It started with e-readers, and now with new digital reading platforms like Twitter fiction, VR storytelling, and crowdsourced serials blowing through the legacy print industry like a hurricane in an indie bookstore, the way we consume stories will never be the same. While the book—and book design—is far from becoming obsolete, there’s now a rich, high-quality digital field where designers can reimagine what the reading experience can be. And, like a good book, it seems like we’re only limited by the limits of our own imagination.
One studio leading the way is, Plympton Inc., the scrappy team of applied math majors and fiction fanatics behind projects like Jeff Bezos’ Kindle Singles, the New York Times’ first literary VR film, Lincoln In the Bardo, and the Subway Library, which makes long commutes bearable via free New York Public Library short stories available on mobile.
We sat down to talk to Plympton’s CEO, Jennifer 8. Lee, and her co-founder, Yael Goldstein Love about crowdsourcing creatives, whether they fear (or are causing) the death of print, and how they’re bringing classic literature to the brink of new technology.
Lia Marcoux, Little Women and Jon Cain, The Time Machine.
Plympton is a digital literary studio. What does that mean?
Jennifer 8. Lee: We work on innovative projects in publishing that people are excited to work on. The budgets for these projects are really tight, so I have to find cool things in order to get talented people to work below their market rates. For example, the George Saunders VR film was the first to adapt a literary novel. We’re often trying to operate on the frontiers of format. We’re trying to do things that don’t have precedent.
Yael Goldstein Love: We ask: how can we use technology to get more fiction into people's lives? That's the thing that ties everything we do together. And how can we use technology to expand what we do with fiction?
What do you mean by that?
Lee: I was a reporter at the New York Times for a long time, and then in 2011, Kindle announced its Kindle Singles program for publishing short-form posts. I became fascinated with the idea that as new formats develop, what you write will change as well. Digital would change the nature of the things we publish in the same way paperbacks did.
Which of your projects epitomizes how the pairing of digital and literature made something that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise?
Love: Our Rooster app. So many people that we spoke to said, “I love fiction, but I never read fiction because I have no time.” And yet they were reading all the time on their phones: articles, the news feed. But they wouldn't read fiction because it didn't feel native to their phones. The Rooster app was meant to target that. Every month there’d be two serialized pieces of fiction. You could choose how big a chunk you wanted to read, which would be as long as your commute. There’s real precedent, in terms of serialized fiction, from the 19th century. This was reviving an old art form.
Whether it’s an app or VR, how do you select what your next format will be?
J8L: It depends. You're trying to solve a problem. I really love the Recovering the Classics project, which asked designers to reimagine covers for public domain books. We were just doing it to solve our own problems: we needed better covers for public domain books. So we said, “Well, how do we solve this problem in an exciting and cost effective way? So we made it into a movement and crowdsourced covers from around the world, from students, to retirees, to professional designers. I loved how enthusiastic people were. Some of our best work comes from trying to solve a problem with fewer resources than would be ideal. Scarcity breeds creativity; if you had lots of resources, you’d solve it in a traditional way. Because you don’t, you have to come up with a new way.
Karl Orozco, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Roberlan Borges, The Brothers Karamazov.
How does funding work?
J8L: In general, all the projects we do have to pay for themselves. We sold the VR project to the New York Times. We sell a lot of stuff to libraries because we’re able to create products for them that have unrestricted user access. I’ll often come up with an idea for a project and then, going backwards, figure out where the funding comes from. The wonderful thing about books is that generally people are willing to pay for them.
But being a startup sucks. Never do it for fame or fortune. You should only launch one if you're absolutely driven to change the world and no one else is doing it. Then the burden falls on your shoulders.
What vision of the world are you driven to create?
J8L: I'm really interested in the business models that let creators create for a living. We are a poor society if we don't have structures in place that let the creatives in our world be creative. It’s interesting to see the creative times throughout history, whether it’s Paris in the late 1800s or China during the Tang Dynasty. There are definitely times in history where culture has left a deeper legacy than others. You need to come up with the circumstances that create that.
So Plympton is trying to be a model for a new Renaissance?
J8L: A little bit. We are trying to figure out what the Renaissance of publishing looks like when it shifts to digital. And how do you maintain this idea that it's a craft and give the most talented folks in our generation the ability to pursue their art?
What do you think about the state of digital publishing?
J8L: Digital publishing is wonderful. It frees up a lot of things. It also flattens a lot of things–which is reflected in the fake news stuff. I think, generally, after a couple years or so of flattening, there's a flight to quality. That’s across journalism and traditional book publishing. Publishing, historically, has been a medium that is about care, curation, and taste. So for Plympton, publishing has always been a craft, from the writing to the cover art. I think that is not true in an engineering-led or a Silicon Valley approach to publishing.
What do you say to people who fear the death of print?
J8L: I think the printed book is an amazing invention. I think there's a lot of relief in the industry that digital is not going to take over everything. It is going to find its home in a format, just like paperbacks found a format, and hardcover found a format. It's a good sign that indie bookstores are rising in business and that people feel strongly about books as trophies.
YGL: There are definitely times when I stay up at night thinking, “Oh my god, is the next generation never going to hold a printed book in their hand?” But I don't think that's true. There was a period when e-books were gaining a lot of market share and everyone was really scared that books were going to go away. Then in 2015, even earlier, it plateaued. People really do like holding books in their hands. I don't think that’s going anywhere. It's possible that fiction is going to become more of a niche interest. In the same way that there was once a period when everyone who was educated read poetry. And now it's a tiny group of people who actually read contemporary poetry. I think it's becoming more and more of a hobby by which people identify themselves, as opposed to something that everyone does.
Is there a technology that you haven't explored yet that you’re excited about?
J8L: Podcasting. A dating app based on books. Another idea is choose-your-own-adventure through Alexa. I would love to do that, I just haven't found the funding for it.
Emily Ludolph is a director at West Wing Writers. She has published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Artsy, Airmail, Eye on Design, JSTOR Daily, Quartz, Narratively, TED Online and Design Observer.