On stories, seasons and the future of long form

‘It’s a little overcast and there is greenery on the trees – which is lovely,’ Anna Hiatt says of her New York City surrounds. ‘We’ve had the longest winter.’ As she speaks I look through my window onto a suburban Melbourne fence. Autumn leaves fall from vines in the dappled morning sun. Hiatt and I are at the end of a long chat about the future of long form. Hiatt is a freelance journalist (The Washington Post, The New York Times, Reuters and more), long form publisher (The Big Roundtable) and research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. In February she published a long form piece about the future of long form. The piece, All the Space in the World, provides a high-res snapshot of our current publishing and distribution milieu. Central to this, of course, is the influence of technology.

This photograph was taken by Anna Hiatt on Amsterdam and W78th Street in New York City, Monday, April 21 2014. You can see more of Hiatt's photography on her site: annahiatt.com.
This photograph was taken by Anna Hiatt on Amsterdam and W78th Street in New York City, Monday, April 21 2014. You can see more of Hiatt's photography on her site: annahiatt.com.

‘In the beginning was the word, a.k.a. the story,’ she tells her readers. ‘And somewhere along the way … the word lost out to the machine …’ The piece that follows explores aspects of long form publishing via five case studies: the influence of devices and publishing platforms (via Playboy), alternative venues to traditional ones (via Narratively), the appeal of interactivity (via The New York Times’ Snow Fall), amplification (via Longreads and Longform) and changes to reading habits (via Pocket).

Hiatt says that the drive to research the topic stemmed from her work at The Big Round Table where she and her editors (Michael Shapiro and Mike Hoyt) often asked themselves who else was out there and what they were doing. ‘It wasn’t from a business strategy perspective,’ Hiatt explains. ‘We were just curious who the characters were and who the actors were in this field. Basically we wanted to know who our fellow partygoers were.’ Hiatt applied for (and was awarded) a research grant from the Tow Centre. Her initial goal was to try to understand if Snow Fall (published by The New York Times in 2012) was going to be the future of long form.

In many circles Snow Fall is seen to be a turning point. The online piece (a story about skiers caught in an avalanche, written by John Branch) includes a number of interactive elements (video, animation, audio) and other graphical enhancements. It was made specifically for online consumption and (as Hiatt notes) was met with much enthusiasm. In fact Jill Abramson (who was Executive Editor of The New York Times when Snow Fall was published) proposed ‘snow falling’ as a new verb – initiating a lexicon to describe this particular type of (online) storytelling. Yet although Hiatt’s research started at Snow Fall, ‘it became pretty clear very quickly that Snow Fall (in the grand scheme of things) was just a blip on the radar.’

‘What was most interesting wasn’t in fact the intricacies of a single piece design,’ she says. ‘It was that we’re at a milestone in storytelling. It just happens to be long form.’

Hiatt’s research piece (All the Space in the World) is published online. Yet it’s a publication of words. There are no videos, no audio and no interactive elements embedded within the writing. She does include an interactive timeline, but unlike Snow Fall, this timeline is provided as a separate chapter to accompany the piece (rather than the reading).

Limited resources were an aspect of this editorial choice (The New York Times had a full-time team working on Snow Fall for months). However Hiatt also admits to valuing words over interactivity. ‘We’ve been doing this for millennia,’ she says. ‘We don’t need things to click to hold people’s attention. If we do, we haven’t told the stories properly.’ Indeed when I ask her what interactive elements she may have included in her own piece (had the resources been available) Hiatt responds by critiquing her writing. ‘I feel like any element [I nominate] would really be me saying that I just should have explained it better [in words].’

I put to it to Hiatt: pieces like Snow Fall – are they really long form or are they part-game or part-website? When does it become a multimedia event rather than just a good piece of writing? ‘I think when it starts to get into the way,’ she says. As a New York local she had both the print and electronic versions of Snow Fall available to her the day it was published. ‘I had an iPad. I was moving my hands all around it and that was really fun,’ she says. But then she put the iPad down and read the article in the paper.

Hiatt’s inclination is one that echoes my own. To me, one of the pleasures of reading long form is being immersed in the story (which, ironically, the multimedia ‘immersive’ elements often counter). If the writing is good I won’t stop for video, audio or other interactive elements. That’s not to say that these new ways of presenting information online are wrong, or have no future. It’s just that they’re different and not really what I consider long form.

‘One of the things that’s so wonderful about radio is that you can sit down and listen and you know exactly the form in which you’re going to get it,’ Hiatt says. ‘One of the things that’s hard for me about going online is that you run across a link – across a page – and you don’t know what you’re going to get. And that (for me) is terrifying. I don’t want to be bombarded.’

As I reflect on my conversation with Hiatt in the following weeks I realise there’s something in our geographical and seasonal contrasts that resonates: something in the conflicting notions of change and consistency. There will always be new growth, blossoms, warm days, orange leaves, bare branches (and even snow fall).

And there will also be stories and words.

Nuance and new media: the challenge of e-books

If a writer sends a message in the new media galaxy, can it be heard? It’s not as if (like the tree in the proverbial forest) there isn’t anyone listening. It’s a highly populated and active space. It’s a space that readers frequent and a space where they spend money. It’s a space, it seems, with a lot of potential for writers. Indeed, self-publishing e-books has proven a boon for many. Stories abound of humble scribes who upload a file and soon find themselves climbing the best-seller lists and being celebrated in front of packed houses or better yet, being signed by traditional publishers (as happened recently to Darrell Pitt). Previous successes in self-publishing such as Marcel Proust and Matthew Reilly are also noted (despite the fact that they self-published to print). With these inspiring stories, the low cost of access (and the high profits on royalties) it’s no wonder that many writers are launching their work online.

Bundling e-books with those of  established writers is an effective way to bring readers to new and emerging writers says O'Brien. Thanks to Rachel Ford James for use of this image Stacks of Free O'Reilly Books at Ignite Boston 5 under Creative Commons.
Bundling e-books with those of established writers is an effective way to bring readers to new and emerging writers says O'Brien. Thanks to Rachel Ford James for use of this image Stacks of Free O'Reilly Books at Ignite Boston 5 under Creative Commons.

Connor Tomas O’Brien (writer and co-founder of Tomely, a DRM free e-bookstore) says that unlike other forms of online publishing, the e-book brings a little more to writers. ‘The book has historically been purchased with real currency – so when you transfer that to the electronic realm there’s an expectation that it’s being bought and sold,’ he says. The e-book therefore, has more potential to yield an income.

In parallel with traditional publishing, entrepreneurial writers are advised to establish mini-marketing departments. They must self-promote, advertise and build themselves ‘a platform’ on social media. But O’Brien cautions against the rhetoric, ‘A lot of writers are working on the assumption that if they can build up a critical mass of followers on Twitter or Facebook (or wherever) they can translate that into sales [of self-published work],’ he says. But the problem with this assumption is that although we can measure the number of followers we have, we can’t measure how much these followers care. (Some people follow on a whim - thus their true interest is negligible – and who knows how often your followers read their social media). ‘I’ve seen people who have thousands of Twitter followers promoting their work and finding it really, really hard to sell a handful of copies,’ says O’Brien.

He believes the main way self-published writers get recognition (and sales) is via the endorsement of an established writer. ‘It’s the same in film and music. Independent musicians get the ball rolling when they are promoted by an incredibly well known musician,’ he says. Some writers try to reach new readers through paid advertising (such as Google Adwords, Goodreads or Facebook). But as O’Brien notes, ‘When you’re a writer, you’re trying to do something that’s nuanced. You’re not trying to do something derivative. It’s hard to get that across quickly.’ (Note: I’ll be publishing O’Brien’s tips on Facebook advertising in a future post).

At Tomely books are often sold in bundles (curated groupings that include work from both established and emerging writers). These are the best way for Tomely to sell the work of new writers says, O’Brien ‘The one or two authors that are well known are pulling up the other authors.’ It’s a model that echoes traditional publishing – both the editorial package, and the mix of trusted and new work.

In traditional publishing models, A-List authors ultimately fund new writers. ‘A lot of self-publishers don’t realise that most authors with [traditional] publishers don’t return what the publisher’s put in. They’re not making money either,’ says O’Brien. ‘Self-publishing is a lot more difficult than most people consider it.’

‘I don’t think self-publishing is this thing that’s going to destroy publishing and I don’t think it’s going to make lots of people particularly rich. But I don’t think the opposite either,’ says O’Brien. Like all mediums, there’s a lot in between, ‘That’s where you get the interesting stuff.’

This post was originally published 6 August 2013.

