What To Do When the Mainstream Yawns: Pt 3

I never thought I’d see this in my lifetime: Unpublished authors so smart and so quick on the Internet that they’re selling their work through iPhones apps, iTunes and eBook readers without going through that cranky old sluggish machine called mainstream publishing.

Here’s author Seth Harwood (see last two columns below), who recently attended Bouchercon, the mystery writers’ conference, and sent this dispatch:Seth Harwood

The New Thing

“The new thing seems to be authors putting their unpublished works out on Kindle themselves and selling each title for .99 or $1.99, of which they keep 35 or 70 cents respectively.

“The idea is that you can get new Kindle owners to stock up on cheap titles to fill their device when they get it. A few authors have sold upwards of 4,000 copies of unknown books and are using that launching pad to get bigger deals from publishers. Who knows how many of those buyers actually read the book.

“Of course, there are still roughly 40 times more iPhones and iPod Touches out there sold than Kindles, so the biggest action among individual authors lies in getting their books sold through Apps at equally low prices.”

The Old Thing Reacts

I must say I wouldn’t have believed that people who love books would buy titles based on price rather than quality if I hadn’t found myself in the freebie sections of and iPhones for months now or warmed to the notion of trying short stories for 45 cents and why-not-take-a-flyer thrillers by unknowns for .99 to $1.99.

(And just to show you those free first-chapter offers can stimulate sales, my apologies to psychologist/author Wayne Dyer for smirking when I saw the title of his new book, “Excuses Begone! How to Change Lifelong, Self-Defeating Thinking Habits” from Hay House (288 pages, $24.95). I used to think Dyer has been writing the same self-help book for the last dozen titles, but solid research and reference to a fresh plan of action in Audible’s free Chapter One convinced me to buy the damn thing.)

It’s not that any of these electronic versions replaces traditional books (and let’s stop talking as though they do; we won’t know for a long time). What we see now is new access to the printed word and new ways to build the reading audiences for books in every form possible. (For example, I’m hardly alone when word of a new book arrives via the Internet and I call my local independent bookstore to get a copy.)

The New, New Way

You can see how profits may be surprisingly good for mid-range authors who skip the publishing route and go directly to e-Books themselves by checking out Joe Konrath’s incredible story at his website, “A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing.”

Joe KonrathHere is an established writer with a series of Jacquelin (of course her nickname is Jack) Daniels detective novels at Hyperion making more money on the Internet with his unpublished works than Hyperion (chained to the list price) can bring him through its own Internet distribution channels.

For example, Konrath compares income from five of his titles published by Hyperion, which sold through Kindle at prices ranging from $3.96 to $7.99; and four self-published titles he sold himself through Kindle at $1.99.

Although the self-published titles sold at far reduced prices than those from Hyperion, the difference in sales was nearly 1 to 9 (Hyperion to self-published). His cut for the self-published books was bigger, too, so at the end of six months his income from the two sources looked like this:

4 Hyperion titles sold through Kindle: $2008

5 self-publihsed titles sold through Kindle: $6860

It’s not a lot of dough, but if Konrath’s detective novels continue to sell at the fast clip he thinks they will, and if Ebook sales increase (“I’m 100% sure Ebook sales are going up,” he writes) in all electronic readers (Sony, etc.), he calculates that “by the end of 2010 I can make $5000 per year per Ebook title by self publishing. I can easily write four books per year.”

Plus, he can write many more than that and could end up making $70,000 a year because the Ebook demand is building so fast. (He’s even going to put “The Newbie’s Guide to Publishing” as an Ebook on Kindle.)

The Big Reverse

I think of this as another cycle of the old pulps, in a way. Just as people used to pay 25 cents for a Pocket Book detective novel off the spin rack and not worry about quality, today we can do the same with 99-cent novels and check out new voices without much risk.

This leads the new breed of authors like Seth Harwood and Joe Konrath to believe a big reverse is underway: “Ebook rights began as gravy,” Konrath writes. “I can picture a day when the print rights are the gravy, and authors make their living with Ebooks.” (My italics added – it’s another thing I never thought I’d see in my lifetime.)

Well, that is moving fast. Maybe too fast, out-of-control fast. We’ve seen this kind of Internet hysteria before. Everybody gets a new gadget (iPod, iPhone, Kindle) and rushes over to the fun place (iTunes) to buy stuff we absolutely must have (a favorite song from high school!), and a fad is born.

