Review: Be the Monkey — Ebooks and Self-Publishing

Be the Monkey — Ebooks and Self-Publishing: A Conversation Between Authors Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath (2011)
By Jack Kilborn (one of Konrath’s noms de plume)
How did I get this book? I bought it.
Available on Amazon.
Also available for free on Eisler’s web site.

book cover imageIf you’re an indie author, you likely know about Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath.

Eisler is famous (in the publishing world, anyway) for having turned down a half-million-dollar contract with St. Martin’s in 2011 in favor of self-publishing.

Konrath is the granddaddy of self-publishing. Reading his blog, A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing, from Day 1 to the present is highly recommended for anyone thinking of going indie. That’s what I did, and it convinced me to ignore traditional publishing from the get-go.

Such a reading will take you on a journey something like this:

  1. You can make a living as a writer of genre fiction, but man, it’s a helluva lotta work. Here are all the things I’ve done to become moderately successful.
  2. I thought of a fun experiment: I’ve been giving away all these old publisher-rejected novels for free on my web site. I’m going to put them up on Amazon as ebooks and see what happens.
  3. What do you know … people are buying them. Shows you how much the publishers know!
  4. Still, if you’re just starting out, I recommend trying to get a deal with a publisher.
  5. Holy cow, people are really buying those ebooks. Suddenly everyone is more interested in my work and my ideas.
  6. You should think pretty carefully before accepting a traditional publishing deal.
  7. Wait a minute, here. I’m making hundreds of thousands of dollars as an indie author, and I have complete control over my product and marketing. Screw traditional publishing.

That summary of seven years’ worth of posts obviously paints in wildly broad strokes, but I think it catches the general gist of things. It’s a fascinating and extremely informative read.

So, if you’re interested in indie publishing, hearing Eisler and Konrath chew the fat is not to be missed. And the book doesn’t disappoint, so long as you go into it expecting it to be what it claims to be — a “conversation,” not a carefully structured, thesis-driven argument.

The book is a compilation of three conversations Eisler and Konrath carried on electronically using Google Docs. Each conversation covers wide ground. In general, the first treats the traditional-publishing vs. self-publishing issue broadly; the second takes on various counterarguments generated by the first; and the third focuses largely on Eisler’s decision to publish a book with Thomas & Mercer, Amazon’s thriller/mystery imprint.

Each conversation is interesting and enjoyable in its own right. Rather than trying to cover everything, I’ll just mention a couple items I found particularly arresting.

The authors explain that although traditional publishers’ contracts commonly offer authors a 25% royalty on ebooks, what the author actually gets is 14.9% of the retail price, after Amazon and the author’s agent take their cut. In contrast, the publisher gets 52.5% after Amazon’s cut. Why, Eisler and Konrath wonder, should the publisher get such a big cut when the cost of producing, shipping, and storing ebooks is so much lower? (Kindle Loc 155) In the end, it’s not an attractive model for authors. “As bookstores close and digital readers proliferate,” Eisler remarks later, “more and more authors will decide that what legacy publishers take from them in digital sales isn’t worth what legacy publishers earn for them in paper sales” (Kindle Loc 712). (Incidentally, the term “legacy publisher” is Eisler’s coinage, and Be the Monkey explains what it means [Kindle Loc 1585].)

Eisler and Konrath do a lot this sort of thing in the book — rebutting counterarguments and tracking down fallacies. They’re terrific at finding the problems in others’ reasoning. For instance, a $500K advance sounds like a lot, but digital is forever, whereas many print books only get a few years on the shelves, then fall out of print. What if your ebook sells well for thirty years, and you make a 70% royalty on every sale? Does $500K sound like so much, in comparison? And why is it that the New York Times bestseller list doesn’t include indie books? And why do people think that piracy cuts into sales so much, as though every person who pirated a book would buy that same book if she weren’t able to pirate it, rather than just stealing something else? Basically, the pro-traditional-publishing crowd puts a lot of waist-high fastballs over the center of the plate, and Eisler and Konrath have a great time stepping up for BP.

I’ll mention one other point: Eisler and Konrath devote some time to the idea of agents becoming “estributors” (Kindle location 1880). There’s a market, they point out, for someone who will charge a smallish percentage of a book’s profits — say, 15% — in order to take care of editing, formatting, cover design, uploading, and so forth. And fielding those offers for film rights, right? For what it’s worth, I think they’re right, and I bet their prediction of how agents’ roles will change is on target. Unlike the big publishing houses, agents aren’t weighed down with the vast apparatus of paper-book production. Those who are flexible and far-sighted can adapt to an increasingly indie publishing world.

I have just one bone to pick with Eisler and Konrath. The two of them clearly have a great rapport, and they’re really funny. But the book’s title, Be the Monkey, actually strikes me as misleading.