Exploding the margins

There was a time some years ago when I burned with annoyance when, upon opening a library book, I would discover that a previous reader – or readers – had marked up all of the salient points, underlining key words and phrases with scribbles in pen. Little did I know that I was experiencing ‘social reading’ in one of its earliest forms. Travis Alber and Aaron Miller describe social reading as, ‘the act of reading while connected to other people, or the philosophy of reading as a connected activity, not an isolated one.’ It’s a subject Charlotte Harper (Editia) will be covering in the paper she’s presenting to next week’s Independent Publishing Conference (titled Social Reading, Long form Journalism and the Connected Ebook). I confess that my early ‘social reading’ in the library made me feel frustrated. The mark-ups denied me my earnest pursuit to form my own conclusions, to find the salient points on my own merit, and to have an unencumbered ‘first read’. Yet recently I was drawn to a library book for research and on taking the tome from the shelf I discovered that my old foe (underlined texts and comments in the margin) had become a friend. The underliner had done me a service – enabling me to more efficiently establish the relevance of the book to my research.

Enable social reading on a Kindle to see what others have highlighted and commented on.
Enable social reading on a Kindle to see what others have highlighted and commented on.

Electronic publishing has taken social reading to a far deeper level than the (often anonymous) scribblings in the margins of a book. Readers can now use their devices (such as Kindles, Kobos or apps like Readmill) to share and read in-book annotations with everyone else (functions that can thankfully be turned on or off). The geographical breadth of this electronic exchange encourages a wide spectrum of social reading perspectives. Damien Walter, writing for the Guardian, sees the benefits of social reading in a longitudinal context, ‘[I]magine reading a book published in 2013 in the year 2063. In the 50 years between now and then, dozens of critical texts, hundreds of articles, thousands of reviews and hundreds of thousands of comments will have been made on the text.’ Harper says that social reading extends to discussions about texts on social media and sites like Goodreads. ‘The readers’ discussions can form part of the book and enhance it that way,’ she says.

Harper agrees that when it comes to in-book annotations social reading can interrupt the flow and give spoilers – but social reading in the electronic space is particularly salient to non-fiction, she says. ‘[Readers get engaged and want] to continue the conversation about stories that don’t end… When they’re reading a work of non-fiction on a topic that they’re passionate about (or intrigued by) they’ll want to know what happened next – how the story continues.’ Social reading doesn’t just benefit and engage readers says Harper, it can also help writers and publishers. ‘Some of the conversations that have taken place around the book can be taken into consideration or can inspire content for new editions,’ she says.

As well as the social reading elements Harper sees great potential for long form non-fiction in the electronic realm. She cites commentators like J Max Robbins, who recently wrote that, ‘E-book singles – non-fiction and fiction pieces between 5,000 and 30,000 words – are on the cusp of becoming a significant business and may well propel a renaissance in deep-dive journalism.’ Harper also points to the success story of Long Play, a Finnish publisher of long form non-fiction e-singles that is close to making a profit within a year of its launch.

Along with perspectives on social reading, Harper hopes to provide attendees at next week’s conference with some insight into the burgeoning market for long form journalism in e-book format. She’ll cover the impact of recent events (like the acquisition of Goodreads by Amazon) and likely developments for the book industry and journalists.

Harper sees a healthy future for long form non-fiction in electronic format. ‘There are more and more publishers specialising in long form non-fiction. As the number of publishers specialising and the number of books grows, then readers will become more aware of the genre and become used to factoring it into their purchasing patterns,’ she says.

Charlotte Harper will present as part of the Authors, Genre and Publishing session (1.15pm, Thursday 14 November) at the Independent Publishing Conference.

On poetic openings: Katie Keys

‘My preference for poetry is to find the fewest words to say the biggest thing. To carve it down until you’ve got something that evokes a much bigger world and opens it up rather than closes it,’ says poet, Katie Keys. True to her preference, Keys’ poems are tiny (less than 140 characters). She harnesses the new media galaxy by publishing a poem daily via the Twitter handle @tinylittlepoems. New media is to poetry as it is to long form: a medium that has both disrupted traditional channels and provided new ones. ‘I’m a big advocate of Twitter in particular as an amazing creative catalyst for poetry,’ says Keys. Twitter's brevity promotes the clarity and distillation of language she likes to read in poetry. But another big part of Twitter’s appeal is that it often reaches people who might not buy a poetry book.

If you want to be a writer, find an opening in your schedule to write. Thanks to Rupert Ganzer (loop_oh) for use of this image Open lock box at the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt am Main / Germany under Creative Commons.
If you want to be a writer, find an opening in your schedule to write. Thanks to Rupert Ganzer (loop_oh) for use of this image Open lock box at the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt am Main / Germany under Creative Commons.

‘Poetry is still (unfortunately) fighting off the bias of being an elite impenetrable art form. The general populace is still recovering from poetry as an idea of something you learn by rote, that is not enjoyable, not for them and not accessible,’ she says. Twitter provides a mechanism for Keys to talk to others about poetry. ‘I spoke to a guy recently who said, “I’m still struggling with it, but you’ve made me think about poetry as something that doesn’t rhyme,” Well great! I’m excited by that,’ she says.

The conversational aspect of Twitter has also helped Keys with her professional development. ‘You get automatic feedback on what’s working and what isn’t. I very rarely get direct critique – but I can see from the number of retweets or favourites which ones are stronger. Over four years that’s helped me hone and develop,’ she says. In addition, publishing poetry via Twitter has lead to Keys’ participation in conferences and events where she works as a poet in residence. At a recent event in Alice Springs she busted out 170 tweets in four days! (And next week she’ll be poet in residence at Melbourne’s Art Centre).

Over time Keys has adjusted not only to Twitter’s size limitations but also to the discipline of publishing daily. ‘I’m a compulsive editor. I had to let go of that in order just to push it out, to be writing everyday and to meet my own deadlines,’ she says. She writes most of her tiny little poems in long hand first – scribbling, crossing out and editing. Like all of us, she has good days and bad.

‘[Before I was a writer] I spent a lot of time and energy getting upset at myself for not doing what I know I love to do: I neglected my writing,’ says Keys. Ahead of starting @tinylittlepoems Keys often told herself she was too busy to write. (Yet she noticed increased productivity when she set her own arbitrary deadlines – such as that for NaNoWriMo!) One day she stopped making excuses and set herself the task of writing and publishing a poem to Twitter every day. This was clearly a turning point in her writing career and something she encourages for all writers.

‘Write every day. It doesn’t matter if it’s good – it’s just about getting it down and working out whether it’s good later. It’s taken a long time for me to feel comfortable with this; but [thanks to writing everyday] I can now happily call myself a writer.’

From July 27 to August 2 Katie Keys will be the poet in residence at Arts Centre Melbourne, she’ll be sending tiny little poems via Twitter as well as the Arts Centre’s LED signage.

A rocket around the future of long form

It’s time for our annual orbit around the future of long form. In last year’s post, The Future of Long Form: An Odyssey we visited seven virtual space stations in the new media galaxy. This year we’ll fly past each one in a rocket travelling at 475 kilometres a minute. We’re cleared for launch and counting down; five, four, three, two….  

Station 1: Traditional Print

If you look through the porthole to the right of the rocket you’ll see this, the oldest station in the long form galaxy – coming out of the Guttenberg inspired revolution: publishing your words in print.

The view from a rocket. Thanks to NASA for use of this image.
The view from a rocket. Thanks to NASA for use of this image.

Despite its so-called retro look, I still love to see my byline printed at this station. In fact, I think I have more faith in traditional print than I did before I started using my e-reader. (I don’t like e-reading as much as print-reading).

Yet, despite my enthusiasm, the print world continues to be challenged by the disruption new media has brought. I’m not aware of any newcoming Australian or international print-based publications of long form (please enlighten me if you know of any). However, I am aware of print publications moving to entirely digital delivery.

Station 2: Traditional Online

This station is surrounded by a constellation of newly documented stars marking the increase in opportunities to pitch your long form work to online publications. This year saw the introduction of high-profile sites The Big Round Table (US) and Matter (UK). Both were seeded by crowd sourcing campaigns and both are using paywalls (Matter has since sold to Medium). The Big Round Table is donation based (which means that you may not be paid if you are published or you may be paid a lot). Matter uses a subscription/pay-per-read model.

Locally, Tincture Journal has appeared as a venue for long form non-fiction. In contrast to The Big Round Table and Matter (which publish individual articles), Tincture provides an editorial package. It sells in E-pub and Kindle formats. The package includes fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry. Tincture will consider up to 15,000 words of creative non-fiction (and recently tweeted that they find it difficult to source non-fiction work – so pitch!)

There are also opportunities to submit your long form work for e-publishing by some of the leading publishing houses. (Certainly before their merger both Penguin and Random House were keen on more long form, no doubt Penguin Random House will be too).

