John Barlow's blog

John Barlow's blog

Accused of Theakstons puffery

Self publishingPosted by John Barlow Sun, January 29, 2012 20:59:40

Promotion of HOPE ROAD continues afoot. Quite a lot of reviews, guest posts, interviews are either up or planned. It’s a bit of a slog, but it throw up the occasional curveball.

I had a post up recently on the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival website. It was called ‘From Traditional Publishing to Self-Publishing: Ten Reasons Why You Should Jump Now’. Here’s the link. I posted a link on Kindleboards, the place where indie writers go to share tips and gossip. Among a whole lot of positive comments came one very angry one, essentially accusing me of puffing up indie publishing and saying nothing of worth. The numbered points below are mine, and each one is followed by the response of this person over at Kindleboards. See what you think...

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.

#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. 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.

#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. 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.

#3–It amazes me how many “mid-list” authors don’t seem to read pass the NYT

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.

#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 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.

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

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.

#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. 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.

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

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.

#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. 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.

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

10. Finally, you might just earn an awful lot of money.*

*(Sorry for being so vulgar.)

#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.

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Indie publishing and self publicity

Self publishingPosted by John Barlow Wed, January 18, 2012 12:07:31
If you're an established writer, you move across to indie publishing because you've made a decision about how the book business is going, and how being an indie is likely to pan out for you in comparison to staying with a traditional house.


Well, I'm certainly discovering some of the big differences. I've just spent the last two weeks emailing dozens, no hundreds, of book bloggers, asking for a review, or a guest blog, an interview... anything to get HOPE ROAD some visibility.


I'm not the only one, either. Allan Guthrie says he did two hours of promotional work every day for his novella BYE BYE BABY, which has so far sold 35,000. In my case, the work is beginning to bear some fruit. The website for Theakston's crime writing festival in Harrogate have just run this feature by me. But it's a slog.


The only positive spin I can really put on all this work is that if you are proud of your work, it's not actually a bad thing to have to stand up and shout for it, rather than leave all that stuff to someone at the publishers, who has another twenty books to publicise as well.


Let's see how it goes for the next few months. I've given myself until June to go full-out on publicising HOPE ROAD. Can I beat Allan? We'll see...

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Self-interview

Self publishingPosted by John Barlow Thu, January 05, 2012 11:15:48

There’s really nothing quite so self-indulgent as having a public conversation with yourself. Nigel Bird (author of DIRTY OLD TOWN, amongst others) invited me to try a self-interview for his crime fiction site SEA MINOR. The result is posted there today. I don’t think I disgraced myself.

Sales of HOPE ROAD have been hampered by my own incompetence. I still haven’t got the book up on Apple, B&N, Tescos, Waterstones... It all takes longer than I had imagined, compared to the quick-silver service that Amazon provides. It is a recurring theme in discussions of e-publishing: Amazon really do seem to do things better than the rest.

Anyway, the book has now sold 50 copies, which sounds like nothing, but I’m quite happy about it, given that until today there had been almost no publicity at all. Plus, I am incredibly happy to remind myself that even if the book is not a runaway bestseller in the first eight weeks, a) it will still be freely available thereafter, b) the rights will still be mine.

Finally, Joe Konrath has decided to subsist on nothing but beer and water for 30 days. The kind of thing every writer should be doing. Go Joe!

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Crime Fiction Lover

Crime fictionPosted by John Barlow Sun, December 18, 2011 19:19:57
Post about HOPE ROAD in Crime Fiction Lover. They're going to do a review of the book in the New Year.

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Amazon Prime and free books

Self publishingPosted by John Barlow Sun, December 18, 2011 12:15:09

A couple of days ago I enrolled an old crime novel of mine on the Amazon Prime scheme. This allows the book to be downloaded by those paying a fixed subscription to Amazon Prime (they can download as many participating books as they want).

I’m thinking about doing the same for HOPE ROAD, so I was interested to see how it went with the other book, a humorous noir called WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO JERRY PICCO?, which is distinguished by having the worst cover in the history of ebook publishing.

A feature of enrolling in Prime is that although your book has to remain exclusive to Amazon for 90 days, within that timeframe you can schedule 5 days in which your book is free to all Amazon customers. This, it is argued, garners valuable visibility for your book, given that it is likely to shift up the rankings.

Well, after 30 hours on the program, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO JERRY PICCO? has had about 700 free downloads and is 3rd on the hard-boiled mystery category in the UK (5th in the US), and about 300th on the UK’s overall free book ranking. I have no idea how this will play out once the ‘free’ days are over, but I’ll report back. In the meantime, look at this:

Yes, I’m beating ebook trailblazers Konrath and Croutch!

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Review: FRAGILE by Lisa Unger

ReviewsPosted by John Barlow Sat, December 17, 2011 11:00:09

Lisa Unger’s FRAGILE is a kind of slow-burn crime novel. Set in a small town 100 miles from New York, the story is about the disappearance of a teenaged girl from the community. There’s a lot of character-based development, especially at the beginning, and for a good hundred pages you’re not entirely sure if the novel really is about a crime, or whether it’s a study of the personalities, relationships and backstories of the main characters. Indeed, for the first third of the book it seems as if the hunt for a missing girl is simply a loose structure to hang the novel on. This initial perception isn’t helped by the fact that the main character is a practising psychologist who spends a lot of time analysing those around her and herself.

