New Rooster app crows about good books, young and old

(Courtesy of Rooster)
(Courtesy of Rooster)

You don’t need to wait at the docks for the latest installment of Charles Dickens’s “Old Curiosity Shop.” But what if your iPhone could recreate the excitement — and convenience — of reading a novel in serial form?

Check out a new app called Rooster, which has the backing of some of the biggest names in the tech industry. It launches Tuesday in the Apple app store, and was created specifically for the iPhone. Every month, Rooster will send two novels to your phone: a classic tale and a contemporary story, paired to provoke interesting reflection.

But these books aren’t just dumped on you in one I’ll-never-get-to-it download. Instead, the novels arrive in your cellphone in manageable installments, according to a schedule you set yourself. “War & Peace” looks so much less daunting as a serial tale consumed every day at lunchtime like “The Days of Our Lives.” The service costs $4.99 a month.

(Courtesy of Rooster)
(Courtesy of Rooster)

The Rooster app is elegantly designed to make reading easy on the little iPhone screen. Text size, font style and background color are all adjustable. And if you can’t wait for the next day’s installment, click a button to have it delivered immediately.

The people behind this app have years of experience with mobile and e-reading. Rooster is a variation on DailyLit, which delivers fiction via e-mail in short installments. Both services are owned by Plympton, a San Francisco media tech company.

The name Rooster stems from the founders’ fanciful impressions of life on the farm. Editorial director Yael Goldstein Love says, “We city kids, perhaps delusionally, associate roosters with wholesome daily routine and a sense of emerging into the day refreshed and energized. That’s what we think a daily dose of good fiction can do for people, too: refresh and energize you daily, pull you out of the fog of your rote routine into wakefulness.”

For its debut this month, Rooster offers Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd” and a literary thriller called “I Was Here,” written specifically for Rooster’s serialized format by Rachel Kadish.

It’s a pairing of novellas that’s unlikely to melt down the Apple app store. But as quixotic as Rooster sounds, some Web-savvy people have put their money behind it, including Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit; Joshua Schachter, founder of Delicious; Adam Goldstein, CEO of Hipmunk; Andrew McCollum, co-founder of Facebook; Charlie Cheever, co-founder of Quora; and James Hong, co-founder of HOTorNOT.

Do these gazillionaires know something about the marketability of classic novels that the rest of us don’t?

For writers, of course, any new platform is a port in the storm. Rooster pays novelists a small advance and “a generous revenue share,” according to Love. The authors also retain the right to resell their work to traditional publishers. (Graphic designers can get involved, too. Last year, the Rooster team partnered with the Creative Action Network to produce new book covers for classics. Rooster will sometimes draw from that group of artists.)

Future offerings on the “contemporary” side of each month’s pairing will include previously published books and original works. “We want to encourage more writers to try the serial form,” Love says. “It exercises slightly different muscles, forcing you, for instance, to focus more than you might on the propulsiveness of your plot. But we’ll also be offering a number of already-published works . . . truly excellent books that never quite popped in the market for whatever reason, or that did, briefly, but now go unread.”

(Courtesy of Rooster)
(Courtesy of Rooster)

Next month, Rooster will deliver “The Mind-Body Problem,” a 1983 novel by the philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein and “The Kreutzer Sonata,” by Tolstoy. HOTorNOT this is not. But give the team credit for bringing some tech-wizardry to intellectual fiction.

Rooster knows that size matters. “We’ve been thinking a lot about the feeling of falling behind and how it might affect a reader’s experience on Rooster,” Love says. “That’s also why we wanted our first offerings to be shorter. It’s all about making reading fiction feel seamless, so that ‘stack of New Yorkers as high as my dog’ feeling wasn’t what we wanted to go for right away.

“We like offering these small masterpieces by writers known for their much larger masterpieces. It gives people who might have been intimidated by ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘Anna Karenina’ a chance to read Melville or Tolstoy in just a matter of days. Maybe they’ll serve as literary gateway drugs.”

Remember, kids: Just say Yes.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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