Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Revolution Will Be E-Published

 "The past is never dead. It's not even past. Unless you're a book or magazine publisher."

                                                                                      Fake William Faulkner

I have often bemoaned (and often on this blog) the alleged decline of the printed word. I've mocked and/or bitched about e-books, I've mocked and/or bitched about the general state of journalism and publishing, and I've mocked and/or bitched about the current state of magazines. In general, I suppose I just like to mock and/or bitch.

But I'm rapidly changing my tune, at least in regard to publishing. It's becoming increasingly clear to me that reports of the death of good journalism, and the opportunity for writers to do said journalism, are greatly exaggerated. It's also becoming evermore clear to me that in this new paradigm, writers wield more power and influence, as well as sharing more of the profit, than they ever did in the old and increasingly-terminal traditional publishing model.

Here's an interesting story (via The Passive Voice) in the New York Times about the rise of Amazon's Kindle Singles, which is a unit within Amazon that publishes novella-length journalism known as e-shorts.

From the story

David Blum does not have a regular table at the Four Seasons or host celebrity parties at the top of the Standard Hotel. He does not get a lot of fawning press. After he was fired by The Village Voice and left The New York Press, Gawker Media in 2009 pronounced him “a sad bumbling doctor for dying New York City weeklies.”

But four years is an eon in the digital realm, and in that time Mr. Blum has transformed himself from doctor of the dying to midwife of the up-and-coming. As such, he is a man whom authors want to court.

Mr. Blum is the editor of Amazon Kindle Singles, a Web service that is helping to promote a renaissance of novella-length journalism and fiction, known as e-shorts.

Amazon Kindle Singles is a hybrid. First, it is a store within the megastore of, offering a showcase of carefully selected original works of 5,000 to 30,000 words that come from an array of outside publishers as well as from in-house. Most sell for less than $2, and Mr. Blum is the final arbiter of what goes up for sale.

It is also a small, in-house publishing brand — analogous to a grocery store that makes an in-house brand of salsa to compete with other manufacturers. Mr. Blum comes up with his own ideas or cherry-picks pieces from the more than 1,000 unsolicited manuscripts he receives each month. He then edits them and helps pick cover art. 

Amazon Singles usually pays nothing upfront to the author (there are rare exceptions) and keeps 30 percent of all sales. Yet it is an enticing deal for some authors, because Singles now delivers a reliable purchasing audience, giving them a chance to earn thousands for their work. (A quick calculation shows that the authors make an average of roughly $22,000, but the amount varies widely by piece.)

“Every day I become more obsessed with how brilliant the concept is,” Mr. Blum, 57, said over coffee at the Lamb’s Club in Manhattan, crediting the idea entirely to Amazon. For him, the brilliance is that authors can now share in the profits instead of getting a flat fee. “The idea that writers would participate in the publishing model is just very bold,” he said.

The rest of the story is well worth a read. I have to admit that I had never heard of Amazon Singles. If I'm understanding it correctly, it's sort of the same model that Byliner is using for its longform journalism and fiction offerings. I'm sure the selection process is fairly subjective, but for those authors chosen (and who have the coin and time to do what amounts to a spec piece, with no guarantee of payment) it could be a great opportunity to do the kind of deep journalism that is increasingly disappearing in the traditional publishing world. And share in the profits if it sells well.

But what's really exciting, to me, anyway, is the fact that we haven't really begun to scratch the possibilities this new publishing reality can offer, possibilities that are often squelched by the endemic lack of vision, creativity and originality shown by many editors. As an example, here's a verbatim response I recently got to a feature pitch I sent the editors of a publication that shall remain nameless to protect the stupid.

Sorry's a nay. Basically, the feedback I got boils down to -- a pitch on that kind of story has to be much more specific...i.e. it can't be framed as an adventure piece that will tell a story about the area, unless there's a specific angle to the area that we can turn into a searchable headline. Or you have to be able to pull a tips and skills or gear story out of it. Sorry, I fought for it.