Station 3: Enterprise Journalism / Community Funded Reporting / Crowd sourcing

Slightly behind the rocket here you may catch a few falling stars. These are the international and local initiatives that provided platforms to crowd fund articles. Our local version youcommnews.com has disappeared offline altogether (perhaps one day it will reappear) and the US version Spot.us might sadly be fading (at time of publishing, the most recent funding requests date back to 2012).

Some journalists (not just writers) have succeeded in using generic crowd sourcing sites to fund their stories (like pozible.com, kickstarter.com and indiegogo.com). However this model is yet to be proven for long form writing.

While the community funded reporting model may be dimming, there is a little sparkle when it comes to crowd sourcing long form publishing houses. Both The Big Round Table and Matter were seeded in this way.

Station 4: Publishers Funded by Philanthropists

Thanks to the generosity of Wotif founder Graeme Wood, Australia still has The Global Mail (funded by a grant from Wood) and now our own masthead of the UK’s Guardian (an investment rather than a donation). In the past 12 months Wood has also donated $1.5 million to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. He’s certainly committed to the idea of  ‘Philanthrojournalism’.

Shimmering brightly in this cluster of stars is the long-standing Centre for Public Integrity – more substantive proof of the viability of this model.*

Station 5: Writers funding philanthropy

There are initiatives such as Write for Life that are compiling articles into books which are then sold to raise funds for charity. It’s a nice idea but no doubt suffers from the same challenges all small publishing does – namely finding enough readers.

Incidentally, in the past year I’ve tried to raise funds by selling my long form article online. I got a lot of exposure, but didn’t raise a lot money. You can read all about that in my post Goodwill Hunting.

Station 6: Writing for free / Self Publishing

As always, if you don’t want or need to get paid for your work, you can publish your long form article on your own site or blog.

Be aware however (to reformat the old adage) if you publish it, they may not necessarily come. Readers can be as elusive as those stars you only see from the corner of your eye.

Station 7: Entrepreneurial Journalism / Self Publishing

It’s vast – but despite this, station seven is the most crowded in our orbit. Literary-astronauts are lured by the ease of access and the promise of 70% royalties. But setting a long form piece into the new media galaxy alone is not enough. It has to be heavily marketed, and even then may not find readers. Most of the work published from this station just drifts aimlessly into space.

That’s our 2013 rocket trip on the future of long form in the new media galaxy concluded! I’ll be most interested to see what the journey will show in another year’s time. Keep checking the Venues and Resources page of this blog to learn of new publishing opportunities.

* If you’re interested in a good overview of journalism funded by philanthropy read this recent post by Matthew Knott on Crikey.

Social limits

A challenge to being an aspiring writer in the new media galaxy is in building a platform. These three words refer to being active in social media rather than writing well, generating good ideas, being approachable or reliable. As much as I love the tweets and enjoy Facebook, the words build a platform always evoke swirls of frustration in me. They rest on the notion that a writer active on social media will soon yield a huge virtual platform. A place from which to spruik their message to hordes of eager readers/buyers. Mmmm.

I’ve thought this notion dubious for some time. Not only do I have a sense that social media platforms are becoming saturated, but also I have pondered the limits of social media as a ‘platform’ for emerging writers. Many say it’s an asset to establishing a writing career but I’m not yet convinced. Two weeks ago, in a post about my fundraiser I demonstrated the limits I found (and these were despite assistance from influential Tweeters). My old boss, Tim O’Neill, Joint Managing Director of digital agency Reactive and AIMIA National President was an early adopter to Twitter. When he recently noted its limitations he had me listening.

Reckon we can all fit up there and still be heard on the information superhighway? I'm not so sure. Thanks to caribb for use of this image 12 Birds under Creative Commons.
Reckon we can all fit up there and still be heard on the information superhighway? I'm not so sure. Thanks to caribb for use of this image 12 Birds under Creative Commons.

‘In the earlier days (maybe two years ago when everyone was new to Twitter) everyone was out to find new followers. Everyone would follow people quite easily,’ O’Neill says. Back then a person could be strategic about generating followers. They could devise logical strategies to draw them in. ‘It would be quite achievable to get ten or twenty or thirty followers in a day just because people would sign up quickly,’ says O’Neill. But now? Not so much. These days most people think they have enough followees in their feed.

‘I’m personally really reluctant to follow anyone,’ says O’Neill, describing himself as somewhat mercenary. ‘It’s nothing personal. If I see lots of tweets from someone that are not relevant to me, then I’ll just unfollow – so that my tweet stream is interesting to me all the time,’ he says. Most of O’Neill’s 1,800+ followers were obtained in his first year on Twitter, the rest have just dripped in, on by one. It used to be different.

‘The classic way to manufacture more followers is to get someone who’s really popular on Twitter to retweet (or to mention you),’ says O’Neill. In the early days this would yield followers who presumed that you had something in common with the retweeter. (The hashtag #FF ‘Follow Friday’ is a part of this culture). ‘You’d get 100 followers straight away but now you don’t. You get maybe two or three,’ says O’Neill.

‘Part of [this challenge] is how Twitter handles retweets now,’ he explains. ‘Before Twitter had its inbuilt retweet function you used to have to do an RT (a manual retweet) and a manual retweet has a higher visibility of the person who’s retweeting,’ he explains. This would alert potential followers that the retweetee had the same interests as the retweeter. O’Neill notes that the more-recent inbuilt retweet function maligns the name of the retweeter to tiny font, and renders their endorsement far less influential.

If you want to draw attention to someone’s Twitter presence you would be better to include their @ handle in the body of the tweet, says O’Neill. More than that, tell the reader what’s in it for them. ‘It needs to be a simple and clear message and be obvious what it’s for or what it will do,’ he says.

I’ve interviewed a few publishers over the past year, and while they are all adamant that good writing is central to getting published, they also admit that a social media ‘platform’ can help. From an independent publisher’s perspective a bigger platform can simply save them time (in the same way that a flawless manuscript can). The more you can contribute from a marketing (and editing) perspective, the more attractive you are to them. A larger publisher stated clearly that many writers don’t get involved in social media. However she noted that the authors who do make an effort via social media can be more successful in getting reviews and attention.

So I suppose we all have to persist.

Goodwill hunting

In March this year I undertook an unusual project that merged long form non-fiction and fundraising. I tried to sell my long form article After Shock (about my experience of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan) to raise money for victims. It was an idea that appeared in the lead-up to the second anniversary of the disaster. Once I had the idea I didn’t feel I could ignore it. I owed it to the people of Northern Japan to at least give it a try. My goals were to raise money for the Japan Red Cross and raise awareness that there is much work left to do in Japan. With the second anniversary as my signpost I aimed to leverage peoples’ curiosity about my experience into a purchase of the article. All royalties would go to the Japan Red Cross.

I tried to sell my long form to raise money for victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
I tried to sell my long form to raise money for victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

It was punt, and I knew it. No one knows what’s going to take hold in the zeitgeist and the odds of success were low. But as this was a fundraiser I knew there’d be some goodwill and it was worth a try. My strategy was to focus the attention in one week (the week of the anniversary) and ask other people and organisations to promote it. I had no budget but I did have time.

I sent an email to friends and colleagues asking them to promote the fundraiser on their social networks. I also sent more personalised emails to people and organisations who were either interested in Japan, long form non-fiction or writing/reading generally. I sent tweets and got retweets, plus many friends and colleagues wrote their own tweets and Facebook posts. If it wasn't for these people and organisations I wouldn't have had a penny to donate. So a big thank you everyone who helped promote the initiative. These included high profile organisations like the Melbourne Writers Festival, the Wheeler Centre, the Emerging Writers Festival and JETAA. I also approached influential tweeters like Yoko Ono and David Grann (don’t ask, don’t get!). But I didn’t get any retweets from them (and I can appreciate their hesitation given that I am a stranger to them and not a registered charity).

I even managed to get an interview with Lindy Burns on my local (Melbourne) radio station, ABC774. Burns broadcast my web address at least twice and during the 15 minute live-to-air interview she made my goals clear to her listeners. She also sent out a retweet after the event. (Thanks again to Lindy and the ABC team!)

Here’s all of the exposure I managed to achieve:

  • Various messages posted in:
    • Twitter feeds of at least 53,000 users.
    • Facebook feeds of at least 10,000 users.
    • Interview broadcast to between 10,000 and 20,000 listeners in my home state of Victoria.

This totals around 83,000 points of exposure to potential buyers (53k + 10k + 20k). Because I can’t know the exact numbers let’s be conservative and say that I managed to get the message in front of around 60,000 people.

The response I got (as measured by traffic to my website, pepironalds.com) comprised in the order of 135 visits. That is, of the 60,000, 135 decided to learn more.

66 of the 135 went to my website on the first day of promotions (and the day I was broadcast on ABC774), 41 went to my website the next day. Within four days traffic had returned to its usual (non-fundraising) amount. I don’t know how many people went directly to the article on Amazon (that information isn’t available).

