By David Carnoy
• David Carnoy, executive editor at CNET.com, originally released his mystery/thriller Knife Music as an iPhone app, which was first rejected on grounds of obscenity. It eventually went on to sell 30,000 copies as e-books for the Kindle and Sony Reader, and paperbacks from Amazon’s BookSurge.
• The book’s success attracted the attention of Peter Mayer at The Overlook Press, which has just released it as a hardcover. Carnoy discusses negotiating the leap from DIY digital publishing to conventional print publishing.
I recently had lunch with a literary friend who I hadn’t seen in several years and expressed dismay with the current state of book publishing. She wasn’t all that concerned with the actual publishing part, but the thing that really irked her was what happened after you published, in that phase I like to refer to as “selling the goddamn thing.”
When she published her first novel in the ’90s, the reviews rolled in, subsidiary rights were sold to foreign lands, and the book was optioned to Hollywood, with Oscar-caliber actors attached to the project (alas, the movie was never made, the plug pulled at the last minute).
“I sat back and did nothing,” she told me. “The interviews and reviews just came to me. But now it’s a whole different world. It just seems so degrading. I see these people begging on Facebook for you to become their fans. And the free giveaways, the inane Tweets, viral video trailers, guest blogging…”
The list of horrors went on and they all seemed to revolve around the collision between technology and publishing, an area in which I’m a laureate — or at least pretend to be one. As an executive editor at CNET, which is owned by CBS, I’ve covered the e-publishing and self-publishing revolutions of recent years. Also, against my agent’s advice, I self-published my own mystery/thriller, Knife Music, after I was informed that interested buyers failed to “build consensus” among their fellow editors and it was turned away by a phalanx of traditional publishers.
I was, in fact, the Chucky or Jason of my friend’s post-publishing nightmares, for I’d used just about every bit of tech chicanery to get the word out that my homemade novel existed. The end result of my efforts was brisk sales and a contract with The Overlook Press, which is publishing Knife Music this July in hardcover along with an e-book edition from Penguin (Overlook books are distributed by Penguin).
Am I embarrassed to have to talk about all this in a public forum? To beg for Facebook buddies to come to book signings or become a fan of my book (to “like” it in the new Facebook vernacular)? Or to write a guest editorial when I’d much rather be interviewed by a reporter?
Heck yeah. But as I told my friend, who seemed determined to become more tech savvy even as she found it demeaning (we reconnected on Facebook), in this DIY world, you’ve got to bury your pride and occasionally be the reporter and the subject of your own articles. Which is why, with little shame, I give you this Q&A that I hope offers some insight into the new publishing zeitgeist as filtered through a fledgling novelist and veteran tech editor.
Q: What made you decide to self-publish?
Carnoy: I’d worked a long time on a novel that enough people said was good, including a so-called high-powered agent, so I thought I needed to get it out there one way or another. I also thought that if nothing else I could write about the process of self-publishing from a tech perspective and give people out there some free, impartial advice. It bothered me that some of the best-selling self-published books were about self-publishing. (See: Self Publishing: 25 Things You Need to Know).
Speaking of free, you gave away your book as an iPhone app. Did that help?
A lot. Knife Music may be the first iPhone app turned into publishing contract. I got lucky because Apple initially rejected the app for having “objectionable content.” It wasn’t exactly a book banning, which is always good for publicity, but it was the next best thing.
But then you censored the novel to get it accepted in the app Store. Wasn’t that a sell out?
Yes — and I took a little heat for it. Some people put one-star ratings on the app. But it didn’t bother me. I write for the Web and end up updating articles all the time, so I’m used to being flexible. I changed a few F words to the letter F. No context was lost.
And sales took off after the app was released?
I got additional publicity for censoring myself, so the app shot to #7 in the free book apps category, right after the Bible. It was doing 1,000 downloads a week. And what that did was create awareness for the book. Yes, I sold a decent amount of paperbacks (about 1,000 in four and half months) but I was doing better with the Kindle version, which I priced at $3.99. I think that’s a perfect price for newbie authors. I was selling close to 400 Kindle books a month and hit number #1 in the legal thriller category. Remember, this was in the early days of the device (early 2009), when not as many people had them and Grisham wasn’t available digitally.
You’ve now re-released Knife Music as a universal iPhone and iPad app, but in a truncated version. Why?
Overlook allowed me to put out about 150 pages of the book as a free sample for a limited time. This time Apple approved the app, naughty words and all, now that it has a new rating system for books. I also put it up on Scribd, which is a cool site for sharing documents that a lot of traditional publishers are looking at to promote samples. Overlook’s been open about trying new things. Again, it’s about creating awareness for the book, and sometimes you have to do something a little different to rise above the noise.
What do you think the future is for standalone book apps now that iBooks has arrived?
I think text-based single books as apps will slowly go away. But the app route makes sense for interactive children’s books, graphic novels, and other multimedia e-books. However, the reason I did an app again is that you can’t give away a lengthy free sample in iBooks right now or on the Kindle or Nook (unless you have a special arrangement with Amazon or Barnes & Noble). So the app was really a workaround.
How are you finding the traditional publishing route compared to self-publishing?
I have no complaints. I knew what I was getting into. As I’ve said before, self-publishing is about speed and control for the author. It’s all about online and going direct to consumers. The key thing you lose when you move to traditional publishing is control over pricing (and a significantly larger chunk of the royalties). It’s much easier to get people to take a chance on reading you when your book prices are low. That’s why you’re seeing success stories with some of these Kindle authors who are pricing their books at $1.99 or 99 cents. People are willing to take a look at those prices if your user reviews are good. You can do especially well if you have multiple books out (as long as people dig your stuff).
As for traditional publishing, a large part of it is about trying to get the book in brick-and-mortar stores and selling it to libraries. From a promotional standpoint you get some support from your publisher — and a chance for some reviews — though as everybody knows publishers are increasingly interested in authors who know how to generate their own publicity.
Some friends joke that I made a mistake going the traditional route. But when you see the final product (the hardcover), you realize you can only do so much producing a book on your own. I tried to make my self-published book look as professional as possible, but the new Knife Music looks — and reads — that much better.
David Carnoy is an executive editor at CNET.com and the author of Knife Music, a novel that has nothing to do with technology.
DISCUSS: Is Apple guilty of censorship?