From Traditional Publishing to Self-Publishing: Ten Reasons Why You Should Jump Now by John Barlow

//From Traditional Publishing to Self-Publishing: Ten Reasons Why You Should Jump Now by John Barlow

John Barlow

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.

To find out more, you can click here to visit John’s website and here to follow his musings on Twitter.



  1. John Barlow 23/01/2012 at 10:14 pm

    Thank you all so much for all your comments. It’s great to see there are others thinking along the same lines, and that indie writers are really having success.

    My post was discussed over at Kindle Boards a few days ago, and received some positive feedback. However, one poster made a very detailed, point by point critique of what I had said, the gist of which was that my analysis was nothing more than a sugar-coated puff piece for indie publishing.

    Instead of respectfully addressing her comments one by one, I made a somewhat flippant reply, which only served to made me look like an arse.

    Anyway, here are her points:

    *1–Paranoid guess, not a logical, business-focused reason. Sort of like saying “Gee, my boss continues to give me raises each year and like my work, but he might eventually fire me so I should quit now and start my own business.”

    #2–And advances for self-published books are non-existent. If advances are a concern for you at all, a $5,000 up front advance is better than a zero advance from Amazon.

    #3–It amazes me how many “mid-list” authors don’t seem to read pass the NYT
    #4–The publishing business has never been predictable. In fact, all business is unpredictable. Amazon could drop its royalty rate to authors tomorrow. It could add restrictions to KDP that limit your distribution options.

    #5–The stigma has faded, but this doesn’t mean self-publishing is an automatic good choice for someone.

    #6–A valid point for those that are interested in running a business, but also a reason NOT to self publish if you do not have the will, knowledge, or business savvy to do these things.

    #7-I don’t understand the point. Whether or not a technology exists is not the basis of launching a business.

    #8–This isn’t a “reason to self-publish.” It is a warning. Self-publishing can get expensive and time consuming. All of the expenses the publisher use to pay for you now have to pay yourself. Those editors and proofreaders and cover artists and book designers and marketing people that the publisher paid to put together and promote your book? You have to write those checks now.

    #9–I’m not even sure what the point of this reason is.

    #10–I could also hit the lottery. You can make money in a host of different ways. The question is whether or not you have the business savvy to do so.


    Finally, PLEASE tweet / mention this post anywhere you can. You’re Booked is on the website of the biggest crime writing festival in the UK, and it’s great that the indie revolution is being discussed here. The fact that it also gives ME extra coverage is completely beside the point…

  2. Joe 22/01/2012 at 4:57 pm

    Dalya, what is this bookstore thing you speak of? Are you telling us there are actually stores where books can be bought? Or are you merely speaking of online stores like Amazon?

    I’m scratching my head here as I rev up my Kindle.

  3. Patrice Fitzgerald 22/01/2012 at 5:41 am

    Thanks for this great post. I was another one that wrote for years, coming very close to making a sale. Reluctantly I tried self-publishing… and I’m thrilled that I did. The first novel broke out this Christmas and I made – in seven days – twice as much as a typical advance. (Filthy lucre talk, sorry!)

    What’s EVEN better is that the writing is flowing. Ideas, short stories, novels… so much creativity has been unblocked. There’s not enough time in the day to write it all down! And I am getting great joy out of creating the cover, doing the marketing, and being in charge of exactly what I write.

    It’s a fabulous time to be a writer.

  4. Rosemary Cook 21/01/2012 at 10:01 pm

    I have just published a book independently, and I simply can’t see why anyone would wait around for ‘real’ publishers. I’ve published work-related books before, and the returns have been pitiful after enormously long waits for publication. This time, when I couldn’t get any carefully-targeted publishing house to even agree to look at the proposal, I just did it via an independent publisher. Now my book is on Amazaon, selling well, getting great reviews … and I really enjoy the challenge of marketing it myself, thinking up new hooks and angles to interest the media, etc.

  5. Linda Gillard 21/01/2012 at 11:56 am

    Great post, John and it summarises my own experience. I was mid-list and dropped by my publisher for “disappointing sales”, despite several award short-listings and one award win. My agent couldn’t sell my next book – a book most editors liked but all said was unmarketable, because it didn’t belong to a clear genre.