The title’s drawn from a series of YouTube videos that show monkeys knowing frogs in the biblical sense, which Eisler and Konrath find hilarious. Now, my sense of humor is, I believe, every bit as sophomoric as these guys’, so I don’t object to the frog-molestation jokes on moral grounds. But Eisler and Konrath’s point (if someone has to be the frog and someone has to be the monkey, make damn sure you’re the monkey) doesn’t get at the genius of the indie-publishing movement, which is that no one has to be the frog, and no one has to be the monkey. Indie publishing is a win-win for readers and authors: readers pay less while authors make more and have greater control.

Admittedly, it’s not a win for the big publishing houses, but as Eisler and Konrath point out, those companies are actively monkeying it up by overpricing ebooks to support the flagging paper market. That means they probably don’t deserve to win.

An edited version of this review will be cross-posted on Amazon.

Review: Palm Sunday, by R. J. Fisher

Palm Sunday (2012)
by R. J. Fisher
Available on Amazon.
How did I get this book? I purchased it.

book cover imageI loved this novel and, at the same time, found it frustrating. What’s to love? The meat. What’s frustrating? The seasoning. Or invent your own metaphor: the characterization, setting, world-building, and plot are strong, but a solid round of professional editing is very much needed.

The strongest element, I think, is the main character, Dewey McShane, who joins the already small cadre of male urban-fantasy heroes. But unlike the typical example of that group, Dewey isn’t macho sex-on-a-stick poured into a tight pair of leather pants and adorned with a fancy Japanese sword and a bad-ass gun. No, he’s a short, paunchy, mixed-race gay guy. Yeah, he’s psychic, but other than that, he’s wonderfully, humanly, charmingly normal. I fell in love with him immediately and rooted for him hard. I really, really wanted him to live. Moreover, he’s lonely, and I wanted him to find peace and happiness.

Not that Fisher gives us a pat HEA ending. Urban fantasy is a hybrid genre, but it hybridizes in a number of different ways. Here we’re getting fantasy melded with thriller, not romance. Perhaps we get to see Dewey in love in later books in the series (I see Fisher has Books 2 and 3 out already, but I’ve yet to read them). But in Palm Sunday, the focuses are mistrust, confusion, moral gray areas, greed, craziness, back-stabbing, and demon-world politics.

Dewey works for a “travel agency” that arranges for demons — here conceptualized not as devils, according to a Christian paradigm, but as a species that lacks yet yearns for the experience of true existence — to visit New Orleans for a brief vacation by allowing them to possess a “rental” body. Distressingly, the rental bodies belong to brain-damaged senior citizens. So, while you love Dewey and root for him, he’s no saint — he’s involved in something creepy and discomforting. Dewey’s job becomes massively complicated and potentially deadly when he has to figure out why some demons have been able to possess bodies outside the sanctioned vacations provided by the travel agency.

This is all carried out quite well, plotwise. Dewey finds himself in increasingly scary and confusing situations as the novel progresses, and there’s a well placed and satisfying climax. I wonder if the “now everything gets explained” moment could’ve been staged in a way that didn’t have people standing around explaining themselves and one another so much, but it’s hard to wrap up a thriller without some of that. Big Baddies have a tendency to monologue — as an author, what can you do?

My frustration with the novel comes from its lack of editing and proofreading. Fisher can write — there’s no doubt about that. There’s nary a semicolon error in sight, and Palm Sunday offers some wonderful passages of tight genre-fiction prose:

“Groovy.” I closed my eyes and let my head fall back. “Anything else I need to know?”
A pause. I heard the answer long before I heard the lie.
“No,” she said. (Kindle Locations 2554-2557)

That is some fine dialogue supplemented wonderfully by the narrative voice. It’s so economical. And how about this?

I picked at the white paint on the holding cell bars … making sure to keep a distance from Jerry in order to give his ramblings plenty of room to breathe. (Kindle Locations 2387-2388)

That’s a really nice metaphor — short and subtle, but with a punch and enough wryness to help build Dewey’s narrative voice. But then in the very next sentence, we get:

I tried to bring my thoughts to an appropriately morbid placed, but instead they insisted on playing a game of hopscotch. (Kindle Locations 2388-2389)

The book has several dozen of these kinds of typos, the ones spell-checker won’t catch. It also has quite a few that spell-checker would’ve caught, such as “ahir” for “hair.” “Your” and “you’re” get mixed up, as do “blonde” and “blond.” Many words get left out (“I could still [hear?] her determination”). There are instances of misused vocabulary, such as “circumvent” used to mean “encircle”. Almost every time Dewey uses a “Joe-and-I” kind of structure, he should be saying “Joe and me.” Hyphens are used where we should get M-dashes. Extra spaces creep in, periods get left out. None of the compound modifiers are hyphenated. There’s just a lot.

Lastly, many sentences lack the powerful, spare directness of the ones I’ve quoted above:

Now, I am more than aware that a tongue has no olfactory system housed within its flesh. (Kindle Location 166)

Sentences like this lose the taut, spare (yet subtly rich) directness that marks Fisher’s best prose. Writing that advertises itself, so that the reader notices the prose style more than what’s happening (“I had the pleasure of watching shock work its way through her epidermis” [Kindle Locations 3527-3528]), is generally not a good fit in genre fiction. Our readers don’t come to be wowed by clever or unusual sentences; they come for the world-building, characters, and story. There are exceptions to the rule, but not many.

