Our Reading Habits Are Changing: An Interview with Arifa Akbar

by Houman Barekat

Back in August, The Bookseller magazine reported that the publisher Unbound would be launching a new online literary journal under the stewardship of Arifa Akbar, the former literary editor of The Independent. The launch of the publication, which will be called Boundless, is now just a few weeks away. I talked to Arifa about her plans for the publication, and the burgeoning domain of online literary criticism in general.

HB: How is the project coming along? 

AA: Our content is ready to go and our design team has built a website from scratch which they are now testing for glitches. It’s unconfirmed but I reckon we’ll be up and running by early December which is later than planned, but we want to get it right. We’re in the process of bringing on a deputy editor and we’ll announce our confirmed date of launch on Gorkana. The essays are coming in thick and fast and I am struck by their range. They are eclectic and lack any uniformity. Because the writers come to me with an idea and have not been dictated a brief or any bigger ‘Boundless’ agenda, their essays contain genuine passion too.

I’m interested in the question of monetisation in relation to online publishing. I’ve just read Franklin Foer’s new book, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, which looks at the impact of digitalisation on journalism. He talks about how, in the old days, you’d have to buy an entire newspaper just to get the one section you really wanted to read, whereas now the onus is on each individual webpage to justify its existence. When it comes to books coverage, any web-based publishing enterprise that is primarily advertising-driven is probably unviable.

Reader-funded models seem to offer a way around this. The Los Angeles Review of Books solicits donations from readers; The White Review ’s recent fundraiser for its new online criticism section raised lots of money. People are willing to give generously to support intellectually worthwhile initiatives. In essence it’s a subscription system by other means. Do you see Boundless as part of a wider sea-change in literary journalism? 

Yes, I think we are part of that sea-change; online literary content is now often leading the way on imaginative subject matter and high editorial standards. Because it is more malleable in form – it can be far longer than most print pieces, it can embed links and be multimedia – it offers more opportunities for creativity. Someone, or something, has to pay for the high quality and if advertising revenue doesn’t, then I think reader funding systems are a fantastic way to encourage collaboration in the production of online writing. Of course the system doesn’t only apply online: The Good Journal has just raised enough money on Kickstarter to produce quarterly literary journals for a year. But I think we need to inculcate a habit for cultural philanthropy in Britain in the same way that it exists in America: I don’t think we are there yet and so this model may not work here right now as well as it does over there.

Given that Boundless is an off-shoot of Unbound – a crowd-funded publisher – we gave thought to whether we wanted to work on the same basis. We decided that we wanted to develop and nurture online long-form writing in Britain for its own sake. So right now it’s an intellectual endeavour for us rather than a monetary one. Of course this has to be reviewed in time.

I see. So it’s essentially a free-standing project – ancillary to, but formally independent of, Unbound’s book publishing side? I guess the idea is that Unbound authors might feature reasonably prominently, so the publishing wing benefits indirectly in that way, while maintaining a measure of editorial independence?

Yes, freestanding and independent. But no, Unbound authors will not feature any more or less prominently than authors with other publishers (or no publishers). We are not setting out to market Unbound by the back door. Unbound’s co-founders, Dan Kieran and John Mitchinson, conceived the idea for Boundless and made clear to me when I arrived that this is to be a long-form website, filled with good writing, with a focus on voices that are not always heard and that it is to be editorially independent of Unbound. This means not favouring Unbound authors above others. I have so far commissioned five Unbound writers out of the first 40 essays.

Three Unbound editors (two of whom worked on broadsheet papers for years) are writing essays, none of which include Unbound authors. We are giving essayists the choice to pick their favourite Unbound project which we’ll flag up at the end of their piece as a link to the Unbound site. We’ll also publish extracts of Unbound books alongside extracts of books by other publishers. So no special treatment!

The success stories of online publishing are invariably US-based. The Los Angeles Review of Books, for example, or The New Inquiry. I get the sense that, here in the UK, there’s still a bit of snobbery towards online-only content, which is perhaps of a piece with the fustiness of the literary establishment in general. Review 31 is UK-based, most of our contributors are UK-based and our house style is UK English; yet the majority of our readers are US-based. Are we a little bit behind the times over here when it comes to how we think of reading online?

