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Feb. 15, 2011, 1 p.m.

1,900 copies: How a top-selling Kindle Single is generating new audiences for ProPublica

Listing the eight big trends journalism will see over the next year, Josh highlighted the increasing role that the singles model will play in the news. He was talking about the disaggregation of the author and the publisher — “a way for an individual writer to kind of go around getting the approval of a glossy magazine editor or getting a newspaper editor’s approval to get something to an audience.” But the idea has another intriguing twist, as well: individual news organizations using the singles model to circumvent traditional constraints on publishing.

One outlet that’s making a go of that approach is ProPublica, which, at the launch of Amazon’s Kindle Singles platform late last month, published a story as a Kindle Single: staff writer Sebastian Rotella‘s nearly 13,000-word-long exposé, “Pakistan and the Mumbai Attacks: The Untold Story.”

The piece, also available for free on the web, is a work of long-form investigative journalism, telling the story of the complex stew of relationships and circumstances that led to the 2008 terror attack on Mumbai. It’s long for a web piece, short for a book — right in the sweet spot Kindle Singles are trying to hit.

Selling it through Amazon for 99 cents was an experiment, Richard Tofel, ProPublica’s general manager, told me. From the looks of things, though, it’s been a successful one: The story’s been a regular in the top 10 of Kindle Singles bestsellers (it’s been as high as #2, as far as I’ve seen; it’s #6 at this writing). It’s also currently #1 in books about both terrorism and international security — and #1, for that matter, across all books (e- and otherwise) in Amazon’s International Security category. That, with almost no marketing effort (besides the placement of the story on Amazon’s site itself) on the part of ProPublica.

And if you’re wondering what being a top-10 Kindle Single gets you in terms of actual sales: In the first two weeks of its availability in the Singles Store, the piece sold more more than 1,900 copies, Tofel says.

The 1,900 sales number is certainly not a lot compared to other metrics (pageviews and the like). And given the story’s 99-cent pricing (the minimum amount for a Single) and the 70 percent royalty it means for ProPublica, the direct financial gain isn’t much, either. “The money will be nice, but even if you multiply the eventual sales of this by ten — and multiply that by 20 — it still doesn’t turn into enough money to float our boat,” Tofel notes.

Then again, pageviews — while they’re good at measuring a story’s popularity and decent at measuring its impact — don’t accrue to much direct financial gain, either, even on a site that accepts advertising. The Singles model, instead, allows ProPublica to take a new twist on the old “diversify your assets” maxim: It’s one more revenue stream for the outfit. And, given the broad brand exposure that being listed on Amazon’s site allows, the Singles model could allow separate (and sometimes contradictory) goals to be achieved on the same publishing platform: editorial impact and financial gain.

Besides, the value proposition here lies more in the cultural shift that the Kindle Single and its counterparts represent: the editorial normalization of long-form. The web isn’t bringing about the long-predicted “death of long-form”; on the contrary, it seems, the digital world is heralding a renaissance in long-form reportage. “The economics of book and magazine publishing for the last 100 years have had the effect of saying that you cannot write narrative nonfiction at longer than 10,000 words,” Tofel says — and, for that matter, shorter than book length.

Sheri Fink’s story on the chaos at a hospital devastated by Hurricane Katrina — the New York Times Magazine piece that won ProPublica its Pulitzer — was about the same length as Rotella’s story, around 13,000 words. And “that’s pretty much the outer edge of the range for a magazine piece,” Tofel notes. On the other side of the equation, you have books, where short of a certain length, Tofel notes, “it’s hard to charge enough for a book to make money.” Essentially, magazines have had a maximum length for stories, while books have had a minimum. The end result: “There’s this void,” Tofel notes. “And the void is dictated not by narrative, but by economics.” Despite the web’s ability to remove the physical constraints from the editorial process, until now, there hasn’t been a platform that’s been well suited to the length. Journalism hasn’t had its equivalent of the novella.

“One of the things that people were saying a few years ago is that long-form is dead,” Tofel notes. In reality, though, “long-form was never alive as a mass medium.”

Selling 1,900 copies at 99 cents doesn’t make for a mass medium either, exactly, but the hope is that the Singles model might allow for a kind of renaissance of the pamphlet, with benefits accruing to reported pieces. The platform allows users to get used (re-used) to the idea of journalism as a long-form, immersive proposition. And for an outfit whose specialty is deep-dive, attention-requiring narrative, that’s valuable. “Anything that promotes ways for people to effectively consume long-form journalism in the modern world is good for us,” Tofel notes. If the big question is whether there’s an audience for longform, he says, “this, to us, looks like an interesting way to find an audience.”

POSTED     Feb. 15, 2011, 1 p.m.
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