Trad. vs Indie, a Personal View by John Barlow

Author John Barlow
Author John Barlow

I’ve been lucky as an author. Without ever making it onto the bestseller lists, I’ve managed to keep going as a free-lance writer since I quit my day job in 2004. Work as a journalist and ghost-writer has helped to make ends meet, but writing books for traditional publishers has been the main focus of my energy.

However, I recently began to ask myself whether it still made sense for a mid-lister like me to keep chasing traditional book deals as part of the professional mix of a free-lancer? As the indie revolution gains momentum, more and more writers are thinking of jumping ship. Last year I indie-published a humorous novel to test the water, using a pseudonym. The experience was strangely enjoyable, so with my latest serious work of fiction, a crime mystery, I’ve gone totally Kindle (and Kobo etc.). Here are a few thoughts on my experiences on my trad-to-indie switch.


If you are trad published, your editor will probably take you out for lunch at least once. In the past I’ve heard about the sordid secrets of a Booker prize winner, the prima donna demands of writers on US book tours, and many other tidbits of literary gossip. It’s not the lunches that are important, but the personal contact you have with people at your publisher, the feeling that you and your work *belong* there. Books occupy an extremely special, high-prestige position in our culture, and as a writer with an established publisher you can legitimately feel as if you are a part of that world and everything it represents. I think that for many writers being with a trad publisher is a crucial element in their identity and self-image, and it shouldn’t be underestimated. When you self-publish, there’s none of this. Lunch? Pot Noodle.


Publishing houses are magical places, full of bright, talented people. For example, when Courtney Hoddel at FSG was editing my book, the experience was so stimulating and exciting that I sometimes had to stop and remind myself that I was actually getting paid as well! If you love books and yearn to write them, being with a major publishing house (and an brilliant editor) is the most ludicrously privileged experience you’ll ever have. And it’s not just editors. There are the publicists, the cover artist, the fact-checkers and proof-readers…

As an indie you have to build a comparable support network. My novel HOPE ROAD was edited by someone from a big house as a favour, but I won’t be able to rely on favours forever. The rest of the process I had to pay for, and this came as a bit of a shock. However, as soon as the proof-reader’s notes came back, I was immediately relieved that I’d shelled out $250 for her services; my impeccable MS was in fact full of small but niggling errors. For my cover, I got an artist who works for the big publishing houses. It cost a lot, but I think it shows. The whole book? Just shy of $1000. Of course, you *can* economise. Last year my experimental ebook cost me nothing. I even did the art work myself, and later found the book cited on a blog hosting a Worst Ebook Covers competition!


The person who does your publicity in a trad house is normally a young woman called Pippa or Samantha. I always used to feel that Pippa wasn’t quite pulling her weight with my books. Authors are paranoid, selfish and sulky, and it took me three books to realise (mainly through talking to editors who had been publicists early in their careers) that it’s a horrible, thankless task. You’re trying to do publicity for dozen books simultaneously, then another dozen….

For several weeks now I’ve been an indie and have to do my own publicity. I do miss Pippa a little bit, but I’m very much enjoying being my own advocate and salesman. I’ve been asking book bloggers for reviews, begging websites to let me do guest posts, offering to do interviews… Alan Guthrie, the Scottish crime writer and literary agent, managed to sell 35,000 copies of his ebook BYE BYE BABY last year by doing two hours of publicity every day until it hit the top-seller lists on Amazon. As I go down the same path, I am beginning to luxuriate the feeling of NOT relying on someone else. It’s scary but liberating. You’re also in control, and there’s no one to blame. Anecdote: over lunch with an editor before my book EATING MAMMALS came out we hatched a devious plan to send advanced copies of the book (which is set in Yorkshire) to all the Yorkshire celebrities we could think of. It was going to be the mainstay of our campaign, and I thought this was a brilliant way of publicising the book. Some time later he mailed to say he’d lost the list. The whole thing fizzled out. I don’t think Dickie Bird ever got his copy.


Advances in traditional publishing are plummeting, and who knows how low they’ll go. Money isn’t everything, of course. Personally, I haven’t continued to be a writer because of the money. My TOTAL earnings from three books published traditionally in a variety of countries, including the US, is around $90,000. That’s worldwide earnings. Before tax and bad habits. Subtract 15% for your agent and you’re down to around $25K per book. I’ve never had a bestseller, and all things considered I’ve been really lucky to earn that much. One very talented American novelist I know was claiming food stamps while he wrote his fifth published novel.

The ebook market is expanding very quickly, and a lot of indies are making big bucks. Whether this will happen to me I don’t know. One thing’s for sure, though: before you start believing every word that the ebook evangelists say, don’t overlook the fact that trad publishing is still a marvellous place to be. Personally, I’m already pretty convinced that I made the right choice by jumping ship. But things might be different for you. If they are, I hope you have a lovely lunch. And do say hello to Pip.

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John Barlow was born in West Yorkshire, England, in 1967. He currently lives in Spain and writes full-time, working as a ghost-writer and a food journalist as well as writing fiction. He is the author of Eating Mammals, Intoxicated, and Everything but the Squeal.  He published the off-beat noir novel What Ever Happened to Jerry Picco? under the pseudonym Joe Florez. His current project is the LS9 crime series. Hope Road is the first novel in the series, which will eventually comprise nine novels.  More information on John is available on his website and at     [subscribe2]

Author: John Barlow

John Barlow writes both fiction and non-fiction, publishes occasional food journalism and also works as a ghost-writer. In addition, he is a translator, and has a side-line in eBooks for language learning. His John Ray / LS9 crime thriller series is currently exclusive to Amazon. If you'd like a review copy of The Communion of Saints, please contact John through his website.

14 thoughts on “Trad. vs Indie, a Personal View by John Barlow”

  1. Great article John. I think indies need to hear this message. It's not all rainbows and lollipops on the other side of the fence. We could all do with a Pippa though.

  2. I also especially enjoyed the 'Pippa' paragraph. I am wondering if 'Pippa' is a private joke of the authors or if that is a person's actual name. Either way, it seems to be the greatest hurdle (or lack thereof depending on ones 'Pippa') for an Indie author to get over. Good article though. No skimming through this one for me!

  3. Hi, thank you all so much for our comments.

    Mark, I'm from a village called Gomersal, close to Cleckheaton, not far from Leeds. And you?

    Pippa isn't a real person! But I still wish I had her to help with publicity…

    Best wishes, John

  4. That was a really nice look at your career to date. One thing I loved reading was how at one point you had to remind yourself that you were actually getting paid! I feel that way myself. I think plenty of us do what we do just because we love it. Payment is an additional bonus 🙂

  5. Hi Rosanne. I guess it sounds like a lot. Through that period I was trying to make a living from writing, so those figures should be seen in terms of what I might have earned doing something else. But, yes, to be paid ANYTHING to write fiction is a fantastic privilege. As times goes on I come to appreciate that more and more. Best wishes!

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