The Atlantic, Electric Literature, and the Digital Future

Book Fractal: Complete by B_Zedan

Actually, can I tell you how much I hate the term “e-book?” Book is a physical thing. What we’re downloading are stories, and that cuts to the truth far more quickly.

“The Future Of Publishing 2010 Prognostication,” Chuck  Wendig

The sooner authors and publishers understand the difference between a book and a story, the better, and Chuck nails it in his typical way, spiking a laugh-out-loud funny post (bawdy sense of humor absolutely required) with spot-on insights like the one quoted here.

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.

The Atlantic is one of the more intriguing success stories of the so-called digital transition, a 153-year-old literate magazine that refuses to cater to the lowest common denominator, the ill-conceived Britney Spears cover a rare exception to the rule.

The New York Times has a must-read profile of the revitalized magazine that notes a fundamental part of their turnaround strategy involved thinking differently: “We imagined ourselves as a venture-capital-backed start-up in Silicon Valley whose mission was to attack and disrupt The Atlantic,” said Justin B. Smith, president of the Atlantic Media Company.

Unlike many magazines that siloed their digital initiatives and staff from their traditional counterparts, sometimes overtly pitting them against each other, The Atlantic tore down the walls separating them, internally and externally, merging editorial and business teams, eliminating the online paywall, and rethinking their approach to advertising:

Mr. Smith also hired away the publisher of Wired, Jay Lauf, who did something fairly radical for the magazine business: He told his staff they did not have to meet separate targets for print and digital ad sales.

“If you do $1.8 million in digital and $200,000 in print, that’s fine.” In the last year, digital advertising revenue at The Atlantic rose almost 70 percent while print revenue climbed more than 25 percent.

While the advertising growth is impressive, The Atlantic never resorted to devaluing their content with cut-rate subscription offers in order to boost circulation, currently around 470,000, and they’ve done it while still building an amazing online platform that attracted 4.8 million unique visitors in October, ~25% of whom came for Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish, arguably one of the most successful and impressive blogs of substance on the Internet. They’ve also built “a robust business around Atlantic-branded conferences.”

Although they eliminated their online paywalls, they’ve been creative about monetizing digital content beyond advertising, too, becoming “the first magazine to deliver fiction exclusively to Kindle readers” via The Atlantic Fiction for Kindle, a series of never-before-published short stories, each for just $3.99. By embracing and valuing the short story, they’re also zeroing in on one of digital’s most under-emphasized “killer apps” — size doesn’t matter.

While I’ve long been a fan of The Atlantic, it took a while for me to buy into Electric Literature, a publishing startup launched in 2009 at the complete opposite end of the spectrum, 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, as noted, 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.

“The Novel is not under threat from technology,” Mark Wernham

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.

The Atlantic and Electric Literature are just two 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.

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4 thoughts on “The Atlantic, Electric Literature, and the Digital Future

  1. Guy,
    Thanks for highlighting the successful strategies being employed, both stories are very encouraging. In our case, we’ve defined our mission as: delivering content to our audience, anytime, anywhere, anyhow.

    Lisa Duggan
    Steve Berger
    Galactic Monkey Media
    Twitter: motherhoodmag

    1. I’m a firm believer in, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” The most innovative business models won’t succeed if they’re not attached to a clear mission, and that mission needs to be more than just “we sell a bunch of stuff!”

      PS: Galactic Monkey Media is the best company name ever! 🙂

  2. Great stuff here. I’ve been in publishing for over twenty years–at a niche house. From where I sit the big shit-hitting fan is the fundamental marketing challenge that the digital space raises. How do I find people who’ll be interested in the content I’m publishing in a way that is scale-able, cost-effective, pays the rent, and leaves enough dough to have the occasional PBR at the end of the day. I think publishers and content creators in general, that is those who want to be in business in 5 years, will need to look to leveraging niche communities and niche content across platforms. Without bookstores you have to have customers.

    1. Lou Paskalis at AMEX once referred to it as a “crisitunity” and I wholeheartedly agree.

      In publishing, I think part of the problem lies in the difference between the reality of “the occasional PBR” and the dream of “the daily [insert high-end liquor du jour].” Publishing is a sustainable business, not a high-growth or high net profit one, but most of the big publishers operate under unrealistic expectations of the latter from Wall Street.

      Niche is where it’s at, IMO, and digital has opened many niches that were previously too small to profitably serve via the traditional print model to exciting new possibilities.

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