Archive for February, 2011

Whispering “Konrath”

Only months ago and with what a genteel observer would call “some trepidation,” I ferrried over that garish, scary river into the world of independent publishing.  I had no idea the landscape on the other side would turn out to be the equivalent of Dr. Parnassus’ Imaginarium, a magical free-for-all that is my idea of The Best Place To Be.  It feels like the secret home of my chimerical, loner brain.  I get to do things on my terms whether they work or not, and I love it!  And at this point I feel that an acknowledgement of indie publishing’s keen-eyed, voluble and traditionally bearded Charon is in order.

Every writer with whom I initially chatted about publishing my backlist on Amazon whispered the same word.  “Konrath.”  “Have you read J. A.  Konrath?”  “Joe Konrath says…”  I had no idea who or what “Konrath” was and wondered why everyone was whispering.  Whispers are silvery little flags that mark the doorways to all things interesting.  But this was just some guy who writes four books a year and blogs about arduously self-promoting his self-published books.  “There are thousands of these people selling vitamins and weight-loss programs,” I thought.  “This is not interesting.”  And yet the whispers continued.

So I got Konrath’s A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing and read it on my Kindle.  I contributed to his twenty-something million hits by reading his blogs written subsequent to the book, which is an often-repetitive collection of blogs.  And two things happened.

First, while I was appalled at his jokes and took exception to some of his opinions, there was no denying that he knew what he was talking about.  I knew he knew because through seven traditionally published novels, I’d already been there.  He leaves no stone on the floor of the writer’s world unturned, and he doesn’t pull any punches about what he sees.  Honesty is always amazing, especially when it’s backed up by evidence.

Second, and this is the weird part, something about his style felt deeply and pleasantly familiar.  Not in that, “He sounds like (name your talk show host, stand-up comic or inspirational speaker)” sense, but in something broader and more significant.  That was puzzling.

Konrath’s passion for writing puts the rest of us to shame.  He racked up over five hundred rejections but didn’t quit.  He just supported a family by waiting tables and kept writing.  When he finally landed an agent and saw his books in print, he sent seven thousand promos to libraries and toured close to six hundred bookstores in only a couple of months, signing whatever stock they had and aggressively charming customers who’d never heard of him.  On his own dime.  You have to admit, that says something about writing as a “vocation” in the original Latin meaning – “a calling.”  And I have to admit, I’m impressed.  In our time such vocational passions are not acceptable, have negative value and may be denigrated as forms of derangement.  But that didn’t stop Konrath.  It didn’t even slow him.

Now, as the paradigm-shift of e-publishing proceeds at astonishing speed, Konrath has evolved as its populist voice.  Every day he posts his own and others’ impressive eBook sales figures, and predicts the imminent end of traditional, New York-based publishing.  All evidence supports his contentions generally, and an exciting maelstrom of books, authors, reviewers, cover artists, technical specialists and interested observers swirls around the sudden freedom of everybody to publish.  I don’t think Konrath ever wanted to be the populist voice of a paradigm shift; he just wants to sell his books.  It is, however, seemingly not in his nature to just shut up and go off to a cabin in the woods somewhere and write.   Instead, he wants to pull the rest of us along with him.  And he does.

I might not have crossed that strange river in the absence of Joe Konrath’s voice.  And this is where the weird thing comes in.  Plowing through page after page of the grain elevatorNewbie’s Guide I felt the cadence of a chant as familiar as my own heartbeat.  “Keep working, never give up, always be courteous and help others when you can.”   However beamish, naïve, unrealistic and cloying on its surface, this is the chant of the heartland, of a thousand towns with a church at one end and a grain elevator at the other.   It’s the conceptual pulse of a nation, the core American identity, and in our little writer’s niche therein, Joe Konrath is its bloody archetype.  When I stumbled over the fact that he’s from Skokie, for crying out loud, it all made sense.  Of course!  I know this guy, grew up with that chant and acknowledge its resonance.  Who doesn’t, underneath the veneer?

So thanks, Joe, for not even wanting to construct the phony mask of weary-yet-sophisticated resignation behind which writers sometimes learn to hide a passion for writing.  You did good.

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Bone Blind CoverAs of today I have a new book, Bone Blind, on Amazon, its story still more a landscape of my mind than real.  Only just released, it remains entirely mine tonight, but sits all shimmering and luminous on the cusp of its future.  Other minds will soon enter that landscape, will engage with the curious spin from a murder in a candlelit room and the desperate scramble of three people to interpret, hide or succumb to its consequences.  But for the moment, on a rainy California night, Bone Blind and I are still locked in the ferociously intimate bond that exists between author and story.

