The New York Observer today has an article on what new longform e-pub venues like the Atavist and Byliner offer writers like me:
When the journalist David Dobbs first had the idea of writing an article about his mother’s love affair with a flight surgeon during World War II, he initially went the traditional route: he pitched the story to several magazines. …. The magazines he approached turned him down. He suspected at the time that the scale of the story was one problem—it was a complicated tale, hard to fit in a magazine, even at 6,000 or 8,000 words. Dedicated to his story despite the rejections, Mr. Dobbs started talking to Evan Ratliff, editor and co-founder of the online startup The Atavist, a self-described “boutique publishing house” that produces non-fiction articles for e-readers and smart phones. Initially one selling point was the possibility of writing a longer story: The Atavist publishes “nonfiction stories that are longer than magazine articles but shorter than books,” ranging in length from 10,000 to 20,000 words.
“The length was one major advantage,” said Mr. Dobbs. “And then once I talked to Evan the multimedia capabilities added to the stories in some fun and satisfying ways.”
But it soon became clear that there were business advantages as well. Like most magazines, The Atavist pays a fee up front when a story arrives in decent shape. Mr. Dobbs called The Atavist’s fee “modest” when compared to the top-tier magazines. “It’s less than you would get either by word rate or total fee rate – unless you’re Michael Lewis,” he said. The big difference is that when the issue comes out, the writer gets roughly half the revenue the story generates. Which means a runaway hit by a mid-level writer, or even a run-of-the-mill piece by a marquee author, has the potential to rack up thousands, or in an extreme case, hundreds of thousands, in revenue for both the publication and the author.
It’s a good story, you should check it out. It describes how My Mother’s Lover, as my story was titled, went on to become the #1 best-selling Kindle Single for a couple of weeks, a top 20 among all Kindle books, and The Atavist’s biggest hit so far. It brought me a lot of readers and a first check comparable to some of my better magazine fees — and bigger, it happens, than the (very modest, typical small-publisher, four-figure) advance for my first book. It also let me include elements no print version could incorporate, like (in the iPad version) an audio reading of the story, a short video, a timeline, character bios, and a lot of photographs.
That’s the good news. I’m now considering this mid-length ebook treatment for at least two of the books in my books-to-write queue. (That’s after, of course, I finish The Orchid and the Dandelion.) It seems clear to this writer and reader that e-pubs offer a lot of value to both writers and readers — access to forms, lengths, subject treatments, economic models, and even some stories that writers and readers couldn’t share before.
Less clear, however, is how we’ll share these e-publications with readers in years to come — or in libraries now. Even right now, you can’t easily read a book bought on a Kindle on a Nook. You can’t read a iPad app/book anywhere but on an Apple device. And it’s a mystery how you’ll read any of these in 20 years’ time if the software changes. Finally, some publishers are restricting library access and borrowing limits on ebooks.
John Dupuis, my favorite feisty librarian, chronicles some of these problem in his post On the evilness of the emerging ebook app ecosystem. His tongue is only partly in cheek. Yet it’s less rant than appeal to reason, and he has constructive things to offer:
So, what would I like to see in an ebook ecosystem?
- Standards-based development, concentrating on HTML5 and browser-based development giving content at least a measure of device-independence.
- Archivability and preservability, which will be much more practical in a standards-based environment.
- A business model for library ebook purchasing that’s built with library budgets and budget-cycles in mind. I’m not sure we have a definitive example of this yet, nor do I really think it’ll be a one-size-fits-all model, but there certainly is a lot of work to do here. We’ll probably need a set of business models.
- A recognition that ebooks need to partake of an open cultural commons in the same way as print books did — and it should be able to partake in such an open cultural commons in ways that print books never could.
These issues temper my excitement at the many possibilities enhanced books offer. To discuss both hopes and fears, I’ll be moderating a Science Online NYC event next Tuesday evening, September 20, at 7 pm in NYC, with some truly stellar contributors on the panel and many others in the audience.* We’re calling it Enhanced eBooks & BookApps: Promises and Perils. We’ll describe the sort of opportunities offered, from simple ebooks to deeply enhanced apps — then explore the problem of how to produce those sorts of publications in a way that is more open-platform and also more open to reliable, durable archiving. Report to come here afterwards.
The thing is sold out, but I’m told that if enough people pile onto the waiting list, they’ll find a bigger room — so if you want to attend, go here and sign up, and they might build a bigger tent. You can also follow the live-tweeting with the twitter hashtag #sonyc.
Enhanced ebooks and tablet apps clearly offer new ways to present material and engage readers. Yet some of the software restrictions and rights deals that these ebooks, apps and their platforms use can make them unfriendly to librarians, archivists, and future users. How can authors, designers, and publishers best exploit these new opportunities while avoiding their current and potential downsides?
Some questions that the panel will discuss include: How do we develop AppBooks or enhanced eBooks that make the most of the technology without locking the contents in proprietary formats that may be hard to crack open in 5 or 50 years? How can we reconcile the desires and agendas of authors, app developers, publishers, librarians, archivists, and readers?
September’s panel includes representatives from all these groups and promises a lively discussion around one of the hotter topics from the ScienceOnline e-book session last January.
David Dobbs, moderator (As well as an author, blogger, and ebook experimentalist).
John Dupuis, science librarian at York University and blogger at Confessions of a Science Librarian.
Evan Ratliff, co-founder and editor, The Atavist.
Amanda Moon, senior editor, FSG/Scientific American Books.
Carl Zimmer, author, journalist, blogger, and ebook experimentalist.
Dean Johnson, creative director of Brandwidth, developer of The Exoplanets, an iPad book/app to be published this fall by Scientific American Books/FSG.
*This is the same day I’ll be going a 2pm event in DC about my National Geographic teen brain story. Should prove an interesting test of the DC>NYC transportation infrastructure. If my train runs late, Carl Zimmer stands ready to moderate in my stead.