Last Friday we were treated to a story from the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times, where Tony Horwitz claimed “I Was A Digital Bestseller” then complained about how little money this made him, and how he would now stick with traditional, print publishers as a result.
Then this Op-Ed was held up – in outlets like Gawker – as another example of how writers have it so tough in this scary new digital world which is going to lead us all into penury.
Just like the story I wrote in January – Fake Controversy Alert: Hitler’s Mein Kampf Was Not A Digital Bestseller – the key “fact” in Horwitz’s tale of woe doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
Can you guess what it is?
Boom was published on January 29 this year. According to KND’s Tracker, before the Op-Ed, the highest rank it achieved in the Kindle Store was on one particular day in February when it peaked at #2,345, selling ~50 copies a day. Sales declined in March (best rank: #3,255), again in April (best rank: #5,797), and more in May (best rank: #9,396).
By June, Boom had slipped further, bouncing between #10,076 and #79,820 in the Kindle Store, selling between 15 copies a day on some days, and maybe just one on others.
In other words, Boom did okay, and sold reasonably consistently for a few months, but was no bestseller. Tony Horwitz’s confusion seems to stem from seeing his book on a sub-sub-sub category “Best Seller” list and assuming it meant he was selling lots (and not having access to actual sales figures).
As those more familiar with the Kindle Store will know, Amazon has extremely granular sub-categories, particularly for non-fiction, which will allow a title to “chart” with very few sales. But this doesn’t mean that actual e-book bestsellers don’t shift a lot of copies or make good money.
Of course, after the Op-Ed was published on June 20, Boom jumped to #625 in the Kindle Store. Finally it was a digital bestseller. Kind of.
Well, technically the first time, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
At the end of his Op-Ed, Horwitz gave his thoughts on why he felt his “success” hadn’t translated into enough cold, hard cash:
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.
Several follow-up pieces, like this one from Gawker, didn’t bother fact-checking the bestseller claims before repeating them, and agreed with Horwitz’s diagnosis of why he didn’t make much money.
But that wasn’t why at all.
Aside from not being the “bestseller” he thought he was, another reason why Horwitz didn’t make bank is that a middleman – Byliner – was taking a large chunk.
I actually was a digital best-seller — my first Kindle Single, “Why Beer Matters” reached #1 in Kindle Singles, and at least as high as #107 in the overall Kindle Store. It might have ranked even higher than that. I was in Italy at a beer festival when it came out, and I wasn’t spending a lot of time watching the charts.
I have some good news for Evan. KND’s Tracker tells us that Why Beer Matters actually peaked at #96 in the overall Kindle Store when he was at that beer festival. When I asked him about sales figures, he said:
It actually did really well. The first week “Why Beer Matters” came out as a Kindle Single, it sold over 2,600 copies and had over 430 paid borrows.
By my rough calculations, he easily made over $4,000 in the first week alone. Not too shabby for a short book on a relatively niche topic (in publishing terms). And this was back in February 2012 – the digital market has massively expanded since.
I suspect that there are further reasons why Horwitz’s Boom didn’t sell as much as he hoped. For starters, the cover. None of the sexy buzzwords that are keyword-stuffed into that sub-title are represented with this image (depending on your disposition towards pipe, I suppose). As a reader, the cover is nice enough, but it doesn’t tell me anything about the book and doesn’t really encourage me to check it out.
But that’s a very subjective criticism and maybe the real problem was more fundamental. Horwitz is on much firmer ground when he outlines the lack of marketing support from his publisher, something backed up by this tweet from one of his readers:
One thing missed by Horwitz is that his publisher didn’t seem to select very good categories for his book. Aside from the Kindle Singles categories, the publisher could choose two regular Kindle Store categories. These were the choices Byliner appear to have made:
- Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Science & Math > Environment > Conservation
- Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Travel > United States > Regions > Central
Putting the pieces together, the reason Horwitz didn’t make a lot of money from Boom isn’t because digital publishing is broken in some way. The reasons are actually quite simple:
- Boom wasn’t actually a bestseller by any definition. It hit the top of a sub-sub-sub-chart. It doesn’t take very many sales to do this.
- Horwitz used a publisher when he could have pitched Kindle Singles directly, meaning he got “a third of the proceeds” instead of 70%.
- The publisher, according to Horowitz, didn’t do much to promote the book, and may have made poor choices with metadata.
- The cover wasn’t a great fit (IMO, YMMV).
- Horwitz fans seemed to be unaware of his latest release.
