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Cognitive Theory For Breakfast

Why do we read fiction? Why do we care so passionately about nonexistent characters? And what underlying mental processes are activated when we read?  Professor Lisa Zunshine, Bush-Holbrook professor of English at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, aims to answer fundamental questions such as these: she’s at the forefront of this pioneering and cross-disciplinary fusion of cognitive science and literature… and she’s one of our two special guests tonight.

Another pioneer in quite a different field is bestselling author J. A. Konrath.  He’s blazing a trail doing what many publishers can only dream of – actually making serious money by selling eBooks.  After five hundred rejections for nine unpublished novels, his tenth book, Whiskey Sour, was picked up by Hyperion in 2003.  But that was just the beginning for Joe – he now makes over $100,000 a year from his Kindle sales alone.  And this evening, Joe has a radical message for publishers and authors everywhere – ignore it at your peril!

Our regular panellists Eve Harvey and  Donna Ballman complete an internationally stellar line-up for you… and not forgetting Lord Bare’s bulletin’s from a so-sharp-they-might-cut-themselves chatroom… it’s a classic show!


Other topics on tonight’s show include:

  • Brain training games can make you smart… at playing brain training games
  • Four men have set sail in the South Pacific in a bid to recreate the 4,350 mile epic voyage of Captain William Bligh – why?
  • Why did 30-year old Colin Furze spent a month converting his motor scooter?
  • Let’s do our very own Litopian Bond movie
  • Can the iPad topple the Kindle?

This week’s titles for the Commissioning Meeting are:

“The Confessions of Artemas Quibble”
Arthur Cheney Train, 1875-1945

“The Canadian Elocutionist”
Anna Kelsey Howard

“The Cult of Incompetence”
Émile Faguet, 1847-1916

“A Collection of Scotch Proverbs”
Pappity Stampoy

If you liked this show, please take this time to ReTweet it using Twitter (see the ReTweet button underneath) and share it with others. You may also want to follow us to stay up to date with all our shows. And please feel free to leave your comments below!

Photo by h.koppdelaney

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The following is a partial transcript of this week’s show – the topic under discussion is whether the iPad can topple the Kindle.  Joe Konrath is talking frankly about his own experiences both as a traditionally-published author, and as an independent publisher issuing his works on the Kindle.

Joe Konrath: We’re going to reach a tipping point where there are so many people using eReaders and buying digital content that publishers no longer will be able to sustain the midlist. Publishers very much these days are operating on credit. They extend bookstores’ credit, the booksellers can then return books for full credit and then get more new product on the shelves, and that’s only sustainable if they have a certain sell-through, and the sell-through now, believe it or not, is 50%.

Sell-through means, for every two books published, if one sells and the other is destroyed, the publisher considers that acceptable.

Peter Cox: All right.

Joe Konrath: That’s not a very good business model. Imagine if a car company did that. They make two cars, they only sell one of them. “Oh no probs! We’re still OK!”


Peter Cox: Are you talking about Toyota aren’t you?

Joe Konrath: Yeah, well… They’re going to make two cars and those cars are just going to take off, and you’re not going to be able to stop them apparently once they do take off.


Joe Konrath: But in order for publishers to be able to survive with that sell-through model, they have to have a certain number of books in print because, naturally, the more books you print, the more the prices go down on the books. It’s much cheaper to print a million books than it is 100,000 books ten times because longer print runs mean smaller costs.

Well, once eBooks take up about 25% of the market–I’ve seen this said on the interwebs–publishers aren’t going to be able to sustain a midlist. They’re not going to be able to publish these books that take up the majority of the book space, the shelves in a bookstore.

Once they do that, they’re going to be cash-broke. They’re going to need to call in all the credit from the bookstores. The bookstores aren’t going to be able to pay them because their numbers are going down every year. And we’re going to have a really big crash.

Peter Cox: I guess that, in a way, that’s inevitable. But let’s just talk about the big picture for a moment. And staying with you, Joe. I mean, you’ve got three enormous players here. You’ve got Google, of course, who’ve already got their toes in the water with Google Books again and other things, too, and then you’ve got Amazon, and you’ve got Apple.

