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.

Molecular verticality: trends in book marketing

‘I think molecular specialisation is the only way that book publishers are going to survive in something that resembles their traditional format,’ says Anne Treasure, a digital marketing enthusiast. This molecular specialisation is spawning vertical marketing – or customer / reader focused marketing. In the context of publishing vertical marketing recognises, as Mike Shatzkin writes on idealog.com that publishers are no longer dependent on books being displayed in stores and that, ‘the marketing that used to take place around store inventory is becoming digital’. Vertical marketing is particularly useful to small and independent publishers (as well as to writers). ‘It used to be that publishers would market a lot through their retailers,’ says Treasure, ‘But retailer relationships aren’t so important any more, and in publishing it’s more about the direct-to-consumer relationship,’ she says. Not surprisingly social media is one of the key vertical marketing tools available to the literary community. On social media writers and publishers can converse directly with their readers and build communities of interest. It’s quite a contrast from old school broadcasting and one that many publishers are already harnessing. Treasure cites Meanjin, Overland, Kill Your Darlings and Seizure as journals that are doing a good job. ‘They bring [their publication’s] personality into the social media space so that readers can get to know them as well as the writers therein.’

Vertical marketing is about publishers and writers communicating directly to their readers. Thanks to Ed Yourdon for use of this image Web 2.0 conference/San Francisco, Nov 2008 - 08 under Creative Commons.
Vertical marketing is about publishers and writers communicating directly to their readers. Thanks to Ed Yourdon for use of this image Web 2.0 conference/San Francisco, Nov 2008 - 08 under Creative Commons.

But it’s not just journals that are capitalising on vertical marketing. Treasure adds that, ‘all kinds of publishers are becoming involved in the conversations around reading, books, literature and writing (rather than just being the gatekeepers and broadcasters).’ Genre publishers – particularly romance and science fiction – are leading the charge. ‘[Some publishers are] getting to the point where whatever they publish, readers in the community will trust that it’s going to be good and something that they’re interested in,’ Treasure says. This is the vision for vertical marketing – writers and publishers producing such high quality and relevant publications, communities and conversations that readers, ‘will trust them and be willing to buy whatever they publish.’

There is a lot of noise in social media and this is one of the challenges says Treasure. But it can be overcome. ‘It’s about being authentic, about showing personality, seeing through all of the boring chatter and engaging your readers in a space where they already are,’ she says. Publishers should also take care to include and train their writers . ‘No matter how much the market fragments it’s going to be hard for a publisher to have as loyal a following as an author or a writer,’ says Treasure.

While social media is one of the major tools for vertical marketing it isn’t the only one. Treasure notes a good example of offline vertical marketing in 2013 newcomer Tincture Journal. It placed promotional stickers on street crossings in Darlinghurst (Sydney). ‘They’re right where you’re going to press the button – so you can’t fail to see them,’ Treasure says. In this respect vertical marketing is nothing new. ‘It’s marketing that has been going on for 20 or 30 years… marketing that you would see for rock or pop gigs (except that now we’re bringing it to books and literature),’ she says.

Vertical marketing has created unprecedented opportunity for the independent publishing sector in particular. As Treasure says, ‘It’s definitely leveling the playing field and it means that independent publishers have more opportunities to engage with communities of readers.’

Anne Treasure will chair the panel Vertical Marketing (with panelists Kate Cuthbert [Escape Publishing] and Mark Robinson [Exisle Publishing] at this week’s Independent Publishing Conference. Treasure's session will be held 10.15am on Friday 15 November.

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.

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.’

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.

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.

If you want to be a writer, you have to be a reader

Are you reading as much as you’re writing? And if you are, what are you reading? Are you reading – and buying – the kinds of publications you want to be published in as a writer)? ‘So many people want to write, and less want to read,’ says Amy Espeseth, writer (Sufficient Grace, Trouble Telling the Weather), publisher (Vignette Press) and academic (NMIT). ‘If everyone who submitted to Geek Mook had bought a [copy] we would be able make a lot more future publications… our goal is to break even and we’re certainly not breaking even,’ says Espeseth.

reading-by-paulbence
reading-by-paulbence

It’s a reality for small publishers echoed by Zoe Dattner, General Manager of the Small Press Network (SPUNC) , ‘So much goes into [publishing a work], and when it disappears without a trace [it’s disappointing].’ Dattner says this happens ‘all the time’.