Horwitz’s solution – returning to traditional, print-focused publishers – isn’t the answer to these problems. In fact, it could easily make the situation worse. He’ll probably have no control over the cover, he’s unlikely to have a mailing list sign-up at the back of his books to notify readers of his new releases, he may still get little marketing support, the metadata might be inappropriate (self-publishers seem more aware of best practices here), and he’ll only earn 14.9% on e-book sales and maybe 10% on print sales.
Once again we have a piece from the New York Times about how horrible this new world of digital is, a piece which – once again – pretends that self-publishing doesn’t exist.
I don’t know why Horwitz seems to think that his only two choices are going with a small digital publisher or a large print publisher, but he never seems to have considered self-publishing at all. (I’ve heard people say he’s a good writer, and he did all the promo for Boom, so there’s no reason he couldn’t make a success of it.)
I don’t blame him for that omission per se, there’s so much FUD being spread about e-books, Amazon, digital, and self-publishing that the situation can be very confusing for authors.
Maybe he wanted an advance, but it looks like Boom has already earned out and now he’ll be handing a huge chunk of royalties over to a publisher that, by his own admission, has done little to promote the book.
Or maybe Horwitz just didn’t fancy the idea, I don’t know.
But in case other writers are steering clear of self-publishing because they think it’s too hard, expensive, or time-consuming, here’s what it took for Evan Rail to self-publish Why Beer Matters then pitch Kindle Singles directly (and receive 70%, keep control of pricing, and get near-live sales reports – helpful for knowing if you actually are a bestseller):
I didn’t use Byliner or anyone else to publish my essay. I asked a fellow writer to proofread it. I got a designer pal to create the book cover, though I roughed out the cover design and shot the cover photograph by myself. I formatted the ebook myself. I don’t know why you would need someone else to do all that. It wasn’t hard. Certainly not so hard that it would be worth giving up control to someone else.
Back to the New York Times and the “bestseller” status that this whole piece hangs on. I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised that it doesn’t do the most basic fact-checking when it comes to pieces on publishing. This is the same newspaper that regularly runs fact-free screeds against Amazon and uncritical reports about Author Solutions (like here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).
And I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that standards are even looser when it comes to their Op-Ed pages, considering they regularly feature cloud-shouting from the likes of Scott Turow, and hilariously contorted pieces like this one from the court jester of the publishing business, Bob Kohn, which uses all sorts of dissembling to bash Amazon and support Hachette.
Yes, that is the same Bob Kohn who filed an amicus brief opposing the settlement in the price-fixing case… in the form of a comic strip.
And, yes, that is the same Bob Kohn who wrote a book called Journalistic Fraud: How The New York Times Distorts the News and Why It Can No Longer Be Trusted (a book which you can find on Amazon).
A sample quote from Journalistic Fraud:
When the Times embarks upon a crusade, the op-ed pages, the news pages, and all the other sections of the paper… must follow in lock-step.
Now how do we square this circle? We can’t have Bob Kohn disagreeing with Bob Kohn – a black hole of bullshit might open up taking all rational thought with it. I guess we could say that Bob thinks that it’s okay to participate in what he calls “journalistic fraud” if he’s in favor of the “crusade.” Would that be about right, Bob?
The most disingenuous thing about Bob Kohn’s Op-Ed wasn’t even anything he wrote in the piece (although there were several prime candidates), it was what came after. In a discussion on Twitter, Bob Kohn engaged in some classic concern trolling:
My response to him was pretty simple:
Bob Kohn, of course, didn’t reply. Perhaps he was too busy with his day job as founder, Chairman and CEO of RoyaltyShare (where Hachette is a major client).
When it comes to concern trolling though, it’s tough to beat Laura Miller at Salon. This insane piece urges indie authors to side with Hachette in the Amazon dispute for their own good. This faux-caring is outed by Nate Hoffhelder at The Digital Reader, where commenters noted that Miller completely forgot to mention she is published by Hachette.
Is it any wonder that confidence in news media is at an all-time low?
If the news media wishes to reverse this trend, perhaps it could consider fact-checking the pieces it runs. This is the second time in five months we’ve had a fake bestseller story.
Maybe the news media could also consider asking writers to disclose their personal and financial interests in their stories. I mean, Horwitz’s stake in Boom is obvious (and I wish him continued success), but when writing about a business dispute between Hachette and Amazon, shouldn’t Bob Kohn mention that Hachette is one of his biggest clients? Shouldn’t Laura Miller disclose she is published by Hachette?
(Full disclosure: I once ate some free chicken wings at an Amazon event. They were good.)
And, if it’s not asking too much, maybe the news media could start devoting some column inches to issues where writers really are being exploited instead of some guy who sold fewer books than he hoped and some dispute between two large corporations over who will make a slightly better percentage on e-book sales.
I know. Crazy, right?
UPDATE: Tony Horwitz responds in the comments below.