E-publishing provides ‘alternative avenue’ for journalists

Report by Alex Klaushofer.

Amid all the gloom about the difficulties the digital age have brought both the media and publishing, Dan Franklin is almost Tiggerish about the liberating possibilities of the e-book for journalism.

As digital editor at Random House, Franklin is in the vanguard of a small group of publishers who are developing the e-book as a form – depending on which industry you view it from – of long-form journalism or short-form publishing.

Brain Shots, launched by Random House some fifteen months ago, is a series of five to ten-thousand word monographs which aim to capture the essence of a book for readers who are ‘time poor’ and ‘on the move’, but keen to get up on a subject in an hour or so. Priced at a ‘sweet-spot’ of £2.99, the series has so far included contributions on the student riots by Dan Hancox and international organised crime by Misha Glenny.

‘The idea is that you can start to conceive of projects that normally you feel would be commercial suicide.’ says Franklin. ‘It lets us do more current affairsy-type publishing which are close to the times.’

Clearly aware that speed is industrially-relative, he quickly adds a caveat: ‘I’m not going to pretend that we can do breaking news. We’re working in the in-between space when you don’t want to do the full-on 100 000-word definitive book, but want to do something on a subject in some length, and at some depth.’

With traditional journalism in crisis, he anticipates that the form could provide ‘a solution to a problem’, acting as ‘a service to journalists’ struggling to find outlets for their in-depth work.

And given their facility with social media, it seems that journalists are becoming increasingly attractive to publishers. ‘Freelances are really used to putting themselves out there and getting everything they can,’ says Franklin. ‘There’s a real hunger there. All authors need to be like that.’

So what about the money? Is short-form publishing likely to be a worthwhile avenue for cash-poor journalists?

It’s hard to tell. Beyond saying that authors get the advance-plus-royalty deal traditional to publishing, Franklin is, perhaps understandably, cagey about figures. ‘At the moment we’re not really making much money on Brain Shots,’ he says. ‘We’re going to wait till the end of the year to make a judgement call on whether it’s profitable.’

In a further warning against seeing the new form as a panacea, he adds that digital publishing only saves printing costs by 10%, leaving the publisher to find the usual editorial, production and marketing costs.

While waiting for the numbers to emerge, Random House is concentrating on establishing Brain Shots as a brand in the mind of potential customers. The next series, says Franklin, will feature some ‘headliner names’, with contributions from well-known journalists and a more general topic selection. The series will continue to exploit the zeitgeist, with something on the London riots and a piece on the Egyptian revolution in the pipeline.

Beyond that, Franklin predicts that the new opportunities afforded by the e-book are likely to be short-lived: ‘I think it will settle down and become more rigid and regimented soon, but at the moment everything’s in the mix.’