As if longtime Columbia J-school professor Michael Shapiro didn’t already have enough to do, with Big Round Table launching in September: Yesterday he put 17 of his students’ stories online in a pay-what-you want experiment. Project Wordsworth runs for the next week. The idea intrigues us* and we’re interested to see what will happen. As of this morning Project Wordsworth had seen 5,000 page views and the writers, Shapiro said, had earned more than $1,000. Excerpts from a few of the stories:
W.125th to 99 Madison Avenue: 30 minutes on the 1 and N trains according to Google, which was five minutes off. Apparently, Google doesn’t account for 4 inch heels in their walking and transfer time estimations. Seat: Yes. Ambiance: 4. Time in transit: 35 minutes. The OpenData NYC meet-up was hosted at ThoughtWorks, one of the many Manhattan tech start-ups indistinguishable from each other with their fridges full of beers and vague mission statements. ThoughtWorks was unusual only in that its offices were in Midtown rather than the downtown corridor of the original “Silicon Alley.” (from “The Little Blue Book: The Worlds of Commuting Obsessives,” by Madeline K.B. Ross)
Sitting on a plastic bed in the in-patient/out-patient wing of the Weinberg Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins with an IV connected to a catheter that had been implanted in my chest, things were looking up. It was 2008 and I was 28 years old, and due to a recent battery of high-dose chemotherapy that had left me with maybe one white blood cell, which I’d named Melvin, I had to wear one of those surgeon’s masks at all times to keep the world’s germs out of my face. Here I was, if you can imagine, bald and eyebrowless with a paper mask over my mouth, a tube coming out of my chest, the picture of cancer, and things were looking up. Scans showed that the cancer (along with just about every other cell in my body) was disappearing. (from “Healing Me Harshly,” by Keith Collins)
Kathryn Denning spends a lot of time studying scientists who think about aliens. Denning, an anthropologist at York University in Canada, is fascinated by the idea of The Other in relation to humans. Her recent research has focused on how scientists think about the evolution of intelligence in relation to hypothetical extraterrestrials, ethical difficulties and the future of the human colonization of Space. A big reason we’re so drawn to space, she told me, is “its importance in traditional culture.” We all share the experience of looking up at the stars and trying to make sense of it all. “It tends to get intertwined with the heavens and Heaven and we think of it as a place of revelations and knowledge and dreams,” Denning said. (from “Cosmic Postcards: The Adventures of an Armchair Astronaut,” by Kamakshi Ayyar)
In the days and months that followed I replayed the incident in my head over and over again. It seemed so unreal that I often questioned whether what I saw actually happened or if I dreamed it all up. What always made it real again was not the image of a man jumping but the memory of the jolt the train made as it ran over his body. I needed to know who this man was. I looked in the newspapers but found very little. I learned that his name was Dwight Brown and that he was 27 years old. He lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Then the trail dried up. It was as if this man’s trace of life vanished. I thought if I could find more about this man, meet his family and friends, I would be able to make sense of that morning. (from “The Witness,” by Mary Ann Georgantopoulos)
Shapiro also gave us a status report on his larger project, The Big Round Table, a Kickstarter-funded web-based publisher of longform narrative that attempts to crowd-curate storytelling by bypassing the “gatekeepers” of publishing and posting what readers say they want to read. Stories get greenlighted by a cooperative of journalists “committed to the future of big narrative ambitious nonfiction” based on the first 1,000 words. Writers earn $1 of every sale. We talked to Shapiro last night by email. Here’s some of the discussion:
Storyboard: You went big with the pitch: “There is a revolution taking place in journalism. With it have come possibilities for writers who despaired of ever finding a way to make a living at their craft. Writers are now freed from the constraints of convention in telling their stories and from the commercial needs of editors and publishers, who determine what tales get told. That, in turn, means a new era of creativity for authors of narrative nonfiction—new writers, new stories, new audiences waiting for a friend to say, Here’s a story you’ll want to read. The Big Roundtable is more than a digital publishing platform; it is a movement, one that we believe can expand the possibilities for writers, and readers.” Where’d this idea come from?
