Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Newsletter Blues

Over Memorial Day weekend I emailed newsletter #5 to about 10,000 people.

While most of the recipients joined the newsletter willingly, I send it out to everyone in my addressbook, and I have no idea how some of those folks got in my addressbook.

So, every newsletter, I get a few dozen removal requests, and I invariably annoy someone enough for them to take me to task for spamming. Which amuses me, because in my newsletter, I never try to sell anything.

Marketing, and advertising, is intrusive by nature. To soften the blow, I make sure my newsletter offers things, rather than asks for things.

I announce new contests, and pick the winners for old contests.

I give away free stuff.

I mention upcoming appearances, so people can find me on the road.

I mention new stuff coming out, though I never provide a link to buy anything, or even request that it be bought at all.

In the recent newsletter, I also invited everyone to my booklaunch party.

As an experiment, I did something a little sneaky. I provided folks with a time and place for my party, but left off the date. I had two reasons for this:

1. I figured that those who want to come would seek out the information on my website (which I just redesigned), or email me. Personal correspondence is always good, and it would give me a rough head count of attendees.

2. I was curious if the newsletter was actually getting read, or simply deleted.

My experiment yielded the following information.

1. People did email me, asking when the party was, and confirming their intentions to be there.

2. A lot of folks read my whole newsletter. Many read it several times, looking for the party date.

3. Several hundred people who had no intention of going to my party politely pointed out that I'm a bonehead for forgetting to mention the party date.

Which goes back to one of the basics of marketing. If you're going to provide information, don't make people hunt for it. Provide it all in one place.

Still, replying to everyone who emailed me is good public relations, and now I have a better idea of how much beer I need to buy for the party (a lot).

In my next newsletter, I'll be more direct.

I'm also going to provide a link to generic vi*gra for only $1.99 a dose.

And as for the booklaunch party, it's June 18, noon until 2pm.

But I'm not saying where.

Friday, May 27, 2005


Many months ago, I pitched an idea to my publisher.

I did over a hundred 'drive-by' signings last year. I'd drop in a bookstore unannounced, meet the booksellers, and sign any copies of Whiskey Sour that they had on the shelves.

I met a lot of bookstore employees, and I'm pretty sure the books I signed and branded with the "Autographed Copy" sticker eventually sold, but all in all it wasn't the best use of my time and money. With gas prices today, driving a hundred miles to sign three copies of a book is a tad counter-productive.

Enthusiasm and idealism trump logic for first-time authors.

For Bloody Mary, I considered my alternatives.

I've often seen books at stores that were pre-signed by the author. The industry calls them tip sheets. An author gets a big stack of blank book pages, or a bunch of stickers, and these are placed in the books and shipped to the stores.

Collectors don't like them, because the author never handled the actual book. I'm not a huge fan of them either. I like the book to be signed on the title page, and the tip sheets are usually inserted at the very beginning, sometimes even using a different type of paper. It looks like the book was assembled, if that makes any sense.

So I asked Hyperion if, on my dime, I could visit the distibutor and sign books there.

A distributor is a company that warehouses books and ships orders to bookstores. Large publishers have their own distributors. There are also independent distributors like Ingram and Baker & Taylor. Distributors are essential to the publishing business. Even a small print run of five thousand copies takes up a lot of space.

Here's a way to visualize it. Ten copies of a hardcover fit into a box the size of a case of beer (and I'm sure all my readers can picture that.) Imagine 500 cartons of beer in your house.

Besides being a pleasant image, it's also a crowded one. Many rooms would be filled, floor to ceiling, with boxes.

Now picture a 20,000 print run (2000 cases of beer). Or a 100,000 print run (10,000 cases of beer).

Most publishers have multiple authors, and multiple books in print. Where can they store all of these books, and who will fulfill the orders?

Hence the distributor.

I thought I could use this central hub of activity as an advantage, and asked my publisher if I could visit the nearest warehouse.

A few months pass. Then my editor gets in touch and I can, in fact, visit the distributor.

Which I did, yesterday.

