DailyLit Sends E-mail Worth Reading

Kevin Canfield
From the March/April 2008 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

A study published last November by the National Endowment for the Arts doesn’t dwell on the popularity of e-mail as an explanation for the declining interest in reading books, magazines, and newspapers. It states only that e-mailing, along with watching television, playing video games, instant messaging, and Web surfing, accounts for 20 percent of what individuals aged eighteen to twenty-four consider their reading time. It seems those who claim they don’t have the time to read—or even the interest—still keep up with the daily flow of e-mail messages. But long before the study was released, Susan Danziger and her husband, Albert Wenger, had already figured out the same thing, and in response they founded DailyLit, a new Web site that e-mails serialized installments of classic books to readers each day.

The site has provided its readers with free delivery of over four hundred books that, by virtue of their age, have become part of the public domain.

Danziger, a former Random House executive, and Wenger, a tech expert who once ran the “social bookmarking” site del.icio.us, launched DailyLit last May. Since then the site has provided its readers with free delivery of over four hundred books that, by virtue of their age, have become part of the public domain, including six different Mark Twain titles, fifteen by Charles Dickens, and twenty-six by Shakespeare. Toward the end of last year, DailyLit also began offering newer titles—Letters to a Young Contrarian (Basic Books, 2001) by Christopher Hitchens and The Quotable Bitch: Women Who Tell It Like It Really Is (Lyons Press, 2007) by Jessie Shiers, among many others—for a small fee, typically around five dollars. Books for which a fee is charged can be previewed on the site for free.

The titles are e-mailed in small installments (approximately a thousand words) that Danziger says most readers will be able to finish in “under five minutes.” And she makes sure that each one begins and ends in a logical spot in the text. (For instance, DailyLit won’t send e-mails that end with only a sentence to go in a given paragraph.) Short books can be read in fewer than a hundred installments: Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, for example, arrives over the course of forty-two e-mails. A lengthier title such as Don Quixote, on the other hand, is broken down into more than four hundred.

Readers can browse DailyLit’s offerings by title, author, and genre; once they’ve selected a title, they can then choose to receive an e-mail every day, only on weekdays, or three times a week, as well as the time at which they want to be e-mailed during each prescribed day. And if they want more of the same book on a particular day, readers can choose to receive the next installment at any time. DailyLit also features online forums in which readers can discuss books as they’re delivered.

Rather than using new hardware like the Sony Reader or Amazon’s Kindle, in designing their service Danziger and Wenger took advantage of basic, existing e-mail technology. Each segment is delivered in plain text. “The big advantage of that,” Wenger says, “is that they really are universally readable” on computers, cell phones, BlackBerry handhelds, and other tech devices.

In late 2006, Wenger built a version of what would become DailyLit, which he and his wife tested: He read H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds (in 73 parts) while she read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (in 149), and they shared them with their friends.

Wenger says eighty thousand people have subscribed to books through the site; Danziger estimates that 20 percent of those are readers from outside the United States.

In a recent article published in the Miami Herald, DailyLit was touted as “a dot-com for busy readers”—exactly the niche that Danziger and Wenger were hoping to exploit. “It’s very easy when you don’t have that little reminder to let other things take up that time,” Wenger says. “And the reminder is small enough so that it doesn’t become a burden.”

Kevin Canfield is a journalist in New York City.