‘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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: Ben Ball has confirmed that Penguin Specials submissions are still being accepted following the announcement of the Penguin / Random House merger.