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When author Tony Horwitz was first approached to write an eBook about the Keystone XL pipeline, it sounded like a golden opportunity: a chance to profile the Western communities along the 4,000-mile route, while sidestepping the glacial pace of traditional publishing. His eBook topped online sales lists, but his experience morphed into a cautionary tale about the hazards of digital publishing.
- Tony Horwitz Author, "BOOM: Oil, Money, Cowboys, Strippers, and the Energy Rush That Could Change America Forever"
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, author Harper Lee famously shunned the spotlight after publishing "To Kill A Mockingbird." Now a new memoir, "The Mockingbird Next Door" is making waves. But first, a cautionary tale for writers in the digital age.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhen Tony Horwitz was first approached to write an e-book on the Keystone XL Pipeline it sounded like a golden opportunity. He was already an acclaimed author and Pulitzer prize-winning journalist known for deeply researched storytelling. But this was a chance to take an epic 4,000-mile road trip from the tar sands of Alberta to the plains of Kansas, and to sidestep the glacial pace of traditional publishing.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe resulting e-book titled "BOOM" shot to the top of the e-book sales list. But behind that apparent success, Horwitz found that what he calls a cautionary force about the new media and technology we're so often told is the bright shining future for writers and readers. He joins us to explain. Tony Horwitz, as we mentioned, is the author of "BOOM: Oil, Money, Cowboys, Strippers and the Energy Rush That Could Change America Forever." His previous books include "Confederates in the Attic" and "Midnight Rising." He joins us by phone. Tony Horwitz, thank you for joining us.
MR. TONY HORWITZHi, Kojo. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIYou too can join the conversation. Are you an e-book reader, an e-book author? Has this new technology changed the way you purchase and you consume media? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Tony Horwitz, a traditional book takes a really long time to produce, especially for someone like you known for doing deep-dive research finding unique characters. This book "BOOM" is noteworthy because it was produced on a very short timeline. And it probably could only have been released on e-book. Tell us about the project. What attracted you to the western oil boom and to publishing via e-book?
HORWITZI'm someone who came up in the Paleolithic era of print journalism and traditional publishing back in the 1980s and '90s. And I've had a very good run, but like most writers I'm concerned about the health of my chosen industry. So when an opportunity came along to try a new format, a digital only, I thought, great, this will be exciting and a chance to plant my flag in the future and perhaps escape the sinking ship of traditional journalism and publishing. And, as you mentioned, write something in near book form that would come out instantly. For most authors it takes about nine months between when you finish a book and when it appears in print.
NNAMDIYou've published six books in the traditional publishing system, which you call the dead tree variety. Talk a little bit about how different the process was for your first e-book contract, at least on the front end?
HORWITZYeah, on the front end it all looked great. I was contacted by a new digital publication called the Global Mail which was funded by a tech entrepreneur. They asked me to write about the Keystone XL Pipeline, the embattled energy project that may bring oil from the tar sands of Canada to refineries in the U.S. And they said I could write it whatever length I liked and provided a nice chunk of change and ample expenses. So I saw an opportunity that's become rare in this era of shrinking print budgets and space.
HORWITZSo I set off on an ambitious month-long road trip and came back with about 40,000 words of material, just about almost halfway to a traditional book. And Global Mail was delighted, liked my dispatches and saw an opportunity to find an even bigger audience by partnering with another digital outfit, Byliner, a classy publisher of novella-length works, based in San Francisco. And I was told that I would get a quarter of the proceeds, more than I get from traditional books, and that we might sell 70,000 copies.
HORWITZSo I was thrilled and I wrote like a demon all through the winter and pressed the key just two days before the State Department issued its final report on the Keystone XL, which meant I'd be publishing right on top of the news, which wouldn't have been possible with a traditional book. And I headed out to the liquor store for a celebratory bottle and returned to a phone call from my editor at the Global Mail announcing that the tech entrepreneur that had promised to back this out for years had had a financial setback at his firm and abruptly pulled the plug. So the Global Mail, you know, just was about to evaporate overnight.
