The Economist: “It’s still good to have gatekeepers”

The rise of ebooks and e-readers means changing reading habits and changing buying habits. That also means (or, had better mean) changes in publishing habits to keep up. For one thing, something like Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing means that short-form writing is much, much easier to publish. Yet ease of publishing doesn’t necessarily equate quality. And that’s exactly the point the Economist (“E-readers and magazines: It’s still good to have gatekeepers”) makes.

Think about what that gatekeeping function means. Meaning, readers will pay for both a seal of approval of that published writing, as well as paying for the serendipity of discovering something a reader might not know that they want to read. And there’s value in that. Imagine if we all only read the things that we thought we wanted to read, never venturing outside of our areas of interest, however narrow or broad they might be:

“The more general question, however, is whether publishers like Amazon (and particularly Amazon) represent a threat to the older magazine model, in which a variety of articles are bundled together and sold for a price that, even on the newsstand, is lower than what a reader would expect to pay if buying everything piecemeal. Part of the reason readers buy magazines is because they are comfortable outsourcing some of the decision-making about content delivery, and welcome the fact that magazines curate the news.”

Few readers are interested in every article, but most will enjoy several of them. And magazine buyers tend to enjoy the serendipity of stumbling upon something that turns out to be fascinating.”

The Publishers Weekly blog “Could Amazon Take Down ‘The New Yorker’?” also thinks about the larger implications of this ne, more direct publishing model:

“[W]hat’s stopping Amazon from gathering a store of “more literary” short stories from respected writers and releasing them every week, putting them directly in competition withThe New Yorker? They’ve already challenged every publisher, Apple, Barnes & Noble (not to mention killed Borders), Wal-Mart, and basically every other retailer in America. So why not start the siege on the old guard of literary journals and magazines? If Amazon decided, could they succeed?”

First, to answer the question posed in the PW blog post, no, Amazon will probably not replace The New Yorker (and assume that “Amazon” and “New Yorker” are placeholders for the different forms of publishing they represent). But still … from the writer’s perspective, it’s hard not to see why the appeal. A quicker, leaner, and meaner publishing process means writers can write and profit from more timely material. And the generous 70/30 revenue model of Kindle Direct Publishing is very appealing. It all comes down to quality of content, of which the New Yorker has a sizable advantage. For now —

“So, there are arguments for both The New Yorker and Kindle Singles. If you’re a reader, you obviously get more bang for your buck if you pick up The New Yorker, and you get a lot of quality content surrounding the short story if it turns out you don’t enjoy it. However, if Amazon were to start putting up quality short stories every week (and you could argue they already have), the consumer has the benefit of picking and choosing stories to put down money for every week.”

And secondly, the PW blog gives us something else to think about. Entertainment value: what’s that Kindle Single short story or New Yorker issue worth to us, exactly?

“If we think of “The Bathtub Spy” as an alternative to The New Yorker‘s weekly fiction offering (which is “El Morro” by David Means this week), we can compare some figures. As mentioned above, Rachman’s Kindle Single is $1.99 (and you can loan it once), and an issue of The New Yorker is either $5.99 (cover) or $1.49 (subscription). Rachman’s story is 15 pages; the current issue of The New Yorker is 84 pages.

For readers, is $1.99 too much for 30–45 minutes of entertainment? On average, we pay $8 for a movie ticket, which, if you say is two hours of entertainment, going to see a movie and buying a story from Amazon come out to the same price. With Amazon, assuming you like the story, you also have the benefit of keeping it on your Kindle or sharing it with someone.”

And by the way — Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists (mentioned in that Publisher’s Weekly blog post) is itself a good read, a novel which is about the changes of the newspaper industry told through a series of character-focused vignettes. I’d recommend it as a quick and generally enjoyable read.

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Also, an interesting piece of trivia, for those of us out there that have ever wondered, ‘how much is a New Yorker story worth?’ — “The closest estimate for how much The New Yorker pays for a short story is $7,500


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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