Thursday, December 18, 2008

More on self-publishing

As fate would have it, days after the recent posts by Chris and I on the problems with vanity publishing, I spotted this post on self-publishing by CNET writer David Carnoy. It's especially interesting in that he's self-published his own novel, a thriller.

Though I disagree with his article on several points, it's well written, and far more balanced that most pro-self-publishing articles you're read. Carnoy seems to have gone into self-publishing with his eyes open, and without the unreasonable expectations that seem to trap most self/vanity publishers. It also deals more with new models of self-publishing such as print-on-demand (known as POD in the industry), something that Chris and I really didn't touch on. So it's certainly worth a look if you're interested in the subject, and then come back here some comments. I'll wait.

Okay, let's continue.

As I said, Chris and I didn't break out print-on-demand or e-publishing schemes in our discussions, in part because we were responding to an article about what appears to be a traditional vanity press, and also because we're skeptical of all self-publishing schemes on principle, POD, vanity, or whatever.

But if you still feel compelled to go this route, there are important differences, and such forms of publishing do offer some advantages. At the very least, they don't lock you into a print-run of physical books that you need to store and (hopefully) ship or distribute. They reduce some of the up-front costs (though as Carnoy discovered, turning a manuscript into a professional quality book isn't quick, easy, or cheap). Carnoy's article has some useful information on these differences.

What we also left out of our posts is that there's a world of difference between a non-fiction book and a novel. In my opinion, the chances of a self-published non-fiction book becoming a commercial success are slim, but the chances of a self-published novel are nearly nil. With the right subject matter, the right title, the right hook, it's much easier to hook a buyer than with a novel from an unknown. Not only is it difficult to create a fiction premise that sells itself, reducing that premise to a cover blurb or a marketing slogan is an art-form in itself, one completely beyond the reach of most self-publishers (and to be honest, most of the people they might hire to do the job for them).

But let's go over the article point-by-point. Carnoy has enumerated his major points in a list of "25 things you should know," so we'll follow his template. We'll talk about some of the areas where I agree or disagree with the article's conclusions, and add some speculations where I think Carnoy has gone wrong (and right) on his path to self-publishing.

1. Self-publishing is easy.

No, as Carnoy himself concludes elsewhere in the article, self-printing is easy. Self-publishing a professional quality book is hard.

2. Quality has improved.

Quite correct. Print-on-demand systems have come a long way, and now produce books nearly on-par with traditional (vanity and otherwise) publishing system. But as Carnoy discovered, having something that looks like a professional book doesn't mean it is a professional book, or that it will be treated like one by reviewers, publishers, and booksellers. The nice results just make it easier for self-publishers to fall into that trap, and set themselves up for, at best disappointment, and possibly complete failure.

3. Some of the more successful self-published books are about self-publishing.

An astute observation, and a telling one. This was about the point where I decided Carnoy's article would actually be worth reading.

What this reminds me of is the old scam of ads reading, "Find out how to make BIG MONEY, no work, from your own home! Send $5 to XXXXX" And if you respond, you get a letter telling you, "First, place an ad in the newspaper reading: 'Find out how to make BIG MONEY...'"

It doesn't mean other types of self-published books can't sell. It just means that selling books is hard, and they don't sell themselves.

4. Good self-published books are few and far between.

Another astute observation, and very true. Most self-published and vanity press books are amateurish dreck. And what that means is that, no matter how good, how professionally prepared your book is, it will be judged by the lowest standards of that dreck.

It isn't that major publishers don't publish plenty of bad books too. But at least they're bad books prepared to certain professional standards, backed up with at least some minimal bit of marketing and the cachet of a brand-name on the spine.

I know plenty of booksellers (good company for writers to keep, don't you know) and they all tell stories about self-publishers who wander into their stores and introduce themselves. "Hi, I'm an author with a new book out."

Most booksellers are glad to meet authors, so this usually generates a positive reception. But at some point, often no more than a sentence or two into the conversation, though sometimes longer, the bookseller learns the truth. And as a rule, the reception cools, to a degree depending on the kindness and patience of the bookseller. At best, the bookseller will usually stop listening, and withdraw to some deep, happy recess of their mind, the place were torture victims go to survive.

