Long-form journalism at short-form prices

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In today's New York Times, book critic Dwight Garner discusses yet another home for long-form journalism, which gets us up to maybe half a dozen nationally: Amazon's Kindle Singles. These are longish magazine stories or shortish books that can be downloaded for a song to an e-reader.

For journalism devotees, a long-form story is a sit-down dinner instead of a sandwich grabbed at Subway and gobbled on the subway. It's 18 holes on a real golf course instead of nine on a putt-putt. I cop to a bias in favor of long-form journalism, having dabbled in the hobby for a month or two.

Once there were lots of places for long-form stories—the prime one being the magazines of Sunday newspapers, fat with advertising. Most of those Sunday mags have long since starved to death.

We used to have a simpler name for long-form stories: we just called them "features." True, not all features were long, but "long" is subjective; today, any piece with a beginning, middle, and end seems to qualify. We still run genuinely long "long-form" stories here at the Reader, I'm happy to say, although sometimes with a long-form intermission for those who need a few days' sleep before tackling part two.

I'm not crazy about the "long-form" label. Long-form doesn't bring to mind much that's positive. Would you rather file the long-form 1040 or the short-form 1040EZ? Some of us are hoping for a new Twitter 1040EZEZEZ.

I've got the second part of a two-part feature in the Reader this week, about a 1970 racial killing on the south side. Whichever of my colleagues posted a link to part 1 on the Reader's Facebook page kindly included a warning: "Be advised, this part alone is just shy of 6,000 words." Which I'm sure brought readers flooding in.

The Kindle Singles that Garner discusses in today's NYT article run between 5,000 and 30,000 words, and cost from 99 cents to $4.99. As Garner notes, there are other parallel ventures such as The Atavist and Byliner. (In late spring or early summer, Atavist will publish a graphic nonfiction story about an Ethiopian orphan smuggled to the U.S., written by Reader alum Tori Marlan and drawn by cartoonist Josh Neufeld.)

I know you're all wondering how much the author might make from this kind of venture. Amazon usually pays 70 percent of list. The top-selling Kindle Single so far—not a work of journalism but a thriller called "Second Son"—has sold more than 180,000 copies, at $1.99. A Kindle Single that sells a more pedestrian 1,000 copies, at, say, $2, would earn its author $1,400. That, trust me, is much less than minimum wage, given the time it takes to do a journalistic piece of 5K-plus words.

But feature writers, especially freelancers, know that long-form stories today are usually rewarded with short-form paychecks, and they are grateful for any new outlets. And who knows? Maybe some journalism singles will sell 10,000 copies and get optioned to HBO, and their writers will be eating sit-down dinners and teeing off at Kemper Lakes.

Garner is generally upbeat about this new channel for journalism. The best singles he's read "are so good they awaken you to the promise of what feels almost like a new genre," he writes.

There will always be clunkers, too, of course. Garner finds Lawrence Lessig's “One Way Forward: The Outsider’s Guide to Fixing the Republic” not worth the $1.99. Lessig is "insufferable," Garner says. "His book is earnest, patronizing and so dull that I flipped my Kindle over, searching for a snooze button."

Lessig has been carted off the field, and Garner is $1,000 richer, thanks to the new NYT bounty system.

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