Digital publishing does not impair sales

Pardon me while I take a break from the Elements of Fiction series to address this article published by the New York Times: “I Was a Digital Best Seller!”

The writer, Tony Horwitz, calls his story “a cautionary farce about the new media and technology we’re so often told is the bright shining future for writers and readers.”

The short version: Horwitz was promised a hefty advance to do a long-form investigative journalism piece about the Keystone XL pipeline. First the financial backer pulled out, and then his digital-only publisher ran into some trouble.

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Photo © Izabela Habur • iStockphoto

In the meantime, Horwitz “plotted an ambitious road trip, from the tar sands of subarctic Alberta through Montana, the Dakotas and Nebraska, and returned a month later with a blown-out travel budget and enough material to write 40,000 words.”

So by his own admission, he exceeded his budget and produced a book that’s about half the length of most major-publisher print editions. Yet he laments that his publisher didn’t produce a print edition. He attributes his lack of sales to not being in bookstores.

Physical books live on physical shelves at physical bookstores and can catch the eye of browsing shoppers. “Boom” was floating in the digital ether with millions of other works.

He mistakenly thinks that putting his slender book in Barnes & Noble, shelved spine-out between The Pipeline and the Paradigm and Keystone XL Pipeline Project, would somehow increase his sales by attracting “browsing shoppers.”

I don’t think so.


Follow me here. Let’s say I’m browsing the aisles of my local Borders (just overlook for the moment that it closed years ago because of declining book sales). I’m walking along and am suddenly gripped by the urge to buy a book called BOOM because…ummm…

No. Not going to happen. A casual browser is not going to pick up a book about a pipeline as an impulse buy. The only reader who’s going to buy that book is one who goes deliberately looking for it.

Even if BOOM were there for the eager searcher to find, I don’t think a print edition would help.

Because how did I find those other books? I plugged “Keystone XL” into Amazon’s search window. When people are looking for a book on a specific topic, that’s where they start. Here are the top five results:

  1. Keystone XL: Down the Line by Steven Mufson, 2013, Kindle only, $1.99, estimated 169 pages
  2. BOOM: Oil, Money, Cowboys, Strippers, and the Energy Rush That Could Change America Forever. A Long, Strange Journey… by Tony Horwitz, 2014, Kindle only, $2.99, estimated 113 pages
  3. The Pipeline and the Paradigm: Keystone XL, Tar Sands, and the Battle to Defuse the Carbon Bomb by Samuel Avery and Bill McKibben, 2013, Kindle $8.69, paperback $11.68, 241 pages
  4. Keystone XL Pipeline Project: Key Issues by Paul W. Parfomak, Robert Pirog, Linda Luther and Adam Vann, 2013, Kindle $0.99, paperback $13.04, 42 pages
  5. The Keystone Xl Pipeline: Environmental Issues by Angelina Pagano, 2014, paperback only, $58.90, 74 pages

Pagano’s book has no reviews and no sales rank, presumably because at $60 bucks for her 74-page pamphlet, she has had no sales.

The problem of helping readers find books and helping authors find readers is known in the business as “discoverability,” and although Amazon’s search algorithms go a long way, no one has a perfect solution to the discoverability problem.

So let’s see where Horwitz’s book sits. It’s the No. 2 search result in its topic, but he’s unhappy with his sales. Could it be because he doesn’t have a print edition? No, because the books that do have print editions have a lower rank than his book.

The only book topping his in the search has these things going for it:

  • It’s a year older
  • It’s published by the highly respected TED organization
  • It’s cheaper by 33%
  • It’s longer by almost 50%
  • Its title contains the keywords “Keystone XL”

Horwitz’s book does not have the keywords in either the title or the subtitle. Oops. Well of course they couldn’t have put it in the title, because it was taken by the earlier book. But they could have put it in the subtitle.


Still, BOOM’s Amazon sales rank is “#4,353 Paid in Kindle Store” compared with “#156,665 Paid in Kindle Store” for Keystone XL. Which means BOOM is outselling its competitors despite its lower keyword ranking. (Heh. He may have gotten a sales boost from the Times article. Well played.)

BOOM is No. 1 in multiple categories, including Ecotourism and Conservation. Now, just about six months after its release, he says the book has broken the four-figure mark in unit sales. I know novelists whose books have been available for years who have yet to break the thousand-unit mark. But Horwitz feels that’s insufficient.

Are his sales low because this is an unimportant topic? No. His sales are in the thousands because the number of people willing to pay money to read about a pipeline is in the thousands. It’s an important topic, but most people will settle for getting their information from CNN and Fox News. They are not going to buy any book on the subject, digital or otherwise.

I don’t want to give the impression that I oppose print editions. I believe books should be available in both print and digital formats to accommodate reader preferences. But sales are not dependent upon format. Sales are dependent upon discoverability and audience.


Still, Horwitz pines for days of yore:

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.

As recently as…twenty or thirty years ago. Seriously. Has Horwitz been paying attention to the publishing industry in those years? Funding for research trips and big book advances dried up because — huh-looo — book sales are down. Bookstores are closing (miss ya, Borders). Print, digital, doesn’t matter. The story’s conclusion is just stupid:

I’m back to planning my next book. I don’t yet know on what subject. But I do know its form: in hard copy, between covers, a book I can put on the shelf and look at forever, even if it doesn’t sell.

The point of writing is not to put ink on dead trees. The point of writing is to affect hearts and minds.

What I see in Horwitz’s story is a journalist who for years has been buffered by the establishment from the profitless publishing of his employers. He got paid whether the publications were profitable or not. Now that buffer is gone, and he’s left to face a reality that the publishers and their accountants, both in the news media and in book publishing, have known for years. A small number of big sellers make up for a large number of unprofitable publications.

In journalism, flagship papers in a chain make up for smaller, less profitable papers. In book publishing, the bestsellers make up for the 70% of books that never earn out their advance.

By working with a small press, Horwitz had the corporate buffer taken away and got to see those numbers personally. And those numbers would be the same even if he had a hard copy in hand. In fact, in the case of a 113-page book, I think the material costs of a print edition would shrink the profit margin even further.

Digital is not the problem. Finding readers for your book is the problem faced by every single author who doesn’t already have a huge platform, which is why most book contracts from the major publishers go to writers who already have huge platforms.

Where this article shines is in drawing attention to the fact that being a “best seller” in a niche doesn’t mean fame and fortune. I appreciate Horwitz sharing his sales numbers. That’s valuable information. But he clouded the usefulness of his article by whining about a business model that has been broken for years. Decades.

The industry is not helped by this kind of moaning nostalgia for bygone times. What will help the industry is publishers and writers and marketers and retailers working together to figure out how to help readers find the books they want, in any form.

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