Electric Literature recharges


Electric Literature’s new logo.

Five years ago, two guys started a magazine called Electric Literature. Their goal was to create a literary journal for distribution on platforms old and evolving — paper, e-reader and iPhone. At the time, it sounded like one of many quixotic dreams in the twilight of American publishing. But Electric Literature quickly attracted an appreciative and relatively large audience, particularly when it started “Recommended Reading” on Tumblr.

Today, Electric Literature is officially relaunching by aligning itself with the way most people interact with the site.

The first issue of Electric Literature was published in 2009.
The first issue of Electric Literature was published in 2009.

Co-founder Andy Hunter says, “In 2009, we were a publisher, and the blog was an extra thought.” But that wasn’t how readers regarded them. While they sold 10,000 copies of their first issue over four years, “Recommended Reading” draws six times that many users each week. On Twitter, @ElectricLit has 174,000 followers.

Seeing that kind of interest encouraged the staff to shift from being primarily a publisher to being primarily an advocate for great literature. And Hunter sees room for doing that in a visually playful way without sacrificing the site’s depth and passion.

“Posting a cool photo on social media gets a much greater response than text alone, even in our audience of book lovers,” he says. “While at first that might seem at odds with literary content, we’ve always felt that changes in the way we communicate create opportunities to reach more people.”

The new Web site includes essays, reviews, conversations and columns. “We’ll also be shedding light on the creative process and exploring writing as a craft,” Hunter says, “talking to writers and taking on topical subjects.”

Earlier this month, Lincoln Michel, co-founder of Gigantic magazine, joined Electric Literature as the online editor. “We’re looking for new staff,” he says, adding, “We’re aiming to pay writers by this summer.” (The fiction contributors are already being paid.) The staff currently includes Hunter, Michel, another full-time editor, three part-time editors and 20 volunteer readers.

Although Electric Literature made money and always managed to be self-supporting, part of this new redesign has involved becoming a nonprofit. Hunter says, “A lot of what we do (and want to do more of) doesn’t make money — like promoting other small presses, literary journals and undiscovered writers. Or using new mediums like Twitter, YouTube and even video games to create experimental narratives. Becoming a nonprofit allows us to make these things our focus.”

While acknowledging that the visual arts and music receive far more financial support than literary endeavors, Hunter hopes that Electric Literature can attract a sufficiently large audience to “to convince funders that our mission is valid.”

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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