Self-published reporting: journalism’s next frontier

Interview by Alex Klaushofer.

Marc Herman couldn’t have been more surprised by the success of his Kindle Single The Shores of Tripoli.

‘The interest in the topic completely shocks me,’ he says. ‘I went over there to talk about Libya, and ended up being seen as something of an expert in electronic publishing.’

Within weeks, the book was in the top 300 of Amazon’s rankings, and Herman was being sought after as a speaker – not about inside story of Libya – but about the nuts and bolts of writing a short, journalistic book and selling it direct to readers via Amazon.

The deal, which was arranged with by his agent, gets Herman a royalty of 70% on a publication priced at $1.99.

‘That’s a fair price,’ he says. ‘I don’t expect someone to spend more for one story than an entire magazine. You can sell 99c bagels or entrees at $30. My tendency is to sell bagels.’

The ‘bagel approach’, as we might now call it, has obvious attractions for a time-poor but world-curious reader with only a couple of hours to spend reading about a conflict in a far-off country.

For the journalist, Herman thinks he has discovered the makings of a model that – while not being able to fund an entire living – forms a viable element of a portfolio of projects covering foreign stories. Three months after publication, the book has earned out its research costs and, with new sales every day, is now paying its writer a retrospective wage.

At the same time, the simplicity of the new publishing model is refreshing after the rigours of traditional publishing: ‘We didn’t have to hack our way through New York or London,’ says Herman. ‘A lot of the appeal is that it’s an alternative publishing culture you can try.’

Yet, while journalists are desperately seeking new ways of funding their reporting, and the publishing world is conducting a lively conversation about the implications of going digital, Herman doesn’t see much dialogue between the two: ‘It feels a bit like the right and the left hand are not communicating with each other.’

So could his success herald a new breed of journalists working entirely independently, as growing numbers of authors are now doing?

Herman doesn’t see much future in a journalist going it entirely alone. ‘I’m not sure it’s necessarily going to produce good journalism, because you can’t do everything at the same time,’ he says. ‘I think it’s more likely that small groups get together to work in teams – that’s really exciting.’

From his base in Barcelona, he is already working with another two other journalists on a documentary project looking at the youth unemployment in Spain, which is now approaching 50%. In line with the trend towards ‘enhanced books’, the project will be multi-media, offering readers pictures and a video as part of the package.

He anticipates that, in time, the group will become a kind of coop along the lines of the small agencies formed by photographers when they realised they were better working together rather than (competitively) alone.

And, as the models of digital publishing get more established, creators will need to protect their interests in the face of giants such as Amazon, he adds.

In the meantime, it’s clear that these pioneering days carry all the excitements and disappointments of experiments in early air travel:

‘I feel like I’m in the films of all those people who were trying to invent aeroplanes before the Wright brothers, and struggled to get them off the ground. I’m one of those guys.’