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.

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.


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.