Inter Alia #6: DeWitt Goes Digital

January 8, 2008 | 1 book mentioned 9 2 min read

From anecdotal evidence, Radiohead’s In Rainbows experiment – distributing the album via website, on a “suggested donation” basis – seems to have been a success. As it begins to market In Rainbows through more orthodox channels – CD pressings, iTunes – the band remains mum about the total number of downloads and the average donation amount, but most of my friends who downloaded the album seemed to have settled on 5 quid – 10 bucks. Certainly, as a marketing concept, In Rainbows has burnished Radiohead’s reputation as The World’s Most Interesting Big Band. Now, it seems, the equally interesting novelist Helen DeWitt is trying something similar: releasing short stories subsidized via PayPal donations.

“Every once in a while,” DeWitt writes on her website,

The New Yorker’s, Harper’s asks me to submit some short fiction. I then have an inner debate. I never read the fiction in the New Yorker’s or Harper’s, and I tend not to submit stories to magazines whose stories I tend not to read. So the question is, what should I do? …It seems dishonest to write a story I would not want to read, so I send in a story or stories I’ve written and the New Yorker or Harper’s says it’s not quite what they’re looking for. I thought I’d publish a few stories on my website for the kind of reader who tends not to read the stories in the New Yorker or Harper’s.

Two stories – “In Which Nick Buys a Harley for 16K Having Once Been Young” and “The French Style of Mlle Matsumoto” – are then excerpted; with a $5 PayPal donation, a reader can download them in their entirety as Word documents. “If you’d like to customise the stories with images or your preferred formatting, you can,” DeWitt notes puckishly.

DeWitt’s iconoclastic first novel, The Last Samurai, made my “Year in Readinglist in 2007 – seven years late. Her second book, Your Name Here (written with Ilya Gridneff) has yet to find a publisher. I had mixed feelings about the excerpt in the Winter issue of N+1, but I admire DeWitt’s aesthetic gumption, as I admire Radiohead’s. And, as DeWitt points out, PayPal’s “30 cents + 3% on each transaction” fees compare favorably to the numbers game of traditional publishing.

I’m confident some Millions readers out there have some thoughts on the future of DiY distribution (which, it should be noted, dates back to Gutenberg). What, if anything, does DeWitt’s PayPal project portend for authors? For readers? As always, your thoughts are welcome below.

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.


  1. The Last Samurai brought me so much pleasure–and thought–as a reader that I'm willing to follow DeWitt wherever she goes for the foreseeable future. I keep giving the book as a gift to friends, and I have yet to disappoint one.

    But perhaps I don't mind Word files as much as most folks because my wife is a designer and can with very little effort turn a Word file into something that's pleasant to read?

  2. I admire DeWitt's work, and I certainly don't put myself in her class, but you've just noticed that writers are publishing independently online? Or is it only writers who have already published conventionally who merit your attention?

    As you can imagine, I'm very saddened – and frustrated – that even lit bloggers, who mostly use the internet as their vehicle of choice, seem to stigmatise indie writers, writers who in fact ought to be considered their 'colleagues in arms'!

  3. Lee – didn't mean to frustrate or sadden you. Though I had anticipated some reactions of this sort, I chose to excise a final paragraph of this piece that would have said, in effect, "But really, bunches of fiction writers are publishing independently online, so this isn't a big deal." I think the kind of quick-and-dirty PayPal mechanism DeWitt chose is interesting – and that her stature as an artist makes this a big deal. Are there particular online-indie writers you admire who you'd like to bring to our attention, or who deserve a similar stature? Writers who have already taken a whirl in coporate publishing? Writers who wouldn't, if they had a chance? This was exactly what I was hoping someone would do: point us to the good stuff.

  4. From the corporate/establishment publishing side, you could start with Elfriede Jelinek (in German):

    There's of course lots of SF or fantasy stuff around, and certainly good short stories (try Nicholas Hogg, Kelly Link, Peter Wild for a start). Online novels are often disappointing, but this one looks promising:

    And here are two by children's author Penelope Farmer:

    As to stature, and just how we decide who deserves it, well, I'm not about to start on that one!

  5. Garth, I forgot to add that I for one have no interest in corporate publishing – or at least would only be interested in publishing conventionally if I were permitted to serialise or issue my fiction simultaneously online. After having spent eighteen years in Zimbabwe, I take great pleasure in seeing my first (and very flawed!) YA novel Mortal Ghost being downloaded to faraway places, places a book wouldn't – or couldn't – reach. But I will freely admit that most writers are still, in their heart of hearts, dreaming of conventional recognition (and a living wage).

  6. The last comment, I promise!

    Litlove, who blogs at Tales from the Reading Room, has just started a new blog called The Best of New Writing on the Web, which some of your readers might like to keep an eye on:

    She will soon be compiling an issue with excerpts from online novels.

  7. This post cost me $17. $5 for the stories (and a graceful email from the author) and $12 for the N+1 with the excerpt of Ms. Dewitt's new novel.

    I might have totally missed this if not for you, so thanks.

  8. These anti-capitalists always make me scratch my head. Like the Hollywood elites made rich and famous by virtue of capitalism, they believe it to be the worst system on earth, not to mention their country that endorses it.

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