The Time Warner warehouse is located in Lebanon Indiana, three hours away from my house (three and a half hours when you get pulled over for going 80mph in a 55 zone). I got a warm welcome, met several of the wonderful (and highly efficient) staff, and spent four and a half hours signing 3000 copies of Bloody Mary.

I'm proud to say I used up every bit of ink in a new ballpoint pen.

The books were placed in boxes that had "Signed Copies" printed on the sides. We filled three large pallets worth, and spent much of the time singing classic rock songs. Well, I spent much of the time singing. The staff spent much of the time giggling at me--though they did join in when I broke into "Baby Got Back" by Sir Mix-A-Lot.

After the signing, I was treated to a tour of the warehouse.

It was big.

How big was it? Over a million square feet. Remember the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the government flunky pushes the boxed Ark into a massive warehouse, stretching back as far as the eye can see?

This was bigger. And this wasn't a matte painting.

I was awed when I looked down a single row, which stretched back hundreds of meters, crammed with floor-to-fifty-foot ceiling stacks of books... and that was just The DaVinci Code aisle.

The place ran like clockwork. With less than two hundred employees, they shipped 500,000 books that day.

Orders came in, boxes were put on a Dr. Seussish conveyor-belt network that looked like a giant roller coaster, while human beings, assisted by computers, filled and dispatched thousands upon thousands of orders, from a fifty box shipment of The Lovely Bones to Barnes and Noble, to a seven book shipment of different titles to a small indie in Colorado.

I was greatly impressed, and the admiration turned to glee when I saw more than a few copies of Whiskey Sour being shuttled around.

Then came the shocker. The warehouse shipped 97 million books last year. And 20 million were returned.

Many of the returns were remaindered (which an author doesn't earn a dime on). Many were pulped. A giant grinding machine shredded books by the hundred.

I knew about remainders, and about stripped paperbacks that were thrown away by the bookstore. But I didn't have a clue about how many books are literally recycled.

Answer: lots.

That took a little wind out of my sails. With the staff, I'd made jokes about putting remainder stickers directly on the copies I was signing, to save time and shipping costs.

The jokes didn't seem very funny anymore.

The VP proudly exclaimed that the pulping machine paid for itself in the recycled paper it produced.

It produced a lot of paper.

Which reminds me... I better get back to work. I'm sure there's some self-promotion I need to be doing.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Views on Reviews

Everyone in the publishing business realizes the important of reviews.

A review is part advertisement, part endorsement. Studies have shown that even the bad ones are useful in boosting sales. That's why publicists, and authors, spend much of their time and money getting books into the hands of those who review.

Internet reviews are thriving. In the mystery field, a good review or mention on websites (www.booksnbytes.com), listservs (www.dorothyl.com), newsgroups (news:rec.arts.mystery), and even blogs (www.sarahweinman.blogspot.com) can reach thousands of fans, and these are fans who buy books. Unlike newspapers or magazines, the World Wide Web allows people to respond, interact, and debate.

A print review will run for a day. An Internet review can circulate forever.

The downside is that amateur reviews are written by amateurs, and sometimes give away spoilers, or fail to convey any plot points whatsoever, or have grammar or spelling or coherency problems.

Sometimes there's even doubt that the reviewer has read the book at all.

There's a certain Internet reviewer named Harriet Klausner who has somehow managed to review every single book released in the past five years. I don't know anyone who has actually met Harriet. Perhaps it's because, like Shakespeare, she's actually a dozen people working in tandem (one of which is the Earl of Sandwich). Or perhaps it's because she's hooked up to a feeding tube and IV, never able to leave her bed due to reading and reviewing thirty books a day.

Though Harriet's reviews rarely amount to anything more than a brief retelling of the plot and a generic comment about how good it was (she never pans a book), I've seen her name and comments on actual book jackets, and I've heard that many publishers send her galleys.

The line between amateur and professional has become very blurred.

Professional reviewers have (or should have) a certain level of writing ability, some professional standards, and a realization that their opinion is only a part of what constitutes a review.