Now none of them really are natural friends to publishing, and yet when the iPad was first launched, publishers were calling it the ‘Jesus tablet’ because they thought it was going to save the business. Do you think they’re being hopelessly naive?

Joe Konrath: Apple has helped publishers fall on their own swords. It’s quite alarming when the whole Macmillan-Amazon battle came to light. How many authors and publishers and agents cheered Macmillan?

Peter Cox: Yeah.

Joe Konrath: Well, what was Macmillan actually doing? They were telling Amazon, “We want to control both the wholesale and the retail price.” First of all, what other business does that?

Let’s use the car industry as an example. Imagine going to your Saab dealership and every car in there was a price set by the manufacturer rather than the dealer. That’s ludicrous! A retailer should be able to set whatever price they want to, including adding sales that are lost leads, which Amazon was doing with eBooks.

When Amazon first started acquiring eBooks for their Kindle, authors and publishers were making a significant higher amount of profits than they are now that Amazon has acceded to their demands for the agency model.

In other words, I had a book on Kindle that was 10 bucks, and my publisher, because the agency model kicked it up and now I’m going to sell fewer copies because it’s more expensive, and I’m going to make less money per copy.

Peter Cox: We want to get into this in a moment, actually, with your own topic, Joe. For the moment, let’s go to Jeff in the chatroom.

Jeff: Well if I could, I just want to go back to the Bond-Litopia movie. Two quick comments there.


Jeff: Kat figured Eve would be a model Bond girl and Suman said that Donna would be a method actress. And personally I think they both would be knockouts on the big screen.


Peter Cox: That’s very diplomatic of you, Jeff.

Jeff: OK, on to this topic. Pinco says, “So the novel is dead again.” And Thomas Tyler said, “The ‘Alice in Wonderland’ book for the iPad looked pretty amazing. Wonderful animations like a modern-day pop-up book.”

Cindy Lou said, “But people still have to pay out the initial $200 to $300 to buy the instrument to read it.” I think that’s a lot more daunting than they are giving credit to. And Pinco said, “There will be real kudos being published on paper in this bright future.” And Thomas Tyler says, “I was going to purchase a book by an obscure British author. It was $30, hardcover, $80 in Kindle format. Hard to ignore the price difference.”

Peter Cox: Yeah, good points. Now, Joe, your topic is so closely intertwined, I think we could just sort of see again to it really. Could you  just tell us a little bit about your own experience of pricing? Because you’re a person, as you had told us earlier, who has got a foot in both camps. Let’s just go back a little bit and learn something about your publishing history. You were first published, weren’t you, conventionally? I think it was by…was it Hachette?

Joe Konrath: Hyperion.

Peter Cox: OK. And what happened after that?

Joe Konrath: Well, after…you mentioned earlier, after 500 rejections, after struggling for 12 years to get published, after 10 novels that did not sell, I landed a three-book deal with Hyperion for my Jack Daniel series.

And I was lucky enough that that deal allowed me to write full-time. So I was able to become a full-time writer. And I devoted myself to doing whatever I could in order to sell as many books as possible. That meant doing a lot of touring, it meant having a web presence. And if you have a web presence, people are looking for content on the worldwide web, and content is broken down into two things: information and entertainment. That’s what surfers want.

On the information end, I gave them a blog called “A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing” where I’ve been blogging now for five years entirely about my publishing experience. And on the entertainment aspect, on my website, I listed several of the books that my agent could not sell, several of my unpublished books, for free, as eBooks.

Peter Cox: Right. Now just to explain, you’ve actually been very open, more open than most authors are, about transactions, about money, about prices and things, haven’t you? I mean, has that hurt you at all?

Joe Konrath: Well, who cares if it hurts or not? Somebody needs to tell the truth.


Joe Konrath: Everybody is so secretive in this silly business. I don’t know if–people have called me ‘Chicken Little’ saying the sky is falling, they’ve called me ‘Cassandra’. I’m sure a lot of publishers, a lot of editors, a lot of agents completely resent me being so open about this. But the times are changing and somebody needs to show the world that the times are changing. And why not me?

