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Reports of the Failure of Digital Publishing Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

0620OPEDparini-superJumbo[1]"I Was a Digital Best Seller!" claimed Tony Horowitz in the NY Times on Thursday, only if you ask him the boast doesn’t amount to much.

Horowitz writes about his experience in trying to publish a Kindle Single first with a digital startup called The Global Mail, and then after that firm folded by dealing directly with Byliner. Between one issue and another (mainly signing with Byliner after it had already started to decline due to insolvency), Horowitz has a bad experience, sees few sales, and receives little promotional/marketing support from Byliner.

As a result Horowitz concludes that digital publishing idn’t a viable future:

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.

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.”

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.

Horowitz 's article is replete with the subtext that his mistake was in going digital, and not that he had the bad luck to sign with two digital middlemen which subsequently went under. Having been burned once, Horowitz would have you believe that, in general, digital publishing is not a viable option. (Anyone running an ebook startup might as well go flip burgers; you’re doomed anyway.)

This doesn’t bode well for all the authors who want to self-publish, does it?

Well, no.

Horowitz’s article is getting passed around as evidence that authors are being screwed by Byliner in particular, and digital publishers in general, but few seem to be paying much attention to the fact that Horowitz had uniquely abominable luck.

Paul Carr, writing over at PandoDaily, noted that his experiences with Byliner fared better than Horowitz’s:

Three years ago, I published a short book through Byliner, detailing my recovery from alcoholism. I certainly had gripes of my own the (then fledgling) company. The commissioning editor originally offered me a $5k advance before suddenly dropping it to $3k as we were about to sign the contract. Then Byliner sat on the manuscript for months and only finally published it when I offered to buy back the rights; after which the publicity machine stopped rolling after a couple of months, leaving the book to fend for itself. I have friends who have written for Byliner who have had similarly frustrating experiences, including one whose book was abruptly cancelled apparently because Byliner decided it wouldn’t sufficiently appeal to the company’s core audience of “middle-aged women” (it was a book about tech).

And yet, as I read Horwitz’s column, I felt myself first confused, then steadily more angry at the unfairness being meted out to Byliner, specifically, and to the ebook publishing industry, generally.

Most of my — and Horwitz’s — issues with Byliner (renegotiated terms, sluggishness in publishing, sudden halting of publicity) I’ve also experienced with traditional publishers large and small. If Horwitz has issue with those, he has issue with the entire publishing industry. Also, some of Horwitz’s gripes are plainly beyond Byliner’s ability to fix: is the firm really supposed to arrange bulk orders of a Kindle Single for conference attendees? For one thing, that’s just not how Singles work.

Carr goes on to note that his e-single sold 14,710 copies, earning him around $9,200 over the past 3 years. He’s earned more from some of his traditionally published books, but he also has earned less on some titles.

And more importantly, this wasn’t a book. It was a single article, really more of a short memoir than anything, leading Carr to remark that "Close to ten grand for a long piece of journalism really isn’t too bad at all".

That’s a failure all right. It reminds me of how Stephen King’s early serial web novel The Plant was deemed a failure and cancelled because downloads exceeded an arbitrary ratio to sales, even though the novel had generated almost half a million in profit before the end.

When I read Horowitz’s piece on Friday, my first thought was that it was a hatchet piece designed to attack digital publishing in general.

My second thought was that his irrational and illogical conclusion could be summed up in a few words:

If at first you don’t succeed, give up. Whatever you are trying to do is impossible, and you’re better off not trying a second time.

If you break it down to its simplest form, Horowitz’s argument is really that simple. And it really is that wrong. Amazon invested in ebooks for 7 years before opening the Kindle Store. JK Rowling was turned down by a dozen publishing houses. And Margaret Mitchell was rejected 38 times for Gone with the Wind.

Horowitz is giving up on digital publishing after being burned once. That doesn’t strike you as a sound idea, does it?

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Will O’Neil June 22, 2014 um 11:12 pm

With a failure (if that’s what it is) on one try you can prove only that success is not inevitable, or perhaps that you can mess it up if you try.

I expect to support the wisdom of his conclusion: the next time I see the name Tony Horowitz I will be disinclined to read further.

Andrew June 23, 2014 um 10:04 am

I did not finish the article, as it was very weak. From what I did read, I could not tell what the author wanted to convey – was he venting, to get something off his chest, or writing an article because he had a due date, but really had nothing to say?

Valentine June 23, 2014 um 10:49 am

Old school journalist tries to keep pace with the rest of the world. Fails badly.
Dinosaur flings itself off cliff trying to evolve wings. Years after the meteor strike.

"… Then Byliner sat on the manuscript for months and only finally published it when I offered to buy back the rights …"
That part right there is why self-publishing will live and thrive, while many publishers will … not.

Sorry for the snark, but I can’t get over how many books were never printed because of publishers and that particular mindset.

Paul June 23, 2014 um 11:01 am

I think what he was trying to show, is that if you do try to do a lot of these marketing and promotion efforts yourself, it isn’t going to work if you’re main focus or skill is writing. And that everyone remembers the big bestselling success but not the vast majority of books which make nothing like that (in science publishing a good/great science writer makes about $15 grand per book, which isn’t much when you think about it).

The main takeaway, as implied above, is that you need to sign with a reputable company or stick to an editor/publisher that you’re familiar with.

carmen webster buxton June 23, 2014 um 2:00 pm

Frankly, he sounds a tad spoiled. "I was promised an all-day lollipop and it only last for two hours! Whah, whah!"

puzzled June 23, 2014 um 6:50 pm

Maybe all this article proves is that the Big 5 are finding it difficult to find any competent journalists to write up their anti-Amazon PR pieces.

They’re clearly dragging the bottom of the barrel on this one.

David Gaughran June 24, 2014 um 4:33 am

Once again we have a "[SOMETHING] was a Digital Bestseller" story in a major newspaper, which is endlessly repeated, and no-one checks the basic fact the whole piece rests on: namely was this a digital bestseller?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: Just like the "ERMAGAD HITLER WAS A DIGITAL BESTSELLER" story a while back, this author was top, or near the top, of a sub category list on Amazon, not on the overall Best Seller list.

The list the author charted on was Kindle Store > Kindle Singles > Page-turning Narratives

If you remember the Hitler/Bestseller story, you know what’s coming next.

Anyway, Kindle Singles is a very small pool. There are 501 published and 13 such sub-categories, meaning that to hit a sub-category "bestseller" chart in many Kindle Single sub-categories (including the two I suspect this author was in) you just have to… exist.

To show you how few sales it takes to get to the top of each, the #20 book in Kindle Store > Kindle Singles > Memoirs or Kindle Store > Kindle Singles > Page-turning Narratives is currently ranked #44,070 – selling maybe 3 copies a day.

Of course, it’s selling well now after all the media attention – just like Mein Kampf did.

I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised to learn that the NYT knows nothing about the publishing business and invites Op Eds from people who know even less. Or maybe he’s pranking all of us?

(Aside: I think the book would have sold better without terrible cover and the obnoxious keyword-stuffing sub-title.)

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