Interview with Carlos Harrison
Recorded at Miami Book Fair International
For podcast release Monday, November 26, 2012
KENNEALLY: As the year ends, authors, publishers and readers are recalling 2012 as a watershed moment: Self-publishing has shaken its “vanity press” origins and moved mainstream. For the recently-concluded Miami Book Fair, Copyright Clearance Center presented a special panel to discuss the implications; Miami-based freelance journalist Carlos Harrison likewise covered the story, Self-Publishing Industry Explodes, Brings Rewards and Challenges, for the Miami Herald business section. Welcome to Beyond the Book, Carlos.
HARRISON: Thank you very much for having me here.
KENNEALLY: There’s a good reason to talk to you because you wrote about a panel that I’m moderating here at the Miami Book Fair on self-publishing, a piece for the business section of the Miami Herald on Monday called Self-Publishing Industry Explodes, Brings Rewards and Challenges, so let’s pick that apart a bit.
First of all, when you came into this story about self-publishing, did you have any expectations, and how were they challenged by what you found out?
HARRISON: I think like everyone, we know that self-publishing is exploding, and so that was the place to come into this story to find out what was going on there. But the truth was, being a bit of an old-schooler myself, I thought of self-publishing as, is that really the route that someone wants to go? So what I was really exploring was advantages and disadvantages from a business person’s perspective, and that’s what we all are now. We’re not just writers. We are business people, too, and so that’s why the things I learned along there were very useful.
KENNEALLY: I guess we’re both in that old school, because in that old school, they taught you self-publishing was what they called vanity pressed, and now that self-publishing term may be as archaic as the notion of a vanity press.
HARRISON: Absolutely. And that’s why you’re seeing some of the big names who are going in that direction now, too. Obviously, J.K. Rowling is doing it. You’ve got Susan Collins is doing it. Stephen King has tried it. They are onto something.
I spoke to Hugh Howey for this, who’s going to be on your panel, and Hugh is just – he is perhaps the epitome of the writer’s dream right now. He went out, did the self-publishing route himself, put stuff on the Internet, and as it picked up, he was smart enough to start writing the next thing in the series and the next thing in the series and to feed off of that and market himself in a big way. He was in the top 10 for Amazon’s e-books this past year, and he did it all himself.
KENNEALLY: A lot of things have come together to make all of this possible. There’s technology here, there’s a dynamic environment in the publishing business itself. Pick that apart just a bit. What do you think are the major contributing factors?
HARRISON: I think I have to quote the person who put it best in the story, and that’s Chris Kenneally, since you’re here. He said that right now, the Internet and e-books have given self-publishers a distribution channel. It makes the old-school publishing houses, the big majors, very nervous, and some of them are actually buying up some of these smaller companies that are helping writers get into the Internet. But that’s the thing. You’ve got an explosion in e-books, you’ve got an explosion in e-readers, and you’ve got the ease of people putting it together themselves.
The key thing that everybody says over and over again for every writer is, what you put out as an e-book, you need to get an editor. You need to have somebody else look at it. It has to be better than what you sent to your agent, because you don’t have that second set of eyes, and if the readers come to it and say, this has typos and it’s sloppy and this is missing or something else, then their reaction is going to be, they’re going to take that against the prose itself and against the story itself, and the next time around, it’s going to be harder for you to get people to pick it up.
KENNEALLY: That kind of echoes what I heard Alan Cheuse say in a panel that I moderated just earlier today. Someone in the audience was a first-time novelist and was asking him for some advice of what to do when she finishes the book, and his suggestion was, don’t work alone. Go find other people who know what they’re doing who you can learn from. I felt that was a very important suggestion because writing itself is so solitary. If you’re going to condemn yourself to solitary confinement, it just is crazy. Get out there and find some partners.
