Saturday, February 18, 2012

From Traditional Publishing to Self-Publishing: Should You Jump

Today I welcome writer 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,, 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.

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.

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.

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, 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.

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.

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

Contact:John Barlow
John’s website


Patricia Stoltey said...

The option is becoming more and more attractive as writers figure out what they need to do to succeed (professional editing, good cover art design, etc.). I've read several excellent self-published books lately by writers who've done it right.

Tim Benjamin said...

Hi John! Did you see this review of your novel?

I just downloaded it and I'm into Day Two. Loving it (esp. the present tense!).

Good luck. You're a brave guy!
Best, Tim

John Barlow said...

Hi Patricia. Yes, I think doing it an professionally as you can is the key. I chased down a really great cover artist, and I'm glad I did, and I was fortunate to have an editor to work with anyway. I'm still waiting to see if going indie was a good move for me personally...

Tim: thanks for your comments! You know, it had never crossed my mind that writing in the present tense was unusual. But I'm glad you are enjoying it. Yes, I did see that review. In fact, a few reviews have mentioned the present tense (all favorably) but I'll definitely consider a switch to the good old past tense for the next one...

Best wishes, JohnB

Rejean Giguere said...

The biggest issue facing indie writers seems to be discoverability. Until you overcome that hurdle the slog doesn't even begin to trend uphill. Having been a mid lister does give you a fan base (however small) to leverage.

In the meantime, having the control necessary to do things right is terrific. Best luck. Rejean.

John Barlow said...

Hi Rejean. Yes, visibility is a huge problem. A book is essentially invisible on amazon until it starts getting 'also bought...' mentions, or rises very high in a list. I don't know what the solution is, but one might also recall that at least you have FOREVER to do something about the visibility issue; with trad pubishing you have a few months to sell, or that's more or less it!

Anthea Lawson said...

John, your book looks great! PLEASE consider raising the price to 2.99. I honestly think you're undervaluing yourself AND missing the readers who equate price with quality. Not to mention the royalty bump that would make it even more worthwhile for you to continue self-publishing.

Dean Wesley Smith has a lot to say about authors undervaluing themselves... I recommend his blog as another indie resource, if you haven't seen it already. :)

Frank Coles said...

Hey John, thanks for this post. A well needed hand-holding/kick up the bum in the week I turn to self-publishing - and who knows maybe leave trad behind for good.


Carol Frome said...

The more I read about self-publishing, the more convinced I am that it is the way to go. At 56, I really don't want to waste more time, looking for an agent to help me get a good book published. I'm not a celebrity, and I'm not a genre writer, which, realistically, pretty much closes me out of traditional publishing.

But I am not a good marketer! I'm not. So I sincerely hope that professionals from the traditional publishing world will develop new careers in indy book marketing on a for-fee or contingency basis, as platforms like Smashwords do. I'd be in heaven.

historywriter said...

Good points all,John. I jumped into the self-pubishing world last March and have been on a huge learning curve (and having fun). Getting noticed is hard, but I started local with my indie bookstore and library. I'm now in several library systems, being read by book clubs across the country and giving talks on the background to the story. Sales have been growing on Amazon, but it's word of mouth, that is spreading the word. Getting a great review in PW Select didn't hurt either. The novel is now a 2012 EPIC Award finalist for historical fiction.

I jumped in because I wanted to understand what the fuss was all about. After querying for many years, I finally have a novel in print. The great satisfaction is that readers love it and want more.

John Barlow said...

Anthea: thanks for your vote of thanks! Clearly, price is currently a big issue. I’m a trad published author, but this is my first foray into indie publishing; I’m also British author, and a LOT of books on are at 99p (just as a LOT were in the US about 18 months ago). Here’s the dilemma: if you pitch an ebook at a ‘reasonable’ price ($2.99) and it doesn’t sell, you’ll never know if it was simply priced out of the market by all the really attractive reads available at low prices; if you set the book at a competitive (i.e. low) price and it doesn’t sell, at least you had a go at competing. I THINK the US is different in this respect, but in the UK (where I expect to sell more books) price is still the only real determiner of sales success for indies. But believe you me, I understand just how much I am undervaluing myself. My last book in the US sold for $25.
Frank: consider yourself well and truly kicked up the ass. Leaving trad publishing behind for good? Well, given that no one knows what’s gonna happen, you might as well give it a go…
Carol: you’re right to identify marketing as the big issue for indie writers. Plus, no one knows what works. I’ve been slogging away doing guest blogs, interviews, begging reviews, and generally making a pain in the ass of myself for six weeks. Meanwhile, a friend of mine, Mel Sherratt, did very little promotion and landed on the top 10 paid list in So, who knows…
History writer: that’s really interesting. Actually it sounds like those ‘success stories’ from the pre-ebook days, when a lot of books did well locally then the sales spread. Wouldn’t it be great of ebooks could do that, and the ‘grapevine’ was electronic? Again, the US has the advantage here, with so many more devices out there. Let’s see. I think a big question right now is exactly who the default gatekeepers / filters in the new literary world are going to be. If ‘local’ influence has a prominent role, I’m all for it!

Best wishes to you all for your kind comments, JohnB

Karina said...

Thanks for the insightful article John!

I think it all comes do to the author deciding what is best for them. For some authors this means going traditional and for others doing everything themselves. Some authors want to be listed as their own publisher (under their own ISBN) but have a company do the legwork.

The beauty of the current publishing environment is that there is an option for every type of author!

Lucy Merrill said...

It's a great time to be a writer, but let's not rush to get into another abusive relationship. I'm speaking of Amazon. Love them, but they don't play well with others. When you e-pub, don't forget the Nook owners among us.

Mike Gora said...

A new twist in all of this can be seen in the daily newsletter published by Michael Gallagher at

It lists free Kindle books of the day and since starting the $0.99 per month subscription 6 months ago I have been finding and downloading 3-4 good free mysteries every week. Apparently authors make them free for a day or two to promote them, hoping that the readers will come back to buy more or that they will pass the info about the book on to their friends if they thought it was good.

So I have about 60 unread, free mysteries recommended by readers on my Kindle now. That is dramatically reducing the ones I do spend money on. And I generally don't get around to helping any of those authors make money later.