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I write the biweekly “Beliefs” column for The New York Times and also report for The Atlantic, The Nation, This American Life, and elsewhere. I have four daughters and two dogs.

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Friday
Oct052012

Why a NYT journalist wrote a self-published e-book

This has been a big week. For the first time, I self-published.

Not just e-published, but self-published. The 12,000-word book I put up for sale on the web Wednesday — the first major profile of Dan Savage, from Chicago-Irish upbringing through the "It Gets Better" phenomenon — was not the product of a collaboration with Kindle Singles, Byliner.com, atavist.com, or any of the other worthy efforts at getting high-quality short books into the hands of the masses. Instead, I formatted the book for Kindle, Nook, etc. all by myself, using an open platform at PressBooks.com, and am now marketing it through a host site called Ganxy.com.

I never though I'd be a self-publisher, so what happened? Five things:

1. I finished a glossy magazine article with a lot of good stuff left over. One of the unfortunate facts about newspaper and magazine publishing is that when a reporter finishes a good article with lots of great stuff left in his or her notebook, that great stuff usually never sees the light of day. A major reason is that editors are loathe to publish more stuff on a topic that a rival editor has already published on, even if there would be an obvious readership for it. A lot of this has to do with silly editor pride: nobody wants to publish that story on corporate chaplains if a rival magazine published a story about corporate chaplains last month. This is, stupidly, true even if the magazines barely share a readership. (That corporate chaplains example was random, just a topic I happened to write about recently.) So, having written a lengthy magazine piece on Dan Savage in a big magazine, there was probably little hope for me to publish another piece on Savage, even one with totally fresh material that went unused in the first piece. And no matter how great the craving for Savage-ana.

2. Despite the fact that space on the web is free, despite the fact the web should liberate newspapers and magazines to do truly long-form stuff, there is still no reliable way to get a 12,000-word (or, increasingly, a 5,000-word) piece to the masses. This is what my friend Fred Strebeigh calls "the 4,000 to 40,000 word problem." The next piece on Savage, sex, Santorum, and safety-from-bullying that I had to write was not normal magazine length — at least not for 2012. It was normal New Yorker length for 1980. And very, very few magazines are publishing that length. Why does no magazine publish extended web-only versions of their pieces? I don't know. But right now, they don't.

3. Creative control. For this ebook, I thought it would be fun to have a friend design the cover; use a photograper I admired; put in my own links; and set my own price.

4. Money. I also thought it would be nice to get almost 90 cents on the dollar from my hosting service, rather than a much lower cut from Amazon.com (although I am also selling through Amazon).

5. I had a good editor already. Most of the material in the ebook had already been edited carefully: by my wife, who is very good at that sort of thing, and by an ebook editor who had initially offered to vend it through his site. And that didn't work out, so rights reverted to me — which in the end worked out great. But it leads to a caution: only try this at home if you are prepared to spend $500 up front, or however much, to have a good editor pass over it (that's for magazine-length; way more money for a book). 

But that $500 would be about it. The platforms and hosting services now make this very, very easy.

Reader Comments (6)

Inspirational. Would love to see a followup post on how you market the book and how the revenues turn out, as well as the pros and cons between self-hosting and selling through Amazon.

I posted this on my UMass Entrepreneurial Journalism Facebook page to let journo students know about this publication model. Maybe you could join us over there sometime and check in!
October 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBJ Roche
Well, Mark, Join the other 1,000,000 self-published authored who have discovered the joy of self-publishing. But also, consider that you are actually engaging in a very subversive act that reveals the trend of the future. Just as music labels have become obsolete for music promotion and distribution in the age of YouTube and iTunes, publishing houses are discovering that by dragging their feet so long and resisting the future, they actually will be bury by it now, by the digital revolution.
October 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMario
Congratulations. Great idea for a brief book. And thanks for the insight. Wondering: how will your promote the book? I heard about it through the Romenesko bit. But I'd love to know how you intend to let potential readers know about your book. So what are your plans?
October 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJim Feeley
As someone who owes a hell of lot to Dan Savage, I really appreciated your piece. He single-handedly made our book a best-seller and has become a friend since then. It's wonderful to read such an accurate, well-written profile of a man who I've long considered an important historical figure—as well as an amazingly sensitive, kind guy.

On a more pedestrian level, there's a typo on p. 37: "The show is shot and tarted-up in the graphics-intensive, jerky- camera style that MTV pioneered with The Real World, and which has seen become the reality-TV standard." (seen/since)
October 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher. Ryan
To the question you asked in #2 -- NYRB does sometimes publish extended web-only versions of print items.
October 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCharlie
Another cool thing, if you've published books previously through the usual channels, is this: when they go out of print or rights revert to you or you buy back the rights, you can then self-publish them easily. I've done that with three of my books on politics and history so far, if you want to look: http://gregmitchellwriter.blogspot.com/
October 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGreg Mitchell
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