPad is infinitely more valuable than getting a book on their shelf. A book on a shelf cannot tell your reader that the author has a new book coming out, or allow them to buy the author’s earlier work. It can’t send them a text message letting them know about a reading near their home. It can’t offer them free excerpts of new books, videos, photos, gossip, audio, and news. It can’t deliver, instantly, with the touch of a finger, any book in your catalogue. Our ElectricLit app does all those things.

Our experience suggests that publishers of the future must become trusted curators, hubs for communities, and more effective promoters.

Our experience suggests that publishers of the future must become trusted curators, hubs for communities, and more effective promoters.

Our experience suggests that the future of publishing is not about selling a person a book as much as it is forming a relationship.

What doesn’t really matter is how people choose to read. Literature is important; the choice of paper or plastic is not.

In an atmosphere of distraction, we may have to consciously make literature a priority.

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