John Barlow whose prize-winning fiction and non-fiction has been published by HarperCollins/William Morrow, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 4th Estate and various others in the UK, US, Australia, Russia, Italy, Germany, Spain and Poland.
Apart from writing fiction, he also works as a ghost writer and journalist. He has written for the Washington Post, Slate.com, Penthouse, Departures Magazine and The Big Issue, and he is currently a feature writer for the award-winning food magazine Spain Gourmetour. His current project is the LS9 crime series. Set in the north of England, it follows the life of John Ray, the half-Spanish son of crime boss Antonio 'Tony' Ray. The series will eventually comprise nine novels. In this post, he addresses one of the hottest topics in publishing today: Traditional Publishing vs Self-Publishing.
From Traditional Publishing to Self-Publishing: Should you Jump? by John Barlow
A crisp February evening in 2002. We got a cab from our hotel on Times Square and stop-started our way down Broadway in the rush hour traffic. I was reading at the Paris Review Awards that evening in the village, having won the magazine’s Discovery Prize. The theatre was packed with Manhattan’s literary crowd, and I was so nervous that at one point I thought I was going to throw up in George Plimpton’s lap.
At dinner that evening I sat next to George. We talked about Capote, Hemingway and Mailer, all friends of his, and drank enough for the three of them. As the night progressed, people came up and asked me what I was working on, pressing cards into my hand and urging me to give them a call. As you can imagine, I felt as if I was at the heart of the literary universe.
I wasn’t there long. The following six years brought me a NY agent, an LA movie agent, a two-book deal for literary fiction from HarperCollins, then a book with Farrar, Straus and Giroux. But none of my books hit the bestseller lists, and all things considered, I reckon I did pretty well just to stay afloat as a writer.
Then, about a month ago, having finished my next book, I decided to do the unthinkable: self-publish it on Amazon. It may have been the best decision of my life. Or the worst. Either way, here are a few things you might want to bear in mind when looking at the traditional vs indie question.
NO MORE MR. MID-LIST
I’m a mid-list writer, and the mid-list is now under serious threat. Publishers no longer have the confidence or the funds to maintain the system by which a lot of books are published in the knowledge that most won’t make a lot of money. And as the mid-list contracts, so does the ability of authors to sustain writing careers, or even to make any kind of secondary income from writing. Meanwhile, the most famous ‘ex mid-lister’ of them all, Joe Konrath, just announced that he made $150,000 in the last month. He’s not the only one making a good e-living from self-publishing these days, either.
AND THE BOOK CONTRACT GOES TO...
Celebrity novelists, cookbook diaries, boo-hoo memoirs, X-Factor autobios... If you’re looking for an old fashioned novel deal, and you’re not an actor or a celebrity chef, it’s getting harder and harder just to find a publisher. When you do manage to get a contract, advances are so low that there’s less financial motivation than ever for signing. Money isn’t the only consideration, of course. But for me it definitely comes into the equation. I like money. And there’s hardly any of it to be had right now.
The future of publishing is unpredictable. Nobody has the first clue what things will look like in five years’ time. Not industry leaders, not expert industry watchers, not agents. Nobody. So now is a great time to experiment with something new. In fact, there could hardly be a better time. No one’s gonna blame you; they’re all too busy being worried to hell. Given that writers have always had less job security than anyone else in the book business, this is a relative gain for us. Writers are currently the only people in publishing (apart from programmers, obv.) who have any cause for optimism.
PUBLISH OR PERISH
Self publishing is no longer a kiss of death for your reputation as a writer. Elmore Leonard’s having a go, as are a lot of established authors. Thanks to the ebook revolution, the stigma has simply gone away. Traditional publishers have begun signing successful ebook authors (Hocking, Locke...), and agents are now using ebooks as a legitimate part of a publishing strategy for their clients. Example: aspiring British crime writer Mel Sherratt recently joined Curtis Brown, one of the top agencies in London, and they went straight to digital with her TAUNTING THE DEAD; the novel is now a top-ten seller over on Amazon.co.uk, and a print deal can’t be far away. In some ways it might in fact be better to have your ebook out there, fighting for visibility at the Kindle store, rather than struggling to be seen at the bottom of an editor’s in-tray.
Be your own boss, commissioning editor, publicist, packager, sales manager... Perhaps you’re not naturally drawn to any of these roles. Perhaps you just want to write. That’s exactly how I felt. But now I’ve been forced to do new things, and to approach my work from new angles (the publicist’s role is particularly revealing for an author, I have found). Self-publishing will enliven you and make you a bit scared about what you’ve got yourself into. It’s the new frontier, the Klondike, and it’s developing at an amazing speed. All good news then? No; not by any means. The hucksters and rip-off artists have already moved in, as David Graughan recently pointed out. Also, even the greatest fan of indie writers would admit that not everything that can be purchased for your Kindle is actually very good, and nobody wants to be associated with crap. On the other hand, trad publishing was never perfect either, if the bitching, moaning and self-pity I hear every time I talk to other writers is anything to go by.
Publishing houses are magical places, full of bright people who love books (a working definition of Paradise for many of us). I had three brilliant editors at HC and FSG, and I learned an incredible amount about writing from listening to their comments and advice. But hold on: how much editing is actually going to be done in-house in the future? Most writers I know are now working far more closely with their agents, with many agencies employing specialist editorial assistants. So, the trad route is less attractive than it used to be in terms of the editorial support it offers.
As an indie you’ll also need to do everything else a publisher did for you: proof-reading, book design/ebook conversion, cover art. Don’t skimp on these things. Know what you can’t do alone. And bear in mind that all this will cost money ($1000 for an ebook is not uncommon). What do you get in exchange? You keep up to 70% of the book’s cover price. Worth it in the long term? I have no idea, but at 70% I’m willing to be a guinea pig.
PIMP YOUR MS
There are new opportunities opening up all the time for ebooks. Wattpad, fiction streaming, enhanced books, a million forms of interactivity... Not for you? Newsflash: you can still go up to the spare room in the evenings and write the Great American Novel on legal pads using your favourite retractable pencil. There’s just more you can do (or get someone else to do) once you’re through with the writing. And you won’t have that difficult situation in which opportunities for publicizing your book are missed because the person doing publicity at your trad publisher won’t cooperate (or has just forgotten about your book amid the other three dozen s/he is currently trying to push). As an indie you can do whatever the hell you like: distribute hundreds of free copies; change the price whenever you feel it; get excerpts on as many sites as you wish; email a thousand book bloggers; make a book trailer; take out ads; write the title of your book in lipstick across your ass and go streak in your local mall.
THE NEXT PHASE
If you still harbour a deep desire to be taken under the wing of an established publisher, think about it this way: over the course of the next few years the publishing industry is going to change immeasurably. There are two possible outcomes for you: 1) the new, emerging reality will suit you better than the present situation; 2) it won’t. Either way, you have zero control over this. So, in the meantime (wo)man up and get kindling.
Let’s face it, this is all about Joe. Mr Konrath has been at the forefront of e-publishing from the start, and has become the de facto spokesperson for the indie movement. He has that knack of combining aggressive cheerleading with the kind of evidence-based reasoning that’s hard to counter. I asked him to provide a few words for this article, and he responded not with his normal stats and pro-indie arguments, but with a metaphor. Traditional publishers look away now:
“When we're young we all date someone bad for us. They're cute, but we get used, treated like shit, and wind up battle-scarred but hopefully stronger and wiser and determined to never get into a one-sided relationship again.
It's only later, when we find someone generous who allows us freedom and a measure of control, that we realize how very unhealthy and abusive the former relationship was.” Joe Konrath
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