HORWITZAnd here I was with 40,000 words on a timely subject with no publisher and I hadn't yet been paid. And at this point I involved my literary agent, which I should've done from the start.
NNAMDIYes, who you did not involve initially but regret it.
HORWITZRight. I think another sort of notion of this brave new world of digital publishing is that we authors can do it all ourselves. We don't need the middleman of publishers and, you know, the New York houses and our agents and all the others who take a cut. And she negotiated a deal directly with Byliner, only $2,000 but still I was excited it would appear.
HORWITZAnd about four days later after designing a snazzy cover and a sexy subtitle with, you know, "Oil, Money, Cowboys, Strippers...
NNAMDI...Cowboys, Strippers and the Energy Rush That Could Change America Forever."
HORWITZExactly, you know, "BOOM" appeared. And I thought, great. This worked out after all. But then reality set in. First, Byliner did essentially or almost no marketing or publicity. They sent out a few tweets. They urged me to, as they put it, game the system by getting friends and family to write glowing reviews on "BOOM's" Amazon page. And the rest was really up to me. And I realized here "Boom" was sort of floating out there in the digital ether with millions of other titles. How would people even know it existed?
HORWITZAnd, you know, I'm not shy about peddling my wares. I've done that with my other books. Usually I have a partner in that enterprise, but I did what I could. I bored my dozens of followers on social media, arranged some radio interviews, placed some op-ed pieces, unpaid of course because they were online in the New York Times and Time Magazine. And in this wonderful new world of online journalism the understanding is that we scribes are building brand rather than actually making a living.
HORWITZBut this self (word?) seemed to work initially. "BOOM" climbed in the sales rankings on Amazon which writers, like myself, check compulsively. And in the list of nonfiction Kindle singles that was my e-niche. I was right up there at the top and in certain categories like page-turning narrative, I was number one.
NNAMDIExactly right. But you then discovered exactly what number one meant in terms of sales.
HORWITZYeah, so here I am a digital nonfiction Best Seller. And I finally get Byliner to give me the numbers on what that means. And they came back with a number between 700 and 800 sales. And it was really at this point that I began to wonder whether this much hyped industry, digital publishing, is really an emperor with no clothes. Because if a so-called Best Seller like mine was selling 7 to 800 copies, that meant the many, many books behind it were selling almost nothing at all.
HORWITZAnd then it got worse. Later when I...
NNAMDIIt got worse because by then after 700, 800 copies you still hadn't even made the $2,000.
HORWITZNo. I only would make any more money than that once I'd earned out my advance. And I was getting about a buck a copy. So here I was, I'd made $800.
HORWITZAnd this was for about five months of, you know, very hard labor and travel. And then one day I went to check my sales ranking again and I got one of those wonderful, you know, error messages you get saying the web address you're seeking doesn't exist. Well, that's strange. And I went an checked on Barnes and Noble and iTunes and other places where my book was sold online. It wasn't there either. In fact, it had vanished altogether. It was as if this 120-page work had simply never existed.
HORWITZAnd what I found out later is that Byliner was in serious financial trouble, and without any warning to its authors had pulled a number of works from the market for what they called accounting reasons. And so it was just poof, it was gone. And it was at that point that I decided to write this op-ed for the New York Times.
NNAMDIYou know, we typically think of these smaller web-based companies as disruptive forces that can whip up buzz for a new book by engaging in viral marketing and other web-savvy tools. That did not work out for you. We spend a lot of time criticizing the old institutions of media and publishing, how tentatively they have grappled with the disruptive forces of technology in the web in the case of book publishing, the huge number of inefficiencies and middlemen baked into the process. But those forces also provide protections, don't they?
HORWITZYeah, look, I'm not a luddite and I know that digital publishing has been wonderful for many readers and for many authors as well who struggled to get published before. You know, it is disruptive in some good ways but I think we haven't paused to ask about the negatives as well.
