A Conversation with Kelly Abbott, Founder of the New Short Story App 'Great Jones Street'
"Netflix for short stories."
That's a hell of a hook. It's the kind of thing you wonder why nobody had thought of yet: An app where short stories run on tap, and you can pull them up when you're commuting or sitting in a waiting room or just bored and want to read a good story.
Welcome to Great Jones Street, which aims to fill that need in our lives. It's only been around for a few months but boasts an impressive library of stories, as well as a gorgeous interface with which to find them. You can search and filter. You can find short stories and really short stories. You can find stories from all across the genre spectrum.
You can even find special collections, like the LitReactor collection. Stories by authors associated with the site, like Managing Editor Joshua Chaplinsky, Class Facilitator Renee Asher Pickup, Instructor Richard Thomas, Columnist Max Booth III, and also me: GJS re-published "How to Make the Perfect New York Bagel," a story of mine that first appeared in Thuglit.
The experience of working with GJS was a joy. The contracting and payment were completed quickly and then I got a nice care package in the mail. Which, a lot of writers will tell you, is not the way they're used to being treated. You know, with care and respect.
I talked a bit to Kelly Abbott, publisher and founder and CEO—and son of author Lee K. Abbott—to get a sense of where GJS came from, and where it's headed.
Great Jones Street—the street in Manhattan or the DeLillo novel?
Both, plus one more.
Great Jones Street is the title of a legendary rock novel. We use it as inspiration to make our brand rock. We want to be different, alternative, underground, punk, and all of the things you look for great art to be; defiant, I suppose, and purposefully, boldly unique. For example:
Don't call us a fucking journal or project or magazine or imprint. We're none of that. We're more than an app. Yes, we're a venture. Yes, we're a community. We're a movement away from status quo. No, we're not a church, but in a sense, we are building a religion.
That's our homage to the Delillo novel. Call me Bucky.
As for the street itself, this is a twofer. First, the street is just a short street. By any city's standards. We do short. We are absurdly proud of it. But, did you know that the word "Jonesin'" in English comes from this street? In the 70s, Great Jones Street was a junkie's paradise. If you had an addiction, you could find your fix for it there. Hence, our tagline: "Great Jones Street is the fix for your addiction to fiction."
The short story game is a tough one—fiction mags are struggling. What drew you into this arena? What was the nexus point of the idea?
My first inclination was a feeling that short fiction would have a comeback because of the mobile phone. I just looked at the two and had the epiphany. When I did my research, I found that few proven tech entrepreneurs had ever tried their hand at publishing fiction. I saw the opportunity there first.
Mobile Phones + Short Attention Spans + Desire for High Quality Entertainment = Opportunity for Short Fiction.
The more I pulled that string, the more I realized there was also a real business opportunity. Stories are so massively undervalued that the economics of it are hard to ignore. The idea really took on interest from others (investors and writers, both) when I knew that it would be affordable to put thousands of award-winning stories in your pocket. Maybe not affordable by lit journal standards but affordable by tech-company standards. So we're going for it.
Great Jones Street is the Netflix for fiction. We curate great writing. We package it up beautifully. We anticipate your needs by analyzing what readers read and share. We give it an all-you-can-eat pricing (with a free trial). Like Netflix, you can spend 5-40 minutes with us and you will be hooked.
How would you gauge the response thus far?
It's early days, but the response has been very encouraging. We made a point of not buying clicks, which is to say we do no paid advertising. By and large new readers come to us entirely by word of mouth. Our readers share our stories via SMS, Email, Facebook, Twitter, etc. In other words, we're viral. That trend is very encouraging.
Writers have been especially helpful here. Traditional publishing doesn't have a means for hydrating the writer for effective marketing. Watch our activity on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook and see how we're changing that paradigm. We talk with writers all day. They retweet and recommend, and we do our job to promote what they are doing even if it doesn't necessarily promote us.
The magic happens when we can connect writers with readers. Writers are genuinely excited about meeting readers online and sharing through social media. They've got hustle if you tap into it the right way.
I'll say a final thing here that's looking real good. Our app is addictive. I've never seen numbers this good before. And I used to work in dating, having worked for Match.com. If you download our app and read a story, there is a 50 percent chance you will become a regular reader. Instead of readership dropping off over time, we see attention steadily increase. Which is to say, it's a coin flip whether or not you come back. But if you do come back, you rarely ever go away for good. That's unheard of.
The "album covers" representing the stories are gorgeous—did you know there needed to be a visual component off the bat, or was it something you came to in developing the app?
So much of product development is the feels. We have more tricks up our sleeves. But the inspiration for cover designs comes from our analogs in other fields of online entertainment: music and video apps. We looked to Netflix, Spotify and Apple Music for UX inspiration. They highlight cover art. Since we are modeling our business after those apps as well, it only made sense since it would resonate with the user as well. Consumers don't want to be confused. They want to just get it. Or as Steve Jobs was fond of saying, "it just works."
Moreover, consumers don't want crap. You can't hang great art in a shitty frame. Know what I mean?
But can I point out something else about the art? We have a fantastic Director of Design in Trish Phelps. But it's a team thing. We have readers who read all our stories and write up synopses and give each story some meta flavor before it goes to design. By the time stories get covers, we've workshopped them to death! There's real affection for each story, and it's hard not to give each story TLC once you've done that. The team. It's all about the teamwork.