Without giving too much away, because I like the idea and plan to pitch it elsewhere, this was a story I envisioned as a sort of reported first-person account of an ecologically unique and threatened area, told through the lens (or literary device, if you prefer) of a bird-hunting road trip. I was thinking a high(ish) concept literary non-fiction piece. The New Yorker, with a shotgun. Pretentious, maybe, but an important and worthy story. But all they saw was no searchable headline and a fatal lack of appropriate gear and tips sidebars. 

And these publications wonder why they're struggling? I responded and said thanks, but that I obviously just don't get the business model XYZ is using, because the day I pitch a story idea based solely on its merits as a searchable headline rather than its merits as a story is the day I should probably just take up something enjoyable, like woodworking.What's that old saw? "Against stupidity even the gods contend in vain"...

And the thing is, I and every other writer have reams of such examples. Seriously, some smart, snarky writer really needs to start a Slushpile Hell-inspired blog, but with dumbshit/weird/outlandish editor responses instead of dumbshit/weird/outlandish writer queries. It'd freakin' kill...

But I digress. The point is, I look at entities like Amazon Singles, Byliner, or even the regular Amazon Kindle Publishing, and I see so much potential to get good, worthy and important work out there without having to deal with the idiots who still control so much of the traditional publishing world, especially in niche publishing genres (like outdoors titles) that have largely turned their backs on real, meaty journalism in favor of brainless, single-serving crap. 

Take my rejected story idea, for example. This is just an example for the sake of example, but rather than continue beating my forehead against the drawbridge of the dunces (they prefer to be called "gatekeepers") why not just say screw 'em and go find a way to get it done on my own? Pitch the story to Amazon Singles or Byliner, or publish it entirely on my own? And if I don't have the money to do it on spec (and who the hell does?) then go find myself a patron for a literary grubstake to get the idea off the ground, maybe go to the the stakeholders (there's another PR term) that have a vested interest in seeing such a story published and pitch a partnership with them. 

Or, for a slightly different example for the sake of argument, if you're a non-profit, say a conservation group, and you've been stymied and frustrated by not being able to get your message into the pages of the magazines that make up your key demographic (for example, see my experience above), then give them the finger (most of them, hemorrhaging money, advertisers, readers, and influence, are becoming utterly irrelevant, anyway) and go partner with a talented freelancer to write your story, publish it electronically and then promote the hell out of it online. Bypass the antiquated system that is failing you in favor of one that serves you. Be nimble, creative and open to experimentation and new ways of telling and distributing a story. You know, basically everything that traditional publishing isn't. 

Freelance independent advocacy journalism. Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn't it? But I think it's a coming thing. Or not. But what's painfully apparent is that the primacy of the traditional publishing model is most assuredly a going thing. As in going away. And I'm increasingly thinking that, for many writers that's not a bad thing at all.


  1. I don't know how to get from a to b but am interested-- keep me in the loop?

    Did you see the story about David Mamet self- publishing? Reid sent it but I haven't done anything with it yet.

    Here is a Tinyurl to the NYT story:

    Hell, no, there isn't-- it wont copy. Let me try something.


    Good luck!

  2. As a biologist (and technical writer by default...grants, annual reports, donor brochures, etc), it's always been amusing to me what snot passes for "outdoor writing" in the print world..notably, the newspaper world. Don't get me wrong, there are some amazing magazines out there with amazing writers, but in my part of the world, the Baltimore Sun abolished its outdoor column three years ago, and the Washington Post still uses the same writer who goes on the same hunting and fishing trips with the same guides to the same farms, as he has for nearly 50 years. How many adjectives can one use to describe a chartreuse Sassy Shad on an umbrella rig?

    On the magazine side, I enjoy joking that each month I receive magazines full of articles like, "3 Best Fly Rods Under $10,000" and "35 Upland Guns You Must Have." In each case, of course, the article is based upon the author's fully manufacturer-compensated trip to duck/quail/salmon heaven, toting only the manufacturer's prescribed gear. It's brilliant, really.

    So you're right.... "is it any wonder?" Go big. Go bold. It'll find an audience.

  3. Steve, I've not seen it, but I'll certainly read it, though.

    Kirk, yes, absolutely, and it's only getting worse as magazine budgets continue to get squeezed and there's no money to send writers on independent assignments, so press hunts become ever more prevalent...

  4. Way too positive, clearly The Mallard Of Discontent has been hacked :-)

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