Thursday, 31 May 2012

Writing quality Kindle Singles is not so easy

Because I'm thinking of starting up a publishing venture using tablet-ready files, or ebooks, I had a look at the Kindle Singles thing a bit this morning, which drew me to a website dedicated to this market. As a working journalist, a lot of what I read there had me laughing ironically to myself. As if writing long form journalism were somehow a lesser thing than writing a book. As if writing long were harder than writing short (it's not). As if anyone could just set up as a writer of shorter nonfiction and turn out a bestseller in a week. And then there's a paidContent article attached to the site which has more questionable things to say about writing. This story came out about 10 months ago and says Kindle Singles are "hot" (I hadn't heard of them until today) and are "bite-sized e-books, priced accordingly". Whoa, I thought. Hang on a second.

The fact is that writing short is often harder than writing long. The idea that the buyer gets value for money in terms of length is just so distorting to the real journalistic process it's not funny. For a working journalist the realities of value for money in length can be heartbreaking. Take this story, for example: 'Fishing for tuna solutions'. I wrote this back in 2010 and it was just the hardest thing I'd done up to that time, even though it comes in at roughly 750 words; that's two pages. But look at what went into it. There's four interviews, for a start. For a 750-word story! One interview was conducted with a gentleman who lives on the Marshall Islands, in the western Pacific. One interview subject lives in California. So there's two overseas phone calls right there. I also contacted the retailer Marks & Spencer, in the UK, by email. All to get the material for the story I wanted to write. And with that information - including two interviews with people in Australia - I had to write it short at 750 words. Because that's the length the website runs. Because editors think readers won't go for longer pieces.

Amazon spruiks Kindle Singles as 'Compelling Ideas Expressed at Their Natural Length' - that's their tagline for the brand. But then they say they are "typically between 5,000 and 30,000 words". Now, for a journalist, even 2000 words is long form. There are vanishingly few outlets that run stories even of that length. And there are plenty of journalists capable of writing to that length. Then they suggest prices; these are "between $0.99 and $4.99", which is sort of dispiriting when you think of the work that goes into such pieces. These prices are mere tokens and in no way represent a just recompsense for the work that has gone into a story. As I said earlier, it's harder to write short than write long. Anyone can write long, given a measure of competence in writing.

Length should not be used as an index of value.

How do you gauge the effort that has been expended in writing a piece of journalism? Well, count the number of interviews, for a start. Look at the story flow and think about whether it is neat and logical. If it is very nice, then probably an editor has also spent time working on the story. I just finished a 3400-word piece (which has not yet been published, so there might be more change requests as far as I know) that uses material from 10 interviews, one of which was conducted via international phone linkup with two people in the US; nothing from that interview made it into the story because it turned out what they said wasn't germane to the angle. After submitting the story the first time, the editor came back with requests for more information. That led to another interview as well as numerous emails to different people as I hunted down the requested details. All of this takes time. In fact, the additional work requested by the editor took more than a week to complete. That's on top of the weeks that went into the initial draft. And this story originally came to me while I was working on an earlier story; so the work on that story should also be taken into account when calculating the amount of time expended.

Excellence should be the only index of value.

I wrote about excellence in journalism at the end of last year. The ideas in that post remain important for me because it shouldn't be about churning out thousands of words. It should be about crafting intelligent and interesting stories that will stand the test of time. The paidContent story says Kindle Singles are "easy to publish quickly"? No, sorry, I don't think so. At 2000 words or 10,000 words, quality journalism is never easy. And if you want repeat customers then you have to avoid this mindset and aim for producing work that is high quality and that will continue to be useful and compelling even years from now.

1 comment:

Resuna said...

I think you're being too pessimistic about the $0.99 to $4.99 price. That's the price *per reader*. If you do a piece that goes into a magazine that sells for $7.99 in the store, and there's 10 major stories and 20 fillers in the magazine, how much is the reader paying for each of those pieces? Less than $0.99, right?