Yes, your book may be wonderful, but don't count on convincing a conventional bookseller of that unless they're an immediate family member.

6. Creating a "professional" book is really hard.

Amen to this. As I said, there's a big difference between "printing" and "publishing," Carnoy states that he's spent around $5000 on his book so far, and I don't find that sum shocking, if he pulled in professional editing, graphic design and art skills.

Keep that in mind when you're marketing your book to publishers. What they're putting on the line in buying your book is always far more than whatever they're offering for an advance.

7. Have a clear goal for your book.

What Carnoy talks about here is, essentially, minimizing the damage. If the goal is simply to hold a book with your name on it in your hands, rather than selling a truck-load to others, you may not need to blow your life savings.

I'd add to what he said that, if you'd really like to leave something to family posterity, a hand-written ledger or hand-crafted scrapbook is more likely to be appreciated than a slickly printed paperback. Your great grand kids are only a little more likely to be impressed by that self-published book than the fore mentioned booksellers.

8. Even if it's great, there's a good chance your book won't sell.

I've already beat this horse pretty thoroughly. Books don't sell themselves, and selling books is hard, even if they're good.

(By the way, one point about self-marketing that Carnoy ironically doesn't make, is that your best chance for marketing your self-published book may be to exploit an established audience or reputation already at your disposal and use that to make people aware of your book. Which is exactly what his article does.

This isn't a criticism. Kudos to him.)

9. Niche books do best.

This applies mostly to non-fiction, but it's absolutely true. If you're an expert in some specialized area with a small but enthusiastic interest group, and you can communicate well, there might be an opening for you. A self-published book can be termed successful with a much smaller print run, sold over a much longer period of time, than would be possible for a commercial publisher.

But I suspect this isn't as true as it once was, ironically, because of technology. Much of the information once only communicated by word-of-mouth or through niche books, magazines, and newsletters is now available on the internet.

In fact, if you have a good niche in mind, you may well be smarter to start a web-site or on-line forum than trying to publish a book. The up-front costs are often smaller, the profits (from advertising or sales of associated merchandise) while small may start to trickle sooner, and you can evolve and grow it over time.

Many people have even used successful niche web-sites to (surprise!) leverage the launch of self-published books.

10. Buy your own ISBN--and create your own publishing house.

This is another annoying up-front cost, but if you have any hope of all of getting into bookstores or getting reviewed, this is probably a necessity. The bad news: you probably still won't get into major bookstores or get reviewed anywhere that counts.

11. Create a unique title.

Carnoy's point here is that you need something easy to search on Amazon or on search engines, and that's a valid point.

But there's a lot more to titles than searchability. A title is a sales tool. It's often the potential buyer's first contact with your book, and in most cases, their last and only contact. Unless you can interest them with the title, they probably won't read your cover copy, or blurbs, or listen to the radio interview you've been struggling for months to line up, or engage with you or the book in any other meaningful way.

Good titles are hard. You have to tell, in as few words as possible, what the book is, who should be interested in it, and why they should care. On a professionally published book, the title usually has a lot of marketing backing it up, as well as open doors to reviewers and booksellers. It's important, but the whole book isn't hanging on the title. (Carnoy's title for his thriller, by the way, is "Knife Music," which is a pretty darned good title for a novel from a major publisher. For a self published novel though, it's a mixed bag. For starters, while it's memorable and evocative, it's also ambiguous. It could be a thriller, yes, or a horror novel, or a It could also be a non-fiction true-crime book, or one about music, or knives, or martial arts, or even a cookbook. One moment, one millisecond of confusion or indecision is all it takes for a potential reader to pass the book by.)

12. Turn-key solutions cost a lot of money.

What Carnoy is talking about here is more traditional vanity-publishers, while he's advocating a more do-it-yourself, be-your-own-general-contractor approach. As far as it goes, I agree with him. My trust of companies who make most of their money printing unsalable books is very, very, low. If they really thought these books could be successful, why aren't they offering better deals for a cut of the profits? Why aren't they just buying the rights up-front and being a real publisher? In my opinion, it's because this is easier. It's because they make money, even if everything is done poorly, and because they know that even if everything was done right, there would still be no profits to split.

