I Was a Digital Bestseller!
WEST TISBURY, Mass.
FIVE months ago I published a short book called "Boom." Commercially it was a bust. No news in that: Most books lose money and are quickly forgotten by all but their wounded authors.
But this experience wasn’t just a predictable blow to what’s left of my self-esteem. It’s also a cautionary farce about the new media and technology we’re so often told is the bright shining future for writers and readers.
Last fall a new online publication called The Global Mail asked me to write about the Keystone XL pipeline, which may carry oil to the United States from the tar sands of Canada. The Global Mail promoted itself as a purveyor of independent long-form journalism, lavishly funded by a philanthropic entrepreneur in Australia. I was offered an initial fee of $15,000, plus $5,000 for expenses, to write at whatever length I felt the subject merited.
At the time I was researching a traditional print book, my seventh. But it was getting harder for me to feel optimistic about dead-tree publishing. Here was a chance to plant my flag in the online future and reach a younger and digitally savvy audience. The Global Mail would also be bankrolling the sort of long investigative journey I’d often taken as a reporter, before budgets and print space shrank.
So I plotted an ambitious road trip, from the tar sands of subarctic Alberta through Montana, the Dakotas and Nebraska, and returned a month later with a blown-out travel budget and enough material to write 40,000 words. As I wrote feverishly through the winter, The Global Mail negotiated to co-publish with Byliner — a classy digital outfit, based in San Francisco, known for novella-length works like Jon Krakauer’s "Three Cups of Deceit."
In giddy calls and emails from Sydney, editors said that the first installment I had sent was "a ripper" and that Byliner thought we might sell up to 75,000 copies, with me getting a lofty cut of the profits.
I finished writing in late January, just as the State Department prepared to issue a much anticipated report on the Keystone XL. If I were writing for a traditional publisher, I’d have to wait months to see my work in print. This time, I’d be read within days, right on top of the news!
Exhausted but exhilarated, I headed to the liquor store for a celebratory bottle and returned to an urgent call from my editor in Sydney. "Mate, we’re [bleeped]," she said. The Global Mail’s backer had had a bad financial setback at his firm and evidently decided he could no longer afford a folly like quality journalism. He’d abruptly pulled the plug just hours before I filed my copy, making The Global Mail a dead letter.
Worse still, for me, Byliner hadn’t yet inked its deal with the Aussies. Suddenly I had no platform for a very long story on a subject that was about to be all over the news. And I’d yet to be paid anything beyond my original travel budget (which I’d overrun, in any case).
At this point I called my literary agent, whom I’d foolishly failed to involve in the project. (Another fantasy of the digital world: Writers can do it themselves and dispense with all those middlemen.) Late that Friday my agent brokered a deal between Byliner and me. The advance was only $2,000, but my work would be available by Monday, for $2.99, and I’d get about a third of the proceeds once my advance was paid off.
I worked through the weekend with Byliner staffers as they crafted a snazzy cover and a subtitle that included the words "strippers" and "cowboys." In no time "Boom" was live and I was in love. The e-format delivered the timeliness and instant gratification of news reporting, yet with all the trappings of a book, absent the paper. There was even an author’s page with my picture. All I needed now were readers.
Oh, those. I was familiar with the stately ways of old-school book publicity: readings, dwindling print reviews, praying for a call from Terry Gross. Surely, Byliner’s tech-savvy team would move at light speed and deploy new tools like guerrilla marketing.
Except there didn’t seem to be a "team," just an outside publicist who was busy on other jobs. She circulated a hasty press release and wrote a glowing review of "Boom" on Amazon, the main retailer of Byliner titles. Byliner urged me to "game the system" by soliciting more such "reviews" from friends and relatives, and issued a few tweets touting "Boom." Then silence.
Physical books live on physical shelves at physical bookstores and can catch the eye of browsing shoppers. "Boom" was floating in the digital ether with millions of other works. How would anyone even know it was there? So I went to work hawking it myself, like a pushcart peddler: calling radio producers, sending "Boom" to big-mouthed friends, boring my tens of followers on social media. I wrote online articles for major sites, for which I wasn’t paid, since it’s generally understood in online journalism that we scribes are "building our brand" rather than actually making a living.
