It Turns Out That Being a "Digital Bestseller" Completely Sucks

Imagine that you once wrote long, researched literary nonfiction on serious subjects. Let's also say that your career stretched into our current era, where people would much rather look at celebrity Instagram images than read words. Wouldn't you be ready to accept some snake oil if it meant you could keep making a living at it?

Tony Horwitz is one such man. He writes in the New York Times op-ed page today of his experience in the New World Order of digital publishing. A random outfit calling itself "The Global Mail" offered him $15,000, plus $5,000 in traveling expenses, to report on the Keystone XL pipeline. That is, for those of you who are not journalists, a kingly sum to receive for a shorter-than-book-length piece of writing in our era.

Horwitz completed the reporting and wrote the book, titled "Boom." In the interim, Global Mail went belly up. Horwitz renegotiated to publish "Boom" with Byliner for a much smaller fee ($2,000) and a cut of the sales proceeds. But the promised wave of digital success, well, see for yourself:

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."

He reports that it has now climbed to over a thousand. After, of course, Byliner itself went belly-up.

Now on the other side of these misadventures, Horwitz concludes that he is returning to traditional publishing, He wants his future work, "in hard copy, between covers, a book I can put on the shelf and look at forever, even if it doesn't sell."

I wish him great luck with that, because book publishers are not champing at the bit to acquire books that don't seem like they'll sell, last I checked.

The reason why is actually contained within Horwitz's own piece:

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.

It is possible that there never was an audience large enough to sustain long-form nonfiction of the analog kind, either. One of the benefits of writing for William Shawn's New Yorker is that neither Shawn nor his publisher ever saw pageviews on your piece. And that's not to mention uniques or time-spent-reading figures. They lived behind a useful veil of ignorance in that way.

It is possible, of course, that the publishing mavens of the past would have ignored the depressing reports about people's reading habits that are embedded in those figures. It is possible they would have continued to publish excellent-but-expensive work nonetheless. But it was luck that some people got to begin writing in that era, and had their work silently subsidized by whatever it was that actually financially sustained the publication, be it the cartoons, the ads, or the publisher's substantial personal wealth. It was not necessarily that there was any greater audience for it.

After all, the cliché is true: no one ever went into writing to make money.

[Image via Shutterstock.]