I’ve heard the calls to writers to buy the publications we want to write for – as has Espeseth, ‘Oftentimes as writers we get kind of frustrated at the lack of money [and] the lack of support. I’m very much in support of all of the conversations,’ she says. But Espeseth has the publisher’s perspective too, ‘at the same time I’d like to acknowledge that (for me as a publisher) the money is coming directly out of my pocket. I’m gambling on you. I’m betting on you. And more often than not those gambles or those investments don’t work out financially,’ she says.

It’s a reality that the writers’ debates don’t always acknowledge. ‘Everything doesn’t have to be about money. It can be about producing beautiful books,’ says Espeseth. Even now I can hear a few writers calling foul. But I have to wonder about our priorities when Espeseth tells me, ‘It is difficult when you see people be at a launch celebrating and paying the equivalent of the cost of the publication for beer and then not buying the publication.’

The money debate aside, the relationship between writer and publisher has always been one of co-dependence. Writers don’t work in a vacuum. We need good writing and stories to read. We need new ideas to consider. We need guidance on our phrasing, structure and grammar (plus proofreading!). And of course, we need ways to get our work to readers.

While new media does give writers more options for distribution, going through a reputable publisher would be the choice of most. Validation from a publisher is a kind of vindication (not to mention flattering to the ego). And publishers are more able to get our work to readers. As well as that, publishers (and their editors) can vastly improve the quality of our work.

‘It’s a not very well kept secret for people who work in the industry that your editor or your publisher will sometimes change the trajectory of a work,’ says Espeseth. The Raymond Carver / Gordon Lish ‘partnership’ is an example at the extreme end of the spectrum, one which resulted in the later publishing of Carver’s stories uncut. But writers like Espeseth daily express their gratitude, ‘Without [Aviva Tuffield and Ian See’s] help and assistance I don’t think I would have ever finished [Sufficient Grace]. And it certainly wouldn’t be the book that it is without them,’ she says.

The secret may not be well kept, but it is, as Henry Rosenbloom of Scribe recently wrote, a ‘dirty’ one. ‘Everybody has internalised the editor’s role, without ever acknowledging the contingencies it has to deal with. Nobody outside the publishing house knows the challenges that were presented by a given manuscript, and nobody knows how much or what it did to help improve it,’ he writes on the Scribe website. The writer’s name is most often noted outside the publishing industry. But without the publisher there wouldn’t be a book, or at the very least, there wouldn’t be the same book.

‘Although the writer does a lot of work, the publisher does as well. And it shows a lot of foresight and commitment when people choose to put their time, energy and money into publishing someone else’s work,’ says Espeseth. That’s why the literary prize that she’s recently judged (with Bethanie Blanchard and Andrew Wrathall) awards both writer and publisher.

As its name implies, nominees for the Most Underrated Book Award (MUBA) can’t have won any major awards as a published book. It’s the kind of prize you would never aim to win, but having won it, would certainly celebrate (with your publisher). The shortlist comprises four fiction titles (The Dark Wet by Jess Huon (Giramondo), I Hate Martin Amis et al. by Peter Barry (Transit Lounge), Two Steps Forward by Irma Gold (Affirm Press) and The Cook by Wayne Macauley (Text)). The winner will be announced on 8 November and all four titles will be discounted 20% at Readings for a month.

Although this year’s final list comprises fiction, Espeseth says that nonfiction titles were nominated. It’s anticipated that next year’s awards will involve different genre categories.

The MUBA acknowledges the intrinsic ties (between writer and publisher) that lead to beautiful books and great reading. But as Espeseth reminds us, ‘the most important thing is to sell books. And without selling books … the publishers can’t continue to publish and then the writers have nowhere for their work.’

The deal at Readings will do its part to support the writers and publishers of the MUBA shortlist. Meanwhile I hope that writers will reconsider their budgets for beer and books.

Small and indie publishers unite!

