Across the board, news organizations and publishers are struggling to find business models that let them stay afloat through the digital transformation. Journalists are a common casualty, with those who work in specialized areas encountering a market that’s particularly inhospitable.
Marc Herman (@Marc_Herman_), a freelance journalist (notably for The Atlantic), is testing out a new solution: cut out the intermediary and sell the story directly to the readers. He recently took his long-form story, “The Shores of Tripoli,” and turned it into a $1.99 Kindle Single. In the following interview, Herman talks about the Kindle Single experience and how he sees the future of journalism playing out.
What is it like to write a Kindle Single?
Marc Herman: Writing “The Shores of Tripoli” was harder than writing a traditional magazine feature. It’s a demanding form. It’s like a small book, and you have to write it really, really fast. Dave Blum at Amazon told me a reporter who did a Single on Occupy Wall Street wrote it in two days. That’s freakishly fast, Usain Bolt-type stuff. To give you an idea, the average story you read in a magazine like National Geographic is 3,000 to 6,000 words long. The “Shores of Tripoli” was 12,000 (the first draft was 18,000). And it has to be written well — the reporting has to be of a very high professional standard, or it’s just hackery.
In terms of production, the Single was more like a magazine story than a book. The news cycle mattered more than it does for a book. I had to respond to Qaddafi’s death, for example, in real time. After returning from Libya, I happened to be in New York, and I looked up at that famous news ticker and it said, “Qaddafi killed.” That’s how I learned about the war ending. I have to confess, I had a very narcissistic response to Qaddafi’s death: To me, the headline read, “Qaddafi killed; and in other news, Marc’s deadline moved up two weeks.”
Why did you price “The Shores of Tripoli” at $1.99?
Marc Herman: Most Singles are priced between $0.99 and $2.99. The guy who runs Singles said $2.99 only seems to work with brand-name authors. You’re buying the Single because you’ll buy anything by Stephen King or Amy Tan, not because that particular theme or story caught your eye. I went for $1.99 and not $0.99 because it seemed to me anything you’ll spend a buck for you’ll also spend two bucks for. Three bucks starts feeling like the price of lunch to me.
Did the royalty factor in your decision?
Marc Herman: The royalty isn’t something I thought about too much, but it turns out to be a further wrinkle. Amazon pays a 35% commission for everything priced under $2.99. It offers a much better royalty — 70% — above $2.99. But only a handful of very well-known authors have found success at $2.99. So what to do? Fortunately, I was able to get a deal in which I get the 70% cut at the lower $1.99 price. That’s a special deal for being part of Amazon’s curated program, for which I was fortunate to have the story selected. My agent set that up.
It’s a big question for the future, I think. Lots of people want the $1.99 price because it seems to be proving to be the sweet spot. But at 35%, I have to sell twice as many copies to make the same money. The royalty doesn’t change as sales increase, like they did under deals with legacy publishers.
For journalism, the royalty issue will probably encourage me to do one of two things. You can’t expect the sweet deal from Amazon more than once or twice because it’s not in their interest, unless you’re Stephen King. So, for non-fiction, you’d want to write shorter, faster, punchier stuff, even more closely timed to the news cycle — more like magazine stories — then price them at $0.99. If you produce good stuff at a pace that’s roughly the same as that of a monthly magazine — three or four big stories a year — you’d have a shot at making up the lower royalty on each item by producing more titles, and ideally having fans who bought them all. Four would cost the same as a single copy of, say, the New Yorker, right?
The other way it might change is as the market evolves, viable rivals to Amazon may emerge and target that two-tier royalty scheme as a weak spot. In this space, an entity such as Barnes & Noble could compete for the best work just by offering 70% at any price point, no questions asked. We’ll see.
What has the response been thus far?
Marc Herman: The most gratifying thing so far is that people seem to be reading the story with interest. I’ve received some really generous feedback from readers.
In a business sense, I’m cautiously optimistic. We’re hanging around the top 500 of the million or so ebooks in the Kindle Store. Rankings measure movement, not volume, so I try not to pay attention to it. But hanging around the top 1,000 or 2,000 or so — the top few percent of sales — is clearly a good sign.
How would you compare the response to your experience with traditional publishing?