These numbers say a lot about the challenges of marketing long form non-fiction in this format, as well as the limitations of social media as a viable platform for writers. Because of the huge goodwill, my message was exposed to 60,000 people. Yet I received 135 visits to my site. That’s a return of 0.22%.

And how many copies did I sell? 24 (yes, twenty-four). That’s a return of 0.04% on all that social media exposure. Or, if we’d like to be more generous, a return of 17% on the traffic to my website.

The picture with this article shows a bank draft for 9,585 yen. It sounds impressive but actually, it's only around 100 Australian dollars. But even this is not how much I finally raised. Despite all that goodwill, exposure, time and effort I raised a grand total of US$28.33 for the Japan Red Cross. The rest of the AUD$100 in the bank draft is my own. I’ve paid this against the anticipation of future royalties because I’ve decided to continue selling this essay as a fundraiser indefinitely.

There were clear weaknesses in my strategy for this fundraiser. For example, I got the idea a week before the anniversary, so there wasn’t a lot of lobbying beforehand. (Yet all in all I spent at least three days, full-time, getting the message out there). The amount of royalties I made was also limited by my location in Australia. Kindle saturation is low here and Amazon grants only 35% royalty to sales within Australia (which is most of my sales) US sales would have yielded 70% in royalties.

Furthermore there would be a resistance to buying an e-book by an unknown writer. I hoped the fundraising aspect would offset that (and perhaps it did). But I wonder how difficult it would be for emerging writers to sell their long form without this goodwill?

I share this information because I promised to let everyone know how my fundraiser fared. But also, as a case study, I think this says a lot about the rhetoric versus the reality in selling our long form non-fiction online. Plus it shows the challenges in harnessing social media to promote our work. Still, we did manage to raise a small amount and for this I am extremely grateful to all those whose goodwill enabled this. Thank you so much everyone!!

I have since decided to continue to donate my royalties. So if you want to help out it’s not too late! http://www.pepironalds.com/help-japan

If you found this post helpful, be sure to read E-books: starting with a big bang.

E-books: starting with a big bang

New media technology empowers writers to avail their work to billions of readers and tap new sources of income. Well… in theory anyhow. The truth is it’s difficult to reach readers and get an income. If you simply publish they will not come. For any chance of readers (and returns) you’ll have to do some marketing too. But how does a lone writer with no marketing budget promote their new e-book? The common advice in writing communities includes sharing via social media, getting reviews and getting yourself and your work profiled on traditional media. These are all good strategies. But it isn’t until I put the question to someone outside of the writing community that I realise there are good ways and bad ways to apply these. Tim O’Neill, Joint Managing Director of digital agency Reactive, AIMIA National President (and, full disclosure, my old boss) draws a useful parallel between marketing e-books and marketing apps.

Promoting on a budget? Harness your marketing efforts into one big bang, says Tim O'Neill. Thanks to continis for use of this image, Fireworks, under Creative Commons.
Promoting on a budget? Harness your marketing efforts into one big bang, says Tim O'Neill. Thanks to continis for use of this image, Fireworks, under Creative Commons.

Concentration is at the core of app marketing. ‘You want to get a real peak of downloads in one go so that it flies up the charts because you get noticed,’ says O’Neill. Getting noticed means the opportunity to be featured on New and Noteworthy charts – places that app buyers (and e-book readers) regularly frequent. A concentration of marketing activity can also help get your work into the zeitgeist. If people are exposed to your message via different sources they may soon become curious and download or discuss it themselves. This is another component of app marketing: ‘trending’, which can be carried over to e-books.

‘The easiest way to get trending is to get all that attention bundled as opposed to drip-feeding it over time,’ says O’Neill. He calls it the big bang theory of marketing. ‘The big bang theory of marketing is to work out what you can do and do it all at once. You spend all your media in one big go,’ he says. Concentrating all of your marketing activity to a single day or a single week is the difference between standing in a crowd lighting little sparklers one-by-one or blasting your message above that crowd through a single firework.

Writers with no ‘marketing spend’ will need to gather their gunpowder nimbly. ‘Part of marketing your e-book would be having the book [or information about it] in as many free places as possible,’ O’Neill says. He cites slideshare.net as one example. Free sites like this give you a chance to be discovered. ‘Especially if you do the meta tagging and descriptions correctly,’ says O’Neill.

Consider also who can promote on your behalf. Taking the example of my recent fundraiser, O’Neill suggested asking the Red Cross to promote it or retweet about it. Asking for retweets is particularly easy, ‘It’s definitely an appropriate way to go about promotion because you’re asking someone to do something in the medium,’ says O’Neill. (Do a logic test first however, because it needs to make sense that this person or organisation would retweet). Calling on friends and family for their pyrotechnic assistance will also help. ‘It’s getting other people to amplify it for you rather than you having to do all the work,’ O’Neill says.

As a professional digital expert O’Neill knows the value that search engines can bring. ‘Search is definitely going to play a role and search optimisation should play a big role if you don't have a media budget,’ says O’Neill. First decide on a page or domain where you will concentrate all of your marketing efforts (for example mine is pepironalds.com/help-japan). Then use search optimisation techniques to get that page ranking highly on search engines like Google (this is a complex venture, so I won’t try to explain it here: try this PDF instead ). You may even want to invest in a paid campaign (but take care to set it up correctly as these ads can cost more than your royalties).

‘In the product development phase app developers will ask things like who the audience is and whether there is a need and a demand for it. If there’s no immediate need or demand they ask how they will create that demand,’ says O’Neill. These are the kinds of questions that will define the avenues on which you market your e-book. What’s it about? Who would like to read it? Who needs to read it?

The trick to big-bang marketing is preparing all of this information in advance, making the contacts and setting up the day, or week for all of the marketing to happen. As with handling explosives you will need to take particular care and concentration. But this might be the difference between a blast of sales or a disappointing implosion.

Looking at literary culture

There’s a slight reflection on the bookstore window. In it I can see the streetscape - pedestrians, a café and a tree behind me. But I ignore the reflection and peer into the store. Hundreds of books sit on shelves and tables and in potential buyers’ hands. These books have made it. They’ve been written, edited, designed, published and now put on the shelves of a bookstore. The work has been done, right? ‘Why is it that some books are the books that everyone talks about and everyone reads, while other books just languish?’ asks Beth Driscoll, Lecturer in Publishing and Communications at the University of Melbourne. It’s a question we all ponder, and one that Driscoll is particularly interested in. She’s curious about the place books have in society: what they do, how they work and how they circulate.

Looking at literary culture (all of it). Thanks to Pat M2007 for use of this photo Decisions, Decisions! under Creative Commons.
Looking at literary culture (all of it). Thanks to Pat M2007 for use of this photo Decisions, Decisions! under Creative Commons.

‘It’s pointless to take a book in isolation and study it for what qualities it has [and how those qualities alone] create its value,’ says Driscoll (noting that theorist Pierre Bourdieu has informed her thinking). ‘It really is the whole field together which combines to make the value of the book.’

We’re not just talking about the work of writers and editors. Or even the work of designers and publicists. We’re also talking about the literary milieu: reviews, reviewers, adaptations for TV or film, university reading lists, book clubs, prizes and festivals. ‘I like to look for patterns that emerge from that – from the interactions between different people in the [wider] field,’ Driscoll says. So what are the patterns she’s seen so far?

‘I’m thinking about resurrecting quite an old and fairly pejorative word: the middlebrow, to describe the main way I’m seeing value being created… To me the middlebrow combines a kind of a reverence to the literary culture and the object of the book and authors,’ says Driscoll. The middlebrow also combines art and money. It’s reader-oriented, aspirational, entrepreneurial and often at the centre of distribution systems (like book clubs). Plus the word ‘middlebrow’ tends to be associated with women, and Driscoll notes that it’s often women attending literary events and driving literary efforts like book clubs. These women exert an influence on our literary culture. They’re not just passive recipients of books she says, ‘They contribute to the value that books have in society.’

Driscoll and I are sitting in a café next to the bookshop and I become more aware of her point. A writer’s journey doesn’t start in a publishing deal, a good cover design, a good review and nor does it start on a bookstore shelf. It starts when readers engage with your words, when they suggest your work for a book club, or talk about it over coffee. I see this literary zeitgeist at work around me daily: people reading in cafes, people reading reviews, people – like us – talking books. But how does this manifest in the digital space – particularly for digital-first publications?

‘The zeitgeist is changing,’ says Driscoll, but our literary culture is also responding. Take Oprah’s Book Club – a middlebrow institution contributing to the success of many writers’ careers. The recently relaunched Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 focuses on social-media. The new club ensures digital editions are available, with personal notes from Oprah appended (using social reading tools). The first book was Wild, by long form non-fiction writer Cheryl Strayed. ‘For the first time [the digital edition] outsold the print copy,’ says Driscoll. ‘This possibility of enriching digital books might increase the role for readers and cultural intermediaries [like Oprah].’