It may not be too long before former stick-in-the-mud publishers jam their titles into every imaginable Internet slot, and the resulting glut turns more readers away than invites them in. The bubble bursts, everybody says gee, we’ll never do that again, but then a new gadget is born, and we all rush around trying to make a buck out of that.

But Are They Any Good?

I don’t mean to appear so dazzled by the initiative and optimism of authors like Seth Harwood that I’ve forgotten to ask the question every reviewer and reader wants to know: Is his writing any good?

His first published novel (Three Rivers/Random House), “Jack Wakes Up,” which begins a series of books (Seth’s already written three), is both a refreshing crime novel and a witty look at 21st century existential angst through its title character, a charming wiseacre/former actor/reluctant sleuth named Jack Palms.

True, everything about this original paperback looks like a flashy postmodern Chandler spinoff that fans of paperback detective fiction might pick up for a good airplane read, something fun and quick.

But that’s just the page-turner part.

Had it been published in hardcover like, say, a Chuck Palahniuk novel, the package would have said take this seriously; the author is a worth it. But that’s not what Three Rivers/Random House is saying here.

While I’m a big proponent of publishing first novels in original paperback, it’s sad to see a gem like this thrown out to the public without support or even (dare I even wish this) a little creativity. Maybe there’s no budget or even a person assigned to getting the word out, but I wish at least someone at Random House had spotted the map Seth laid out in creating an audience of 80,000 (see #2 in this series). And this is a primed audience that most certainly wants to be recontacted, wants to create new viral energy and wants to help launch Seth’s second book with inspiration and tweets galore.

And look how much they’d have to work with: While “Jack Wakes Up” touches wonderfully on the full spectrum of the hardboiled school, ranging from Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane to James Cain and Robert Parker, it’s also a meditation, a spoof, a homage and a pretty good action story all at once.

The Back Story

But it’s the hero’s vulnerability and a heckuva back story that win us readers over.

Early on we learn that a few years ago, Jack Palms got his big break as an actor by starring in “Shake ‘Em Down,” a giant Hollywood success of the punch-’em-up variety that has turned cute guys into franchise millionaires like Eddie Murphy in “Beverly Hills Cop,” Sylvester Stallone in “Rocky” or Bruce Willis in “Die Hard.”

But before he could make the sequel, “Shake It Up,” Jack developed a drug problem, a bad marriage and a tendency to cold-cock the wrong people (like his ex, it’s rumored), at which point he found himself in rehab when he should have been making sequels #2, #3, and #4.

So at the start of “Jack Wakes Up,” our almost-hero is back, broke and single. He’s a lot wiser, conscientiously sober, and ready for a comeback if only the studio’s insurance company will cover him. Waiting for the phone to ring at his classic hillside Sausalito apartment with its terrific view and overdue rent, Jack is offered a job that throws him headlong into San Francisco’s underworld and face-to-face with one colossal babe named Maxine, and this novel is off and running.

Part of the fun for any movie-watching reader is that Jack is still recognizable as a tough-guy movie star whom every hotel clerk, bartender, parking attendant, bouncer or waiter claps on the back, ushers to the best seat in the house, buys a drink or provides the info tip he needs. Jack knows it’s all phony: If the sequel is never made, he’ll sink into oblivion, and his famous face will turn into has-been land (“Say, weren’t you…”).

But the twist is that he doesn’t march around like that smug idiot on “Burn Notice” trying to recreate the GQ image. His new sobriety and divorce have given him a peace of mind that raises real doubts about going back to the false Hollywood love-you-man bullshit again.

So unlike most crime novel heroes, Jack opens the crack in his emotional armor just a tiny bit more with each adventure, and this makes him far more human and intriguing to watch than any of the usual annoying smart-mouthed imitations parading around in “Oceans 11” remakes.

It’s the Writing

As always, it is the writing and in this case the observational acuity that makes a novel like this follow us around.

We do hear Chandler in the background when a beautiful bartender “gives Jack a look, all eyes and big red lips, that would stop a train.”

We do feel that sinister noirism as Jack sees his name on a possible death list and “gets a soft chill up his spine.” But we’re more engaged watching the author play with existential references when, for example, Jack starts agreeing with a bad guy who’s lying to him and, and, glancing at “the flat surface of his coffee,” Jack notices that his reflection has disappeared.

