Could an app be the future of publishing? A conversation with Connu Co-Founder

A new short-story publishing app is changing the way an entire industry does business

As of last count, I have 36 of apps on my Smartphone. Outside of Twitter, Yelp, and Uber, Connu is one of the most valuable. It’s been a particular life-saver during recent cross-country trips, and the audio version serves as a nice companion when I’m out for a walk.

Connu, an iOS and Android app, publishes (Monday through Friday) short stories written by up-and-coming writers who are recommended to the editors by already established writers.

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Oh. And it pays them.

In a publishing landscape dominated by websites routinely asking writers–historically not well-known as being a financially stable lot—for free content, it is rare to have an outlet that doesn’t buy into the myth that “exposure” is an even trade for one’s work. (Probably the most recent, brazen example of this is Entertainment Weekly.)

But this is certainly not a 21st century problem. Years ago, Ernest Hemingway counseled friends who were about to launch a new literary journal thusly:

One of the most important things I believe is to get the very best work that people are doing so you do not make the mistake the Double Dealer and such magazine made of printing 2nd rate stuff by 1st rate writers. I see by your prospectus that you are paying for [manuscripts] on acceptance and think that is the absolute secret of getting the first rate stuff. It is not a question of competing with the big money advertizing magazines but of giving the artist a definite return for his work. 

First off, the Double Dealer sounds horrible. Good riddance. But secondly, it seems unfortunate that Hemingway’s advice, given almost a hundred years ago when publishing magnates still roamed the earth, is still relevant. Enter Connu—a new, digitally relevant source full of procured, purchased material. If that sounds more like a publishing company than an app, well…that’s because it is.

I recently spoke with Susannah Luthi, co-founder of Connu, who was kind enough to indulge me in a conversation about her experience as a classics major, journalist, and MFA-graduate-cum-techie who decided to schlep herself and her copies of The Aeneid to the San Francisco Bay Area in order to develop Connu. To date, Connu has received recommendations from writers such as Sam Lipsyte, Joyce Carol Oates, Aimee Bender, David Sedaris, Janet Fitch, Wells Tower, and Lauren Groff.

CH: First things first. How did Connu come about?

SL: It all started at a bus stop one night at USC. I was coming back from a short story workshop and we’d been talking about literary journals and I just got to this point, personally, where it was like “Okay, as a writer, where do I go to get my first break, and as a reader, where do I go for new stories?” I’d seen this spark of life happening in fiction so my first thought was “Can I do for short stories what Pitchfork did for indie music—a place where people could be in the know and explore? A place where they knew they were going to get good stuff, find the writers who spark something in them?” So I originally didn’t want to publish original content because I felt like there was too much. But then that wasn’t quite sticking with me and it was limiting and I was looking for something with a broader scope. So that turned into “Let’s go to writers that we really respect. Let’s have them start recommending really great new voices.”

We decided on an app because it seemed like form fitting function. Everyone has a Smartphone and I was kind of obsessed with mobile phone publishing after my time spent in Egypt. I had met a woman who coded the Bible for Nokia phones and that sort of inspired me from a distribution standpoint, because with mobile you can get really ambitious. You can reach everyone.

Anyway, Niree Perian—my partner—and I were both in the masters writing program at USC and I’d heard about the Innovation Lab and I knocked on their door a lot and applied and got in. Once we got in, Connu started moving fast. Between the prototype and design elements and then the Kickstarter campaign last spring.

Connu_Niree_Susannah

CH: And then you were were selected for an accelerator program last fall with Matter Inc. My understanding of accelerators is…pedestrian, but I really love the idea of shared creative spaces and the like. My impression, though, is that accelerators are much more in-depth than just sharing an office kitchen with other creatives. Tell me about Matter and how that experience has been for you and your partners.

SL: Matter was great because it was all media companies run by the Knight Foundation, KQED and PRX, and it brought in amazing people mostly in the media space—NPR, the New York Times, and newer companies like ours—just a variety of media that are all mission-driven.