The digital zeitgeist can also facilitate conversation within our literary culture. ‘It is a slightly more democratic space where readers can write directly to writers and publishers, and be part of a conversation,’ says Driscoll. Commenting on social networks during literary events enables writers and those in the literary culture to convert the symbolic capital of the event into social capital. It helps writers and readers build networks. (Mind you, it’s only the quick and the dead – as Driscoll warns, ‘if you want to be part of the conversation you have to tweet at the moment it happens.’)

‘I care about readers and how they respond to events in literary culture,’ Driscoll tells me. As I pass the bookstore again on my way from our meeting I realise that I do too. The reflection on the bookstore window is as important as the books within.

Oh the technology

I’m pining for an old phone with a handset - one that enables a suction-cupped ‘bug’ to be kissed to the receiver and has just one wire that goes to the recorder. My new-media set up of cords, adaptors, headphones, mobile phone and digital voice recorder is not working today. In fact it’s immersing us into a screeching phone-to-phone echo chamber. ‘ Oh the technology,’ I mutter bitterly. It’s hardly appropriate given that I’m interviewing Simon Groth, writer, editor, person interested in technology and Manager of one of our more techno-curious literary organisations, if:book. While I am lamenting new technology Groth is able to effectively harness it. Trying to recall the exact details of a salient quote, he pulls the information from Google instantly. (Three cheers for technology!) And then Groth reads the quote from Google CEO Eric Schmidt (paraphrased by MG Siegler), ‘Every two days we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003.’ (Boo! Boo the technology!)

‘Creators of new work, [are] not just vying for attention with everybody else who’s creating new things, we’re vying for attention with the entirety of human history,’ says Groth. All of this data, ‘makes the future of books and all creative endeavours an incredibly noisy place.’ One of the biggest challenges for writers (and our readers) is how we navigate this.

'Whatever pathway you find, that’s your pathway,' says Simon Groth. Thanks to flow14 for use of this image Fork in the Road under Creative Commons.

Groth urges perspective in aspiring (and emerging) writers: don’t think too narrowly. ‘For a lot of people the medium itself plays such an important role. That’s most exemplified by the print book being a symbol of recognition,’ he says. But Groth encourages writers to be more open-minded about what constitutes success. ‘There are no rules to [the publishing] process, so whatever pathway you find, that’s your pathway. You’ve got to run with that. You have to recognise opportunities when they come because they’re not necessarily going to come in the form that you think.’

Writers tend to get attached to the idea of print because we’re yet to establish ‘any consensus or rules … of finding out what’s worthy, what gets passed down and what becomes part of the wider culture when it’s emerged from [a digital] environment,’ Groth says. We’re still using ‘old systems’: the book is a symbol of recognition because it’s understood that certain processes of approval are required before print. (For example a blog can be defined as successful because it’s made into a book). ‘In that process we’re conferring some kind of cultural importance to it,’ says Groth. It’s an interesting concept, and it makes the challenge of establishing a career in writing all the more daunting.

However Groth says becoming successful these days is, ‘just as mysterious as it always was. The more engaged you get with people in publishing (people who’ve come from the old models) [the more you understand] that no one really knew what would be successful. It was all based on instinct.’ Digital media may disrupt the playing field, but the notion of instinct still applies to the work of emerging writers. And for some of these writers, the digital environment may even be better.

‘The ability to connect and find an audience is one of the best aspects of emerging in a digital environment,’ Groth says. ‘In a traditional publishing environment there are geographic restrictions and there are also economies of scale… Neither of those necessarily apply now.’

‘There might be only a few hundred or a few thousand people who are really into the stuff that you’re writing, but writers can work with that. If that’s your audience you can create a really strong connection with that audience. You can make a success of that – previously it was completely impossible.’

A big change

‘The book of my enemy has been remaindered / And I am pleased,’ wrote Clive James in his 2003 poem of the same title. Ten years ago, the remainder table was considered a literary backwash. It was reasonable for James to use it as a place to celebrate the failure of a literary foe. But in this last decade? My, how things have changed… ‘If you think that the most dire thing would be to be remaindered, then I’d suggest these days that’s almost an honour,’ wrote Martin Shaw in a recent issue of The Victorian Writer. Shaw is Books Division Manager at Readings. He’s one of the people responsible for choosing which books make it beyond the publisher’s door and onto bookshop shelves. His article was enlightening, and helped me realise that a book in print with a reputable publisher does not alone define success.

The new dilemma for authors: where to pass go. Thanks to toastie14 for this image Monopoly in the Park (10) under Creative Commons.
The new dilemma for authors: where to pass go. Thanks to toastie14 for this image Monopoly in the Park (10) under Creative Commons.

Getting your book into bookstores is a major challenge in itself. ‘I would ingest information about several hundred titles in the course of about one and a half to two hours,’ Shaw writes of his monthly sell-in meeting with just one publisher. ‘The simple fact is you’re competing with a whole lot of other hopefuls every month…’ Stores stock just a fraction of the publications offered in the sell-ins (and not all of those stocked actually sell). Of those that fail, a lucky few are remaindered. ‘It’s much more likely that the unsolds will be pulped, that they have no commercial value whatsoever,’ writes Shaw.

Until reading that article, I thought the hoops to be jumped in acquiring a publishing deal were the biggest. Clearly that’s not the case. And once again, I find myself wondering: now that there are alternatives, is print publishing everything it’s cracked up to be?

‘One of the things that’s really different now is that established publishers have lost some of their market power with authors,’ Mark Davis Associate Professor (University of Melbourne) and non-fiction writer (Gangland: Cultural Elites and the New Generationalism) says. He’s looking at authors in the context of both new media, and ongoing changes in the publishing environment (like those outlined in his 2006 article The Decline of the Literary Paradigm in Australian Publishing).

Authors now have choice, says Davis. ‘If I wanted to publish a book ten years ago I needed an agent, I needed a publisher, I needed a contract, I needed someone to tell me how to negotiate that contract, I needed to be able to get my foot in the door, off the slush pile and actually onto someone’s desk. And the reason I had to do that is because publishers had a monopoly.’

The monopoly was over marketing, distribution and even review pages, all of which have been undermined in various ways by new media alternatives. And while publishers are still considered doyens of sorts, it’s not unreasonable for a writer (particularly a new writer) to wonder what a publisher offers over self-publishing options.

An advance of some kind? Well, perhaps not. According to Shaw in some instances advances aren’t offered at all. Royalties? Both avenues offer them, but 70% via Amazon is difficult to match with the 7.5% many authors would get through a publishing house. Marketing efforts? The industry zings with the message that authors must develop their own ‘platforms’ and help drive their own marketing. Distribution? Yes, a publisher can offer that. But given what Shaw tells us about our chances of landing a spot on a bookshelf I wonder how useful that really is. And while harnessing electronic distribution is a major challenge, how advantageous is the printed path in reality today?

As Davis argues, the main thing publishers can offer, ‘is the very thing that publishers have been worst at over the last 20 or 30 years: editing.’ He says that publishers have neglected the substance of books in order to release them quickly (irrespective of whether manuscripts are ready or not). This, combined with downsizing of publishing houses (that are shedding staff) weakens the monopoly further. As Davis says, ‘What’s to stop me self-publishing and just hiring a freelance editor? The same freelancer who might be editing the book if it’s published through [a publishing house]?’

The differences between being published and self-publishing are great, but given the changes to the publishing industry, is one still necessarily better than the other? What's interesting about the current environment is that the monopoly publishers once had, has been eroded by new platforms for authors. As a result Davis says, publishers will need to become more service oriented toward their writers. ‘[Publishers] can no longer take [authors] for granted. That’s a big change.’

Electronic dissonance

Riding the bus home with my newly purchased e-reader tucked into my bag I felt a little pang of guilt. Had I cast a stone at the institutions, which brought me nothing but joy for decades by obtaining this little gadget? Was I just one node in a death of a thousand page-clicks to the bookstores that I love? With paper-books I can browse shelves in any bookstore I want. The e-reader on the other hand forces me to a limited ‘ecosystem’. It made choosing the right one impossible (the ‘right one’ – one that allows me to buy books in any format, wherever and whenever I want – doesn’t actually exist). E-reader manufacturers simply monopolise our book-buying choices. This annoys me, because I want the convenience and flexibility but I’d rather my local Readings or the Brunswick Street Bookstore took a part of the profits on the purchases I make. Yes: as I passed both these institutions on the bus home I felt a little culpable.

An e-reader lurks in the pile of books beside the bed.
An e-reader lurks in the pile of books beside the bed.

