An Introduction to Kindle Publishing
In January of 2011, I started taking a class called “Readings in Mass Communication” in pursuit of my Master of Professional Writing degree at the University of Oklahoma. It’s an interdisciplinary theory course that combines lectures and select readings in the academic literature to explore the changing role of mass communication in society, its withering credibility, and the role of today’s rapidly-changing technology in that shift.
The professor came from a newspaper background and the majority of the students in the program owed their allegiance to the college’s journalism school. That frame of reference shaped the conversation some, so when we talked about the credibility crisis in mass communication, we were primarily discussing the credibility crisis of journalists and public relations professionals and news shows.
But as the discussion unfolded I came to recognize clear parallels between the changing state of news media and the book publishing industry. The technology developed in the last decade has allowed a massive upheaval in the established ways of doing business, the importance of centralized distributors is collapsing, and the most successful participants in the new market have established themselves not through the authority of a central source but by participating effectively in the new digital media and encouraging discussion of them and their products within local social networks.
And nowhere is that industry shift more visible than in the rise of the Kindle publisher. While it represents just one of many new (and viable) distribution methods available to the self-published or indie-published author, digital publishing through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing provides a clear and powerful look into the future of the publishing industry.
Konrath, Hocking, and Eisler
The best introduction to this phenomenon can be found in the examples of several of its more prominent participants. We’ll briefly review the three biggest names in Kindle publishing (Konrath, Hocking, and Eisler), and then discuss how new technology has impacted each of their stories, what their stories reveal about the credibility and authority of traditional publishers (and how that differs among writers, readers, and distributors), and finally look at the role of the global information network as the new medium for mass communication, and how Kindle publishers can best engage with it.
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 figures and their 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 books 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 who were finding similar success on the Kindle platform. Month after month he dug up examples of authors with no traditional publishing record 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 stories 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 a 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 is 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’ve already introduced three major case studies in Kindle publishing. Each of them came from a different background, and each approached (or is now approaching) Kindle publishing for different reasons.
Measuring a Writer’s Success
The largest thing the three share in common is success. All three have reached a lot of new readers though Kindle publishing, and earned ridiculous amounts of money. So much money, in fact, that all three of them can now speak of it almost offhand.
And all three of them have taken the time, at different points, to discuss something else related to self-publishing: credibility. It’s inextricably tied to the Kindle publishing movement, and while all three authors insist credibility can be found in self-published writing (Hocking’s millions of readers and USA Times Bestseller status should certainly prove that), it’s an argument that must be made again and again.
Before we can fully investigate the new landscape of a writer’s credibility, we must first talk about the revolutionary changes that have gotten us here. And the heart of those changes is digital technology.
The Cost of Legacy Book Publishing
The credibility question raised by self-publishing is one rooted in an expensive technology: offset printing. Offset printing is an old technology that allowed the mass production of high-fidelity printed material. In large volumes (in the book industry, that means more than 10,000 copies at a run), offset printing provides professional quality productions at low costs.
The problem with offset printing is the setup cost. While the price-per-copy at 10,000 copies is extremely low (a matter of pennies for a 300-page paperback), a print run of just 100 copies could easily cost thousands of dollars.
When that was the only way to get books made, there was a huge financial burden in publishing a book. It was not just a matter of total expense, but of up-front costs that created a significant investment. The legacy publishing industry was built entirely on the evaluation of this investment, weighing each new submission as a risk assessment with the assumption that only the best books (or, at least, those most likely to earn out their investment) ever got made.
But as long as there have been gatekeepers labeling certain books as good, there have been desperate writers willing to do anything to gain that mark of approval. So, for years, the self-publishing industry was built largely, not on the profit potential of books in a competitive market, but on the amount of money authors were willing to pay out of their own vanity to see their books in print.
These “vanity presses” seemed to be dedicated wholly to the opposite notion of the legacy publishers’ — while the legacy publishers were only willing to risk money on good books, vanity presses could only reasonably expect to squeeze their high prices out of the worst writers.
Thus the high cost of offset printing created a sharp (and fairly legitimate) divide in credibility between books endorsed by legacy publishers and the books self-published through vanity presses.
