David Carnoy: Self-Publishing Is Minor-League — and That’s Good
Posted by: Keir Graff
Way back in December 2008, I wrote about an article by David Carnoy, called “Self-Publishing a Book: 25 Things You Need to Know.” An editor at CNET, he was sharing useful lessons he’d learned while self-publishing his novel, Knife Music. I checked in with him the following month, asking about his experience purchasing a book review from Kirkus Discoveries, and meant, throughout 2009, to check in again to see how his experiment was going. At some point last fall, I noticed that his book had been taken down from Amazon–which, I assumed, meant that he had sold it to a traditional publisher. I was proven right when, last week, I saw a galley for Knife Music, to be published in July by Overlook Press, in the offices of Booklist.
There’s still some experimenting going on–Carnoy and Overlook are allowing readers to vote on the new cover. (If you’d like to weigh in, you can do so on Facebook.) Thinking that Carnoy might have useful insight into the relationship between self-publishing and traditional publishing, I fired off the following questions via e-mail, and the obliging Carnoy fired his answers right back.
How long did it take before a traditional publisher offered to publish your self-published novel? Were there other offers besides the one from Overlook?
About four months. NY1 (a local TV station in NY that also syndicates its content nationally) did a piece on the book (“Self-Publishing Is Not a Last Resort for Authors“) and it sparked some interest from publishers (there’s nothing like the power of TV to validate success). I was in the somewhat unique position of already having a major agency, Trident Media, behind the book. My agent was in discussions with other publishers, but Overlook was the first to make an offer. It was a two-book deal, which was appealing.
Why did you decide to change course from self-publishing to traditional publishing?
Eventually, if you’re successful at self-publishing, you get an offer from a traditional publisher. That’s the way it works—or at least it should. Self-publishing should be treated as the minor leagues of the book world. You have the D-League in the NBA. Eventually, if you’re a top scorer in the D-League, you get called up to the NBA. You take the 10-day contract and see what happens. Maybe it gets guaranteed someday.
Were you hoping for this result all along? Or did you hope for better returns doing it yourself?
Yes, the goal was always to get the book published by a traditional publisher. Ironically, my agent told me that I would potentially make more money sticking with self-publishing. The self-published version of Knife Music was actually doing well—particularly the Kindle version—and gaining momentum when I had to take everything down. The Kindle version hit #1 in the legal thrillers category in the Kindle Store. Of course, it helps that there aren’t Grisham e-books yet.
Side note: Someone is today selling a “new” version of the self-published book for $879 on Amazon. I guess they think it’s collectible.
The new edition will have a different cover–have there been changes to the manuscript as well? What is your working relationship with Overlook?
Only very minor changes. Typo corrections and a few small fact changes that I wanted to make. For instance, in the original I had a small scene that takes place in an Eddie Bauer store in the Stanford Mall. That store closed, so I changed it to the Gap. I also had someone exhaling into a medical device instead of inhaling. A nurse who read the book emailed me and said it really upset her. (Which reminds me: My sister-in-law told me she once called Scott Turow about something she felt was wrong in one of his books and the receptionist at his law firm actually patched her through and she ended up speaking to him about it.).
As for my working relationship with Overlook, I’m quite pleased. They’ve been very open to trying new things as far as new media/social networking goes. As a CNET editor, they recognize that I have a high online IQ. I suggested that we put the finalists for the new cover out on the Web to get some feedback from folks. They thought it would be a good experiment. We’re also looking into releasing half the book for free as an iPhone app. I previously had the whole thing out there for free in the App Store and it really helped create awareness for the book (of course, it also helped that Apple initially rejected the Knife Music app for profanity, which generated some outrage and publicity).
Acknowledging that the new edition of Knife Music hasn’t been published yet, based on your experience, what do you think are the respective strengths of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing?
Self-publishing is about speed and control for the author. It’s all about online and going direct to consumers. You can get a book out there fast, especially an e-book. You also have some degree of control over pricing—again, especially when it comes to e-books. But you’re almost entirely dependent on your ability to market the book on your own. Promoting any book—traditional or self-published—is a lot of work and hard. It’s just that much harder when it’s self-published. A traditional publisher gives you some support.
Traditional publishing is much more about getting your book into the big brick-and-mortar stores (for better or worse, the vast majority of book sales still happen in brick-and-mortar stores). The publisher first has to market the book to stores and make sure it has a presence there. That’s a big intermediary step and requires time, some salesmanship, money for placement, and a bit of luck. You then actually have to sell the books, which presents its own challenge. But if everything goes right, you do have a better shot at getting your book into the hands of more readers.
Two side notes:
a) Self-published books rarely get reviewed by big-name publications. While I don’t think reviews are quite as important as they used to be, they still are very important. And the reviews system is still set up exclusively to favor traditionally published books (and even then it’s hard to get your book reviewed).
b) When you have your book published by a traditional publisher, you can end up with some sub-rights opportunities not available to self-published authors. For instance, I didn’t even think about selling the book in big-print format (yes, a big-print version of Knife Music is supposed to come out). Also, Overlook is well-respected in European markets. When I self-published Knife Music, I only really thought about the U.S. But you hear about books that actually do better overseas than here.
Some people have speculated that big-name authors will eventually act as their own publishers. Do you agree? Do you think it’s a good idea? What can traditional publishers learn from the growth of self-publishing?
Many big-name authors could hire their own staffs and easily put out their own books and make more money. I sense that Amazon wouldn’t mind moving in that direction with e-books. However, many big authors probably aren’t so keen on the idea of running their own businesses—and aren’t necessarily good at it (there are only a few James Pattersons out there). Also, I think some big authors support the noble notion that the profits on their books allow publishers to take chances on rookie authors who tend to lose publishers money. At least that’s what I’ve been told. And lastly, there’s still a certain amount of prestige in publishing with certain houses. You can’t dismiss that. And you can’t dismiss an author’s loyalty to a big house who helped make him or her famous. So while I think you may see some big authors put out smaller projects themselves (i.e., make a deal with Amazon on a special e-book venture), most big releases will remain under the purview of the major publishers.
I’m not sure there’s anything for traditional publishers to learn from self-publishers other than not to be too arrogant and set in their ways. For instance, after a writer’s conference a year or so ago, I spoke to a PR person from a major publisher and I said, “What do you guys think about putting out e-books on the iPhone?” I told him I now read a lot of books on my iPhone. He just looked at me and laughed. People aren’t going to read on a screen that small, he scoffed. Well, I do—and so do a lot of other people. And there are 65 million iPhones and iPod Touches out there in the world and more on the way. So maybe you shouldn’t ignore it.