Tablets & a World in Transition

More and more the debate over tablets versus the PC (really, the laptop) is turning on use. Are mobile computers consumption devices or creative tools, primarily? The answer — we don't really know yet — will have huge implications for electronics suppliers. If the tablet replaces the PC, that means an entirely different kind of supply chain than if it competes more directly with the television, to pick one example.

This has particular resonance for me, because as it happens, the week {complink 11480| Inc.} unveiled its highly anticipated Fire Tablet, I happened to publish a digital book through an program, targeted straight at the tablet market. Here's what happened:

The wages paid to foreign stringers — the occasional contributors newspapers rely on to cover vast swaths of the planet — shock even reporters. Between $200 and $300 per dispatch is common; $500 is desirable. That fee represents work taking about a day, sometimes two, to complete in a dignified manner. You identify what's most important or interesting in a situation, talk to people about it, confirm what they tell you, perhaps travel to an event and record the details, write up the story, find a place to send it back to the publisher, and wait an hour. Then you go through one or more rounds of questions and edits. A twelve-hour day is a minimum, and longer ones are very common. That process doesn't really change, whether you are covering a distillers' convention or the Libyan Revolution.

It's fair money if you're sending a story every day. But you usually aren't. And you pay your own expenses. For that reason, twenty years ago, I went into magazines instead. Magazines calculate fees differently from newspapers and wires. Magazines pay by the word, and they typically assign a lot of words. Fifty cents to $3.00 per word is common for magazines. If you work a month on a 3500-word story, you earn $1750 on the low end, and $10,000 on the higher end.

One starts to see one's way to a middle class life at those rates. Magazines are also linked closely to the book industry. In 1997, a story I wrote about a gold rush in Latin America earned me about $6,000. A few years later, I expanded the story and got a book deal worth $50,000. That sounds good, and it is. But it takes a while to produce these stories, and one faces travel expenses and taxes and so forth. And selling a big story every month, at a good rate, requires a steady stream of ideas and information — a reason, beside public spiritedness, that foreign affairs reporters often flock to disasters and conflicts.

In the end, working steadily I earned about as much as a public school teacher, with a similar trade-off of costs and benefits. You have to hustle, but you do fine. Or did, until the bottom fell out of the market a few years ago. The financial crisis has famously hit publishing very hard, and the appetite for international news has never been a major source of income for the industry anyway. Most of the places I used to sell my work stayed in business but tightened their budgets considerably.

When the Libyan conflict began, I had just written two stories for the print edition of The Atlantic Monthly — about vacations. An editor there asked me what I was doing next, and I said I was going to Tunisia by ferry. The tense I'd used — the future — was a salesman's elision from the conditional tense. What I meant was “If you hire me to write about the ferry that floats from France to Tunisia, I am going to go, and from there I will likely head toward Libya. If you don't, then I won't.” She did.

Here is where the story gets more interesting. The Atlantic recently announced that its income from digital operation — its Website — has surpassed what it earns from the traditional magazine it has published to great acclaim for more than a century. But the digital side still pays very little money to journalists who work for it, while the print side pays $2 per word. So what I did was take the money I earned from the story about the ferry and proposed to spend it writing about Libya for the digital side. They agreed. I did this because I needed imprimatur to get people to grant me interviews, grant me access as a member of the press, and generally take me seriously.

With that imprimatur, I could report, and if I could report, I could write something later that would succeed as both journalism, and as business. I mentioned the market has narrowed. If your goal is to write several thousand words encompassing a complex event, it's even narrower. You must sell the story to one of the very few publications that still has the budget to publish such work, and you have to get past the thousands of other perfectly qualified people with equally significant stories to tell.

You could also try to sell a traditional book. But to do that requires writing a detailed proposal toward a final product that will not appear for the better part of a year, or, often, even two. The Kindle Single was my agent's idea. Amazon provided an experienced editor who offered notes and a copy editor who checked the grammar and usage, and hired a designer to make the cover.

This proved, in my case, a workable middle option. It was a way to tell the story in a way that reminded me of magazine journalism but avoided the intense competition for attention from the remaining handful of editors who buy this sort of work in the traditional press. And it provided the possibility of ultimately funding the work — we sell it, very inexpensively, for consumption on Kindle readers and smartphones, tablets, and PCs with a Kindle app.

