This one is Tony Horwitz, who wrote the wonderful Confederates in the Attic. He recounts his tale of woe in a New York Times op-ed. He got an offer from a new digital media outfit to write an e-book about the Keystone pipeline. They in turn contracted with an ebook publisher to produce and market the book. But the digital media outfit collapsed before he got his advanced, and the ebook publisher collapsed after the book was published. He now has little prospect of getting sufficient revenue from the ebook to make the months of research and writing worth while (although the publicity of a Times op-ed is going to help).
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. I was dispatched to costly and difficult places like Iraq, to work for months on a single story. Later, as a full-time book author, I received advances large enough to fund years of research.
How many young writers can realistically dream of that now? 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.
It’s a sad story, but Horwitz’s main problems seem to have been shaky publishers and the lack of demand for long-form journalism, not the ebook model itself (which let him publish his story within days of its completion, while it was still in the news).
And you don’t have to deal with shaky publishers to have a tale of woe. I sold my novel Senator to an enthusiastic editor at William Morrow, a well-established publisher. But my editor subsequently left the company amid rumors that Morrow was going to be acquired. The book was therefore an orphan, assigned to a foster-editor who had no stake in its success. Without any publicity or editorial push, it sank without a trace — until I resurrected it as an ebook. These things happen.
Parents, don’t let your children become authors. Teach them Java and C++, and let them write code, not books.