We might have remained so forever.  Bone Blind is a novel my agent couldn’t sell.  “Love the writing but it’s too complicated, impossible to categorize,” editors said.  And they were right.  A mystery that’s also a near-obsessive love story and a police procedural plus not one but two little horror novels written by the protagonists, would be a nightmare to advertise, blurb and shelve in bookstores.  It’s not a horror novel; it’s about writing horror novels.  It’s not a “romance” because the romantic p.o.v. is not that of a spunky young woman, but a man who’d rather be anywhere but the mess he’s in.  Its police procedures are carried out on the sly by a detective on the eve of retirement who’s distracted by his fascination with Victorian architecture.  But it is a mystery, in the end.  And now, thanks to a technology that’s changing everything for books, and writers, Bone Blind gets to be a book!

I’m proud of it and thrilled to set it free.  When my seven other books were published there were bookstore events, positive reviews in major newspapers, speaking engagements and interviews.  There were award nominations and awards received, foreign editions, movie options and one actual movie.  But my other books were agented and handled by a large, long-established publishing house that no longer exists.  Bone Blind will have none of that massive promotional support; it will fly on its own merit and whatever amateurish help I can give it in a technological realm about which I know absolutely nothing.  This is exciting.

The world of independent digital publishing is a wild west of chaotic newness.  Throwing any American into it is like throwing Br’er Rabbit in a briar patch.   We thrive in such contexts.  So tonight I throw a new book into it and myself right behind, and anticipate having incredible amounts of fun.  Go, BB!

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A woman in my Jung study group defines herself as “an Episcopalian Buddhist,” a term to which I can relate. Zazen is not my thing; if I’m going to sit for any length of time, give me a chair with a back. But for a while I, an agnostic Anglican, fell in with a Buddhist sangha where you could lie down to meditate! I loved lying around on a soft carpet beneath the all-knowing eyes of a gigantic Buddha. Listening to myself breathe is tortuously boring so I never did come close to meditation, but nonetheless picked up a sort-of-Buddhist perspective that surfaces at times like this.

I have managed to get one book up on Amazon for Kindle!

C of S coverIt’s my first mystery, Child of Silence, long out of print but editions of it are all over the place since it went into several printings and was a book club selection. (Plus five foreign translations and a TV movie in France.) So its reincarnation as an eBook with a fantastic new cover (by DeronLeeAssociates@gmail.com) is exciting, but almost beside the point. The point is a peculiar sense of luminous calm that seems to accrue to the process. I have, with the usually-patient assistance of eBook producer Kimberly Hitchens, channeled a book into an existence that’s both insurmountably transient (As in- What happens when the entire Internet crashes?) and eerily permanent. It’s Change personified, ambiguous and hypnotic. And the Buddhist Third Noble Truth, in my proto-understanding, is that an ability to go with change is really cool.

So I’ve set my first book in Change, and will do the same for the others to which I hold the rights. Those already-published books, and new ones, will become electronic zeros and ones in a realm about which I know nothing. And so what? All I need to know is that doing this feels expansive and right. Child of Silence is now a cyber-pulse anybody can pull from the ether and transform into a familiar alphabet, its story available. Wow.

There is much discussion about real (meaning paper) books vs. e-books, these discussions involving a need to declare one’s deep attachment to real books. I admit an attachment to my grandmother’s 1890 edition of James Whitcomb Riley’s Rhymes of Childhood that is always in my bedside bookcase. Along with a hundred equally indispensable volumes. Then there’s the other upstairs bookcase and many more in the living room and my office, all double-shelved with books. I’m at the library weekly. To me, voicing a fondness for books is the equivalent of insisting that really, I do like, and am loyal to, water. “I” would not exist in the absence of either.

But unlike water, books are not physically (as in physics) definable. Books are experiential – mentally, emotionally, spiritually, all that. Riley’s words, “Aroint him the wraithest of wraithly things!” lie silently upstairs on century-old pages thick as grade-school construction paper. But those wraithest of wraithly things are no less so in Arial 12 on my pc screen, or carved in marble or written in sand. They are in my mind. And so I’m okay with any vector between words and minds.

The process necessary to the channeling of words into eBooks is, however, not very Buddhist. The process may be the antithesis of enlightenment, insisting as it does on close attention to HTML codes and Kindle’s renowned aversion to italics in headers. But this is the skeleton without which the magic would just swarm, amoebic and indecipherable, in a sloppy puddle of letters. So for the first time in my life I eagerly read techie stuff I loathed until two months ago. I learn a new vocabulary. “Metadata. Ping. Stray page breaks.” Who knew the placing of letters in space was so complicated? But it is and I’m in awe at the work of centuries of printers, typesetters, bookbinders, everybody who made books real. I guess attention to The Ten Thousand Things is necessary in order to get out of The Ten Thousand Things, as in reading a book. I’m not sure if this is a neat insight or just something everyone else has always known.

But in the end, when the metadata is hidden and the page breaks corralled, there is something that wasn’t there before – an eBook. This one is mine, but there are thousands of them, each some soul’s attempt to tell a story. I don’t know what there is, except stories. So I think maybe the doing of this, the intent of it if not necessarily its reception, is a slice of Nirvana. At least I think that today.

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