Book Review: The Newbie’s Guide to Publishing by J. A. Konrath

Love him or hate him, Joe (“J. A. “) Konrath is a mystery/crime/thriller/horror author who has become one of the most vocal proponents of self-publishing eBooks. You might disagree with what he has to say about the changing paradigm of book publishing and retail, but you certainly can’t ignore the guy. He has perhaps become best known for his blog, which covers his own efforts at getting his books and stories published and sold, and for his relentless, indefatigable defense of self-publishing eBooks. (If you are at all interesting in writing professionally, you really do owe it to yourself to at least check out his blog.)

This is a mammoth collection of Konrath’s old blog entries, some covering his self-promotion efforts for past books, though most concern various aspects of writing, publishing, and Konrath’s current efforts to self-publish his work as eBooks on Amazon and other sites. There’s quite a lot to wade through, as the material goes back years, to the start of Konrath’s career. You will want to take some time to cruise through the entire collection. The blog entries are presented chronologically within certain very broad topical categories. In each section, I found the entries from the last couple years most useful, as Konrath’s views have changed over time. For the first few years of his career, he was a staunch defender of traditional publishing, though as he dipped his toes in the self-publishing/eBook world, his opinions began to change. Now, Konrath says that anyone who publishes their work with a traditional publisher is, essentially, a fool. I’m not sure that I’d personally go quite that far, but Konrath’s case is presented so convincingly that it’s hard to disagree with him.

Do you need this collection? After all, it’s really just a nicely-formatted compilation of all of his old blog entries, with links to all of the entries comments and so forth. No, you certainly don’t technically need to buy this eBook, as it really is all available for free online. But it’s a lot easier to read it all in one place, and frankly, it’s cheap enough that I don’t think you’ll mind paying for that convenience if you plan to read a sizable chunk of his blog.

I give this ebook collection 4 stars out of five, though that may be a bit generous. I’d actually like to see this one receive some editing, proofreading, and an update. Since this collection came out, Konrath has actually written quite a bit more on the topic that’s not included here. I’d also excise all the early material in which Konrath badmouths the ebook craze (in hindsight, those entries are kind of ironic). He’s fully repudiated that view by now and is one of the biggest proponents of self-publishing ebooks. Since Konrath began his blog, he’s witnessed a real paradigm shift in publishing, and we’re all along for the ride. A new edition that focuses solely on tips for self-pubbing ebooks and includes all his comments on that since the publication of this edition would result in a much stronger, more tightly focused, and, ultimately, useful volume. Something like that would get close to 5 stars from me. The problem with the collection is that while it’s interesting as a more-or-less historical artifact on one author’s views of publishing over time, it’s really only the entries from, say, 2009-10 onward that are relevant to today’s publishing environment. I will say this, though: Konrath’s blog and this collection, have been instrumental in helping change my own views on eBooks as a phenomenon – they are here to stay, folks, and whether we like it or not, they are only going to grow at the expense of physical books. Konrath’s an fun, engaging writer, and his blog has made me read a half-dozen of his books. Say what you will, but Joe Konrath is a pretty savvy guy.

Buy the book on Amazon

Review copyright 2011 J. Andrew Byers

More on the future of book retail

A couple updates to the recent collapse of Borders (as I mentioned previously). First, there is one small bright spot thus far — it looks like Books-A-Million is interested in acquiring around 30 of the 399 Borders locations. If that deal goes through, it would save somewhere on the order of 10% of the jobs expected to be lost with Borders’ closure, so that would indeed be good news for those employees and the communities those locations serve. Note though that Books-A-Million, like Barnes & Noble, is not doing all that well this past year (the article linked above provides details), but hey, any port in a storm I guess.

And second, the obvious question is, so what happens now to book retail? What can we say about the market as a whole? Well, it’s not a particularly rosy picture. The physical book market is expected to fall 11% this year, with a 21% decline since 2008. The eBook market is compensating for some, but not all, of this decline, and the eBook market is expected to more than double this year, with 111% growth expected. That’s huge, and we certainly can’t ignore it, but as the UK case study shows us, when physical bookstores go away, customers don’t automatically just buy books elsewhere. In a significant number of cases, folks use their disposable income for other non-book purchases altogether. That’s bad for all of us, as it means that Borders’ closure may have a ripple effect on the industry as a whole.

eBooks as the future?

The book industry is obviously in a state of turmoil (to say the least) and eBooks are increasingly playing an important role in how readers consume books. There are as many opinions about the future of books and eBooks as there are commentators, but no one really knows for sure how this is all going to shake out. There are, inevitably, those who point out the shortcomings of eBooks (and I have been a part of this camp for a while now, though since I’ve begun using my Kindle, I am less dogmatic about it). This article by John C. Abell has been getting a good deal of attention lately. Abell points out five reasons why eBooks just aren’t there yet as mechanisms for conveying book content to readers.

So that’s the pessimistic side. But there are others who are already looking to the future of eBooks — toward eBook 2.0 perhaps? This forward-looking piece by Shane Richmond suggests that publishers who really want to capitalize on the advantages of eBooks (and there are as many advantages to them as disadvantages, to be sure) might want to start thinking of eBooks as apps and not just digital copies of analog books.

Is the book dead?

We all know that the book industry is in turmoil, with independent and used bookstores going under by the droves, the big chains have not been doing particularly well compared with Amazon, traditional publishers seem clueless about eBooks, and eBooks as a whole seem to represent a paradigm shift in how books’ content is delivered to readers.  None of us really knows what the state of the book will be next year, much less five or ten years hence.

The good folks at now have the definitive answer to the question, “Is the book dead?”

The future of book printing?

For years, the fantasy has been a total transformation of the bookstore: this “Bookstore 2.0” doesn’t have a bunch of shelves and displays for a vast inventory of books. Instead, it has a large computer kiosk where customers can browse through a vast database of books — conceivably there would be no need for a book to ever go out of print, since they would all be made-to-order — and request any desired book be printed, bound, and available for sale within minutes (or seconds). That would be nice. We’re not quite there yet (and I’m not entirely sure that we ever will be), but the Espresso Book Machine is certainly a good step in the right direction. There are apparently only about fifty of these things in the world so far, and they have a few limitations: the inventory of book titles available is limited; the machine is expensive, bulky, and has to be operated by a trained employee; and it’s quirky and prone to breakdowns. But it has a pretty cool capability of printing off inexpensive, mass market copies of books (as these pictures of the finished product and the machine itself attest). That’s a very nice print-on-demand capability for self-published eBooks, for example. Here’s a piece on one NYC bookstore that has an Espresso Book Machine in operation.

Comparison of eBooks with paperback originals

I’ve seen this comparison before — and you probably have too — but here’s a link to another interesting piece that discusses the parallels between the rise of inexpensive, mostly-self-published eBooks and the rise of the “paperback original” in the early 1950s. I especially like that piece because it led me to a reprint of a short article by Bill Crider from 1971 (!) that gives a nice, quick little history of the paperback original. I probably never would have encountered that piece had it not been for the first article.

Books in the digital age

Two recent articles on the impact of the information revolution on books and how readers consume them provide some good food for thought. The first is a piece by Robert Darnton that attempts to debunk five “myths” in this regard: “the book is dead”; “we have entered the Information Age”; “all information is available online”; “libraries are obsolete”; and “the future is digital.” All, according to Darnton, are either outright wrong or are at best misleading. I don’t agree with everything Darnton says (in particular, I think he overvalues the role of traditional publishers), but it’s a thought-provoking piece.

The second article discusses ten ways in which eBooks are changing the way we read. I does a good job of highlighting both the advantages and limitations of the digital format.