But it is a crime novel, one with a very elegant and complex structure. The main players in the unfolding drama of the missing girl are all connected, either directly or indirectly, to the disappearance of another girl from the same community a generation earlier. In that case, she ended up dead, a fact which adds an extra layer of implied jeopardy to the new situation. The disappearance of the new girl (after an argument with her mother) is a typical case of a seventeen-year-old girl going AWOL, but as the town slowly wakes up to the possibility that she has been abducted or killed, the truth about the murder thirty years ago slowly surfaces.

The novel deals with issues of guilt, and how we are able to conceal it so well that it lies unnoticed, not forgotten, but on the outside of our lives, like something hidden at the back of a large, junk-filled attic where no one ever goes (an image used in the novel); the facts are all there, still nominally amongst us, close to our lives, but we allow them to fade almost entirely from memory. In FRAGILE it takes another potential murder to draw out the truth, and Lisa Unger does this incredibly well. We learn only gradually what happened thirty years ago, yet it doesn’t feel like a trail of cues any more than the hunt for the missing girl feels like a straightforward mystery, because by the time the plot is moving to its double resolution we’re heavily invested in the characters themselves (warning: you’re going to read the final chapters fast). The effect is strangely compelling: two mysteries to resolve, and a complex web of personal relationships that are about to be torn apart by the truth.

Didn’t like? Important dialogue was often interspersed with the internal thoughts/analysis of Maggie (the psychologist). In fact, I didn’t like Maggie much at all. I did understand her character, and empathised with her on many levels. But at the same time I wanted her to be a little more assertive. I think the novel could have done with a stronger person at its heart, rather than a massively tolerant one.

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Bill Crider

Self publishingPosted by John Barlow Fri, December 16, 2011 21:38:47
Today HOPE ROAD was featured on the blog of Bill Crider, patron saint of American genre writing. When I look at what Bill has written, as well as a PhD in crime fiction and a career in literary studies, it makes me think that I should be working a lot faster and in a lot more genres...


Anyway, thanks Bill!


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Self publishing. Why?

Self publishingPosted by John Barlow Wed, December 14, 2011 15:47:44

Back in 2010, when I started writing HOPE ROAD, I emailed a writer friend of mine. He’s about the same age as me and he also writes both fiction and non-fiction, as well as articles for food magazines (again, like me). Both of us had started our writing careers with a bit of literary glory, in my case the Paris Review Discovery Prize, and both of us had gone on to publish with Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, the most prestigious publisher in the US.

To the extent that we were both making a living from writing, and that we had respectable publishing histories behind us, we were doing okay. We were bothwriters. Yet when I mailed him, it wasn’t in the spirit of excitement, to say, Hey, I just started a new novel! No; it was something more like, Can you believe what an idiot I am!

Things in publishing had got very bad. Book deals were becoming incredibly difficult to get, and advances were going down and down. Starting a novel seemed like an act of ridiculous optimism. And on top of that, it would mean switching genres, because HOPE ROAD is a crime mystery. I would be a genre writer!

The idea for the novel had been in my head for years. I’d always had the urge to write crime fiction, and in fact I wrote three (unpublished) crime novels in my twenties. However, the first story I ever published won a ‘literary’ prize, and as a consequence of that I moved towards a ‘literary’ career. Those early manuscripts stayed under the bed.

I’m not complaining about any of this. I worked with some great editors at great houses, and my last book in particular has taken me far and wide as a speaker, including an amazing trip to Australia. Switching to crime writing, though, was a big step.

Because I was doing a fair amount of food journalism, which paid the rent, I ignored the consequences of all this and just wrote the damn book. Along the way I left my New York agent, reasoning that since the new novel was going to be set in Britain, I ought to have someone on the ground in London to sell it. I sent the MS to half a dozen agents, got some positive responses, and decided on an agent. She’s an ex-editor, and her input dramatically improved the book.

As I worked on the novel, I was also keeping an eye on:

1. How opinions towards self-publishing were changing within the book industry.

2. How the market for ebooks was developing and expanding.

3. The number of expletives in Joe Konrath’s blog posts whenever he mentioned ‘legacy’ publishers...

Barry Eisler claims that ebooks are the biggest change in our relationship with books since the printing press. Perhaps. I certainly have an ereader, and have not read a paper book since the summer. I’ve changed pretty much to digital. The question, then, is whether I should go the next step and do what so many writers are already doing and self-publish.

I’m still not sure. Traditional publishers have taken a kicking recently. You’d be hard pressed to find a blogger speaking out in favour of the established publishers at the moment. But look what Vintage has done for Jo Nesbo in the last few years. Look at how big publishers are now kitting up to take their content into new formats (where all but the most tech-savvy independents will be ill equipped to go), how they’re talking to book-streaming start-ups, how they’re being inventive on pricing... Apart from any of that, a publisher gives you an editor. With HOPE ROAD I was lucky, I had an editor in the form of my agent. But long term, do I want to go it alone?

The answer is no. So why self publish, especially when I have an agent? Well, I want to be a part of the revolution. I don’t want to hang about for months waiting for an editor to say yes, and then another 18 months waiting for a publication slot. I don’t want to ask myself, ten years from now, what would have happened if I’d stuck the bloody novel on Amazon when ebooks were taking off and self publishing seemed like the most exciting place to be for any writer.

Does a writer want readers or a publisher? Both, in my case. But which does a writer want more? I want readers. And I want readers now, not in 18 months' time. I want readers because I think this is the genre I should have been working in from the start. HOPE ROAD is effectively my fourth crime mystery, and it’s easily the best.

So, for the time being, we won’t be submitting the finished book to any publishers. We’ll set it free and see what the market makes of it. What’s the worst that can happen?

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