A cold, crisp February evening in 2002. We got a cab from our hotel on Times Square and cruised down Broadway in the rush hour traffic. I was reading at the Paris Review’s prize awards that evening in the village. I’d won the magazine’s Discovery Prize, and I was so nervous I hadn’t eaten in two days. When we got to the theatre it was packed with New York’s literary crowd, but despite my nerves the reading went well. At the reception that followed I had my first (and last) encounter with groupies, two bouncy, fresh-faced girls from New York State University who told me they loved my writing. Had I not been with my with my future wife at the time, perhaps they might have shown me just why NYSU students have the reputation they do…
Anyway, later into the evening I sat next to Manhattan’s literary kingpin George Plimpton at dinner. He recounted anecdote after anecdote about Hemmingway and Norman Mailer, drinking tumblers of whisky and water and being every bit as affable and elegant in person as he is on screen. It was, as you’ll imagine, quite a night.
The following six years brought two-book deal for literary fiction from HarperCollins, a NY agent, then a book of non-fiction with Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I got a lot of great reviews for those books, from the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Economist, Time Magazine, LA Times… It didn’t make any best seller lists, but my books did get some foreign editions, and I jacked in my job as a university lecturer (which I was never any good at).
It’s now 2012, and I’ve just self-published my latest book on Kindle. What on earth for? Good question. Here are ten reasons….
1. I’m mid-list writer. I won a well-known prize and I’ve been with prestigious publishers. But without a big seller, you’re always vulnerable. The mid-list has been under threat for years, and even before the ebook boom began, it was getting close to impossible to make a living as a mid-lister (I also work as a ghost-writer and food journalist, for example). With the current seismic shift in publishing, it’s doubtful whether the mid-list will survive much longer, certainly not in any form able to sustain the careers of writers whose books don’t break out and fly.
2. If you’re not the author of best selling books or a celebrity, advances are now so low that there’s less financial motivation than ever for taking a traditional publishing deal. 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 to be had right now.
3. There’s less pie. Dawn French ate it all. Celebrity novelists, cookbook diaries, boo-hoo memoirs, X-Factor autobios… If you’re looking for an old fashioned novel deal, it’s getting harder and harder to find a publisher. When you ask industry insiders, they tend to say, yeah, editors are still buying stuff, but… Then there’s that resigned shrug, as if the very fabric of our book culture is crumbling beneath our feet. And in a sense it is.
4. 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 break out and experiment with something new. In fact, there could hardly be a better time.
5. The stigma has gone. Traditional publishers are now signing successful ebook authors. Bringing out your own ebook is no longer a kiss of death if your long-term plan is to move (back) to a traditional publisher. Lawrence Block just brought one out himself. Loads of established authors are experimenting. Don’t be left behind.
6. 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. Now I’m loving it. I’ve been forced to do new things, to approach my work from new angles (the publicist’s role is particularly revealing for an author). Self-publishing will enliven you and make you a bit scared about what you’re doing. It’ll kick you out of that rut and get you excited about new things.
7. There are new opportunities opening up all the time. 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 your book using your favourite pen. There’s just more you can do (or get someone else to do) after you’ve finished.
8. I loved being with HarperCollins and FSG. Publishing houses are magical places, full of really bright people who know a huge amount about books. I worked with three brilliant editors, and I learned an incredible amount about writing from listening to their comments and advice. As an indie you’ll need to develop a comparable support network. My novel HOPE ROAD was edited by an editor from a big house, the cover was done by an artist who works for several big houses, and it was professionally proof-read. Don’t skimp on these things. Know what you can’t do alone.
9. 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.
10. Finally, you might just earn an awful lot of money.*
*(Sorry for being so vulgar.)
John Barlow’s 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.
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.