HARRISON: Absolutely. A lot of people recommend just being in writers groups, sharing with other people and talking about it that way. You get the experience from them of their marketing experience, you get the experience from them of things that are changing in the industry that they’re noticing. You also get feedback on your story and what you’re writing, and that’s very important.
Chris Kling gave me this list, a writer I quoted in the story. She gave me this list. She had been published the regular way through a publishing house, Bantam, and then she went out to do the self-publishing thing. She says, I have a writers group that I’m a part of and we share stuff. I’ll bounce chapters off of people and get some feedback. After that, I hire an editor to come in and take a look.
She actually hires two editors. She hires the editor who helps her with the story development, a development editor, to look at the pieces. We all know how structure is so important. The next thing is though, then she gets that copy editor who’s going to come in and make sure that everything is clean.
And then, Huge Howey says the same thing. It’s well worth the money to get somebody to design a nice cover, e-book cover for it, and to do the layout, and why do you need to learn typesetting even in the electronic age? Right.
KENNEALLY: You’re a journalist, a freelance journalist now, wrote for many years for the Miami Herald, have done work in television, and published books. You’ve got a book coming out next year called The Ghosts of Hero Street, about a street aptly named Hero Street because of the number of residents who went on to fight and die in World War II. So you care about the business because it’s how you make your living.
Watching this, sort of step back a bit from the reporting you did, and as you learned more about self-publishing, obviously, it led you to get a better sense of the pulse of the publishing business. So, Dr. Harrison, how’s the patient?
HARRISON: Self-publishing is definitely something that everyone should consider nowadays and I will say from personal experience – with the Ghosts of Hero Street, I’m very happy that Berkeley is publishing it next year, so please, nobody take this wrong. But at the same time, I spent a couple of years researching that book, putting together the proposal, the outline, the sample chapters, and all of that stuff, and it took me four years to sell it.
As Hugh Howey told me, and it’s in this article, that’s time that I could have been spending, if I had self-published, I could have been spending writing the next thing and writing the next thing and writing the next thing. If you’re going to be a writer, write.
KENNEALLY: Right. But for the publishing business right now, which is in such a state of change, very fast-paced change – we saw recently the news of the merger between Random House and Penguin. We’ll probably see a few more mergers. Does it concern you that we may end up with just one big or two big conglomerates running the business?
HARRISON: Yes, because obviously, that’s going to affect the way that the negotiation happens. I think that at the same time, people look at – and I think you said it also very well that the slush pile for a lot of agents and for these big houses is going to be these self-publishing lists on Amazon or wherever it may be, and they’re offering some very interesting deals.
I think that one of those two big houses, if it does get to that, is going to be Amazon, since they are now going in the other direction. We’re not going to be able to separate the printed page from the electronic. We all know, as readers, there’s different times you like a different type of thing, and so they go that route.
Two big houses, well, as long as you get that movie deal afterwards, it’s not going to hurt that much, right?
KENNEALLY: But the movie business is in a way a kind of a parallel story to all of this. The studios are all but gone. Independent producers make these movies. The studio still has some of the distribution control, but that’s really about it.
HARRISON: That’s that same point again, and now that’s why we’re seeing some of these Web series that are taking off, and when you take a look at Funny or Die, it’s the same kind of thing that people start with one thing, it becomes a Web show, it gets developed, and it gets picked up for the more traditional broadcast media or for movies.
I think that you’re absolutely right. The writer provides content. The medium will decide, the community will decide how they want our stuff. But good stories are always going to go places, and more and more of us are going to take on the different responsibilities.
As a freelance writer, I have to spend time marketing, I have to spend time in production, and I have to spend time in what I call the administrative stuff of making sure I’ve got enough pens and the bills are paid for the Internet and everything else.
KENNEALLY: And you also spend time with us here at the Miami Book Fair. Thank you so much, Carlos Harrison.
HARRISON: Well, thank you for having me here. This is great.
KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials, including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines and blogs, as well as now images, movies and television shows.
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Our engineer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally.
For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.