Digital Digest: Micropublishers Start Thinking Big

Adrian Versteegh

This summer marked another literary success story on Kickstarter, as Connu—a new reading app that will deliver an original short story to each subscriber’s smartphone or tablet five days a week—met its fifteen-thousand-dollar target at the end of June. Founded by three graduates of the master’s program in professional writing at the University of Southern California, the Los Angeles–based start-up puts a new twist on curation, publishing new and little-known writers recommended by an advisory board of literary notables such as Aimee Bender, Lydia Davis, Jonathan Lethem, Joyce Carol Oates, and David Sedaris.

In early 2013 Connu earned a place at USC’s Annenberg Innovation Lab, an incubator for tech initiatives, and since this past spring has received support from the Bixel Exchange, a center established by the L.A. Chamber of Commerce and Small Business Administration to help local start-ups with free access to lawyers and investors. But projects like Connu are also benefiting from a series of higher-level shifts in the digital ecosystem: a proliferation of mobile publishing platforms, a move toward minimalism, and new funding models—factors that let so-called micropublishers, or small presses that often target a specific form or market, retain their independence and niche appeal while publishing high-quality, carefully curated work.

Earlier moments in digital publishing stressed multimedia novelties (remember the Vook?), and while that option is still going strong (from Zeen, to Readymag, to Creativist), a more interesting movement is taking its inspiration from the experience of traditional reading rather than from technological capability. The latest crop of publishing platforms—including, TypeEngine, and the now open-source PressBooks—focuses on simplicity. New York City–based 29th Street Publishing, which deals in apps that play nice with Apple’s iOS architecture, has released mobile versions of Poetry magazine and One Story (a print journal that, true to its name, publishes only a single story in each issue), along with the Awl’s Weekend Companion, a distillation of the popular webzine that editor Choire Sicha calls “a quiet thing to sit down with for reading—away from the laptop and the desktop, away from the IMs and Twitter and e-mail and noise.”

That need for tranquillity is answered in the minimalism of micropublishing, an aesthetic that draws on the success of noise filters such as Readability and Instapaper (the latter’s founder, Marco Arment, went on to launch the Magazine, a biweekly that publishes only a handful of essays in each issue, last fall). But stylistic sparseness can also be accompanied by curatorial practices that acknowledge the crowd. The several-thousand-strong editorial board at Matter—a platform for long-form journalism that prefigured Connu in its Kickstarter success—practices what it calls “collaborative commissioning”: soliciting and then voting on ideas en masse. Another crowdfunded site, the Big Roundtable, uses group vetting as part of a multitiered editorial process that it hopes will sustain a paying outlet for long-form writing.

Extending this sort of participatory ethos to encompass new economic models is a principal challenge for micropublishing—especially for writers who expect to get paid. The aptly prefixed “micropayment” movement may be a logical pairing. Swedish platform Flattr, for instance, lets users preload a monthly donation to content creators; the account is then divvied up among those whose works the user has “liked,” “favorited,” or “starred” that month. The recently launched CentUp works similarly, but splits donations between creators and charitable organizations. For now, direct-purchase or subscription models still dominate: Connu, for its part, plans to charge $3.99 a month, or $6.99 for additional access to audio versions of stories read by the authors.

While crowdfunding and cheap distribution platforms have lowered entry barriers for independent publishers, the system will need to generate income at the other end if writers are to survive along with them. And the independents have been joined by a deep-pocketed competitor: In March Amazon announced the launch of Day One, a digital-only imprint that will—for the first time—release the work of debut authors as Kindle Singles. A decade ago, the advent of blogging changed the way digital writing was produced and read. Economics will likely determine whether micropublishing can effect a comparable shift.

Adrian Versteegh is a PhD candidate at New York University, where he teaches literature and writes about insomnia. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and Berlin.