On stories, seasons and the future of long form

‘It’s a little overcast and there is greenery on the trees – which is lovely,’ Anna Hiatt says of her New York City surrounds. ‘We’ve had the longest winter.’ As she speaks I look through my window onto a suburban Melbourne fence. Autumn leaves fall from vines in the dappled morning sun. Hiatt and I are at the end of a long chat about the future of long form. Hiatt is a freelance journalist (The Washington Post, The New York Times, Reuters and more), long form publisher (The Big Roundtable) and research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. In February she published a long form piece about the future of long form. The piece, All the Space in the World, provides a high-res snapshot of our current publishing and distribution milieu. Central to this, of course, is the influence of technology.

This photograph was taken by Anna Hiatt on Amsterdam and W78th Street in New York City, Monday, April 21 2014. You can see more of Hiatt's photography on her site: annahiatt.com.
This photograph was taken by Anna Hiatt on Amsterdam and W78th Street in New York City, Monday, April 21 2014. You can see more of Hiatt's photography on her site: annahiatt.com.

‘In the beginning was the word, a.k.a. the story,’ she tells her readers. ‘And somewhere along the way … the word lost out to the machine …’ The piece that follows explores aspects of long form publishing via five case studies: the influence of devices and publishing platforms (via Playboy), alternative venues to traditional ones (via Narratively), the appeal of interactivity (via The New York Times’ Snow Fall), amplification (via Longreads and Longform) and changes to reading habits (via Pocket).

Hiatt says that the drive to research the topic stemmed from her work at The Big Round Table where she and her editors (Michael Shapiro and Mike Hoyt) often asked themselves who else was out there and what they were doing. ‘It wasn’t from a business strategy perspective,’ Hiatt explains. ‘We were just curious who the characters were and who the actors were in this field. Basically we wanted to know who our fellow partygoers were.’ Hiatt applied for (and was awarded) a research grant from the Tow Centre. Her initial goal was to try to understand if Snow Fall (published by The New York Times in 2012) was going to be the future of long form.

In many circles Snow Fall is seen to be a turning point. The online piece (a story about skiers caught in an avalanche, written by John Branch) includes a number of interactive elements (video, animation, audio) and other graphical enhancements. It was made specifically for online consumption and (as Hiatt notes) was met with much enthusiasm. In fact Jill Abramson (who was Executive Editor of The New York Times when Snow Fall was published) proposed ‘snow falling’ as a new verb – initiating a lexicon to describe this particular type of (online) storytelling. Yet although Hiatt’s research started at Snow Fall, ‘it became pretty clear very quickly that Snow Fall (in the grand scheme of things) was just a blip on the radar.’

‘What was most interesting wasn’t in fact the intricacies of a single piece design,’ she says. ‘It was that we’re at a milestone in storytelling. It just happens to be long form.’

Hiatt’s research piece (All the Space in the World) is published online. Yet it’s a publication of words. There are no videos, no audio and no interactive elements embedded within the writing. She does include an interactive timeline, but unlike Snow Fall, this timeline is provided as a separate chapter to accompany the piece (rather than the reading).

Limited resources were an aspect of this editorial choice (The New York Times had a full-time team working on Snow Fall for months). However Hiatt also admits to valuing words over interactivity. ‘We’ve been doing this for millennia,’ she says. ‘We don’t need things to click to hold people’s attention. If we do, we haven’t told the stories properly.’ Indeed when I ask her what interactive elements she may have included in her own piece (had the resources been available) Hiatt responds by critiquing her writing. ‘I feel like any element [I nominate] would really be me saying that I just should have explained it better [in words].’

I put to it to Hiatt: pieces like Snow Fall – are they really long form or are they part-game or part-website? When does it become a multimedia event rather than just a good piece of writing? ‘I think when it starts to get into the way,’ she says. As a New York local she had both the print and electronic versions of Snow Fall available to her the day it was published. ‘I had an iPad. I was moving my hands all around it and that was really fun,’ she says. But then she put the iPad down and read the article in the paper.

Hiatt’s inclination is one that echoes my own. To me, one of the pleasures of reading long form is being immersed in the story (which, ironically, the multimedia ‘immersive’ elements often counter). If the writing is good I won’t stop for video, audio or other interactive elements. That’s not to say that these new ways of presenting information online are wrong, or have no future. It’s just that they’re different and not really what I consider long form.

‘One of the things that’s so wonderful about radio is that you can sit down and listen and you know exactly the form in which you’re going to get it,’ Hiatt says. ‘One of the things that’s hard for me about going online is that you run across a link – across a page – and you don’t know what you’re going to get. And that (for me) is terrifying. I don’t want to be bombarded.’

As I reflect on my conversation with Hiatt in the following weeks I realise there’s something in our geographical and seasonal contrasts that resonates: something in the conflicting notions of change and consistency. There will always be new growth, blossoms, warm days, orange leaves, bare branches (and even snow fall).

And there will also be stories and words.

John Safran on writing true crime

‘Freaking hell, just lay out the facts simply at the start,’ says John Safran, writer and celebrated documentary maker. He’s not talking to me so much as to himself. We’re discussing approaches to long form – what he’s learned while writing Murder in Mississippi. And we’re talking on the phone – a fact that will have more resonance for me after our interview than during it. ‘There are ways to simply hook people in. You don’t have to be desperate at the start,’ he says. You don’t have to ‘top load’ the story with everything the reader needs to know. Safran piqued my interest in his writing process at last year's Emerging Writers Festival. He presented days out from submitting his manuscript and flagged the significance of a switch from writing for broadcast to writing a book. Speaking today he says it wasn’t so much of a challenge to make the change (‘I don’t find long form any more difficult,’), as it was to ‘crack the riddle of long form’. It took him a while to work out how he wanted to present his style, his story and his characters.

With crime there’s a reason to talk to people and when they talk, other interesting stories come out, says John Safran, author of Murder in Mississippi.
With crime there’s a reason to talk to people and when they talk, other interesting stories come out, says John Safran, author of Murder in Mississippi.

There are many characters in Murder in Mississippi (which pivots on the case of white-supremacist Richard Barrett and his black killer Vincent McGee) but there are three characters that drive the story forward: Barrett, McGee and Safran. The inclusion of Safran’s own voice is part of his well-honed shtick (‘People want me to do dangerous, idiosyncratic and weird stuff,’ he says). But it isn’t a gag aimed only at pleasing his fans – writing the story from Safran’s point of view enables a logic to the complex unfolding of plot turns and rabbit holes that come out of his research. It frames the narrative and frees him from a chronological retelling – allowing him to reveal aspects to the reader as they were revealed to him. ‘I’m focused on keeping [the story] pure. I try not to be tricky or clever on other levels,’ he says.

This idea of purity also informs Safran’s use of dialogue. ‘You can’t force an audience to think a character is dangerous or funny or real just by asserting it. You have to demonstrate it,’ he says. Understanding dialogue was a part of cracking the long form riddle for Safran. ‘For some reason I thought, Oh you’re not allowed to put a lot of dialogue in ‘cause your readers will think you’ve slacked off and just transcribed dialogue. But then I realised that’s how you bring characters to life.’

‘One real breakthrough happened when I started blurting into the Dictaphone all the time,’ Safran says. ‘I realised that’s a better way to write things.’ On returning to his apartment in the early days of his US-based research he would just write up notes. ‘But as soon as you start writing you’re already editing things out,’ – a process he found counter productive. ‘[When I’m writing] I somehow feel this obligation that everything has to be watertight and absolutely make sense without any holes. That’s less interesting writing,’ he says. Whereas speaking into the Dictaphone ‘I can say something where I’m leaving stuff out and I’m not quite plugging every hole – but somehow it all makes sense when you transcribe it.’ He regrets not having found the technique sooner – citing aspects of his journey that weren’t included in the story. ‘I was so paranoid that I wasn’t going to make any contact with Vincent and that was going to ruin the book…in retrospect it would have been really cool to have these bits of me really panicking in the book. But I didn’t record them,’ he says. Later he tried to recreate the paranoia and failed. ‘People like my work when it resonates as real.’

Safran recently had a short true crime piece A Town Called Malice published in The Good Weekend Magazine. I asked him if writing true crime was something he might pursue – that he might add to his shtick. ‘I’m interested in crime (at least crime when it’s as extreme as murder) in so much as it brings out the true character in people,’ he says. It’s not the mystery of the crime that catches him but how wider issues (like racism) can be explored through true crime stories. If Safran had gone to Mississippi and told people he was writing about Mississippi and racism then, ‘everything [would be] a bit of a dead end conversation,’ he says. With crime however there’s a reason to talk to people and when they talk, other interesting stories come out. ‘The crime is the perfect spine and the perfect pressure point for me to find out these other things that I’m more interested in,’ Safran says.

Long form was a new challenge for Safran but he wasn’t daunted by it. He read books by other crime and long form writers (William Burrows, Jack Kerouac and Hunter S Thompson among them). He even read a book on verbs. But, he concludes, ‘The only way you can learn is by doing things and the next thing you write is slightly better.’

Safran says that the first draft of his manuscript included a long section about his time in Melbourne (before he went to the US). ‘I spent six months going mad in my flat. I was locked up and I’d be trying to find out all this stuff on the Internet about Richard Barrett,’ he says. Research is crucial. ‘For me at least the trick is to get tons of information,’ he says. But he’s not talking about Internet or book research (which he argues would be near impossible to flesh into a long form piece).

And this is the part of our interview that resonates with me days later when I’m struggling to find an angle for this piece. For the interview I am talking to Safran on the phone and as we talk, different ‘murbles’ (read the book) and ambient sounds travel from his location into my headphones. I wonder – is Safran walking? Sometimes it sounds like he’s on a street somewhere. Sometimes it doesn’t. Perhaps he’s pacing his apartment…? But we’ll never know as this was a telephone interview I did from the comfort of my desk and I can only speculate. The writing process, Safran rightly argues, ‘isn’t hard at all’ once you get out. ‘As soon as you go out there and start with your Dictaphone and your notepad you start just hearing stories,’ he says. ‘And then the story starts writing itself.’