Print-on-Demand and Digital Distribution
For most of that time there was also a cheaper alternative to offset printing. Print-on-demand publishing relied on cheaper laser or inkjet printers to produce books one at a time. This technology couldn’t compete with offset printing’s per-book prices for large print runs, but for small runs, print-on-demand techniques could produce just one copy at a time for a rate comparative to offset’s retail price.
The fault of print-on-demand technology was in its quality. While offset printing could produce huge numbers of near-identical, high-quality copies, laser and inkjet printers struggled to match that quality for even one copy, let alone maintain their fidelity across many runs.
Thus, again, print-on-demand created a wide divide in quality (and, therefore, credibility) between the offset legacy-published books and the cheaper print-on-demand products available to self-publishers. Again and again, the distinction in quality has been based on the up-front costs of publication — initial investments so expensive they could only be made by large corporations.
But the technology has improved dramatically in the last decade. Print-on-demand can now produce paperback books of comparable quality to offset printing for only a fraction more.
More importantly, a new market is emerging. As book-buyers gradually adopt e-readers as their preferred format for novels, the industry is rapidly shifting to one where physical production becomes irrelevant. In the world of e-books, the only cost of publishing a book is writing a book.
Like print-on-demand, digital distribution has made it easy for writers to publish their books at no initial cost, paying only a portion of each sale to the digital distributor. And, significantly, that portion is often far smaller than the portion a traditional publisher would keep for the same sale.
So today’s printing and distribution technologies eliminate the inherent quality and credibility gap between legacy publishing and self-publishing, but much of the stigma still remains. There is also still a common difference in quality, not in the technology used to produce self-published books, but in the know-how and professional resources used in their production.
The two most important examples of this are cover art and editing. A legacy publisher traditionally provided, as part of the publication process, multiple reviews of each manuscript by multiple professional editors (including content editors, line editors, copy editors, and fact-checkers).
This quality-control created an obvious and easily-recognizable distinction in quality between a legacy-published book and a self-published book that moved directly from a writer to the reading public. Such raw, unedited manuscripts can be published easily (and inexpensively) through Kindle publishing, and their existence creates a credibility problem for self-published manuscripts.
Likewise, the book covers produced by legacy publishers are generally the work of a team of professionals dedicated to that task — painters, photographers, graphic designers, and marketing specialists skilled in crafting a cover that will not only capture a reader’s eye but also effectively convey the book’s mood, style, and target audience.
But even more than high-tech inkjet printers and dedicated e-reading devices, the internet has been the great leveler. The very services that most set apart legacy-published books from self-published books are services that can be hired by self-published authors for a small one-time fee (Konrath says “a few hundred dollars”). Freelance editors and cover designers can be found with very little effort, bridging the last quality gap between legacy-published and self-published books.
Beyond that…there is still some difference in credibility between the two methods. It’s not one of real value, but of perceived value, and it exists far more prominently in the minds of authors than anywhere else. Still, the perceived credibility of self-published books among publishers, among writers, and among readers are all shifting along with this change in technology.
Naturally, the harshest critics of the credibility of Kindle publishing are those who have the most to lose with it. Legacy publishers collectively provide a sneering disregard for the opportunities available to authors today. A recent Time magazine article on the topic of digital publishing quoted Michael Cader, founder and editor of trade e-newsletter Publishers Lunch,
“The trick is not that the digital isn’t profitable,” says Cader. “Digital at its current level makes few or none of the costs of running a print business go away.” That means big warehouses, broad sales forces and extensive systems. The hope, of course, is that in time, digital will be cheaper to produce, but currently, publishers face a big expense in converting to digital.
Cader’s comment is absurd on its face. Digital does make the cost of running a print business go away from the point of view of the author, of the reader, and even of the digital publisher. It’s only established print publishers that have those costs.
It’s astonishing how much the legacy publishers equate their business methods with “the publishing industry.” The whole shakeup going on in publishing right now is happening because these are two different ways of getting books to readers, but the established players have been quick to describe digital as just an aspect of their legacy process.
And the trade press is carrying the publishers’ spin. Konrath linked to an unflattering Publisher’s Weekly article about his self-publishing “schemes” that seemed deliberately and harshly slanted against him, manipulating and omitting key facts in order to position Konrath’s choice to self-publish as one of desperation.
