Opening a 'Cracked Eye': The short and the short of it

Opening a 'Cracked Eye': The short and the short of it

In short: Another online literary journal enters a crowded field

A very crowded field. In fact, there are now so many books -- and so many journals and magazines of fiction and other writings -- that a new one based in London is banking on "short" as the ace up its sleeve. Short. As in short reads, videos, audio, comics. This could be the beginning of the great compression.

In late November, as the ebook subscription venture Oyster was announcing its new online literary journal, The Oyster Review, another, quieter launch was under way. 

Cracked Eye now is into its second edition -- "The Blindfolded Bunny Issue." 

And the first tale it tells lies in its busy table of contents, which includes:

  • At least five offerings listed as stories, from writers Stephen Pollock, Seth Insua, Andrea Long, R.G. McKay Ireland, and Michael Carey.
  • An interview with the artist Joshua Sylvia, who provided the bunny of the month. (Eat your heart out, Playboy.)
  • A "film of the month" by Sameer Patel.
  • An interview with the author Insua, who in addition to the story "A Thief on the Titan" is also responsible for a comic, "Commuters" -- described as "our monthly journey through the perils of the daily commute" -- and also for a graphic novel, Anna the Knight, the second part of which appears in this issue.
  • A "quick tale" by Gus Lewis, and a "quick video" without attribution.
  • A "Horror-Scope" piece by Mark Ayling, termed "an unofficial ghost story."
  • Another comic, this one by Leo Saysays.
  • An audio story by Ron Mace.  

This is, by any standard, a lot of material, if short material, an ambitious offering. Cracked Eye goes for a monthly subscription of £4.99 (US $7.75), and it also offers individual pieces, most for £0.99 each (US $1.50). 

Like Day One, Cracked Eye offers a 30-day free trial. Day One is Amazon's weekly literary journal -- $1.59 per month. 

Also like Day One, Cracked Eye is actively looking for content -- and pays writers. Devised as an app for Android and iOS -- "and soon to be accessible on laptops and desktops" -- it's handsomely and cleverly designed, a thoughtful production with a lot of work behind it. 

In fact, the serial titled The Brinkmeyers, another ongoing element of the new magazine, is the work of Cracked Eye's creator, Michael Cameron.

"A digital package...the word I'm trying to avoid is 'publishing."'

Is this not a great deal of content for a monthly online periodical, I ask Cameron?

"Well, yes," he says with a rueful laugh. "It is a great deal of content" Its interest for him, however, is in the amalgam. "And the way it came about is that I'd been toying with publishing short stories for a couple of years."

Cameron is based in Farnham and has a background in theater, television, and radio. He was in BBC TV's drama department in the 1980s, became a full-time freelance writer, and was co-owner of Talisman Productions, which produced a film for Channel 4 in 1984. His Flying Dutchman studios, originally developed to support voice-over artists, supplied radio commercials to Jazz FM, Kiss FM, and Choice FM, and other independent radio stations, as well as providing supplies and production work for BBC Radio. His 2007 book with Sean Hogan, In Harm's Way, was published by Random House's Arrow.

Cracked Eye is an imprint of Cameron's 2012 venture, The Other Publishing Company, Ltd. And the man is as affable a conversationalist as you might hope would be behind such an ambitious outing. He tilts at this digital-literary-magazine windmill with a wry awareness of its challenges and a keen interest in its potential. As he puts it:

We could merge video, we could merge audio, we could merge writing, and produce a magazine that offered all these things. If we could put them together as a digital package, we might have something that was right for the time, right for the current market.

"The more I've thought about it" Cameron tells me, "the more I've thought there's a market here. We commute, we're traveling on a train, on the Underground or subway, people are using their iPads, their smartphones...people have their earphones on their heads. Why can't we give this to people who might find a long book too long?"

Ironically, at a time of much talk of "long-form" and its attractions for readers online, Cameron is, actually, talking short-form.

"The word I'm trying to avoid is 'publishing,'" he says, another laugh catching up with him. "I don't really know what it means, 'publishing.' I think that more and more, it's all about production. It's about broadcasting. I just saw that we could merge audio, video, the written word, illustrations -- all in one package," and in one package expressly designed for the mobile market.

