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Taking Issue with Konrath [Updated]

I’m very happy about Konrath’s success.  It’s encouraging to everybody.  If I make 1/10 of what he’s making, I’ll be ecstatic.  But there’s sometimes a problem with writers like Konrath or Cory Doctorow touting their success when they’re each in a very unique position.  Doctorow advocates giving away books for free permanently because it’s worked for him.  What he doesn’t mention is that he also runs BoingBoing, which has hundreds of thousands of readers.  He’s the exception, not the rule.

Konrath is doing something similar.  He’s saying that his $100,000 month is because of Amazon, not name recognition:

I made $100,000 in three weeks from people who have no idea who I am. If they knew who I was, they would have bought those titles years ago. Because they’ve been available for years.

Don’t get me wrong. I know I have fans. I know I have some name recognition. But the sales they bring are paltry next to the marketing machine which is Amazon.

How do I know this for sure?

Because all of my other books were (until recently) on other platforms, where they did mediocre compared to bestselling authors.

James Patterson is selling well on Kindle, but he’s also selling well on Sony and Kobo and Apple and B&N. On Kindle, I’m outselling many Patterson titles. That isn’t the case anywhere else.

So it isn’t my name or my past that is responsible for this success. Nor is it any marketing efforts I’m doing now, because I’m not doing any. I haven’t visited my Facebook page in six months. I have a fan page but don’t know how to use it. I’ve never bought an online ad. I’ve got Twitter followers, but they’re writers, not fans.

To say this success is not because of his past doesn’t really make sense.  Konrath’s name is mentioned in every mainstream article about self-publishing.  Every single one.  This has led to sales.  These sales have led to thousands of “Also boughts,” which have led to lots of reviews.  At some point, this process takes on a life of its own, but his success is completely because he’s JA Konrath.  It’s hard to make the argument that he’s Amanda Hocking, who suddenly became successful out of nowhere.  The reason he’s selling better on the Kindle is because everybody is. His $100,000 month is because of all the Kindle Fires received on Christmas.

Does this matter?  A little bit: because it’s somewhat inaccurate information and Konrath is still saying things like:

In the long run, except in the case of bestsellers and huge advances, a writer WILL make more money self-publishing.

This can’t really be stated yet.  Some books will find astounding success.  Some books will sell nothing – or maybe a few hundred dollars worth of books over time.  Non-commercial fiction has a much harder time making a go of it in the world of indie publishing because there’s less of everything catering to it: fewer review blogs, fewer readers.  Self-publishing will work for some writers and it won’t for others.

He does temper it with this:

Can you be a successful self-pubbed author?

It depends. How hard are you willing to work, and how long are you willing to wait, before success happens?

Those books that are harder to market will take a bit longer than other ones. And it’s incredibly encouraging to know how many potential readers are out there. Ereaders are thought to be owned by only 5% of all readers (maybe more now post-holiday).  If writers can make $100,000 today, what will it be like when 90% of readers have a tablet or reader?  In 2012, however, there are arguments for traditional publishing as much as there are for self-publishing.

Commercial vs. Literary

Maybe Konrath is speaking only to authors of commercial fiction. After all, his tagline is “Is it possible to make a living as a genre fiction writer? Yes it is.” But Konrath has become a self-publishing spokesperson, talking about the death of publishing and the rise of independent publishing, so he’s a go-to source on how people should publish. If you publish commercial fiction, then there should definitely be more incentive to go straight to self-publishing.  But literary fiction – or writing that’s difficult to market in some way – will have a harder time of it.   In a post on Jane Friedman’s blog, the question is asked: Why Isn’t Literary Fiction Getting More Attention?

The morale among literary authors is low. Because even though they know their books are great, the mainstream voice is saying, “But not great enough to be worthy of sales efforts!”  The playing field is leveling as reading becomes more digitized, and I’m not the only one who’s saying it. It’s time for literary authors to reclaim a segment of the market.

If I was in a different position, perhaps I wouldn’t feel this so acutely.  But I write books that are harder to market and I’m not exactly finding astounding success – though miles ahead of where I was when I published POD-only in 2006.  But the reason that publishers were unwilling to take my books on is the same reason that it’s harder to find footing in indie publishing. I’ve written crime fiction and science fiction – harder to brand me that way.

The good news: this will change.  Literary fiction is where all of self-publishing was 5 years ago.  This site began in the POD era, and post after post said, just you wait until more people have ereaders.  That’s happened and self-publishing has broken through.  But literary readers were very likely more snobbish about reading on an ereader because literary books are packaged differently – the paper its printed on, the cover.  It’s more of an object to be owned than a supermarket paperback.  So commercial readers were the first to adopt the new technology.  My guess is this changed in a big way this last holiday season with more and more people getting a Kindle Fire who may never have wanted an ereader in the past.

Still, there’s a way to go where self-publishing is a viable route for all types of writers.  A comment on the Jane Friedman piece asks:

Why do literary books get reviewed in newspapers, but genre books get reviewed on blogs?

