Amazon’s recent announcement that it will begin paying authors who self-publish on the retailer’s various Kindle platforms according to the number of pages users have read has been received with much debate. On social media, writers have conjured the analogy of restaurant diners paying per consumed spoonful, and note the company’s ruthless competition strategies (a Vanity Fair essay by Keith Gessen subtitled “How did Amazon end up as Literary Enemy No. 1” provides the argument’s foundation). This decision has also sparked much debate over pay rates in the new economy of online lending-libraries and the effect this decision might have on writing. All of which is boundlessly fascinating and should be discussed as an impetus to examine the changing economics of online publishing. I, however, would like to look at only one thing: the metric Amazon is using – length – and readers’ response to its reality and implications.
A per-page pay scale privileges a certain kind of writing, one reliant on cliffhangers and withholding information, among other tactics. It reflects what many readers have come to expect of online writing, or the commonplace internet style: news-oriented, fast-paced articles packaged by a sensational title. (While this approach isn’t a new invention – a newspaper like Daily Mail does the same thing in print – its online effect is greater since going viral became an economic model.) Speculating on the possible impact of Amazon’s new pay model, we need to take into account other conversations about the nature of digital publishing: the widespread use of tablets; the so-called crisis of journalism; the rise of a new kind of media company, from Medium to Vox. The Telegraph sarcastically flipped the Amazon decision into a symbol of anti-intellectualism in an op-ed reading: “From James Joyce to Thomas Piketty, writers have been getting away with books no one reads for too long.” But examples like Joyce and Melville do belong in the discourse about online publishing, where length has become a symbol of quality.
This isn’t new. People used to measure influence in column inches. Removing the limitations of print, the internet (no longer fettered by the cost of paper, ink, and circulation) has initiated an economy of scale that affects both publishing and writing. Eliminating spatial constraints, an exponential increase in long-form writing is taking hold of online publishing. And it circulates via hashtags (#longform, #longread) and their corresponding Twitter feeds.
The idea of recirculating material is, of course, not new – Reader’s Digest has been publishing since 1922, serving readers a sampling of articles about general-interest subjects from a variety of magazines – but it issues a new urgency, since in the fast-moving pace of web-based publishing, an online article has a longer shelf-life when tagged as “long.” Circulating via these length-oriented dissemination mechanisms, these articles become branded as “serious.”
The fixation with long, essayistic writing online revolves around the label “longform.” In widespread use since 2011, the terms “longform” and “longread” have been posited as both the past of web writing, and its future. Regarding the former, they’re viewed as an adoption of print media – a feature or an essay – that’s printed online, maybe sprinkled with links, but not written or designed with the web first in mind. Regarding the future, this expansive writing is regarded as the potential of online writing, a considered reaction to what is now called “content snacking,” especially on mobile platforms. Since the interest in longform continues to grow, digital media companies are investing in, or trying to build new business models for, its model, from such varied platforms as Epic to Fusion to The New Republic (which now refers to itself as a “vertically integrated digital media company”).
So is longform an adjective or a genre? The term has come to describe creative nonfiction on the internet, but since few online publishers regularly experiment with enhanced content or any other web-first forms, the qualifier has come to connote, simply, an article’s length. Experiments with new formats have been incredibly successful, however. The oft-quoted example is The New York Times’s piece, “Snow Fall,” which – with its novel design and custom-made enhanced content, from video and audio to interactive maps – was heralded as presenting a possible new future for journalism. It’s still discussed today, and there’s been talk of a so-called (and aptly termed) “Snow-Fall effect,” where other journals (see for example The Guardian’s important “NSA Files: Decoded”) experiment with enhanced, immersive, or interactive content.
Indeed, we’re beginning to acclimate to the Snow-Fall effect. By now, a number of magazines and newspapers have followed the example of The New York Times to create multimedia articles that any online reader will recognize: scroll-based, single column, full-bleed images, embedded video and sound. However, as readers grow accustomed to reading on a screen, some of us wonder if such multimedia features are simply disruptive to storytelling.
Hyperlinking doesn’t necessarily affect an analysis of the essays cited (I’m personally very much at fault here: this article consistently relies on hyperlinks to support its references); enhanced video content translates to more time on a page (translating to advertising dollars, since the more time viewers spend on a page, the more they’re exposed to the ads on it), but not necessarily to prolonged engagement. And the combination of all these different forms of narrative can simply prove distracting.
There are solutions: long essays published on the online music magazine Pitchfork, for instance, feature a full-screen option in a simple, intuitive move towards reader engagement. And reading on a dedicated mobile app requires a very different kind of attention, since switching between apps takes more initiative than changing tabs on a browser.