    I thought my publishing career was over, but my fans kept nagging me for a new book, so I thought I’d try putting the new book, on Kindle, just for them. I thought maybe I’d sell 10 a month if I was lucky and it wouldn’t take me long to cover the cost of my cover design.

    HOUSE OF SILENCE became a Kindle bestseller. I sold 16,000 in 9 months and Amazon picked it as one of their top ten “Best of 2011” in the Indie Author category.

    “Unmarketable” is the word publishers use when they don’t know how to market something. Admittedly, their job isn’t easy – they have to market to retailers, not readers. I was marketing to readers and it was easy. I put a spooky old country house on the cover, used the tagline “REBECCA meets COLD COMFORT FARM” and readers clicked at the rate of 100 a day. (Readers don’t mind mixed genres, but retailers hate them.)

    I’ve since put another new novel on Kindle and my o.o.p backlist and I’m finally making a small living out of my fiction. Editors aren’t queuing up to woo me back into the arms of tree books, but it’s hard to see what kind of offer they could make me anyway. I have complete artistic control, a guaranteed market for my books, a modest income and the use of the superb marketing machine that is Amazon. (I was resigned to the fact that I was unlikely to sell all the translation rights my earlier books had sold, but my agent has just sold the rights to two of my indie e-books to Turkey, so that’s another barrier down.)

    Publishers need authors, but I’m no longer convinced authors need publishers. (We do still need a good agent though!)

  6. Saffina Desforges 20/01/2012 at 9:23 pm

    Wow! What a great post, John. Great to find a writer with such integrity.

    Personally, I am a lid-mister.

    Yup, you read that right. I am fogging up the latest iPad, Kindle or generic e-reading device screen; NEVER having been ‘trad-pubbed’ as those ‘in the know’ refer to it as…and so far, thankful of the fact!

    If I had started my career as a budding scribe four/five years ago, you wouldn’t have been reading this post now. In fact, there wouldn’t have BEEN a post. There would have been yet another struggling writer trying to earn out an advance in vain. (Nor would our collective blogs received over 250,000 hits per annum)

    I would have been shackled forever (and then some) to a publisher that made Voldemort look positively luminary, and told not write in any other genre than the one that was de rigeur…

    Instead, I /we sold over 115,000 copies of my/our debut novel in the UK (digitally) in the first 10 months, NEVER signed a lit agent and STILL brokered several publishing deals (without paying the commission) and now have my/our own (with my co-writer) digital publishing company.

    I (we) wrote and published 4 titles of our own in the time it took for an ‘award-winning, mid-list author’ to get a response to an email from one of the ‘Big 6’ and trounced Dawn French (no offence Dear Fatty, I love you) in every UK ebook chart going.

    Times have a’changed and being published these days is more of a curse than a blessing. (Having said that, our best-selling crime thriller will be widely available, translated into French and German and distributed via Hachette in June 2012 and yes, we got a very nice advance and no, we didn’t give 15% to an agent. And it will also be available on EVERY major platform, including Audio)

    I wish you every success with your ‘self-publishing’ John and welcome you to the dark side. 😉

    Saffina Desforges

  7. Paul Clayton 20/01/2012 at 7:37 pm

    Right on! Or should I say, Write on! (sorry, got carried away.) Yes, Kindle and the ebook movement has re-birthed my books also and brought this tired and disappointed mid-lister back to fighting trim. If you can write well and if you have a story to tell, a good, engaging one, there’s a slice of that pie out there for you in the ebook universe. Just a sliver, you say? Well, a sliver of a ten or twenty million audience is good enough for me. For now.

  8. Jan Hurst-Nicholson (@just4kixbooks) 20/01/2012 at 7:15 pm

    Once the thrill of being trad published wears off you realise that most trad published novels are damp squibs. You are also faced with distributors that care little about individual books, and after knocking yourself out trying to market your book you are often told by friends and relatives that when they tried to buy your book that the book store was out of stock.
    E-publishing has opened up books to a worldwide market, and the marketing and results thereof are down to the author alone. This is a win win for authors, especially ones who are control freaks!

  9. JR Tomlin 20/01/2012 at 7:11 pm

    For the most part I went the small publisher route where I had three novels published. My historical novels made the rounds to quite a few of the major publishers as well when I was signed with an agent. Yeah, I spent years on the “traditional publishing” merry-go-round.