Peter Cox: Absolutely. All right. So hit us with some figures.

Joe Konrath: Well, what happened was, after allowing for free eBooks on my website for a couple of years, and the downloads were modest, a couple hundred a year, this Kindle thing was invented. And several of my readers emailed me and said, “We would love to read your books on Kindle.” Well, I looked into it, and in order for me to put my books up, I would have to charge a price for it.

Now, keep in mind, I expect these books to have no monetary value. New York didn’t want them. They were rejected. I couldn’t sell them. These were a lost lead for me. So I put them up on Kindle and I thought, ‘OK, $1.99, that’s less than a cup of coffee. Let’s see what it does.’ And in the first month, I sold over a thousand of them.

Peter Cox: Wow!


Joe Konrath: Currently, at the price of $1.99 each, I’m selling 200 eBooks a day.

Peter Cox: Well, that’s not to be sneezed at! I want to put you on hold just for a second and come to Lisa, because Lisa, you and your experiences are fascinating, really. You’re not just an expert on cognitive masses, you’re also a bit of an 18th century buff as well.

But just thinking about price, is there a price sort of sensitivity, do you think–and I’m kind of trying to connect these things up here, it may work, it may not–cognitively in the human brain whereby we value a physical book at a certain sort of price point, and something that we actually can never really see, touch, smell or hold at a quite different price point? Do you think that’s something working against the author?

Lisa Zunshine: That’s a very good question. You know what? Peter, I am not aware of any research. Actually, there doesn’t seem to be any research that would allow me to answer your question directly, but there is some sort of side evidence that something like what you described might be going on.

For example, there is really interesting research coming from Yale, from Paul Bloom, who works with our tendency to essentialize certain objects. And if we think that sometimes people tend to essentialize books, they feel there is something special about book as an object, that something about the way it was made, something about the way it was handled, especially the person to whom it used to belong, to the extent at which we would essentialize a book, we would want to pay extra, perhaps, for that physical object.

But this is a tricky argument because I don’t think it would work on a mass scale unless publishers would invent some marketing trick to make us feel that there is something essentially unique about the physical book. If they can tap into our essentialist proclivities, right, they can make it work up to some extent.

Peter Cox: That’s very, very interesting. That’s a perception that–I know quite a lot of publishers again have been listening to this. I mean, maybe that’s the big challenge that publishers face.

Eve, before we come back to Joe, is anything that Joe is saying right now has up to date frightening you, as the books are?

Eve Harvey: No. Well, yes and no. I think he’s absolutely right at the price point, that people are still weary of getting eReaders because they feel that the eBooks are too expensive. They are not. I mean, money, the two comments together from Lisa and from Joe, they feel that a virtual product should be much, much cheaper than a physical one.

Peter Cox: Which is just what Lisa was just saying, isn’t it, really?

Eve Harvey: Absolutely. That the fact that an eBook currently is a pound or two pounds cheaper than the physical book. And with the hardback, I mean, we have to explain because they’re saying a hardback is still hugely expensive in eBook format. We’re saying, “Well, you’re not exactly paying for the hardback of the book. You’re paying for the immediacy of it. The fact that it’s just out and it’s brand new.”

People just do not get that. They don’t get the fact that you have to pay a hell of a lot more for it. They want it to be, it’s not a physical product. It’s a download. Why is it so expensive? And I think this much cheaper digital format is the only way to go. It has to be so much cheaper than it is now.

Donna Ballman: You know, I think that… Well, I wouldn’t pay a hardback price for an eBook, and the reason is that the only reason that I would buy hardbacks is so that I can get them signed by the author. Authors come into town a lot here, so I buy hardbacks just in case they come into town and they happen to be at a signing that I’m going to be able to make. So that’s the only reason I would buy a hardcover.

Lisa Zunshine: And that’s–no, that’s actually about essentializing.

Donna Ballman: Yeah. Yes.

Lisa Zunshine: Because it means that that book will–there’s something special about the author, so to speak, and the book. So it will become a very special object, that physical cut. I’m sorry I interrupted you. Go ahead.

Donna Ballman: Exactly. Well, I think you’re right!

