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Credit: By Drnantu on Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Publisher of long-form, investigative e-books Long Play started with just €500 spending money less than one year ago, but with large ambitions to disrupt Finnish media and encourage innovation. And now, almost nine months later, it is on the path to profit.

Long Play produces e-singles - on an average of one a month over the course of the year - each one a piece of long-form investigative storytelling with a €3.90 price tag. It was launched in January this year, by a small team of journalists with the goal to "publish high-quality content, digital-only, and make it work", editor-in-chief Johanna Vehkoo told Journalism.co.uk.

"We wanted to change things and we wanted to create an atmosphere where people would think it's possible to do something positive about it and to innovate," she said. "It needed to be digital-only, it needed to be long-form, and it needed to have an emphasis on investigative journalism."

And so the idea for Long Play was born. Each e-single, or e-book, is around 50,000 characters, but can be higher. Readers can either purchase Long Play's editions individually, or join as a member to receive each month's e-book via email, as a PDF. The membership, which costs €54, also includes access to events, and Vehkoo said more "perks" were on their way soon.

The business model

The outlet has taken a lean approach to its development, Vehkoo said, largely as a necessity given a lack of funds at the start. It had initially hoped to pursue a non-profit status, but "we didn't get any grants", Vehkoo told Journalism.co.uk, and so instead turned to "direct reader funding" as its business model.

In order to keep costs down early on, the team of eight journalists chose to produce the first batch of stories themselves, instead of enlisting the help of outside writers who "we couldn't guarantee that we could pay", she explained.

"We decided we'll work for free and do all the first stories in-house. We had some designers who really liked the idea so they wanted to help us pro bono."

Now, almost nine months on and with the next e-book to be published this week, the team and their contributors are being paid, and the start-up is "very safe till the end of the year", Vehkoo said.

Our own platform should enable us to expand our reader base and it also gives us a bigger proportion of the revenueJohanna Vehkoo, Long Play
"We're past break-even and on the way to being profitable," she added. And with some funding now under its belt thanks to two grants, it is also preparing to launch its own publishing platform and online store by the end of the new year. Until now, Long Play's e-books have been published using third-party platforms such as the Apple iBook Store and several "Finnish e-book stores".

"Our own platform should enable us to expand our reader base and it also gives us a bigger proportion of the revenue," she said.

Long Play was inspired by outlets such as the Atavist and Byliner in the US. Vehkoo also referred to long-form digital publisher Matter - recently purchased by Medium - although this launched after work on Long Play had begun, she said.

"We just found the idea of selling singles really interesting and something we could do without much funding because it only requires us to do what we do best, our journalistic work," Vehkoo said.

"The model doesn't require that we sell ads or anything like that. So it's all just based on really high-quality content, so that we can focus on doing the hard, background research work, really giving time to write the story and to edit it."

Starting with e-books was also a way to avoid the costs related to producing a print product, she added.

"The e-book model was very cheap, free actually, to start, because these stores need something to sell and we need somebody to distribute, so it's a win win."

But, she added, those platforms do take a cut, adding to the appeal of building their own platform for selling. On Long Play's own platform, readers who purchase an e-single will still be able to download it as an e-book in EPUB or PDF format, if they choose to, but they will also be able to access the content on the publisher's website itself.

One of the editions was also turned into an audio book for the same price as a standard e-book. This "was an experiment with one of our distributors", Vehkoo said, but added that they hope to do this again.

A smaller part of Long Play's revenues come from journalism courses run by the team, which cover areas such as "writing a better story, editing, fact-checking, online security".

The content

Stories have so far ranged from an investigation into academia and politics, and mining in Finland, to brain surgery and conspiracy theorists. The story relating to academia and politics was Long Play's second e-book to be released, and sold the most copies so far, of around 4,000, "a very good result even outside of Finland", Vehkoo said.

We're not going to do Snow Fall-ing but we want to do multimedia when it's suitable for the storyJohanna Vehkoo, Long Play
"And obviously in Finland, where the market is just tiny, [selling 4,000 copies] is really quite massive." The conspiracy theories investigation came second, with sales of around 2,000.

The stories are text-focused, with illustrations on the cover only. Vehkoo said they are not currently in the position to add multimedia content, due to "the requirements from different devices and different shops".


Long Play cover
An example of Long Play's cover art (this was the edition also turned into an audio book)

But this is "something we aim to do later on", she added, when their own platform comes into play.

"We're not going to do Snow Fall-ing but we want to do multimedia when it's suitable for the story. On our own platform we want to enable that, but in a way that doesn't disturb the concentration in the story.

"There will be some of it when we launch, but it will develop in time," she added.
 
Currently the content is in Finnish, but the plan is to offer translations of those stories which "are not so Finland-specific". The team is also looking at opportunities to partner with non-Finnish publishers and publish each other's work, as it already has with Denmark-based publisher Zetland.

As for who is reading the content, Long Play's use of third-party platforms to sell its e-books means the information it has is limited, Vehkoo told Journalism.co.uk.

And so again, this supports the cause for Long Play to have its own platform to publish and sell from.

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