Larry Smith, founder of SMITH Magazine, on Social Media, the Six-Word Memoir, and the State of Publishing
The website SMITH magazine was founded by Larry Smith and Tim Barkow in January 2006 with the goal of creating a space online where people from any sphere of society could contribute their stories. It began with personal narratives, but soon the group stumbled upon the six-word memoir idea, which was based on Hemingway’s famously dark sextet, “For sale: baby shoes, never used.” Thousands submitted entries, the SMITH magazine community exploded, and then in February 2008 Harper Perennial published Not Quite What I was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs From Writers Famous and Obscure, which landed on the New York Times bestseller list. Contributors included Stephen Colbert and Dave Eggers, as well as a long list of aspiring writers whose names are not part of the literary or entertainment canon. Six-word memoirs has since grown, resulting in the recently published sequel Six-Word Memoirs on Heartbreak, and the forthcoming Six-Word Memoirs for Teens, Six-Word Memoirs on the Food Life, Six Words for America, and It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure.
Mr. Smith was also in the news this week (The New York Post’s Page 6), as the latter title includes six words from the beloved and much missed Frank McCourt, who passed away on July 19. Getting the six words out of Mr. McCourt was not easy, but it was worth it. For Larry Smith’s complete story, see the SMITH magazine blog. In the three and a half years since its founding, SMITH magazine has grown to become a passionate community of storytellers and fans, thereby forging a distinct identity in a publishing world that is looking for new directions. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Larry Smith about his projects, about the future of publishing and social media, about being an early user of Twitter, and on the genesis and future of SMITH magazine.
Nick Obourn: SMITH magazine has an interesting role in publishing these days. What are your thoughts on its role?
Larry Smith: It’s funny, especially when we go around the country. We did a book tour in February for the second six-word memoir book, Six-word memoirs: Love and Heartbreak. And it was fun and we did a lot of radio interviews like we always do, but one commonality was that a few seasoned radio hosts, some of whom are a little older, said you guys are a great new model for publishing. You’re really forward thinking, they’d say. And I really agree. We’re independent; we have never taken money, never really looked for money. I am not sure I’d know how to look for money. We are really a small group. It’s two and a half people working on the website. But the site is also a series of sites. It’s the six-word memoirs, Memoirville, and the comics are a heavy lift, and I love every minute of it. I hope it’s right for a new model in publishing, this sort of crowd-sourced, reader generated, heavily curated community, and web to books and all those sorts of things. It’s very encouraging, and it’s a joy and a lot of work.
NO: SMITH magazine is a community of people who are contributing writers. How did this format for an online magazine evolve?
LS: I was in traditional print magazines. The first one was Might magazine, which was Dave Eggers’ magazine back in San Francisco. I worked at a bunch of magazines, up through ESPN and Men’s Journal, and I realized that it could be kind of insular being an editor at a magazine. You don’t get to interact with readers very much. And then I started to write for online magazines like Salon, and the feedback was so much stronger. With those publications I found that people respond to personal stories more than anything else. In all the clippings that I now save from ’zines to The New Yorker, it’s always the personal stuff. The big journey through a personal lens, or the personal essay. I realized then that storytelling and the community is what I love most, and I really loved the feedback, and people love talking to each other. And so we set out to start SMITH magazine as a new kind of online magazine: reader generated, editor curated. We wanted to create a community.
NO: When those contributions became a book in the form of the first six-word memoirs title, were you already opened up to the wider audience?
LS: We’ve been doing this for three and a half years now, but the community really only took shape in the last year or so. We are not really a magazine. A web magazine like Slate, for example, will have ten new articles a day. And we’re not really a blog either. We are a kind of magazine-like curated community and the levels of curation are many. Anyone who submits to six-word memoir or a personal essay, it goes right on the site. There is a really important button on our site called publish. It does not say contribute or submit, it says publish. And then you’re published and in a pretty nice looking world. And some people submit hundreds of six-word memoirs and if you submit hundreds of six-word memoirs, we’re pretty sure you’ll get your memoir in a book. Some people submit one and forget about it and they end up in a book. By and large, people are pretty psyched to end up in a print book and say I am a published author. Our whole thing is that the story telling playing field should be a level one. The six words by Frank McCourt in the next book are equal to the six words by Joyce Mason, fifty-something writer living in Maryland.
NO: What has been the reaction from more established writers? What has been their reaction to being involved with the SMITH magazine community?
LS: I think they dig it. One of the hardest parts of my job is getting the famous people in there. One of our little maxims is that a little bit of celebrity goes a long way. And so it helps to have Stephen Colbert and Dave Eggers in the first book. We chase these people down and it’s not easy. The second book was even harder than the first book because even though we had a book now, I had kind of used up all my favors. If we get the offer in front of Frank McCourt, rather than his publicist or his assistant. If we get in front of the author, they usually say yes. I have never heard of anyone being opposed to being in a book with a group of unknown writers. But what authors really like is when they learn about how the memoirs are used in schools. They like that, and I have visited some of the school where it is used, from third grade to grad schools. I try to make authors feel like they are part of something bigger, and they really are. I know of a psychiatric ward in Florida that used six-word memoirs to help get people talking. A battered women’s shelter in Philadelphia asked us to send some more books over. Harper Perennial, who publishes the six-word memoirs, is great about donating books to places like that.
NO: What’s one of the most unusual, or surprising, six-word memoirs you’ve received?
LS: I have a friend who writes for National Geographic and he sent a note around saying he was going to be traveling with the last roaming nomadic tribe in Africa. He asked what questions he should ask them. I asked him if he could ask them to do a six-word memoir and he said sure. So one of the six work memoirs in the book coming out in February is from Unwas Duwau and his six-word memoir is “Bows, Arrows, Pipes, Second Best Pipe.” Basically, the way he interpreted the question is what are the six things that mean the most to me in my life. (Unwas Duwau is an elder in the Hadza tribe of northern Tanzania, one of the last hunter-gatherer groups on earth. This memoir has been translated from the Hadzane, thought to be one of the oldest languages still in existence.)
