Will the tablets save long-form journalism?

The rise of tablet computers will usher in a new golden age for longform journalism – or so the homily goes.  The web might be good for soundbites of information, but with the easy-to-carry, instant-on technology of iPads, Kindles and the like, magazine-length features will find a new audience.

To feed this hoped-for demand, a welter of applications, websites and feeds have sprung up, all hoping in various ways to provide the wrap-around format within which distinguished acts of reporting will be consumed.  Indeed, today the selection of formats is sufficiently bewildering to cause some would-be self-publishers to retreat to the known world of income-free blogging for fear of committing to the wrong thing.

Kindle Direct Publishing is the Amazon’s inhouse self-publishing program.  Documents in common formats such at Microsoft Word can be converted into books at a mouse click, with authors able to set their own price.  They then receive either a 35% royalty, or a 70% royalty, less a ‘delivery charge’ based on the size of the book.  There is, for example, a 10 pence charge for the download of a 1mb book.

The number of eBook sales in the UK rose by 623% between January and June last year (according to research by the Publishers’ Association). Its research suggests that more than 12 million eBook units sold last year, with a combined value significantly in excess of £100m – so clearly there are readers out there who are willing to lay down serious money to fill up their devices.

One journalist who has experienced this, via the Kindle model, is Joseph Bottum, whose ‘Dakota Christmas’ hit the top three of Amazon’s non-fiction eBook charts in the run up to Christmas.  After losing his job on a Manhattan-based Christian magazine, he returned to his native North Dakota and wrote freelance magazine articles.  An editor at Amazon, who was looking to promote their ‘singles’ market remembered a piece that Bottum wrote about family Christmases some years earlier and persuaded Bottum to expand the piece to 7,500 words.  Priced at £2 per download, it became an unexpected hit this festive season.

According to Enders Analysis, Amazon accounts for around 80% of all UK eBook sales – in Spring 2011 it was offering 720,000 digital titles – but there is split available between conventional eBooks and shorter pieces.   How much luck any of its rivals are having is hard to say – but there are plenty of them.

Byliner.com, for example, commissions pieces of between 10,000 and 35,000 words and launched towards the end of 2011.  Its stated policy is that it does not publish fiction, but it launched with Amy Tan’s first piece of fiction for six years, priced at $2.99.  It appears alongside a selection of longer magazine-style articles by established US authors and by using Facebook as a log on, combines viral recommendations with a sales channel.

Atavist.net ploughs a similar furrow – commissioning work in the same way that a conventional publisher would, and even paying modest advances.  The revenue cut is then 50:50 after their sales channel (generally either Amazon or Apple, each of whom takes 30% of sale price).  According to David Wolman, whose 10,500 piece The Instigators, about those involved in the overthrow of Egypt’s President Moubarak, Atavist published, sales have been good.  Unlike Byliner, which prides itself on publishing words only, Atavist features combine pictures, information graphics and illustrations.  All can be switched off for those who prefer text only, but, as Wolman tells it, the format affords a richer, more original kind of storytelling.

In addition to actual publishers, there are numerous services which allow tablet users to save longer pieces onto their devices for later consumption, Longform.org, Instapaper and Longreads among them.

It remains to be seen whether a new golden age for longer journalism is truly dawning.  Given the number of people who, at the same time, appear to be willing this to be so, however, at the very least it is set to enjoy a few more moments in the sun.