A Year of Sea Change in E-Publishing Book World

Jesse Sublett, Grave Digger Blues, Denis Johnson, crime fiction, detective fiction, hardboiled, James Ellroy, eBook, ibook, ibooks author, pulp fiction

The Blues Cat, his blues was epic, like a film noir in real time, all those hard luck songs about trains and cheap whisky, jail, no money and bad women like shrapnel from a bomb embedded in his soul.

Today at 12:30 PM I’m co-hosting the E-Book MeetUp at SXSW Interactive. What a difference a year makes. Last year I hosted the E-Books MeetUp at SXSW Interactive. I was energized and inspired.

I was so jazzed by the possibilities and opportunities of E-books that I wrote about my experience publishing to the iPad, my ROCK CRITIC MURDERS debut novel, set in Austin music scene, 25 years earlier. This app, free for download on iTunes as of January 19, 2012, enabled the author to do so much. ENABLE!!! What a beautiful word, right? You could take this app and combine your music, graphics, video and other cool media right into the digital edition of your book. I had been wanting to publish my books with music since 1987! I remember asking my publisher, Viking Penguin — Hey, can we sell my novel, ROCK CRITIC MURDERS, with a CD or cassette of original Austin blues music?? No, they said, Can’t be done. Too expensive. Logistic nightmare. Nobody wants that.

How about a crappy little flexidisk, then? NO.

So on my third novel, I went in the studio and recorded an EP’s worth of original blues music with my pals at a studio in Burbank, California and gave cassette copies out with the first 100 novels sold at book signing events. We had great parties. Some people still remember the events fondly. Michael Connelly, yeah,him, the best selling author of THe Black Ice, Lincoln Lawyer, etc, he fell in love with that music. Every couple of years he asks me if I have more music, and in particular, he wants more versions of a song called “Rained All Night,” his favorite.

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Mata Hari

iBooks Author made me flash back to 1977, when during punk movement we were DIY, and took that DIY approach and spirit to much cruder technology– street marketing, taking our music straight to the people, shake things up, etc. We didn’t achieve mainstream success but we DID inspire a movement of our own, and had a whole lotta fun.

Well, same thing happened with putting out books on the iPad, Kindle, and Smashwords. I mean, that was my experience. Here’s where I wrote about it for the Austin Chronicle, one year ago.

Link to the article here.

Ex-Punk Author, DIY or Die Forever
Test-driving the newest iBooks Author app (bumps ahead)

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The ever optimistic author/musician, Jesse Sublett