For the time being, the professional reviews dominate the public mindset, and these tend to be the ones that get into print. What did the Times say? Does Publishers Weekly like it? Can we salvage anything quotable from that Kirkus review?

The print reviewers were (mostly) kind to Whiskey Sour, and I was able to cull some good quotes for the paperback edition. I've been keeping my fingers crossed for Bloody Mary, because everyone has told me that reviewers are traditionally harder on the second novel.

The finger-crossing paid off, because I just received a good review in Kirkus for Bloody Mary. But my excitement was short-lived, because there is absolutely nothing I can quote from the review.

While being very complimentary of my book, the way the review has been written makes it impossible to crop out a sentence or liberate a phrase for use in my promotional material. The reviewer seemed to enjoy it, but never came right out and said that.

For example, "Jack and her partner, Det. Herb Benedict, have him in their sights, and that's when the fun really begins."

Obviously the compliment is "the fun really begins," inferring that the book is fun, but they didn't come out and say, "the book is fun."

Another line, later on, is, "Konrath keeps the proceedings moving so briskly that you may not even notice how many corpses are piling up--over a dozen, with plenty more in the backstory."

Again, there's a reference to "briskly moving," but worded in a way that's very hard to extract. Plus, the entire sentence draws attention to the violence in the book, which I wouldn't exactly call a selling point. Nor would I entirely agree with it (I would swear I killed less than a dozen people...)

A friend of mine is a genius (read: shameless) when it comes to paraphrasing reviews. He once took the quote "Astonishingly bad!" from the London Times and trimmed it to, "Astonishing..." - The London Times.

It made his cover.

I don't think I'll ever be that brazen. But talk to me again in ten years.

I have another friend who had a review so bad all he could cull was, "the book had... characters... a plot."

That one didn't make the cover. You win some, you lose some.

Ultimately, not being able to quote Kirkus isn't a big deal. The libraries and bookstores that read Kirkus will get the point, and hopefully be swayed enough to stock my book.

In the meantime, I'm waiting, scissors in hand, for more reviews. They can even be from amateurs with spoilers and spelling mistakes and coherency problems.

As Oscar Wilde said, "It's better to be talked about, than not talked about."

But I'm paraphrasing there...

Monday, May 23, 2005

Judging a Book by its Cover

I recently found out that WHISKEY SOUR has been nominated for two Anthony Awards, Best First Novel and Best Cover Art. (www.bouchercon.net for info)

I feel excited, happy, humbled, and lucky, considering all of the great debuts released in 2004.

I also would like everyone to know that I deserve all of the credit for the Best Cover Art nomination. I gave my publisher a precise, detailed description of what I wanted my cover to look like, which they ignored. Had they gone with my suggestions, I'm pretty sure WHISKEY SOUR would have never gotten on the ballot.

Writers think about their cover art more than they're willing to admit. Usually a writer will have a clear idea of the image, color, and style they'd like. They're quick to point out the shortcomings they perceive in the artwork, and I've seen writer friends blame poor sales on the cover.

In fact, I've seen writer friends blame gambling debts, misfortune with the opposite sex, car accidents, and bad weather on their book covers.

Blameless, we writers be, and quick to point fingers.

Like my peers, I also felt I knew the elements of a successful cover. When Hyperion bought WHISKEY SOUR, I told them my high-concept, surefire cover idea. Since the plot featured a serial killer sending handwritten notes to the police, the perfect dustjacket should be black, like a chalkboard, with the title done in white handwritten letters, like chalk.

I even made a mock-up of the cover using Photoshop, a computer program that can fool the average Joe into thinking he has artistic ability. The dark, noirish jpeg I'd created was a study in minimalism, and from any distance farther that eighteen inches it looked like there wasn't a book on the shelf at all, rather an empty, shadowy space.

Hyperion chose to pass on my concept. Their cover was electric orange with bold yellow and green lettering. Playful, rather than scary. And bright. Very bright.

How bright is the cover?