Marc Herman: I feel like I’ll reach more readers this way than I have in the past. The trend is encouraging. I’ve sold more copies of “The Shores of Tripoli” in these first two weeks than I have in four years since my old publisher, Random House, brought out a $10 digital version of my first book, “Searching for El Dorado.” I’m very certain I’ll sell more copies of the Single in the next few months than I sold of that earlier book, despite similarly generous reviews, publicity, etc., for both.
The scheme of doing some on-scene journalism for a known title, in my case The Atlantic, as a loss-leader, and then using that work as the basis for a direct-published, long-form item, seems to be working out. I’ve only tried this once, and we’re not even a month into this experiment. But already, I feel like I’ve reached a community of readers that compares favorably to my more traditional work — and the work is able to pay for itself. I’m on track to break even on the investment I made to travel to Libya and report the story. Once that happens, the next question is whether people will continue to download the story in large enough numbers for it to become a viable funding mechanism for the next story I decide to do. Right now it’s looking promising.
If things keep going how they are going, I think in a few months I’ll be able to say I have the beginnings of a viable business model as well as a viable way to bring long-form reporting about international events to the public. I’m still cautious in saying that, however, because it’s a very new form, and we just don’t know what’s influencing people’s decisions — it’s Christmas season, the Kindle Fire is selling well, Libya is still an important topic. It’s really hard to say what’s driving this.
Why did you decide to experiment?
Marc Herman: I had nothing to lose. I’d published some of the reporting that became “The Shores of Tripoli” in The Atlantic, and it got a strong response. I had much more material, so I decided to expand it into a long-form story. The question I asked myself was whether the more comprehensive story had better odds of reaching readers in a broad market like Amazon’s or a more narrow one — that being the small club of traditional editors, mostly in New York, whom one has to convince to buy work. I’ve had some success with them in the past, but I decided to bet on the broader market this time.
Traditional magazines have always been a tight, tough market in which to compete, particularly for international reporting. But post-crisis, sadly, it’s just not a viable business. You’re talking maybe 15 editors in the U.S. with the interest and the means to commission this kind of work. Digital news operations have greater interest but few salaried correspondents — and freelance budgets that boil down to between zero and $0.50 a word, which are not living wages.
How do you see Kindle Singles and their ilk benefiting and shaping the future of journalism?
Marc Herman: The Kindle Single feels to me like an opportunity to prove, in a clear way, a continuing public interest in news, particularly literary journalism. That could use some proving right now. I get the feeling that traditional publishers either feel offended that they have to put effort into articulating their relevance, or are scared they can’t. I think we need to make the case because we’ve lost the public.
Look at something like “Lost in Kandahar.” Lots of reporters I know want to cover Afghanistan. They can’t get enough work, so, as a professional community, we’re having huge trouble keeping Afghanistan on the pubic radar. And then Alex Berenson comes along, spends three days at a base in Kandahar and writes a barn-burner of a story about the experience, and it becomes a best seller for the Kindle. I’d argue he got the same kind of penetration that something like a big story in a big magazine would garner. Great for him, but also great for the journalist who is thinking of going to Afghanistan and can build on the case Berenson’s made.
We’re just out of the gate with “The Shores of Tripoli.” My hope is for it to become an example like Berenson’s, but for the Arab Spring. There will inevitably come a point where the editors and producers at legacy titles start saying, “Okay, this story is finished.” I’d hope this is an example that can say, “No, this is a richer story than that, and we know so because we can point to a place where a lot of people are still reading and commenting and talking about it, and even paying $2 for the opportunity.”
How do Kindle Singles compare to something like Spot.us?
Marc Herman: Spot.us is great, but it’s slightly different: Funding journalism is different than linking that funding to the distribution — selling it.
Those of us working in non-fiction have lagged behind the fiction writers in experimenting with direct publishing. That makes sense because a novelist’s biggest problem is finding readers while a journalist’s biggest problem is finding money. Journalism has higher initial costs than do works of imagination — plane tickets, cameras, etc. So naturally, when you decide to do a story, your attention goes first to solutions for paying expenses, like Spot.us.