Sinking independents into libraries

There’s a quote on the Internet that is attributed to Virginia Woolf. ‘I ransack public libraries, and find them full of sunk treasure,’ it reads. In order to find its source I paste the full quote into a search box, held together by inverted commas. ‘Did you mean: “I ransack public libraries, and find them full of sunken treasure.”’ Google asks me. Hmmm, I wonder – did I? Be they sunk or sunken treasure, libraries are certainly the places to find them. A library’s collection policy, as Tricia Genat, Managing Director of ALS Library Services says, ‘is not just about working to the mean but also making sure that you’ve got some outliers in your collection.’

It's not so difficult to get independent treasures into our libraries says Tricia Genat. Thanks to ballina70 for use of this image Readiscover under Creative Commons.
It's not so difficult to get independent treasures into our libraries says Tricia Genat. Thanks to ballina70 for use of this image Readiscover under Creative Commons.

Where both libraries and bookshops will stock bestsellers, libraries are looking for a little bit more. ‘People are interested in all sorts of weird and wonderful things,’ says Genat. Librarians want to make sure that they’re, ‘expanding the collection to include more unusual [publications] or some new trends or different kinds of formats,’ she says.

Verily libraries provide a solid opportunity for independent publishers to get their work to readers. In contrast to being included in bookstores (which can be complex and difficult for independent publishers), Genat says that there are no disadvantages to getting books into libraries. ‘One of the major advantages for small publishers is that they’re in an open field competitively,’ Genat explains. Librarians have wider mandates and make their decisions about buying a book on a computer screen using filters based on genre, category etc. ‘When the library selector is scrolling through those titles your book has as much chance of getting picked as one from [a major publisher],’ Genat says. There are however, a few provisos.

To be noticed on the computer screen you’ll need a decent cover and a well-written blurb. ‘If you’re a small publisher and you spend absolutely no money on your cover (and it’s going up against lovely covers) then a library selector is just going to scroll past yours and not select it,’ Genat warns. ‘If the blurb that you’ve written is correct, up-to-date, informative and helpful then that’s the second thing that the library selector looks at,’ she says. If you make these elements the best you possibly can your book will be in contention for selection.

Library selectors read blogs, newspapers and sites like Goodreads. ‘If [a library selector] sees a name that pops up as they scroll through the list (ie a brand new author, a brand new publisher, a tiny publisher that’s causing a little buzz) they will [remember it],’ says Genat. The selector’s decision is only a $20 or $30 one – at times they can just order a book and see what happens. ‘If it gets borrowed half a dozen times then that’s a publisher or author [the selector] might add to the standing order,’ says Genat. She says that social media is absolutely essential for publishers in this context. ‘If it’s out there people will be reading it,’ she says. (For more on publishers and social media read this post on vertical marketing).

In addition to considering cover designs and blurbs, independent publishers also need to pay attention to things like ensuring page numbers are correct, that there’s a bar code on the back and that the book has an ISBN. ‘The physical quality is also important. It can’t fall apart,’ says Genat. Recently she had to return an order of over 30 books because of their poor quality. ‘There was absolutely nothing wrong with the content of the book. The printer just did a bad job,’ she says.

In a panel at this week’s Independent Publishing Conference Genat (as chair), Anita Cattogio (Yarra Plenty Library), Michael Mackenzie (Boyd Library) and Leesa Lambert (Little Bookroom) will share some of the joys and frustrations of putting together a library collection. They’ll discuss what a collection policy does, what’s available, what the price points are, what captures people’s attention and what’s important to have on the shelves in the context of independent publishing. (They’ll  give advice on sinking independent treasures into libraries!)

In the meantime my Internet searches aren’t confirming whether Woolf said sunk or sunken (or where she said it). I can see that the British Library are going for sunk, and I figure that’s a reliable source… but I might just need an excuse to ransack my local library this afternoon. You never know what independent treasure I’ll find.

Genat’s panel Libraries and Librarians will be held at 1.15pm, Friday 14 November at the Independent Publishing Conference.

Molecular verticality: trends in book marketing

‘I think molecular specialisation is the only way that book publishers are going to survive in something that resembles their traditional format,’ says Anne Treasure, a digital marketing enthusiast. This molecular specialisation is spawning vertical marketing – or customer / reader focused marketing. In the context of publishing vertical marketing recognises, as Mike Shatzkin writes on idealog.com that publishers are no longer dependent on books being displayed in stores and that, ‘the marketing that used to take place around store inventory is becoming digital’. Vertical marketing is particularly useful to small and independent publishers (as well as to writers). ‘It used to be that publishers would market a lot through their retailers,’ says Treasure, ‘But retailer relationships aren’t so important any more, and in publishing it’s more about the direct-to-consumer relationship,’ she says. Not surprisingly social media is one of the key vertical marketing tools available to the literary community. On social media writers and publishers can converse directly with their readers and build communities of interest. It’s quite a contrast from old school broadcasting and one that many publishers are already harnessing. Treasure cites Meanjin, Overland, Kill Your Darlings and Seizure as journals that are doing a good job. ‘They bring [their publication’s] personality into the social media space so that readers can get to know them as well as the writers therein.’

Vertical marketing is about publishers and writers communicating directly to their readers. Thanks to Ed Yourdon for use of this image Web 2.0 conference/San Francisco, Nov 2008 - 08 under Creative Commons.
Vertical marketing is about publishers and writers communicating directly to their readers. Thanks to Ed Yourdon for use of this image Web 2.0 conference/San Francisco, Nov 2008 - 08 under Creative Commons.

But it’s not just journals that are capitalising on vertical marketing. Treasure adds that, ‘all kinds of publishers are becoming involved in the conversations around reading, books, literature and writing (rather than just being the gatekeepers and broadcasters).’ Genre publishers – particularly romance and science fiction – are leading the charge. ‘[Some publishers are] getting to the point where whatever they publish, readers in the community will trust that it’s going to be good and something that they’re interested in,’ Treasure says. This is the vision for vertical marketing – writers and publishers producing such high quality and relevant publications, communities and conversations that readers, ‘will trust them and be willing to buy whatever they publish.’

There is a lot of noise in social media and this is one of the challenges says Treasure. But it can be overcome. ‘It’s about being authentic, about showing personality, seeing through all of the boring chatter and engaging your readers in a space where they already are,’ she says. Publishers should also take care to include and train their writers . ‘No matter how much the market fragments it’s going to be hard for a publisher to have as loyal a following as an author or a writer,’ says Treasure.

While social media is one of the major tools for vertical marketing it isn’t the only one. Treasure notes a good example of offline vertical marketing in 2013 newcomer Tincture Journal. It placed promotional stickers on street crossings in Darlinghurst (Sydney). ‘They’re right where you’re going to press the button – so you can’t fail to see them,’ Treasure says. In this respect vertical marketing is nothing new. ‘It’s marketing that has been going on for 20 or 30 years… marketing that you would see for rock or pop gigs (except that now we’re bringing it to books and literature),’ she says.

Vertical marketing has created unprecedented opportunity for the independent publishing sector in particular. As Treasure says, ‘It’s definitely leveling the playing field and it means that independent publishers have more opportunities to engage with communities of readers.’

Anne Treasure will chair the panel Vertical Marketing (with panelists Kate Cuthbert [Escape Publishing] and Mark Robinson [Exisle Publishing] at this week’s Independent Publishing Conference. Treasure's session will be held 10.15am on Friday 15 November.

On being underrated (the MUBA)

For Christmas last year Wayne Macauley’s partner gave him a t-shirt printed with the words Most Underrated 2012. ‘I don’t wear it out that often but it’s a beautiful thing,’ Macauley quips. The t-shirt is a reference to last year’s inaugural Most Underrated Book Award (MUBA) which Macauley won for his novel The Cook. ‘[The most underrated book] is a very catchy line and I think people like the idea of it,’ Macauley says. ‘[The award] got quoted a number of times afterwards in blogs and reviews and even when the book went overseas.’ As Macauley notes, the title of this award, ‘has a hook’. The MUBA, says the Small Press Network (which organises the award), ‘aims shine a light on some of the outstanding titles that are released by small and independent publishers that, for whatever reason, did not receive their fair dues.’ This year’s shortlist was recently released. It includes Fish-Hair Woman by Merlinda Bobis (Spinifex Press), Staunch by Ginger Briggs (Affirm Press), Whiskey Charlie Foxtrot by Annabel Smith (Fremantle Press) and The Hum of Concrete by Anna Solding (MidnightSun Publishing). The winner will be announced next week.

Readings will help the MUBA shortlisted book make their way into the hands of readers. Thanks to Snipergirl for use of this image, Readings, Carlton under Creative Commons.
Readings will help the MUBA shortlisted book make their way into the hands of readers. Thanks to Snipergirl for use of this image, Readings, Carlton under Creative Commons.

‘[Last year] there was some uncertainty as to whether this was a badge that authors particularly wanted or not,’ says Martin Shaw, Books Division Manager at Readings. ‘But most people got what it was about – it was trying to make sure that nobody got completely overlooked – which does happen,’ Shaw says.

For this reason Readings gives the MUBA shortlist, ‘the biggest blast we can,’ says Shaw. The books are being promoted online, in their newsletter and on a table in store. Last year Macauley noted a contrast between the MUBA and another award he was shortlisted for (which was announced in the same week). ‘The MUBA shortlisted winners were really prominent in the Readings Carlton store… I couldn’t see anything displayed for [the other award],’ he says. As Macauley notes the MUBA’s tie with bookshops is critical, ‘If the books are not promoted in the store then the award is great for you spiritually but not really commercially.’