Joggers have begun taping the book to their sweatpants to avoid getting sideswiped at night.

At several signings, folks have asked me how to change the batteries.

It can be seen from orbit.

As I said, it's bright.

It's also inviting, attractive, and seems to say, "Pick me up, I'm a fast, fun read." Which, hindsight being 20/20, is a pretty good thing for a cover to do.

I'm eternally grateful to my publisher for knowing better, and I'm wondering what other things they've also been right about. They seem to really know what they're doing.

Maybe I should listen a little more, and trust a little more.

Maybe all writers should.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The value of self-promotion

I had dinner with some fellow writers over the weekend, and we wound up talking about self-promotion.

One of the writers, who has won some prestigious awards and has much higher print runs than I do, doesn't see the benefits of doing writing conventions.

His logic is sound. He spends a few hundred dollars flying to another state, a few hundred staying at a hotel, and a few hundred on convention fees and food, and appears on a single panel where he speaks to sixty people. He's away from his family, doesn't write during those days, and by convention's end has only sold a few copies of his books.

His opinion extends to touring as well. It's very difficult to break even on tour, let alone make money. Here's some quick math:

An author earns about $3.00 for each hardcover sold, and 60 cents for each paperback. A publisher earns about the same, after the author, bookstore, distributor, printer, advertisers, and shipping folks are all paid.

Flying an author into a city, putting him up in a hotel, paying for an escort to cart him around, and paying the bookstore co-op money to advertise the event, can run anywhere from $300 to $3000 each destination.

That means an author would have to sell anywhere from a hundred to a thousand books at each stop, just to break even.

Not an easy feat, even for bestsellers.

Even local signings that the author drives to can fail to earn out. If the bookstore takes $50 in co-op from the publisher to advertise the event, the author has to sell sixteen hardcovers to break even. Add in the cost of gas, the time involved, and the fact that the average signing yields only a handful of sales, and I can understand this author's aversion to public appearances.

But I still believe he's wrong.

While the return on investment may not look good on paper, it doesn't take into account the intangibles.

At a convention, it isn't just about selling books. It's about building a brand. Getting your name out there. Becoming known in this industry. I might only sell ten books at a convention or a signing, but I'll meet hundreds of people. Fans. Booksellers. Media folks. Librarians. Each of them has a mouth, and may talk about me afterward, or help my career somehow.

I spent a lot of time and money going to events and doing signings. Still do. But something interesting has happened. Last year, I went to libraries and bookstores and conventions and begged for a chance to speak. This year, half of the events that I'm doing are the result of people approaching me. I'm doing more appearances than ever, and they're falling into my lap.

Will this translate into sales? My publisher seems happy with the effort I'm making, and my sell-through is better than average. I also feel good that I'm doing something to help my career other than crossing my fingers and hoping.

The author saw my point, and will be doing some touring and some conventions this year.

Not that he needs the sales, the successful bastard...

Monday, May 16, 2005

About Publishers

Though I'm still considered a new author, my outgoing personality (i.e. big mouth) has helped me meet a lot of professional writers. I know several hundred, and count a few dozen among my friends.

Many of them sing the same refrain: they're unhappy with their publishers. They recite similar woes--- not enough money, not enough marketing, not enough enthusiasm in-house, not enough whatever.

Rather than comment on if their complaints are justified, I wonder what these authors are doing FOR their publishers, other than giving them a book. Relationships are give and take. So I ask this to all writers:

What have you done for your publisher lately?

On that note, I recently got back from my annual meeting with Brilliance Audio, my audiobook publisher.

I love Brilliance. Not only do they put out a top-notch product, they also lead the industry in technology and innovation, have a wonderful staff, and run their business the way all publishers should; by caring about their artists, keeping meticulous control over sales and inventory, and spearheading trends while actively striving to improve.

As with WHISKEY SOUR, BLOODY MARY was performed rather than read, with male and female voice actors (Audie winners Dick Hill and Susie Breck) playing each part in dialect. I got to play the character of a sleazy agent, and it was a joy being in the sound booth with these pros.