I’ve been trying to imagine a world without small and independent publishers. I can’t do it. I’ve tried to draw parallels. For example, I’ve wondered if it’s like a world without electricity, or a world without roses to smell. But neither is an appropriate comparison. When I try to imagine a world without these publishers my mind goes blank, short-circuited by the complexity and depressing force of the idea. Initially this was a great frustration. Then I realised my blank brain was illustrating the point: a world without small and independent publishers is a world with far fewer voices and ideas. It’s a whiteout. ‘I see independent business [including publishers] as a very strong force for good and for positive change in the world in general,’ says Zoe Dattner, General Manager of the Small Press Network (SPUNC). She also sees these publishers as more able ‘to beat their own drum’ thus contributing to the diversity of voices available for readers (and venues available for writers). And if participation in SPUNC is anything to go by, this diversity is diversifying. In the last two years membership has grown from 50 to 100. This year SPUNC will hold the inaugural Independent Publishers Conference in Melbourne on 8 and 9 November.

whiteout-by-mdornseif
whiteout-by-mdornseif

The presence of so many small and independent outfits means that writers wanting to publish are more likely to find a welcoming venue. That sounds like cause for champagne and chocolates! But when it comes to those hardy souls behind these publications – often small or singular teams, running their publishing efforts alongside a day job – love and squalor may be a more apt pairing (that is, a lot of love and just a little bit of squalor).

‘It’s a very difficult industry to make a crust in,’ says Dattner, (noting this is her ‘own personal belief’). ‘I don’t think that it should be so difficult. Publishers (particularly small publishers) come to it out of passion. They’re not necessarily interested in making money but they’ve found a manuscript [and] they really want to publish it. They get so passionate about doing that one thing, and then they stumble at all the different obstacles that exist between them and selling a book to a reader,’ she says. More recently these obstacles include changes to technology and distribution models. Another challenge, ‘is for small publishers to approach the climate that we’re in with a business head on. Which is hard because [we] are often creative types,’ Dattner adds. (And creative types she says, don’t always think with business heads).

All in all, small and independent publishers, ‘could be sharing a lot more knowledge, and asking a lot more questions, and admitting to a lot more,’ says Dattner. To facilitate this, sessions at the conference include production and workflow, digital strategies, marketing and trends (as well as opportunities to network). There’s also an academic day. (See the full program for both days on the SPUNC website). Plus, the conference will host ‘The Most Underrated Book Award’ (MUBA) which will privilege both writer and publisher. The MUBA – like the conference – celebrates the staggering contribution small and independent publishers make to our literary culture.

‘The opportunities are huge – far bigger than the challenges,’ says Dattner.  She explains that small and independent publishers have a lot less to lose than their mainstream counterparts. They are therefore nimble, able to act quickly, are good at identifying opportunities and approaching them without fear.

For Dattner, the biggest win is that small and independent publishers are, ‘in a position [to] reinvent however we want to do this. But it requires either an approach that has been done before but is a lot better, or a brand new one that no one’s ever thought of.’ The key to harnessing these opportunities is that, ‘you’ve got to be open to them,’ she says.

As a participant in the literary community I tend to focus on the challenges facing writers. But I know my pages would be blank – indeed, a whitewash – were it not for the efforts of small and independent publishers. I hope the conference and the MUBA do their part in encouraging, growing and celebrating this integral part of the literary community.

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.’

Make way for long form

I have two TVs in my garage. They sit near the door, one covered in an old blue and white striped sheet. They’ve been there on two years now. A thick lick of dust has formed on the sheet. Every time I open the garage door – just after I feel its cool air on my cheeks – I see them wide, heavy and useless. Their cathode-ray shapes form techno-carcasses on the concrete floor. All they need is electricity to come to life again. But I know that won’t happen. Sometime soon I’ll have to find the strength to get them into the car. They’ll be at the tip before the year is out.

Those TVs came to me less than a decade ago – and not without a little domestic fanfare. One was bought new, the other a second-hand bargain I couldn’t refuse. They both have ginormous screens which I sat before daily in darkness. The shadows of hundreds of stories were cast in colour on the walls of their rooms. Then one day those TVs found their way to the garage. When I bought them I didn’t realise that it was possible for technology to change our habits so quickly. Now I don’t even have the need for a TV anymore. As a medium for storytelling those TVs have seen their last days.