Readings reported a tenfold increase in sales of the full shortlist of the 2012 MUBA. ‘[The MUBA] definitely makes a difference,’ Shaw says. ‘Now that we’re into the second year it will build up as a [list on] the best of the small press.’

For Macauley, winning the MUBA also had other benefits. ‘The book had been a runner up and it was great for it to win something. But from a personal perspective I felt like I was being recognised with an independent award for an independent attitude,’ he says. That’s something he values as a person with an interest in independent publishing and theatre. That independence is relevant to buyers too says Shaw, ‘A lot of book buyers out there are looking for something a bit different, something that isn’t massively hyped about from large commercial houses.’

Looking forward Macauley is excited by the potential of independent publishing. The old structures are being broken down he says, and new possibilities are opening up.  ‘My view of that is that we should all be brave and should never be afraid to take risks,’ he says. ‘Everyone should give wholly and utterly of themselves to their work. They should make their work in their own voice. They should make it the very best that they can.’ The thing that never changes with independent publishing, says Macauley, is that ‘we’re making art out of integrity.’

The 2013 Most Underrated Book Award winner will be announced at the Independent Publishing Conference on Friday 15 November.

A rocket around the future of long form

It’s time for our annual orbit around the future of long form. In last year’s post, The Future of Long Form: An Odyssey we visited seven virtual space stations in the new media galaxy. This year we’ll fly past each one in a rocket travelling at 475 kilometres a minute. We’re cleared for launch and counting down; five, four, three, two….  

Station 1: Traditional Print

If you look through the porthole to the right of the rocket you’ll see this, the oldest station in the long form galaxy – coming out of the Guttenberg inspired revolution: publishing your words in print.

The view from a rocket. Thanks to NASA for use of this image.
The view from a rocket. Thanks to NASA for use of this image.

Despite its so-called retro look, I still love to see my byline printed at this station. In fact, I think I have more faith in traditional print than I did before I started using my e-reader. (I don’t like e-reading as much as print-reading).

Yet, despite my enthusiasm, the print world continues to be challenged by the disruption new media has brought. I’m not aware of any newcoming Australian or international print-based publications of long form (please enlighten me if you know of any). However, I am aware of print publications moving to entirely digital delivery.

Station 2: Traditional Online

This station is surrounded by a constellation of newly documented stars marking the increase in opportunities to pitch your long form work to online publications. This year saw the introduction of high-profile sites The Big Round Table (US) and Matter (UK). Both were seeded by crowd sourcing campaigns and both are using paywalls (Matter has since sold to Medium). The Big Round Table is donation based (which means that you may not be paid if you are published or you may be paid a lot). Matter uses a subscription/pay-per-read model.

Locally, Tincture Journal has appeared as a venue for long form non-fiction. In contrast to The Big Round Table and Matter (which publish individual articles), Tincture provides an editorial package. It sells in E-pub and Kindle formats. The package includes fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry. Tincture will consider up to 15,000 words of creative non-fiction (and recently tweeted that they find it difficult to source non-fiction work – so pitch!)

There are also opportunities to submit your long form work for e-publishing by some of the leading publishing houses. (Certainly before their merger both Penguin and Random House were keen on more long form, no doubt Penguin Random House will be too).

Station 3: Enterprise Journalism / Community Funded Reporting / Crowd sourcing

Slightly behind the rocket here you may catch a few falling stars. These are the international and local initiatives that provided platforms to crowd fund articles. Our local version youcommnews.com has disappeared offline altogether (perhaps one day it will reappear) and the US version Spot.us might sadly be fading (at time of publishing, the most recent funding requests date back to 2012).

Some journalists (not just writers) have succeeded in using generic crowd sourcing sites to fund their stories (like pozible.com, kickstarter.com and indiegogo.com). However this model is yet to be proven for long form writing.

While the community funded reporting model may be dimming, there is a little sparkle when it comes to crowd sourcing long form publishing houses. Both The Big Round Table and Matter were seeded in this way.

Station 4: Publishers Funded by Philanthropists

Thanks to the generosity of Wotif founder Graeme Wood, Australia still has The Global Mail (funded by a grant from Wood) and now our own masthead of the UK’s Guardian (an investment rather than a donation). In the past 12 months Wood has also donated $1.5 million to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. He’s certainly committed to the idea of  ‘Philanthrojournalism’.

Shimmering brightly in this cluster of stars is the long-standing Centre for Public Integrity – more substantive proof of the viability of this model.*

Station 5: Writers funding philanthropy

There are initiatives such as Write for Life that are compiling articles into books which are then sold to raise funds for charity. It’s a nice idea but no doubt suffers from the same challenges all small publishing does – namely finding enough readers.

Incidentally, in the past year I’ve tried to raise funds by selling my long form article online. I got a lot of exposure, but didn’t raise a lot money. You can read all about that in my post Goodwill Hunting.

Station 6: Writing for free / Self Publishing

As always, if you don’t want or need to get paid for your work, you can publish your long form article on your own site or blog.

Be aware however (to reformat the old adage) if you publish it, they may not necessarily come. Readers can be as elusive as those stars you only see from the corner of your eye.

Station 7: Entrepreneurial Journalism / Self Publishing

It’s vast – but despite this, station seven is the most crowded in our orbit. Literary-astronauts are lured by the ease of access and the promise of 70% royalties. But setting a long form piece into the new media galaxy alone is not enough. It has to be heavily marketed, and even then may not find readers. Most of the work published from this station just drifts aimlessly into space.

That’s our 2013 rocket trip on the future of long form in the new media galaxy concluded! I’ll be most interested to see what the journey will show in another year’s time. Keep checking the Venues and Resources page of this blog to learn of new publishing opportunities.

* If you’re interested in a good overview of journalism funded by philanthropy read this recent post by Matthew Knott on Crikey.

In their shoes

I often wonder what it’s like to be in an editor’s shoes. Not only am I curious about the lives of others, but also I have a desire for professionalism and teamwork. I want to make publishing as seamless and as easy as possible. I figure it’s the least I can do in the writer:editor equation. Whenever I submit to a new publication I try not to inadvertently drop a stone into my editor’s shoes. I seek out its style guide and if there isn’t one, I make my own by noting the publication’s spelling and punctuation choices. I check my work against my pitch and try to write my best. I worry about things like grammar too. But Jo Case Senior Writer / Editor at the Wheeler Centre (and author of Boomer and Me: a memoir of motherhood and Asperger’s) says, ‘Grammar is the least important because it’s the easiest to fix.’

It's good to put ourselves in our editors' shoes every now and again. Thanks to sfgamchick for use of this image, Shoe Repair Sign, under Creative Commons.
It's good to put ourselves in our editors' shoes every now and again. Thanks to sfgamchick for use of this image, Shoe Repair Sign, under Creative Commons.

I’m heartened when she tells me this. But I still wonder, are there things we commonly do that can make life difficult for an editor like Case? She says that writers don’t commonly make the same mistakes, but there are a few things we could avoid – things might that set an editor’s feet tapping impatiently.

Using all caps is a no-no for example, ‘An editor has to take them out and actually retype them,’ says Case. Likewise putting spaces where there ought not to be spaces or using single quotes when the publication uses double quotes. These can be addressed with a ‘find and replace’ but they still require manual intervention and editorial time. Case advises against using acronyms too, ‘Because you often have to be an insider to understand them.’

Another difficulty for editors is when writers fail to meet the agreed word count. ‘Sometimes writers think if they go a bit over it doesn’t matter so much because the editor can just cut it out. But you can’t just lop off the end of an article. You need to find the spot to cut it,’ says Case. This again, can take some time. Stick to the word count – particularly if writing for print.

After receiving a submission, the first thing that Case assesses is how a piece flows and whether it works as a whole. She says she most frequently adds more punctuation to improve the rhythm (things like dashes, semicolons and commas). ‘I’m just punctuating it as you would speak it,’ she says. Before submitting, always read your work aloud.

In ensuring the coherent argument of a piece, Case finds herself tinkering with introductions and conclusions the most. Sometimes the piece doesn’t flow because writers fail to include something important or obvious. ‘Because you know it in your head you might forget that you haven’t written something in, or that you took it out,’ says Case. Ask yourself what the reader needs to know. ‘If there are complex ideas in there, make sure that they are explained,’ she says.

Little niggly things are easy enough to fix – but it’s good teamwork to have them addressed before you submit. Of course, the most important thing from an editor’s perspective is an interesting idea that’s expressed in an interesting way, says Case. ‘Because that’s what you can’t fix.’


Writers often talk (and write) of the spectre the blank page invokes. The blinking cursor, the pen filled with ink… We say it fills us with terror. In truth we know that once we write there’s nothing to be fearful of; if we write we’ll eventually get to the point of having written. Despite its strength, the terror of the blank page is mercifully brief. Add the task of providing photos however, and for many writers the terror can multiply. Of course in the new media galaxy, we’re all hooked-in multi-media type folks. We know that we have to be able to operate across platforms. Sure, I can use a digital camera. Compared to my film-based days these gadgets are a breeze! They manage light well, they allow more room for error and I can see the results as I take them. But I realised recently that despite my photography training (some time ago I admit), when I head out to take photos of people I get anxious. I know not to panic, but actually, I think I do. I find the whole thing awkward (probably because I don’t like being photographed myself). I often flee the scene the moment I know I have one good photo and then feel regret for having limited my options.

With Steven Pam's advice I hope to improve my technique! Thanks to Paul of Congleton for use of this image, Diary 26th of February 2011, under Creative Commons.
With Steven Pam's advice I hope to improve my technique! Thanks to Paul of Congleton for use of this image, Diary 26th of February 2011, under Creative Commons.

‘By taking more shots on the day, you can increase your odds of getting a good one. Plus if you mix up the angles and poses, you’ll give yourself more material to choose from later,’ says Steven Pam of Smartshots. Pam’s taken hundreds of photos of people in his photography business and has the process down to a fine art. He says one of the keys to good photos of people is in managing expectations. ‘It’s like a doctor with a good bedside manner – they make sure to tell you what they’re doing as they go along,’ he says. Explain that the vase in the background is distracting and then move it. Take the time to set up your shots and tell your subjects that you both need to work on the shots together. ‘Encourage them to feel that it’s a collaboration,’ he says.