HORWITZAnd to me the promise that the digital payout has simply not been delivered on, most obviously for writers, again in online journalism you're paid little or nothing. You're building brands. Print journalism, as we know, is diminishing. And print publishing is in trouble as well with advances declining. And many people unable to be published at all. So we are in an exciting new era and as a writer I don't care what format people used to read what I write. I'm happy with people reading it on a Kindle. I just want them to read it. And if we're not finding readers and if it's not sustainable economically, I really worry what the future is for what I do.
NNAMDIWell, I'm going to get back to the topic of the Keystone XL Pipeline that you wrote about, because here in -- by the way we're talking with Tony Horwitz. We're talking about the digital publication "BOOM: Oil, Money, Cowboys, Strippers and the Energy Rush That Could Change America Forever." He joins us by phone.
NNAMDIHere in Washington, this issue has been debated in very stark terms as if the answers to this issue are simple. In fact, you depict communities and families grappling with difficult trade-offs and landing unpredictably on this debate. You came across a passivist community of Hutterites in Montana, a group similar to the Amish, who were in favor of the pipeline. But when you were in Nebraska you came across a strange bedfellows alliance of natives and ranchers opposed to the pipeline that went by the acronym CIA, which stands for Cowboy Indian Alliance. Tell us about some of the more noteworthy characters you came across.
HORWITZYeah, it's a pretty wild scene out there, I think particularly for those of us on the east coast who are somewhat removed from this energy transformation occurring in the heartland to see what's happening on the ground. The energy boom in Canada first where I went but also the western U.S. is really a modern version of the Gold Rush. You have these boom towns that have sprung up almost overnight where thousands of people from around the country are pouring in, hoping to get rich quickly from mining and drilling.
HORWITZAnd also a lot of other people, prostitutes, stripper, casino owners are trying to relieve those same workers of their high wages. So it's a very colorful rough and tumble world with tremendous economic opportunity on the one hand and tremendous environmental damage and social problems on the other. And there's also the very heated side that you eluded to along the route of the Keystone XL between landowners and Native Americans and others who oppose it and boosters and businessmen who want it to be built. So you have this tense sometimes neighbor-against-neighbor struggle with a lot at stake, not just locally but for the nation.
HORWITZYou know, one of the things that struck me most is that America's really becoming the new Saudi Arabia. We are poised to become the world's largest energy producer. And this has all kind of implications for the economy, for the environment, for foreign relations. And I don't think as a nation we've really come to grips with that and how much has already changed but will change over the next decade.
NNAMDIYou say that the environmental movement's battle against Keystone XL is unlikely to be successful since the demand for this energy is too robust. But at the same time, environmentalists have scored a number of major tactical victories by delaying the decision, compelling companies to change the route of the proposed pipeline. What do you think comes next?
HORWITZWell, I think that the Keystone may indeed not be built for a number of factors. I mean, clearly the Obama Administration is kicking the can down the road for as long as possible to avoid a decision on this, which would be unpopular for one constituency or another. The price of oil, if it comes down, might mean that extracting tar sands, which is very expensive, may no longer be profitable.
HORWITZBut what I didn't see is evidence that if the Keystone is stopped that this oil will simply stay in the ground. There's just tremendous amount of activity in building rail lines and other pipelines so that if it doesn't come along this route, my feeling is it will probably find its way to market by other means. But as to the second point you eluded to, if the fight against the Keystone accomplishes nothing else, it has vastly improved the project. It will be much safer. It will at least partly avoid some very environmentally sensitive areas.
HORWITZAnd it's also raised the consciousness of people about this issue and I think sort of prepared the troops for the next fight. Because I think there will be many other such discussions down the road if this energy boom continues.
NNAMDIWant to know why we don't know more about communities affected by this pipeline. A couple of weeks ago we were talking to the NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos about bias in the media. And he made the argument that one of the patterns of bias we see in the mainstream media is geographic. We tend to focus on the coasts. We don't really cover the kind of communities that are being most impacted by the western gas boom, the kind of communities you cover in the book "BOOM."