In the early 1990s I thought this was a resonating quote:

The world has changed less since the time of Jesus Christ than it has in the last thirty years. (Charles Péguy, 1913)

Today it seems twee. Thirty years? Try three. Three years is all it’s taken me. The way I consume media over that period has changed so significantly that I now have a phobia about acquiring new hardware. New hardware that is: I’m still interested in stories.

In Australia we’ve just had another washout of journalists from our leading dailies, causing more prognostications on the so-called ‘questionable’ future of long form. ‘Long form is dead in this country,’ I heard a journalist recently say. To me that’s the same as saying that because my old TVs are now in the garage there’s no point in Aaron Sorkin ever putting pen to paper. True: the traditional formats for delivering long form to readers are fading. False: there will be no more long form. As Staff Writer for The New Yorker, David Grann recently said, stories are things that are, ‘in some ways wired into our DNA… People have been telling stories for centuries and centuries… It’s always [been] a part of our culture.’ The desire to read and write stories isn’t changing. Only the formats for delivery are.

Business models for delivering written work are in flux – but that doesn’t mean they won’t find equilibrium. Many print media organisations have been slow (if not resistant) to digital evolution. Part of that grogginess is a notion that everything in digital format has to be short – ‘for snackers’ as Executive Editor of ‘The New York Times’ Jill Abramson said in this conference presentation.

This idea that focus and interest are lacking in readers of digital content is a misnomer. Abramson, for example says that ‘The Times’’ long form pieces are among the most popular on their site. So why is it that so many feel that reading content digitally requires a different state of mind to reading it in print?

With a virtual inferiority complex, the early days of the Internet celebrated things that the printed page couldn’t offer. Hyperlinks, sound and animated gifs were cool while plain words were not. Circular storytelling was engaging but linear narratives were droll. Of those who had access, most were excited by the technology – yet uncertain of its future applications. It took visionaries like Steve Jobs to show us what was possible. But they didn’t have all of the answers. In 2008 Jobs added fuel to the virtual end-of-long-form fire, ‘It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,’ he said.

People do read, but where they get their reading from is changing. Our dailies are fast becoming anemic of good in depth and investigative content. I will miss reading them with a pot of tea in a comfy chair on the weekends. But I won’t go without those stories. I will find them somehow.

‘In my beginning is my end,’ TS Eliot wrote in 'East Coker', one of the 'Four Quartets':

‘In my beginning is my end. In succession Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended, Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.’

Eliot’s poem continues to describe loss and melancholy – a sense of things that might-be or once-were. He was of course writing on far deeper issues than I am now. But there’s a melancholy he expresses in 'East Coker' that is infused with what I feel about the demise of print media. Something I value is ailing and I want to somehow nurture it to health. Yet at the same time a part of me wants to put it out of its misery, to euthanise print media, so that digital can show us what it’s got.

Eliot concludes his poem, ‘In my end is my beginning.’ For a little while now words have been moving from the printed to the digital space. I wonder – if we can eventually get past our ‘grief’ – would the complete absence of print media give us a new beginning? I think it would. I think it would show us that though the business models for delivering long form are changing, the form will continue to exist. Long form hasn’t been killed by digital media anymore than screen culture has by the fact that my old TVs are now in the garage.

 

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.

'Community' or 'Crowd'?

As a writer and adorer of our motley English language I do like to amuse myself with the origin of words. For example, in English we have many lexical twins and triplets. Like ‘guts’ and ‘courage’, or ‘ask’, ‘question’ and ‘interrogate’. Their meanings are similar but their origins differ. I like to know these facts and to respect them, to geek out on the details and nuances. Hence I’m curious that in my post ‘The future of long form: an odyssey’, I cavalierly paired ‘Crowd-funding’ and ‘Community-funded reporting’ with a simple forward slash. I didn’t once consider they weren’t one and the same. But after talking to award-winning journalist, Director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism and coordinator of Masters in Journalism at the University of Melbourne, Margret Simons, I realise they are different.

When she was at Swinburne University, Simons was involved in a crowd-funding initiative, youcommnews.com. It was among the first of its kind in Australia, and based on the existing website, it seems to have lost its mojo. There was a flurry of activity in 2010/11 and not much since. I asked Simons, what happened. ‘We did prove the model worked. We funded two pieces of journalism on [it]. But certainly levels of activity on the site were a long way short of what we would want to see in order to call it a success. So we won some and lost some.’ Simons says.

