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boomIn the New York Times, Tony Horwitz writes a cautionary tale about his travails with a small e-publisher called Byliner. a Kindle Singles publisher who’s shown up a few times in TeleRead. Horwitz had been asked by a new e-zine called The Global Mail to do a long-form work on the Keystone XL pipeline, to the tune of $15,000, plus $5,000 for expenses.

So Horwitz traveled, did his research, and wrote a 40,000-word piece from the experience. As he was writing, the Global Mail informed him they had arranged a deal to co-publish with Byliner, who “thought we might sell up to 75,000 copies”. Except…right before he was due to submit the story, the Global Mail’s backer financial pulled the plug, and he didn’t even have the deal with Byliner yet.

However, all was not lost. Horwitz’s agent got him a deal with the e-publisher for a $2,000 advance and “about a third of the proceeds” (presumably 35%, half Amazon’s 70% royalty) after the advance earned out. The book would go on sale as a $2.99 e-book, entitled Boom:

Oil, Money, Cowboys, Strippers, and the Energy Rush That Could Change America Forever. A Long, Strange Journey Along the Keystone XL Pipeline

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After doing a good deal of self-promotion and seeing his title rank in the top 25 (and even at #1 on subcategory lists, like “Page-Turning Narratives”) he checked to find out how many copies he’d sold. The answer was, it turned out, somewhere between 700 and 800 copies. He was nowhere near earning out his advance, which didn’t even cover the travel costs he’d had. And when he was going to speak at a conference whose organizers wanted to pre-order 500 to 1,000 copies of the work, Byliner never got back to him when he asked them about how to sell it.

Then, to add insult to injury, his book disappeared from Amazon altogether.

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.

Probably this has to do with the story that broke earlier this month about Byliner “looking for partners to continue sustaining its operation.” Apparently the lack of publicity Horwitz got for his book from them was endemic to the operation, since Angela Washeck writes in MediaBistro that Byliner never tried to engage with her, plug stories, or generally keep her interest up—and she had been a paying monthly subscriber.

On the bright side for Horwitz, his editor at the erstwhile Global Mail was able to get him the $15,000 he’d promised, so he at least had something to show for his work. And Byliner subsequently brought back the e-book, whose sale has now inched into four figures. (And will apparently inch further based on publicity from this story. Maybe it’ll even earn out his advance!)

But in the end, Horwitz is pessimistic about the future of long-form journalism as print media decline.

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.

I would suggest that the problem is less with people being unwilling to pay $3 for a news story, and more with Byliner. If Horwitz had opted to self-publish, he could have taken 70% of the proceeds, which means that if his book sold 1,000 copies, he’d already have earned 70% of $3,000, or $2100. And he’d have kept the rights, so he could make a better deal if a better offer came along.

I’d also suggest that “sexing it up” with a subtitle invoking cowboys and strippers (which was his editor at Byliner’s idea) might have been part of the problem; it gave at least one person in the article’s comments the wrong idea about the story and turned him off from buying it.

So, Byliner turned out to be a bad publisher. So what? That doesn’t mean digital is the problem, that means bad publishers are the problem, and that’s something you can run into whether in digital or in print. If Horwitz ever comes back to digital publishing, he might be better advised to do it himself this time.

 
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