Mini-finesse like that makes “Jack Wakes Up” more than a hoot, as is “Young Junius,” Seth’s work-in-progress about a streetwise kid from the projects. But the real treat in Seth’s writing can be found in short stories (“A Long Way from Disney,” vols 1 and 2) that he seems to be hiding under the covers like a little kid.

A Writer to Watch

One story is about a sad young boy who catches a frog with a butterfly net while his parents are back at the house, arguing. Holding the frog in the net up to eye level, he tells us: “I could see his toes poking through the holes in the net. His eyes were draped with clear lids that fell and then rose back up slowly.” It’s a brief but vivid moment that foretells everything that happens in the rest of the story and makes you think, hmmmm, here’s a writer to watch.

In another, a couple of stoners bumming around Europe find themselves at Pamploma when the terrified bulls begin slipping and sliding on wet cobblestones, and runners (mostly American) pile up in front of them, getting gored and stomped on without letup. The narrator, caught in the mess of fear, gore, soul-deep loss (why does anybody go to Pamploma?) looks up for a moment. “Two parallel lines of buildings outlined a strip of grey sky above me,” he muses, “as if something still existed outside of what I saw.” The economy and honesty of that of statement reflects both the narrator’s last spark of hope that life awaits defeat, and perhaps always has.

A Wild Goose Chase?

After reading his short fiction, much of which has appeared in a number of literary journals, I began thinking of Seth as a serious writer who may be — well, not off on a wild goose chase but not sitting in a quiet room writing more serious fiction, either. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was taught by Marylynne Robison and Denis Johnson. There is a tenderness that sneaks out of his short stories and tugs at the heart so much you want him to stop doing anything commercial except write.

But Seth got an agent and a publisher for “Jack Wakes Up” and he’s determined to “grow” the series. Right now that’s too bad, because the publisher won’t let him continue to give the book away as a full pdf, as he did when he first built his audience, won’t let him sell the book on his own through iPhone apps or eBook readers, never helped him with an independent bookstore tour (he set it up and They are letting him give away the first three chapters of the novel free here and the entire book is still free as a serialized audiobook podcast here, but this feels awfully back-handed paid. That awful self-fulfilling prophecy is on its way: If returns come back, promising-but-not-enough sales for #1 will convince the publisher he doesn’t have enough of a “platform” for #2 or #3 in the series.

I guess that’s routine these days – as an author, you have to do the marketing work by yourself, and then if the publisher sees your book “taking legs” (walking out of the stores by itself), you might get a new contract. I never saw this kind of pressure on, say, Sue Grafton, Robert Parker or Patricia Cornwell. They would never would have gotten past book #1 if their publishers hadn’t stayed in for the fight. And they were pre-Internet: no ready-to-go readership of 80,000 waiting out there, as Seth has.

The True Believer

But Seth is a true believer. He can’t help believing that young Internet adepts like himself can help the publishing industry change so profoundly and so quickly that our tragic era of flat sales and increasing costs will come to an end. He asks – and the new breed of angry young writer is not going to stop asking — why publishers are dragging their heels so badly when it comes to the simplest things, like going after iPhone apps aggressively or using podcasts as free publicity, or reducing the price of Ebooks to reflect reduced costs (in paper/printing/binding/shipping).

Erin O'BriantAnd other true believers are out there doing that work for publishers. Remember the old “open source” movement that encouraged everybody to share what they knew on the Internet so we could all benefit? That’s a basis for author marketing. When you share your art, and people like it, they want to help spread the word.

“Thanks for spreading the word, and thanks for listening,” says Erin O’Briant on every episode (there are seven) of “Glitter Girl,” her funny lezbo-garageband novel, which she recorded from deep inside a closet (fabric absorbs echo) and gives away as a podcast on iTunes, where readers can leave reviews.

“I’ve built my reputation on giving away high-quality stories in podcast form,” write thriller novelist J.C. Hutchins in Fast Company. “To keep my current fan base fat and happy, I need to keep tending that farm. Fat and happy fans are evangelical fans.” J.C. Hutchins

And that’s the point I think mainstream publishers don’t get. In their need to control every facet of the publishing process, they can’t believe authors are already so much farther ahead of the marketing game, and so much more powerful.

Author Jesse Kornbluth even wrote in Publishers Weekly that publishers should just give up what they do badly, “attach $5,000 to $10,000 to the advance” and let the author use that money “for digital marketing expenses and Website enhancement.”

It’s such a wonder: All these questions are going to be answered sooner or later, maybe by unpublished writers who happen to reach home plate first.