NO: When you published the first book with Harper Perennial, how did that come about? Did they approach you?
LS: They did not approach me, actually. We put up the six-word memoir project in November 2006, right before Thanksgiving. The idea was to play off the Hemingway idea. It was to get people to write personal stories in a creative way. And then we wanted to post some of the best ones. Initially, six-word memoirs came into my e-mail and I checked my e-mail two days after we started and I had like a thousand new e-mails. So I figured, A, this is awesome and, B, this needs to go somewhere besides my e-mail. And so we put it on the site because why wouldn’t you show this to the community.
We were also on a Twitter account back then. We had met Twitter at a conference and thought it was cool. We saw that you could put stories on cell phones. So we launched the six-word memoir project that way. If you were a Twitter subscriber you got a new six-word memoir on your phone each day. That was kind of a novel idea in November 2006 and so we got a few thousand people signed up for Twitter that way. Can you imagine, this is November 2006 and Biz Stone from Twitter is beside himself that he has a few thousand people on Twitter. And now, just during the course of our conversation, thousands of people have signed up for Twitter. So these early adapters helped us push the six-word memoirs project out there. The other big moment was when I did a National Public Radio show, but it wasn’t a major one in a big city. That was amazing for us because suddenly the tenor of the memoirs changed. We got more stuff about being a grandparent; more of America contributed. It was less the hipsters from the coastal cities who were on Twitter. At that point, I said, we have a book. We didn’t before; it was great before, but once grandmas and suburban dads and that group of folks came in, we had a really great group of folks. We had America. And then I put together a proposal for the book and after rejections, an editor at Harper Perennial said yes.
NO: How did you keep the SMITH magazine community involved after the publication of the book?
LS: We wanted every contributor to get a free copy of the book. It was only six words, but we were not paying people because that would get too complicated. We were not about to divide up the royalties by 600. And nobody has been like ‘wait a minute, you are making money off my words.’ I think it’s because we are so good with our community. We spend hours every day e-mailing back and forth and being part of the community. We also put together for these contributors a little package. Here are some postcards. Here’s how to do a story for your local newspaper. Do you know Oprah? Let us know. And so we had then 600 involved contributors. It was like a crowd-sourcing project. It was then our book, all the contributors’ book.
NO: As far as that format working, something that starts as an online community, or starts as a blog, and then becomes a published book, do you see that as a new route for publishers? Or is it a case of publishers following what is popular now?
LS: We are seeing a lot of blogs becoming books. I guess, when you think about it, book publishing is kind of like venture capitalism to begin with. You throw some money at a couple projects and a couple hit and most don’t and that’s sort of the game. So blogs are getting book deals and most of them are not big book deals and bloggers are delighted to have someone pay them to put something together and have this wonderful product that you can hold in your hand. The more irrational exuberance that book publishers show, the more dangerous it gets. If they throw hundreds of thousands of dollars at a blog and then the book comes out a while later and the blog is not as popular anymore and the book does not sell, that is bad, for all of us. It’s important for publishers to take a step back and ask, is this community going to hold up? Does this idea have legs? Is it authentic? I think that the sensible center will eventually emerge out of these deals.
NO: Do you think people are still going to like books, having the physical object of a book?
LS: Yeah I do. I don’t even have a Kindle, you know. Absolutely. I hope that publishing still takes chances. It’s a shame that publishing already takes fewer chances because the margins are slimmer, like in a lot of industries right now. There might be fewer delightful surprises, but books are not going anywhere. A big problem, on the other hand, is that the voracious 3- or 4-a-day newspaper reader is panicking because newspapers are going somewhere.
NO: True. They are working hard to make a profit in the online environment and keep afloat. So what is coming up for SMITH magazine in the future?
LS: There are three things that are super exciting. In August, the book that came out of our original web comic A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge is coming out from Pantheon. If you go onto the site, you’ll see some great blurbs from Cornel West and Dave Eggers and it got a starred review in Publishers Weekly. It’s a really great project. I love all the things we do on the site, but panel for panel, A.D. is the thing I am most proud of on the site. It’s a wonderful story; it’s true; and it is a great way of looking at Katrina. Josh Neufeld is the writer and illustrator and he is amazing. Then in September we’ll have six-word memoirs by teens coming out and if you have a chance go to smithteens.com because it is insane. Some of the teens submit 2000 six-word memoirs each, which is amazing. The average adult submits 1.5 six-word memoirs. The average teen submits 11 on average. And they are so smart. And in the fall we did a contest with a company called Rick’s Picks. They are a small, passionate company based on Christie Street in the Lower East Side. We did a contest with them where we asked people to tell us a story about being pregnant in 100 words or less. The three winners of that contest will have their story printed on a Rick’s Picks pickle jar that will be distributed across the country. So that’s three different parts of the site and some new stuff we are doing.
NO: Have you found it easy to branch out from the six-word memoir into new projects?
LS: Well, we started on something different than six-word memoirs. We started with just personal essays and then we went into comics. Six-word memoirs are our most popular thing and I could nothing but six-word memoirs and have an easier time of it, but really I like it all. SMITH magazine started as a platform to tell stories in different kinds of ways by folks who never thought they were writers. And some people submit six-word memoirs and then branch out to longer stuff, so it’s not that hard. You know, you’re not supposed to love one child more than the next, but we are going to keep up the six-word theme as long as people respond to it. Ultimately, we started to help people get writing and six words has been the most effective catalyst to for these kinds of stories.