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Johnny B. Truant was last on the show 2 years ago, when he had written one novel in 12 years. How things have changed!
Now he's a full-time fiction author at RealmAndSands, with 12 series titles (or product funnels) under his belt, including sci fi epic, The Beam and the Unicorn Western universe. We talk about the process of writing fast, the mindset shift needed and plans to write a book live with Fiction Unboxed. In the intro, I mention my exciting experience at London Book Fair 2014, as well as my shifting strategy for the site and my writing life, plus the launch of ACX into UK, with the result that One Day In Budapest is now available in audio.
This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
Johnny B. Truant is the author of fiction across multiple genres, including the sci fi epic, “The Beam,” “Unicorn Western,” “Fat Vampire,” “Cursed,” and “The Bialy Pimps.” He’s also a podcaster at the SelfPublishingPodcast.com, along with Sean Platt and David Wright.
You can watch the video on YouTube here, or read the full transcript below. In the interview, we discuss:
- How things have changed for Johnny in the last 2 years
- The process of writing fast
- The mindset of writing fiction full-time
- Lessons learned from writing and publishing so much
- The role podcasting plays in Johnny's life
- The Fiction Unboxed Project
- How Johnny's degrees in genetics and philosophy impact his writing and research process
- How to go from being an author to running a business as an author
- The next two years of being an indie
Johnny B. Truant Interview Transcript
Joanna: Hi, everyone, I’m Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com, and today I’m here with Johnny B. Truant. Hi, Johnny.
Johnny: Hey, Joanna, thanks for having me on again.
Joanna: It’s great to have you back on the show, and so much has changed. But just as a little introduction, Johnny is the author of fiction across multiple genres, including the sci fi epic, “The Beam,” “Unicorn Western,” “Fat Vampire,” “Cursed,” and “The Bialy Pimps.” He’s also a podcaster at the SelfPublishingPodcast.com, along with Sean Platt and David Wright, and I know a lot of you listen to their show. So, this should be an alternative Johnny today. We’re going to try to get something new, you never know!
Johnny: People go to your show and to Simon’s Rocking Self-Publishing when they’re tired of our off-topic and stuff.
Joanna: Yes, I’m relentlessly on-topic. And just not funny, either. Or swearing.
Johnny: They come to us when they want depravity, so it works out.
Joanna: Exactly! So, what’s interesting is you last came on the podcast two years ago in May 2012, and we’re recording this in April 2014. Now, you had just published “The Bialy Pimps,” and I knew you from your previous kind of life as a sort of professional blogger, internet marketing guru.
So, tell us who you were then and what has changed in the last couple of years?
Johnny: Everything. Would you like me to elaborate on that? That, that was funny, because when you were saying that, and you were like, “Two years ago,” two years ago for me right now is another world. It was like one of those things where a lot of the time you have established authors, mostly, and I feel kind of like looking back, what was I doing on? I had one book, I’d written it twelve years ago, so it in theory took me twelve years to polish it up and stuff, and today, I make my full-time living as an author, and I don’t do any of the stuff that I used to do.
I closed the doors on the last of the Johnny 1.0 online education sorts of things a few months ago, and so this is my full-time gig now, and the podcast, our Self-Publishing Podcast, is now two years old. I’m in the same room, I still work at home, I worked at home before. But other than that, 100% of my work day is revamped, it’s wiped clean and started again.
Joanna: And just tell us a bit more about what type of books you now have, and about Realm and Sands as well.
Johnny: Well, Sean Platt and I partner in Realm and Sands online. We made the conscious decision to hop genres, which has not been universally accepted by the people who listen, but that’s OK, because it’s not meant as advice: we’re telling people what we are doing. And because of that, we tried to hit as many little spots as we could. So this is, to us, like, Leonard Nimoy from Star Trek is known as Spock, and poor Leonard Nimoy can never do anything else, because he was always Spock. At this point, our best serial, our biggest world is The Beam, and in the time it took to write everything that’s on my shelf – virtual and physical – right now, we could have written six or seven seasons of The Beam. But instead we made the conscious decision to say, “OK, well, The Beam is sci fi, Unicorn Western is fantasy western gonzo mash-up, Cursed is horror, Namaste is action-adventure … ” We wrote straight comedies, so we have three that are just like written sitcoms. We’ve collaborated with Lexi Maxxwell in the erotica space, we’ve done non-fiction as fiction in the world of “The Beam,” with a fictional author named Sterling Gibson–who’s not real, we made him up–and so the whole idea is we wanted to plant all the seeds that we wanted to eventually have, early on, and it meant that we were building horizontally rather than vertically, but now we’re in a position where we’re beginning to really build on top of those franchises, all at once.