I also gave Brilliance the rights to a short story, which they tagged onto the audiobook as an extra. I read this as well, and am proud to say I knocked out 6000 words in under half an hour.

Just like last year, the president of the company invited me to dinner, and put me up for the night in a hotel room (thanks Eileen!)

I sat in on a sales meeting (I brought the staff bagels), hung out with the voice actors and the tech folks, got to tour their factory (Brilliance does all the manufacturing in-house), and brought my editor a plant. I was touched to see the plant I'd bought her last year still in her office.

The point?

When my agent sold the audio rights, I made an effort to contact the company and express my gratitude. This led to an invitation to watch the recording process. So I drove out there, spent some time getting to know the staff, and gave the company a free short story to add to the audiobook, which I read.

I brought food and gifts and was gracious and thankful to everyone I met (not hard to do--they're a wonderful group of people).

Our business relationship could have been conducted entirely through my agent. But we each made an effort, and a mutual admiration blossomed.

Ultimately, though, isn't it all about money?

Absolutely. And I can honestly state that I'll do whatever I can to help Brilliance make money from my work. That means when I do signings, I make sure the bookstore has the audio versions. I have a section on my website devoted to Brilliance, along with excerpts from the audiobooks. I talk about how good the audio versions are (and they're damn good) when I do author appearances, events, and conferences.

I actually feel a sense of loyalty towards Brilliance (and to Hyperion, my print publisher, with whom I've made a similar effort.)

Am I being naive? Time will tell.

But when I speak with other authors, who think of their publishers in terms of a paycheck, and I can't help but wonder if my approach is better...

Sunday, May 15, 2005


I know a lot of writers, and in private, after a few cocktails, they all admit the same thing:

They watch their Amazon listings.

It's a maddening thing to watch your Amazon Sales Rank go up and down and down and down, sometimes on an hourly basis.

Even more ulcer-inducing is when a thoughtful reader decides to bash your book with a hatred so intense I can't help but wonder if I'd done something horrible to them in a previous life, such as murdered their spouse or interrupted them while they were watching Jerry Springer.

Oddly enough, many of these readers didn't even buy my book---they checked it out at the library. The experience was obviously so traumatic that they took up the noble cause of protecting potential buyers from wasting their hard-earned money by posting these warnings on Amazon, because we all know that once we see a bad Amazon review, there's NO WAY we'd ever order THAT book, no sir.

But, in deference to these guardians of moral outrage, I too have once posted a bad Amazon review.

After waiting 13 years for the sequel to Silence of the Lambs (which I loved), I was one of those crazy folks in line at 7AM the day that Hannibal was released. And I didn't like it. I really didn't like it. So I posted a negative Amazon review. And as you all well know, my negative review immediately stopped everyone from buying Hannibal, and the book only sold about a dozen copies all around the world thanks to my bitter rant, and Thomas Harris is now living a pauper's existence, unable to find work.

Since then I've continued to review books, but I only review the ones that I like. I figure life is too short to be negative.

Since then I've also gotten reviews that made my review of Hannibal seem quaint by comparison.

Karma is a bitch.

But bad reviews don't bother me at all. Everyone has an opinion, and all opinions are valid. Bad press is better than no press at all, and I'm happy to be read, even if the reader hated every word.

So I would like to publicly thank everyone who has reviewed me, both good and bad, and hope that you'll continue to do so to see if I get better or worse with each successive book.

PS - Don't buy Hannibal, it sucks.

Website Relaunch

Okay, so I've finally finished revamping my homepage, JAKonrath.com, and though it still needs some tweaking, I'm happy with the look and the navigation.

I added MUCHO content. Besides more tips for new writers, I've added a ton of info on marketing and self-promotion for published writers. I've also added more stories, articles, pictures, downloads, and a free e-book.

The e-book is a technothriller that I wrote pre-Jack Daniels series. It's available in a few different formats, and yours for the reasonable price of zero dollars.

Is this a dumb idea, giving away a free book? I dunno. Might be. We'll see what the future holds...