On the other hand, doing it yourself, even when contracting out the hard parts, requires you to be a jack-of-all-trades, and to make a bunch of critical decisions, the failure of even one of which could doom your book. Greater potential to get things right, but greater potential to screw it up royally too.

13. Self-publishers don't care if your book is successful.

Here is this section, in total: "They say they care, but they really don't care. You have to make them care." By "they" I assume he means the people offering self-publishing services, and if so, he's correct. But he's wrong about the "make them care" part. Don't worry if they care. Nobody cares about your self-published book but you. Conventional publishers care, at least a little, because they have more of a financial stake in the book than you do.

But in the self-publishing world, everyone else is just somebody you've hired to do a job. You have to make sure they do it, do it well, and give good value for your money. Asking them to care is like asking a prostitute to love you. It only proves that you don't understand the nature of the transaction.

15. If you're serious about your book, hire a book doctor and get it copy-edited.

Most of what follows this point is correct, but I'm put off by the use of the term "book doctor." Many, many people who advertise themselves as book doctors are, themselves failed writers, or (maybe worse) academics who wouldn't recognize a commercial book if they saw it, and would probably hold it in contempt if they did. Convoy talks about hiring someone who has editing experience with real publishers, and that's, ideally, what you need.

Yes, some people like that offer their services as "book doctors," but the term, to my mind, borders on an insult. What you need a freelance editor with credentials. A good one. That may not be easy to do, and it may not be cheap.

And keep in mind that even the best editor can't polish a turd. If your book sucks, an editor won't fix it. If it's good but flawed in some fundamental way, an editor may not be able to fix that either. They may be able to point you in the direction of fixing it yourself. They may be able to tell you how to avoid the pitfall in your next book. (You are writing a next book, right?) But at some point, if the book can be fixed at all, it isn't editing, it's collaboration.

16. Negotiate everything.

Personally, I rarely have the stomach or the nerve to do this, but in most all things in life, these are words to live by.

17. Ask a lot of questions and don't be afraid to complain.

Again, this is just generally good advice.

18. Self-publishing is a contact sport.

We're back to the point that books don't sell themselves. I don't know what this "buy X get Y" program he's talking about is, but a self-publisher has to be prepared to do a lot more to market his book than one thing. And they should resign themselves that any "turnkey solution" is probably wasted money. In fact, they should be prepared to do most of the heavy lifting (and spending) of a multi-pronged marketing campaign.

To put this in perspective, according to an essay I just read in the New York Times, more than 250,000 new titles and editions are published in the United States each year. Think about it. If you'd never heard of you or your self-published book, how likely is it that any grass-roots effort is going to bring that book or its author to your attention? You're just one flake in a snowstorm, shouting into the wind, "pick me! Pick me!"

19. Getting your book in bookstores sounds good, but that shouldn't be a real concern.

I don't find much to disagree with here. It's possible you can seduce some local bookstore to become an enthusiastic hand-seller of your book. In that case, write off the low royalty return to publicity. But don't count on it. And pay special attention to the "no returns" policies he mentions. Bookstores have to take a risk, money out of their pockets, in stocking your book that they don't in stocking the latest James Patterson or Nora Roberts. Why on Earth would they chose you?

20. Self-published books don't get reviewed.

True, but maybe not as important as he thinks. Below a certain level, reviews just don't have the commercial value they once had. Getting a positive review in some publications may get you noticed by libraries or independent bookstores, but they're only one part, maybe a vanishingly-small part, of getting your book noticed by the public.

21. Design your book cover to look good small.

This goes with number eleven about titles. It applies to on-line sales, and is good as far as it goes. But there's obviously a lot more to covers than that.

One of the arguments used by the vanity publisher, in the article that set Chris and I off last week, was that the author had no control over their cover. My response to that is, What makes you think you know the first thing about book covers? You may, may be able to recognize a really terrible one. (I'm reminded of the featureless, black "Smell the Glove" album cover from the classic movie "This is Spinal Tap.") But designing a book cover that sells is an art-form that people spend decades learning and perfecting.