The way Cameron envisions each edition of Cracked Eye has less to do with overall themes (as handsome as The Blindfolded Bunny may be), and more to do with a kind of mix of short interests. He talks of how an issue might have a short story followed (as happens in the new edition) by an interview with the author. Another interview might be a video, all with "a wide scope of genre." 

The level of production offered to each piece may, to some, appear lavish: "Every short story," Cameron says, "I've employed an artist for. So every short story has four -- I hope -- really nice and different illustrations. In addition to that, we have a graphic novel, which we're serialising. Every month, it's quite a mixture of stuff you can delve into. We want to ensure that sitting there at home or on the train or on coffee break, there's a chance you'll find something you want to look at." And with luck, he says, "You'll then take a look at the next thing and discover something you didn't think you were going to like, but you do like."

In a sense, what Cameron is responding to is the trend today of "what else have you got for me?" that seems to come from binge-viewing of whole television series at once. He's looking to answer "what else have you got for me" with a collection of material that has many entry points, modes, and media. And, in the bargain, he'd like to prove a model of entrepreneur that's just as eclectic:

I get a bit irate with the things we package things. You're either a publisher or a broadcaster or you work in radio. We live in a digital age when these things will become merged together. You don't have to be a publisher or a broadcaster or a producer anymore. You're effectively working in a construct where you can be all those things in one package. To me the key to all this is entertainment. It's about saying to people, 'You can have fun, even if it's a story.' I think a lot of kids see entertainment as being music or short-form video. I want us to say, 'Hey, you can actually be entertained by the written word as well, or in a graphic novel. And we can put it all in one place. 

It' always comes back for me to storytelling. Storytelling is what we kind of forget we're all doing when we make a television programme or writing a book or publishing a book. We're storytellers.

Interestingly, Cameron cautions against "getting preachy about it -- I'm not trying to convert non-readers into readers," he says. "I'm trying to say, it's entertainment. It's another form of entertainment. Thinking back to my own discovery of reading when I was very small -- it came about because I discovered that reading is fun."

The shortness counts, in Cameron's estimation. "Make it short. You can have fun. And it won't take all day."

Even literary fiction -- which may be most endangered in the digital environment at the moment -- is something Cameron thinks has a place in his Cracked Eye model, through serialisation, each edition carrying a "bite-sized chunk" of a full work. 

In short -- just so -- if something can be presented as quick, Cameron says, its entertainment/storytelling value can be demonstrated to the consumer.

Should a long work go through serialisation in Cracked Eye, then it can be produced in its full length by Cameron's Other Publishing Company. 

"We pay our writers. And we have proper contracts with them."

Writers struggling to find their feet in digital will be glad to hear Cameron say, "I'm not in the business of saying, 'Look, you're going to get published, that's enough.' We pay our writers. And we have proper contracts with them. It's a joy working with our writers. Some are very young, some have been battling for years and haven't gotten the breaks they needed. Some have produced stories and then didn't know what to do with them." 

For all his interest in the digitally ordained packaging, Cameron is not as impressed with the rise of digital showcasing "for the exposure," as it's usually termed. 

"I know there are all sorts of Web sites where you can put your short stories, and they'll publish you and say, 'Jolly good, you've got  your bio here and we exposed you to a readership.' But to me, that's not what it's about.

"It's about a professional deal with writers, and a contract, and we pay them proper money for their work. So yes, Cracked Eye is expensive to produce." 

Cameron has the backing of some venture capital, having sold the idea, he says, to a family member who's engaged in business. "Happily, we are funded to take it through to success." What seems to have held the interest of backers, he says, is the idea of re-introducing reading to people who feel they have no time to enjoy reading anymore. 

About half his authors are American, Cameron says, and half from the UK. This, he hopes, can help generate subscriptions from both markets. "Obviously, we're trying to launch properly and build up the readership as quickly as possible. We hope the magazine will capture the imagination on both sides of the Atlantic."

The initial marketing effort is focussed on the UK, Cameron says, and he hopes to replicate it in the States. "We need to get the blogging world, we need to get the online world involved and spreading the word about it. We've primarily been using Facebook and Twitter to attract writers."

And it will surprise no one near the industry to hear Cameron says, "And we're getting fairly swamped by writers at the moment." 

If anything, that factor -- a surge of response from writers needing publication -- may be the longest-running story that paces this short-form start-up in 2015. 

