What's behind The Atlantic's expansion into short fiction?

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Why is The Atlantic launching a section for short fiction?

Whenever a publisher launches a new content vertical, I’m able to at least grasp the business argument for such an expansion, even if I don’t agree with it, but The Atlantic’s announcement that it’s launching a section for short fiction left me scratching my head. “We’ve decided to create a new destination for those who seek the intellectual nourishment that fiction provides,” wrote executive editor Adrienne LaFrance. “ … We still need stories, and fiction specifically—storytelling is a defining characteristic that makes us human.”

That’s all well and good, but is there an actual business argument for publishing more short stories?

Decades ago, short fiction was a viable business, for publishers and writers alike. Pulp genre magazines like Asimov’s Science Fiction and Analog had hundreds of thousands of readers, each. Glossy magazines like Esquire, Playboy, The New Yorker, and, yes, The Atlantic Monthly published short stories in every issue. A writer could conceivably make a middle class living from writing nothing but short fiction, and a few did.

Today, that’s not the case. Most of those pulp genre magazines shut down, and the few that still survive only have a couple thousand subscribers between them. Most literary magazines that do exist are funded by universities. Of the glossy mags that ran short fiction, only The New Yorker continues the tradition. Even The Atlantic sharply decreased its short story output back in 2005. 

Midlist authors that have no problem selling novels to the Big Five publishers can’t get those same publishers to take any interest in their short fiction collections, which means they have to resort to publishing them in the small press. A “professional rate” for short fiction, according to some writers organizations, is 8 cents per word, which is a joke. Making a living on writing nothing but short fiction now seems about as likely as making a living writing nothing but poetry.

Which brings me back to the question: what’s the business case for expanding The Atlantic’s short fiction section? Aside from The New Yorker’s “Cat Person,” which was a weird viral phenomenon back in 2017, short stories don’t generate a lot of traffic.

It’s worth noting that The Atlantic recently rolled out a metered paywall. Perhaps someone in the consumer revenue department looked at the site’s web analytics and found that readers of the magazine’s short fiction were more likely to convert into paying subscribers. If you’re someone at The Atlantic who knows the answer to this question and wants to come onto my podcast to talk about it, I’m all ears.

The State of Wikipedia in 2020

Back in 2010, the world was still skeptical of Wikipedia. High school teachers and college professors warned students to never, ever use it for research. If you ever tried to cite it in an argument, your opponent would mock it as unreliable. Late night hosts like Stephen Colbert would enlist their audiences to flood a specific Wikipedia page and vandalize it. Celebrities and major companies would treat it as a vanity project, editing their own pages while making absolutely no effort to disclose their conflict of interest.

Flash forward to 2020, and Wikipedia certainly has more respect. The Wikimedia Foundation, which acts as its official steward, has tens of millions of dollars in the bank. While college professors don’t view it as a primary source for research, they’ll sometimes endorse it as a starting point for said research. And nearly everyone recognizes it as one of the most influential websites on the internet.

But though tens of millions of people use Wikipedia every day, most only have a passing understanding of how a core group of a few thousand volunteer editors perform the vast majority of contributions to its articles.

One of those editors is Bill Beutler. For the past decade, Bill has consulted with hundreds of brands, helping them to edit their Wikipedia pages without running afoul of the platform’s strict rules. I recently interviewed Bill about the problems that have plagued Wikipedia for the past decade and the issues its community will need to address in the decade to come.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player. I also rounded up some of the biggest insights from the interview over here: [link]

This newsletter doesn’t have any advertising

So how does it make money? Because people who think I’m pretty knowledgeable about the business of content hire me to run their companies’ content marketing. White papers. Ghostwriting. Thought leadership articles. Newsletters. Read about my full range of services over here: [link]

Three terrible reasons to close down your news site’s comments sections

Adriana Lacy, the audience engagement editor at the LA Times, wrote a recent piece for her Substack about the continuing epidemic of news websites closing down their reader comment sections. Lacy pointed to one publication that justified its decision by claiming that “just 2,340 people produce more than half of the comments.” Because this was such a tiny fraction of the publishers’ overall audience, the argument went, maintaining a comments section just wasn’t worth the effort.  

Lacy’s retort to this line of thinking is most succinctly summed up in the headline to her piece: “Your comments section is only as good as your strategy.”

I actually wrote an entire column last year about why I think publishers that shut down their comments section made a colossal mistake. In it, I laid out the audience and business case for not only keeping your comments section, but actually investing more resources into it.  

I won’t rehash all those arguments here, but I do want to address three common justifications that publishers will cite when closing down their reader forums:

“The comments section was populated by toxic trolls who who did nothing but shout at each other.”

This is the classic sign that you were devoting absolutely no resources to moderating your comments section. I’ve worked at enough publications where both the editors and writers rarely even glanced at the comments, and this kind of lazei faire approach invites in all sorts of trollish behavior. 

“Only a small percentage of our readers were even commenting.”

This argument is flawed for two reasons. The first stems back to the first justification, in that if you allow trolls to sprout up like weeds, then of course your comments section will look uninviting to readers.

Secondly, just because only a small portion of your readership leaves comments doesn’t mean that those commenters don’t have value. As I laid out in the column I linked above, your commenters are potentially your most dedicated audience members and often punch far above their weight in terms of consuming your content and driving revenue. 

“Comments are better suited for social media sites.”

This is the one I always find the most bewildering given the amount of moaning publishers engage in about how the platforms are cannibalizing their revenue base, and here these same publishers are outsourcing their audience relationships to those social platforms? 

Anyway, check out my full column on this subject if you haven’t read it.

Want to interact with me directly?

I have a secret Facebook group that’s only promoted to subscribers of this newsletter. I try to post exclusive commentary to it sometimes and have regular discussions with its members about the tech/media space. Go here to join. [link]

Spotify’s podcast strategy is paying off

Morgan Stanley released the results of a recent survey that found that Spotify is the most popular podcast listening app in the U.S., capturing 24% of the market compared to Apple’s 21%.

Given that up until recently industry watchers would confidently claim that Apple had at least 50% market share, this is pretty huge news if true. What’s especially monumental about this news is that it didn’t result in Apple losing podcast listenership; in fact, Apple listening increased by 13.1%. That means that Spotify brought new listeners into the podcast fold, which was the best case scenario that some industry watchers -- including myself -- hoped for. 

Now it’s time to see how Apple responds. I predicted last year that it would have no choice but to commission its own original podcasts, and there are some rumors that it’s moved forward in that endeavor. Losing market share to Spotify places Apple Music at risk, and Apple’s made too big a bet on its services division for it to let that happen. I’d say that its initial podcast slate will be announced by April at the latest.

Some other quick hits

A fascinating look at the fall of College Humor. One interesting tidbit: its streaming service had 100,000 paying subscribers. [link]

The video game industry currently generates $120 billion. This long piece makes a persuasive case that the industry is still only at the beginning of its growth potential. [link]

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.