You don't know squat, and probably neither does the guy at the art student, or the local graphic art or advertising firm you hire to design yours.

22. If you're selling online, make the most out of your Amazon page.

More reasonable advice on on-line selling and marketing. Given that Carnoy writes about tech stuff for CNET, it isn't surprising this is where he gets things most right. (Even authors published through conventional publishers might pick up some ideas here.) And he's right that Amazon (and other on-line sellers, but mostly Amazon) is increasingly important to book sales. And on-line sellers are one place where a self-published book has a chance to compete on even a vaguely level playing field.

23. Pricing is a serious challenge.

Again, this seems solid. There also some advice on leveraging the Amazon affiliate program to increase author profits that could work for conventionally published authors as well. It might not amount to much, but every little bit helps.

24. Electronic books have potential, but they're still in their infancy.

Again, solid. Even conventional publishers are still trying to figure out how to make money off ebooks.

On the other hand, for future reference, keep in mind that ebooks are about the only growth area in conventional publishing at the moment, and they will become important. How this figures into self-publishing isn't clear though. The lack of the physical package, or the simple ability to discover a book while browsing in a store, it may make the "branding" of a major publisher more important, not less.

My bet is still on the people who have been making money at publishing all along.

25. Self-publishing is a fluid business.

True, as far as the technology goes. But there's one constant that runs through the whole history of self-publishing and vanity presses. The vast majority of such books are expensive failures that never find an audience.

Given that simple fact, you've got to ask yourself if the time, effort, and money wouldn't be better spent improving your book and working harder to get it published through conventional means, or more likely, writing more, better books that will sell.

Here's another important, secret fact about publishing. Of first books by successful authors that sell (and many do), many didn't sell first.

Let me explain that a little more. A first book, like any first effort anything, is likely to have flaws. Even if it's good, plenty of good books don't sell for any number of reasons. Maybe the topic is overdone, or hard for the marketing people to sell, or maybe it just isn't commercial enough.

Just for an example, take mega-best-selling author Ken Follett. His first novel was his most successful, "The Pillars of the Earth."

But it wasn't his first published book. Publishers balked at the huge novel, a sprawling, generational, historical about a seemingly unsexy subject (the construction of cathedrals) where the only central character is the building itself.

Did that mean the book was bad? To the contrary. But it wasn't safe, conventional, or based on something else with demonstrated success.

So Ken Follett self-published it and sold a billion copies.


He put it aside and used his considerable skills to write more conventional thrillers like "The Eye of the Needle" and "The Key to Rebbecca."

Only after these books were successful was he able to convince them to take a chance on "Pillars" to tremendous success.

I've heard this story over and over again, from writers big and small. The first novel doesn't sell until after the second of third novel sells. Until after the writer has the track-record and the clout to make it happen.

Now keep in mind, in many cases, the first book still wasn't a success. Often there were still flaws or marketing issues that made it a hard-sell to readers. Sometimes, the publisher still didn't understand or want the book, and did it only to humor the successful author.

But even the-least successful commercially-published book is going to outsell 95% (and I think I'm being very conservative with that estimate) of the self-published books ever produced.

Those first books, where the author had the patience and the determination to see them through the process, found an audience, no matter how small. Most self-published books never come close.

Ultimately, as an author, what you want (or should want, in my opinion), is not to be printed, and not even to be published. You want to be read.

Or maybe you just want money, but if you've done things right, that just comes naturally with being read. Win-win. Most self-published books don't make money (quite the contrary) and they don't get read. Where's the upside in that?

Which brings me to:

4 Reasons David Carnoy Probably Shouldn't have Self-Published

Now, keep in mind that I don't know all the specifics of his experience or his situation. I have only the details he chose to share in his article, as he chose to share them. And I certainly haven't read his book. I base my opinions on what I could glean or extrapolate from what he said, and on some rather broad assumptions I make based on my own experiences and knowledge of the publishing industry. Given that, here we go...