In short, this is a very good book that would be a great book if Fisher dropped a few hundred bucks on a professional editor — not just a proofreader, but a real book editor who could not only catch errors, but also suggest ways to tone down the wordy or florid passages. This is one valuable thing a traditional publisher is supposed to do for authors — provide editors. Since we’re indies, we have to do it for ourselves, but that does not mean doing it by ourselves: almost every writer has blind spots (including me, I’m sure) and it’s very, very hard to proofread your own writing.

Palm Sunday‘s formatting is fine, though the book lacks an assertion of copyright. If Fisher hasn’t applied for copyright, he certainly should. It only costs $35 to do it online at The cover? Okay, but not great. Editor first, then maybe a graphic designer for the whole series, once this very good book brings in the big bucks it deserves to make. I will certainly be reading the rest of the Dante Travel Agency series and following Fisher’s career as it develops. There’s tremendous promise, here.

An edited version of this review will be cross-posted to Amazon.

Review: Smart Self-Publishing: Becoming an Indie Author, by Zoe Winters

Smart Self-Publishing: Becoming an Indie Author (2010)
by Zoe Winters
Available at Amazon.
How did I get this book? I purchased it.

book cover imagesThis is the single most useful book I’ve read in a long time. Winters covers the process not only of becoming an independently published author, but of pursuing success through marketing once you’ve made your book available, and she does it comprehensively. I very much wish I had read this book earlier in my own authorship process.

The book begins with a look at the mindset of the successful indie author. Some of Winters’s suggestions might seem obvious (for instance, that you have to set and adhere to your own deadlines), but I think they fall into the category of Things No One Says Because They Seem Obvious, But Actually They Really Need Saying. After all, there’s a difference between sort of knowing something and keeping it front and center in your mind because you understand how important it really is.

Winters then takes you through the different ways you might make your book available to authors — print, electronic, audio. She provides extensive information and advice on the print side of things, which makes this book valuable to indie authors who want to move beyond ebooks. She also hits hard the importance of professional editing and decent cover art, a message that really needs to get out there if indies to compete effectively with books issued by the big houses.

The latter portions of the book, which focus on how you actually get your book bought and read, are eye-opening. Winters is clearly a master marketer. In truth, I had no idea there were so many ways one could market oneself and one’s work. This portion of the book strikes me as particularly valuable. I haven’t come across these suggestions anywhere else.

Winters’s style is colloquial, clear, and engaging. Mechanical errors exist but are minor. Ebook formatting is good. The cover is lovely. This book is highly recommended.

This review will be cross-posted to Amazon.

Review: Thoroughly Modern Monsters, by Jennifer Rainey

Thoroughly Modern Monsters (April 2012)
by Jennifer Rainey
Available on Amazon.
How did I get this book? I purchased it.

book cover imageThis novella-length book of short stories is outstanding. I suppose Thoroughly Modern Monsters has to be categorized as urban fantasy. Its seven stories are set in an alternate U.S. in which everyone seems to know about “monsters” (gorgons, vampires, werewolves, and so forth) and the “Monster Relocation and Employment Act” has been passed to control their more dangerous tendencies and to make use of their special abilities.

Forgoing the gritty style typical to the subgenre, Rainey’s first-person and third-person-limited narrators sound like characters from literary, rather than genre, fiction. The narratives are allusive and subtle, with much left unstated (though clear enough to the careful reader). Pat morals are nowhere apparent.

The stories’ central concerns, too, transcend the genre: although the set-up I’ve described above could easily generate a typical dystopic urban-fantasy plot, Rainey is far more interested in subtly drawn human relationships and character development. Most of the stories focus on one or two central characters who are struggling with the dislocations imposed by the MREA or with the challenges of being monsters integrated into human society. Half-siren Quinnish works as a barker for a carnival that never goes near the sea. Todd and his wife, Marsha, struggle to adapt after he’s downsized out of the job he was born to — grim reaper.

A couple of the shorter stories might’ve benefited from just a bit more development. “The Monster Relocation and Employment Act,” the collection’s last story, is an example. At only about five pages on my laptop screen, it’s really short. A few more pages might allow the poisonous conventionality of Lizzie and Frank’s mindset to emerge in a more rounded way. But this is minor critique. What’s there is already very good.

Rainey’s prose is great: clean and error-free (literally — I saw one typo and no mechanical errors). She writes natural-sounding dialogue and concise paragraphs, with no flab. The ebook is perfectly formatted, with the strange exception that (at least in my case), the table of contents appears at the end of the book, not the beginning. The cover is decent, though something more enticing could probably be created with the help of a professional designer.

I highly recommend this book. I hope that its genre-blending tone and interests don’t doom it to a small readership. It’s a real find — indie authorship at its best.

This review will be cross-posted to Amazon.