“Change media for good” is Matter’s tagline, so everyone who was there was a very unique special person. I’d lay down my life for any of them.

CH: What have been the biggest challenges in running Connu, whether during the incubator or accelerator stage, or now that Connu is becoming more fully realized?

SL: Honestly, adjusting to complete uncertainty has been really big. Uncertainty because you’re really living on the edge. You also feel so much responsibility for the company and all your users. Once we hit a certain amount of users, I started to worry about them and their expectations and wanting to live up to them. I worry about every step—but ultimately that’s not productive so there’s a mental switch into strategic mode.

The experience has also made me tougher than I ever thought I could be. One thing I love is how much I’m learning. I think about going back to anything I’d ever done before and it’s like: I’ve given myself an MBA, I’ve learned some coding, I’ve learned how to sell, and I’m part of a bigger discussion now with other people who are also concerned about the future of good writing.

Niree and I are constantly asking ourselves what our fundamental purpose is, and the biggest part of that is making the publishing experience today what it can be with the tools we have now. Once you start opening your door and thinking bigger, you can’t shrink it back. Especially as someone who wants to continue writing, I think about what my work can be in the context of what we’re doing. It’s hard to quantify.

CH: How has Connu evolved?

SL: The app space is very, very difficult. Discovery is very difficult, and we’ve also found that without social architecture underpinning your app you have an immersive reading experience but it doesn’t translate into explosive growth. If you watch how people behave on the phone—especially commuters in the urban market—they’re our demographic. It’s young—mid twenties to mid-thirties—and they are the people who want to read so we make it easy for them. So that’s been great.

What we’ve also discovered is that readers really want more good content—more fiction.

What I always come back to is that there always needs to be a strong editorial vision—that’s the key to writing that impacts culture. And that’s where readers come in—that’s where a very immediate experience where writers are putting their stuff up and seeing what’s working and being engaged with the readers. But writers want to write—they don’t want to have to do a lot of extra stuff that takes them away from their primary focus.

CH: Except it’s a two-way street between writers and readers.

SL: Yeah.

The biggest thing that we’re balancing, is that I really believe that the future—what self-publishing has done and indie publishing has done—is writers have discovered the importance of being in front of readers. Unless you’re an established writer with a loyal audience, you really have to be present.

What I’ve learned about indie authors, which I really respect, is that you’ve got to continue to put your work out there. That’s kind of what inspired us in the first place. Short stories are much easier to consume and they’re economical. If readers are going to “waste time” online, they want to do so efficiently. And it makes a lot of sense to publish short stories because of that.

So now we’re transitioning from curation

CH: Your website just underwent a huge overhaul—it’s not just a web version of the app any more.

SL: Yes—we’re steering it in the direction of more reader involvement. That’s what makes communities dynamic. Part of our next problem is bringing in top-level writers and giving them a cool brand to associate and publish with and connect with their readers. That’s the ideal. And then there’s an association they share with other great writers through Connu. And they don’t have to worry about marketing themselves; they’re free to come and write and try out what’s going to work.

CH: Well, I’m really excited to see an endeavor like Connu—with really sweeping goals—enter the publishing market. I have to believe that like music before it, and now publishing, bit by bit we’ll see more creative start-ups sincerely investing in new, fresh talent in ways that old media just seems maybe a little too scared to do. Thanks for the chat, and best of luck!

Crystal Hubbard

Crystal Hubbard is a freelance writer / producer, and a Smash Cut Culture contributor. She was a finalist for the New York Television Festival Fox Comedy script contest in 2011 and 2013, and is a Taliesin Nexus and Nexpressions alum. In 2012, she interned at Disruption Entertainment, and is a current Fellow with the Moving Picture Institute. She occasionally tweets (but mostly lurks) @cnhubbard, and sometimes uses Instagram @bare_cupboard.