The two pieces that were funded were well funded. One was by Simons herself about ABCNews24, and another by Toula Mantis about Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. As one of Australia’s first forays into crowd-funding of journalism, youcommnews.com is still ultimately experimenting (and though it is dormant, Simons says it’s not dead). But with only two projects successfully funded, I wonder, are Australian readers ready for these kinds of entrepreneurial initiatives?

‘If you ask the question in the broad, “Will people fund journalism?” the answer may well be, “Well it depends,”’ Simons says. The two funded pieces were very focused, and already had well organised online communities. According to Simons, those communities ultimately provided the funding. She notes it’s early days, but says, ‘My suspicion is that if the reporting or the topic of the reporting is intensely relevant to the community that is funding it, [that project could succeed].’

Thus, ‘crowd-funding’ is the mechanism but ‘community-funded reporting’ is the appropriate label.

Simon’s states her insights are ‘tentative’ because they are ‘based on a very small sample’. But to me they ring true. The community is what gets word out, and those within it will not only read your work, but care enough to help you fund it. Elmo Keep’s successful campaign to fund a ticket for a KISS Cruise (research for her book on the band) is very much in keeping with this idea. It's a very specific subject, with a lot of fans.

So thinking of it as Community-funded reporting could bear fruit for those considering crowd-funding of their long form non-fiction. I like to parallel this way of thinking to that of a pitch. Before you pitch your idea to a publication you qualify it. You make sure that it’s a match, and (technically) you don’t pursue the idea until you have a venue for it.

Community-funded reporting is not so different. You just choose your community, rather than your venue.

I’ll be keeping you posted on more Community-funded reporting initiatives (and the progress of youcommnews.com).

If you’re in Melbourne and interested in funding models for news, head to the ‘What Cost News’ session.

Margaret Simons will be contributing to a range of sessions at the festival. I think she has great insights for those who haven’t trained in a newsroom. See this page of the MWF site for details.

See also:

Would you like a book with that?

A couple of weeks ago an octogenarian friend of mine asked to read some of my writing, ‘None of that Internet stuff though,’ she said, swatting the idea away with her hand, ‘only real writing.’ She is a little old-fashioned, but the truth is octogenarians aren’t the only ones who value a printed page. At this year’s Emerging Writer’s Festival I heard three young writers express their desire for a real book to, ‘show Mum and Dad’. On hearing this, audiences giggled nervously. E-books seem such a given these days that there’s something a little naughty in the desire for print. With the demise of the newsroom, the fracturing of traditional publishing models and the ongoing evolution of digital communications I have accepted that print is not a place my byline will often be. But what I haven’t considered is that while the digital world evolves, so does the physical. The field of print on demand (POD) has recently made a nice addition.

Many writers are aware of POD outfits that produce a book in a cost effective way (for example: blurb.com and lulu.com). Just like an e-book, these outfits generally allows you to prepare and upload your cover and content. You then pay a fee for the cost of printing. You can print as few or as many copies as you like. And in a short while they will appear at your door, ready for you to show your parents and your elderly friends.

Before POD, self-published writers desirous of hard copies had to pay for print runs in the hundreds.  To this end, POD has been liberating. But whether it’s three or 300, POD doesn’t help to resolve the challenge of getting your work out there. Or does it?

The Espresso Book Machine (made by On Demand Books) captured my imagination recently. It looks like a photocopier retrofitted by an enthusiastic geek. But looks aren’t everything. The Espresso Book Machine prints and binds an entire book in minutes and has mobility due to its size. Thus, Espresso Book Machines are popping up all over the industrialised world. For now they seem to be focused in bookshops, libraries and academic institutions.

It’s early days for initiatives like this. But their geographical and intellectual locations make these machines a potential boon for self-published writers. It will literally put our work within reach of readers (currently at libraries and bookstores). It could also enable writers to promote our work in particular locations that have both geographical relevance and social impact. This might involve a community you have written about, or a topic that affects that community. Or it could be targeted to people who are interested in your work simply because you are near them.

