Interview from 2006

I was digging through my hard drive and found a set of questions and answers I wrote for Mike Whybark, for an article in the short-lived Now Playing magazine back in 2006.  I don’t think the article ever made it to print, but for kicks, here’s the answers I sent back to him.  I’ll put the questions in this color.

Jon Konrath, Tell Me a Story about the Devil, http://www.rumored.com/journal/

Mike Whybark for Now Playing magazine, issue seven, projected street date late summer, 2006.

Jon, please just write your answers in under the questions. As you know, using complete sentences is helpful. The responses you provide will be used in part for quotes to appear in a 400-word piece for the magazine. I’m interested in elucidating the intersection of writing, blogging, and self-publication with specific respect to your experience doing all three. Feel free to flog your books and please be sure to cite specific examples from each book where appropriate.

How long have you been writing online?

I started a death metal e-zine in early 1992, but I didn’t start regularly journaling online until 1997.

Did your interest in writing predate your interest in online publication?

Yes, but only because there wasn’t much of an “online” back in the late 80s.

Tell me about your subject matter and techniques. What are your goals in writing and publishing these works?

I started by writing what I knew, which was the Kerouac-style biographical-but-fiction stuff, and tried to frame things in a way that made them readable, but not entirely plot-driven.  I’ve slowly become more interested in more experimental prose, trying to do things that are nonlinear, but still readable.

My goal in publishing is mostly to drive myself to complete projects.  I don’t care about money and fame, and would continue to write even if I didn’t have the means to self-publish.

Much of your work appears to be focused around the idea of the memoir, of looking back at experiences lived. Do you have a sense of why that is? Have you ever written material grounded in an imaginary experience or with a protagonist who is radically different in background, experience, and worldview from your own?

Before I wrote books, I wrote short stories, and personal past was easily translated into slices of short fiction.  My first book, Summer Rain, was based on one of those short stories.  As I’ve progressed, I have less interest in the traditional novel format, but my own experiences still rub off into my fiction.  My second book, Rumored to Exist was a lot less grounded in reality, and my next book is pretty much 100% fiction.

Briefly, summarize your books.

Summer Rain is autobiographical fiction about being stuck in the college town of Bloomington, Indiana for a summer in 1992.  There’s a lot of conflict in the form of money, parents, relationships, academics, and what to do next in life.

Rumored to Exist is a nonlinear novel that’s essentially 200 different slices of reality, each one bizarre and surreal.  It’s my first shot at writing something like William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.

I’ve also written Dealer Wins, which is a book of travel essays about Las Vegas; an anthology of the first three years of my journal, Tell Me a Story About the Devil; and The Necrokonicon, a glossary of my times in Bloomington and Elkhart, Indiana, which started online but also became a print book.  All of these are projects that started as online writing, but eventually came to the print world solely because PoD made it cheap and easy for me to wrap them up into a paper book.

Is there one which you feel particularly strongly about?

I think Rumored to Exist is the one that I can always flip open to a random page and read a few paragraphs and still think it’s great.  It’s closest to the direction I want to continue with writing, and it sold better than any of my other stuff.

When did you decide that you wanted to self-publish? What book is that?

When I finished Summer Rain in 2000, I was not sure I wanted to flog it around to agents and publishers as a commercial product, partially because I knew they would want me to change things in the name of better sales  (“Can you rewrite it to take place in Seattle, and make the main character a gay cowboy?”), and partially because the book was so personal to me, and it felt like I’d be whoring out my child.  But I wanted some copies for friends, and thought about printing a thousand of them, but feared having 970 of them sit in my garage forever.  Around that time, iUniverse came along, and it seemed like a decent compromise to me.

What kinds of research have you done in looking for publication partners? What are the key things you look for when you decide where to go for publication?

I mostly looked at cost-benefit comparison when I shopped around for publishers.  Some offer more service, but at a higher price.  I focused more on getting the core service done, and not the frilly extras.  I also carefully read everything that made sure the contracts did not have any clauses that would cause problems down the road, as far as ownership and copyright.

Who are the primary self-publishing providers? What’s your analysis of each?

I can only speak for the two I’ve used.  I started with iUniverse and did three books with them.  They were one of the first, and before they figured out their market and pricing structure, they were relatively cheap.  I think for my first book, I didn’t pay anything for the initial startup.  But as time went on, they became more expensive as far as start-up costs, and tried to justify it by adding more services that didn’t interest me.  They handled things like cover design, which might be good if you don’t know anything about computers, but I design books all day, so I didn’t feel like giving them an extra few hundred dollars and possibly having a dud book design.

Lulu.com came out after iUniverse, and it’s much more of a DIY resource.  While iUniverse is pretending to be more of a serious, traditional publisher, Lulu is more focused on providing you the tools to publish.  They offer many of the same services, but everything is ala carte, so you just add what you want to your project.

Your books are available on Amazon.com – do you list them yourself, or does your publication partner do that?

A feature of most Print-on-Demand publishers is that they will add a UPC code and ISBN number to your book, and then list it in the Ingram publishing database, which means it propagates to a lot of booksellers’ databases.  There’s also some additional paperwork nudging to get it to Amazon.  In the process, your book also ends up at Barnes and Noble and a bunch of other online booksellers, plus the computer order systems at almost every brick and mortar bookseller.  (It doesn’t actually get you in stores, though – people have to special order it.)

Different publishers have different price points at which they will add this option.  iUniverse’s lowest-priced package doesn’t offer it, but the next one does.  For Lulu, you have to pay an additional fee (I think it’s about $149, but I don’t remember.)

What’s the best way to buy your publications? How many different ways are there to obtain them?