Joanna: So this is I want to say ten series you’ve got going?
Johnny: I’m looking in my bookshelf right now. I would say we’ve used the term ‘twelve product funnels,’ this is how we usually describe that, but the lines blur a little in that. And when we say a product funnel, it’s like a product line: I suppose most authors could just say a series or a serial.
Joanna: It’s amazing. Which all begs the question, for people who are listening, who didn’t know you before (and the reason I asked you on the show back then is I’d spent three years learning from you, and from Johnny 1.0, and I’d bought some of your products and everything, so Johnny 1.0 was kind of a guru to me, which is so funny, given where we are now, it’s really funny, things really move on), but how do you go from writing one novel in ten years to writing these twelve separate things and gazillions of words? How do you do that?
Talk a bit about the process, because I know you talk about it in “Write, Publish, Repeat,” and we’ll come back to Fiction Unboxed, but just give us an overview: how do you do that?
Johnny: So there’s a lot of pieces to that question. To give people context, we just made a video a little while ago, and, and the line that I used that I just love, and I had a graphic that went with it, was, “In 1999 I wrote my first novel, in 2012 I wrote my second, and then in 2013 I teamed up with Sean and we wrote the word equivalent of one and a half times the Harry Potter series,” which is what you were just referring to.
And I think that one was, I am a naturally fast writer. I don’t think everyone needs to write like we do, but I do think that writing quickly relative to your own speed helps get your censor out of the way. So there’s the idea of writing fast, but because I write fast, once something clicked in terms of the way to tell a story, both storytelling-wise but also process-wise, it was like I was just able to click them off like this. And the second major thing, which not everybody is going to have, like you don’t have, is a partner, a writing partner. So, with Realm and Sands, there are two projects, I keep looking at my bookcase for reference. “Unicorn Western” and “The Beam” worlds, I polish those after they’ve gone to Sean and gone through a few edits. But most of our work, I never see again until it’s done. I write a rough draft, it goes to Sean for two rounds of edit and polish and rearrange, then it goes to our professional editor, and then sometimes to beta readers, but I don’t see it again. And so when all I’m doing is writing rough drafts, I’m a full-time writer, so if I’m writing for three or four hours every morning and I write fast, those words pile up really, really quick.
Joanna: Which is brilliant, and I obviously don’t write with a partner, but I get to keep all the money!
Johnny: Yes, you do! You do, that is true, that is a big advantage.
Joanna: And I do that. And I’ve interviewed Sean and David Wright on the show as well, about collaboration, so I’m not going to ask you about that. What I am going to ask you is, Johnny 1.0 was a self-help guru as well.
Johnny: He was a lot of things.
Joanna: He was, but he was, “You can be awesome,” and it was about kicking people’s asses into gear and about taking control of your life. I wonder if you could talk a bit about that attitude.
How does the mind-set come into becoming that kind of concentrated fiction writer?
Johnny: Actually, in “Write, Publish, Repeat” we have a lot of this. I sort of think there’s a tough love or reality-based approach. Because you keep saying I was a guru, and I flinch a little every time. I understand the spirit in which it’s intended, but I don’t know that I want to be a guru.
Joanna: In a good way!
Johnny: Yes, but I think that self-help can have that, too, or motivation, it can be a lot of hot air, or it can be legitimate sorts of things. And one of the things that I tried to really focus on when I was doing a lot of that material was what are the things that people don’t actually want to hear, and it usually boiled down to “This is hard work, this is going to take a long time, things change slowly,” and “Write, Publish, Repeat” is all about that. I mean, we spend a lot of time saying, “Look, this is going to take you a really long time; you’re going to go through really long, frustrated periods.”