As the name implies these machines could appear in other places too. Like cafes! Readers who prefer our work in print could order an article with their coffee (both take the same time to produce). The reader’s choice could be based on word-count or time available (though the Espresso Book Machine currently requires a minimum of 40 pages).  In this scheme, local writers could be promoted.

The truth is that my folio lacks what my friend called ‘real writing’. The Internet was well entrenched when I started. The plastic bag of work I eventually took to her was diminutive. Air ballooned around the magazines. Were it not transparent, the bag would be mistaken as empty. She was very polite in receiving it. But I can’t help but wonder, would I have genuinely impressed her if I could take her for coffee, and when the waiters ask, ‘Would you like a book with that?’ I could answer in the affirmative, then dazzle her luddite-like ways with a version of the ‘real’ writing.

Did you feel that?

In Melbourne last week we experienced three tremblers. One took me by complete surprise. It was a 5.3 magnitude earthquake that made me wonder if I was back in Japan (I was there for the big one in 2011) and had me promptly enacting my Japanese evacuation plan. The other two sent waves of aftershocks across our media. Sitting at my desk however, I didn’t feel a thing. Two of our biggest print media players (Fairfax and News Ltd) announced last week that they must finally change their publishing models, to reduce their print circulations, to pay wall their online content and to restructure their organisations. All, of course, are responses to the new media landscape: an undeniable transformation of the way we consume content. Yet the wider Australian media was filled with stories of shock and awe. This surprised me.

Just days before the announcements I’d passed by the print-complex of Fairfax’s Victorian masthead at Tullamarine, The Age. My eye traveled up their bold, signature sculpture toothed with shards of glass. The shape was ablaze with inner florescent lights, and stamped with a logo that tilts its hat to newspapers past. The building was opened just nine years ago, but the shape of the signature sculpture – that of a rolled up newspaper – now seems positively twee. When it was finished in 2003 this homage to print media was already on shaky ground. New media was undermining the paper’s gold-leaved classified sections. Portals like seek.com.au and realestate.com.au were well underway.

Which is why I’m surprised by the surprise. We talk constantly about new media and how it is a change as significant to our societies as Gutenberg’s printing press was. Of course, job cuts are a part of the shock, and these are always terrible. I don’t question the shock and anger of people losing their jobs. But surely it was clear that the numbers couldn’t add up. These monoliths were now without classified incomes and yet were somehow providing news for free online. Did we really think it was financially viable for this to occur forever? That’s like expecting to pay only when you eat in at a restaurant, but feeling fine about getting home-delivery for free.

But what does it all mean to writers of long form non-fiction? Clearly, the chances of a job writing for such a masthead are unlikely. But we knew that already. Ultimately the shake-ups at these institutions are good news because they open the field up. Without these habitual mastheads readers may begin to explore new ways of accessing our work. Writers with more clout might now step out from behind the old monoliths and join us in the new media galaxy. These combined may bring more readers to our new publishing channels.

Though current reading habits are shaped around accessing free content, introducing pay walls changes this. Once asked to pay, some readers will look elsewhere for the kind of writing they prefer. And if it’s long form non-fiction, they might just look at options such as self-published articles, community funded reporting or crowd funding pieces that they want to read. It’s still a challenge for newer writers to get their work to readers, but the breakdown of institutions does chip away a little at the barriers to entry that have developed as organisations like Fairfax and News have tightened their belts over the past decade.

The loss of jobs for workers at both organisations aside, these changes do provide other benefits for emerging writers. Some of the expertise that is currently siloed in these institutions will now be out in the free market. A higher calibre of free-ranging journalist can only lift our game. Plus, they might avail their writing and publishing talent to help new publishing initiatives succeed (a good example of this is long form non-fiction writer, Dan Baum, who has signed on to help edit on crowd-funded and soon-to-be-launched long form masthead Matter.com).

The changes at Fairfax and News are the kinds of seismic shifts needed in the Australian media landscape to rattle writers and readers into the new media galaxy. Shifting these centuries-old tectonic plates may well mean good news for us.

