The False Promise of Digital Publishing

WHAT does it mean to be a digital bestseller? We continue to hear that removing the middleman and getting rid of the expenses of print will be good for readers and writers. The experience of Tony Horwitz, a first-rate writer of narrative nonfiction like Confederates in the Attic, shows it doesn’t always work out that way. He calls his storyConfederate_in_the_attic, “a cautionary farce about the new media and technology we’re so often told is the bright shining future for writers and readers.” Horwitz continues:

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.How many young writers can realistically dream of that now? Online journalism pays little or nothing and demands round-the-clock feeds. Very few writers or outlets can chase long investigative stories. I also question whether there’s an audience large enough to sustain long-form digital nonfiction, in a world where we’re drowning in bite-size content that’s mostly free and easy to consume.

To the digital utopians, remember, we live in the best of all cultural worlds.


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