A long time ago, I ran a poll on Twitter asking who some of the greatest living novelists were in a certain genre. I offered a few well-known authors as examples. I received many responses, all valid, many of them wonderful talents. One self-published author, however, responded to me with great annoyance. Annoyed that he had been left out of my initial tweet as one of the greatest living writers in that genre. When I asked his rationale for inclusion on the list, he told me that as an e-publishing phenomenon, his current success was equal to, if not greater than many authors I'd mentioned. The author in question has never been published by a traditional publisher, and has instead listed many of his unpublished works online for free. One of his free e-books broke the Amazon Kindle top 100. For that, he declared himself a revolutionary, and took offense to my neglecting his genius.
I bring this up because on May 17th, it was announced that J.A. Konrath (aka Joe Konrath, aka Jack Kilborn) reached a deal with Amazon Encore to publish the 7th book in his Jack Daniels mystery series. Hyperion had published the first six installments in the series, which have seen a reasonable amount of success and been nominated for several awards. To his credit, Konrath has made himself into something of an internet and social networking behemoth. He maintains a hugely popular blog, A Newbie's Guide to Publishing, in which he opines quite openly and honestly about his career trajectory, ups and downs, the peaks and valleys, with frank and often valid criticisms of the publishing industry. According to Konrath, he and his agent shopped the 7th Daniels book, Shaken, only to find no takers. For most authors, having a book rejected might mean it never seeing the light of day or selling a single copy. However over the last few months Konrath has blogged about the enormous success he's had publishing nearly a dozen of his previously unpublished novels, novellas and short story collections on the Kindle, Nook and iPad. Books that had been rejected dozens of times, but were now on pace to earn him upwards of $100,000 in royalties in 2010 alone.
I use these two authors as examples of two sides of the self-publishing coin. It is clear that many methods of traditional publishing are undergoing seismic shifts. The notion of self-publishing does not carry the same stigma it did just a few years ago. Yet there is a danger in self-publishing that becomes clear when you compare these two authors, and how they got to where they are. I wonder, with the incredible ease in which authors can now publish their rejected manuscripts online, whether fewer authors are going to take the time to hone their craft, get good at what they do, and achieve their full potential. Will new technology stifle budding talent?
In 2008, an obscure author named JK Rowling delivered the commencement speech at Harvard University. Part of her talk touched on her darkest times, the times she almost gave up. "So why do I talk about the benefits of failure?" Rowling said. "Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged."
Amazon and other online retailers have made it incredibly easy to publish books on their servers. They give each author the ability to format books price them how the authors themselves see fit. There is certain freemarket sensibility here that is inspiring, and in a way each author becomes the proprietor of their own small business. However, I feel that the example of Konrath will inspire other, less successful and even less talented authors to publish their works online. They might see the Kindle as a bypass, a way to showcase their works that the Evil, Stupid Publishing Overlords in New York were too blind to realize are, in fact, literary masterpieces.
Now, publishing is not a perfect industry. And the examples of books that were rejected numerous times or even self-published that went on to become great successes are many. Because book publishing is a wholly subjective business--the only books that are published are the ones that editors truly love (let's ignore celebrity and cynical publishing). Many wonderful books are rejected because one or more editors simply didn't 'get' it. There are plenty of books I passed on as an editor that went on to be published to tremendous critical and/or commercial success. Every editor has their list of books that they kick themselves for having passed on. That is a flaw inherent in the system, only now it is easier than ever for authors to circumvent the system.
It's safe to say that without his exposure due to the series published by Hyperion (which helped spur the popularity of his blog, etc...) Konrath would not be selling as many ebooks as he is right now. There are still myriad ways a traditional publisher can help a new author that would be lost by simply throwing a book up on Amazon. You lose the benefit of a real editor. You lose any money spent on advertising, promotion, co-op to get the book in front of readers. And unless you already have a platform--something most newbies do not--your books have no way of getting noticed. There are thousands of self-published books on Amazon - you're basically asking readers to look for a needle in a haystack made of needles.
Getting published can be a maddening, frustrating exercise. I empathize with this. But there is something about facing rejection that makes an author prove their worth. There are some wonderful books that are unfairly or wrongly rejected, but the overwhelmingly vast majority of self-published or vanity published books are sent down that path for a reason: they're simply not good enough to find a real publisher. Now, many authors face rejection and use that frustration to make their next book even better. They harness that anger and learn from their rookie mistakes. With such accessibility to online publication, many authors might choose not to write that terrific second book, not to hone their craft, instead publishing their first, lesser work because they feel they've been overlooked. Publishing on the Kindle, Nook or iPad can be a way for authors like Konrath, who have a name, know how to market, and have legitimate talent, to harness new technology to their advantage. But there is a reason Konrath is making waves--he has a platform and he has talent. He also suffered hundreds of rejections until he found a traditional publisher. Konrath is a smart author and marketer taking advantage of a system that is tailor built for him. But too many aspiring authors, I fear, will decide to use that system and in the process short circuit their own careers. Sure, if you sell enough ebooks there is a chance you'll get noticed, make some money, get a traditional deal. In the end I will never fault anybody who wants to publish their work, but I will fault those who aspire to a writing career yet take the easy, impatient way out.
If you are savvy, knowledgable, and above all talented, the ebook revolution can help you find readers and build a career. But if you're simply impatient, eager to 'publish' a book because you feel you're ready despite what the skeptics might say, you might be shooting your career in the foot. Yes, there will be some wonderful books published exclusively on Amazon. And hopefully those books and authors will find many eager readers. There are pros to the new technological possibilities, yet just because somebody breaks the mold does not mean the mold is meant to be broken by everybody. As Stephen King once wrote, "You're better off knowing what the rules are before you try to break them." For aspiring authors, harnessing your talents are the rules. Some people write wonderful first novels. Some people take hundreds of rejections to find their voice. And just because you 'can' self-publish does not mean that you 'should' self-publish.
JASON PINTER is the bestselling author of five thriller novels (the most recent of which are The Fury and The Darkness), which have been nominated for numerous awards and optioned to be a major motion picture. His first novel for young readers, Zeke Bartholomew: Superspy!, will be released in the summer of 2011. Visit him at http//:www.jasonpinter.com.