Crowd-funding is the new black

Life is peppered with turning points - those ‘ah-ha’ moments, or forks in the road. In my first post I wrote about a turning point I’d had at the Wheeler Centre last year. It was when I finally realised that the traditional publishing models were floundering, and that I would need to find new ways to get my work to readers. I had sat amongst the crowd with my focus on the speakers – stalwarts from the old publishing institutions. I looked to them for direction. Now I wonder if I was looking the wrong way. Should I have been looking at the crowd instead?

Crowd-funding is what its name implies. Anyone can make a pledge (from a few dollars upwards) towards a project they’re interested in. Just about anything can constitute a project. Most of us are aware that Barak Obama used crowd funding to help fund his 2008 US presidential campaign. Some of us have performer-friends who have used crowd-funding to finance performances and CDs.

It wasn’t until I saw a presentation by Kate Toon and Rick Chen at the Melbourne Emerging Writers’ Festival that I realised writers could use crowd-funding too. Duh!

In trying to find markets for my article I had looked at community-funded reporting like spot.us and youcommnews.com (which are essentially crowd-funding initiatives). But though established writers have had success with this, I questioned the viability of Communit-funded reporting for an emerging writer. The stakes are high (often tens of thousands of dollars). Who would pledge that kind of money to an emerging writer?

Yet asking for a smaller amount through a general crowd-funding site is an idea that has legs. Toon used crowd-funding to raise money for her book of poetry, ‘Gone Dotty’. Elmo Keep successfully funded a spot on a Kiss cruise. New Matilda stayed afloat with the help of crowd-funding. More recently a campaign was undertaken to fund an online magazine-to-be matter.com that will focus on long form journalism (Crowd-funding and long form journalism = double points for this post!).

The popular crowd-funding sites include:

www.pozible.com

www.kickstarter.com

www.indiegogo.com

Also check out www.crowdfunding.org to help get your head around it (including this video about crowd sourcing).

For now I’m going to be staring at strangers wondering what non-fiction topics they might like to fund. Meanwhile, have you had any experience with crowd-funding your long form non-fiction projects?

Give up the newsroom or your career gets it

Last year I went to see a panel discussion at the Wheeler Centre and walked out feeling miserable. I expect a bit of melancholy after a sad film. But after a panel discussion...? Not so much. The panelists had a jaunty chat about newsrooms – full of anecdotes and great scoops.  For the most part I was enraptured. My mind’s eye cast their characters with Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. My props department furnished their newsrooms with Hollywood sets. I saw rows of typewriters, rotary telephones, moody lights and victorious moments.

My reverie had been sustained by fictions – that in itself should have been discouraging. But I’m a relatively practical person. I believe that if you don’t ask, you don’t get. So next I pondered how I might get into a real newsroom. Who did I know who could take me to one? Could I convince an editor to let me hang around for a while? For a good portion of the panel discussion I was dead serious about trying to get some experience in a newsroom. And then I realised… these newsrooms don’t exist any more.

It’s not as if I didn’t know this on some level. When I left my fulltime job to pursue a freelance writing career I knew I wouldn’t be a ‘reporter’ (or even a ‘journalist’). I knew I’d be alone at my desk when I wasn’t out researching. I knew I’d be sending pitches into the world with very few returns (successful or otherwise). Plus, my previous career was in digital media – so I knew the writing was on the ‘website’. I love getting published online because I get instant feedback from readers. Yet I felt an absolute loss that night. Great writing is most important, but what use was great writing when all I knew about publishing was now in flux?

It wasn’t just that new media had changed advertising models and thus affected budgets (and sizes) of newsrooms. In that panel discussion I realised that I had completely missed the boat as far as traditional publishing models went. I always presumed that I would be pitching to editors, and that even though the delivery formats might change, there would be venues (more than ever) for the kind of work I want to produce (non-fiction features).

I don’t believe that there are fewer readers out there (there are more). I don’t believe that citizen journalism heralds the end of professional writing. Nor do I believe that search engines negate the need for an ‘editorial package’. But in acknowledging the death of the traditional newsroom that night, I came to understand that if the newsroom had gone, then maybe the models on which I hoped to publish were gone too.

That certainly won’t stop me from writing long form (creative or narrative) non-fiction pieces. But it has made me wonder how my fellow emerging writers and I will get to our readers in the new publishing paradigm. And it has made me ask, What’s the future of long form? What do you think?