Shapiro: It came from, how best to put it, 35 years of writing for a living—in newspapers, magazines, and books, and seeing how the publishing world felt as it were shrinking, while all around it, the world was expanding. Believe me, I felt the pinch. There was ever more pressure, especially when it came to books, to come up with ideas that were sure to sell. Well, how is anyone supposed to know what will sell, other than genre fiction? At the same time, magazines were feeling ever more predictable, and had been for years. For several years I was a judge at the National Magazine Awards, and found ever more that while the stories I was reading while not bad, seldom lifted off the page. The writing had become so formulaic, so safe—anecdotal lede, nut graf, quote from eminent sociologist. It was ever harder to find a story that you sensed a writer needed to tell. And we all know the difference. We know what it is like writing a story that burns inside of us, and a story that is, well, interesting. The result was a landscape of predictability. Why were journalists, smart and eager journalists, constrained, when writers of creative fiction were freer to experiment and push? What happened to the New Journalism revolution? I cannot believe it peaked a generation ago. Where was the surprise?
You had a $5,000 Kickstarter goal and took in nearly $19,219, from 220 backers. Who gave, and why?
People we know—God bless them. And a lot of people we’d never heard of who contributed generously and who sometimes wrote to say, Hey, cool idea. I have a story. Can I send it along? The answer was, and is, always yes. (Pitches should go to TheBRTable@gmail.com.)
“Now everyone can be a writer and a publisher,” you said in your campaign. Please explain.
I suspect every writer falls asleep and dreams that come the dawn they will become the next Amanda Hocking, that from the acorn of a few sales via Amazon to friends will spring the mighty oak of best-sellerism. Pretty to think so, no? The problem isn’t one of production or dissemination; no one needs a publisher to print and sell. The problem is audience. How do you find one, and make people feel as if their lives will be lessened if they don’t read your work?
But hold on: There’s still a gatekeeper aspect, because BRT ultimately decides which stories move forward. No?
Yes. But. The gatekeeper is not me. Lord knows if it were me there would be a surfeit of baseball stories. Who is to say that my taste, or any other individual’s tastes, is superior? I may be skilled at seeing where a story slips and can be improved. But I enjoy no monopoly on taste, and nor does anyone else. And so, we’re experimenting, yes experimenting because in a venture like the BRT we are in a permanent state of beta, with the idea that if you ask a small group of readers what they think about a story, you improve the chances of achieving that rarest and most sought after quality in a story: surprise. In an early—call it alpha—version of the experiment, we asked people to read full drafts. Huge mistake. Because presented with a story, writers cannot help but take out their red pens and try to fix things. So, we wondered what would happen if we asked those same people to read, say, the first 1,000 words. Takes five minutes. You can do it on your phone waiting for your tall soy latte. All we asked was: Do you want to read more, or no thanks? Quick response, and much more useful. It told us whether the story had an audience. Why 1,000 words? Because—and here, I am drawing more on experience than data—if you can nail the first 1,000 words of a story, the odds are good that you’re on your way.
Curation is the thing right now—Longreads, Longform.org, etc. You describe the project as a platform “through which writers of nonfiction stories too long for most magazines, and too short for most publishers, can find their readers,” but that also describes, sort of, platforms like Byliner and, to some extent, Kindle Singles, which publishes stories too long for a magazine and too short for a book. How does BRT differ from those?
All our content is original. Byliner does some original work, but mostly curated; they’ve been very kind about curating my stuff. I know David Blum, who edits Kindle Singles, and think he is a very smart editor. But in the end, David, talented as he is, is the gatekeeper. We’re trying something different.
The idea is that a happy reader will (and can) share the story with three friends, which is encouraged through the BRT model. The sharing aspect seems central to this concept. Why the sharing?
Think about it: When you choose what you read for pleasure is on the basis of a) a review, b) something you heard or read about, or c) because a friend, not a Facebook friend but a living breathing want-to-get-dinner-this-week friend, said, You Have to Read This! I’ve asked this question many times to many different groups of people over the past year and the answer always comes up C. It is all about sharing. The question is, How do you replicate that moment at scale? That, in the end, is what this is all about. Again, it is all about increasing the chances of finding under your nose a story that is surprising.
Writers will make $1 per sale. How will you handle the operational transparency aspect with writers? How will writers know precisely how well their work is doing and whether they’re getting their fair share?
We will do so contractually—no writer should ever for a moment think, Jeez, these guys aren’t being straight with me. That would be bad on so many levels.
You use the term “nonfiction novella,” the kind of language that makes a lot of people nervous. What does that term mean, from BRT’s perspective?
It means too long for most magazines and too short for a conventional book. Say, 5,000 to 30,000 words. Loosely. There are so many times I wished I had more space—and I have written 17,000-word magazine stories. I also can look at my books and think, you know, I think this would have been perfect at 40,000. If my publisher reads this they will not be pleased. Sorry fellas.
