Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The numbers on self-publishing long form journalism [updated]

A year ago, I self-published a 10,000-word story on how the recession had impacted the adult movie industry, "They Shoot Porn Stars, Don't They?"

In April of 2009, I had spent a week in Los Angeles, interviewing adult performers and visiting adult movie sets. The story had been written for a publication, but after filing it, I had pulled it. I had done so for a variety of reasons, among them that I realized early on that I did not believe the editor was going to run the piece as I felt it should be run and that in that process I would lose control over the piece.

Initially, I shopped the story around to other publications, but all passed on publishing it. After that, I sat on the story for a while, unsure what to do. Ultimately, I decided to publish it myself. I hired designer and illustrator Chris Bishop, who I had worked with previously, to build and design the site. It would also feature photographs that I had taken while working on the story in the San Fernando Valley. And I hired Joanne Hinkel to copy edit the story.

On October 13, 2009, the site launched.
  • On the 13th, there were 8,960 visitors.
  • On the 14th, there were 18,217 visitors.
  • On the 15th, there were 11,268 visitors.
  • On the 16th, there were 11,318 visitors.
  • On the 17th, there were 23,817 visitors.
  • On the 18th, there were 20,021 visitors.
  • On the 19th, there were 14,988 visitors.
I received more email responses to this story than anything else I've published. The emails were overwhelmingly positive. People also seemed to respond positively to the fact that it had been self-published. I believe that people gathered it was a labor of love. There was no charge to read it. There was no advertising. It wasn't one more piece of content being sold in service of a brand. It wasn't one more story masquerading as a platform for advertising content.

Boing Boing called the story "bold and ambitious." Warren Ellis deemed it "brilliant." A commenter on Metafilter wrote, "Ms. Breslin has changed the way I think about the business of making pornography."

The numbers, according to Google Analytics, since the story was published:
  • Visits: 275,933
  • Unique Visitors: 219,153
  • Page Views: 1,249,042
  • Average Page Views: 4.53
  • Average Time on Site: 7:18
  • Bounce Rate: 22.83%
The majority of visitors are from the US, followed by Germany, Canada, the UK, and France. Others come from Trinidad, Congo, Iraq, Kazakhstan, and Papau New Guinea, among 197 other countries and territories. The most common search terms include "they shoot stars," "susannah breslin," and "porn stars."

Based on the numbers and the response, I feel this act of self-publishing was a success. But for me, it was more about being able to present my story the way it should be presented. Most people have no experience with the adult industry, and it never made sense to me why I should let an editor, a publication, or the insidious effects of a marketing department dictate the terms of my work. By retaining complete control over the story, I was able to maintain complete control over the truth of the story. And to me, that's what mattered in the end.

Update: I sent Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit a link to this story, to which he responded, "But how does it pay?" To which I responded, "Let me know when you figure that one out."

Of course, this is a question everyone is attempting to answering in journalism today, and I don't know the answer. For this story, generating advertising revenue would have been tricky, based on the explicit nature of the content. I published this story at a loss, financially speaking. I paid for the trip to Los Angeles and the cost of self-publishing.

My goal in this instance was to experiment with self-publishing. Would people read it? Would I enjoy the process? One year later, would I feel a sense of satisfaction and/or accomplishment? The answer to all those questions is yes.

It's also possible that the story did help me generate income indirectly. It certainly sent more visitors to my blog, it enabled me to showcase my abilities as a journalist, and I occasionally send it out as a sample clip in the process of securing other paid writing work.

Frankly, I feel like asking how it pays is beside the point. It paid me in non-monetary ways. Oftentimes, paid work degrades. This work inspired. That was pay enough for me at this juncture.

Considering how shitty much of the content generated online is these days, I felt relieved to be off the money track, a road that can lead to a real lack that goes beyond money.

Update 2:
Ms. Breslin:

I read your article on They Shoot Porn Stars, Don't They? with some personal interest; I had considered getting involved in the production & sales end of the business at one point in my life, and these days I'm looking at doing a book on [redacted]. I hope I'm not the hundredth reader to ask this, but what stopped you from putting a Paypal link on that web page and asking readers to throw you some cash if they liked the story or found it interesting? There's damn little objective reporting on the porn business, as you know all too well, and even if the book publishers don't think the story will sell, you have hundreds of thousands of people that prove otherwise. There was also the possibility of putting up Google ads or links to appropriate products from Amazon.

Finally, e-books are beginning to form a distinct market out there, and authors are beginning to get their work out to Kindle and Nook and iPad owners without having to get bent over by Random House/Bertelsmann/whoever to do it. I know I'd pay 4-5 bucks to see your story in e-book form, and more to see a longer version.

I understand that your main thing is researching and writing, not fighting with your website to get some widget to work right so it can maybe throw you a couple bucks, but there are journalists making the freelance online thing work. Michael Yon is just one example; surely if he can attract a large enough body of readers to support him flying off to Afghanistan and other craphole Third World places to report on the wars, you can attract enough readers to keep casting a cold, objective eye on the porn biz. Good luck to you, whatever you decide to do; know that you have at least one reader who wants to see more and wouldn't mind paying for it.

Best wishes,
I've received two emails since this post ran this morning asking this same question. Why didn't I post a PayPal link with the story or otherwise attempt to monetize it? It's a valid question, and there are a few answers.

I know I considered doing so, but ultimately decided against it. Simply, I was exhausted by book publishers, by literary agents, by editors, and the endless questions of monetization, which were just that, questions, not answers, and I believed that in order to find answers I had to take action. I didn't want to figure out how much to charge through PayPal, write copy attempting to get people to pay for the pleasure of reading the story, and, most importantly, I didn't want financial concerns to toxify this experience. I was lucky enough to have a day job as an editor that afforded me that luxury. It was a gift. Instead of sitting around thinking about monetizing my writing, I wanted to write, to publish, to create. So, I did.
Because the fundamental thing each of the speakers has in common, the one possible mistake they're all making, the one variable they refuse to consider is the possibility that other people might do what they do, for no pay. -- Dave Winer
That said, and that goal met, I would like to experiment with creating this kind of work and generating income from it. But I think I had to separate the two in my head, before I could begin to figure out how to do the two together.

Also, it's interesting to note that both emails referenced Michael Yon, of whom I am a fan. The monetizing is the parallel, but I find it amusing there may also be a parallel between writing about the porn industry and writing about life in a war zone.