The finished story at the end of this cobbled-together process was 35 pages long and titled “The Shores of Tripoli.” As journalism, it was its own reward: the story exists. But in the end, one writes to be read, and to keep producing work for public consumption, one must figure out a reliable way to pay for it. Amazon priced The Shores of Tripoli at two bucks. The other book I have on Amazon — the one I got $50,000 for, years ago — started out at $27.50 for the hardback, and now it's still $9.99 for the download. So there's a basis for comparison. We'll see.

And then, so will the OEMs.

23 comments on “Tablets & a World in Transition

  1. AnalyzeThis
    November 29, 2011

    Marc, given that I got my start in (digital) publishing and editorial this was an interesting read… but I'm not really sure how the PC versus tablet debate factors into this. Plus, it's not as if PCs are incapable of reading content published by Amazon.

    Clearly, how people consume news-related content has changed dramatically: print newspapers and magazines will only continue to decline in popularity, especially in the US.

    And while obviously some people will be buying your Kindle Single via the Fire, I'm going to go ahead and guess that'll be a small percentage of your sales: the majority of readers will be on the traditional Kindle, for obvious reasons.

    To me, the Fire won't really have much of an impact here because the Fire isn't supposed to be a “better” device for reading: I'm guessing Fire users will primarily be using apps, browsing the web, and watching videos. The readers will opt for the cheaper Kindle, which is superior for consuming text anyhow.

    Tablets and e-Readers shouldn't be considered “replacements” for the PC, in my opinion. They are complimentary devices. I suppose a more interesting debate would be to discuss whether or not the majority of digital books will be read via tablets or e-Readers and if the falling prices of tablets negatively affect e-Readers, etc.

  2. itguyphil
    November 29, 2011

    All things considered, regarding the debate you mentioned, I think tablets will match if not overtake e-Readers pretty drastically. If it is viewed as a complementary device, you might as well get all the trimmings that a tablet provides.

  3. Himanshugupta
    November 29, 2011

    tablet, PC, notebook, ultrabook and e-reader…all these can alteast one thing in common that people can read news/articles/books on them. Now if you have more money to spend than you can ask for more comfort and buy specific gadgets for specific tasks.


    Marc, i hope that EBN does pay you by the words because you wrote quite a long (and insightful for non-journalists) article but unfortunately i kind of got lost in the middle about the main objective of this article.   

  4. Barbara Jorgensen
    November 29, 2011

    Really interesting blog Marc! I freelanced for awhile as well. As to the question of PC versus tablet, maybe I can help. Did you write your articles on a PC (laptop) or a tablet?

    In my view–and it certainly could be the wrong one–PCs are still for content creation, and tablets are for content delivery. I know that doesn't help the digital vs. print quandary, but it helps keep my purchasing priorities straight…a tablet is nice to have but a PC is crucial. 🙂

  5. Marc Herman
    November 29, 2011

    You only got lost halfway through? You did better than I did. I was lost from the start.

    More seriously, the goal was to say: okay, here's how this particular kind of sausage gets made. So what does tablet technology mean for the sausage factory? Because the old model is broken, at least for the sort of work I do. PC vs Tablet matters because of what a few people have mentioned: the emerging distinction in devices between those primarily for creation (computing, one might even call it) and those that seem best for consumption (that's why they call them eReaders, not eWriters, right?). If the story I've just published with Amazon works for me both as journalism and as business, I'm far more likely to repeat the experience. And if enough people like me do that, then I will be depending on people reading on devices. Which I suspect are phones and tablets, more and more, and PCs less. I can read a ebook on a laptop — or even a Single like the one linked in the story. But you know what? I don't. Psychologically, I like Barbara's distinction: my laptop is for making stuff. Not consuming it. If I can help it. 



  6. Tim Votapka
    November 29, 2011

    I agree w/ Barbara on that. And by the way, if you want to get more info on tablet consumption and useage, I'd recommend the trade group RSPA (Retail Systems Products Association) or


  7. maxmin
    November 29, 2011

    I saw a comment a couple of weeks ago like this: “If I were a woman, I'll buy a tablet because I can put it in my purse when I'm on the move.  But as a man, I can't put it anywhere and have to carry it around so I absolutely prefer to carry a more powerful laptop that has a keyboard and full fucntional office suite and other applications on it when on the move.”

