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

Book Industry Updates

I haven’t blogged about the state of the book industry (my catch-all term for the business of writing, publishing, and selling books in physical and electronic media) recently, so here are a few interesting recent updates.

First, we have some small movement in the growing effort to recognize that, yes, Virginia, eBook sales are real. They really do happen. Even for self-published authors. Joe Konrath has written about the silliness of the New York Times‘ addition of eBook sales to their bestseller lists, and how wildly accurate those are. The otherwise respectable Wall Street Journal will now start posting eBook sales on their bestseller lists. They claim they have the cooperation of Amazon, B&N, Google, and Apple and will have exclusive content. Should be interesting to see how the WSJ lists pan out.

Second, back in August, I last posted about Books-A-Million (BAM), and wondered if they would be able to succeed where Borders had failed. There, I mentioned that they were planning to expand into some of the old Borders locations, mainly in the Northeast. That expansion has and is continuing to happen. Next month, BAM will open a total of 41 new locations. Wow. Good for them. Should be interesting to see how BAM fares in the long run, especially in these new locations.

And third, it appears that Barnes and Noble (B&N) may be beginning a quiet drawdown of its store locations (read about it here and here). I don’t want to make too much of this, as it’s just a handful of stores so far, and reportedly B&N engages in long-term (10-15 year) leases, many of which are now, or soon will be, up for renewal. It’s simply a sound business practice to close unprofitable locations. But this is something we’ll have to keep our eyes on. If we see dozens of B&N stores closing in the next year, despite the demise of its biggest brick-and-mortar rival, we might reasonably start wondering how long B&N has left.

Thoughts on eBooks

When you get the chance, take a look at J. A. Konrath’s blog about self-publishing via eBooks (there’s a *lot* there, so you may have to cruise around a bit).

I’m not 100% sold on the idea — as I’ve previously noted, I don’t have an eReader and could never see myself forsaking actual, physical books, at least entirely — but Konrath (along with his guest bloggers, including Barry Eisler, who just turned down a two-book $500k advance because he knows he can do better self-publishing via eBooks) has single-handedly convinced me that eBooks probably are the wave of the future when i comes to most mass market books. This type of publishing certainly appears to offer a viable way out of the trap of going the traditional route: find a good agent willing to work to sell the first book of an unknown author; find a publisher; sell the book through traditional channels at moribund brick-and-mortar bookstores.

As a follow-up to Konrath’s blog, allow me to present Exhibit B: Amanda Hocking.

Amanda Hocking is the #1 best-selling author on Kindle, making 100k+ sales every month — and keep in mind: each of her books sells for $2.99 and she makes 70% of that. That works out to a minimum of $200k/month, plus she sells a lot of books via B&N’s site, Smashwords, and she sells stuff via print-on-demand hardcopies. $400k/month is probably a conservative estimate. And you won’t see any of her stuff in bookstores, and you and I have probably never heard of her. Take a look at that list of best-selling Kindle authors. How many of those had you ever heard of? I had heard of exactly two of them, and I haven’t actually read anything by either of those two.

Here are my take-aways (and I’d be very curious to hear others’ views):

No one (I think) is arguing that traditional publishers don’t provide value-added for both readers and authors. They serve as The Gatekeeper for the industry, and so select only the “best” books to publish (which turns out to be the “best-selling,” not the “best content”). But theoretically, they weed out all of the poorly-written books. As we know, that doesn’t happen in practice always, but they do weed out some of the worst crap so we don’t have to. They also provide valuable editorial directions. We all know those authors (ahem, Stephen King and Tom Clancy leap to mind) who are “too big” to edit.

The downside to all this is that traditional publishers serve as The Gatekeeper for the industry. They select which authors can publish and what they can publish. Readers have no idea what they are missing out on because many authors are not allowed to publish. Many authors simply are not allowed to publish via traditional means and therefore have had no way to reach readers (and no way to earn enough money to be a full-time writer), at least until the rise of eBooks. eBooks provide an entirely new paradigm that has the potential to overturn the existing system.

Amanda Hocking may be a great writer. She may be a remarkably poor one, who is merely prolific and has a good sense about eMarketing. I have no idea — she doesn’t appear to write things I’d care for, so I’m unlikely to ever read any of her stuff. Who knows, maybe all of her 100k readers buy one of her books then hate her work (though something tells me that’s not the case, since this system is somewhat self-regulating in that readers are free to write reviews on Amazon and elsewhere and if all her readers were dissatisfied, she’d stop making so many sales). The moral of the story may simply be that if you write popular, throwaway novels that tap into the zeitgeist (the public’s love affair with paranormal romance novels in Hocking’s case), price them cheaply, and do a little eMarketing, you can reach a metric buttload of readers and, oh by the way, make a ton of money. In Hocking’s and J.A. Konrath’s cases, they have literally priced themselves out of the traditional publishing industry: no traditional publisher can offer them more money than they can make selling their stuff online by themselves.