I started the week with a brief introduction to a long series on Kindle publishing. I finished that introduction with the promise of some case studies.
If you’re at all familiar with Kindle publishing or the indie publishing “scene” that’s developing even as we speak, you probably could have guessed at least two of the three names that would show up in that discussion. Let’s start with the most obvious.
J. A. Konrath
J. A. Konrath, also known as Jack Kilborn, is the biggest poster-child for the Kindle publishing movement. The story goes that he was a mid-list horror/thriller writer with a multi-book contract with Hyperion when his imprint went under. That quickly, Konrath found himself back in the “query-go-round.”
He had an agent but no publisher, and as Konrath began shopping his novel to other publishers he faced much the same barrier to entry that so many unknown writers have to battle. Wherever he finally did find interest from a publisher, his editor insisted on major changes to the manuscript that Konrath felt would compromise the story he wanted to tell.
So he walked away. He walked away from the offer of a multi-book contract with a handsome advance, deciding to take advantage of the digital revolution and publish his own books. He started small, producing and selling his own PDF e-books through his personal website, but eventually stumbled across Kindle Direct Publishing and began releasing his books directly to Amazon.
Konrath was a success. He was a phenomenal success, and he continues to see growth in his sales, but much of Konrath’s importance has been his transparency. Konrath maintains a popular blog called “A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing” at jakonrath.blogspot.com, and as soon as he committed to self-publishing, he started talking about it.
As early as 2009 Konrath was encouraging other writers to consider self-publishing on the Kindle. And as often as he recommended it, he backed up the discussion with numbers. He shared his monthly sales numbers, and the distribution across different platforms. He openly compared the success of his self-published titles to those of his handful of traditionally-published books.
For several years, Konrath was widely dismissed — usually as an anomaly. Critics suggested he’d only found the success he had because of his background in traditional publishing. Others said he only sold so many book because of the popularity of his blog, built on his outspoken criticism of the traditional publishing industry.
Konrath responded in 2010 with several blog posts rounding up and presenting other indie authors finding similar success on the Kindle platform. Month after month he dug up examples of authors with no traditional publishing cred and no major internet presence who were competing with him and other big name authors in terms of sales and income.
He started out with simple lists of names, paired up with Amazon sales ranks. Sometimes these posts included simple charts showing the distribution of indie-published books in various Amazon Top 100 lists, compared with Big 6 titles.
These posts built a pretty compelling case that Konrath was more than an anomaly. A trailblazer, perhaps, but hardly an outlier. And as the year wore on, he moved from long lists to detailed spotlights on other successful authors, often bringing them in to guest post with their own story of self-publishing success.
One of the most impressive of these spotlights was on an indie writer named Amanda Hocking. While Konrath arbitrarily set his criterion for a “successful” self-published author at “thousands of sales a month” (Konrath himself was averaging around 4,000 sales a month across all his self-published titles at the time), Amanda Hocking started as a total unknown and, within less than a year, rose to eclipse Konrath completely.
He spotlighted Amanda Hocking on his blog in December 2010. At the time, she was selling an average of 10,000 books a week. He said of her,
She has no name-recognition. If you look at her blog, she only has a few comments per post. She has no traditional publishing background, either.
Compare that to me, who has some name recognition, and a prior platform in the print world. I’ve been doing this longer than she has by years, have a large installed fanbase, have a blog that gets a million hits a year, and it’s tough to find a discussion about self-pubbing or Kindle that doesn’t mention me.
Yet Amanda is creaming me in sales.
Her story went on to gain some mainstream attention in early 2011, and by then the stories were about her selling 100,000 copies in January and February. It made the news when she bought a house for cash with her self-published earnings.
And then in March she made news again when she began entertaining offers for a traditional publishing contract. She eventually agreed to a three-book deal including an advance well over two million dollars.
She made a blog post announcing the successful conclusion of that rights auction, and explaining the thinking that led her back to a traditional publisher, but the clearest explanation came in a post she published mid-auction:
But here’s what I can say – I’m writer. I want to be a writer. I do not want to spend 40 hours a week handling emails, formatting covers, finding editors, etc. Right now, being me is a full time corporation…. I am spending so much time on things that are not writing.
That explanation not only reveals the appeal of traditional publishing, it also shows how a self-published success story is built.
And even as Amanda Hocking was announcing her happy entry into the world of superstar traditionally-published authors, another “brand name” author was announcing his exit. Thriller author Barry Eisler famously turned down a $500,000 two-book deal from traditional publishers to seek his own fortune with self-publishing.
Eisler made this big announcement in a 13,000-word interview with Konrath that was published on Konrath’s blog. When Konrath commented on the significance of Eisler’s decision, Eisler told a little story.
Here’s something that happened about a year ago. Anecdotal, but still telling, I think. My wife and daughter and I were sitting around the dinner table, talking about what kind of contract I would do next, and with what publisher. And my then eleven-year-old daughter said, “Daddy, why don’t you just self-publish?”
And I thought, wow, no one would have said something like that even a year ago. I mean, it used to be that self-publishing was what you did if you couldn’t get a traditional deal. And if you were really, really lucky, maybe the self-published route would lead to a real contract with a real publisher.
But I realized from that one innocent comment from my daughter that the new generation was looking at self-publishing differently. And that the question–“Should I self-publish?”–was going to be asked by more and more authors going forward. And that, over time, more and more of them were going to be answering the question, “Yes.”
This is exactly what’s happening now. I’m not the first example, though I might be a noteworthy one because of the numbers I’m walking away from. But there will be others, more and more of them.
He went on there, and on his own blog, to discuss this decision openly and with lots of hard numbers. In the end, he said, the decision was a purely financial one, and he was convinced that he could make a lot more selling the books on his own than he could selling them through a traditional publisher.
Many of the calculations and reasoning he used would be familiar to any Konrath fan, because Eisler was leaning heavily on Konrath’s logic. In fact, Eisler (a friend of Konrath’s) admitted that even though Konrath has been pushing him, he was a long-time holdout on the self-publishing game.
But the core of Konrath’s argument hinged on some pretty simple and straightforward factors: the time value of money, the disinterest and decline of the publishing industry, and the brand power of individual authors. When Barry Eisler weighed those issues, his ultimate decision was to self-publish.
The desire to self-publish — to shed the burden of publishers’ timetables and marketing departments’ meddling and, at the same time, to keep a larger portion of the profits — is not a new desire. The difference today technology. It’s the resources available to writers that now tilt those three factors listed away from legacy publishers and toward self- and indie-publishers.
We’ll talk about the technology of Kindle publishing in tomorrow’s article, and exactly how it’s so disrupted the established publishing industry.