Finding Karla’s Paula Todd talks ebooks and the future of journalism
When Paula Todd discovered rumours online that convicted killer Karla Homolka was living in Guadeloupe and was teaching young children, she was compelled to act. Todd, a freelance journalist and professor of journalism at Seneca at York, felt she had a professional obligation to try and find out if those rumours were true: both for ethical reasons as well as to bring hard facts into the still-fierce debate surrounding Homolka’s journey through the Canadian judicial system.
Todd acted decisively. She used her line of credit to finance a trip to Guadeloupe, where she found Homolka — not teaching children, but mothering three of her own. As newsworthy as her discovery was, the method she chose to deliver her story has itself made headlines over the past few weeks. Finding Karla, a 14,000-word Kindle Single, was the first ebook to break a news story in Canada. It made it to #1 on Kindle Singles and to #5 on Kobo’s top 50. Within the first week it was published, it generated seven to eight times the revenue of what a feature for a top Canadian magazine would have earned Todd, had she chosen that route for publication.
Todd took the time to speak with Story Board yesterday about why she chose the ebook format and what the success of Finding Karla might mean for Canadian freelance writers.
Story Board: How did you decide to publish your story as an ebook?
Paula Todd: I knew that there were many other journalists — and not just in Canada — looking for her. So I was in a time crunch. There’s no point in getting your story and then having ten other people tell it before you. So I had a conundrum. I write non-fiction and literary non-fiction. I wanted to write that way, I didn’t just want to do a quick piece because it could be, I think, misinterpreted. But I had a very short period of time to get the story out. I knew that a book — which I definitely had enough material for — took six months to get out. There’s a three month turnaround on all of my favourite magazines. So I’ve got six months, or three months. Or a week in the newspaper for a feature, but am I going to get 14,000 words? Am I going to be able to write it in the style I want? No.
I hadn’t used an agent before, because I handle all my deals. But I thought, this is just too difficult. I need to be writing, working, every minute of the day. I really need an agent. And through a variety of blessings I met Derek Finkle [of the Canadian Writers Group]. When I explained to him the story and what I thought were the difficulties, he just sort of stared at me, dazed. And I think the reason he was dazed is because Derek Finkle sees the future for freelancers. And I realized later that he was dazed because he was staring at the person who was going to help him move his idea to the next level. Karla Homolka is a sufficiently compelling story that, with it, we’d probably, for the very first time, be able to break into the Kindle Single market.
So the idea of an ebook appealed to you?
I think I agreed within two minutes. I live a lot in cyberspace. I love books, I love the aesthetics of paper, I love all of it. But I also get the majority of my information from the cyber world. And so it doesn’t feel odd to me. It feels like a place to go. [Derek] thought of the model, I just gave him the hot story that was going to help him.
The publishing business in Canada is having a really rough time. Publishing houses are closing, or they’re collapsing, or they’re trying to outsource, and what that means is less opportunity for writers who need to be published but who aren’t going to be published. And I thought, if this works, we could be opening the floodgates to a whole new literary era. Wow. If I can help do that, if I can help bring more writers out… I’ve wanted to be a writer my whole life, it’s so frustrating not to be able to write if that’s your calling. So if, in some way, Finding Karla can help find literary platforms for people, that would make me incredibly happy.
What are the downsides of publishing your stories this way?
Canadians still do not have enough e-readers. Too many Canadians still feel afraid of the technology. I’ve had so many people email me or call me and say “what is that? I don’t know how to use that. Just get me a paper copy.” But I think it’s a matter of time. I’ve seen technology evolve. It’s going to happen. One of the hard things about being among the first, the problems get sorted out on your back! So we need the technology to catch up.
I don’t think we should get rid of print books. I don’t think we should get rid of cyber books. I don’t think we should get rid of podcasts. Too much of what’s going on in the world right now are these different industries digging in against each other because they see it as a threat, obviously, to the profit. But I don’t think that way. I’m thinking in a very big way which is: what do you use your blender for? Is it the same thing that you use your waffle iron for? No, it’s not. It’s to create different products. Kindle Singles was the perfect stage on which to mount Finding Karla in a quick way so that we not only gave out a good read but we broke a story. That story isn’t the one that suits print. The print story needs to be a bit more involved.
I think that the mainstream publishers are just on the tipping point. I mean yes they’re reaching out into cyberspace but what we do not have yet is the fluidity of communication that we could have if people would stop siloing how they think… What we should be doing is taking the blinkers off and saying “I’m going to release this story in different versions that suit each platform.” Why not?
I’m working on a new book now and what I think is “how do I make this product suit cyber, suit mainstream print, whatever.” Because I’m going to give each of those areas a different product. You’re going to have a different experience that suits the platform.
So you’re suggesting writers tailor their work for different platforms?
Exactly. Because people who use e-readers are doing something different. People who buy big books that they like to carry around and smell the beautiful paper are doing something different. And we’ll know more and more about why people like to get their information in a certain ways, but it frees us. It frees us to get the story out fast into cyberspace. And then to expand it into print if we like. I’m excited about that.
What other differences are there with e-publishing? What about issues like editing or liability?
Well here’s my advice to freelancers. First, when it comes to editing, you must do the best editing possible. Whether it is online, in print, there are no exceptions. And yes, because we get things out faster there is more pressure on us and there is the potential to make more errors. But here’s what I did. I thought, I don’t like the way this unwashed, error-filled chaos is ruining the credibility of the internet. So I vowed that my first ebook was going to be absolutely every bit as clean and polished as my other manuscript, which I worked on for a year.
And in terms of your liability, you shouldn’t be thinking about your liability on a particular piece, no freelancer should be doing that. What you should be thinking about is: how do I make sure that my book is legal? I must make sure that my book does not defame. That is the law. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re speaking it orally in a presentation, or you’re putting it between the covers of a book, or you’re blasting it online. Do your best work regardless of the platform. And that’s how we’re going to build our industry, too.
The Globe and Mail called your book “Journalism’s 14,000-word future,” do you agree with that assessment? Is this the way forward for freelance journalists with major stories?
I think it’s one way forward. I think what Finding Karla has potentially done is open up the doors — not just to freelancers, but freelancers are in the position to take advantage of this — it’s opened up a new, relatively unregulated way to get their work to the reader, to the listener. I think it shows there’s another platform and it doesn’t in any way diminish how we’re being published. It, in fact, probably enables freelancers to get more of their work published. That’s part of it. The other part of it is, as you know, we have a concentration of media in this country, in other countries as well. But they are the gatekeepers on who gets to read what and who gets to write what. I think by managing to get breaking news out in a timely fashion but in a longer form, written like a book without the assistance of the big newspapers or the big magazines, that does herald a whole new opportunity for freelancers.