How Amazon is helping to sustain long-form journalism

Amazon (s amzn) has been taking a beating recently for what some see as its attempt to cut in on the business of independent booksellers, and for its ongoing disruption of the e-book market via its Kindle lending library and other moves. But whether the traditional publishing industry likes it or not, Amazon is also helping authors of all kinds reach readers directly — and that in turn is helping writers find outlets for long-form journalism that might never have existed, including one foreign correspondent who spoke recently about his experience publishing a Kindle Single based on a reporting trip to Libya.

Marc Herman says he went to Libya in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring” uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, and wrote about what he found for The Atlantic magazine. But Herman says when he was done, he realized he had more than enough material for at least another story, and possibly a short book. So he published an e-book as a Kindle Single called “The Shores of Tripoli” and sold it for $1.99. In a recent interview that was published recently at Forbes (and earlier at the O’Reilly Media site), Herman talked about why he did it and what he learned about the process.

Foreign reporting that pays for itself by going direct

Although he didn’t say how much he has made from the e-book, the writer said that it has been in top 500 titles in the Kindle store since it launched two weeks ago, and he added that he is on track to recoup the cost of going to Libya for the reporting trip in the first place. Herman also said that he has sold more copies of his latest e-book in just two weeks than he has of the digital edition of an earlier book that his publisher released for $10 four years ago. As Herman put it in his interview:

The scheme of doing some on-scene journalism for a known title… as a loss-leader, and then using that work as the basis for a direct-published, long-form item, seems to be working out [and] already, I feel like I’ve reached a community of readers that compares favorably to my more traditional work — and the work is able to pay for itself.

As newspapers and even magazines have declined in both reach and financial health, there has been a lot of concern expressed about the future of journalism — particularly longer-form or what some call “investigative journalism.” This is arguably where the most value lies, especially when breaking news can easily be aggregated by outlets like The Huffington Post or distributed widely for nothing. But how does this kind of journalism pay for itself? Herman’s example is one potential answer to that question: it pays for itself when readers subsidize the writer directly for content that they appreciate.

Herman also notes that there is an even better example, and one that he looked to for inspiration when he was writing his own piece: Alex Berenson wrote an e-book called Lost in Kandahar about his experiences in Afghanistan, and it quickly became a Kindle best-seller. Berenson is a former New York Times reporter and popular spy novelist, so that likely helped him find a wide readership, but the model is still there for a writer to pay for the work they have done by publishing their own Kindle novel instead of “cutting it for a magazine,” as Berenson put it on Twitter after finishing his time in Afghanistan.

Is it a book? Is it a magazine piece? It’s both

And Amazon isn’t the only one helping with this process — new publishing ventures such as Byliner and The Atavist are targeting writers who want to publish longer-form journalism that is partway between a traditional book and a magazine-length story. As I’ve pointed out a number of times before, the term “book” has become so fluid that it can now mean almost anything a writer wants it to. What that does to traditional publishing is a question mark (it’s probably not good) but what it does for writers is almost unquestionably good. As Herman notes, his example could help other freelance journalists and writers find a market for their work as well:

There will inevitably come a point where the editors and producers at legacy titles start saying, “Okay, this story is finished.” I’d hope this is an example that can say, “No, this is a richer story than that, and we know so because we can point to a place where a lot of people are still reading and commenting and talking about it, and even paying $2 for the opportunity.”

In a recent blog post, Herman wrote about why he decided to publish a Kindle Single instead of a traditional book — a post that was in response to an essay by author Edan Lepucki, who argued that traditional publishers still provide a lot of value. Among other things, Herman says that his experiences with both magazines and book publishers haven’t exactly filled him with confidence about their commitment to the values of journalism (he describes in another post how one famous publisher told him to create a “composite” character for his non-fiction book because his characters weren’t interesting enough).

Obviously, not every writer is going to be able to write a best-seller, or get the kind of deal that Herman got from Amazon — his agent negotiated a 70-percent royalty, even though the book was priced below the traditional $2.99 threshold (UpdatePost and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Frederic Della Faile and Yan Arief Purwanto