Both you and your subjects should allow 30 to 40 minutes for a shoot (we were talking about photos to go with a profile in this instance). ‘Tell them it might take a while but it’s better for both of you,’ he says. Help your subjects understand why you’ll be taking so long and why you’re taking so many photos. Explain that in many of them their eyes may be looking in the wrong direction or blinking or you might just press the shutter at the wrong time. Pam says it might be worth explaining that you’re a writer first and foremost. This could help to relax you and your subject, giving you the mental space to focus on the shots. ‘There’s a temptation to act like a big pro, but a bit of humility can actually help to break the ice,’ Pam says.

Pam asks his subjects to tell him if there’s something they’re particularly worried about showing in a shot. And when people voice a concern he’ll do his best to reassure them by committing not to include it (ie if people don’t like their teeth he won’t coax them into a giant smile). He’ll also explain how something (like an unloved scar) could be removed or de-emphasised in postproduction. (Although, that’s not always an option for those of us who are submitting raw files. It’s worth discussing this possibility with your publication’s Art Director before your shoot).

In the same way that writers take time to plan the structure and flow of their work, Pam takes time to set up his shots. ‘Move the crap out of the background,’ he says and use your first ten to 20 frames in each set-up for tests. Make sure your subject knows that you’re doing this (so that they can relax). Once you’re both comfortable, getting some good photographs will be much easier.

Take lots of photos too. In the scenarios that I describe (photos to accompany a story) Pam suggests at least 12 to 25 shots for each photo you need. Take plenty of each set up and take plenty of different set ups. Practise will always help (with friends is OK, but with strangers is probably better). Give yourself opportunities for this by joining a local photography group (on a site like meetup.com).

Writers, Pam notes, have to churn out ideas, ‘That’s a bit like take more pictures,’ he says.

A big change

‘The book of my enemy has been remaindered / And I am pleased,’ wrote Clive James in his 2003 poem of the same title. Ten years ago, the remainder table was considered a literary backwash. It was reasonable for James to use it as a place to celebrate the failure of a literary foe. But in this last decade? My, how things have changed… ‘If you think that the most dire thing would be to be remaindered, then I’d suggest these days that’s almost an honour,’ wrote Martin Shaw in a recent issue of The Victorian Writer. Shaw is Books Division Manager at Readings. He’s one of the people responsible for choosing which books make it beyond the publisher’s door and onto bookshop shelves. His article was enlightening, and helped me realise that a book in print with a reputable publisher does not alone define success.

The new dilemma for authors: where to pass go. Thanks to toastie14 for this image Monopoly in the Park (10) under Creative Commons.
The new dilemma for authors: where to pass go. Thanks to toastie14 for this image Monopoly in the Park (10) under Creative Commons.

Getting your book into bookstores is a major challenge in itself. ‘I would ingest information about several hundred titles in the course of about one and a half to two hours,’ Shaw writes of his monthly sell-in meeting with just one publisher. ‘The simple fact is you’re competing with a whole lot of other hopefuls every month…’ Stores stock just a fraction of the publications offered in the sell-ins (and not all of those stocked actually sell). Of those that fail, a lucky few are remaindered. ‘It’s much more likely that the unsolds will be pulped, that they have no commercial value whatsoever,’ writes Shaw.

Until reading that article, I thought the hoops to be jumped in acquiring a publishing deal were the biggest. Clearly that’s not the case. And once again, I find myself wondering: now that there are alternatives, is print publishing everything it’s cracked up to be?

‘One of the things that’s really different now is that established publishers have lost some of their market power with authors,’ Mark Davis Associate Professor (University of Melbourne) and non-fiction writer (Gangland: Cultural Elites and the New Generationalism) says. He’s looking at authors in the context of both new media, and ongoing changes in the publishing environment (like those outlined in his 2006 article The Decline of the Literary Paradigm in Australian Publishing).

Authors now have choice, says Davis. ‘If I wanted to publish a book ten years ago I needed an agent, I needed a publisher, I needed a contract, I needed someone to tell me how to negotiate that contract, I needed to be able to get my foot in the door, off the slush pile and actually onto someone’s desk. And the reason I had to do that is because publishers had a monopoly.’

The monopoly was over marketing, distribution and even review pages, all of which have been undermined in various ways by new media alternatives. And while publishers are still considered doyens of sorts, it’s not unreasonable for a writer (particularly a new writer) to wonder what a publisher offers over self-publishing options.

An advance of some kind? Well, perhaps not. According to Shaw in some instances advances aren’t offered at all. Royalties? Both avenues offer them, but 70% via Amazon is difficult to match with the 7.5% many authors would get through a publishing house. Marketing efforts? The industry zings with the message that authors must develop their own ‘platforms’ and help drive their own marketing. Distribution? Yes, a publisher can offer that. But given what Shaw tells us about our chances of landing a spot on a bookshelf I wonder how useful that really is. And while harnessing electronic distribution is a major challenge, how advantageous is the printed path in reality today?

As Davis argues, the main thing publishers can offer, ‘is the very thing that publishers have been worst at over the last 20 or 30 years: editing.’ He says that publishers have neglected the substance of books in order to release them quickly (irrespective of whether manuscripts are ready or not). This, combined with downsizing of publishing houses (that are shedding staff) weakens the monopoly further. As Davis says, ‘What’s to stop me self-publishing and just hiring a freelance editor? The same freelancer who might be editing the book if it’s published through [a publishing house]?’

The differences between being published and self-publishing are great, but given the changes to the publishing industry, is one still necessarily better than the other? What's interesting about the current environment is that the monopoly publishers once had, has been eroded by new platforms for authors. As a result Davis says, publishers will need to become more service oriented toward their writers. ‘[Publishers] can no longer take [authors] for granted. That’s a big change.’

Electronic dissonance

Riding the bus home with my newly purchased e-reader tucked into my bag I felt a little pang of guilt. Had I cast a stone at the institutions, which brought me nothing but joy for decades by obtaining this little gadget? Was I just one node in a death of a thousand page-clicks to the bookstores that I love? With paper-books I can browse shelves in any bookstore I want. The e-reader on the other hand forces me to a limited ‘ecosystem’. It made choosing the right one impossible (the ‘right one’ – one that allows me to buy books in any format, wherever and whenever I want – doesn’t actually exist). E-reader manufacturers simply monopolise our book-buying choices. This annoys me, because I want the convenience and flexibility but I’d rather my local Readings or the Brunswick Street Bookstore took a part of the profits on the purchases I make. Yes: as I passed both these institutions on the bus home I felt a little culpable.

An e-reader lurks in the pile of books beside the bed.
An e-reader lurks in the pile of books beside the bed.

It was perhaps for this reason it took me a few days to take the gadget out of the box. It was as if I were introducing a new cat to the household. I left the e-reader in the hallway and went into my room to pet and reassure all of my printed books.

On day three I opened the box and charged the reader up. A week after buying it I set up my account and finally let it sit on the dresser just inside my room. Later still, I downloaded a few samples (I hadn’t bought anything yet). I cautiously placed the reader on the stack of books by my bed, cooing warmly to the printed-brood.

I even thought about taking it back (so strong was my guilt). But again and again I came back to those frustrating moments when I needed a book for my research and couldn’t get a copy anywhere, when a day of productivity was lost traipsing to a library at some distant university to read or copy just a few of the relevant chapters. So I kept the e-reader, picking it up for a time every now and then.

Eventually I found myself in need of some guidance on my work. To my surprise none of my usual reference-tomes had chapters of relevance. (They are all still great books if you’re interested: Sol Stein’s Solutions for Writers, William E Blundell’s The Art and Craft of Feature Writing and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well).

I did a search on Google, but nothing helpful came up. So I went to my e-reader and soon found a book that was suitable. For the price of three pots of tea in a café I had it ‘delivered’. I was working to resolve the writing issue within minutes. It was just too easy, and all of the anxiety and guilt I felt about buying the thing evaporated.

The stranglehold of manufacturers still leaves a sour taste in my mouth. And I know it will make things more difficult for publishers and their writers while we all try to negotiate profitable terms. But I think the monopoly will eventually be toppled while the technology will remain.

And though the gadget proved its worth (and has continued to do so) I haven’t stopped buying hard copy books. For me, the experience of shopping for, and reading the real thing is still infinitely richer.

Yet these technical developments and new forms of distribution harbour tremendous potential for writers. In next week’s post I’ll discuss just that, including part two of my interview with Mark Davis.

Your work could be special at Penguin

‘This is possibly a golden age for a book publishing model,’ says Ben Ball, Director of Publishing, Penguin Group Australia. He’s referring to digital-only distribution of long form work. At Penguin they’re called Penguin Specials. As the website blurb says they’re e-books, ‘designed to fill a gap… to be read over a long commute or a short journey, in your lunch hour or between dinner and bedtime… They are short, original and affordable…’ Digital-only initiatives like Penguin Specials are the kinds of opportunity for writers that get me excited about the future of long form. Particularly when I learn that a publishing house the calibre of Penguin is open to submissions from both established andemerging writers.


According to Ball, these digital-only imprints exist due to the decline of conventional print journalism and the growing appetite among readers for thoughtful, reflective pieces (that are beyond the news/social media cycles). ‘People increasingly have mobile devices on which to read and small chunks of time in which to read things,’ says Ball.

Most all of us agree that digital-only delivery of long form non-fiction is a great idea. But the truth is that publishers like Penguin are still in the process of establishing whether a market is there. This does not discourage Ball. ‘No market is ever there before they realise there’s something for them to read. The readership and the content will probably develop side by side,’ he says. For their part, Penguin is trying to promote Specials in the same way that they would a book. ‘We’ve got a publicist on the job [and are] bringing to bear the promotional activities of a publisher,’ says Ball.

