John Barlow's blog

John Barlow's blog

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 I’d always had the urge to write crime fiction, and in fact I wrote three (unpublished) crime novels in my twenties.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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