How to Trick People Into Reading
by Alba Machado

Todd Zuniga at Litquake’s Literary Death Match in San Francisco

Tonight at 7pm, emerging writers from Columbia College will descend on Conaway Center to participate in episode five of Literary Death Match (LDM). Like all contestants of this unique reading series, they will each read seven minutes of their “most electric writing” and then stand judgment before three designated celebrities on the basis of literary merit, performance, and intangibles. In the end, the episode’s two finalists face off in the LDM’s finale, which often involves absurd and hilarious physical contests, such as “lemonade-offs,” potato sack racing, and tossing crumpled manuscripts into the mouths of legendary authors. The LDM’s website tells us that “It may sound like a circus — and that’s half the point. Literary Death Match is passionate about inspecting new and innovative ways to present text off the page, and the most fascinating part about the LDM is how seriously attentive the audience is during each reading. We’ve called this the great literary ruse: an audacious and inviting title, a harebrained finale, but in-between the judging creates a relationship with the viewer as a judge themselves.”

How does the LDM’s co-creator and curator, Todd Zuniga, prepare for a match? Well, today he does so by helping others to create awesome reading series and literary journals of their own. Only hours before the big event, he is at Film Row Cinema sharing a comprehensive PowerPoint presentation entitled “The Future of Reading: Creating the Next, Great Literary Something.” While he is also the founder and editor of Opium Magazine,a humorous literary journal featuring fiction, poetry, and comics, Zuniga doesn’t see himself as being in competition with other publications and reading series but, rather, as being in competition with a multitude of other modern-day distractions—TV, video games, Internet, and so on. He asks a rhetorical question: “If two thousand people are reading Opium and four thousand people are reading McSweeney’s, and so on, that leaves how many people who aren’t reading at all?”

The aspiring publisher of literary journals, then, would do well to focus some time and energy on enticing the reluctant reader. Zuniga calls this the “pop-culturization of literature.” He says, “I’m convinced we can trick people into reading if we do it right.” Like a mom sneaking carrots and zucchini into her kid’s diet by shredding them into spaghetti sauce, he’s come up with a number of strategies to make the increasingly unpopular act of reading plain text more palatable. He works on accelerating what he calls the “narrative speed” of his journal, the rate at which readers move from one page to the next. “If you make readers flip the pages fast, it makes them feel like they’re getting something done.” Zuniga achieves this by increasing the margins and placing less text on each page of his journal. He even places an “estimated reading time” before each piece, acknowledging the value of his reader’s time with humor. If readers are busy—and, in this day and age, who isn’t?—they might see that a poem’s estimated reading time is only 0:57 seconds and say to themselves, “Well, I’ve got a minute.” Having gotten a taste of good literature, they may then decide to push themselves to try some of the longer pieces. For some, short poems and “sudden fiction” could turn out to be the gateway drugs to essays, stories, and even novels. Zuniga maintains an ample supply of short submissions in part by sponsoring a 250-Word Bookmark Contest, a 7-Line Story Contest, and a 500-Word Memoir Contest.

While Opium itself is the most obvious model of his theories, Zuniga points to other literary magazines for examples of innovation that address the problem of shrinking attention spans. Hailing itself a “micro-magazine,” every issue of Abe’s Penny is “a series of four postcards featuring a narrative that unfolds in sequence, one part per week. The narrative is a combination of photographs and text, in the format of a traditional postcard.” One Story, as its title suggests, publishes only one story per issue, its mission being “to save the short story by publishing in a friendly format that allows readers to experience each story as a stand-alone work of art and a simple form of entertainment.” Quick Fiction only publishes fiction and poetry of 500 words or less.

And Electric Literature uses print-on-demand, eBook, Kindle, iPhone, and audio so that they can take the $5,000 they would have paid a printer and give it to five of the writers they publish, $1,000 each. In a powerful introduction to the magazine, editors Andy Hunter and Scott Lindenbaum write that “Publishing is going through a revolution. There’s opportunity and danger. The danger lies in ignoring or resisting the transformation in media. New platforms present an opportunity to adapt. We believe the short story is particularly well-suited to our hectic age, and certainly for digital devices . . . People of our generation—with one foot in the past and one in the future—must make sure that the media gap is bridged in a way that preserves and honors literature. We don’t want to be sentimental old folks in a world where literary fiction is only read by an esoteric few.”

Besides suggesting that would-be publishers adapt their content and presentation to new media and new audiences, Zuniga presents them with a six-point checklist:

  1. Have a cool website.
  2. Set up a professional submission system. (Submishmash is free and good.)
  3. Keep video and audio recordings of all your events.
  4. Make commercials and get the word out. (Facebook, Twitter, the next big thing.)
  5. Consider developing an iPhone/iPad app
  6. Hand out promotional trinkets (floating heads, especially).


Of course, many of the basics of publishing still apply. Know your market, publish what matters to you, design a cool logo and business cards, and treat your authors like celebrities. “Be nice to everyone,” Zuniga advises. “If you’re a jerk, you’re not going to get very far.” This may sound simple and obvious. But being nice isn’t merely a matter of racking up karma points for people who aim to make their living with the written word. If you want to be successful, it’s also somewhere in the unwritten job description. Zuniga goes so far as to say, albeit jokingly, “You have to date people that do stuff—designers, public relations experts—someone who knows all eleven hundred of their Facebook friends.” He later says, more seriously, “Realize that publishing great literature isn’t enough.”

Also, it doesn’t hurt to have a popular reading series that has spread to 22 cities around the country as well as Ireland, England, and France. Zuniga admits that his reading series has had a profound effect on both Opium Magazine and his career in general. In talking about how it has grown to take on a life of its own, no longer requiring his presence at every event, he says, “Literary Death Match is my Fight Club.”

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7 thoughts on “How to Trick People Into Reading
by Alba Machado

  1. […] definitely read Alba Machado’s awesome LDM Chicago write-up over at her awesome site, Literary Chicago. It is inspirational, and not just because it includes […]

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Todd Zuniga, Luna Park Review and Jane Hammons, AmericanShortFiction. AmericanShortFiction said: RT @lunaparkreview: What @toddzuniga said to a class at #columbiacollege yesterday: […]

  3. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by ToddZuniga: What I said to a class at #columbiacollege yesterday, feat. @onestorymag @abespenny @electriclit @submishmash and more!

  4. Grace says:

    I still say that having an estimated reading time listed for each piece would have me reading very frantically and nervously. What if I’m slower than the suggested reading time?!?

    • Alba Machado Alba Machado says:

      You’re cute, Grace. If it takes longer for you to read a piece in Opium, I’m sure it’s because you ponder more heavily than most on every phrase, image, symbol, etc. I’m a slow reader, too. Opium should print a disclaimer for people like us.

  5. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

  6. Hunter says:

    Some fascinating tactics. I especially like the postcards idea, but then I’ve been playing with that interface of words and images forever.

    The contests at Opium remind me of writing continuities for GMR. Maybe I should check that one out.

    But then, what about the problem of snippets? I find myself not wanting to read anything longer than a couple of paragraphs, which makes it hard to wade through a critical anthology — and I’m a compulsive reader. (It’s that pernicious Internet again.)

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