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E-Snookered?

June 20, 2014, 9:44 am

pt-barnum

Fill in the blank: “There’s a _____ born every minute.”

In today’s New York Times,  award-winning writer Tony Horwitz discusses the swampy territory of born-digital publishing. Secure in his reputation and presumably able to pay rent, a new online publication based in Australia offered Horwitz $15,000 and $5,000 in expenses to write an in-depth, extended investigation of the Keystone XL pipeline. “At the time I was researching a traditional print book, my seventh,” Horwitz writes. “But it was getting harder for me to feel optimistic about dead-tree publishing. Here was a chance to plant my flag in the online future and reach a younger and digitally savvy audience. The Global Mail would also be bankrolling the sort of long investigative journey I’d often taken as a reporter, before budgets and print space shrank.” A deal to co-publish with Byliner, a company that supplies short reads by subscription and through on-line booksellers, seemed to seal the deal.

Read the story to see how the whole thing fell apart, piece by piece. All platforms disappear only after the work is done and expenses are racked up. Horwitz gets his agent involved and succeeds in reviving the deal with Byliner, only to discover that they have no marketing plan and no publicity people that they assign to authors. Gamely, Horwitz shills the book himself, only to discover that Byliner mysteriously cannot deliver the book to people who want to read it and — at one point — they disappear it completely. His e-book “had vanished. Poof. As if it had never existed.”

One imagines that gobsmacked moment in which The Famous Author, seeing broken links to his work, could not be blamed for thinking to himself: “B-b-b-but I’m a Famous Author!” Horwitz does get paid by the Aussies in the end, thanks to a diligent and embarrassed editor, but finds himself looking back at months of work that have paid very little. (Try academic publishing, why dontcha! the blogger who is at this precise moment writing for free thought parenthetically.) Horwitz’s lessons? He wonders whether there really are readers ”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.”

I was left with questions. Why, if you had an agent, would you not have your agent vet the contract, establish a kill fee and insert a reversion of rights if the book was pulled? How is it that a best-selling author did not have his own publicist, and did not notice that Byliner had no marketing plan, and had not established a minimum number of sales before the book went out of print? If you don’t want to read your own contract, and you do make your living by writing, would you not have a lawyer pal read it?

I am a huge fan of Tony Horwitz (we have actually met on several occasions, and one of the problems may be that he is so nice it never occurred to him that he might be treated this way), so I have to conclude that the answer to all these questions is: because these are mistakes any one of us who is more interested in writing than business could make. In fact, Hannah Horvath made it on HBO’s Girls, season before last, and had to go to work for an in-house ad agency as a result, having quit her coffee shop job in a huff. 

This is why everyone should watch as much television as they can.

But I am still a little shocked that someone who has published as Horwitz, and with so much success, decided it was time to agent his own work. Because Interwebz? That someone as sophisticated as Horwitz did not understand that the “brave new world” he was entering runs by the same rules as the tired-ass old world should be a cautionary tale, to be sure. Fish, even big fish, who don’t keep one eye open at all times will be eaten by sharks. I would love to have been on the phone call where the embarrassed writer called to tell his agent about what he had done.

That said, I disagree that what happened to Horwitz is about reading issues inherent to the Internet or to an audience too enthralled with the Kardashians to pay attention to work that takes more than two minutes to read. Plenty of people still read long form journalism, and they go to great trouble and some expense to access it on the web and in print. Horwitz may be missing a point that he makes very clearly in the narrative: web ventures of all kinds often have very poor business models, but our investment economy is structured in such a way that the people who run them make gobs of money years before they are expected to turn a profit. Everyone else is irrelevant. Even The Famous Author.

Go here to buy Horwitz’s book on big oil, Boom, which we now know about because he has an agent and wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, unlike poor Hannah, who is now heading off to an MFA program in the next seasonto rack up student debt while taking courses from famous nonfiction writers.

And if you are going to swim with the e-sharks, bring a big stick.

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