You're venture-backed—do you have a vision for how GJS can generate revenue in the future, be it through a subscription model or advertising?
Subscription all the way. Right now we're free because we're building an audience and ironing out wrinkles with the product. Right now we have our early adopters, and they will be rewarded with a mega discount, t-shirts, special perks, etc. But eventually, we're moving to a subscription model just like Netflix. It will probably be about $3.99 a month, but I just had two of my investors tell me to make it $1 a month so who knows. We'll test and see. The bottom line is that higher revenues mean higher payouts for writers. So I'm going to find the right balance once the audience gets big enough.
Do you have more bells and whistles planned for the app? Any plans to branch GJS into things other than the app?
We're going to launch a Rock Bible app. The Bible is short stories after all. And since we're building a religion, it only makes sense.
We do have more features in mind. Feature development is slow and deliberate around here. We make serious predictions about what we do and why. For example, one of the things we did in this latest release was to make social sharing more prominent. The day that feature went live, we saw an 800 percent uptick in social sharing. Boom, as we say in the stream of our Slack channel.
What are we hoping to add to the app in the future? Discovery is a big deal for us. We haven't nailed that yet but we did take a leap forward in the last release. You can search and filter now. When we started, we had 50 stories. Now we have over 700. Search became necessary. Filtering by the length of the story and its genre are necessary, too. So we've developed that.
The stage of our company is early so we're doing a lot to build an app that feels right to people who are already using eReaders. Which is to say, adding GJS to your phone shouldn't feel like a downgrade. So we're working on feature parity a lot now.
Beyond that, we are busting the mold. We want readers to be able to save stories for reading later and create their own collections. We want writers and readers to be able to talk with each other. We want readers to be able to form "story clubs" in-app much like they form book clubs offline. We want readers to be able to hear the author read their stories, maybe even conduct audio Q&As. And finally, we want readers to pay, obviously. So look for these features in the coming months.
What makes a story a good fit for Great Jones Street. Where do you find them?
One of the things that makes us noteworthy and different than any other publisher out there is that we acquire stories at a faster rate than anyone else. And yet, we don't sacrifice quality. How is that? It's our author referral network. If you're a Great Jones Street writer, we ask that you recommend stories that we should go out and buy. Maybe they're your favorites. Maybe they're stories you use when you teach. Doesn't matter. That's how we build our collection without a need for a slush pile or open submissions and the long waits that entails. The record for total turnaround time to appear in the app is less than a day. That is, the time from us asking for a story, us paying for it and it appearing in the app is the fastest of any publisher anywhere.
Another thing that makes us unique is that we are not averse to genre titles appearing next to classics from the canon of short fiction. We love reprints, yet we take new stories and we cultivate new writers who've never been published before. All of the above come to us by direct referral from the writers themselves.
After my story got accepted, I got a very cool care package, containing a t-shirt, a sticker, a nice hand-written note... a lot of times an author is lucky to get a contributor copy of the magazine their story appears in. I'm not saying I'm not grateful—it was a very pleasant and welcome surprise—but for a new company, every penny counts, and that's a significant investment. Why go that extra mile?
It's sad that writers expect to be treated like second-class citizens by publishers, isn't it? I saw that first-hand growing up. I hated the effect the business of publishing had on the act of creating. I have always wanted to change that. Sometimes change comes from a unique business model (which we have done) but it more likely comes from developing a culture of purpose. Here's what I mean by that. We have a mantra here. You can say it's our north star. It helps us make hard choices every time. We look to it for guidance, always. It's a simple question we ask every time we have an idea or come to a crossroads. We ask, "Is it good for writers?"
We feel very confident in our business model. At the same time, it exists because we feel strongly about treating writers well. It's my dream to be able to pay more for stories. We are building toward that. And, yes, we do spend more money (and time and effort) than we absolutely need to to continue to foster a great relationship with our writers. I write a regular newsletter where I share our trials and tribulations with writers. I don't have to do that, but I want them to know everything that's important for our mutual success. In that respect, I treat them like insiders, the same as our employees and our investors. If we didn't go that extra mile we'd be just like everyone else, wouldn't we? And that's a system that's quite frankly not working out that well for writers. T-shirts, stickers and handwritten cards are just the start of a long path toward establishing a new precedent that writers will one day come to expect.
Name three short stories you think everyone should read.
As the publisher I can't play favorites for writers but as a reader I can play favorites for stories. Here they are:
A story like this just proves that genre definitions are complete crap when a great idea meets a great craftsperson. It's poetry on every level. Entertaining. Funny. Trippy. And it came from a sci-fi journal. God, I love this story.
This story won The New Yorker national magazine award the year it was published. What, 1996? Back when they mattered. Yeah I said it. I can't read their fiction anymore. But this story is legend. It's such a durable piece, so touching, so warm, so universal. Richard was really kissed by the muse on this one.
This is the best story John put into his collection. As a rule we don't buy collections, but John was the first writer I contracted with, a personal friend, who was having trouble getting noticed in spite of his reputation as a great journalist, and I didn't know what I was doing back then. All I had was my gut. My gut was telling me these stories we fucking phenomenal. All of them. What I love most about this story in particular —which speaks to the whole collection—is that the athletes love the game. He does this trick where he doesn't name them. He calls them "forward" and "guard" and "center" and it reminds me of everything I love about being an amateur comes from the word's etymology: love. Totally without ego. They hunger because they love. Such a great story.
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