That is precisely the message publishers like to spread: that self-publishing is the last resort of an inadequate author so desperate to see his unfit book in print that he’s unwilling to spend the time and effort honing his craft and learning the market to get a deal with a traditional publisher. As we discussed above, there was some grain of truth to those accusations when the technology and cost of self-publishing made legacy publishing the most legitimate path for an author. But that’s no longer the case.
Legacy publishers also insist their business model is the best (and perhaps only, as Cader’s quote above implies) in terms of sales and income. When Barry Eisler announced his decision to turn down a lucrative print deal to self-publish through Amazon, Mike Shatzkin wrote on another industry blog analyzing the decision.
They didn’t do the math on what the loss of print sales and print merchandising might mean in dollars and cents and how to address it….
Even if the math Konrath and Eisler put forth showing that the author share of ebook sales can increase by three or four times through self-publishing; even if we ignore (as they did) the fact that the higher percentage will be on a lower retail price (they trumpet the lower retail price they can charge as a key motivation for the shift); and even if we forget about the costs in time and actual expense involved in self-publishing, the author who follows this formula has to take into account the loss of presence and revenue from the retail channel.
All of that seems perfectly reasonable. That’s the core of the legacy publishers’ argument. It’s also completely wrong. The “math Konrath and Eisler put forth” is founded on some of the very elements Shatzkin accuses them of ignoring. Yes, Kindle publishing offers a higher percentage on a lower retail price which could mean a decrease in total revenue, but that’s only true of gross income. For authors, there is no loss.
Since authors don’t have to pay any portion of that smaller cost to a publishing company, they still come out ahead. The higher percentage is so much higher that it completely offsets the lower price, in terms of author income, and the lower price can generate far more sales.
That’s not to say Kindle publishing is guaranteed to earn an author more money, but the industry analysts consistently repeat arguments so deeply rooted in the perspective of legacy publishers’ business model that it has no connection to the real situation of authors.
Sadly, many authors–those who have the most to gain with Kindle publishing–readily buy into the publishers’ assertions. They believe that self-published authors cannot attain a wide readership, cannot make as much money, and cannot assert the same credibility as a legacy-published author.
Over the course of the last year, this topic has become the central focus of J. A. Konrath’s blog, A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing. That blog is targeted directly at writers. He certainly has some dedicated fans of his work in his readership, and he tries from time to time (with little apparent hope) to offer advice to members of the legacy publishing industry, but it’s clear in his choice of topics, in his approach, and in his appeals that he is speaking almost entirely to writers.
And he’s encouraging them, again and again, without hesitation, to dedicate themselves to Kindle publishing. This is a man with enviable success in the field, and extensive experience that has been shared on the record. For years he’s been experimenting and perfecting his own Kindle publishing model, and for most of that time he’s handled the question, “Should you self-publish,” with a carefully-worded, “It depends.”
In December 2010 he officially changed his answer to a resounding, “Yes.” He posted an article titled, “You Should Self-Publish” in which he reviewed all the factors involved in that decision.
In that article, he started with a primarily financial analysis but then moved on to a rhetorical question-and-answer section that dealt directly with some of the largest questions of credibility. Below, we’ll consider two of the more significant issues he addressed.
Publishers as Quality Control
Konrath started with a question that could be posed by a hypothetical reader (which is to say, a potential buyer), but it’s important to remember he’s writing to other writers. This isn’t necessarily a question of genuine concern to readers (as we’ll discuss below), but it’s one writers worry about readers worrying about.
Q: But I need the traditional publishing gatekeepers in order to know my book is good enough. Aren’t you concerned a whole bunch of wannabes will flood the Kindle with self-pubbed crapola?
A: Decades ago, pulp writers learned to write while on the job. Early books by many of the greatest mystery, fantasy, sci-fi, and romance writers, weren’t very good. But getting paid allow those writers to improve, and become the masters we now revere.
If you write crap, it probably won’t sell very well. But you can learn from it and get better. You can rewrite and revise your early work to improve it. With self-publishing, readers become the gatekeepers, and if you work hard, keep an open mind, and learn from your mistakes, you’ll improve as a writer.
Konrath’s response leans on the publishing of yore, but even in the strictly limited access of the legacy publishing industry, we’ve seen the same thing. It is extremely common (expected, even) for a writer’s craft to improve over the years. It’s also commonplace for a writer’s early works (perhaps works rejected with an alarming frequency) to see easy publication once that author has achieved success with a later title.