Digital delivery of long form can provide readers with access to convenient, relevant, topical and quality writing. And they can provide writers with advantages that aren’t available in the hardcopy magazine/newspaper models. ‘One of its critical advantages is the royalties system. If you have written something marvelous that goes viral – you’ll cut into the success of it,’ says Ball. ‘That always seemed to me to be a problem with journalism – that you’re writing something to enable somebody else to sell a newspaper off the back of your name. And that’s not how the book model works.’

The differences between book and newspaper models are fundamental to Ball’s golden-age outlook for long form non-fiction. ‘Books have always been behind a pay wall. Books never made the mistake that [online] newspapers made of giving content away. We’ve never educated the public that books should be free. That’s where it all fell down for newspapers and now they’re trying to work out how to put the wall up,’ says Ball.

Perhaps this is why we’ve seen articles decrying the death of the book. Ball says that ‘It’s clearly not the death of the book. What you’re talking about is a physical book moving to a digital book. The reason newspaper people think it’s the death of the book is because it was the death of the newspaper and they can’t believe that it isn’t the same for books.’

The challenge to the book publishing model is in defining a fair price for digital content. Companies like Amazon, ‘are trying to educate the public that books should be fantastically cheap. And while everybody is for increased access to books, nobody ought to be [against] paying writers,’ says Ball. He says that Penguin is, ‘unashamedly for a decent cover price and a decent return for authors because that’s how you produce good work.’

To date, most of the work published by Penguin Specials has been by established writers. But Ball is keen to get submissions from new and emerging writers. In fact, he’s been a little surprised by how few have submitted. ‘The people who’ve got their head around it the fastest have been the professional writers. The people who we’re really trying to reach out to are the those who are starting their careers,’ he says.

Ball is open to submissions on virtually any subject, ‘I don’t have a set of genres that I feel we should be concentrating on. The only thing that unites from our point of view is the high quality of the writing,’ he says.

You can submit your best long form work via penguin.specials@au.penguingroup.com

Note: Ben Ball has confirmed that Penguin Specials submissions are still being accepted following the announcement of the Penguin / Random House merger.

Mini-magazines and long form distribution

There’s a session at the NonfictioNow conference that couldn’t be more appropriate for this blog: ‘Longform Nonfiction and Online Distribution’. Four emerging practitioners of the non-fiction form will, ‘explore the role that reading and writing online have [in influencing their] work, while engaging in a form of cultural activism, in which writers are found fighting for more space for longer works of nonfiction,’ (from the precis). As the words ‘activism’ and ‘fighting’ imply, there is a certain chutzpah involved in pursuing long form these days. Aggregate sites like longform.org and longreads.com as well as initiatives such as Kindle Singles, The Atavist and Byliner have provided new US-based venues for writers. The presence of these and other digital-first publishing initiatives (like Editia in Australia) have given me cause for celebration. But, as writer Elmo Keep reminds me, things aren't ideal in the Australian context.


‘In terms of traditional mastheads where there’s a focus on extremely high-quality long form investigative-based journalism, we don’t really have many places to choose from in Australia. We’ve got a really rich and very alive literary journal tradition here. But that’s different to magazines. There are very few options to Australian non-fiction writers who want to write long, get published and get paid,’ Keep says.

Writers like Keep have successfully pursued overseas markets to publish their long form work. But pitching to overseas publications – such as those in the US – can be restrictive for Australians. ‘Unless it’s an exceptional Australian story that resonates universally [those stories getting published are] probably going to be something that appeals to American audiences,’ says Keep.

The US market is particularly strong (compared to Australia which can boast just a handful of print publications that publish long form work). ‘We do have places where our stories go but they’re niche places. We have nothing like a national magazine with the reach of The New Yorker for example,’ Keep says.

Keep values the opportunities overseas publications can give to Australian writers, but she is concerned about a trickle-down effect. There could be ‘a poverty of people writing Australian stories.’ The session at NonfictioNOW will consider the climate for publishing long form non-fiction in Australia. ‘We’ll be talking about that, about why our magazine culture is what it is or isn’t, and about how you can get your work out,’ says Keep.

These days, finding a publisher is just one challenge to establishing a career for new and emerging writers of long form non-fiction (this Venues and Resources page can be helpful). Another is in facing the call to ‘build’ an online ‘brand’ or ‘platform’ from which to promote our work (and/or determine how necessary this really is). To my mind, Keep has built her writerly brand relatively well. She has a strong online presence and over 3,000 Twitter followers.

Keep says acquiring this presence was organic. She’s a self-described nerd who has been online since 1995 (when the Internet was mostly about community). She was there, ‘before brands invaded the space. Before the idea of a personal brand was even a thing that someone would say.’

‘I just wanted to be someone on Twitter who you would want to follow because that person was always sharing things that were interesting or funny or hilarious... Just being like a miniature magazine,’ she says.

Having an online presence never hurts says Keep. ‘It can lead to great opportunities and it can lead to meeting great people.’ It’s useful for research, interviewing and being part of a community. But she warns that, ‘there can be a little bit of snake oil that goes around. The only thing that’s ever going to be good is [good writing. The writer’s ‘brand’] is always going to be auxiliary to everything else that goes into publicising a book. It’s not a replacement for being interviewed on Radio National or getting reviewed in The Australian,’ she says.

Using these platforms successfully is, ‘about catching a really wild tide on the Internet – which you can’t create. If you’re pouring all your time into that and not pouring that time into doing meaningful work then it’s completely self defeating.’

Elmo Keep will be presenting in the session Longform Nonfiction and Online Distribution with John Proctor, Ronnie Scott, Sam Twyford-Moore and Steve Grimwade on Friday 23 November at 3.00pm.

Visit the NonfictioNow website for more detail.

Picturing the essay

When I speak to Leila Philip, multi award winning non-fiction writer and Associate Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the College of the Holy Cross in the USA, our conversation lilts over the work of many others. She talks about Wallace Stevens, Walker Evans and James Agee. I hear of Errol Morris, Merce Cunningham and John Cage. At the centre of all these references is the ongoing idea of collaboration, be that between photographer and writer, musician and dancer, photographer and viewer, or writer and reader. Collaboration is ostensibly the topic of Philip’s paper in the Picturing the Essay session at next week’s NonfictioNow conference in Melbourne. The precis describes the paper somewhat pragmatically ‘Leila Philip will discuss the process of working with an artist to put a book of text and image together.’ Reading this a few weeks ago my initial reaction was to envisage some kind of illustrated fiction-like book. But what Philip and her collaborator (husband, Sculptor Garth Evans) have undertaken does not involve a literal illustration of either words or pictures, and rather than being fiction-like, it sounds closer to a new perspective for the non-fiction genre.


‘We talked about doing a call-and-response type of process where I might write a poem and then he’d do a watercolour in response. Or I might write a poem after looking at some of his work. But we rejected that idea,’ Philip says. She’s talking about the planning for their soon-to-be-published book, ‘Water Under the Bridge’ (Argian Press, 2013). It’s a collaboration between her lyric essays and Evans’ watercolours.

Both felt that a ‘trap of illustration’ would be of no interest to anyone but themselves. Instead they agreed on a theme and then produced their work independently. Philip and Evans were keen that their contributions would stand up as independent pieces. Yet the very nature of collaboration is that their work must also stand together.

‘I want my writing to realise the full potential of what words have to offer. I want to make sure that they have their full power – and then I’m totally excited to have them go play with the image,’ Philip says. This word ‘play’ would probably be better than ‘process’ as is applied in the conference precis. It recognises the need for independence in a work, but it also shows the chance for unexpected ideas that conspire from collaboration.

Something new – specifically the idea of chance operations as Cage describes it – interested Philip and Evans. ‘We were both committed to this idea of letting chance happen,’ she says of their collaboration. To wit, the two of them tried to ‘rigorously shut down over thinking,’ to make room for the unexpected and spontaneous.

‘I think there is an aspect of listening that happens in the interplay as well. You can’t determine what someone’s taking away from your words just as you can’t determine what someone’s taking away from your image. But maybe that’s what’s exciting about it – a third thing will happen that you can’t anticipate. To me that’s really what art is about,’ Philip says.

The opportunity to draw on something less literal has fueled Philip’s personal engagement with this project. She appreciates lyric essays and the ‘gaps and associative leaps’ that the format can bring.

‘It’s in those silences and in those gaps that I’m finding a lot of meaning.’ She compares it to other non-fiction forms that aim to give the reader a sense of place. ‘There’s so much more movement [in the lyric essay] because there isn’t such an emphasis on [a] scenic, finite moment of time… it’s part of what makes it possible for the words to connect with the non-verbal image that is the world of the visual arts,’ she says.

These ideas of collaboration are not often discussed in the non-fiction worlds in which I engage, but they’re exciting to reflect on and talk about. Philip’s own interest is engaged with this new arena of discourse, ‘One of the reasons I’m excited to be coming to [NonfictioNow] is because a lot of the panels are about the new, and where we’re heading. It’s really trying to look at and establish a dialogue for these dynamics.’

Leila Philip will be discussing her collaborative project in the session Picturing the Essay with David Carlin, Ross Gibson and Kathryn Millard on Thursday 22 November at 10.30am.

She will also be presenting in Lyric Nonfiction: Memory, Image, Trauma with Elizabeth Kadetsky, Threasa Meads and Brandon Schrand on Thursday 22 November at 12.00pm.

Visit the NonfictioNow website for more detail.