It was perhaps for this reason it took me a few days to take the gadget out of the box. It was as if I were introducing a new cat to the household. I left the e-reader in the hallway and went into my room to pet and reassure all of my printed books.

On day three I opened the box and charged the reader up. A week after buying it I set up my account and finally let it sit on the dresser just inside my room. Later still, I downloaded a few samples (I hadn’t bought anything yet). I cautiously placed the reader on the stack of books by my bed, cooing warmly to the printed-brood.

I even thought about taking it back (so strong was my guilt). But again and again I came back to those frustrating moments when I needed a book for my research and couldn’t get a copy anywhere, when a day of productivity was lost traipsing to a library at some distant university to read or copy just a few of the relevant chapters. So I kept the e-reader, picking it up for a time every now and then.

Eventually I found myself in need of some guidance on my work. To my surprise none of my usual reference-tomes had chapters of relevance. (They are all still great books if you’re interested: Sol Stein’s Solutions for Writers, William E Blundell’s The Art and Craft of Feature Writing and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well).

I did a search on Google, but nothing helpful came up. So I went to my e-reader and soon found a book that was suitable. For the price of three pots of tea in a café I had it ‘delivered’. I was working to resolve the writing issue within minutes. It was just too easy, and all of the anxiety and guilt I felt about buying the thing evaporated.

The stranglehold of manufacturers still leaves a sour taste in my mouth. And I know it will make things more difficult for publishers and their writers while we all try to negotiate profitable terms. But I think the monopoly will eventually be toppled while the technology will remain.

And though the gadget proved its worth (and has continued to do so) I haven’t stopped buying hard copy books. For me, the experience of shopping for, and reading the real thing is still infinitely richer.

Yet these technical developments and new forms of distribution harbour tremendous potential for writers. In next week’s post I’ll discuss just that, including part two of my interview with Mark Davis.

Your work could be special at Penguin

‘This is possibly a golden age for a book publishing model,’ says Ben Ball, Director of Publishing, Penguin Group Australia. He’s referring to digital-only distribution of long form work. At Penguin they’re called Penguin Specials. As the website blurb says they’re e-books, ‘designed to fill a gap… to be read over a long commute or a short journey, in your lunch hour or between dinner and bedtime… They are short, original and affordable…’ Digital-only initiatives like Penguin Specials are the kinds of opportunity for writers that get me excited about the future of long form. Particularly when I learn that a publishing house the calibre of Penguin is open to submissions from both established andemerging writers.

emerging-penguin-lander
emerging-penguin-lander

According to Ball, these digital-only imprints exist due to the decline of conventional print journalism and the growing appetite among readers for thoughtful, reflective pieces (that are beyond the news/social media cycles). ‘People increasingly have mobile devices on which to read and small chunks of time in which to read things,’ says Ball.

Most all of us agree that digital-only delivery of long form non-fiction is a great idea. But the truth is that publishers like Penguin are still in the process of establishing whether a market is there. This does not discourage Ball. ‘No market is ever there before they realise there’s something for them to read. The readership and the content will probably develop side by side,’ he says. For their part, Penguin is trying to promote Specials in the same way that they would a book. ‘We’ve got a publicist on the job [and are] bringing to bear the promotional activities of a publisher,’ says Ball.

Digital delivery of long form can provide readers with access to convenient, relevant, topical and quality writing. And they can provide writers with advantages that aren’t available in the hardcopy magazine/newspaper models. ‘One of its critical advantages is the royalties system. If you have written something marvelous that goes viral – you’ll cut into the success of it,’ says Ball. ‘That always seemed to me to be a problem with journalism – that you’re writing something to enable somebody else to sell a newspaper off the back of your name. And that’s not how the book model works.’

The differences between book and newspaper models are fundamental to Ball’s golden-age outlook for long form non-fiction. ‘Books have always been behind a pay wall. Books never made the mistake that [online] newspapers made of giving content away. We’ve never educated the public that books should be free. That’s where it all fell down for newspapers and now they’re trying to work out how to put the wall up,’ says Ball.

Perhaps this is why we’ve seen articles decrying the death of the book. Ball says that ‘It’s clearly not the death of the book. What you’re talking about is a physical book moving to a digital book. The reason newspaper people think it’s the death of the book is because it was the death of the newspaper and they can’t believe that it isn’t the same for books.’

The challenge to the book publishing model is in defining a fair price for digital content. Companies like Amazon, ‘are trying to educate the public that books should be fantastically cheap. And while everybody is for increased access to books, nobody ought to be [against] paying writers,’ says Ball. He says that Penguin is, ‘unashamedly for a decent cover price and a decent return for authors because that’s how you produce good work.’

To date, most of the work published by Penguin Specials has been by established writers. But Ball is keen to get submissions from new and emerging writers. In fact, he’s been a little surprised by how few have submitted. ‘The people who’ve got their head around it the fastest have been the professional writers. The people who we’re really trying to reach out to are the those who are starting their careers,’ he says.

Ball is open to submissions on virtually any subject, ‘I don’t have a set of genres that I feel we should be concentrating on. The only thing that unites from our point of view is the high quality of the writing,’ he says.

You can submit your best long form work via penguin.specials@au.penguingroup.com

Note: Ben Ball has confirmed that Penguin Specials submissions are still being accepted following the announcement of the Penguin / Random House merger.

A voice from the future

‘Cliff hanger’ and ‘conference’ are words that don’t often play in the same scenario. But when Malcolm Neil was cut off mid-presentation at last week’s Independent Publishers Conference these words came to mind. Neil is Director, Content Acquisition and Publisher Relations, APAC at Kobo Inc. Kobo provides e-reading services (including e-readers and e-books) to over 200 countries. When Neil’s presentation abruptly concluded, he was sharing some choice insights into the behaviors of e-book purchasers. This is an advantage that e-books have on the ‘device’ of a hard copy book: detailed metrics. Although providing the ‘detailed’ part would be commercially sensitive, Neil still gave interesting metrics to conference delegates. For example, Kobo has configured their email marketing to book-buying prime times: 10am and 8pm (you’ll notice a change in my social media habits as a consequence). Women are the predominant e-book and e-reader buyers (no surprises there). Women 65+ buy more than 12 e-books per year (that one did surprise me).

future-porthole
future-porthole

Neil spoke to us onscreen as if from the future. In fact he presented from his Singapore hotel room via Skype. And then his video-face froze, and a little ‘bzit’ line went across the screen and we all said, ‘Oh dear’. Neil did try to call back, but we lost him again and went on with the other presentations.

Speaking to him after the event I mentioned the technology had let us down. In fact it was the electricity at his hotel – not the Internet – that failed us. It’s an important point, given our subject matter.

Neil provided a few more choice stats to me. The bad news for non-fiction writers is the e-book market is predominantly a fiction one (more like 80/20 fiction/non-fiction in contrast to 60/40 in the print market). On the upside, there are more opportunities to find readers for self-published work, which as Neil says, ‘Is a little obvious when you think that in a physical book store you’ll find next to no self-published books.’ Still, it’s always good to see the theory reflected in the stats. Around 5% of e-books purchased are self-published.

I came from the conference with a sense that publishing had perhaps made amends with the ‘threat’ of e-books. Maybe it’s because I’m semi-converted (I’m distributing my own work and reading others’ electronically). Perhaps there’s room for both print and electronic. Maybe the change in publishing will hit a point of disruption to traditional publishing rather than complete annihilation.

‘That notion [of disruption] is not borne out by the evidence,’ Neil says. ‘Where you might have sold 3,000 copies of the [print] book you might sell 1,000 in the future. And those numbers will continue to change.’ Bookstores everywhere have modified their stock to include products that – unlike books – bring in strong margins. In the Australian context this need is exacerbated by fluctuating exchange rates.

‘I think there’ll still be bookstores and print sales because it’s an object, and people like buying objects. But ultimately as the economy of e-reading becomes more affordable [the print book is] in danger of becoming a secondary part of publishing.’ As well as that, once readers buy into an electronic provider (such as Amazon) they’re within that eco-system. ‘They’re going to get other emails about physical books. So they’re going to start purchasing [those] online as well,’ Neil says. He reminds me to look at job cuts in publishing and, ‘the way large publishers are nervously reconfiguring their businesses.’ (Although, as Mark Davis tells us, technology isn’t the only reason these changes have occurred).

Paper-book lovers will be glad to know that while in Singapore Neil bought a print book. It was a hand-stitched artifact by Math Paper Press. But he says, ‘In terms of the last mass-market [print] book that I bought… I can’t remember the last time I did that.’

Watch a video of Malcolm Neil presenting more choice info at the Copyright Agency's 2012 Annual Seminar 'Digital Publishing Today'.