    Then after watching Joe Konraths conversion to self-publishing, I decided to give it a try. That was 9 months ago. Last month, that month alone, I made more than the average traditional advance. Hmmmm…

    Probably most mid-listers will keep sending their novels to the publishers who will publish them in print and over-price the eBooks to protect print sales and further guarantee the death of the mid-list. Because not having agents and publishers to “take care of you” is scary. People are funny, aren’t they?

  10. Mike Dennis 20/01/2012 at 6:58 pm

    Great post, John. Don’t forget reason #11: The 70% royalty rate paid by Amazon for ebooks. This dwarfs anything the trad publishers could (or would) ever come up with.

    And reason #12: Ebooks (especially self-pubbed ebooks) are forever. With trad-pubbed print, you wait two years for it to come out, then you have a frantic six-week shelf life, after which your books are ground up into pulp. Self-publish an ebook and it’s up there forever. Forever gives you a lot of time to find an audience.

  11. R.G. Porter 20/01/2012 at 3:29 pm

    Great post John! I’ve been with some small epubs and finally made the decision to step out on my own. So far I’m happy with the decision. It’s refreshing taking it all on and learning the ins and outs of the business. Not to mention, the ability to be available to my readers is a wonderful feeling. This may not be the choice for everyone, but I know it is for me.

  12. Sheila Guthrie 20/01/2012 at 1:54 pm

    Very good points, John. This is an exciting time to be a writer, and there are so many more opportunities coming in the future.

    I had originally begun researching the latest in writing news, looking to begin my long-delayed dream of having my writing published, when I read about something called ebooks. I thought it would be great for known writers, who had a reputation and backlists, but the more I read, the more I realized that it was a viable route for me.

    I’ll have my first novel up soon, to join the collection and the separate short stories I have now. I’m proud to be a pioneer in this new world.

  13. Anne Brooke 20/01/2012 at 1:29 pm

    Great article – it’s certainly a fabulous time to be an author. Over the last two years, I’ve done far better with my ebooks than I’ve ever done with my paperbacks, so I’m definitely a believer in the ebook revolution. Don’t forget the commercial indie publishers though – they do a fantastic job with ebooks, and I’ve met some marvellous and very inspirational editors through them too. 🙂

    Anne B

  14. Nathan Wrann 20/01/2012 at 1:18 pm

    I’m sure that the corporate publishers are watching the e-book lists closely and will begin using them as a proving ground to weed out who they sign. Who ever rises to the top will get the contracts. No more need for the publishers to do the legwork in a writer’s early career. So, if you want a corporate publishing contract start self-pubbing and prove that people want the books you’re writing. Of course you might just sell enough to price yourself outside the reach of the publishers.

  15. Mat Coward 20/01/2012 at 12:09 pm

    Like just about every writer I know, I’m currently working on a mixture of published, self-published, and self-e-published. I presume this is our future – though, like everybody else, I have no real idea what’s going on. I do wonder if, very soon, publishers will *only* buy books that have already been self-published as e-books, road-tested at the author’s (rather than the publisher’s) expense. Let’s face it, if they can get us to do more of their work for them, and take away some of their risk, why wouldn’t they? Instead of gambling, by publishing books that might or might not catch on, they need only pick and choose from amongst those that have already done so.

  16. Mark Sennen 20/01/2012 at 11:12 am

    Totally agree.

    I would love a publishing contract if it could supply me with an income and security, but that luxury seems restricted to a very few authors. For the rest there is little to lose by going down the “indie” route. Back in July last year I self-published my crime novel, Touch and after a s.l.o.w. start it has now sold over 20,000 copies in the UK and is in the top 100 on Amazon UK having been as high as number 7.

    Could a traditional publisher have done as well for me? Undoubtedly had they backed me as one of their “star” authors. As a midlister would I have stood a chance? No. Don’t get me wrong, there are problems with self-publishing. There is a whole world beyond Amazon which indie authors find very difficult to reach. This may change as ebooks become the dominant medium, on the other hand the traditional gatekeepers may find away to erect barriers of entry as the emphasis shifts from print to electrons.

