Founding editor George Plimpton may have famously played quarterback for the Detroit Lions, pitched against Willie Mays, boxed against Archie Moore, appeared on the silver screen with John Wayne, performed as a triangulist for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and been named the "unofficial official" Fireworks Commissioner of New York City, but he never built the Paris Review's app. That's where Lorin Stein comes in. Stein is the current editor of the Paris Review, the prominent literary quarterly founded in 1953. The Paris Review has often been a first or early publishing venue for many major voices in literature, and is renowned for its interviews with masters of the novel, poetry, and other arts. In partnership with the Atavist, the Paris Review has recently launched an iOS app. Fast Company chatted with Stein via phone and email about the process of steering a traditional literary publication into a brave new digital world.
FAST COMPANY: I read in the Times that you turned to a staffer and said, “Go figure it out.” Was this app something you felt obliged to do, rather than interested in doing?
LORIN STEIN: I was a book editor for most of my grown-up life. When I applied for the job I have now, the board had to ask me for a supplementary memo about digital strategy. They pointed out that I had completely forgotten to address that aspect in my application for the job. When they hired me, they let me know that they were worried about my inexperience with all things digital—and I lived up to their expectations! But in the last two and a half years I have become very interested. I dragged my feet a little with regard to the app because I wanted to make sure we did it right the first time. I didn’t want us to do anything that we couldn’t do best.
During your tenure, the Paris Review has started a blog (which, in full disclosure to our readers, I’ve contributed to), as well as a Twitter feed.
I love the blog, and Sadie Stein [the blog's editor] does a great job with it. But even three years ago, even for me, launching a blog was an easy decision to make. By now we sell nearly all of our subscriptions online. With the Twitter feed, most of our content is taken from the interview archive. In a certain way the technology was just sitting there waiting to be used in the right way. What I didn’t want to happen was for the technology to dictate the content.
I think some people feel a kind of cognitive dissonance about a Paris Review app. Do you feel like it’s a mixing of the sacred and profane?
The Paris Review has never exactly been sacred. It’s probably mixing the profane with the profane. If you look back at the 1960s, you’ll see an advertisement the Review ran for a T-shirt featuring George's [Plimpton, the founding editor] then-wife. Before that, they sold cigarettes at the World’s Fair. The Paris Review is no stranger to the low road. I just hope it has always taken the low road with a certain amount of wit and self-awareness and elegance. For me, personally, the app is already performing a function. We never had a copy of Issue One, and when we finally got it, it was falling apart. Now it’s digitized, and great to look at on the iPad.
To what extent is the app meant to serve existing subscribers, and to what extent to win new ones?
I thought the app would be especially useful for finding new readers abroad. It’s very expensive for us to distribute overseas. After we moved our printing operations from Holland to the U.S. in the '70s, it meant giving up on Europe. But now London has our second-highest concentration of readers for the blog, after New York, and our interview anthologies have been translated into a bunch of languages. So we have readers out there around the world. I thought we were building this primarily for them. But as soon as we announced that our current subscribers would have free access to the app, we had something like a 40% response rate within the first couple of days. That's how many subscribers went to download the app. That really surprised me.
A print-plus-digital subscription to the Paris Review is $40, and a digital-only subscription to the Paris Review is $30 per year. That’s not a lot in the world of literary quarterlies, but the number stands out in the app store and in a world of $9.99 Kindle versions. As soon as you wade into the digital world, do you feel a downward price pressure?
Yep. One does feel that. But every year we’re publishing essentially four books of the best new stuff that there is. When you break it down that way, it doesn’t seem that much to me. Also, I’m committed to the print edition, and I don’t want to undersell it.
What is your own relationship to gadgets and e-readers and such?
It used to be non-existent. When I was a book editor, they tried to make us read on a Sony e-reader, and there was only one book I managed to finish, a manuscript of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Come to think of it, that manuscript wasn't even complete. Otherwise, my eyes glazed over on the device. I hated it. Then a Paris Review donor sent me an iPad. I've found it’s good for reading submissions to the magazine, but that’s pretty much all I use it for. Honestly, I could get by without it. When we had the blackout this last week, and I walked uptown with a tote bag to look for a place to stay, I took my computer and my phone and a clean shirt, but it never would have occurred to me to take my iPad. Soon I realized I didn’t need my computer, either. I bought a paperback from a street vendor near Columbus Circle, The Literary Situation by Malcolm Cowley.
So you won’t become a Kindle user anytime soon?
I can’t imagine why I would. A book is just a much better technology for the kind of reading I do. And if I care about what I’m reading, I like it to sit on the shelf and not go away when I turn my back. Physical copies do last through time, and the copies of the Paris Review sitting on your shelf, they confront you always with a question, of whether to read them or throw them away. If you don't, they’re going to outlive you, and eventually someone else is going to have to throw them away or keep them. This to me seems a very human way of living with texts. When you can push a button and make text disappear, or when the text requires you to keep updating your hardware in order to have access to it, that really erodes the aura of the book. I think we pretend to be more agnostic about technologies than we really are. I don’t think anyone who has lived in an apartment that has books and magazines in it really feels that’s the same as living in an empty apartment and having a device. Real books make a different kind of demand on you. And that demand is part of what we want.
My readership’s probably a bit different from yours. What can business people and entrepreneurs learn from reading the Paris Review?
The literature business is a terrible business in the sense that it has tiny margins. But it's also a place where you can see consumers behaving in really unpredictable and inspiring ways. Magazines across the board are facing large, fast drop-offs in circulation. Yet we here we are, a little journal that specializes in short stories and interviews, and we’ve never had such a high circulation. Really, it’s higher than it’s ever been. The American reader is continually underestimated, talked down to, or offered crap. And when a good book sells a hundred thousand or a million copies, it's treated as an anomaly. The truth is, good editors are in the business of anomalies, in the business of finding outliers and making them work. As far as the business goes, that's what to me was always interesting. We’re always in the position of betting on the taste and sophistication of the consumer, and it’s always more fun to win by thinking better of the customer than the other way around.