Doors Opening? Bit o' Lit for Reading Riders
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
Bored and cranky, Shannon MacDonald was riding the Metro one morning four years ago, headed to her job as a paralegal at Akin Gump.
She was tired of crosswords and Sudokus. She'd never been much of a newspaper person. She was a "book nut" -- but due to recent poor choices at the library, she didn't have anything good to read.
Cue the light bulb: Wouldn't it be great if you could pick up free commuter-length book excerpts at Metro stations? Wouldn't publishers be eager to cooperate, to promote new books and authors? Couldn't somebody, say Shannon MacDonald, turn this into a profit-making enterprise?
Well, she's about to find out. It took a few years for MacDonald to focus her ideas, meet publishers, line up designers and printers and quit her day job. But she's now the sole publisher of the latest and most literary addition to the local freebie reading lineup -- Bit o' Lit.
A bite-size (8 1/2 -by-5 1/2 -inch) magazine containing four or five excerpts in each issue, Bit o' Lit made its debut May 5 and has come out on alternate Mondays since then. In a world where more and more reading is being done on a screen, the 25-year-old MacDonald is headed in the other direction: using one dead-tree medium to promote another.
"It's kind of a retro idea, in this read-excerpts-online world, but it's a neat idea -- giving books to people who have time to kill on the subway," said Carl Lennertz, vice president of Independent Retailing at HarperCollins. After meeting MacDonald last winter and liking her concept, he put her in touch with other publishing houses; so far, Bit o' Lit's expanding lineup of sources includes Farrar Straus Giroux, Hyperion and others.
From her New York office at Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House's Doubleday group, marketing director Meghan Walker said she liked the contrast to the "free rags and celebrity gossip" handed out to Manhattan subway riders. Like other publishers, she selects which excerpts are printed, and she leans toward those with D.C. relevance or marketing potential -- like putting Matt Taibbi's "The Great Derangement" in Bit o' Lit just before the author's appearance at Politics and Prose. "He had a great turnout," Walker said, and while it's unclear how much of that was due to Bit o' Lit, she said the magazine was "affordable and worth the gamble." Lennertz of HarperCollins put Fergus Bordewich's "Washington: The Making of the American Capital" in Bit o' Lit's second issue.
Publishers pay MacDonald $148 per page, with excerpts running four to eight pages. That money covers the basic design and printing costs, but not much else. MacDonald has had little success in selling advertisements, which means she hasn't seen much in the way of profits.
Since she's on such a tight budget, MacDonald also delivers the 20,000 copies of the magazine herself, sometimes getting friends to help in exchange for pizza. She estimates that 75 percent of every edition has been picked up.
If MacDonald is discouraged, she doesn't show it. She emphasizes that the magazine is new, and she's learning the business as she goes along. For example, her first distribution boxes had flat tops. After a few were crushed when people sat on them, she switched to boxes with slanted tops, of which she now has 50. Both kinds of boxes can be found in Metro stops and other central locations in the District and Arlington.
One of the things MacDonald remains adamant about is that the magazine will not include reviews. She maintains that people have such different tastes that they should be able to judge the books for themselves.
"A good portion of the population . . . does not read book reviews, because there is no common language to talk about writing," she said. "Someone could say 'This is the best book in the world!' and that could mean nothing to me."