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.
“It was a place that I felt at home again, and a relief in those days,” Mr. Bottum said. “It was a time to get out of the East [Coast] and return to the West.”
On a personal level, the return was a boon. Mr. Bottum’s wife, Lorena, loved her new surroundings. So did their home-schooled 14-year-old daughter, Faith. The family had room. For the first time in more than a decade, Mr. Bottum’s entire beloved book collection was in one place.
“We have a house with 10,000 books, and my daughter lives a very active, Western-girl life of horses and wild outdoor activities,” he said. “In some ways, I’m sort of re-creating for her my own childhood.”
Professionally, Mr. Bottum completed a book of poetry. He worked on a book about religion in America. Relying on his network of magazine contacts, he was able to secure frequent freelance assignments.
Mr. Bottum considered himself lucky: Younger, less experienced authors, he said, are simply unable to support themselves in the current market.
“It’s impossible to make a living when a 3,000-word piece is earning you $50,” he said. “This is a tough time. The Web has devalued everyone’s work.”
Last October, Mr. Bottum received a phone call from David Blum, an old work colleague and relatively new Amazon editor. Mr. Blum was developing stories for Kindle Singles, an electronic marketplace for magazine-style stories aimed at tablet readers.
Mr. Blum remembered a Christmas-themed piece Mr. Bottum had written for First Things. Was he interested in expanding on the story for Amazon?
“I knew about e-books, but I didn’t know at all about these Kindle Singles,” Mr. Bottum said. “David said that he couldn’t pay for the piece, but that they would give you a high percentage of the sales.
“It sounded interesting. And I had done a lot of Christmas writing over the years, somehow becoming the regular Christmas guy for the Weekly Standard - I think because everyone else wanted to go home early.”
“Dakota Christmas” was published as a 7,500-word Kindle Single in early December. Mr. Bottum paid it little mind; happy with the finished essay, he was already working on other projects.
Besides, he wasn’t the most prolific electronic reader in his family.
“My wife got me a Kindle a few years ago, but immediately took it over,” he said. “So when it shot up to No. 1 on Kindle sales its first weekend, she was watching. I’m fortunate that she’s been good about tracking it.”
Launched in January, Kindle Singles is part of Amazon’s aggressive attempt to capitalize on a rapidly growing market for electronic literature. In the final three months of last year, the company sold more e-books than paperback books.
The program also is an effort to tap into an audience hungry for stories that are longer than a typical magazine article but shorter than a book. Pieces range between 5,000 and 30,000 words and cost between $1 and $5; authors receive royalties between 35 percent and 75 percent, higher than the rate for e-books.
For Mr. Bottum and writers like him, the success of stories such as “Dakota Christmas” could mark the beginning of a revival of long-form narrative journalism, a form of writing popularized by Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion in the 1960s, but increasingly out of place in an Internet news ecosystem dominated by breaking news, smartphone-friendly stories and fire-and-forget blog posts.
The initial inventory of Kindle Singles included original fiction, a diet plan based on financial incentives, a true crime story about a 2009 Swedish bank heist and a detailed report on the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks.
Amazon recently launched a $6 million annual fund that will pay authors and publishers who make their books exclusive to the company’s online store for at least 90 days.
“It’s pretty impressive that the general Kindle Singles best-seller list usually has four or five journalists in the top 10,” Mr. Boog said. “Journalists need to start thinking about the tablet audience. It’s a different kind of reader. Studies show people read more books when they have an e-reader. If you [offer] something that is a little longer and solidly edited and is 99 cents, that’s a sweet price point for readers. It’s an easy, quick decision.”
For his part, Mr. Bottum already is considering writing additional Kindle Singles pieces, including future Christmas stories.
The latter wouldn’t come without irony: In “Dakota Christmas,” Mr. Bottum fondly recalls - and wickedly lampoons - the enormous piles of holiday-themed books that would annually appear under his family’s Christmas tree.
“The Christmas Almanac.” “The Little Big Book of Christmas.” Charles Dickens’ collected Christmas works. And, of course, “Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Christmas Collection.”
“By the time you’ve actually gotten the book - and gone to church, and drunk the eggnog, and eaten the dinner, and cleaned up the wrapping paper, and squabbled with your sister, and blown out the candle stubs - Christmas is done for the year,” Mr. Bottum writes. “All those endless seasonal volumes piled like a Mayan step pyramid at the local bookstore: They exist primarily to gin up Christmas spirits of their givers, rather than their receivers.”
A similar fate might await “Dakota Christmas,” its author acknowledged with a laugh … if not for one small detail.
“Nobody is giving my story as a Christmas present,” said Mr. Bottum. “Or if they are, it’s being read before Christmas. You can’t wrap an e-book.”