Blinkered by books

I like to think I have a broad outlook on the potential of writing and new media. But in speaking with John Weldon, writer, author (Spincycle), academic (Victoria University) and coordinator (Meanland), I realise there is something my research has failed to uncover. I am embarrassed by the oversight. But I’m taken by it too because it shows me that I am conceptually blinkered, that my view of writing and new media is thwarted by the way I consume the printed word. Weldon’s approach has expanded my view, and makes me wonder what else I am missing. ‘The effect of digitisation on narrative and story [is] the idea that it’s no longer confined or contained within the pages of a book,’ he tells me. He’s talking about a comment he attributes to author William Gibson, ‘The text doesn’t stop at the end of the page.’ The comment is the title of a paper Weldon will present at next week’s Independent Publishers Conference. But the phrase is more than that. It has informed Weldon’s approach to storytelling and new media.


‘We can see that books have very much moved beyond the printed page. But most of the digital books are simply… a photocopy of the page,’ says Weldon. He’s keen to see authors and publishers move beyond this linear approach to both reading and writing.

If you’re as blinkered as me by a ‘delineation’ of print and digital you might presume that Weldon is talking about hypermedia. But he’s not.

‘We have to be careful we don’t take it too far beyond the page. Enhanced e-books are often too alienating for the reader. They’re not sure how to interrogate [them]: where to start, whether to watch the picture, listen to the sound or read the text… The actual physical form of the book is integral to the way we read – that’s how we’re used to doing it,’ Weldon says.

It was while working on his recently published novel, Spincycle, that Weldon realised the potential of new media and fiction. He was grappling with problems of perspective and character, ‘but if felt clumsy and forced,’ he says. He came up with the idea of a character writing a blog, ‘which exists in the book and exists in the real, virtual world… [It was] a way for me to do [the] internal monolog, and … a way for readers to actively and actually engage in the conversation that goes on in the book,’ he says. He describes character-voiced blogs as ‘a gentle step’ toward taking fiction beyond the page.

There are two blogs associated with Weldon’s novel, (notetoelf.blogspot.com and hotseat2000.blogspot.com) and these were the pieces missing from my research. Before interviewing Weldon it hadn’t occurred to me that a piece of fiction could diversify in this way, but I’m captured by the idea. As Weldon says, ‘Those readers who don’t want to go beyond the page can have a normal print-novel reading experience and those who want to play a little bit can play a little bit.’

For Weldon, this conversation between author and reader harks back to oral storytelling. ‘When all stories lived without the page, there wasn’t a page. In all the storytelling cultures those lines weren’t as harshly drawn,’ he says. When people tell stories orally the storyteller responds differently to each audience. The audience can comment, heckle and through this, change the form and direction of a narrative. ‘[New media] offers us a chance to play with those things again – where the reader can become author, and the character can become author, and the author can become character and reader,’ he says.

In his paper next week Weldon will be appealing to small publishers to rethink their approaches to print and new media. ‘Marshall McLuhan said [that] when we have these new technologies it’s always the artists that show us how to use [them]. I think small publishers who are more willing to experiment in conjunction with authors might show us how to take the text beyond the page,’ Weldon says.

I wonder if wider society is becoming more accepting of consuming text beyond the page. Have we failed to understand how storytelling might evolve digitally because we haven’t fully understood the technology and its potential? Weldon reminds me that as early as Ancient Greece we have questioned new technologies be they writing, printing, photography, film, television and so on.

‘Every time we have a new media… we get panicky. We think it’s the end and we’re going to lose what we have. It’s a good thought to keep in the back of your head because we have to be vigilant about what we have (and what we’re willing to let go of), he says. But of all those new technologies, the new hasn’t killed the old, he says, ‘it just shuffled everything along a little bit. Perhaps we’re in the middle of that shuffling along period now [with new media]. Everything gets upset for a bit, then we realise, “OK, there’s room for both.”’

John Weldon will be presenting his paper, ‘The Text Doesn’t Stop at the End of the Page’ at the Authorship and Digital Publishing session of the Independent Publishers Conference 9am, Thursday 8 November at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne.

If you want to be a writer, you have to be a reader

Are you reading as much as you’re writing? And if you are, what are you reading? Are you reading – and buying – the kinds of publications you want to be published in as a writer)? ‘So many people want to write, and less want to read,’ says Amy Espeseth, writer (Sufficient Grace, Trouble Telling the Weather), publisher (Vignette Press) and academic (NMIT). ‘If everyone who submitted to Geek Mook had bought a [copy] we would be able make a lot more future publications… our goal is to break even and we’re certainly not breaking even,’ says Espeseth.


It’s a reality for small publishers echoed by Zoe Dattner, General Manager of the Small Press Network (SPUNC) , ‘So much goes into [publishing a work], and when it disappears without a trace [it’s disappointing].’ Dattner says this happens ‘all the time’.

I’ve heard the calls to writers to buy the publications we want to write for – as has Espeseth, ‘Oftentimes as writers we get kind of frustrated at the lack of money [and] the lack of support. I’m very much in support of all of the conversations,’ she says. But Espeseth has the publisher’s perspective too, ‘at the same time I’d like to acknowledge that (for me as a publisher) the money is coming directly out of my pocket. I’m gambling on you. I’m betting on you. And more often than not those gambles or those investments don’t work out financially,’ she says.

It’s a reality that the writers’ debates don’t always acknowledge. ‘Everything doesn’t have to be about money. It can be about producing beautiful books,’ says Espeseth. Even now I can hear a few writers calling foul. But I have to wonder about our priorities when Espeseth tells me, ‘It is difficult when you see people be at a launch celebrating and paying the equivalent of the cost of the publication for beer and then not buying the publication.’

The money debate aside, the relationship between writer and publisher has always been one of co-dependence. Writers don’t work in a vacuum. We need good writing and stories to read. We need new ideas to consider. We need guidance on our phrasing, structure and grammar (plus proofreading!). And of course, we need ways to get our work to readers.

While new media does give writers more options for distribution, going through a reputable publisher would be the choice of most. Validation from a publisher is a kind of vindication (not to mention flattering to the ego). And publishers are more able to get our work to readers. As well as that, publishers (and their editors) can vastly improve the quality of our work.

‘It’s a not very well kept secret for people who work in the industry that your editor or your publisher will sometimes change the trajectory of a work,’ says Espeseth. The Raymond Carver / Gordon Lish ‘partnership’ is an example at the extreme end of the spectrum, one which resulted in the later publishing of Carver’s stories uncut. But writers like Espeseth daily express their gratitude, ‘Without [Aviva Tuffield and Ian See’s] help and assistance I don’t think I would have ever finished [Sufficient Grace]. And it certainly wouldn’t be the book that it is without them,’ she says.

The secret may not be well kept, but it is, as Henry Rosenbloom of Scribe recently wrote, a ‘dirty’ one. ‘Everybody has internalised the editor’s role, without ever acknowledging the contingencies it has to deal with. Nobody outside the publishing house knows the challenges that were presented by a given manuscript, and nobody knows how much or what it did to help improve it,’ he writes on the Scribe website. The writer’s name is most often noted outside the publishing industry. But without the publisher there wouldn’t be a book, or at the very least, there wouldn’t be the same book.

‘Although the writer does a lot of work, the publisher does as well. And it shows a lot of foresight and commitment when people choose to put their time, energy and money into publishing someone else’s work,’ says Espeseth. That’s why the literary prize that she’s recently judged (with Bethanie Blanchard and Andrew Wrathall) awards both writer and publisher.

As its name implies, nominees for the Most Underrated Book Award (MUBA) can’t have won any major awards as a published book. It’s the kind of prize you would never aim to win, but having won it, would certainly celebrate (with your publisher). The shortlist comprises four fiction titles (The Dark Wet by Jess Huon (Giramondo), I Hate Martin Amis et al. by Peter Barry (Transit Lounge), Two Steps Forward by Irma Gold (Affirm Press) and The Cook by Wayne Macauley (Text)). The winner will be announced on 8 November and all four titles will be discounted 20% at Readings for a month.

Although this year’s final list comprises fiction, Espeseth says that nonfiction titles were nominated. It’s anticipated that next year’s awards will involve different genre categories.

The MUBA acknowledges the intrinsic ties (between writer and publisher) that lead to beautiful books and great reading. But as Espeseth reminds us, ‘the most important thing is to sell books. And without selling books … the publishers can’t continue to publish and then the writers have nowhere for their work.’

The deal at Readings will do its part to support the writers and publishers of the MUBA shortlist. Meanwhile I hope that writers will reconsider their budgets for beer and books.

Small and indie publishers unite!

I’ve been trying to imagine a world without small and independent publishers. I can’t do it. I’ve tried to draw parallels. For example, I’ve wondered if it’s like a world without electricity, or a world without roses to smell. But neither is an appropriate comparison. When I try to imagine a world without these publishers my mind goes blank, short-circuited by the complexity and depressing force of the idea. Initially this was a great frustration. Then I realised my blank brain was illustrating the point: a world without small and independent publishers is a world with far fewer voices and ideas. It’s a whiteout. ‘I see independent business [including publishers] as a very strong force for good and for positive change in the world in general,’ says Zoe Dattner, General Manager of the Small Press Network (SPUNC). She also sees these publishers as more able ‘to beat their own drum’ thus contributing to the diversity of voices available for readers (and venues available for writers). And if participation in SPUNC is anything to go by, this diversity is diversifying. In the last two years membership has grown from 50 to 100. This year SPUNC will hold the inaugural Independent Publishers Conference in Melbourne on 8 and 9 November.


The presence of so many small and independent outfits means that writers wanting to publish are more likely to find a welcoming venue. That sounds like cause for champagne and chocolates! But when it comes to those hardy souls behind these publications – often small or singular teams, running their publishing efforts alongside a day job – love and squalor may be a more apt pairing (that is, a lot of love and just a little bit of squalor).

‘It’s a very difficult industry to make a crust in,’ says Dattner, (noting this is her ‘own personal belief’). ‘I don’t think that it should be so difficult. Publishers (particularly small publishers) come to it out of passion. They’re not necessarily interested in making money but they’ve found a manuscript [and] they really want to publish it. They get so passionate about doing that one thing, and then they stumble at all the different obstacles that exist between them and selling a book to a reader,’ she says. More recently these obstacles include changes to technology and distribution models. Another challenge, ‘is for small publishers to approach the climate that we’re in with a business head on. Which is hard because [we] are often creative types,’ Dattner adds. (And creative types she says, don’t always think with business heads).