HORWITZWell, I think to people on the coast these places are out of sight and therefore to a degree out of mind. I mean, the most striking place I visited was Williston, N.D. which is ground zero for the shale oil boom. And this was a sleepy railroad town in the middle of nowhere until just five years ago. And it's now one of the fastest growing places in the country. If you can turn a wrench and pass a drug test, you can make 80,000 a year at an entry-level job.
HORWITZBut, you know, it's a long way from anywhere and this really gets back to our earlier discussion. You know, it takes money to go out and report these stories. I spent about $7,000 on my month-long road trip. And I was staying in, you know, flea pit motels. I wasn't -- this wasn't a luxury trip. But it costs a lot to report on these kinds of places. And I think one reason we don't hear more about them is because fewer institutions are able to finance that sort of project. And fewer writers are able to take the risk of going out there for a story that, you know, they may be paid almost nothing for and may find very few readers.
NNAMDIAnd you took the risk of e-publishing. The entire media and publishing industry have been grappling with this question for at least a decade. Is the public really willing to pay for the kind of storytelling it wants or should want? Is it realistic to expect someone to pay $2.99 for a 40,000-word deep dive? This question is also percolating in music and film. Did you emerge from this experience as a jaded skeptic or as a jaded optimist?
HORWITZNo. I'm unfortunately a skeptic. I -- like everyone else through my day, I am overwhelmed with material, you know, links, tweets, stories, most of it snack-size and most of it free. When I hit a paywall, my first thought is, why should I bother? I have too much to read already for free, not to mention, you know, the pile of unread New Yorkers in my kitchen and the pile of unread books by my bed. We're all overwhelmed and we've also all become accustomed to this world of online content that is typically free or very cheap.
HORWITZAnd so my concern is there simply isn't an economic model yet that makes me hopeful that there's a future for this sort of long form nonfiction that, as you said, requires a lot of investment upfront and requires, yeah, a few hours of reading time on the part of the reading public.
NNAMDITony, Ian in Washington has been waiting for a while to talk to you, so Ian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
IANHi there. First, I never call radio shows but when I heard Mr. Horwitz on the show I had to pull over and call in. I deployed to Afghanistan last year. And when I reported to the combat hospital down in Kandahar, the first book that I was handed was "Confederate in the Attic." It turned out that book had been getting handed down from unit to unit to unit for years out there. And I just want to encourage anybody who has not read this book and has any interest in the Civil War, it's an absolutely brilliant book.
IANI'm a big reader. It's one of my favorite books of all time now. And so I just wanted to call up and say, thanks. It was a great experience to be able to sit out there in the desert and read that wonderful book.
HORWITZWell, thank you. That's very kind. And, you know, but again, I would have to add a somewhat depressing note. It would be hard for me to do a book like that today. I wrote that in the '90s. I had a book advance that was large enough to allow me to spend about 18 months on the road traveling the South, exploring the contemporary memory of the Civil War and another year-and-a-half writing it. That's tough to do in the current setting.
HORWITZSo again, I'm delighted you feel that way. And I encourage others to go out and buy books, not just my own but, you know, somebody needs to pay for this. I don't ask my plumber or electrician or car mechanic to work for nothing to build their brand, but that's the -- really the working assumption in many parts, particularly of online journalism today.
NNAMDITony Horwitz is author of "BOOM: Oil, Money, Cowboys and Strippers and the Energy Rush That Could Change American Forever." You can find a link to that book on our website kojoshow.org. Right now it's published by some person named Tony Horwitz. Tony Horwitz, thank you so much for joining us.
HORWITZWell, thank you for having me.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, author Harper Lee famously shunned the spotlight after publishing "To Kill a Mockingbird." Now a new memoir "The Mockingbird Next Door" is making waves. We'll talk with the author. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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