Mini-magazines and long form distribution

There’s a session at the NonfictioNow conference that couldn’t be more appropriate for this blog: ‘Longform Nonfiction and Online Distribution’. Four emerging practitioners of the non-fiction form will, ‘explore the role that reading and writing online have [in influencing their] work, while engaging in a form of cultural activism, in which writers are found fighting for more space for longer works of nonfiction,’ (from the precis). As the words ‘activism’ and ‘fighting’ imply, there is a certain chutzpah involved in pursuing long form these days. Aggregate sites like longform.org and longreads.com as well as initiatives such as Kindle Singles, The Atavist and Byliner have provided new US-based venues for writers. The presence of these and other digital-first publishing initiatives (like Editia in Australia) have given me cause for celebration. But, as writer Elmo Keep reminds me, things aren't ideal in the Australian context.

empty-pipe
empty-pipe

‘In terms of traditional mastheads where there’s a focus on extremely high-quality long form investigative-based journalism, we don’t really have many places to choose from in Australia. We’ve got a really rich and very alive literary journal tradition here. But that’s different to magazines. There are very few options to Australian non-fiction writers who want to write long, get published and get paid,’ Keep says.

Writers like Keep have successfully pursued overseas markets to publish their long form work. But pitching to overseas publications – such as those in the US – can be restrictive for Australians. ‘Unless it’s an exceptional Australian story that resonates universally [those stories getting published are] probably going to be something that appeals to American audiences,’ says Keep.

The US market is particularly strong (compared to Australia which can boast just a handful of print publications that publish long form work). ‘We do have places where our stories go but they’re niche places. We have nothing like a national magazine with the reach of The New Yorker for example,’ Keep says.

Keep values the opportunities overseas publications can give to Australian writers, but she is concerned about a trickle-down effect. There could be ‘a poverty of people writing Australian stories.’ The session at NonfictioNOW will consider the climate for publishing long form non-fiction in Australia. ‘We’ll be talking about that, about why our magazine culture is what it is or isn’t, and about how you can get your work out,’ says Keep.

These days, finding a publisher is just one challenge to establishing a career for new and emerging writers of long form non-fiction (this Venues and Resources page can be helpful). Another is in facing the call to ‘build’ an online ‘brand’ or ‘platform’ from which to promote our work (and/or determine how necessary this really is). To my mind, Keep has built her writerly brand relatively well. She has a strong online presence and over 3,000 Twitter followers.

Keep says acquiring this presence was organic. She’s a self-described nerd who has been online since 1995 (when the Internet was mostly about community). She was there, ‘before brands invaded the space. Before the idea of a personal brand was even a thing that someone would say.’

‘I just wanted to be someone on Twitter who you would want to follow because that person was always sharing things that were interesting or funny or hilarious... Just being like a miniature magazine,’ she says.

Having an online presence never hurts says Keep. ‘It can lead to great opportunities and it can lead to meeting great people.’ It’s useful for research, interviewing and being part of a community. But she warns that, ‘there can be a little bit of snake oil that goes around. The only thing that’s ever going to be good is [good writing. The writer’s ‘brand’] is always going to be auxiliary to everything else that goes into publicising a book. It’s not a replacement for being interviewed on Radio National or getting reviewed in The Australian,’ she says.

Using these platforms successfully is, ‘about catching a really wild tide on the Internet – which you can’t create. If you’re pouring all your time into that and not pouring that time into doing meaningful work then it’s completely self defeating.’

Elmo Keep will be presenting in the session Longform Nonfiction and Online Distribution with John Proctor, Ronnie Scott, Sam Twyford-Moore and Steve Grimwade on Friday 23 November at 3.00pm.

Visit the NonfictioNow website for more detail.

Blinkered by books

I like to think I have a broad outlook on the potential of writing and new media. But in speaking with John Weldon, writer, author (Spincycle), academic (Victoria University) and coordinator (Meanland), I realise there is something my research has failed to uncover. I am embarrassed by the oversight. But I’m taken by it too because it shows me that I am conceptually blinkered, that my view of writing and new media is thwarted by the way I consume the printed word. Weldon’s approach has expanded my view, and makes me wonder what else I am missing. ‘The effect of digitisation on narrative and story [is] the idea that it’s no longer confined or contained within the pages of a book,’ he tells me. He’s talking about a comment he attributes to author William Gibson, ‘The text doesn’t stop at the end of the page.’ The comment is the title of a paper Weldon will present at next week’s Independent Publishers Conference. But the phrase is more than that. It has informed Weldon’s approach to storytelling and new media.

an-early-tablet
an-early-tablet

‘We can see that books have very much moved beyond the printed page. But most of the digital books are simply… a photocopy of the page,’ says Weldon. He’s keen to see authors and publishers move beyond this linear approach to both reading and writing.

If you’re as blinkered as me by a ‘delineation’ of print and digital you might presume that Weldon is talking about hypermedia. But he’s not.

‘We have to be careful we don’t take it too far beyond the page. Enhanced e-books are often too alienating for the reader. They’re not sure how to interrogate [them]: where to start, whether to watch the picture, listen to the sound or read the text… The actual physical form of the book is integral to the way we read – that’s how we’re used to doing it,’ Weldon says.

It was while working on his recently published novel, Spincycle, that Weldon realised the potential of new media and fiction. He was grappling with problems of perspective and character, ‘but if felt clumsy and forced,’ he says. He came up with the idea of a character writing a blog, ‘which exists in the book and exists in the real, virtual world… [It was] a way for me to do [the] internal monolog, and … a way for readers to actively and actually engage in the conversation that goes on in the book,’ he says. He describes character-voiced blogs as ‘a gentle step’ toward taking fiction beyond the page.

There are two blogs associated with Weldon’s novel, (notetoelf.blogspot.com and hotseat2000.blogspot.com) and these were the pieces missing from my research. Before interviewing Weldon it hadn’t occurred to me that a piece of fiction could diversify in this way, but I’m captured by the idea. As Weldon says, ‘Those readers who don’t want to go beyond the page can have a normal print-novel reading experience and those who want to play a little bit can play a little bit.’

For Weldon, this conversation between author and reader harks back to oral storytelling. ‘When all stories lived without the page, there wasn’t a page. In all the storytelling cultures those lines weren’t as harshly drawn,’ he says. When people tell stories orally the storyteller responds differently to each audience. The audience can comment, heckle and through this, change the form and direction of a narrative. ‘[New media] offers us a chance to play with those things again – where the reader can become author, and the character can become author, and the author can become character and reader,’ he says.

In his paper next week Weldon will be appealing to small publishers to rethink their approaches to print and new media. ‘Marshall McLuhan said [that] when we have these new technologies it’s always the artists that show us how to use [them]. I think small publishers who are more willing to experiment in conjunction with authors might show us how to take the text beyond the page,’ Weldon says.

I wonder if wider society is becoming more accepting of consuming text beyond the page. Have we failed to understand how storytelling might evolve digitally because we haven’t fully understood the technology and its potential? Weldon reminds me that as early as Ancient Greece we have questioned new technologies be they writing, printing, photography, film, television and so on.

‘Every time we have a new media… we get panicky. We think it’s the end and we’re going to lose what we have. It’s a good thought to keep in the back of your head because we have to be vigilant about what we have (and what we’re willing to let go of), he says. But of all those new technologies, the new hasn’t killed the old, he says, ‘it just shuffled everything along a little bit. Perhaps we’re in the middle of that shuffling along period now [with new media]. Everything gets upset for a bit, then we realise, “OK, there’s room for both.”’

John Weldon will be presenting his paper, ‘The Text Doesn’t Stop at the End of the Page’ at the Authorship and Digital Publishing session of the Independent Publishers Conference 9am, Thursday 8 November at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne.

Tablet effects: opportunities with Editia

In late 2009 Charlotte Harper became obsessed with Twitter. ‘I was just sitting on Twitter on my iPhone for hours on end,’ she says. 140-character quips, thoughts and headlines streamed down her screen. Then she noticed a hashtag #appletablet. ‘People [were] talking about how this apple device was coming, and [that] it was going to change everything. I thought, “It is. That’s true. If Apple release an e-reader it will change everything and here’s my chance,”’ she says. The hashtag begat Editia, ‘a new digital first publishing business devoted to long form journalism and non-fiction shorts.’ (Editia website) Harper admits to being an early adaptor. ‘I’m ridiculous. I’m one of those people who queues up outside Apple stores from the early hours of the morning, [who] takes my small children so they have to wait with me,’ she quips. But this enthusiasm has been pivotal to the launch of Editia, and to the vision and skills that Harper brings as founder and publisher.

editia-cupcakes
editia-cupcakes

She’s worked as an editor, a journalist, a Walkley Award-winning digital producer and a teacher of journalism. Her first book about technology was published in 1999. She’s working on a Masters in Communications by Research at the University of Canberra about, ‘Social reading, long form journalism and the connected ebook’. After reading those early tweets on the #appletablet she found her way to the launch of the iPad in Australia. Her blog about the technology, ebookish.com.au went live from her hotel room the very night of the launch.

