May 23, 2013

How do you publish long form work? Talking shop with Evan Ratliff, Aaron Lammer, and John Shankman


We wrote to three publishers—Evan Ratliff of The Atavist, Aaron Lammer of Longform, and John Shankman of The Awl—to ask how they continued to publish long form work, how they manage to pay writers for time-intensive projects, and how the industry is changing.

Long form journalism is time-consuming, research-intensive, and often expensive to produce. How does anyone continue to publish it? What recent changes in journalism are most apparent to you?

“I think the biggest change that could cause people to present this ‘long form is dead’ mentality is the STRONG emergence of the type of and sheer volume of new media,” said Shankman. “The emergence and shininess of [Tweets, Facebook updates, and pageview turning blog posts] have just taken the spotlight off of long form to a certain degree.”

“The most important shift in the last five years,” said Lammer, “has been the move to mobile. The web browser is a crappy place to read at any length, and phones and tablets are built for it…. As smartphones and tablets become completely commonplace (we’re already close), the audience will grow, and I expect a diverse set of publishers will connect with them.”

“The main change,” wrote Ratliff, “that’s most apparent is that an area that five years ago was considered a backwater, being drained of its life by the heartless Web, is now bordering on some kind of trend. In some ways I’m not sure which is more scary. But more and more places are concluding that their readers may not be idiots, and that actually a lot of people still want—or even need—context and beauty amidst their daily deluge of information. And that to me can only be a good thing.

“It’s still a struggle for writers to make a living creating this kind of work. But the truth is, at least in my career, it’s always been so.”

How can publishers make the work remunerative for writers?

Ratliff says of The Avatist, “Readers pay for what they want, and a lot of what they pay gets passed right through to the author. Because we are doing direct sales, and not relying on advertising, it’s much easier to share royalties from each story with the writers. And I think that’s a model (a fee + a royalty that’s usually 50%) that allows us to get a lot of great work. We’ve paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees and royalties in two years. A writer is taking on more risk with us than they are with a typical fee-based magazine piece (although depending on who they write for, our fees may even be competitive). But they also have a much bigger possibility for an upside… I would never suggest that our model is something that publications should replicate. We’re one way of approaching it, mixing book sales model with a magazine approach, and ask readers to pay for the work.

“Whether long form work within that model is remunerative at some acceptable level for writers has too many variables to calculate. People write for all sorts of reasons, different types of writing may or may not deserve different levels of remuneration depending on where you are sitting.”

Editors from The Awl discussed this at length in a conversation on Branch. Some writers said they’d consider working for free to build professional relationships or get a byline at a new publication.

What about the economics of long form?

“Anecdotally, I’ve heard that for many [publishers], long form stories drive a significant portion of their monthly unique [views], so there are some clear upsides,” said Lammer.

Longform doesn’t publish original writing (we occasionally seek out the rights to reprint something great that isn’t online) so I can’t speak directly to the economics.  The trajectory we’ve seen in three years of running Longform is that more great work is being produced and from a wider variety of sources.

“Stories that get linked to from Longform are produced everywhere from the biggest magazines and newspaper all the way down to personal blogs, so there isn’t a consistent economic model for them. Some appear in print and online, some originate on the web, some are produced by non-profits with grant funding, others might even be sponsored content.”

Ratliff adds, “We actually do two things at Atavist: publish digital long form journalism (sometimes now called “e-singles”), and we make a software platform that other people and organizations pay us to use. So we have found multiple ways of making money, and they are all mixed up together. All of which is to say that we have found some ways to make money creating digital long form, but that doesn’t always mean that it is always profitable in and of itself.

“We’ve been working to combine single-copy sales with subscriptions, foreign sales, movie deals, and more to try and make each piece worth its while.”

What do you believe is a responsible way to handle sponsored content?

Shankman said, “The minute you try to fool the audience or present something that’s a terrible fit, you get in trouble. My experience, though, has shown as long as you are honest about what kind of content this is and its origins (sponsored versus pure editorial), the readers are cool with it and it makes for effective marketing.”

Longform doesn’t do sponsored content, but it does promote its sponsors weekly. “We try to label them well and not clutter the site with too many of them, and since they’re only once a week, people seem to click through, which is nice for everyone involved,” said Lammer.

When does it stop being a marketplace?

“The only time it really stops being a marketplace is when a publication has some source of outside funding (whether it’s a non-profit approach or something else) that will continue no matter what audience you have,” said Ratliff.

“Otherwise, no publication, including us, can completely ignore what it readers want and plan to be around for very long. We have both the advantage and disadvantage that it’s often very hard to tell what will catch on and what won’t, when it comes to long form nonfiction sold as e-singles. So that makes it hard to pick winners, but also gives us the freedom to do stories that we feel are worth telling, without always focusing on sales. But one reason I always emphasize that we’re not trying to create some kind of generalized model for other publications is that there are certain stories that probably just won’t ever work as well in this format.”

Longform‘s model is a bit different than the others; it has had NPR as an ad partner for the three years since the publication began. Lammer said, “The only shift [in those three years] has been towards getting more of what we do—our podcast, newsletter, etc.—sponsored. Currently, the Longform app has no advertising.”

What’s coming in the next five years?

Lammers predicts, “Readers will probably focus more on the writers they like than the publications who put them out, and significant numbers of writers will probably shift to publishing directly. I think a blurring of the difference between article and book will probably follow, with lots of writers focusing on delivering 50-100 page works that can be read in a few hours.”

When asked if he planned to launch other verticals, Shankman answered, “Possibly? Definitely maybe?”

Ratliff says, “If I had even moderate predictive powers, I’d be out at my local OTB right now.”


Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.