Readers as Gatekeepers
The writer’s problem with credibility in self-publishing, then, isn’t one of overall credibility but of immediate credibility. But Konrath would argue that it’s not the publication of the book that creates legitimacy, it’s the quality of the work. A book that’s good enough to sell in large quantities is, on its own, “good enough.”
In his characteristically frank language, Konrath calls out the legitimizing effect of publication, reviews, awards, and shelf space.
Years ago, self-pubbing was called “vanity publishing” because it existed to appeal to the writer’s ego.
Joining organizations, winning awards, getting into newspapers, and seeing your books in bookstores and libraries all seems like it caters directly to a writer’s vanity.
As a writer, I could give a shit what the New York Times thinks of my latest, or if MWA gives me an Edgar award, or if I’m on a shelf in the Podunk Public Library. Those are all ego strokes.
I care about money, and reaching readers, and none of these things are necessary to make money or reach readers.
And Konrath has demonstrated a remarkable ability to make money and reach readers. Not only that, he’s demonstrated again and again that he’s not alone. But what about the readers? Do they agree with Konrath’s reasoning?
Even as publishers have fought to maintain a credibility gap between self-published and legacy-published books, even as writers have bought into it, the readers have largely ignored their message. By and large, readers ignore publishers. Readers tend to buy books by author, by genre, or by cover. Publishers’ efforts at branding have focused on those last two, running separate lines and imprints specialized in popular categories and stamping the spines of their book covers with imprint logos. But apart from Harlequin, few fiction publishers have ever managed to become household names among buyers.
As a result, readers’ credibility assessment of novels has less to do with the pedigree of the publishing company than with the professional appearance of the book. Until recent years that has been a fairly insignificant distinction, as expensive printing technology reserved that professional appearance only to the large publishing companies that could afford it, but as we saw before, that has all changed.
Authors can now hire freelance editors, cover designers, interior designers, and technical formatting to prepare digital books for small, one-time costs, and it’s a simple matter for a good cover designer to imitate and even duplicate the look and feel of popular legacy-published covers within a given genre.
The Role of the Global Information Network
It’s really no surprise that readers are willing to overlook the pedigree of a book’s publisher. For much of the last twenty years, the trend society-wide has been away from respect for legitimizing “gatekeepers” and toward a larger respect for group approval — not just in the publishing industry, but across all of mass communication.
That shift goes hand in hand with the rise of the digital era. As it gets easier and easier for authors to reach wide audiences without the need for broadcast intermediaries (legacy publishers), and as it gets easier and easier for readers to find books by individual authors or on specific topics, the value and significance of the gatekeeper’s approval rapidly diminishes.
And that shift is exactly what Amazon has facilitated. Through their Kindle and Kindle Direct Publishing they’ve made it possible to produce books at an extraordinarily low cost. And through their browsing categories, widespread bestseller lists, and personalized recommendations, they’ve made it possible for readers to find books even without the huge promotional backing of a major publisher.
The result is precisely what we saw in Eisler’s anecdote above. His daughter, a member of the digital native generation, easily and immediately considered self-publishing a legitimate (and, in fact, obvious) direction for her father’s career.
One of the books I reviewed for Readings in Mass Communication was Digital Media, Youth, and Credibility, edited by Andrew J. Flanagin. The book was all about how the new generation of “digital natives” views and interacts with mass media.
One of the most important (and dramatic) findings in their research is that digital natives equate credibility with the accessibility of useful information. By comparison, credibility used to be evaluated primarily by the quality of the source (in our case, that would be the publishers). But digital natives have grown up with ready access to vast stores of information, and thanks to aggregators and search engines and user-generated content, it’s often difficult to know the true source for any given piece of information.
So they’ve turned more and more of their focus from centralized legitimizing sources to more personal metrics like the speed and ease of access. If those things sound familiar, those are precisely the things we’ve been talking about throughout our discussion of Kindle publishing.
Specifically, Kindle publishing provides authors with speed and ease of access to the publishing process. That’s the primary appeal of it. A direct result of that, though, is that readers gain all the advantages of in their own access to the books they’re looking for.
