Andy Hunter is one-half of the team of masterminds behind Electric Literature, a brand-new quarterly anthology of contemporary short fiction. Only on its second issue, Electric Literature has already received glowing accolades from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, and a host of other publications. Why? The magazine is available on paper, via e-book, or on your iPhone; it promotes itself through Youtube videos by its authors; its editors are optimistic forward-thinkers who publish unknown writers next to the likes of Colson Whitehead and Lydia Davis; they pay authors $1,000 per story. Oh yeah, and that whole Rick Moody twitter thing.
Please tell everyone a little bit about who you are and what you do.
Ideally, I get up at 7 am and work on my novel, which is about a cult leader who is lonely and has misgivings. After a couple hours of writing, I begin my day job, which is writing about recent neuroscience and its potential ramifications on education, public health, and aging. Then I walk to Electric Literature's cozy-yet-industrial office space in downtown Brooklyn and work into the evening. I'm always behind on everything I'm doing, and sometimes I stay out late, drink beer, and oversleep, compounding the problem.
Why did you start Electric Literature? Where would you like to see the magazine go?
Scott Lindenbaum (my partner at EL) and I worked on The Brooklyn Review, a literary magazine published out of the MFA program at Brooklyn College. One day I spoke to a distributor who told me only 40 independent bookstores in the US carried literary magazines. "That can't be true," I said, "every store I go to carries them." "Where do you live?" he asked. "Brooklyn." "12 of them are in New York," he said.We quickly realized that starting a paper lit mag was a dubious proposition--first, it's a lot of work and money for a very small readership, but also, when there are already so many good ones, how do you differentiate yourself?
Meanwhile, pessimism about the prospects for literary fiction abounded among writers we knew. Hell, it abounds in writers as successful as Philip Roth, even. A friend’s novel almost disappeared into Harcourt’s acquisitions “freeze”; the stock market crashed; things were grim.Books were a lifeline to us when we were growing up. And when you see something you love being threatened, you defend it. We didn’t want to start another free, unpaid online literary magazine. We wondered, could the forces that seem to threaten literature be marshaled in its defense? We conceived of our distribution model, which uses eBooks, iPhone Apps, and print-on-demand to avoid a prohibitively large printing bill. This allows us to pay writers, which was a priority for us. And we decided to try to learn how to use this internet thingamgob to broaden the reach of literary fiction, through things like videos, Twitter experiments, and the like. Crazily enough, it seems to be working.
Do you think embracing innovative formats is the only way for fiction publishing to survive? Would you say it's been a successful approach for you?
Yes, I guess I do. I understand the sentimental attachment to books, and I have never read anything longer than 1000 words off a screen. In other words, I am a reading Luddite, like many in the literary world. But what is a book, but a transmission of thought from one person to another? It isn’t the paper and glue that we truly value.
If you’re growing up now, you write and read electronically. Paper documents are no longer the most efficient way to communicate an idea. Thus, it’s inevitable that books are going to become collector’s items and art objects. Like vinyl. The question is, are readers of literary fiction going to become like vinyl collectors—a small, devoted subculture? I think literature has too much to offer the human race for us to allow that to happen.
Embracing new formats been successful for us. It’s not perfect. Most people still shop at bookstores—thank God, because we love bookstores, and that’s one of the main reasons we offer a paperback. But there are advantages, too: No production cost. Unlimited distribution. Never out of print. eBook sales are doubling each year, and in September 2009, more eBooks than games were published to iPhone App Store.Electric Literature started early. The eBook market is still maturing. But we think it is clearly where publishing is headed.
There's been a huge positive response to the magazine, which seems a healthy indicator that the demise of literature has been much exaggerated. What gives you hope for The Future of Publishing? What are you looking forward to?
I wrote an editorial on this subject, which you can read here. Basically, I’m looking forward to all the great new work, in new forms, that will come out of this transition. The human need for storytelling isn’t going away. People are going to begin to use new technologies and formats in ways that inspire others, and while major publishers may see their role diminish, publishing as a whole will see a boom in small and self-publishers. 375,000 books were published in the US in 2007. 480,000 books were published in 2008. Who can look at those numbers and see the death of publishing? What we are seeing is democratization, not death.
Some books you've read lately and found pleasing?
I only really have time to read short stories submitted to EL right now. I have finished just two novels in the past five months: Netherland, by Joseph O’Neil, and Lowboy, by John Wray. I recommend both. Pat DeWitt’s Ablutions is my favorite book of 2009, of the few I’ve managed to read.