“I Was a Digital Best Seller!”: NY Times’ Bizarrely Misleading Op-Ed

A couple days ago, the New York Times published an op-ed from Tony Horwitz, a Pulitzer Prize winner, chronicling his publishing of BOOM: Oil, Money, Cowboys, Strippers, and the Energy Rush That Could Change America Forever. A Long, Strange Journey Along the Keystone XL Pipeline. Ostensibly, it is the story of how online publishing does not live up to its hype. In reality, it is a parable of someone without good strategic or business sense committing a bunch of mistakes. And the best part: despite a lack of self-awareness, he gets paid off anyway.

To recap the important points from the op-ed, The Global Mail offered Horwitz $15,000 (plus $5,000 for expenses) to write a long-form piece on the Keystone XL pipeline. By the time Horwitz finished, The Global Mail had folded. He thus approached Byliner, who offered to publish the story as a digital book for 33% of the profits and a $2,000 advance. After a month, his book had only sold 800 copies, not enough to pay through the advance. This leads Horwitz to conclude that digital publishing is a failing enterprise.

However, the op-ed is actually a story of Horwitz making a bunch of mistakes and not realizing it. To wit:

1) As far as I can tell, he never signed a contract with The Global Mail. If I were going to spend a large percentage of my year writing a single story with the promise of $15,000 at the end, I would want a legal guarantee to that money precisely because of the issues he encountered.

2) He had a publisher (Byliner) that apparently did nothing for him. With digital publishing so easy now, the only reason to use a publisher is because they will actually do something for you. After all, Amazon will give you 2/3rds of the purchase price if you go it alone. If you are giving half of that to your publisher, you had better be getting a lot back. Instead, the publisher gave him a cover and siphoned off a large chunk of money.

3) He used an incompetent agent to sign the deal with Byliner. A good agent here would make sure the contract forces Byliner to do its job by publicizing the book to warrant its share of the revenue. Apparently there is no such language in the contract. If you are planning on signing a contract without giving it much forethought, why let the agent steal a percentage of your money as well?

4) Okay, #3 is not completely true—Byliner’s publicist “wrote a glowing review of “Boom” on Amazon, the main retailer of Byliner titles.” Amazon’s review policies make it clear that this is a flagrant violation: “Sentiments by or on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product (including reviews by publishers…)” are not allowed. So Horwitz is openly admitting that he has used false reviews. In the process, he implicates his publisher as well.

5) He thinks that being on the best sellers list for a particular subcategory means that he was selling a lot of copies. For someone with an extensive publishing history, this is remarkably naive. In fact, you can sell a handful of copies and get on these lists; you should not expect to make it rich unless you are on the overall best sellers list.

So we have a publisher that is completely unhelpful and an author who lacks business and strategic sense who are not making much money on a book venture. Does this warrant a New York Times op-ed on how digital publishing is full of false promises? Hardly.

The irony? The New York Times provides great publicity, even if your op-ed is completely wrong. As it stands, the book is #445 on Amazon’s best sellers list and was probably higher a couple of days ago when the story was first published. The real lesson here is that you can be horribly incompetent and still make a lot of money by writing about all of the mistakes you make—as long as you can convince the New York Times that it is the system’s fault, not yours.

This post has been very negative overall, so I feel like I should end on a kinder note. Tony Horwitz may be a fantastic writer. (I don’t know—I’ve never read anything of his. But a Pulitzer is a good indication.) His book on the Keystone pipeline might be great too. (The reviews on Amazon are good, likely even if you take out the fake review(s).) The takeaway point is that you need more than just good writing to succeed in the publishing world. Horwitz showed a lack of good sense here, and these are mistakes that you should avoid making yourself.

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