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 Reading” list 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.