My month of self-flackery seemed to work. In the sales rankings on Amazon for Kindle Singles, "Boom" broke the top 25, and almost all the titles ahead of it were fiction. In categories like "Page-Turning Narratives," my work often ranked No. 1. I was a nonfiction digital best seller!
Eager to know how many copies this represented, I asked Byliner for sales figures. It took them a while to respond — because, I imagined, they needed the time to tally the dizzying numbers pouring in from Amazon, iTunes and other retailers. In fact, the total was such that Byliner could offer only a "guesstimate." In its first month "Boom" had sold "somewhere between 700 and 800 copies," the email read, adding, "these things can take time to build, and this is the kind of story with a potentially very long tail."
It was also the kind of story that could bankrupt a writer. I’d now devoted five months to writing and peddling "Boom" and wasn’t even halfway to earning out my $2,000 advance (less than the overrun on my travel). The cruelest joke, though, was that 700 to 800 copies made "Boom" a top-rated seller. What did that mean for all the titles lower down the list? Were they selling at all?
Byliner couldn’t be making money from "Boom," yet made no discernible effort to sell it. I was asked to speak at a conference whose organizers wanted to pre-order 500 to 1,000 copies of "Boom." I asked Byliner how to arrange this bulk buy. They never got back to me.
I began to wonder if Byliner was a Potemkin publisher, acquiring content for some reason other than making it available to readers. Maybe Amazon had a hand in this, some scheme involving drones. Or perhaps Byliner, for all its media applause, was just incompetent. I finally gave up, consoling myself with my work’s eternal if insignificant life in the e-sphere.
Then, even that was gone. On the first Monday in June I checked the Kindle Single sales rankings, having last looked a month before, when "Boom" was still hanging on at about No. 40. Now I couldn’t find it in the top 100. Oh well, I thought, can’t be a best seller forever.
I then went to the Amazon page for "Boom," to savor any new reviews. A message appeared: "We’re sorry. The Web address you entered is not a functioning page on our site." I checked my Amazon author page, and then iTunes and Barnes & Noble. "Boom" had vanished. Poof. As if it had never existed.
The next day I received an email that began "Dear Byliner author." My publisher was "undergoing some changes." As in death throes. "Every new venture requires a leap of faith, and we thank you for taking that leap with us."
Actually, I hadn’t been given a chance to leap. I was going down with the ship. Byliner owned the rights to "Boom" and had made it and other titles unavailable, without warning, because of accounting and liability issues, I heard. Whatever that meant. Probably that Byliner no longer had an accountant, or much else, since several senior editors and the chief executive had left.
My laid-off Aussie editor, at least, did right by me in the end. As The Global Mail unraveled and its owner shut off funds, my editor managed to salvage the $15,000 I’d been promised long ago. A few days ago "Boom" also resurfaced on Amazon, as mysteriously as it had disappeared; Byliner pledged its continuing "commitment to long-form journalism"; and I learned that sales had inched into four figures. In all, a disappointing rather than a ruinous seduction.
But now that I’ve escorted two e-partners to the edge of the grave, I’m wary of this brave new world of digital publishers and readers. As recently as the 1980s and ’90s, writers like me could reasonably aspire to a career and a living wage. I was dispatched to costly and difficult places like Iraq, to work for months on a single story. Later, as a full-time book author, I received advances large enough to fund years of research.
How many young writers can realistically dream of that now? Online journalism pays little or nothing and demands round-the-clock feeds. Very few writers or outlets can chase long investigative stories. I also question whether there’s an audience large enough to sustain long-form digital nonfiction, in a world where we’re drowning in bite-size content that’s mostly free and easy to consume. One reason "Boom" sank, I suspect, is that there aren’t many people willing to pay even $2.99 to read at length about a trek through the oil patch, no matter how much I sexed it up with cowboys and strippers.
Meanwhile, I’m back to planning my next book. I don’t yet know on what subject. But I do know its form: in hard copy, between covers, a book I can put on the shelf and look at forever, even if it doesn’t sell.