And you can tell Cameron knows the problem: "We've now got to use social networking to attract readers the way we've attracted writers to Cracked Eye."

And that is where some in the industry will feel the urge to say, "Good luck with that."

And what if there just aren't enough readers for it all?

Some of us who cover the industry closely have been saying for some time now that the imbalance of digitally enabled writing and a comparatively static readership was becoming critical. 

Now, we hear it in a New Year's Eve write-up from Mike Shatzkin (pictured) ahead of the 13-15 January Digital Book World Conference in New York City:

My hunch is that the indie author community has a...serious and intractable problem. It’s called supply and demand.

Even the most optimistic (and talented) independent authors I've spoken to over the holidays have conceded to me that the community is beginning to get very clearly the fact that sales are hitting a ceiling. 

In the David Streitfeld story in The New York Times, the author-publisher Bob Mayer (pictured), whose Cool Gus Publishing produces books of Mayer's fellow independents, talks of how in six months' time, the market has swung so sharply that authors who had been able to quit their day jobs are now trying to find work again. "If you’re not an author with a slavish fan following" Mayer says to Streitfeld, "you’re in a lot of trouble, Everyone already has a ton of things on their Kindle they haven’t opened.”

If anything, Cracked Eye, The Oyster Review, Day One, and other online literary magazines might be thought of as light-weight craft being launched to float on a sea crowded bigger boats. And the question is whether short-form is the answer. Can quick stories float? Or is the deluge simply too much already? 

At GigaOm, Laura Hazard Owen has made her New Year's Day sign-on a article headlined: eBooks in 2015: Dull new world. The most stinging word she uses in referencing recent articles is "glut." And she gets at it by way of pointing out that in Mark Coker's Smashword Year in Review 2014 and Plans for 2015, his chart showing the rise of Smashword titles and authors from 2008-2014 might be captioned "glut."

Amid widespread reports that authors' earnings are seriously faltering -- and, as covered here at The FutureBook, ongoing concern among writers about reported revenue-damaging effects of the Kindle Unlimited subscription programme -- Shatzkin's assessment is one of the best: a great deal of the digital dream has been pinned on the same reader. 

In one of the most insightful bits of commentary on the dilemma that Kindle Unlimited (KU) and its hated exclusivity requirements is posing for authors, he writes:

Who bought indie author ebooks in the first place? The price-sensitive reader! Who switches from buying individual ebooks to the subscription service first? The price-sensitive reader! In other words, the subscription service offering appeals most to the same audience as those who read indie-published ebooks.

The idea of all-you-can-read for a low flat fee, Shatzkin is saying, is so attractive that even dropping out of KU may offer no help to independent authors who are watching their sales dive. The same readers that self-publishers once wooed successfully now will simply read what they can get on their subscriptions, leaving other books they may have paid for unbought. 

Shatzkin:

What is now being proven is that market is not infinitely elastic. Most of the data we see suggest that ebook sales growth has stopped...Ever-growing supply and stable demand is a toxic formula for the prospects of each successive ebook published for that market. 

Can Cracked Eye crack the problem?

It's likely that Michael Cameron is wooing, at least in part, the same beleaguered readership.

Unless his price point and production values bump him into an audience less price-sensitive than the thinly stretched independent-books buyers that Shatzkin is defining, "short and sweet" may not free up enough paying eyeballs, cracked or otherwise, to reach the roughly 10,000 subscriptions that Cameron says he'd ideally like to get in the first year.

Cameron is staffed up not only with freelance writers and readers but also with "three people who work with me full-time, then a company doing design and digitising of our material" as well as contracts for PR in the UK and for distribution in the US. He's been developing Cracked Eye for two years. 

"And look," Cameron says, "it might be to my advantage that I don't come from a publishing background. I view all this from a slightly different angle.

"It's about getting content out there -- I hate that word, but it's content. You can take one story, and that story could be the basis for a TV programme, it could be the basis for a radio programme, it could be a short story, it could be extended into a novel.  It's about looking at content in as many varied ways as you can."

Oh, and the name. Cracked Eye? Even it has a digital provenance of sorts.

"I was looking for a name for the magazine a couple of years ago. All the ones I liked had already been taken. And in the end, I thought of the two most unlikely words I could find to put together, to see if I could buy the domain name. 

"And it was Cracked Eye."


Images from CrackedEye.com