When Writers Revolt

Why have freelancers been left to solve some of the industry’s biggest problems?

By Marc Herman
Illustration by Gwendal Le Bec

Late last week reporter Tony Horwitz, writing in the New York Times, told the story of publishing Boom, a long work of narrative nonfiction, in digital-only format, and getting screwed. After months of work, the two publishers backing him collapsed. The work itself, an investigation of the oil industry, disappeared briefly from amazon.com, its primary retail outlet. Even when the story mysteriously reappeared on the virtual shelves, and became an unlikely best-seller, Horwitz says he barely made any money.

Horwitz’s insider experience merited a public airing in the Times in part because it deflated one of digital media’s most hope-filled balloons. The advent of mobile technology has led many writers and readers to believe that small screens in our pockets can provide a home for a beloved form once called just nonfiction, then “literary journalism,” and more recently “longform.” Narratives can have staying power beyond the usual churn of daily news, and many writers working now, myself included, came up admiring these carefully-honed, meticulously-reported stories: Slouching Toward Bethlehem, The Soccer War, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Joe Gould’s Secret.

The problem is that stories like those, or Boom, can be as expensive to produce as they are exhilarating to research, write, and read. Horwitz’s experience led him to question whether people actually want them as much as we all say we do. “There aren’t many people willing to pay even $2.99 to read at length about a trek through the oil patch, no matter how much I sexed it up with cowboys and strippers,” he wrote.

The traditional places to read these stories are taking a beating of their own. About two weeks ago the media industry news website Capitol New York reported a rare all-hands meeting at the New Yorker magazine. According to the Capitol New York report, income from selling advertising has fallen ten percent at the New Yorker since the last year, while the audience for its famous journalism grew by a rampant 15%.

Assuming those numbers are accurate, they describe a basic structural problem that drives successful writers like Horwitz to experiment with new outlets for serious work like Boom. Industry-wide, audiences are growing while budgets are falling, and writers bear the brunt of this faltering business model. We’re the ones asked to do more professional-quality reporting, faster, to reach expanding audiences, even as the budgets to produce that work shrink.

Earlier this month, as part of a group of nine experienced writers, I helped to launch Deca, a cooperative founded to create precisely the kind of stories Horwitz’s experience cautions against. Writers themselves have become the driving force behind many of the efforts to seek solutions, and Deca is no different. We’re keenly aware of the work that goes in to creating these stories. We’re directly affected by any drop in the value the market places on them — and it couldn’t get much lower. A magazine story pays about $2/word today, which is about the same as it did in the late 1990s. It makes sense that we would be the ones searching most urgently for models that bring wages in line with the times.

We’ve seen this happen before. When the recording industry faltered in the face of digital distribution, it was the musicians themselves who responded fastest and most creatively. When digitization came to professional photography, several groups of photojournalists responded by leaving longstanding relationships with large agencies to form collectives, notably Noor and VII. One could go as far back as Magnum.

Deca is unusual in its shared financial structure and its focus on stories from abroad. But it’s isn’t the only bottom-up project trying to crack this problem: producing work that readers find appealing and accessible, while also being viable for writers.

The largest, Horwitz’s publisher Byliner, appears to be facing hard choices. It has angered many writers for promising a break from traditional publishing models, then mimicking some of the least appealing parts of those old models. They paid lower royalties to their authors than Amazon itself would, and they pushed many writers to sign away some of their ownership of the material, undercutting one of the major advantages of self- publishing. Still, credit to them: they took a shot at it.

Epic, which publishes digital long form, focuses on arranging Hollywood movie deals for its writers. They have to do that because major magazine publishers, with ad revenue in free fall, have moved to take more and more of those rights from authors.

The Atavist, which started as a small group of editors maxing out their credit cards, has become a pioneer in multimedia. Efforts like The Big Roundtable and Beacon are experimenting with funding models to let readers directly pay for writers to investigate stories.

All of these projects resulted from the initiative of writers. Not from publishers. Not by magazines with staff available for research and development, and budgets for which an experiment like Deca would amount to a rounding error. Publishers’ efforts have so far been desultory, unfortunately, and our resources come instead from our own pockets and a Kickstarter effort, which continues. While we can’t speak to other projects’ motivations, Deca in large part exists because writers recognized a need to adapt, innovate, and confront the change that’s clearly upon us, and found it necessary to take it upon ourselves.

Nor is this without recent precedent. At Deca, we’re collaborating along the same lines musicians did as the recording industry collapsed, and photographers did as photojournalism went digital, shouldering some of the risk for one another. Deca produces one story in digital format each month. One of us writes the story and the rest provide editorial, promotional and administrative support. The next month, it’s someone else’s turn to have his or her project brought to publication. We share some costs and income from the overall group sales. We sell single stories as well as subscriptions available through an app, which we will debut next month.

Yet a question remains: Why has it been the writers, the photographers and the musicians themselves taking these risks? That’s what we’d love to debate.

But that won’t happen until large publishers face the current realities. Until then, writers are all paying close attention as the data on this new era trickles in. Writing in Pando Daily over the weekend, Paul Carr, a founder of the digital magazine NSFWCorp, said he had done well with a story published through Byliner, the same digital publisher Horwitz says did poorly by him. Carr’s story attempted to shift the debate from whether digital formats have a future, to whether a particular deal with a particular publisher is enough evidence on which to base conclusions about the form. Carr claims he made about $10,000 on his own story about his recovery from alcoholism, and continues to receive royalties. That’s not bad.

Tony Horwitz also took that chance alone, whether he knew he was doing so or not. He went into the lab and experimented. It blew up in his face. Without existing institutions helping, you get cases like that. There will be more. It wasn’t his fault, but it also wasn’t his failed publishers’ fault, at bottom. It was the industry as a whole, which has decided to face a once-in-500-years technological shift as a problem for someone else to solve.

For now, that means the writers are the someone else. It’s surprising more of us don’t tell stories like Tony’s. It’s encouraging so many of us are trying to figure it out anyway, and, so far, doing pretty well.

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