- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 13, 2011

As far as Christmas miracles go, it ranks somewhere between virgin birth and the Sisyphean persistence of fruitcake.

A writer loses a plum magazine-editing job in New York City, decamping to his native South Dakota. Out of the blue, a major online publisher asks him to adapt and expand an 11-year-old piece about his holiday memories. The resulting essay, warm and wise, becomes a surprise electronic best-seller - topping works by authors such as Nicholas Sparks and Tom Clancy - and a small beacon of hope for a beleaguered profession struggling to survive in the digital age.

“It’s been sweet,” said Joseph Bottum, who has recently lived that scenario. “What else could one want for a Christmas piece?”

A freelance writer and former editor at the conservative religious journal First Things, Mr. Bottum is the author of “Dakota Christmas,” a top seller for Amazon’s Kindle, an electronic reader and e-bookstore.

By turns serious and comic, the piece offers a richly detailed, loosely chronological account of Mr. Bottum’s bookish boyhood on the Dakota plains, reflecting on both the spiritual and secular meanings of the holiday season in a sentimental, melancholic manner reminiscent of the animated television classic “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

Of the emotional conundrum that came with spending an extra $1.43 to buy his older sister a metal doll holder - at the cost of downgrading his younger sister’s china tea set to plastic - Mr. Bottum writes, “[There is] a simultaneous feeling of titanic generosity and utter miserliness, a calculation of love measured to the penny, and an irrecoverable sensation - the proud knowledge that one has, in a fit of magnanimity, squandered every cent, matched with the shameful awareness of just how paltry the result is.”

“Nothing we buy now, no matter how rich or poor we are as adults, will ever be as emotionally fraught as that $1.43 doll set that we bought our sisters when we were children,” Mr. Bottum said. “As a child, you never really think about money except at Christmas.”

Of course, freelance writers such as Mr. Bottum often think of little else, largely because the advent of the Internet and its information-should-be-free ethos have eroded publishing profits, making it increasingly difficult for authors to earn a living.

According to industry expert Jason Boog,the commercial success of “Dakota Christmas” and similar pieces portends a potentially different future - one in which push-button electronic story distribution and mass-market penetration of tablet computers enables writers to connect with an audience that continues to migrate online.

“I think some smart journalists will figure out how to master this new space and make it worth their while to publish stories like [‘Dakota Christmas‘],” said Mr. Boog, the editor of Galley Cat, a publishing-news website. Noting that “print outlets for long-form journalism are drying up,” he said the recent emergence of this new market “makes me very hopeful.”

Going home again

Mr. Bottum never anticipated seeing his byline next to John Grisham and Stephen King. Of course, the 50-year-old never expected to be back in South Dakota, either.

A 1983 graduate of Georgetown University, Mr. Bottum taught medieval philosophy before transitioning to magazine work. He became the literary editor of the Weekly Standard and later the editor-in-chief of First Things, residing in Manhattan with his wife and daughter.

Late last year, First Things unexpectedly split with Mr. Bottum, leaving him out of a job. Facing sudden economic insecurity and needing a change of scenery, the Bottum family moved out of their two-bedroom New York apartment and into a home in South Dakota’s picturesque Black Hills.

Coincidentally, the move took place just before Christmas.

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