Joe Konrath: I have to say–I just need to interrupt you for a second, too. I’ve signed over a dozen Kindles.

Peter Cox: Oh, wow!


Lisa Zunshine: Wow!

Donna Ballman: Signed the actual Kindle?

Joe Konrath: I’ve signed the covers and on some I’ve actually signed the device, yes.

Peter Cox: Fantastic!

Lisa Zunshine: Wow!

Donna Ballman: Wow!

Peter Cox: Fantastic, fantastic.

Donna Ballman: Oh, that’s I guess a good way to do it. You could have a device that has a bunch of different signatures on it. That could be really something. A shame and the whole thing goes bad and you have to get a new one, huh?


Peter Cox: Jeff, what’s the wisdom of the chatroom at this point?

Jeff: Well, Thomas Tyler says, “If you buy enough books, the savings can justify the device price.” And Moses basically agrees and says, “If you’re a voracious reader, you recoup your Kindle cost before too long.” Dragoner says, “My Sony eReader was free. Credit card points turned into Borders gift cards.” And Catwake says, “I freaking love this guy!” I think she’s talking about Joe, not you, Peter.

Peter Cox: Oh!


Jeff: Pink Keller says, “He is so cool he could drink boiling water and pee iced cubes.”


Joe Konrath: You said that earlier before the show.


Jeff: You did, eh?

Joe Konrath: But it didn’t hurt.

Jeff: And Moses said, “Dedicated readers now truly buy more than their share of books and they probably tell people about books more, too.”

Peter Cox: So, Joe. I’ll have to call you ‘Joe Cool’ now, I think. This is the worrying thing, isn’t it, though? If you look at what Apple has done to the music business, their iTunes, I mean, there’s a real danger, is there, that this could happen to publishing too?

Joe Konrath: Well, that’s a danger if you’re a publisher, yes. Certainly they should be rightfully freaking out right now. And I love the publishing industry and I love print books. The publishing industry has been wonderful to me. I’ve worked with some true professionals who are some of the smartest, kindest people I’ve met in my life. I own 5,000 books in my personal library.

This is not something that I want to see end. But the publishing industry is a super tanker, and it’s cruising along at 50 knots, and it takes 18 miles to turn one of those suckers if there’s an iceberg ahead. They’re not turning in time and the iceberg’s coming.

Peter Cox: Now, you are selling at a price that’s cheaper than–I mean, by far cheaper than…

Joe Konrath: Oh, absolutely.

Peter Cox: Almost anyone else I’ve ever come across, actually. Have you found, and again this is market research information though, publishers would willingly pay tens of thousands of dollars for a device. They listen to us again they get it for free, no doubt, have you found that the price is sensitive? In other words, the lower you drop the price, the more you sell?

Joe Konrath: I’ve found that between $.99 and $3, you’re going to sell significantly more than anything over $5. And what do I mean by ‘significant’? Hachette and Headline Books in the U.K. released my novel “Afraid”, which is a horror book. It’s very much like Stephen King on steroids. I wrote it under the name Jack Kilborn.

During the first month, I talked to my publishers, and we decided as an introductory price to release that as an eBook on Kindle for $1.99 to mimic what I was doing with my other books, my self-published book. It sold 10,000 copies in a month.

Since then, in the 12 months since it was introduced, it went up to normal price and has sold 3,000 copies since that time. Imagine if it had been $1.99 all of these last 13 months, I can have over 100,000 sales on that one alone. I’m going to be making 100 grand a year on books that New York rejected. Don’t you think–

Peter Cox: Well, that’s–

Joe Konrath: There’s something wrong–

Peter Cox: I don’t know that there’s something wrong. I think it’s something amazing that, you know–

Donna Ballman: So how are you marketing them? I mean, what are you doing to–

Joe Konrath: I’m not marketing at all. There’s no marketing.

Donna Ballman: You’re not doing anything, so–but, but–

Joe Konrath: No!


Donna Ballman: So aren’t people… I mean, a lot of us are thinking that, OK, maybe people are just going on your name because you are a well-known author and so people–

Joe Konrath: They’re not.

Lisa Zunshine: –might just be searching for your name, but now you said you published one under a pseudonym, so that pseudonym had nothing previously published?

