Last week, my partner Carson Baker and I launched Fictionaut, a new kind of literary community. Fictionaut offers all the tools of a social network, but the real focus is on the actual writing: any member can post fiction and poetry to the site. The most popular pieces appear as recommendations on the front page. The implications of Fictionaut's radically open approach -- and the fact that it works -- are far-reaching, but the concept for the site rests on a few simple ideas.
Back in 1996, when modems still screeched, I ran an unassuming magazine out of my graduate school home in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Der Brennende Busch was in German, featured artwork by my friend Dusty, and it was online. Even then, it was obvious to me that we couldn't keep doing things the way we had in print. Without a compelling reason to collect contributions into issues, I updated Der Brennende Busch with every new acceptance and listed the latest stories in reverse-chronological order on a page called "Chronologie."
I made a lot of mistakes with Der Brennende Busch, starting with the name. "Chronologie" resembled what we now call a blog, but I abandoned the idea. I didn't invent the blog, but sooner or later, someone was bound to - someone with more faith than me. In retrospect, the discontinued "Chronologie" taught me that its ok to trust the pull of the new medium's unique properties.
Last May, I went to Book Expo America in New York, and there were panels and seminars about the way the digital revolution is reshaping the publishing industry. Everybody had a theory and everybody had an angle, but as a writer and editor I felt that the most fundamental questions weren't being asked. Before we worry about online marketing strategies and elaborate business models, shouldn't we first figure out how the web might improve things for the two essential participants - the reader and the writer?
One thing that has always confounded me about online publishing: text files are tiny. The Magic Mountain takes up a fraction of the size of an average digital photo. Even in 1996, there was no technical reason not to put up every submission Der Brennende Busch received. What would happen, I wondered, if you gave in to that pull and let anyone publish? There are a great many writers worth reading, many of them published and many more who never make it past the traditional gatekeepers. Could we trust social features and a recommendation algorithm to help each other find them?
The answer, after a year of private testing, is an emphatic yes. Over the last twelve months of invite-only access, Fictionaut has grown into a vibrant place populated by a passionate crowd of over a thousand serious readers, writers, and editors who share and argue over a steady stream of fresh short fiction and poetry. We have established authors, flash fiction addicts, MFA students, experimental novelists, independent publishers, New Yorker editors, slam poets, bloggers, and memoirists. Fictionauts are friendly but discerning, and the popular stories are reliably wonderful.
I'd drop some names and link a few favorites, but I trust you'll find them yourself. Fictionaut is designed to make it easy to discover the good stuff. Come join us.