Why is attention so important? Because it can be directly translated to revenue. Last year, Time magazine ran an article titled “What You Think You Know About the Web Is Wrong,” where Tony Haile, the CEO of data analytics company Chartbeat, claimed that we’ve entered the post-click age of a web reliant on attention:
Something is happening to the click web. Spurred by new technology and plummeting click-through rates, what happens between the clicks is becoming increasingly important. … New upstarts like Medium and Upworthy are eschewing page views and clicks in favor of developing their own attention-focused metrics. Native advertising, advertising designed to hold your attention rather than simply gain an impression, is growing at an incredible pace. It’s no longer just your clicks they want; it’s your time and attention. Welcome to the Attention Web.
When The Atlantic asked The New York Times deputy director of digital design Andrew Kueneman about the possibility of advertising on “Snow Fall”–like articles, he replied, “I can’t speak to this really – but my hope is that we can create beautiful environments advertisers want to be. I hope the impact is positive.” In what Haile calls the Attention Web, the time spent on a page is a crucial factor for advertisers. This means that those time-to-read metrics (where an article is tagged as a seven-minute read, for example) are data given to readers and advertisers alike. This is why “Snow Fall” may be worth a lot of money. What will native advertising look like outside of Buzzfeed, for instance (where it takes the form of sponsored content), and social networks (sponsored posts)? It may rely on longform journalism as a hallmark of time-measured attention.
Beyond advertising, the potential of multimedia content – the reason it’s discussed as the future of journalism – is that reading habits are changing. With the popularity of tablets and e-readers, there is a growing body of research being produced regarding the way we retain information read onscreen, versus on paper. Nicholas Carr claims in The Shallows that the internet has cut our attention spans and essentially “makes us stupid.” In an attempt to summarize the discussion on whether or not the web has altered concentration, a Scientific American article condenses many recent researches into the e-book reading experiences, including some interesting conclusions, such as the idea that the intuitive design of handheld devices actually hinders their use since it prohibits a natural mental mapping of a text. It concludes that “polls and consumer reports indicate that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way.”
Quoting the same Scientific American article, journalist Clive Thompson decided to take on a project: to read War and Peace on his smartphone. In a relatively short essay (at 5,591 words, it’s – just – possible to read this on a screen), he looks back to the history of the “pocket-size” book initiated in the 1930s, and the explosion in everyday reading that ensued with this convenient, cheap form. Thompson also looks forward to the future of reading and wonders if we’ll ever give up on paper. He concludes that not only was it much easier to read the Russian classic on his phone, it also challenged his presumption that reading on a screen feels inconsequential when compared to reading a heavy tome. One point he emphasizes, however, may provide the crux of a future print-to-screen shift: that a reader internalizes a perceived difference in quality between print and online material – that “serious” writing goes in print, and fleeting arguments can be found onscreen. “It’s because we expect print to be intellectually engaging,” he concludes. The difference between paper and monitor is in what the reader internalizes.
Undoing these biases isn’t achieved alone by experimenting with reading a great novel on a small screen (as fun as it may be to query). In the past five years, with the emergence of the longform essay, the approach to web-based writing is changing in two crucial, complementary ways: form and content. In form, this shift is occurring in the new feature-length design mentioned above, which is essentially a reaction to a lurking, definite change in economic structures online. The result? No more slideshows, no more multi-page scrolling meant to generate more clicks. (It seems online publishers have become alert to these techniques being associated with a certain kind of web writing and a crystal-clear economic tactic they no longer wanted to perpetuate). Add to this change “read-it-later” services like Pocket and Instapaper (which essentially takes the article away from the original webpage and makes it available to the reader offline), and you have a publishing landscape in need of an economic review, possibly requiring a shift away from advertising and towards (or returning to) a pay-wall or subscription model. Nevertheless, this landscape demands huge advances in terms of content.
Mainstream journalism is definitely the first example of a field chipping away at the inherent prejudices of online publishing: a New York Times Magazine editor has described that, “Contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s our longest pieces that attract the most online traffic” (Momus can attest to this, as well). The Guardian has experimented with a longform daily focus, as well – one that sadly expired with the departure of the staffer who promoted it, Dan Catt. In his introduction to “The Good Long Read,” Catt wrote, “The project is in its infancy but one thing I’ve already found out is that there is a growing community of people dedicated to spreading good writing using the very technologies that people say is killing longform journalism.”
In the wake of the Amazon pay-per-page-read financial model and the possible subjection of longform content to new advertising strategies, should we be optimistic or discouraged about the future of the online essay and its public? In an interview with The Guardian, Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books, explained the magazine’s generous word-counts quite simply, saying, “I think there’s an awful lot of short opinion around, and it’s quite nice to find an argument in a piece that isn’t just stated.”
Why would we associate this breadth of thinking and space with print when there is work to be done online? We shouldn’t slap something with a single hashtag based on a certain metric, but acknowledge and promote our changing habits. Authors, don’t be scared of Amazon. Keep writing long, serious essays and books. Not only will they be read, they will be circulated online, and help us continue to challenge and prolong the present and future of reading.