All in all, small and independent publishers, ‘could be sharing a lot more knowledge, and asking a lot more questions, and admitting to a lot more,’ says Dattner. To facilitate this, sessions at the conference include production and workflow, digital strategies, marketing and trends (as well as opportunities to network). There’s also an academic day. (See the full program for both days on the SPUNC website). Plus, the conference will host ‘The Most Underrated Book Award’ (MUBA) which will privilege both writer and publisher. The MUBA – like the conference – celebrates the staggering contribution small and independent publishers make to our literary culture.

‘The opportunities are huge – far bigger than the challenges,’ says Dattner.  She explains that small and independent publishers have a lot less to lose than their mainstream counterparts. They are therefore nimble, able to act quickly, are good at identifying opportunities and approaching them without fear.

For Dattner, the biggest win is that small and independent publishers are, ‘in a position [to] reinvent however we want to do this. But it requires either an approach that has been done before but is a lot better, or a brand new one that no one’s ever thought of.’ The key to harnessing these opportunities is that, ‘you’ve got to be open to them,’ she says.

As a participant in the literary community I tend to focus on the challenges facing writers. But I know my pages would be blank – indeed, a whitewash – were it not for the efforts of small and independent publishers. I hope the conference and the MUBA do their part in encouraging, growing and celebrating this integral part of the literary community.

Make way for long form

I have two TVs in my garage. They sit near the door, one covered in an old blue and white striped sheet. They’ve been there on two years now. A thick lick of dust has formed on the sheet. Every time I open the garage door – just after I feel its cool air on my cheeks – I see them wide, heavy and useless. Their cathode-ray shapes form techno-carcasses on the concrete floor. All they need is electricity to come to life again. But I know that won’t happen. Sometime soon I’ll have to find the strength to get them into the car. They’ll be at the tip before the year is out.

Those TVs came to me less than a decade ago – and not without a little domestic fanfare. One was bought new, the other a second-hand bargain I couldn’t refuse. They both have ginormous screens which I sat before daily in darkness. The shadows of hundreds of stories were cast in colour on the walls of their rooms. Then one day those TVs found their way to the garage. When I bought them I didn’t realise that it was possible for technology to change our habits so quickly. Now I don’t even have the need for a TV anymore. As a medium for storytelling those TVs have seen their last days.

In the early 1990s I thought this was a resonating quote:

The world has changed less since the time of Jesus Christ than it has in the last thirty years. (Charles Péguy, 1913)

Today it seems twee. Thirty years? Try three. Three years is all it’s taken me. The way I consume media over that period has changed so significantly that I now have a phobia about acquiring new hardware. New hardware that is: I’m still interested in stories.

In Australia we’ve just had another washout of journalists from our leading dailies, causing more prognostications on the so-called ‘questionable’ future of long form. ‘Long form is dead in this country,’ I heard a journalist recently say. To me that’s the same as saying that because my old TVs are now in the garage there’s no point in Aaron Sorkin ever putting pen to paper. True: the traditional formats for delivering long form to readers are fading. False: there will be no more long form. As Staff Writer for The New Yorker, David Grann recently said, stories are things that are, ‘in some ways wired into our DNA… People have been telling stories for centuries and centuries… It’s always [been] a part of our culture.’ The desire to read and write stories isn’t changing. Only the formats for delivery are.

Business models for delivering written work are in flux – but that doesn’t mean they won’t find equilibrium. Many print media organisations have been slow (if not resistant) to digital evolution. Part of that grogginess is a notion that everything in digital format has to be short – ‘for snackers’ as Executive Editor of ‘The New York Times’ Jill Abramson said in this conference presentation.

This idea that focus and interest are lacking in readers of digital content is a misnomer. Abramson, for example says that ‘The Times’’ long form pieces are among the most popular on their site. So why is it that so many feel that reading content digitally requires a different state of mind to reading it in print?

With a virtual inferiority complex, the early days of the Internet celebrated things that the printed page couldn’t offer. Hyperlinks, sound and animated gifs were cool while plain words were not. Circular storytelling was engaging but linear narratives were droll. Of those who had access, most were excited by the technology – yet uncertain of its future applications. It took visionaries like Steve Jobs to show us what was possible. But they didn’t have all of the answers. In 2008 Jobs added fuel to the virtual end-of-long-form fire, ‘It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,’ he said.

People do read, but where they get their reading from is changing. Our dailies are fast becoming anemic of good in depth and investigative content. I will miss reading them with a pot of tea in a comfy chair on the weekends. But I won’t go without those stories. I will find them somehow.

‘In my beginning is my end,’ TS Eliot wrote in 'East Coker', one of the 'Four Quartets':

‘In my beginning is my end. In succession Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended, Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.’

Eliot’s poem continues to describe loss and melancholy – a sense of things that might-be or once-were. He was of course writing on far deeper issues than I am now. But there’s a melancholy he expresses in 'East Coker' that is infused with what I feel about the demise of print media. Something I value is ailing and I want to somehow nurture it to health. Yet at the same time a part of me wants to put it out of its misery, to euthanise print media, so that digital can show us what it’s got.

Eliot concludes his poem, ‘In my end is my beginning.’ For a little while now words have been moving from the printed to the digital space. I wonder – if we can eventually get past our ‘grief’ – would the complete absence of print media give us a new beginning? I think it would. I think it would show us that though the business models for delivering long form are changing, the form will continue to exist. Long form hasn’t been killed by digital media anymore than screen culture has by the fact that my old TVs are now in the garage.


Breaking into Random House

What is a book these days? In a bookshop they’re objects, ‘of a certain girth…[with] a spine of a certain depth,’ says Meredith Curnow, Publisher at Random House. E-books have no such limitations and this has opened opportunity for writers to publish small pieces with big houses. Curnow is the publisher of Storycuts, Random House’s short-form e-book collection (‘short’ as it is relative to a book). It’s a collection that began with stand-alone extracts from the publisher’s backlist but soon evolved to include short stories and more recently, essays. Some Storycuts have bonus material (such the opening chapter from a writer’s new novel). Others stand alone. The non-fiction collection of Storycuts in Australia has only just started. It has published work by luminaries such as Don Watson. But while big names are included in the collection, having one isn’t a necessary requirement.

view of the tiny door from inside the story room
view of the tiny door from inside the story room

‘We are always looking for new writers,’ says Curnow, who would love more time ‘to be out there’ finding new talent. ‘I think the short form is a great way of breaking in,’ she says. Curnow uses pieces like those in Quarterly Essay (about 10,000 words) as a possible example of what she might publish. But modelling on a format or word-count is less important to her than the quality of the writing. ‘I’m really open to anything that is well written and [has] something to say,’ she says.

Storycuts is one example where new media has extended (rather than reduced) publishing opportunities for long form non-fiction writers. But while Curnow is genuine in her appeal for new writers to submit to Storycuts, she is equally straight about the business reality.

‘I’ll be honest and tell you that Storycuts has not … set the world on fire. Sales vary greatly,’ she says. This probably means that new writers are statistically less likely to garner an income from publishing in Storycuts. If money is your driver, this collection may not be for you. But if you’re a writer who wants the validation of a well-connected editor, and can see benefits from the statement, I have been published by Random House, then you ought to make contact with Curnow (or submit your piece directly to her).

Although Storycuts is still finding its gravitational core sales-wise, there is a long-term vision. It is to be a collection for discerning readers with time-limited windows. Someone at a bus stop, for example, can go to Storycuts to find a quality read that will to take them to their destination.

Such is the opportunity for long form non-fiction that new media brings to readers. ‘I think it’s got a huge future… There are always good, strong non-fiction titles out there,’ Curnow says. She thinks people will always want to read non-fiction, ‘but how we can make it pay is a whole other story.’ Long form non-fiction takes time and, ‘to be able to really immerse yourself in an issue – it’s a luxury,’ says Curnow.

As we all well know, writers and editors are yet to nail the perfect business model in the new media galaxy, but I believe that opportunities like Storycuts at Random House are going in the right direction.

You can submit your best long form non-fiction work directly to Meredith Curnow at Random House (Sydney). Meanwhile I’ll stay on the hunt for more publishing opportunities for you.

Note: Publishing with a company like Random House will involve contracts (which Curnow warns, can be longer than the piece being published). Writers: always take care with contracts and seek legal advice before signing them.

David Grann on obsession

At 'The New Yorker' (TNY), writers are allowed to pursue their obsessions. Staff Writer David Grann says it comes from a theory that tapping into writers’ excitements and interests will make them write something better. I think they’re onto something there. The magazine’s circulation has long since travelled past its namesake. Here in Melbourne, Grann’s session ‘The New Yorker: On Obsession’ (at MWF) was sold out. Grann was enormously generous at the session. He described his achievements humbly and shared many insights into his writing process.

Moderator James Button started by prompting Grann to share the how and why of his writing career. Grann said he feels fortunate to have ended up where he is. But when he started he didn’t know how he would get there, or that he would ever get there.

Grann always knew he wanted to be a writer, and says the journey to TNY was a, ‘long, slow evolution with an enormous amount of rejections.’ As a young writer he thought he wanted to write fiction but, he says, ‘I’m really bad at it.’ Once he realised that non-fiction could be entwined with storytelling he became more inspired, energetic and found opportunities. Writers like Gay Talese and Joan Didion were ‘revelations’. Grann said he came upon them late, but devoured them all.

Grann says the problems he had with fiction – such as creating and rendering characters and capturing dialogue – were solved by journalism. Finding and reading a transcript involving a character called ‘Orlie the Crab’ was when he realised that non-fiction was better than fiction. He was researching a piece on former US Congressman James Traficant. The ‘authenticity of dialogue’ sealed the moment. ‘This is what I wanted to imagine [in fiction] but never could,’ says Grann.

