[Self-Publishing] J. A. Konrath's Bedtime Story: A Rebuttal

Editing for authors: because every writer needs a good editor.

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Feb 16, 2005
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Have you ever checked Konrath's famous Bedtime Story article against the Wikipedia article about him? I did, because so many of the details seemed unaccountably odd to me, and so few of them were checkable in their own right.

So: Konrath writes nine novels that don't sell, then sells the tenth for $33,000, which is pretty good for a first novel, and quite a breakthrough for him. In the bedtime story version, that's the only book he sells to his first publisher. He busts ass promoting it, and it sells okay, but it doesn't sell enough copies to make his publisher happy, so they dump him.

I have trouble bringing that picture into focus in my head.

A first novel means extra work for the publishing house. If you really believe in an author -- and $33,000 is a healthy amount of belief -- you want to continue publishing them, building audience and public awareness with each successive book. A first novel is unlikely to be terribly profitable all by itself. What you're aiming for is profitable sales levels on later books, and new readers going back to pick up that first novel they missed when it came out.
But now Joe needed to make sure his dream wouldn't whither and die on the vine. He knew he had to sell a lot of books, or else the Gatekeeper could become fickle and turn his back on Joe.

So Joe worked hard to make sure he sold as many books as he could. He visited forty states in the US, and signed books in over 1200 bookstores. He created a popular blog. He spoke at hundreds of libraries, book fairs, and conferences.

But even though Joe's books sold well, they didn't sell well enough for the Gatekeeper, and Joe was dropped.
No, I don't think so. Those are weird numbers. That's a weird story.

First novels don't have to sell all that many copies to achieve satisfactory sales levels. Profitability on the first book is not what it's all about. If Konrath's sales figures were the reason his publisher dropped him, his book didn't "sell well." It sold abysmally, and there were probably other problems.

The part about all the touring in support of the book is equally weird. That was a lot of traveling. It was expensive and time-consuming. It was also remarkably unsuccessful, given that Konrath says he hit at least 1,400 - 1,500 venues, and he still didn't sell enough copies to roll up respectable sales numbers for a first novel. At that rate, he's spending more money traveling than his readers are paying at the register for his book.

This led me to wonder whether he should have been putting more of that time into writing the second novel. On the other hand:
So Joe changed his name, and sold a book for $20,000.
Doesn't sound like it took long to sell it, and he got another nice advance for a first-time author, so the second book can't have been all that bad. The story's getting odder and odder.

This is the point at which I looked at his Wikipedia entry. Joe Konrath's first novel was published by Hyperion. So were his second, third, fourth, and fifth novels. They look like they were doing well.

(Here's a blue-sky guess: that $33,000 initial advance was actually one-third of a three-book contract. If you have thirty thousand dollars' worth of faith in a novel, you want more than one of them.)
He worked very hard to make that book a success, traveling to over 200 bookstores, appearing on over 100 blogs in a single month.

The Gatekeeper seemed happy, but wanted changes in Joe's next book. Joe didn't want to make these changes. After all, he was the writer, not the Gatekeeper. But the Gatekeeper insisted, so once again Joe found himself without a publisher.
I don't think that's his third published novel he's talking about. I think it's his fifth, Fuzzy Navel, which was the last one published by Hyperion. Konrath's novels always get dinged a little bit by reviewers for their cliches and implausibility. However, if you look at the one-star and two-star reviews on Amazon, what you see are readers who liked the earlier books just fine, but are complaining that this book is a complete dud: no plot, no characterization, no real ending; just the same damned things happening over and over again.

That makes sense to me. After four successful books, Konrath's editor wouldn't start demanding pointless and arbitrary changes. I can easily believe that Fuzzy Navel needed a major rewrite, because it still needs one today.

Why the sudden drop in quality? I don't know. I do have one theory: Konrath started putting a huge amount of effort into promoting his books. It has to have cut into his writing time. Here's Wikipedia's description of it:
In 2006, Konrath mailed out close to 7000 letters to libraries across the United States with fellow mystery author Julia Spencer-Fleming, touting their books to librarians. Later that year, Konrath signed books in 612 bookstores across 28 states.
Note, by the way, that Konrath's self-promotion jag started the year his third novel came out. The sales, marketing, and promotion that laid the foundation for his career was done by Hyperion.

Back to the bedtime story:
So Joe changed his name again, and sold another book... for $6000. He knew this was a small amount of money, but he also knew that he'd make it back very fast, because his other books had earned out their advances.
Even if I hadn't checked Wikipedia, at this point I'd have known the story wasn't accurate. If his first novel earned out its $33,000 advance, no way would his publisher have dropped him for having inadequate sales.
Joe didn't understand why the Gatekeeper was being so fickle and cheap, when his books were selling well and making money.
His advances weren't keeping up with his expectations. Dog bites man. Film at eleven. Et cetera.
But then, there were a lot of things about the Gatekeeper that didn't make sense. And it wasn't like Joe had a choice. If he wanted to make a living, he had to take whatever crumbs the Gatekeeper offered.
Nice big advances. Attractive unified-format packaging on his series. Miscellaneous evidence I won't go into that to me says "well-published books, well-published author."

