Why and How I Wrote a Kindle Single
28/11/2011 § 8 Comments
THE WAGES PAID to foreign stringers – the occasional contributors newspapers rely on to cover vast swaths of the planet – even shock reporters. Between $200 and $300 per dispatch is common. $500 is desirable. That fee represents work taking about a day, sometimes two, to complete in a dignified manner. You identify what’s most important or interesting in a situation, talk to people about it, confirm what they tell you, perhaps travel to an event and record the details, write up the story, find a place to send it back to the publisher, and wait an hour. Then you go through one or more rounds of questions and edits. A twelve hour day is a minimum, and longer ones very common. That process doesn’t really change, whether you are covering a distillers’ convention or the Libyan Revolution.
It’s fair money if you’re sending a story every day. But you usually aren’t. And you pay your own expenses. For that reason, twenty years ago, I went into magazines instead. Magazines calculate fees differently from newspapers and wires. Magazines pay by the word, and they typically assign a lot of words. $.50-$3.00/wd is common for magazines. If you work a month on a 3500 word story, you earn $1750 on the low end, and $10,000 on the higher end. One starts to see one’s way to a middle class life at those rates. Magazines are also linked closely to the book industry. In 1997, a story I wrote about a gold rush in Latin America earned me about $6,000. A few years later, I expanded the story and got a book deal worth $50,000. That sounds good, and it is. But it takes awhile to produce these stories, and one faces travel expenses and taxes and so forth. And selling a big story every month, at a good rate, requires a steady stream of ideas and information — a reason, beside public spiritedness, that foreign affairs reporters often flock to disasters and conflicts. In the end, working steadily I earned about as much as a public school teacher, with a similar trade-off of costs and benefits. You have to hustle, but you do fine.
Or did, until the bottom fell out of the market a few years ago. The financial crisis has famously hit publishing very hard, and the appetite for international news has never been a major source of income for the industry anyway. Most of the places I used to sell my work stayed in business, but tightened their budgets considerably.
When the Libyan conflict began, I had just written two stories for the print edition of The Atlantic Monthly — about vacations. An editor there asked me what I was doing next, and I said I was going to Tunisia by ferry. The tense I’d used — the future — was a salesman’s elision from the conditional tense. What I meant was “If you hire me to write about the ferry that floats from France to Tunisia, I am going to go, and from there I will likely head toward Libya. If you don’t, then I won’t.” She did.
Here is where the story gets more interesting. The Atlantic recently announced that its income from digital operation — its website — has surpassed what it earns from the traditional magazine it has published to great acclaim for more than a century. But the digital side still pays very little money to journalists who work for it, while the print side pays $2/wd. So what I did was take the money I earned from the story about the ferry, and proposed to spend it writing about Libya for the digital side. They agreed. I did this because I needed imprimatur to get people to grant me interviews, grant me access as a member of the press, and generally take me seriously. With that imprimatur, I could report, and if I could report, I could write something later that would succeed as both journalism, and as business.
I mentioned the market has narrowed. If your goal is to write several thousand words encompassing a complex event, it’s even narrower. You must sell the story to one of the very few publications that still has the budget to publish such work, and you have to get past the thousands of other perfectly qualified people with equally significant stories to tell.
You could also try to sell a traditional book. But to do that requires writing a detailed proposal, toward a final product that will not appear for the better part of a year, or, often, even two.
The Kindle Single was my agent’s idea. Amazon provided an experienced editor who offered notes and a copy editor who checked the grammar and usage, and hired a designer to make the cover. This proved, in my case, a workable middle option. It was a way to tell the story in a way that reminded me of magazine journalism, but avoided the intense competition for the attention of a handful of editors in the traditional press who still buy this sort of work. And it’s providing the possibility of ultimately funding the work — we sell it, very inexpensively, for consumption on Kindle readers, and smartphones, tablets and PCs with a Kindle app.
The final story at the end of this cobbled-together process was 35 pages long and called The Shores of Tripoli. As journalism, it was its own reward: the story exists. But in the end, one writes to be read, and to keep producing work for public consumption, one must figure out a reliable way to pay for it. I priced The Shores of Tripoli at two bucks. The other book I have on Amazon, the one I got $50k for years ago, started out at $27.50 for the hardback, and now it’s still $9.99 for the download — my old publisher’s orders. So there’s a basis for comparison. We’ll see.
The Shores of Tripoli is available for $1.99 at Kindle Singles.