According to Konrath, publishers are adamantly uninterested in publishing more than one title per author per year. (Incidentally my professor Deborah Chester, who is much-published and a staunch supporter of legacy publishing has unknowingly backed him up on this in lectures.)
Kindle publishers, on the other hand, can release multiple titles in the same time. Consortium Books, my little indie publishing company, is on track to publish 6 titles in 2011 and we hope to publish 12 in 2012–18 titles total, and nearly all of them from just two authors.
Amanda Hocking addressed the same issue, when she announced her legacy publishing deal. Even as she was signing a three-book deal with St. Martin’s Press, she announced that she also planned to release multiple titles on her own before the end of the year. She had no intention of abandoning Kindle publishing because she has a massive backlog of (extremely valuable) books–twenty titles of her own–and it would take decades to get those pushed through the legacy publishing process.
Instead, she’s taking advantage of the speed and ease of access that Kindle publishing creates to get more books out there, and have them selling longer–two of Konrath’s core rules for success. As she does that, she’s providing speed and ease of access to her books to her readers–something legacy publishers can’t do–which increases her credibility.
Social Collaborative Endorsement
The other major method digital natives use to evaluate credibility is something called the “bandwagon heuristic” or social collaborative endorsement. That means, for a given reader, the more of her peers who seem to find something credible, the more she finds it credible.
That might seem obvious. But, to be fair, the point of the study wasn’t to find something shocking, but to understand how we interact with this revolutionary new information network we’re all immersed in. And one answer that’s critically significant to our discussion here is that, in the network era, we’ve taken credibility assessment away from centralized legitimizers (again, legacy publishers) and placed it in the hands of the masses. We’ve crowdsourced gatekeeping.
The easiest way to understand this is that, in broad strokes, popularity equals credibility. That’s why we care about a site’s pagerank, or how many hits it’s gotten. That’s why we care about the number of views a YouTube video has, or the number of downloads of Firefox compared with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.
And that’s why Bestseller lists matter. Even as readers reject legacy publishing as a central source of authority, they turn to Amazon’s Bestseller lists to find books worth reading. If a book appears on Amazon’s Bestseller list, that means a lot of a person’s peers have deemed it credible.
Amazon has demonstrated an uncanny grasp of social collaborative endorsement and they’ve done everything they can to build it into their system. They’re constantly refining their recommendation engine to advertise products to their customers based on the preferences of other customers who have exhibited similar tastes (or, in other words, the customers’ peers).
That’s compelling information. Above and beyond sales numbers, studies show that digital natives prefer the reviews or analyses of their peers over the reviews or analyses of professionals or experts.
And there, again, Amazon is ready and willing to facilitate the collapse of the old media. Customer Reviews, one of the most popular features of the Amazon shopping experience, cater to precisely that sort of peer feedback. Amazon even encourages customers to rate the quality of each other’s reviews.
At every opportunity Amazon has created a market that caters to social collaborative endorsement. And as it happens, that market is an incredibly friendly environment for Kindle publishers.
The Author as a Brand
Of course, it’s not enough that readers are willing to buy books by Kindle-published authors. That fact has made Konrath and Hocking wealthy, but it doesn’t immediately generate sales for anyone else.
For new authors to seize these remarkable opportunities, they must understand the dynamics at play and participate in the new network (as I describe my friend Courtney doing in Appendix A). Below, I’ll discuss a few ways that’s possible.
One of the biggest threats to old media is that they’re perceived as catering to political, moneyed, or self-interest instead of providing content that’s genuinely useful to their audience. That’s an easy factor to see in the politicization and partisanship of primetime news shows, but it’s just as true in the book publishing world.
Legacy publishers chasing sure profits have become obsessed with bestsellers. In that chase, they’ve made a habit of slashing their midlists and eliminating niche imprints, focusing their attention more on “mainstream” fiction at the expense of local communities.
That’s precisely how Konrath got his start in Kindle publishing. He was a midlist author writing for a niche imprint, and when that imprint dissolved he had trouble finding another publisher willing to provide his sort of books to the readers who had been faithfully following him for years.
So he struck out on his own, catering to a “project community” (in his case it was one built around dark, comedic pulp thrillers), and provided his readers with what they wanted, when they wanted it, the way they wanted it. And they rewarded him with an astonishing success story, and a message he has shared with the world.
