Ice cold in Auckland

For the past few days I’ve been at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival which has been a thought-provoking experience on a number of levels and given me much to think about in the coming weeks. One idea has been particularly resonating for me in that it chimes both with my interest in what the publishing industry will develop into and what I am personally interested in as a reader.

A big benefit of attending these festivals is that you get to meet interesting people.  On Friday evening I found myself drinking beer with the excellent Tom Mayer from Norton in New York and the equally excellent Julia Marshall from New Zealand’s Gecko Press. It was one of those conversations, though far too short, that I would have liked to have bottled and stored for the future. Tom and Julia were inspiring company and our topics ranged around the world of books in a sparky ‘tag team’ style as different subjects were passed backwards and forwards across the table.

The idea that lit me up most was the future of the long form article.

Conventional wisdom seems to say that the web has a shortening effect, that we can only read bite sized nuggets of information online. There is also the oft heard refrain that newspapers and magazines are seeing their readership for the involved essay (10-15,000 words) decrease. Interestingly, this is a convention that Tom doesn’t buy and pointed us to the aggregation site longform.org, a site that champions long form narrative journalism. Tom’s view was that the iPad provides an potent vehicle for extended reading of the kind of article that lies at the heart of publications like The New Yorker, the LRB or The Atlantic Monthly. What’s more, through services like Instapaper, you can customise your reading to the shape and time and theme you desire.

I think he’s right. What Tom described exactly mirrors my own reading habits. If there’s one thing in my reading life that is really competing with print books, it is not, in fact, ebooks. What currently dominates my reading are in-depth articles on a range of subjects that are often responses to major events or are lengthy essays that explore an issue expansively but would need to be extensively padded (and would therefore be less successful as pieces of writing) to make a book.

I’ve been a big Instapaper user for a while and I’ve been messing around with a new iPad app Zite which promises a user created magazine offering. The web publications I follow avidly are set up on Google Reader which acts as my early warning system for interesting writers and subjects. I view them on my laptop, phone and iPad using Reeder then, if they are what I’m after, I clip them to Instapaper which I can then read at my leisure, on or offline. It’s a highly personalised version of Arts and Letters Daily.

I think there are tremendous opportunities for canny publishing here. In my experience interesting non-fiction proposals would occasionally be turned down not because they weren’t good but because they were ‘really just a magazine article’. Given the constraints of print publishing and the book trade this was not unreasonable. But now things are moving. If Amazon and various literary agents can become publishers and Penguin, Hachette and Simon and Schuster can back a bookseller, what’s to stop a publisher breaking with the 300 page format and start producing work that was once the preserve of the magazine and journal? Publishers with strong narrative non-fiction lists, such as Norton or Faber or Random House have stables of writers whose work need not now be restricted by length. Ebook ‘Shorts’ would be a chance to snap up every opportunity to support the creativity of one’s authors, where speed to market is prized and where the engagement with the reader is ongoing rather than at multi year intervals. Publicity departments often try to publish shorter articles on the author’s subject as ways to publicise the main event. In a world where the key readers in any given subject are trawling the web rather than waiting to see what turns up in the Sunday newspaper, why would a publisher not make such articles available themselves?

I doubt that this would ever become a mass market approach but it could provide valuable income to authors and publishers. To those publishers with suitable lists  the advantages could be profound. It would enable an ongoing community to coalesce around excellent content, it would lend itself to astute and appropriate marketing of the wider list and the larger more conventional publishing projects. What’s more it would be another move that connects publishers directly with readers. It would incentivise creative approaches to publishing that would have to be much more agile to capture the attention of the public rather than just the trade. A reader focused approach would mean the publisher contributing straight into the cultural blood stream and learning from that connection. It would be worth doing just for that.

(Hat-tip to Mike Shatzkin on the publishing value chain. Mike’s blog is utterly invaluable.)

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