Distribution has always been something we expected the publishers or the hardware to solve. I think it’s been clear for a while that tablets and ereaders were going to play a large role in a reporter’s future prospects, but details were lacking. This year, the tablet boom implied the hardware was catching up to the problems the web had posed for journalism, and which traditional publishing still finds vexing. That finally moved the discussion from just funding to include distribution, in my opinion. Some of us in journalism started looking at what the fiction writers are doing because they’re clearly the ones moving the needle on distribution models.
Do you see the Kindle Single as a viable funding model?
Marc Herman: I’m not expecting to be Amanda Hocking, but I do wonder if a few of us working with formats like the Single couldn’t do as well as a respectable magazine. Look at Harper’s. I trained there in my early 20s. I believe it has a circulation of 300,000 or so, it publishes two or three long features a month, and it sells for a few bucks a copy. That seems like an entity against which a small group of clever reporters could compete — or even better, collaborate — via the Kindle Single model or something similar. At a buck or two a story, you could run a little reporting project off that.
The key is quality. The journalism has to be as compelling and as politically or socially relevant as the stuff the traditional titles are producing. But if I’m already putting my work up for consideration by that caliber of publication, then I should be comfortable putting it in competition against them, too.
This ongoing struggle with digital affects all aspects of the industry — how do you see it shaking out?
Marc Herman: It’s a mundane thing to say, but I think it’s going to shake out by rewarding the publishers who get their organizational charts in order. I had a meeting at a big, big magazine recently, and I asked them exactly the same question. They’ve been smart, and their digital operation is profitable — except for the small detail that they are barely paying their writers. I think the bar’s too low if we’re willing to laud a business model that only works because it gets its raw materials for free — namely, me, reporting from Libya or wherever. The interesting question is that if they’re doing so well now, why do they need other parts of the company, or whole other industries — such as contributors who are professors or who work at think tanks — to subsidize the writers who work for them?
Remarkably, at least to me, the editors said the problem was accounting. Many publications pay different rates for print and digital, and run two largely discrete business under the same roof. It’s complicated organizationally to start mixing the separate budgets. I realize that is a bit technical, but at bottom, it affects the quality of their journalism, and that affects their ability to hold an audience. They can’t hire some potentially fantastic contributors overseas because they can’t figure out how to pay them. They pay so little, it doesn’t reach the minimum for wire transfers, and paper checks written in dollars can’t be funded in, say, Pakistan.
I also imagine that part of the future for Amazon and journalism will be a Video Single or Multimedia Single. The Kindle Fire seems to be headed in that direction. I have zero inside information, but I have to imagine that very soon I’m going to be able to embed video and audio and so forth, and at a reasonable download cost to the consumer. In fact, I’m already working with another reporter and a videographer on models for this, with the expectation that those stories are just around the corner.
How do you envision the future of long-form journalism?
Marc Herman: We’ll be fine. The right business models and the appropriate technologies are all enormously important, but in the end, it comes down to the quality of the stories. If you tell a credible story in a captivating way, people won’t want it to ever end.
We’ve been failing people, I think. Publishing is the only industry I can think of in which, when people stopped buying our product, we decided it was because they were too stupid — editors really say that to me. First, they blamed everything on the web or on Craigslist killing classified advertising, which generated a ton of money. Rather than think creatively, the publishers have moved on to blaming the schools for not raising good readers. Or on reality TV for lowering the bar. Or on video games and YouTube for killing attention spans. Readers on the whole are really, really smart. If they are not paying attention, it doesn’t mean they don’t want the story or can’t handle the story. It means the way we’re telling it isn’t very interesting or useful or fulfilling.
There came a point after coming back from Libya where I got tired of hearing “no” — of discussing how the office politics of some midtown magazine would prevent this story from existing, where virtually every interaction with a publisher involved them somehow complicating the effort to be a non-fiction writer, which is already a considerable commitment. So, at this point I’ll go with whomever is expressing a desire to find solutions and with whomever will be most successful at helping me do work like “The Shores of Tripoli.” At the moment, that’s Amazon. In six months, it might not be. Journalists doing this kind of work are a species of pragmatic idealists — we just want to stay in the game. I don’t think we’re much concerned with whose team we’re on.
This interview was edited and condensed.