“Serious” books are the ones that get reviewed in mainstream media.  And the mainstream media refuses to review self-published work.  What propelled Amanda Hocking to success was the genre blogosphere.  Konrath says that we’re in an era where Kirkus and such outlets are less necessary – but this isn’t necessarily true for all types of writers.  This time will come, which is amazing.  But his message that self-publishing can be more profitable needs to be tempered.  It’s a great avenue for some writers.  Eventually, it truly will be better for all writers to self-publish.  And really: it’s a great time to be a writer in general because it’s even possible to make this prediction.

Update: JA Konrath responds (?) – or at least addresses what’s talked about in this post:

You’d think all of this publicity has lead to increased sales of my ebooks.

You’d think wrong.

I’m obsessive about numbers, as anyone who reads this blog can tell you. So when I appear in some major periodical, I watch my Kindle numbers, looking for the big spike.

I never see a big spike. In fact, I hardly ever see a small spike.

Huh? WTF? Does that make sense? We all know that publicity leads to sales, right?

Wrong.

I’m getting a name for myself in the self-publishing world. I get millions of hits a year on this blog. When people discuss self-pubbing, my name often comes up.

But the people who visit this blog, and discuss my self-publishing efforts, are writers.

Writers aren’t buying my fiction. They aren’t buying my non-fiction either–I have an ebook called “A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing” and it is among my lowest-selling titles.

The people who buy me are readers, and the vast majority have never heard of me. Readers find me on Amazon, because Amazon has made it easy for my books to be discovered.

I responded:

I don’t think you can say all those articles have such little value based on immediate sales. It’s not the clicks that matter, it’s the publicity – and A LOT more people have heard about you than other writers.

At some point – as it is with you, Locke, and Hocking, the Amazon engine becomes an amazing monster and takes on a life of its own. But those Guardian articles have no doubt helped you. Even if 100 people buy books based on this blog and whatever press you’ve gotten, that helps. And it’s probably more in the thousands.

So I’m not sure if writers should avoid publicity and hope some Kindle magic happens. For the up-and-comer, any mention is useful – especially if books aren’t taking off on their own. If nothing else, getting a review or being talked about in some way can be fuel to write more.

About Henry Baum

Avatar of Henry Baum
Author of three self-published novels and one traditionally published (Soft Skull Press, Canongate, and Hachette Littératures). Recipient of Best Fiction at the DIY Book Festival, the Gold IPPY Award for Visionary Fiction, and the Hollywood Book Festival Grand Prize. He lives with his wife Cate Baum in Los Angeles. He's the founder of SPR.

16 comments

  1. Can’t say I feel qualified to comment one way or the other on Konrath’s views on indie publishing,but it’s right to say that some books will sell more readily than others. I guess the trick is to keep plugging away regardless, whatever the genre and remember that every copy sold is one more person that book has reached.

    My own novel isn’t literary (though I hope it kind of moves in that direction), but as a dystopian science fiction thriller it’s definitely a hard sell. In fact, I suspect selling it is all the harder because, seriously, we do seem to be living its backstory right now here in the UK.

    All the same, though my sales might be small, I have still reached more people by self-publishing as an indie than if I was still touting it to publishers. It’s sowing the seeds of awareness for my work, and who knows what might grow out of that.

  2. Avatar of Brent Robison

    Henry, I like what you’re saying here about Konrath’s limited point of view; it matches my experience as an author of the least commercial type of book anywhere: literary short stories. But I’d like you to say more about the source of your optimism. Why do you think “the time will come” for literary fiction’s success when signs indicate a massive cultural shift in taste toward the quick, the loud, the sensational?

    • Avatar of Henry Baum

      I don’t think literary fiction will ever outsell commercial fiction (at least not for a couple of centuries), but I’m just saying at some point more literary readers will have ereaders so different sorts of writing will be more successful. People probably won’t be making Konrath money, but it will be possible to at least make more money than the advance from a small press. It’s taking book snobs longer to get on board with the e-revolution.

      • Avatar of Arthur Graham

        Henry,

        It could well be that “book snobs are taking longer to get on board with the e-revolution”, and that one reason for this is that harder-to-market “literary” titles are more likely to need the help of established publishers in getting off the ground. If this “e-revolution” is largely driven by self-published genre fiction, and if “book snobs” tend to avoid that kind of crap [sic], then it only makes sense that things have worked out this way (at least for now).

        But are book snobs always confined by the ivory towers of literary fiction? Or are there snobs to be found among the various commercial genres as well? I would argue that what makes a book snob isn’t so much whether they prefer literary to genre, highbrow to lowbrow, toMAYto to toMAto, etc., but rather how hard of line they draw between what they’ll read and what they won’t. I think a more accurate description of a book snob would be a reader who is highly discriminatory in terms of what they’ll automatically accept/reject — whether they NEVER read anything but Joyce or ONLY read zombie novels.

        I realize I’m a bit off subject by this point, but I feel that a good book can absorb any genre without necessarily adhering to its more commercial conventions. Does this magically transform a “genre” book into a “literary” one? Writers who think of their stuff as “literary” would likely say no, but genre writers who manage to produce well-written, innovative prose despite their handicap might have a different answer…

        I guess I just struggle with the dichotomy and all the false generalities it seems to imply, but that’s probably a subject for another post!