As for his editor asking for rewrites, assuming that's what really happened? That's not mistreatment. The easiest thing to do with a bad book delivered under contract is to throw it into production and forget about it. It'll be bad, the readers will be unhappy, and the author's reputation will take a permanent hit, but it'll be the least amount of trouble for the in-house staff. Actually editing the book is a lot more work and bother.
In the meantime, Joe began selling some of his early, rejected books as ebooks on his website. When fans told Joe they couldn't read these on their new Kindle devices because the format was incompatible, Joe went to Amazon and uploaded the ebooks there.

Soon, Joe was making over $1000 a month on Kindle.

Joe was shocked by this. He thought the only way to make a living as a writer was with the Gatekeeper. The Gatekeeper offered advances. The Gatekeeper did the editing and the cover art. And most importantly, the Gatekeeper controlled distribution. There was no way to reach readers without the Gatekeeper.

But ebooks didn't need to be distributed in the same way print books were. So the Gatekeeper wasn't needed.
False, misleading, and disingenuous. When Konrath started self-publishing, he already had a readership and a reputation because his publisher had put a lot of work into building them. If he'd started from scratch, he wouldn't have more than a fraction of whatever readership he enjoys today. He might still have mailed out 7,000 letters to libraries and bookstores -- self-published authors do that sort of thing all the time -- but few of the recipients would have been interested, because he wouldn't have had Hyperion to give him credibility.

I will now skip over a bunch of Konrath's alleged sales figures.
Joe realized he could make more money without the Gatekeeper. He could write the books he wanted to, and he could publish them when they were finished, rather than having to wait a year for the Gatekeeper to publish them.
I take this to mean he's skipping all that unnecessary stuff publishers do for the book while it's going through the pipeline.

Hoo boy.
He didn't have to rely on the Gatekeeper getting him reviews, or buying coop space in bookstores, or sending him on tour, or offering discounts.
You know -- all those things that really do help sell books.

The "sending him on tour" part is especially interesting. Is he saying that all that promotional touring was the publisher's idea, not his, and that the publisher paid for it? That's not how he preaches self-promotion to the newbies.
He didn't have to compete for shelf space with the bestselling authors the Gatekeeper pushed.
Hogwash. He's still competing with bestselling authors. He's just in a worse position to do it.

I suspect that the real point is that he's one of those writers who, deep down, believes that all their publisher's attention should be lavished on them and their books. It's a known syndrome.
For the first time ever, Joe had control.
Arguably, Joe Konrath has less control over his career now than he had when he was being published by Hyperion. A good publisher is an ally, not the enemy.
And a funny thing happened. Once Joe didn't have the Gatekeeper determining his future, he became more successful than he ever dreamed.
I'm really not sure I believe that.
Joe began to blog about what he was doing. He posted his sales figures. He encouraged other authors to self-publish. He got more publicity than he ever had in the past, all on his own.
Yeah. In the past, the publicity was all about his books. Now it's all about him -- and, as he's going to find out, he's a finite subject.
Joe was very happy. He no longer had to worry about appeasing the Gatekeeper in order to get another contract. He no longer got paid only twice a year. He no longer had to cut things out of his books he didn't want to cut, or change his titles, or have zero say in cover art.
See me laughing my head off. Have you seen his post-Hyperion covers?
Joe was selling more books, making more money, and reaching more people than he ever had in the past, and he didn't have to go on any crazy two-month-long book tours, or mail out 7000 letters to libraries.
So much for self-promotion.

I'd still like to know whose idea the tour was.
Best of all, Joe never worried about getting rejected ever again. Joe realized he was the brand, not the Gatekeeper. His fans would follow him, and retailers like Amazon and Smashwords and Barnes and Noble and Apple and Sony and Kobo and Borders and Android would allow Joe to find even more fans.
That's one of the most concise and perfect examples of Author Mind I've ever seen. Author Mind is a weird little flowchart that only has a few endstates. The single most important endstate goes something like "And then everyone will read and love *M*Y* *B*O*O*K*S*!!!" Other things you can find in that end-box include "I'll be rich beyond the dreams of avarice," "I'll never ever ever get rejected again," and "I want to be exactly who I am, do exactly what I want, and have it work." I thus regard this paragraph of his as an inset fantasia, not a description of real-world events.
But the story doesn't end there. The Gatekeeper is still controlling the industry. Still looking for new writers, offering them 17.5% ebook royalties while he takes 52.5%. Still treating authors badly, while claiming they should be grateful. Still playing by the old rules, even though there are now new ones. Still trying to stay relevant in a changing industry and a dying business model.
Some writers can function without an agent. Other writers seriously need one to act as a buffer between them and their publishers. Unfortunately, not all of the latter sort realize it.
But Joe knows that writers will eventually wise up. Why should authors live from advance to advance, hoping to get another contract? Why put up with heartache, depression, and abuse, when authors can, for the very first time, take control of their own career?
Tentative translation: "I've made a hash of my career, and I think you should do the same."

One more thing, because I wouldn't want you to get the wrong impression: Joe Konrath is far from being the most unreliable "authority on self-publishing" out there.
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