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.
. . . .
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.
. . . .
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.
. . . .
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 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.
. . . .
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.
. . . .
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.