Screen Shot 2014-06-21 at 3.43.54 PMEarlier this week, author Tony Horwitz wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about his experience with troubled ebook publisher, Byliner.

In the column, Horwitz reveals that his “top rated seller” ebook actually only sold 800 copies in its first month, sales only now having “inched into four figures”. With a meager $2000 advance against royalties, and a $2.99 cover price (on which Byliner splits net revenue with authors), the book is far from a financial success for Horwitz. He also complains about that the publicist assigned to the book by Byliner was lousy, meaning he had to book himself onto radio shows and other promotional appearances. Also the company was unable to arrange bulk orders of books for distribution during speaking gigs.

For the past few days, Horwitz column has been tweeted and retweeted, blogged and reblogged, as evidence that authors are being screwed by Byliner in particular, and ebpublishers in general.

Now…

Three years ago, I published a short book through Byliner, detailing my recovery from alcoholism. I certainly had gripes of my own the (then fledgling) company. The commissioning editor originally offered me a $5k advance before suddenly dropping it to $3k as we were about to sign the contract. Then Byliner sat on the manuscript for months and only finally published it when I offered to buy back the rights; after which the publicity machine stopped rolling after a couple of months, leaving the book to fend for itself. I have friends who have written for Byliner who have had similarly frustrating experiences, including one whose book was abruptly cancelled apparently because Byliner decided it wouldn’t sufficiently appeal to the company’s core audience of “middle-aged women” (it was a book about tech).

And yet, as I read Horwitz’s column, I felt myself first confused, then steadily more angry at the unfairness being meted out to Byliner, specifically, and to the ebook publishing industry, generally.

Most of my — and Horwitz’s — issues with Byliner (renegotiated terms, sluggishness in publishing, sudden halting of publicity) I’ve also experienced with traditional publishers large and small. If Horwitz has issue with those, he has issue with the entire publishing industry. Also, some of Horwitz’s gripes are plainly beyond Byliner’s ability to fix: is the firm really supposed to arrange bulk orders of a Kindle Single for conference attendees? For one thing, that’s just not how Singles work.

The biggest problem, though, is that Horwitz describes his book as a “top rated seller” — a weird phrase from which we’re supposed to infer that his is one of the best selling books on Byliner. As such, Horwitz positions himself as a spokesperson for all the other lesser-selling authors who must be getting even more royally screwed.

That much, certainly, is bullshit.

I’ve just dug out my most recent statement from Byliner and, although I know for a fact that many Byliner authors have outsold me by tens of thousands of copies, I’ve still banked way more from my modestly successful Byliner book than Horwitz did for his alleged “top rated seller”.

The royalty statement I’ve embedded is marked “confidential” but I’m not sure the company can do much to enforce that. Here are the key points:

I was paid a $3k advance in 2011 for “Sober Is My New Drunk.” That’s $1,000 more than Horwitz was paid for his book but close enough to suggest the expectations for our respective titles were similar. Also, I didn’t sell my book to Byliner through my book agent, while Horwitz says he did. (Horwitz should find a new agent.)

In the first month of publishing (March 2012), Sober… sold 3,378 copies — $4,557.92 in net revenue, of which $2,278.96 went towards paying back my advance. Many of those sales came, I assume, from the guest editorial that Byliner’s freelance publicist was able to place in the Wall Street Journal. She also arranged for me to appear on various radio shows over the next months or so. I can’t imagine those radio appearances sold a single extra copy. They did make a lot of Alcoholics Anonymous zealots angry though, so it wasn’t a total loss.

By month two I’d earned back by advance — with royalties of $1,287.16 payable for the month. From then on, everything was money in the bank for me. My May 2012 check was $676.83, June was $360.88… by the end of 2012, Sober… had sold 8,842 copies and I’d been paid $2,805.34 plus my initial $3k royalty. Close to six thousand dollars in total.

Even without Byliner’s active promotional support, the book continued to sell steadily through 2013, netting me an additional $2,706.27. So far this year I’ve earned close to $1,000 from the now three year old book. I just received another royalty check for close to $400.

The grand total so far? 14,710 copies sold, $9,237.24 paid on net sales of $18,474. Not a fortune, and I’ve certainly made a lot more from some of my traditionally published books… but I’ve also made less from others.

Remember, also, this isn’t a full length book — it’s a Kindle single, which really has more in common with a long magazine article. Close to ten grand for a long piece of journalism really isn’t too bad at all.

I’ve no reason to think my book was an outlier, either in terms of high sales or low. Margret Atwood’s Byliner book — I’m Starved For You — certainly shifted boatloads more copies than mine, as did other stand-outs like Jon Krakauer’s Three Cups of Deceit. Then again, I’ll bet other Byliner authors are reading my sales figures and gnashing their teeth.

So my experience with Byliner wasn’t perfect, but nor was it abysmal. I didn’t make much money from the book, but nor was it a waste of my time. My book sold a bit better than Tony Horwitz’s, but we were both crushed by others. In other words, our experiences weren’t a damning indictment of epublishing. They were just how publishing works, and has always worked. Some books sell, some don’t. If you don’t like the advance, don’t write the book — there’s very little chance you’ll see another dime.

A few months before I signed my Byliner contract, I met with founder John Tayman who laid out his vision for a company that would fix everything that’s wrong with old publishing. Not only would Byliner split net revenue with authors and pay royalties monthly (which it did) but it would offer a level of editing, marketing, research support and other services that traditional publishers usually reserve for their superstar authors. It was a hell of a pitch, but ultimately it was a hollow one.

And there lies Byliner’s real failing, a failing that Horwitz completely missed in his (successful) attempt to sell more ebooks by bitching about ebooks: Byliner was supposed to be something better, something more — ugh — disruptive, than traditional publishing. But it wasn’t. It was almost exactly the same, for good and bad.

The answer, then, is not for authors to retreat back to old publishing houses, it’s for them to keep searching for a publisher that truly understands what authors, and their readers, need in today’s market. Byliner’s demise leaves behind an even bigger hole in the market for a publisher with the courage to be different.

Byliner Retail Report – Paul Carr, March-April-May 2014