Griffith REVIEW's Erica Sontheimer uses digital publishing to put writers at the sharp end of public debate
In November 2011, Griffith REVIEW published its second e-single, Leader of the Gang, a long and insightful essay by Professor Glyn Davis on the way political parties choose a leader. Elegantly written, this essay integrated academic research into street gangs with a potted history of the leadership turbulence that besets Australian politics. It excited the interest of politicians and political scientists and provided useful insights for political journalists as they grappled with the uncertainty of political life.
Peter Beattie, the former Queensland premier, said: “Glyn Davis is more than a professor of political science; for years he worked closely with premiers and prime ministers and understands the brutal ingredients necessary for a successful political leader to get elected and survive in the murky waters of parliamentary parties. From the leaders of street gangs in Chicago to the removal of Kevin Rudd, Davis’s article brings new insights into the fickle group culture which anoints and removes leaders.”
It was a great example of the benefits digital publishing provides – to publish something quickly without the timelines of traditional magazine and book publishing, and to publish something substantial that will be of interest to a particular community – in this case politicians, journalists and the political class.
The first e-single – an individual digital article sold separately from its edition– that Griffith REVIEW published was released during the 2011 Rugby World Cup. It was a 10,000-word memoir about how Commonwealth Prize winner Lloyd Jones’ childhood obsession with the sport helped to make him the man and writer he became… someone who learned early on how to watch a game (on the field and in life) and respond with imagination and flair.
Lloyd Jones is best known for his novels, including Mister Pip (Text Publishing, $23.95), and the e-single was developed and distributed across a range of digital distributors in Australia and New Zealand in collaboration with Griffith REVIEW’s publishing partner, Text Publishing. The memoir first appeared as the anchor piece in Griffith REVIEW 33: Such Is Life.
In the last few years long-form journalism, non-fiction and creative writing – longer than a magazine article but shorter than a book – has flourished in response to the opportunities of digital distribution, the uptake of e-readers and the social media revolution.
New models of online journalism and publishing seem to appear every week: from aggregator websites like Longreads, Longform and The Monthly’s The Shortlist, to innovative new phenomena such as Pop-Up Magazine – a “live magazine” which resembles a mini-festival – or The Atavist which offers original nonfiction digital stories accompanied by free audiobooks and additional content like maps, timelines, character lists, primary documents and hyperlinks.
Amazon continues to build on the success of its Kindle Singles (priced from US$1–$5), a model copied by other companies (such as The New York Times which in March last year launched its ebook on WikiLeaks for US$5.99) and start-ups like Byliner’s “Original” series (US$1.99–2.99).
As the uptake of e-readers grows both in Australia and overseas, there are significant opportunities for local authors and publishers to tap into a larger market.
Griffith REVIEW has provided a forum for long-form writing since 2003. Each themed quarterly edition features a commissioned ‘anchor’ piece – a long essay, reportage or memoir – which gives writers the opportunity to try something different, such as Frank Moorhouse’s Walkey Award-winning essay “The writer in a time of
terror” from Edition 14, published in 2006.
Griffith REVIEW’s publishing partner, Text Publishing, was actively involved in developing the first e-single: an individual article sold separately from its edition, available exclusively from digital distributors.
Priced at less than $5, the e-singles form part of a comprehensive digital strategy which includes social media, an interactive website and digital syndication, aiming to reach new domestic and overseas audiences and to broaden Griffith REVIEW’s ‘specialist’ readers, those with a particular interest in a theme or author,
as opposed to the ‘generalists’ who prefer annual subscriptions and the range of a full edition.
The benefits extend to the author. As well as receiving additional royalties from e-singles sales, the immediacy of the long-form format and digital distribution allows them to make timely and significant contributions to public debate without the risk, expense or lengthy production timeline of writing and producing a book-length manuscript. American author Dick Babcock’s 5000-word story “My Wife’s Story” has sold 24,000 digital copies through Kindle Singles at $0.99 per copy and he receives 70 per cent of the royalties.
Publishers benefit from the knock-on effects of greater visibility for the author’s other titles and can assess if the author and audience is ready for a book-length work based on the success of the e-single.
As more Australian booksellers develop innovative collaborations with digital distributors, bookshops still serve an important gatekeeper and sales role, directing readers to quality new writing.
We hope to push the e-single model into other genres as the market develops. In Australia, digital sales have not yet filled the gap left by a slump in print book sales, but the growing popularity of ebooks and products like the e-single in the US and UK indicates that the tipping point may be near.
Erica Sontheimer is deputy editor of Griffith REVIEW