1. It might have sold if he'd just written the next book.

See my example of Follett above. Mr. Carnoy obviously put a lot of money, time, and effort into self-publishing his novel. Could have have translated that into a second novel, or even a third? He doesn't mention any follow-up writing at all.

Here's one more little secret fact about publishing. Publishers are less interested in individual books than in careers. This is especially true of novels. They don't want a writer with one good novel. They want a writer with one good novel and the ability (at least the strong promise) to turn out more on a regular basis.

I recently heard an interview with a writer I've recently come to enjoy, New York Times Best-selling crime writer Tim Dorsey. Dorsey was, like Carnoy, a journalist who put several years into writing a novel.

Things diverge in that he got a publisher interested in that first book. But things are the same in that, Dorsey hadn't even thought of writing a second novel. So he was shocked when the book sold as part of a two-book deal. He had to quickly write a prequel to his first book, because he'd killed off most of his characters in book one! (Find his discussion of this point just after the three-minute mark in the YouTube video.)

The publisher didn't see that first book as marketable. They saw Dorsey as a marketable writer, and in that, they were obviously correct.

2. I doubt he exhausted all possible avenues to sell the book to conventional publishers.

Okay, I confess that I'm way into speculative territory with this one.

According to Carnoy he got a "top agent" on the job, and I'll take him as his word.

But speaking as someone who recently let go a "top agent" (by at least one measure, the top agent in the industry right now) because they weren't doing enough to market my original work, a "top agent" isn't always what you need.

It's like looking for a spouse. You might want the most beautiful person on the planet, or the smartest, or the most powerful. But that doesn't mean that's what you need. You might discover that being an average schmo being married to Angelina Jolie, or Hugh Jackman, or Stephen Hawking, or George W. Bush, it might just have a down-side. It might not work out. It might not last long at all. It might cause you a boat-load of grief and pain along the way.

What you want is somebody compatible, even if they aren't quite as beautiful to behold, or smart, or powerful. What you need is somebody who's a good fit with you. That's where 70th wedding anniversaries are made.

Maybe that still means a top agent, but maybe not. Top Agents are top agents because they are specialists at big books and big deals. Maybe that's not what you need a this stage in your career.

A "top agent" probably is only interested in you if you are, or they think you can be, a "top author." As a first-time author, they may not work as hard for you, give you the individual attention you need, or keep trying as long as a lower-tier agent would. Maybe you need someone who will put your book on the desk of every editor in New York, not just the desks of five VPs at the biggest publishing imprints on the planet.

Or maybe the agent isn't interested in a deal below a certain level. Maybe you'd be thrilled with a five-figure deal, and the agent really can't (quite reasonably, they're a top agent after all) be bothered with anything less than six figures. (And keep in mind that even a three-figure deal is still way better than the negative five-figure or more deal that most self-publishing projects turn into.)

Or maybe, no make this for certain, a "top agent" is going to have bigger fish to fry than you. They've got top clients, best-sellers who are always going to be their first priority. No matter how much they may like you, no matter how sincere their interest, there are going to be times, maybe lots of times, when little clients like you fall between the cracks. Fact of life.

3. Maybe the book didn't sell because it SHOULDN'T have sold.

Like I said, I haven't read the book. And it's just possible that is sucks.

I rather doubt that though, since a high-level agent apparently took it on. I'm guessing that it's at least a competent book with some gleam of specialness that separates it from the pack.

But it's possible that there's some flaw that the agent overlooked. Maybe the "gleam" is just something that pushed their hot-buttons, that wouldn't register with anyone else on the planet.

Really, it's entirely possible that the book is fine. Lots of fine books don't get bought (or at least, bought immediately) for lots of reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the book.

But many, maybe most, first novels aren't fine. Mistakes are made. Maybe the plot is great, but the prose sucks. Maybe prose is beautiful, but there's a tragic plot-flaw that just can't be fixed. Maybe the plot and the prose are great, but the characters are flat. Maybe everything is great, but commercial publishing isn't ready for a 2000-page space western written from the viewpoint of a gall-stone, no matter how well executed.