I’d say that we are definitely behind the times but I think our reading habits are changing so rapidly that whatever snobbery remains around online literary criticism in the UK will disappear quickly. I read almost everything online now and we are all reaching for our iPhones more and more for long-form reading. The resistance to online reading just can’t last. This is why papers are setting up parallel online operations – because they realise its importance, and that it may even, at some point, surpass the importance of the printed word.

But in a sense, it’s a win-win for UK online journals like yours and like Boundless: if we cultivate more online reading among book lovers in the UK then that’s great, but if we attract digital readers from further afield – America, India, where online reading has really taken off – then I’d say that we’re giving the world some of our literary culture, and maybe even becoming more global in outlook and content as a result.

You worked in print journalism for many years, most notably as the literary editor of The Independent. I’m curious as to whether switching to an online-only medium might entail a subtle differences in an editor’s approach to commissioning and editing. Do readers read differently when they read online? Are there certain modes or styles of writing that are especially well suited to online consumption?

Yes I have worked in print journalism for over 20 years, 15 of which were at The Independent, and I still write regular pieces for the papers, but I see an opportunity in the digital medium that is different from what I did, and do, in print; Ultimately, online journalism is more elastic than print as there is no column inch restriction. This means it can be longer, more penetrating and published far quicker than its old-fashioned print counterpart. I think this flexibility bleeds into subject matter and form too: work I read online can get away with – and even revel in – being stylistically quirkier and less conventional.

I came to Unbound with a ‘print’ outlook and I’ve been surprised at what I’ve discovered of online reading. The development team here spent time researching how people read online, and what they read, and I’ve been struck by the findings: people are not put off by length. They want to read polished writing and they want to learn new things. These findings expose the lie that we all love listicles or that we are only capable of digesting information in 140 characters. It turns out that modern-day concentration spans are not so splintered after all, and that digital readers seek quality. A piece has to be really good and then it will hold their attentions.

I gather Boundless will have a particular focus on long-form content. Could you tell me a little bit about the essays you have in the pipeline? Which pieces are you especially excited about?

The essays form the core of our content, and they are between 2,500 and 5,000 words. We’ll also have mini essays (1,500 words), and themed strands: so far, we have a series called ‘Silence, Sound, Music and Noise’, and other strands called ‘Home’, ‘Flesh,’ and ‘Faith and the Unfathomable’. We’ll run book reviews that are either comparative or have personal elements to them. The amazing fortnightly ‘Backlisted’ podcast, run by John Mitchinson, will be part of Boundless too. We have a regular Q & A called Shelfie where Julian Mash, from Unbound, talks to writers about the books they own.

I’m astonished by the imagination in the essays I’ve had back so far: Grace McCleen, the award-winning novelist who grew up in a fundamentalist religion, has written an astounding piece on sex, which is intimate, philosophical and literary all at once. Colin Grant’s essay is a powerful personal history of the UK’s stop and search laws; Nick Coleman has written beautifully, and mournfully, about missing his late father’s voice; Jo Glanville has written about a Josef Mengele archive that she’s researching in Berlin; Michael Carroll, who is the partner of Edmund White, has given us an extract from his unpublished memoir; Alex Clarke has interviewed Siri Hustvedt; Boyd Tonkin has written on Susan Sontag. I’m excited to receive Ali Smith’s essay in December, which is on Ella Fitzgerald; next year, Namwali Serpell (former winner of the Caine Prize) is sending a piece on black science fiction; Michelle Jana Chan (Vanity Fair’s travel editor) is writing a piece on why travel writing is so white and male; Sadaf Saaz, a poet and co-director of the Dhaka Literary Festival, is writing on 'birongona' (rape as a weapon of war in the Bangladesh-Pakistan conflict of 1971); I have written a 5,000-word piece on ‘Silence’ and am about to start another on believing in ghosts. I could go on. . .

You can follow Boundless on Twitter here.