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5 Questions With Michael Shapiro, Founder of The Big Roundtable

There’s a new player entering the longform non-fiction revolution taking place online.

Only, rather than a traditional gatekeeper — an editor — making decisions about what gets published on this digital platform, the readers accept the responsibility. But more on that later.

Introducing… The Big Roundtable. The brainchild of longtime reporter and Columbia journalism school professor Michael Shapiro, The Big Roundtable (BRT) is a site that promises to bring together authors, known or unknown, with readers hungry for good stories. Its name (which invokes such a distinct image, doesn’t it?) was inspired by the old group of New York writers and creatives, self-dubbed the Algonquin Round Table, who lunched and discussed their crafts at the Algonquin Hotel in the 1920s. In the same way that members of the Algonquin group reportedly swapped stories, BRT hopes to do the same on the Web.

Shapiro, founder of BRT, launched a Kickstarter with a $5,000 goal and came away with $19,219 after 28 days, indicating to the folks at BRT that their idea to connect readers and quality stories was popular even outside their circle. As a former National Magazine Award judge, Shapiro told Nieman Storyboard he got tired of reading formulaic writing. A writer’s work should radiate a burning desire to tell his story, Shapiro maintains.

His (small) team’s original timeline slated The Big Roundtable’s launch for late August, but it’s already up and running.

BRT’s site design is clean and elegant, its typography and black-and-white cartoonish story art a bit reminiscent of The New Yorker‘s signature look. Six stories by authors like Anna Hiatt (also BRT’s Product Manager and Managing Editor) and Katherine B. Olson grace the site’s home page, along with the video BRT used to promote its Kickstarter campaign.

Shapiro was kind enough to answer some questions about BRT.

AW: So, how did BRT come to be?

MS: It began, as so many startups do, in trying to resolve dissatisfaction — specifically, my dissatisfaction with a publishing world that has ever less space and time for big ambitious nonfiction narratives that didn’t quite fit the ever-narrower tastes of editors and publishers. This made no sense in a world where publishers no longer had a monopoly on printing and distribution. The question was — how to find a new way to connect writers and readers…paying readers.

AW: Explain the process of how you receive pitches and how you determine what will be published.

MS: We invite any writer with a story they need, or needed to tell, to send it our way — so long as every word of it is true, and that it be ambitious work; say upwards of 5000 words, a length that, broadly speaking, is necessary for the kind of ambitions we’re speaking of. The stories are vetted, and then 1000 word previews are sent to a small group of our reading circle. This part is key: far be it for me, or anyone else, to assume that my tastes are better, or more refined. We want to see how an audience responds to the work. Why? Because we believe that the increases the chances of finding the kind of surprising stories that too often struggle to find a home.

If the story finds a receptive audience, we then begin a process of revision — with the writer — to make the story as good as it can be. When the stories are ready, we post them on our site, and promote them like mad.

Note: Though stories are approved by BRT readers for publication, they go through a rigorous editing process courtesy of Columbia Journalism Review Executive Editor/BRT Editor Mike Hoyt.

AW: What about your pay model? How’d you conceive it?

MS: A friend told me, Oh, so you’re “Kickstarter for writers.” And that we are; our goal is to make writers happy — yes, it really is — because happy writers can make readers happy. Readers are invited to make donations to writers, and those donations, minus a 10 percent fee to keep the BRT running, goes to the writers.

AW: What sets BRT apart from some other sites offering longform pieces online for a fee (Byliner, the Atavist, Longreads, etc.)?

MS: We have just entered into a partnership with Longreads, whose founder Mark Armstrong, is one of the early innovators in the long form revival. [BRT is] among the publishing ventures that offers original work for Longreads members. As to the Atavist and Byliner, both terrific platforms, our submission process is the key difference: Byliner invites writers to write original work for them; Atavist welcomes story proposals. We want to “audience test” submissions, and so invite anyone to send their work our way. I have been a journalist for 35 years and know the feeling of having a story burning in your notebook and wondering who, if anyone might be interested.

We are.

AW: What are your long-term goals for BRT? And your vision for what it can do for unknown writers?

MS: Given our desire to make writers happy, we want to build a community of writers, one whose collective power can help propel one anothers’ work across a wide array of social networks. Why? Because we believe that there is no more powerful moment in the life of a story than when a friend tells another “You Must Read This!” We want to replicate that moment again and again, so that work that might otherwise be left unread, finds its audience. As we go forward, we want to offer writers the support, the company, the tools, to allow them to tell the stories they need to tell.

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