Electric Literature and the Digital Future
By Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Chief Executive Optimist, Digital Book World
The debate surrounding ebooks over the past two years has often reminded me of the one that surrounded banner ads in the early days, when they were going to replace print advertising, offer heretofore unimagined data, and completely upend the magazine publishing industry as we knew it. Reality, of course, turned out to be a little different, as publishers found themselves trading “analog dollars for digital pennies,” clickthroughs were eventually downplayed in favor of branding, and advertisers shifted increasing percentages of their marketing dollars towards creating their own content, websites, and online communities.
The “business model” became more important than the reason publishers were in business, and the Business Model of the Month Club offers a mind-boggling selection of digital pixie dust, few of which have proven scalable and/or profitable in the long-term beyond the earliest adopting VCs and technology developers who cashed in and moved on to the next big thing as fast as possible.
Too many traditional magazine publishers lost sight of what made them valuable to their readers in the first place (as opposed to their advertisers), and editorial and marketing staffs were slowly transformed and, in many cases, decimated, as content became increasingly devalued in a race to the bottom. The major new media success stories have ended up being variations on an old theme, attracting maximum eyeballs for fickle advertisers, and the biggest winner of all ended up being a little technology company that’s never published a single piece of original content of its own, Google.
It took a while for me to buy into Electric Literature, a publishing startup launched in 2009, and its intriguing but seemingly futile mission “to use new media and innovative distribution to return the short story to a place of prominence in popular culture.”
In the beginning, I thought co-founders/editors Andy Hunter and Scott Lindenbaum were just pitching yet another “innovative business model” untethered to reality, and pretty much dismissed any chance of their still being around in 2011. I was highly skeptical of the Twitter / Rick Moody experiment that first put them on many people’s radars, and during their appearance at the 2009 Ebook Summit, I tweeted: “Love Electric Lit’s approach and intent, in theory, but where’s the market? Is the tech tail wagging the dog here?”
Turns out, I was wrong about them.
Although I’ve always shared their sense of optimism for the potential of short stories to return to prominence via digital channels — as does The Atlantic, and Amazon — I’m now equally optimistic about their playing a significant role in achieving that potential, not because they talk a good game, but because to-date, they’ve executed on their strategy exceptionally well.
In late October, Hunter wrote an excellent piece for Publishers Weekly, “Literature, Plugged In,” that I’ve had bookmarked ever since, and refer to often as I look forward to 2011:
[The Twitter/Moody] experience showed us that risk-taking requires a willingness to fail. Failure is the inevitable first step to success, and an experiment only truly fails when it yields no useful results. We were fortunate that we didn’t have to worry about being fired during the maelstrom. 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.
I’ve preached the Gospel of Experimentation before, and Hunter acknowledges one of its biggest obstacles, the fear of losing one’s job being a strong disincentive. On that note, I quote Don Linn: “Your old job, whatever it was, doesn’t exist anymore (even if the title does).”
In the aftermath of that “maelstrom,” they’ve announced and launched Electric Publisher, an intriguing platform that enables small presses and authors to execute and monetize their own digital strategies via the iPhone/iPad App Store, because they firmly believe that “a thriving independent press is critical to our culture.” And last week, at the 2010 Ebook Summit, they announced broadcastr, “a Social Media platform for location-based stories” that reminds me of MondoBizzaro’s I-Witness Central City, but on a global scale.
Both initiatives go well beyond what I ever expected from a small literary publisher, but both fit squarely within their core mission and made me realize that, not only are they very serious about it, they’re actively working towards achieving it.
The way the publishing world is embracing this new platform is in stark contrast to how the music industry reacted to new technology changing its business model, and I think that where they failed and lost their way, publishing will adapt and strengthen and will play a defining role in this technology’s development.
Disruption doesn’t acknowledge titles or job descriptions, and often inspires innovation from unlikely and/or unheralded sources.
While the technology enabling the latest wave of disruption tends to get a disproportionate amount of attention, what’s far more interesting and predictive of the future is the user behavior driving the technological innovations, and the initiatives that find success at the chaotic intersection of publishing and technology.
Electric Literature is just one of myriad examples of what the digital future might hold, very different from each other except in one respect: it’s not about their business model, it’s about their reason for being in business.
If your core pitch is your “innovative” business model and not what you publish and for whom, your 15 minutes are almost up.
This post was excerpted from “The Atlantic, Electric Literature, and the Digital Future,” originally published at loudpoet.com.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez is the Director of Programming & Business Development for Digital Book World, and a published poet, writer, and active blogger since 2003. An old and new media pragmatist, social media realist, and marketing strategist, he views publishing as a community service, and is optimistic about its future.