Looking back, the Apple support technician deserves credit for keeping his cool with me. “I realize this is frustrating,” he told me. “This app was just released, you know, so I’m not very familiar with it.” No kidding. He wasn’t the first Apple rep I’d talked to who knew less about the program than I did.
The app in question, iBooks Author, enables the user to create e-pubs for the Apple iPad, which can be enhanced with audio, video, and 3-D graphics. It can be downloaded free from the App Store on iTunes and – in theory, at least – allows an author to painlessly self-publish a multisensory product for a mass audience.
When I first became a published author back in the late Eighties, the time lapse between the publisher accepting my finished manuscript and the book-launching party was about two years. Here’s one measure of how much things have changed since then: I was impatient with that Apple tech because I’d been trying to publish my book for two days. It took another two days before all the problems were solved and it appeared on the iTunes store for sale. Not bad.
And I wasn’t just publishing a book for an average e-reader, but a book with music, video, and tons of photos and art. Traditionally, if you told a publisher you wanted your book to be accompanied with some kind of music delivery device, like a CD or something, it was like asking for a book tour on the moon. As recently as three years ago, I watched a panel of publishers at South by Southwest Interactive subjected to the righteous wrath of a room full of bloggers on this very same subject. Their response was just as befuddled as when I asked Viking for the same thing in 1987.
You could say it’s been a long, strange trip for an ex-punk rocker and DIY writer/musician/artist.
My first knowledge of the upcoming release of iBooks Author 2 came just after New Year’s Day. I killed time between then and the Jan. 19 release date proofing the text of my first novel, Rock Critic Murders. I also uploaded a digital version to Amazon for delivery to Kindle and various other e-readers, including the iPhone and iPad, pricing it at $2.99 – about the cost of an order of breakfast tacos. The delivery process with Amazon was clunky, too. The interface is nonintuitive and support is less than satisfactory. Ideally, you can get your digital book up on the Amazon site in a couple of days, although my first one took over a week, and I’d give its support a C-minus. In the end, you get a digital book: text and graphics. Compared to the soaring experience of an enhanced iBook, Apple’s rivals give you a flightless, songless bird.
The story behind the print version of Rock Critic Murders also entails a trip through evolving technology. Originally published by Viking Penguin in 1989, it’s a hardboiled detective novel set in Austin of the mid-1980s. Protagonist Martin Fender is a blues bass player who moonlights as a skip tracer and detective. Martin lives in South Austin with his cats, sleeps late, lives on Tex-Mex, and when not on the road, can usually be found at the Continental Club – in many respects, an archetypical Austin musician/modern bohemian. He’s also kind of my alter ego.
I wrote Rock Critic Murders and its two sequels, Tough Baby and Boiled in Concrete, using Macintosh computers, beginning with a first-generation Mac 512K. Prior to that, I labored on borrowed typewriters, using the backs of leftover gig flyers for paper. Switching to the Mac, I used an early alternative to Microsoft Word called Write Now. Within a few years, Write Now was not only out of production, but documents created with it could not be converted to any other word processor I could find. To republish those books, they have to be scanned with an OCR program and meticulously proofed, which is an old-fashioned pain in the ass.
Backing up just a little further, it was in the pages of this very publication that Martin Fender first sprang to life. In early 1983, Chronicle editor (and SXSW co-founder) Louis Black asked me to write a few stories from the working musician’s perspective. I wrote several of them before I decided to test Louis’ patience by turning in, instead of straight journalism, a Martin Fender crime story wrapped around a half dozen or so strange vignettes from a recent band tour through the South and Midwest.
Louis was a little put off at first, but he ran the story. Louis and another Austin music critic, Ed Ward, told me they thought I had something and encouraged me to write more in that vein, maybe even a novel. I enjoyed the irony, because these same rock critics had inspired the novel. They hated my band, or at least they used to, so I had them killed in my first novel.
After helping me get through several drafts, Ward accompanied me and my wife, Lois (then and now an advertising rep at the Chronicle), to New York to meet some publishers. The editors we met ended up turning the book down, but I persevered, using the same do-it-yourself approaches and attitudes we all learned in the indie scene of the Seventies and early Eighties. You know, sending out a blizzard of demo tapes, pressing our own records, putting up gig flyers in a blizzard in NYC, doing interviews at every college radio station in the country, handing out swag, etc.
I no longer cared so much about becoming a rock star; I wanted to be the next Raymond Chandler. I sent out dozens of copies of manuscripts to agents and editors, called them on the phone, and asked dumb questions like “How do I get my books published?” and hit up published writers I knew for introductions to their agents and editors.
Finally, I ended up talking to an editor at Viking Penguin in New York named Lisa Kaufman. She’d heard of my bands but had not seen me play, and over the course of a rambling conversation, I managed to pique her interest and she asked to read my manuscripts. Two weeks later, Kaufman, now at PublicAffairs, offered me my first publishing deal.
Three of those novels were published, but none hit the bestseller list. I still write and still play music. Maybe if I had been more successful, I wouldn’t have remained such a DIY guy. But for better or worse, that’s what I remain.
Which brings us back to the iBooks Author app and why I love it so. It’s empowering, for one thing. For the first time, I’m able to present Martin Fender with a soundtrack. When I was writing these stories, I always heard the music in my head. Sometimes I’d make up a title of a song for a particular scene. I’d write the scene and later on, pick up an instrument and write the song. A half dozen of those songs are included in the iBook reissue, with the full title of Rock Critic Murders: 25th Anniversary Edition for the iPad.
Before, the novels always seemed incomplete. Besides the music, I really wanted the reader to feel, smell, and taste my vision of Austin. In the new iBook, they also get video postcards (recorded on my iPhone and iPad) from a dozen or more of my favorite places in Austin, from the Continental Club to Mount Bonnell to Texas Coffee Traders. Plus, they get songs by the Skunks and a live video of us playing “Earthquake Shake” last August at Threadgill’s World Headquarters, another of my favorite places. There’s a lot of extra media in the book about the Skunks, because, after all, that’s where the bulk of the musical background informing the novels originated. The book wouldn’t have been complete without a couple of interview clips with my longtime pal and guitar hero from the Skunks, Jon Dee Graham, who is probably a better storyteller than I am, or Billy Blackmon, our drummer, who has few equals in the irony department.
Best and most appropriate of all, I suppose, are the video commentaries from contemporary or former rock critics, including Louis Black, Ed Ward, Margaret Moser, Robert Draper, and Joe Nick Patoski. They all answered my request for contributions in different ways. Some of them talked about the music scene depicted in my books; others talked about Martin Fender as if they knew him personally.
Louis Black wanted an interview, so I began with a question that countless other musicians have always wanted to ask: “Louis, why did you hate my band so much?”
“Because you were popular,” he said. “I think most critics liked to support bands that nobody liked.”
Then I asked how he felt about the way that music critics in general were so crudely caricaturized in Rock Critic Murders.
“Actually,” he said, “I think the only critics who were mad about the book were the ones who didn’t get murdered in it.”
What a great time for a DIY guy to live in. If not for the technology revolution, I probably would have never known the answer to that question. Now I’ve got it on video, along with statements from some individuals who, a lifetime ago, were among my harshest critics. Who knows? I might make stars out of them yet.