Other than buying from me in person (no shipping), the best way is usually from the publisher’s web site.  If you buy from Amazon or other sites, it usually costs you more, and I get less money.  But I know people get pretty locked into Amazon, so that’s available as an option.  You could order it from your local bookseller if you’re loyal to a particular shop.  And like I said, the Ingram thing means the book pops up in a lot of weird places on the web.  I remember my first two books were available on the Wal-Mart web site for a while.

Did the books originate as blog-based pieces, or did you develop them offline with the intent of restricting the content to offline publication?

Bits and pieces of blog-like writing end up in the books.  But when I’m blocked or bored, I tend to write things in my online journal as an experiment, and then swipe them later for the books if they worked.  My writing though, is not typically the “take a bunch of blog entries and make them into a paper book”.  (That said, my third book was exactly that.)

Have you sought commercial publishing opportunities for your books?

Not really.

If not, do you intend to?

Maybe.  I would rather direct my energy into writing my own work than trying to pitch some commercially viable projects with sales potential to agents and writers.  Sitting around all day trying to think of what will be the next DaVinci Code isn’t really writing to me, it’s producing commercial books.  And that’s a job, and I already have a job.  I want to write what I want to write.

In musical terms, it’s a lot like the difference between being into punk rock and jamming out in a garage and having a web site that will put up your demo so you can sell nice-looking CDs to 20 or 30 of your friends, versus sitting around and saying “Shakira’s really hot this quarter, maybe write some Latin AOR crossover hits with possible secondary market potential” and shilling it to guys in suits.  The punk thing probably won’t feed you (unless you’re Billy Joe Armstrong), but it’s a lot more interesting than playing golf or collecting stuff you don’t need on eBay.

Do you work as a writer professionally, and if so, in what capacity?

I work as a technical writer for a software company.

Tell me an anecdote about something interesting, surprising, cool, or terrible that has occurred to you as a result of your online and self-publishing endeavors.

When I was doing my old death metal e-zine, called Xenocide, a kid from California used to send me record reviews, and we wrote back and forth a bit, and I published his stuff.  About 12 years after the e-zine folded, I came home from work and had a ton of messages from the FBI and pretty much every major news outlet you could think of.  It turns out that the kid who wrote for me was Adam Gadahn, who was recently named as a terror suspect by the FBI and got on the most-wanted list.  I still had old issues of the e-zine on my web page, and when you searched for Gadahn, it was one of the only hits online.  I got to spend the next few weeks on the phone with everyone from the New York Times to the National Enquirer, plus an FBI antiterrorist task force, telling the same story over and over about how I only knew this kid from talking about Cannibal Corpse and Autopsy records.

Are you aware of or interested in the notable successes seen in recent years in publishing that began as self-published works, such as Eragon?

I think most self-publishing marketing books or web sites tell you all about that, or the color of your parachute book, or I think the chicken soup for your soul book was originally self-published.  These are all extreme long-shots and not typical at all of self-publishing, but they’re still interesting stories.

Do you see the move toward self-publication as empowering to the author and reader or as a devolution of responsibility on the part of the publisher?  Does the potential outcome of the trend – the loss of major book publisher’s editorial development departments, or their replacement by marketers and ‘cool hunters’ – fill you with excitement and optimism or worry?

It’s empowering to authors because it’s an instant way to get a book onto paper, in the same way that blogging or web publishing is also an instant outlet, without waiting for editors or publishers or any other form of The Man.  And it’s empowering to readers because they can read stuff that normally wouldn’t be published. I don’t think it devolves big publishers at all, because they’re still putting out their DaVinci Code big-sellers.  And if a self-published author wanted the help of a professional editor or PR agent, all they need to do is break out the credit card and find one.

How many copies of your books have you sold?

Not enough to be able to publicly admit to any total.

How many would you need to sell in order to support yourself as a writer from their sale?

50,000 a year?  100,000?

What do you think would be necessary in order to accomplish that?

You’d need a lot of marketing to sell that many books, or a hell of a book.  And at that volume, print-on-demand wouldn’t be as profitable – you could double your profit by going to a traditional printer.

I think if you already have a big captive audience, self-publishing would work.  Like if you were already famous, like a movie director, musician, or had a blog that got 100,000 hits a day, it could work.  Henry Rollins has been self-publishing books for years.  But he also took a beating on his big-art books, and now he’s got publishers putting out his stuff for him.  It’s all very trendy, very high-risk.

Do you think that you would be able to succeed in these tasks if you determined to attempt to meet that goal?

I don’t know, I’m pretty lazy about the business side of it.

How many self-published writers do you think are able to support themselves from their works?

A handful, maybe.  I think it’s more the case that there are self-published writers that are able to parlay their writing into other work.  I imagine if you were writing a cool self-published tech book on AJAX or something, you could make a living on contracts and consulting work.  If you were a motivational speaker and self-published the next big chicken soup book, you could hustle a lot of speaking gigs.

Are there any other self-published writers whose work you admire?

As far as fiction, my friend John Sheppard.  His self-published book, Small Town Punk, actually got picked up by Ig Publishing, so he’s retiring from the PoD world now.

I also admire anyone who self-publishes books about their work or history.  There are a lot of military history books coming out that would have been ignored otherwise by large mainstream presses, but it’s good to see that history preserved, especially when it’s interesting to read.  And even if someone came out with a book on managing a Taco Bell 20 years ago, I’d probably read it.

Have you ever purchased another author’s self-published work?

I’m always cruising around lulu.com to find like-minded authors, and I probably purchase a book or two a month.  I do trades whenever I can, too.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Thanks very much for your time.

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