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The Rumpus sat right down and wrote you all a letter

January 26, 2012 | 11:28 am

Stephen Elliott's online magazine, The Rumpus, has had instant success with its first print subscription, a near-weekly letter that arrives in the mail

Fans of the online literary magazine The Rumpus recently opened their mailboxes to find a missive from its founder, Stephen Elliott. In one way, this was entirely routine -- he sends out emails that mix personal stories with links to new website content almost every day. In another way, it was absolutely new: The mailboxes they opened were not on their computers but near apartment lobbies, doorways and the end of driveways. The Rumpus had sent them a traditional letter, on paper, with a stamp, envelope and signature.

Letters in the Mail is the first print edition for the online magazine. The first letter was from Elliott; most will be literary. Some to come will be from writer and editor Dave Eggers, comedian Margaret Cho, graphic novelist Dean Haspiel and author Jonathan Ames, the creator of the television series "Bored to Death."

Subscribers pay $5 a month to get three to four of the letters delivered to their mailbox. It's an inversion of the assumption that online is easier and more direct than the U.S. Postal Service, which some now call "snail mail."

Yet readers of the online magazine have embraced the idea. The response has been overwhelmingly positive: In just a few weeks, close to 1,500 people have subscribed. 

That wasn't what Elliott had expected; in fact, he had little idea what to expect. The author of essays, novels and the revealing memoir "The Adderal Diaries," who has recently directed his first film, is inclined to follow his instincts rather than do market surveys. Letters in the Mail was launched in a flash of inspiration: One night Elliott was talking about the idea of print letters as a subscription, and the next morning he publicly announced the plan. "I like to make big announcements like that," he wrote, "so I don't have the opportunity to back out."

The first letter was sent out after a two-hour volunteer envelope-stuffing session. It was leisurely -- but then, they only had 600 to send.

What's going into the envelopes may take the form of letters, but they're actually like very short short stories. In this way, The Rumpus' Letters in the Mail is following in the footsteps of the innovative magazine One Story, which for $21 per year prints and mails to subscribers a single short story every week, in an elegantly designed pocket-sized format.

Yet when a magazine arrives, it feels like a commercial venture. A variety of features are being added to Letters in the Mail to make them feel personal: doodles on envelopes, real signatures or return addresses should the recipient want to write an author back.

"People miss getting letters," Elliott wrote. "They're willing to pay for them."


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Photo: Stephen Elliott. Credit: Katherine Emery