Out of print
These visionary authors and publishers are turning the page on paper to deliver their work digitally.
“People that bemoan the death of print, they didn’t have to deal with half the shit I did,” says Dan Sinker, founding editor of the celebrated (and defunct) Chicago-based zine Punk Planet. “The speed with which things move in [zines] is just painful, and it’s even slower with books.”
Now a mobile and online journalism professor at Columbia College, Sinker is embracing his departure from print media. His latest project, CellStories.net, requires zero office space and runs on a staff of one. Five days a week, Sinker posts a single, commute-length story on the site (usually between 1,000 and 2,000 words), accessible only by Internet-enabled mobile devices and gleaned from content partners and from a large pool of reader submissions. Each story unfolds over one long, scrollable page, free to access and capped by two buttons: Shelf, an archive, and Share, which enables readers to discuss the works in online venues such as Twitter.
CellStories has a robust international audience, with readers as far afield as Australia and South Africa, and a local one, born in part of Sinker’s use of content providers such as the Chicago reading series 2nd Story, which is featured on his site every Tuesday. The series’ fiction, written to be told over the din of Chicago bars, is a natural fit for CellStories, says 2nd Story literary director Megan Stielstra. She was the author of the inaugural cell story, a blood-soaked celebration of paternal love whose title, Shot to the Lungs and No Breath Left, hints at the kind of propulsive content Sinker is looking to provide. “[CellStories] is really trying to tackle how technology is changing things, but at the heart of it, it’s about what’s a good story,” Stielstra says. Despite 2nd Story’s emphasis on face-to-face interaction in storytelling, she embraces the addition of new, electronic forms. “That’s not something to kill a book,” she says, “that’s something to add to it.”
Joe Konrath, known to fans as J.A. Konrath, is a Schaumburg-based writer whose best-known literary creation is hard-ass Chicago cop Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels, a noir-style straight woman with a touch of slapstick. He’s finding novel writing in the age of e-books to be anything but a dying art. “Are you kidding me? I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” he says, giving a quick rundown of the ways the Kindle has helped pay his mortgage. (In fact, Amazon’s publishing imprint, AmazonEncore, just announced it will release Shaken, the latest in the Daniels series, in the Kindle Store in October, with the print version slated for a February release.)
Which isn’t to say the writer hasn’t paid his dues. Konrath spent more than a decade as an unpublished author before seeing his first print novel released in 2004 by Hyperion. From the start, he maintained open communication with readers through his blog; on their suggestion, he began making his books available on the Kindle in April 2009.
He’d been offering his early, unpublished works for free on his site, but Amazon requires independent Kindle authors to charge for their books. Konrath priced his books at $1.99 per download, “the same as a cup of coffee.” It turns out the low-cost/high-volume model of pancake houses across America works well for thrillers, too: He continually finds himself on Amazon’s best-selling police procedurals list, outpacing even genre behemoth James Patterson.
Konrath now sells his books for devices including the Nook and iPad, too. His most recent print publication, 2009’s Afraid, netted him about $30,000. He estimates that selling 800 digital books per month will earn him the same amount in just a year and a half—and he’s sold as many as 2,500 copies of a single e-book in a month. To maintain professional standards, he has his works vetted by writer friends and proofed by readers willing to be paid in immortality (he names characters after them, “and then I kill them off”). Konrath believes that potential readership is limitless and will expand to absorb whatever surfeit of novels the new, democratizing model can provide. “Automatically you think every yahoo who can string two words together is gonna think they’re a novelist,” he says. “Well, let them! Novels aren’t in competition with each other!”
He has no qualms about underselling his work and finds the concept of Kindle’s $9.99 target price ridiculous. “What’s the true value of a book? Is it the cover price or is it [how much money] the book makes?” Konrath says. Opting to make his books into nearly painless impulse buys emphasizes his bottom line: “Ultimately, you write because you want to be read. The value of a book is how many people read and enjoy it.”
This argument may not fly, however, in the world of academic books. Carol Kasper, marketing director at the University of Chicago Press, deals in books that are often the result of years of scholarly research, but which have a limited press run directed at the shelves of research libraries and academics. Through an e-books program launched in June 2009, the press makes one book available each month for free downloading and rents out its other titles at a discount rate—half of the cover price for six-month use, $5 for 30 days—but e-books for unlimited use are sold at their print price. “Because we’re publishing scholarly stuff, the consideration is that it is premium content. Why should it cost less than a cloth book?” Kasper says. She adds that print and shipping savings are swallowed up by the cost of PDFing each page of the print books, maintaining the press’s digital infrastructure, and supporting the additional employee hours devoted to running the e-books program.
Though today only a sliver—about one percent—of the press’s sales comes from e-books (the 30-day “rental” books, beloved by students, are its best sellers), the university is using its digitized offerings to groom a future generation of e-savvy readers. Kasper anticipates a day when the press’s digital infrastructure will support increasing demand for paperless options. “The ones that are free are for marketing purposes,” Kasper says. “It’s meant to get people used to looking at an e-book.” A recent tongue-in-cheek freebie was Piracy, by University of Chicago faculty member Adrian Johns, an examination of intellectual-property concerns from the invention of the printing press to today. Though the title boasted more than 2,000 free downloads, Kasper says, “Believe me, it didn’t hurt the sale of the book.”
The common threads running through these digital ventures are the lack of ink-and-paper nostalgia and the feeling that the full potential of online story forms is still thrillingly underexplored. “You can see [print media] as a golden age that’s over, which is bullshit, or you can run full speed ahead into the new world,” Sinker says. Otherwise, “You’re just stuck. You’re done. What’s the point of being done?”