When a Web Community Becomes a Book Publisher

Longreads crowdsources and curates its way to its first-ever ebook. 

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At the end of last year, Longreads, one of the curators of lengthy, magazine-y stories that has sprung up to help fans of long-form journalism find great stuff online, released a list highlighting the top ten longreads of 2011.

The list included such savor-worthy pieces as Maria Bustillos' examination of David Foster Wallace's private self-help library, for The Awl; Jeff Wise's investigation into the crash of Air France 447, for Popular Mechanics; and Amy Harmon's exploration of adult autism, for The New York Times. The list was, in other words, fantastic.

Today, the list is taking a new form -- as an ebook, which is available for $6.99 on Amazon. The folks at Longreads have licensed seven of the original collection's stories, working out a revenue sharing arrangement between the pieces' authors and the stories' original publishers to ensure that -- in vague IP-ese -- both content creators and rights-holders benefit from the book's sale. (Longreads, for its part, will get a cut, as well.)

Why seven of the ten? "Everybody we talked to was very excited about the opportunity," Longreads founder Mark Armstrong told me, "but there were a couple where the timing just didn't work out. We wanted to move fairly quickly to make this available."

Fairly quickly, indeed! This is the new publishing economy in action: fast and flexible and revolving around products whose logic is responsive, rather than predictive. As an industry, publishing has traditionally relied on a book-then-audience framework, an if-you-build-it-they-will-come sort of infrastructure that injected a bunch of uncertainty -- and, therefore, inefficiency -- into the publishing process. A book's audience was potentially big, but also simply potential: Until sales numbers brought clarity to the situation, a title's market was largely assumed, which is to say, hoped for.

And hope has never been much of a business model.

All the uncertainty has been necessary in a mass-market world that's relied almost exclusively on things like media appearances and table placement at bookstores to sell books. A book deal, traditionally, has been about marketing as much as production. In a digital environment, though -- with long-tail economics that allow niche products to find their markets and vice versa -- the Assumed Audience no longer needs to be publishing's guiding paradigm. Ebooks, with Amazon as both the environment and the arbiter of transaction, allow for much more elasticity and efficiency. That's what Longreads can take advantage of as it transforms itself from curator to publisher: Build a book not just for an audience, but of an audience.

And! Do it all really, really quickly. Longreads: Best of 2011 went from idea to Amazon-available product in less than a month, Armstrong notes. Of course, part of what allowed the book to come together so nimbly was the fact that its content was already, you know, content. Best of 2011 is just what its name suggests: a work of curation, of aggregation, rather than original narrative. One of the inefficiencies of traditional publishing has been something that even Amazon's connective, collective power can't remedy: Book-length narratives take a crazy-long time to research and produce. And until the robots fully take over, that's not going to change. Because of that, some of the most interesting, and telling, experiments in ebook publishing have been playing out -- and will likely continue to play out -- with re-appropriated content.

Which means, for authors, a shift in the focus of book promotion from publisher...to community. Being included in a collection is different, obviously, from authoring your own book: It's a different kind of exclusivity, one that's both more passive, and more serendipitous, than first-person-primary authorship. The Longreads book is the product, ultimately, of crowdsourcing -- of collective marketing that ebbs and flows over time. The pieces included in the collection are there because they spread, organically, in the digital space -- through Facebook, through Twitter, through the #longreads hashtag. That's the (completely appropriate) irony of the Longreads book: Its stories are frozen in book form because, marketing-wise, they proved so dynamic.

Add to that another twist: that the book's community is both its producer and its target consumer. Though there's still inevitable uncertainty about who, ultimately, will pony up the $7 to purchase the book, there's much less uncertainty about who will likely be doing the ponying: the people who enjoyed, and shared, the book's stories in the first place. There's a circularity to the Best of 2011, one that, business-wise, could well prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy: It represents a community that, with Longreads as its locus, is building a product for itself. A curated ebook "seemed like a natural progression for us," Armstrong says, "given the daily curation that we do at Longreads and the community we've built around discovering, sharing, and supporting outstanding storytelling. This is just another way for us to do it."

Image: Amazon.