Thus it’s not surprising that Editia is a digital first publishing house. And while the pending list covers a broad range of topics – including the arts, food, the environment and literature Harper says that, ‘in each case there’s a bit of a connection back to technology.’

In short, Editia is interested in good non-fiction writing, and is open to established and emerging writers (provided you have a letter of endorsement from an editor or lecturer). Alliteration is the key to remembering ‘Six till Seven Submission Sundays’ (that’s two short windows each Sunday, not one long one). Detailed submission guidelines are available on the website.

Editia is a pioneering digital-first publishing house for long form non-fiction in Australia. Being an early adaptor involves vision, nimbleness, risk and a bit of experimentation. To help mitigate risk, Harper has established a Corporate Advisory Board of digital publishing experts. As far as experimentation goes, well, that’s all part of the fun. ‘We’re all experimenting – mainstream publishers small start ups, indie authors, bookshops… It’s a really exciting time to be involved in the industry because nobody really knows what’s going to happen next,’ she says.

In lieu of advances, Editia offers writers a digital consulting package to help them better build their brand. ‘It’s really hard to cut through unless you have something to distinguish yourself from the rest of the people out there. If you just set up a blog and say, “I’ve written this book and it’s really good and you should buy it,” why is anyone going to bother coming there?’ she asks. Harper recommends that writers establish a niche. ‘Build your profile by providing content that’s really useful for people rather than just [being] about self promotion,’ she says.

Tablets and digital technology have shaken-up the traditional publishing industry, but a side effect is opportunities for writers and independent publishers like Editia. ‘Hopefully the future of long form non-fiction is going to be hugely successful, and grow in popularity as more and more readers in Australia and internationally become owners of tablets and e-readers,’ says Harper. With the technology in their hands, readers will realise the potential for consuming non-fiction pieces outside of traditional formats.

Harper recognises that many writers – both established an emerging – are pondering the future of their long form work. What she sees, ‘is an opportunity for [writers] to build up their own profile and write the stories that they want to write (rather than the stories that editors in media organisations tell them to write).’ For this writer at least, that’s a liberating thought. But to Harper, the benefit of this is not just for writers. ‘When writers are writing the stories they want to write, the stories are so much better aren’t they?’ she says, ‘I think the future is very bright.’

Breaking into Random House

What is a book these days? In a bookshop they’re objects, ‘of a certain girth…[with] a spine of a certain depth,’ says Meredith Curnow, Publisher at Random House. E-books have no such limitations and this has opened opportunity for writers to publish small pieces with big houses. Curnow is the publisher of Storycuts, Random House’s short-form e-book collection (‘short’ as it is relative to a book). It’s a collection that began with stand-alone extracts from the publisher’s backlist but soon evolved to include short stories and more recently, essays. Some Storycuts have bonus material (such the opening chapter from a writer’s new novel). Others stand alone. The non-fiction collection of Storycuts in Australia has only just started. It has published work by luminaries such as Don Watson. But while big names are included in the collection, having one isn’t a necessary requirement.

view of the tiny door from inside the story room
view of the tiny door from inside the story room

‘We are always looking for new writers,’ says Curnow, who would love more time ‘to be out there’ finding new talent. ‘I think the short form is a great way of breaking in,’ she says. Curnow uses pieces like those in Quarterly Essay (about 10,000 words) as a possible example of what she might publish. But modelling on a format or word-count is less important to her than the quality of the writing. ‘I’m really open to anything that is well written and [has] something to say,’ she says.

Storycuts is one example where new media has extended (rather than reduced) publishing opportunities for long form non-fiction writers. But while Curnow is genuine in her appeal for new writers to submit to Storycuts, she is equally straight about the business reality.

‘I’ll be honest and tell you that Storycuts has not … set the world on fire. Sales vary greatly,’ she says. This probably means that new writers are statistically less likely to garner an income from publishing in Storycuts. If money is your driver, this collection may not be for you. But if you’re a writer who wants the validation of a well-connected editor, and can see benefits from the statement, I have been published by Random House, then you ought to make contact with Curnow (or submit your piece directly to her).

Although Storycuts is still finding its gravitational core sales-wise, there is a long-term vision. It is to be a collection for discerning readers with time-limited windows. Someone at a bus stop, for example, can go to Storycuts to find a quality read that will to take them to their destination.

Such is the opportunity for long form non-fiction that new media brings to readers. ‘I think it’s got a huge future… There are always good, strong non-fiction titles out there,’ Curnow says. She thinks people will always want to read non-fiction, ‘but how we can make it pay is a whole other story.’ Long form non-fiction takes time and, ‘to be able to really immerse yourself in an issue – it’s a luxury,’ says Curnow.

As we all well know, writers and editors are yet to nail the perfect business model in the new media galaxy, but I believe that opportunities like Storycuts at Random House are going in the right direction.

You can submit your best long form non-fiction work directly to Meredith Curnow at Random House (Sydney). Meanwhile I’ll stay on the hunt for more publishing opportunities for you.

Note: Publishing with a company like Random House will involve contracts (which Curnow warns, can be longer than the piece being published). Writers: always take care with contracts and seek legal advice before signing them.

The bottom of the big blue

In a sea-blue auditorium at Sydney’s Maritime Museum, a series of panelists and keynote speakers took me on a voyage through the Future of Digital Publishing. It was a trip into the murky depths as these panelists are all experimenting in a very new, but surging tide of technology. Convergence was the theme, but contradictory views swam across it, showing how the readers (or audiences) are now the ones controlling the rudder. I was at a seminar (the Future of Digital Publishing), organised by the Australian Interactive Media Industry Association (AIMIA) and Publishers Australia. I saw it in Sydney, but the event will also be held in Melbourne on Tuesday, 21 August. (Full disclosure: I went on media pass).

If there’s one certain thing about the future of digital publishing it’s that nothing much is certain anymore. On the up side, our readers are still out there (somewhere) bobbing in little dinghies of their own choosing. They’re less interested in consuming broadcasts pitched to audiences of titanic proportions (that model is sinking). Different readers (sorry, *audiences*) want different things. In these visions of the future, words alone are not enough.

At the seminar, keynote speakers and panelists gave a range of perspectives. They debated pricing, business models, interactivity, skills sets and technology platforms. They agreed on one thing: print is not dead, but print alone is dead.

In his keynote presentation, ‘Lessons from Australia’s “oldest” iPad magazine’ Tony Sarno (Editor, APC Magazines and Techlife) shared the costly lessons of being ahead of the technology wave. It’s a cautionary tale of high seas and calm, and paints the picture of how technology and content could intermingle in new business models. He says advertisers are yet to understand the potential audience profiling that technology brings. He says free content has no future. And he doesn’t hire writers who can’t also script video or talk to camera. Land ho, according to Sarno, is ‘products with really good value.’

I guess I’m still an idealistic romantic when it comes to my writing. I can’t help but associate the word ‘product’ with mass-produced consumer goods - likewise ‘business models’ with economic rationalism. I take a lump of neither with my conception of writing and literature. But I do know the basics of how markets work, and I realise that if writers, editors and publishers want to earn from our crafts, we need to rethink our delivery and pricing models.

‘Reimaging the magazine’ was at the centre of science-focused Cosmos magazine’s move toward an iPad version. Cosmos netted benefits from paddling out behind the technology breakwaters. The editorial team (lead by Editor in Chief and keynote presenter Wilson da Silva) studied the marketplace first. They listed their likes and dislikes before they moved into digital. They learned from the efforts of pioneers like Sarno, scavenging good ideas and throwing out bad ones. Cosomos’ iPad publication has interactivity and bonus content. And in a nice twist for long form writers, da Silva says it has encouraged Cosmos to publish longer pieces.

Rebecca Haagsma, Director of Product Innovation at Mi9 (a part of ninemsn) spoke of the importance of making connections with your audience. Haagsma gave her five top tips to ‘make your audience really feel something’. They included: ‘The reverse’ (any story that tells the reverse of what you expect – otherwise known as ‘man bites dog’), cute animals, deviance and differing from the norm, things that make people go ‘Awwwww’ (citing this video of six year old kid with cerebral palsy walking to his U.S. Marine father for the first time) and humour. On the surface this list sounded chilling (cute animals?!). But on reflection I realised it is not all that different from the practices of mainstream newsrooms in the past (or at least tabloid ones). The 1997 film, Wag the Dog, plays on this fact.

At the end of the four and a half our seminar in Sydney an audience member asked the assembled panel, ‘Are we still in the business of publishing?’ No-one said yes. Da Silva stepped forward first, ‘We’re in the middle of the shake-up,’ he said.

For information on the Melbourne session visit the AIMIA website.