When writing his stories Grann looks for the elements of fiction: interesting characters, compelling figures (including obsessives) and subcultures or worlds that the stories allow him into. Grann pursues stories out of curiosity. Sometimes he’ll read just a few lines in a newspaper that will spawn a question, other times a story will evolve. The subject of his recent book, ‘The Lost City of Z’ (about Victorian explorer Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett and his journeys in the Amazon) had its infancy in a different story about the world’s greatest Sherlock Holmes character. For any story to work Grann says, ‘You’ve got to love the subject matter. You’ve got to feel that the questions you need to answer just keep growing rather than closing off.’

Questioning his subjects has put Grann into some fairly curly physical situations. While researching a story on a giant squid he found himself in a small boat at sea during a fierce storm. On his quest for the story of ‘The Lost City of Z’ he became separated from his guide in the Amazon, walking in circles and feeling very lost. ‘At a certain point the Amazon all looks the same – like a white out in the snow, but with greenery,’ he says.

Yet he plays down these moments arguing that the more challenging aspects of his work are the structural elements of writing. A piece of a story can be missing, or sources may collude to create a kind of ‘hall of mirrors.’ For Grann this causes the greatest amount of frustration. He becomes obsessed with trying to find out what happened. ‘My quest is biographical, reportorial,’ he says. He looks for the end of a story, tries to solve mysteries, to sate a certain curiosity. The more I dig, the more I want to know. One piece leads to another. (Grann, paraphrased)

When doing biographical research writers need to interrogate their characters Grann says. He is interested in history from the inside out rather than the outside in. When writing historical pieces he wants to know how his subjects saw the world at that time. This approach was central to his research for ‘The Lost City of Z’. Its main subject, Fawcett, had an urge to explore. ‘These urges do have consequences,’ says Grann describing the devastation Fawcett left behind when he took his son into the Amazon and never returned.

An audience member asked if writing can be taught. Grann delineates between fiction and non-fiction, ‘I don’t think you could create a John Updike. He had an enormous gift,’ he says. But non-fiction in many ways is a craft that can be taught, ‘Some of it is observation,’ says Grann. Writers need to train their ear for dialogue and notice details like a person’s ticks or habitual phrases. They need to figure out the essence of a story and distil these. Grann modestly describes himself as an effective writer but not a great one. He aims to be transparent in his writing, ‘So the reader can almost be there the way I was there,’ he says.

‘It’s less about teaching. A lot of it is doing,’ says Grann. When he was starting out in his career he did anything he could to get clips. He would work for free. He wrote obituaries and about high school graduations. In a session the previous day Grann said that the central element to his career was the urge to write, ‘If you have that urge… just keep doing it.’

Hanging around – being there - is a part of Grann’s theory of reporting. ‘If [you’re] there you’ll see things,’ he says. If you hang around long enough your sources will forget you’re there and become themselves.

Button questions Grann on the future of long form. ‘It’s almost dead in this country,’ says Button. Grann concurs, ‘You cannot be in the business and not feel like an endangered species.’ But, says Grann, stories are things that are, ‘in some ways wired into our DNA… People have been telling stories for centuries and centuries… It’s always [been] a part of our culture.’

‘The truth is long form non-fiction is expensive,’ says Grann citing costs beyond salaries such as guards, satellite phones and living expenses. And long form takes time. ‘So much of media is now predicated on quickness, immediacy and speed. You can’t tweet it out,’ says Grann. But the Internet has allowed writers to reach other people more quickly and cheaply. Grann is hopeful for the future of long form, ‘because of that essential need [for stories] those stories will still remain. It’s hard to imagine it going away,’ he says.

A part of every writer’s life is rejection, and Grann is no stranger to it. ‘We’re all insecure creatures,’ he says. We all want our stories to be critically well received and read. When he writes, Grann quarantines the fear of failure. He focuses on what he can control, ‘the sentences, structure and the reporting,’ and writing something he can be proud of.

At TNY rejection has a different slant, usually when you’re turned down for an idea it’s for the right reasons (Grann, paraphrased). He talks about the way editors at TNY work with writers. They help with structure, to overcome obstacles and talk out riddles. They are enormously helpful he says. Editors and fact checkers take the story though a process that is ‘bigger than yourself,’ says Grann, ‘I always try to pay my tribute to them.’

TNY is associated with an excellence that Grann ascribes to people arriving at the magazine when they’re better at their craft. Staff at TNY care about the story. ‘It’s almost a simple mission,’ says Grann. The story is, ‘what unifies everybody there.’ Grann also says that the magazine insulates its staff from economics and external pressures – something that few magazines are able to do.

A question from the audience asks Grann how he thinks about readers when he’s writing. ‘I don’t know if I really have a sense of an ideal reader. I try not to think of my story with limitations,’ he says. Grann aims to write for everyone, asking the questions: How can I pull you in? How can I take you on this journey? He says you can write an extremely sophisticated story (one that plays with post modernism, revolutions, socialism or idealism for example). But these stories almost always include something compelling – such as a love story. As a story it needs to be pleasurable, told in the best way, but including smart things. Grann also thinks about how busy his audience is, and the competition his story has against the various gadgets that now distract us.

Getting the story is important too. Grann is persistent with sources he wants to talk to. He’ll ask a source for years to tell their story until they agree to speak. Grann advises other writers not to give up if a source says no. Never think there's a great secret. If they really don’t want [to talk] they won’t (Grann paraphrased). But if they do want to talk, and you're the one who stuck with it, you will get the story, he says. Grann explains to sources that he realises they are entrusting themselves to him, and that he will always be fair to them. When negotiating with sources Grann says writers should be themselves, be forthright.

Grann’s approach in this session was very much in accord with this advice. He was honest and forthright, and gave the audience a real sense of the story behind his stories. Above all was the commitment Grann has to the potential of his craft. ‘On Obsession’ was an apt title.

Creative Nonfiction is keeping it real

More and more, writers and publishers are being counseled to go digital: we must learn a broader set of skills (not just writing), we must be able to present to video, edit an audio file, and charm on social media. Serendipity has enabled me to develop most of these skills throughout my career (perhaps not the charm). But here’s the thing: I like to write. To write is what I want to do. There are times when I worry that my future may involve more multimedia than words (such as at the Future of Digital Publishing event I went to last week). These times can create a mirage of doom and gloom for the future of long form narrative writing. But talking to Hattie Fletcher, Managing Editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine (CNF) has settled my anxiety. The magazine keeps it real with a healthy respect for both the power of words, and the benefits new media can bring.

If you don’t know about CNF, then your writing and reading life is about to change. To me it is the Mecca of the best non-fiction reads, and the kind of writing I can only ever aspire to. It celebrates the power of narrative and storytelling. It’s writing that stays with you, that makes your soul sing.

The magazine was originally published in a journal format with a focus on essays. In 2010 it expanded to magazine format and introduced articles on the creative non-fiction genre. It has since embraced some aspects of e-publishing and continues to explore new media. But thanks to a recent reader survey, CNF isn’t going digital anytime soon. ‘We have a lot of readers who are interested in having a really nice physical object that they can hold onto. We don’t think of it as a throwaway magazine. It’s a little bit closer to a book,’ says Fletcher.

Things like video are a long way off. ‘So far there are enough people who do just want [words],’ says Fletcher. She acknowledges that some readers may enjoy more multimedia, and cites a brief foray into podcasts by the magazine. As a reader herself though, Fletcher says she seldom engages with the multimedia extras in digital magazines, ‘I wonder sometimes how many people really do,’ she says. So do I.

CNF’s approach to new technologies is refreshingly pragmatic. ‘We’re a tiny organisation. And so it’s a question for us of what the benefit in doing this is, and what we can actually work into our process,’ says Fletcher. A great access-point for writers is to submit ‘tiny truths’ to CNF’s daily Twitter contest (via #cnftweets). ‘We get a lot of people who come in new to the CNF tweet contest. But there’s a core group of die-hards who’ve been doing it since the start. And they’re looking out for each other,’ she says. Unlike multimedia extras, this kind of engagement in new media has benefits.

‘For us as a publication social networking has been great. It’s really helped us get closer to our readers and the community, and have closer contact with the people who are reading the magazine,’ says Fletcher. Making this direct contact with readers is an asset for publications struggling on small budgets. But Fletcher isn’t certain that it’s a must for writers to join the social media babble.

‘I think it’s something related to a person’s temperament,’ she says cataloguing writers who excel as equally in social media as they do in a room full of people, ‘They’re just intuitive networkers anyway.’ And while social media can be useful for journalists in finding sources Fletcher says, ‘the flip side is that it can be a huge time-suck. There are people who probably Facebook more about writing than they actually write.’ (If you missed it, there’s a great article in the Guardian by Ewan Morrison who, like Fletcher, questions the value of social media to writers).

Hail the voice of reason from Hattie Fletcher - but don’t be quick to label her a Luddite. In fact she sees many opportunities for the future of long form in new media.

‘On the one hand we have the incredible shrinking attention span because everything is quick. [But on the other hand] you see things evolve technologically that have helped. Definitely Byliner, Longform and Longreads [have] all helped provide a better home for long form,’ she says. It could be argued that pieces between 5,000 and 15,000 words fell into an uneasy middle ground during the era of print. But Fletcher says that, ‘in some ways it’s a really good time to be a long form writer because you have more potential ways of reaching an audience.’

Fletcher’s Editor Lee Gutkind is in Melbourne for the Writers Festival and will be presenting a number of sessions from the 31st of August.

Included in these events will be the launch of the latest issue of CNF which is on the theme of Australia (Leah Kaminsky was guest editor).

The magazine will be making announcements soon about its digital future – so follow @cnfonline on Twitter if you’re interested in getting updates.