    A second issue is the attitude of the trad world once you have self published. When my book was high in the charts I contacted several agents: their responses were universally dismissive. This has to change, indeed in the US I believe it has changed and many authors are doing innovative deals which give them a much better slice of the pie. Agents can have a big role to play in the new world, whether publishers do remains to be seen.

    In conclusion, if you are thinking twice about going indie, don’t, just do it!

  17. Dalya Moon 20/01/2012 at 12:15 am

    I was doing the query-go-round, not even a midlister, let alone a bottomlister, when I dipped one toe in the water by self-publishing a novel. Within two months, I pulled all my queries and manuscripts and self-published my second book. I know it’s vulgar to talk about money (ptooie! moneytalk!), but I’m on track to making more in a few months off my little book than I would have gotten as a midlist advance. Of course, I’m not in bookstores, and for better or worse, I’m on my own and completely responsible for my own failure or success. Can’t say it’s not a bit lonely sometimes, but other self-publishing authors are great peers and friends.

  18. Kay Bratt 20/01/2012 at 12:11 am

    I was a self publisher that got offered a contract on a great selling memoir. I took the offer and became trad published. The book sold thousands before trad, and thousands after. It continues to sell, three and half years later.

    When it was time to release my 2nd book in November of this year, I offered it(per my contract) to my publisher and they declined it based on what they thought was a narrow niche. For some reason I was not that disappointed. I decided not to shop it around and went straight to KDP. In the last two months I’ve sold more of the novel than I sold of the memoir in a the entire first year. I’ve now got 4 books online and two of my books have made it into the Top 100 Paid Amazon Ebooks list.

    I’ll publish another novel in the spring and offer it to my publisher. When and if they say no thanks…up it goes thru KDP. Happily, I might add.

  19. Anne Marie Novark 20/01/2012 at 12:10 am

    I spent years trying to get into publishing the traditional way. I got very close, but no cigar. I’ve put up my “backlist,” and guess what? Readers love my cute little romances. It’s a great time to be a writer!!!

  20. Edward G. Talbot 19/01/2012 at 11:49 pm

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I’ve never been traditionally published, so I can’t compare my current situation to that, but I do have to say that as the importance of getting hard-copies to bookstores gets less and less, I struggle to see what a publisher would offer me that would be worth taking 17.5% instead of 70% of the cover price of my books. I can hire out editing and cover art, and it takes a very small number of books sold before it becomes the right decision financially.

    I’m a new author with very little following and after 6 months, my second novel has earned me as much as a typical newcomer’s advance. I keep an open mind about all this, and if I were to get any kind of offer, I would evaluate it on its merits. But what I have determined for sure is that the time it takes to properly submit a manuscript for consideration to agents and publishers is better spent writing my next book and self-publishing. I could write a draft of a full novel in that amount of time.

  21. Brian Kittrell 19/01/2012 at 11:35 pm

    Great post. I agree that mid-listers are getting even worse deals than ever from what I’ve seen. I never bothered trying to go with a traditional or legacy house, and I’m doing just fine on my own. I just didn’t see the point in wasting the time; by the time they would have published my first novel, I could have written and published 6 books on my own.

    – Brian

  22. p deller 19/01/2012 at 4:04 pm

    Good to see you here John! I remember reading your book about Galicia with real joy! I don’t know anything about pubishing, but i hope it goes well for you, you deserve it!

  23. John Barlow 19/01/2012 at 10:41 am

    Hi Chris. Yes, I think it’s more the uncertainty at the moment that’s pushing people away from trad publishers. but once a writer gets going as an indie, what with ebooks being such a growth sector, there’s lots of potential to keep them there. wWhether that’ll be the case with me, I don’t know yet… Best wishes, John

  24. Tim Benjamin 19/01/2012 at 8:11 am

    Great post John! I wish I could earn that much from books and consider them ‘mid list’, as if that was a failure. Btw i still keep seeing Eating Mammals being mentioned. Good luck with the crime writing but it’s a pity you aren’t doing more stuff like that!


  25. Chris Longmuir 18/01/2012 at 5:12 pm

    I fully endorse this post. I too was an award winning novelist (Dundee International Book Prize) but as a mid-lister it was becoming increasingly difficult to interest an agent or publisher. So I did the jump into epublishing last March and now have 4 books online. Oh, and I’ve never looked back. I’m doing quite nicely, thank you.

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