Well, anyway, here we are. That was then, this is now.

In the spring of 2012, eBooks were gaining big momentum, selling more on Amazon than their cousins in the old Gutenberg print/paper format. Some people I actually knew QUIT THEIR DAY JOB — yes! one was a REAL ESTATE AGENT– to devote their time to writing and releasing several books a year to Kindle alone, with enough time left over to waste playing golf and going fishing.

AFTER YEARS of feeling kind of beaten down by the system –books out of print, frustrated trying to get new agent, new publisher, being over edited and second guessed by editors and copy editors in many different writing fields, from TV to video games, Reality TV, film, plays, magazines, etc…. Apple gave us iBooks Author, a way to do what I’d always wanted, on my own schedule. After Rock Critic Murders was out on iPad and Kindle (followed by their sequels) I wrote and released a brand new surrealistic detective novel, GRAVE DIGGER BLUES to iPad, organically developed FOR the iPAD, with over 100 wild photos, graphics and other media, plus audio chapters and original blues soundtrack. I was very thrilled with the end result.




Click here for more information on Grave Digger Blues

To check out the Blues Deluxe Edition for iPad, click here.

If you don’t have an iPad, you can download the Kindle version from Amazon and read it on almost anything, including you iPhone. That version has the graphics, but no music. HOWEVER…

All the music is incorporated into the iPad edition of Grave Digger Blues can be downloaded here.

And if you’re still looking for a cheap, Bare Bones Edition, for $.99 you can buy it from Smashwords, text only.

I wasn’t able to quit my day job, working as a ghost writer and freelance journalist, musician, etc. Sold a few copies, got some great reviews. But many people, including many friends said, LOOKS COOL. BUT I DON”T DO EBOOKS. IF IT WAS A REAL BOOK I’D BUY IT.

Were they telling the truth? Or were they just a bunch of lame friends? Slackers, in other words?

Some of these same musings were put into my recent blog, SEVEN STAGES OF EPUBLISHING GRIEF. The piece is at least half tongue in cheek, but sincere about the fact that one, an old-fashioned book-book is still THE thing for a lot of people. And so when presented with an opportunity to publish — release — sell at gigs, whatever — actual print copies of my latest novel, Grave Digger Blues, I jumped at the chance.

BLURB, the self-publishing platform made that possible, and practical. The quality of Blurb’s printing is great. The photos and drawings came out better than I imagined they might. I’m in love again. It’s even more exciting than doing my first iPad book.

I’ve become a micro publisher. I’m ordering small print runs of Grave Digger Blues to make available at neighborhood bookstores, gigs, and other events. If my fans are dying for a physical copy of my novel, I’ve got the thing they want, for a mere $19.95 US, defaced by de author.

So here we are, full circle, or something. You figure it out.


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The author checks a proof copy of his latest mistresspiece.


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