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Book Jobs Not by the Book: Halimah Marcus, Co-editor of Electric Literature


Larissa & Sam Wedding
Halimah Marcus is the Co-Editor of Electric Literature, a digital publisher based out of Brooklyn, New York, and its weekly fiction magazine, Recommended ReadingIn addition to her editorial work, Halimah is also an author. Her writing has appeared in One StoryPhiladelphia NoirSports Illustrated, and elsewhere. She has a Masters in Fine Art in Fiction from Brooklyn College.

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What was your first exposure to book business and what were the most important things you gained from it?

My first “job” in publishing was interning at Electric Literature, where I am now editor, though I suppose my entree into the world of books was back when I worked at the Free Library of Philadelphia, coordinating fundraising dinners as part of the library’s author series. But then I was cordoned off in an office while authors and donors dined in the rare books department. Now I’m grateful to be able to actually interact with writers, rather than just imagining the glamorous things they must be saying down the hall.

How do you explain your current job to people?

I’m co-editor of Electric Literature, and indie publisher based in Brooklyn, and co-founder of our weekly digital magazine, Recommended Reading. Since 2009, our goal has to amplify the power of storytelling with digital innovation. We were the first literary magazine to publish simultaneously to all platforms (print and digital), the first with an iPhone app, the first to launch a YouTube channel, the first to serialized fiction on twitter, and now, with Recommended Reading, the first to use Tumblr as a publishing platform. My favorite aspect of my job is working directly with writers, but because we’re such a small organization, being an editor also means being the accountant, customer support, fundraiser, and developer. When my friends ask me questions like, can’t “they” give you the day off, I say, There is no they! It’s is only us!

In what ways did your previous jobs or internships prepare you for what you do here?

My experience in grant writing for the Philadelphia Library and the Prometheus Radio Project has been enormously useful to my work at Electric Literature, though the styles of those two organizations could not be more different. The former is one of the oldest public institutions in the country, and the latter is a collective of punks, activist, and radio pirates. At the library the style of fundraising was very old school–banquets and formal dinners where no one was under 60. Prometheus, on the other hand, was totally grassroots–shoestring budget tours, dance parties, and community-building weekends. My hope is that Electric Literature falls somewhere in the middle–marrying the legacy of publishing with a newer, populist approach that is wide-reaching and inclusive.

And for a while I was a personal assistant to M. Night Shyamalan, which taught me the very valuable lesson that people are ridiculous.

What value has this job brought to the way you think about book business as a whole and your own relationship to books?

My relationship to the book business has always been based in innovation. Along with my co-editor Benjamin Samuel and our publisher Andy Hunter, we’ve forged our own approach, figuring it out as we go (for better and for worse). I’m sympathetic with the industry’s growing pains, but because Electric Literature is small and nimble, we’re able to experiment.

My personal relationship to books hasn’t changed too much, I love reading as much as ever, except now I know how the sausage is made. In sweatpants.

In a lot of ways Electric Literature and Recommending Reading has the feel of a start-up from what you’ve described, particularly in the small staff and your juggling of many roles. How does that atmosphere affect your work/life balance? 

The boundaries between my work and my personal life can be a bit blurry, especially because so many of my friends are writers or in publishing. Which is why I cherish my “outdoor” interests–running, cycling, and orienteering–that have nothing to do with publishing. I always know I have an escape!

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