        Arthur

        • Avatar of Henry Baum

          I don’t mean to dump on commercial fiction – b/c my problem actually is that my books straddle the line between commercial and literary. As I wrote, my books are (more or less) crime fiction and science fiction. But I have a lot of Amazon reviews calling my books “boring.” They’re not boring – they just don’t have action on every page. A lot of Kindle readers seem to require that. Here’s a review:

          The book was nearly as torturous as Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky…and if you have read that book you know it is very slow reading, and hard to make yourself finish it.

          My book is nowhere near in the realm of Crime and Punishment. And if a reader thinks my fairly-stupid (when compared to Dostoyevsky) book is tedious, then he’s not used to reading a book that might dwell on ideas as much as action. Where the writer is another protagonist – how the story is told is as important as the story. A lot of Kindle readers seem to be interested in plot only. Or maybe I’m just unlucky.

          • Avatar of Brent Robison

            Ha! That’s a great review, being compared to Crime & Punishment – congrats! :-)
            That reviewer just made himself look stupid.

          • Avatar of Arthur Graham

            As a writer who’s been known to produce genre-ish books that hardly have plots or even characters, I think I can feel your pain!

            Maybe when I finish the 2nd edition of my book Editorial (tentatively through Bizarro Press later this year), I’ll try to make sure there’s at least one instance of action for every few pages of ideas… In any case, I’m not trying to start any “my book is more literary than yours” debates with anyone on SPR! ;-)

  3. Avatar of tom lichtenberg

    There’s definitely something to Mr. Konrath’s point that the Kindle world leads people to books they otherwise would never find. I’ve been having this experience myself, with the exception that nearly all of my books that are being downloaded through KDP are the free ones. Nevertheless, practically no one knows me or has ever heard of me, not in the blogosphere or anywhere else. Through Smashwords I also see plenty of downloads through iBookstore and Barnes&Noble, but not nearly in the numbers as on Kindle. It’s just on a different level, and I got the impression this was mainly what he was saying.

    As for so-called literary fiction, it’s always seemed like just another genre to me, one that hardly ever sells in bulk, like poetry :}

  4. Avatar of Ron Fritsch

    Konrath says he doesn’t write, among other things, “those long-winded books where plot is optional (literary fiction).” Even as a writer of what I believe is “literary fiction,” I don’t blame him for making that remark. A lot of literary fiction is long-winded and plotless, and I refuse to read it. But literary fiction can also be carefully and ingeniously plotted — far more so than genre fiction, in fact, because it doesn’t follow the read-it-all-before formulas that most writers of genre fiction feel compelled to adhere to. I’d much rather give readers something they’ll think and talk about ten years from now than a read they’ll forget tomorrow.

  5. I’m a big Konrath fan because he’s funny, razor-sharp, and I love the attitude. All the “stick it to the man”-stuff is thrilling after years of being rolled by the traditional publishing world :-).

    But I’m very sympathetic to your post here because I write literary YA fiction. As exciting as it has been to self-publish 3 YA novels in the last year, it’s really been an uphill battle to sell and get reviews for them.

    I’m sporadically active on various sites like Goodreads but many of the YA authors there write genre books. I’m sure they are perfectly great genre books, but that isn’t a world I know anything about (and I don’t have time to learn, either). So, I’m not inspired to write reviews of that stuff, and vice versa. I’ve tried to find YA reviewers from the world of bookbloggers, but many of the best are closed to indie authors, and some of the newbies are quite inexperienced writers and readers, and again, often obsessed with either chick lit or paranormal subjects–not my thing.

    So I’m trying to various way to reach out more directly to various niche readerships, i.e. the Latina community for my Latina-themed novel, etc. Promotions, etc., everything I can think of that doesn’t feel spammy :-). It won’t be easy, that’s clear. I almost wonder if “publicity” would not actually work for a writer like me much more than for Konrath–e.g., ads and the like.

    Good luck to us all!

  6. I’m still trying to figure out what literary fiction is. But one thing I do know, if you’re writing books that are not popular with the buying public you are out of touch with the buying public. And quite possibly out of touch with the common man.

    I’ve sold over 10,000 ebooks in the last year and two months. I write in several genre. And in my favorite genre I can barely give away my books. So basically I’m writing what I can sell.

    I consider myself a pretty smart guy. I know that if I went to typewriter repair school, 30 years ago, I’d be a fool not upgrading my skills when word processors and then personal computers came out.

    So being the smart guy I am, I choose to write what readers are willing to pay for. I can write just about anything, so why not write what pays?

    I think Konrath is right on the money. Because where I come from, money talks. And where I come from we say, dollars and cents, because if it makes no dollars it makes no cents.

    • Avatar of Arthur Graham

      Alan,

      I think it should go without saying that “if you’re writing books that are not popular with the buying public you are out of touch with the buying public.” But “quite possibly out of touch with the common man”?

      Unpopular books don’t sell as well as popular ones. Since you’re “a pretty smart guy”, I’m not surprised that you were able to make this connection. However, if you were as smart as you think, then you would also realize that “dollars and cents” are not the only reason why people write what they do.

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