The same thing can be seen in the story of established romance author Connie Brockway, who recently announced that she’s “going rogue.” Brockway decided to self-publish because her ongoing contract with her publisher limited what she could do as a writer.
Over the last couple years, as print publishers have been facing numerous financial crises, it has felt like they’ve become less likely to buy a book that doesn’t fit snugly within the parameters of last month’s success and since last month’s success was dictated by the previous month’s success (and so forth and so on) there hasn’t been a whole lot of room left in which to play. And I dearly love to play.
Connie writes historical romance, and the legacy publishers are insisting “most” readers of historical romance want tales set in regency England. As they push writers to cater to that overbroad “most,” they’re alienating huge audiences. Brockway goes on:
There’s evidence that there’s a huge pool of readers out there who got left behind while the legacy publishing houses were tightening their parameters, and who are starving for a gritty western or an gentle American or a bloody medieval or, blush, an off kilter sheik story. Why, Masha Canham has topped 6000 eBook sales on Kindle since the first of the year re-issuing her wonderful pirate novel, Swept Away. And she’s done so without benefit of a Facebook page or one single tweet.
That last line is almost as surprising as the one before it (and, of course, that’s why she included it).
Engaging with the Community
But even though Canham has seen success without engaging in digital social networks, there’s plenty of reason to believe she would have seen a lot more success if she had. Amanda Hocking, Kindle publishing’s golden child, has made a life for herself on Twitter and Facebook.
In fact, the rise of digital social media is the last piece of technology that has allowed Kindle publishing to make legacy publishing obsolete. While e-Books and high-quality print-on-demand services made indie production and distribution competitive, legacy publishers still held the advantage when it came to reaching readers. It used to be the only way to get books to readers at all was to get them in stores.
But as we saw above, society has rejected the old media model of centralized broadcasters pushing content out to passive audiences. Instead, audiences today work as tight-knit groups, co-evaluating and co-distributing content within local project communities. And as this trend has become more and more apparent, the most successful authors, self- or legacy-published, have been those who engaged with readers within the readers’ local community groups.
So how does a savvy writer reach into these project groups? By participating in digital social networking. That’s precisely what it’s for. Facebook facilitates project groups by allowing them to accumulate around individuals (a user’s list of “Friends”), and around products, brands, or causes (Facebook pages a user might “Like”). Twitter does the same thing with lists and hashtags.
One of the most relevant examples to our discussion, though, is a site called KindleBoards. KindleBoards is a low-budget, plain-looking web forum, but it has attracted a vibrant community based around one simple commonality: its visitors use and love the Amazon Kindle.
Of course, a site like that isn’t going to escape the entrepreneurial eye of business-minded self-publishers like Konrath and Hocking. (In fact, both of them have been frequent commenters there, and both of them recommend it as an invaluable resource for Kindle publishers.)
Every self-published author should establish a presence at KindleBoards. And that “presence” needs to be more than just a marketing message. The moderators at KindleBoards have strict regulations about where and when and how authors can promote their own books or websites.
But despite those rules, authors see huge rewards from participating at KindleBoards, not in a strictly promotional sense (that hearkens back to the “broadcast” model our society is rejecting), but by participating in the discussion, by engaging with individuals, and by making friends. In other words, the trick is to genuinely become part of this project group.
Once that’s achieved, the author can recommend his book directly to his peers. And as we’ve already seen, that’s a profoundly powerful marketing message.
So…what do you think? Are you ready to publish a book of your own?
I did. I started a whole publishing company around the concept. We’ve got a handful of books available, and many more still to come.
If you’re ready to follow in my footsteps, I’ll be happy to help. You can pick up tips and tricks (and learn from my mistakes) by subscribing to Unstressed Syllables. If you want a detailed How To guide, sign up for my newsletter or just watch my Amazon page. I should be coming out with a detailed guide to Kindle Publishing later this year.
If you don’t even want to wait that long, consider hiring us to format your e-book. Between my Technical Writing skills and some incredible programmers who wanted to see my books published, we’ve put together an incredibly powerful process for building professional-quality e-books from finished manuscripts. If that sounds like something you might be interested in, check out our page on e-book formatting for more information.