This is how quickly the media world is changing: The very first Kindle Single e-book that Paula Todd read was the one she wrote.
That would be Finding Karla, Todd’s hot-button work of reportage, which confirmed long-standing rumours that Karla Homolka is alive and well and living in Guadeloupe, and the mother of three young children.
Since being released on Thursday afternoon, Todd’s e-book has been hovering in the top ten list of bestselling Kindle Singles, Amazon’s proprietary format, introduced last year for what it calls “compelling ideas expressed at their natural length.”
That means essays, memoirs, short stories, and works of journalism that are longer than typical magazine pieces but shorter than full-length books. Finding Karla, which retails for about $3, is also available in Indigo’s Kobo format (which can be read on a regular computer), as an Apple iBook, and as a Nook from Barnes & Noble.
And although the attention since last Thursday has focused on Homolka, Todd’s experience with e-publishing might end up having as momentous an effect as her scoop itself.
Not only does it prove that there’s an audience hungry for the sort of long-form journalism that’s been scarce in recent years, as magazines and newspapers have courted time-starved readers with ever-shorter articles. It also suggests that for the first time in decades, some of the power in publishing is shifting back to writers, who are trying to grab the electronic rights that publishers have been taking for granted. Still, writers should be careful what they wish for. As the fictional newspaper photographer Peter Parker might say: With (slightly more) power, comes great responsibility.
Finding Karla didn’t begin as a power play. On the contrary, Todd chose to publish her work as an e-book because she was worried she’d never be able to publish at all. After finding Homolka in early May, Todd began hearing chatter that other journalists were on the killer’s trail. If Todd tried to sell her story to a magazine, as she’d originally considered, “part of the risk is that you’d be waiting two or three months for the production schedule to come around,” her agent Derek Finkle explained. “There’s a really good chance someone would scoop you.”
Instead, she hammered out 14,000 words in less than two weeks; the book was on sale one week later. While other e-books have broken news stories in the U.S., such as Jon Krakauer’s exposé of fundraiser Greg Mortensen, Three Cups of Deceit, Todd’s Finding Karla is the first to do so in Canada.
The format “solves a huge problem for the writer,” Todd says. “I don’t think you can always get the room in newspapers to write what the subject warrants, and I think it’s becoming an increasing problem.”
It does more than that. Finding Karla proves there’s real value in the digital rights to stories. After a class-action lawsuit which was resolved in 2001 in favour of freelance writers, publishers have been scrupulous about sewing up electronic rights, usually paying a nominal additional fee (if anything at all). But more often than not, the stories have simply been dumped onto their websites in hopes of attracting traffic (and, thus advertising).
Finkle, founder of the agency Canadian Writers Group (CWG), has been working to pry those rights out of publishers’ hands. When his client, Globe columnist Russell Smith, wrote a story for Toronto Life’s April issue about losing his sight, Finkle ensured the magazine didn’t get the digital rights. Instead, CWG published a longer version of the article, as the e-book Blindsided. Finkle also secured the digital rights for his client Leslie Anthony’s story about a paleontologist in British Columbia, which was published in the January issue of Canadian Geographic. CWG published a longer version of the story last month as the e-book Bones of Contention.
As Finkle notes, if an article “goes crazy – if you’ve got a huge number of people hitting a story, or buying copies off the newsstand, the way it stands right now, the writer doesn’t collect any royalties.” With an e-book, “if 50,000 people – or, in the case of Jon Krakauer, hundreds of thousands of people buy an e-book for $3, the writer stands to benefit from that in a very real way.”
Journalists are being thrust into the role of entrepreneur, given agency over their own success. In the recent past, reporters might do the rounds of radio and TV shows to publicize stories they’d written for magazines, with the only measurable benefit going to the publications through higher sales. (Sure, the reporter’s “brand” might also get a bump, but with writer’s fees stuck where they’ve been for more than a decade, that benefit was more psychological than real.)
By separating out the digital rights, some writers are finally unlocking the value that publishers had failed to capitalize on. And now, intriguingly, some publishers are starting to focus on tapping that value as well: Toronto Life charged readers $2 if they wanted to read a digital version of their cover story last month on Mayor Rob Ford. (It’s now available for free on the site.)
Mind you, not all journalists are comfortable as entrepreneurs.“I have a huge problem with self-promotion,” says Leslie Anthony, who promoted Bones of Contention through Twitter, Facebook, and other social-media channels. “I’ve never been that kind of a person. I just find it hard, I don’t think I do it particularly well. The learning curve on that has been incredibly steep for me. Just thinking about it even makes me cringe.”
Editor's note: A word was omitted from an earlier version of this article, resulting in it being unclear how long it took for Paula Todd to write her e-book. This online version has restored the omitted word.