On the other hand, maybe if he'd simply moved on and written the next book, Mr. Carnoy would have learned things in the process (writing novels requires practice, like any other craft). Maybe he'd have learned enough to spot that one, fatal flaw in the first book, and fix it, and sell it.
Maybe he'd develop the understanding to realize how embarrassingly flawed his first effort was, and how it's better sitting at the bottom of a drawer for his biographers to figure out.

In either case, he's better off in the long run.

4. Even, in the unlikely instance that the book is successful in its self-published form, it proves nothing.

As I said in my previous post on vanity publishing, there are counter-examples of self-published and vanity press books that went on to great success. But I'm of the opinion that those were mostly books that could have seen equal or greater success if the author had simple made more (or more effective) efforts to sell the manuscript, or if they'd (as in the Follett example) kept writing and let the momentum of their career pull that first book into print.

If you read the fine print, most major "self-publishing" success stories actually made most (if not all) of their money only when they were picked up by a conventional publisher. The "self-publishing" stage only created enough success to bring them to the attention of the publishers, or to convince them that the book reached a market they didn't know existed.

As I said, there are other, probably more cost-effective ways of marketing a "problem" book. Most of these involve writing the next book, of course, but that's the thing that's going to develop your career, your reputation, and your abilities as a writer.

And isn't that what you want?

(I've beaten on Mr. Carnoy pretty hard in this post, and if he takes any notice of it at all, I hope he can be a good sport about it and take it in the constructive spirit that it was intended. I wish him all success with his book, and hope it's one of the exceptions that makes the rule. The very least I can do is offer him plug. You can order his novel "Knife Music" on Amazon here. Or better yet, order it through his web page and give him an extra cut.)


  1. I discovered your blog through a post on Lee Goldberg's site and plan to spend some time reading through it. The article on self-publishing was great.

    I only wish I could refer such articles to more people. But once they've settled for self-publishing, they often aren't ready to hear about the problems or potential pitfalls.

    Thanks again for the excellent read.

  2. Here's what I think: Writing's a scary business one should only get into if one loves writing more than anything else.

    As to Carnoy, I don't like, okay, actually I despise, such statements like the following that self-published authors take upon themselves to write into their book descriptions:

    "It all leads up to the most stunning surprise ending since Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent."

    This is true according to who? Carnoy, of course, It would sound so much better coming from another credible author and/or Turow himself. Coming for Carnoy, it sounds too much like snake oil peddling.

    If I offend, sorry. Carnoy's book may be the best one this year or for years to come. Who knows? But I think that kind of egotistical, self-made comment is part of the underbelly of self-publishing.

    - Lawrence

  3. Dear J,

    We (Alex Osterwalder and me) were very determined to publish our management book on business modeling ourselves. Your comment on the post of David Cornoy really made think whether that is the right option. We do have a little bit more in place than the average writer I believe. We have our name on Wikipedia (see business model defenition), Alex blog is globally read (+1300) and we have a Hub where more than 200 people are assessing our book chunks. Last but not least we have a very good designer on board. Still it is good to have more options open now. I will consult and explore the route with the established publishers as well (although most use agents). Thanks again and if you like, I'll keep you posted... Cheers Patrick

  4. Anonymous12:19 AM

    "We have our name on Wikipedia..."

    Dear sweet Lord, is this considered to be a GOOD thing? Pardon me while I run screaming from the building in search of tin foil to put on my head to keep the aliens from killing off all *my* brain cells.

  5. Thanks. Your comments enforced the overall feeling I got on reading Mr. Carnoy's piece. I'm developing a "niche" book (illustrated children's religious) and will most certainly be pursuing a traditional route in my effort.

    Raymond Cerezo

  6. As a writer with a manuscript who cannot convince a traditional publisher to publish my book, I have been searching the internet for advice about self-publishing. I found a link to this blog while reading Carnoy's excellent article and one thing became glaringly obvious to me; you could use an editor! Perhaps you're so accustomed to someone else proofreading your work, that you've skipped this basic task (multiple typos, repetitive, redundant statements, i.e.; "like I said." My inexpert advice to you; clean up your blog, you sound like an amateur. Isn't that the point of your rant?