Joe Konrath: It’s price. That pseudonym had nothing previously published. That was a first book, debut by Jack Kilborn. “Afraid”! Still in bookstores.

I just interviewed somebody on my blog named Karen McQuestion. Karen has sold 30,000 eBooks since last July. So she’s selling at a better rate than I am. She doesn’t have an agent, she has never had a book in print. She is a complete newbie to this entire business. And she is selling extremely well.

She is one of dozens of eBook authors I can mention who have had no track record, who have no brand, who have no name recognition, who are selling well simply because they are doing four things correctly.

Donna Ballman: And what are those four things?


Donna Ballman: I’m getting ready to upload one of my old reject books right now.

Eve Harvey: That’s sad! Just I’m going mentally going through mine, “OK, what have I got? What have I got?”

Joe Konrath: Well, I have to pause a second to pee on some ice cubes.


Joe Konrath: But the four things are actually pretty simple because they carry over to print as well.

Have a professionally done, eye-catching cover. This is extremely important on the internet and on eReading devices when it’s often reduced to the size of a posted stamp. It should pop. It should be colorful. You should be able to clearly read the author’s name and the book title on it. And it should draw your eye. It should be interesting.

Have a well-done product description. And a product description is the same thing that’s on the back of paperbacks or the inner jacket copy of hardcovers.

Have a well-written book. Well, that should go without saying. On all eReading devices, you could download a sample first. If your first chapter doesn’t hook, the reader instantly, why is anybody going to buy it?

And the last, of course, is the most important of all: have it cheap.

Right now, there is a best seller list on Amazon for police procedurals, and those are crime novels. That’s the genre I write in. There is a list of the top hundred books in the police procedural category. Number one is me. I’m beating out James Patterson, J.D. Robb, Robert Crais. I’m beating out just about every big-name author out there. Huge best sellers with huge fan bases, and huge name recognition. But I’m not just doing that once. Currently, 11 books out of the hundred are J.A. Konrath books. Why? Because of price.

Donna Ballman: Well, so how are people finding you? I mean, aren’t there a zillion of these books getting uploaded?

Eve Harvey: Well, if you’re in the top, then you’re going to be the ones people come across so, if you see that thing as opposed to–

Donna Ballman: But if you upload a book under a pseudonym and it’s just sitting there, how do people find it?

Joe Konrath: Well, people browse. How do people find books in bookstores? Eve was talking earlier about how much she recommends books to people. People do that on the internet all the time. You can Google my name and you see it all over the place. People are saying, “Read this. Read that.”

I’ve got more reviews–my number one eBook on Kindle right now is “The List”. That’s sold about 15,000 copies in the past year. That’s quite a few for a book with no promotion, no publisher behind them. A book that was rejected, by the way. I’ve gotten more reviews on “The List” than I got for some of my print published books that had huge houses and huge marketing dollars behind them. People are finding them.

Peter Cox: That’s extraordinary. Joe, I want to ask you one final question because, you know, we would have time we’d be glad to have you back because you’re a fountain of knowledge, apart from the fact that you do urinate ice cubes.


Peter Cox: What do you think is the thing, the one factor, there’s a factor, that’s holding back the eBook market at the moment? Because when you look at it, all kinds of numbers being banded around, but in real terms, most publishers tell me, though eBooks sell, they represent only 1 or 2% of total sales. Is it the price of the eReader itself?

Joe Konrath: It is the price of the eReader itself and it is the artificial price that publishers are putting on eBooks. Publishers don’t want eBooks to succeed. They’re making their money on print. And I have shown time and again, and I’ve been experimenting this for a long time now, people want to pay less for eBooks.

And publishers love to talk about value. They love to say–it’s such a noble statement to say, “You know what, we don’t want to devalue our authors, devalue our books by setting a low price.” Well, shouldn’t value be not about cover price? Shouldn’t it be about how much damn money the book makes? If I’m going to make $140,000 this year on eBooks, I would call those pretty valuable. And I’m selling them for two bucks each.

Peter Cox: That’s fantastic. Good! Thank you very much, Joe.

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