It lives on the Internet because we live in a world where it is ever clearer that the Internet—and by this I mean the great amorphous amalgam of feeds and inboxes—decides what shall thrive. There is a terrific book by the sociologist Duncan Watts called Six Degrees—as in, yes, six degrees of separation—that captures as well as anything I’ve read the science of social networks. Watts is a pal of Jonah Peretti of Buzzfeed and HuffPost fame, and they take different views of network creation. Peretti, a born optimist, believes that it is possible to tweak a budding network into something larger. Duncan takes a less sunny view. I fall someplace in between but veer toward Jonah. The Internet feels to me like a lava lamp, bubbling around, waiting for someone or something to tip it and get all that action flowing a certain way. Does this analogy make me sound like a Dead Head?
Yes. In a good way. The first story runs in August. What’s in the lineup? Can you give us some idea of the first few pieces?
Some great ones, and I will do so as cryptically as I can, so that people might think, “cool:” Inside the Albanian Mob; My Weekend at Adolf’s; How Disco Never Died; The Mother of Creedmoor; Of Inmates, Fire, and Death; The Miracle on Molokai. And those are but a few.
Generally speaking, are BRT stories those that got rejected elsewhere?
Maybe. We look at the stories as stories. We don’t ask them to come with a CV.
It can be hard enough getting phone calls returned when you’re on staff, but when you’re working without an institution attached to your project, how do you represent yourself? How would you advise a prospective BRT author to identify herself?
I am a writer with a story to tell. Here it is. Our promise is that people will read the first 1,000 words.
Will the authors report/write the whole piece on spec and then hope the thing flies with readers? So much of great storytelling depends on the reporting. You need to report enough to write a great top, since readers will green light the piece (or not) based on the first 1,000 words, but that puts writers working without a net. Say you spend three months reporting enough just to get a great opening, but then nobody bites. That’s three months you just spent, for nothing. Or no?
Out there, as I write, I know, just know, that there are all these wonderful writers with stories burning in their notebooks who are thinking, “There is more to this story than 700 words.” Maybe the New Yorker? The Times magazine? Maybe. But the odds aren’t good. I know this because I have been that writer and I wanted to tell that story and yes, I wanted to be paid for it. But I needed to tell it. And to put my money where my mouth is, I’m working on one now for the BRT. I really need to tell this one. No advance.
Who is your envisioned audience?
Ah, that is the $64,000 question. We have an incredible story in which a woman recounts her banker father slowly drinking himself to death. (Trust me, you cannot put this one down.) Is that only for an audience of children of alcoholics? Or will others, for whom this bears no direct connection to their lives, nonetheless see in the story a quality that speaks to them, that surprises them?
Who will edit the stories? Will there be fact checkers? Copyeditors? How will the actual editorial process work?
We have my all time favorite editor working with us, Mike Hoyt, the longtime editor of Columbia Journalism Review. Best hands, as they say, in the business. If we don’t have terrific stories, and yes fact-checked stories, we are nowhere. But it is not Mike’s job to choose. It is his job to lift those stories, with the author.
You have a stated goal of studying “how people find, read, fall in love with a share stories” and becoming “the research lab of the longform revival” by gathering data that “will at long last illuminate what happens when one friend feels compelled to share a story with another.” There’s a longform revival?
Don’t you think so? Look at all these ventures—Atavist, Longform, Longreads, to say nothing of these heretofore impossible to imagine stories in the Times and elsewhere.
We like “longform” without the hyphen. Looks like you do too.
You’ve said a paid staff will produce BRT. Paid how? Who’s on the masthead?
We have some money from Kickstarter and hope to start getting more—grants, we hope. We have a small staff: Mike, me; our product manager is a journalism school grad, Anna Hiatt. We’re being assisted by Rashmi Raman, who is our engineer, Anna Codrea-Rado, who manages the audiences and our designer, Eleonore Hamelin.
You’ll sell directly from the BRT website rather than through a distributor like Amazon. Why?
Because Amazon does not share all its data. And we want, need, to be able to see and test and iterate.
Whom do you envision as your typical writer?
The writer with a story he or she is burning to tell. Really, it is that simple.
The goal is to understand how readers find, read and fall in love with work, and share it. Assuming you figure that out, what next?
Heaven knows. We’re making this up as we go along. I am learning what it means to be involved in a startup.
(*having had some experience with it ourselves)