  8. bolaji ojo
    November 29, 2011

    Maxmin, Check out the wide range of tablets available in the market here. Some of these are so small they easily fit in a jacket pocket and yet are as useful as bigger ones like the iPad or the Samsung Galaxy. They are also very light, eliminating the weight drag.

  9. electronics862
    November 29, 2011

    I agree tablets are very light in weight and easy in carrying but what about the functionality. I see tablets are mainly for entertainment and for web browsing it can not be utilized for computational works and for doing heavy calculations.

  10. prabhakar_deosthali
    November 30, 2011

    The tablets are surely making transition and entering into evrybody's life.  They are today's magazines, paperbacks, cartoon and quiz books and all that reading material. We need not compare them with Laptops and notebooks which are supposed to be the work horses. Tablets are just Simple and Silly! and should be enjoyed that way.

  11. saranyatil
    November 30, 2011

    Any day Laptop is ideal if you are at work rather than Tablets. Its convinient to carry with the kind of accessories now available.

  12. jbond
    November 30, 2011

    Staying on the topic of Amazon Kindle content, it would appear that if you have items that are available for the Kindle you get more exposure than a traditional bound book. Even if the price of the story is only$2.00, more people are exposed to this offering due to recommendations from Kindle. When you are purchasing traditional books, nobody is recommending similar offerings that might interest you.

  13. Himanshugupta
    November 30, 2011

    Marc, thanks for breaking it down. I am kind of thinking whether this PC is for creating and tablet is for consuming is going to change in future. I do not have much experience but before i got used to reading news/articles/writing on PC, i was more comfortable doing those activities on paper. But now i do not even touch a paper for days. Everything is digital. Now, i was also used to using a keyboard and much wider screen for my work but not i am getting used to 12″ to 13″ screen, who knows what future holds. 

  14. hannahraasch
    December 1, 2011

    Tablet computers on the other hand are as easy to use. You can learn to navigate over the direct features and applications within short time of duration. The email and browsing facilities on these devices are also easier to maneuver than the typical PC web browser. (I better not to choose to comment on the rest of the topic you have covered here Marc)




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  15. Marc Herman
    December 1, 2011

    I totally agree, jbond! Also if I can get the reader to my Amazon page, their whole Kindle is occupied by interesting information about my story, rather than being distracted by a shelf with lots of other books that are probably just as interesting. It is, after all, a market. One wants the potential buyer's focused attention, and the tablet (or PC) provides that, probably even better than having your book in the window of a bookshop does. (unless it's a really, really tiny bookshop.)

  16. Adeniji Kayode
    December 1, 2011

    well, probably going through gender or bringing gender into this matter may serve as marketing edge for tablets. It does sound logical to say because you are a female,you will need a tablet that is light and versatile than the bulky laptops,.

  17. Adeniji Kayode
    December 1, 2011

    The future definitely will offer the smaller they are , the faster they will be and the more versatile they will become.

  18. Adeniji Kayode
    December 1, 2011


    Lets hope that is where things are going-Tablets for pleasures, Laptops for work.

  19. Adeniji Kayode
    December 1, 2011


    I agree with you on that but that is what it seems today, the future still holds the question of what of if tablets become more versatile than it is today with more features and application which may lead to more power use.

  20. t.alex
    December 2, 2011

    But there is an email program by default in most tablets:)

  21. Susan Fourtané
    December 4, 2011


    Why tablets for pleasure and laptops for work?

    You can perfectly use an iPad for doing your work -depending on what kind of work you have to do, and your laptop also for pleasure. I don't understand what you mean. 



  22. saranyatil
    December 5, 2011


    Exactly it would be good that way.


  23. Adeniji Kayode
    December 5, 2011

    @Susan, I actually mean to say it seems Ipad may not go beyond it present usage, but the future definately holds the answer. But then with the way things are going, dont, you see Ipad handling more tasks as Laptops.

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