And so I think that a lot of the stuff that I wrote about when I was doing the earlier stuff has definitely translated into stuff we’re doing now, and I think it’s appreciated by a lot of our listeners and readers, because they’re tired of having smoke blown up their butts with the Kindle Goldrush crap or, when you see Hugh Howey, he wrote a lot of books, and then he had one that hit. And he was on our show and was as mystified as anyone else would be by “that’s the one that took off?” And I think that when people see lightning-strike success, they think, “Well, that, that’s what I’m looking for, I’m looking for the lightning strike,” and our contention is, number one, you can out-work the need for a lightning strike, because you just produce and produce, and they may all perform at a mediocre level, and also, you’re much more likely to have that once you’ve spent five years or ten years or however long, building up a body of work that maybe doesn’t go anywhere.
So, I think that a lot of that is really hard work, we put in tremendous amounts of time: that’s stuff that’s starting to come back out.
Joanna: Absolutely, and it’s funny you said that, because I was at London Book Fair last week and was really inspired by the seven-figure um indie romance writers basically. And I was talking to Barbara Freethy, and she has thirty-seven books out. I worked out that to basically make a million dollars, with thirty-seven books, you only have to sell about 10,000 of each book, making around $2 each. And we can immediately see that that’s actually achievable, right? So that’s a longer-term success. But how long will it take you before you and Sean are at thirty-seven books? Probably not very long!
Johnny: Well, yes, but I think that we get ahead of ourselves. I have a few things I can say on this, let’s see if I can keep track of them all in my head. 2013 was our crunch year. It was like pilot year. I mean, I didn’t even mention “The Robot Proletariat,” there’s that, too. And we put out so much stuff that we got ahead of our readership. It was like analysis paralysis, I think. They were like, “OK, well if you produce two books a year, then I can get excited about your new releases and anticipate them, but here it’s raining books!”
And so, when we did that, I think that we didn’t proportionately get the reward that we would have gotten with those same exact books spaced out over time. Now, we knew that, but we did it for a different reason. But the other thing, too, is I think there is a time thing, and I’ve only been doing this, I’ve been full time for about six months, I think, and I’ve been writing full time, as in I’ve had a full-time income, for six months ,and I’ve been writing for a year and a half, kind of hardcore. And, it’s been such an intense period of time. How long have you been professionally, publishing, Joanna?
Joanna: Fiction, two and a half years.
Johnny: Right, so you’re almost as new to this as I am, and it’s so hard, it feels like we’ve been doing this for ever, but think what it’s going to be when we’re at ten years, when we’re at twenty years: this is a long-term thing. And so when I hear that, I think, “Yeah, we just stick in here, and we keep doing what we’re doing, and, I mean, I’m in this for the long haul.”
Joanna: I feel that too. It’s so funny you say that, because I look at the big names, like Stephen King, I know you guys like Stephen King, and the people who are big names in the space have been doing this for thirty years, forty years. You know, most of them are in their fifties. So I feel the same way: I feel, “Wow, I’m so excited,” but, we’ve got to remember we’re just at the beginning, which is very, very cool.
But I wanted to ask you there, I think that we’re of the mind that mistakes are not mistakes, they’re learning experiences.
What do you think that you, or you and Sean, have done in quotation marks “wrong,” or what have you learned from what you’ve done, and what are you going to change?
Johnny: Well, we’ve gone back and forth on best ways to promote, and I wouldn’t say that we’ve found our secret sauce yet. We completely ignored most of social media, other than just occasional Twittering, and we ignored blogging for the first year. We came back to blogging at the beginning of this year, sort of in force. And I used to write what I called epic posts, which really does sound conceited, but whatever, they were big idea posts. And so we said, what if I took some of those, and we wrote those on our blog at Realm and Sands, and they were about something that was addressed by our books, because I was good at that, I could get people attracted. So, we had one on revenge, because our book, “Namaste,” is on revenge. We had one on are we too connected, which was a Beam one. And now we’ve backed away from that, too, a little bit, because it’s the 80/20 rule. It takes so much time and mental energy to write those: they’re so big and involved that we don’t feel like we’re getting the benefit out of them.
So we haven’t figured out promotion: I don’t know that that counts as a mistake, because it’s a work in progress. I think that we probably could do a little bit more in terms of spacing out series. So, for instance, my series, “Fat Vampire,” which I wrote on my own, my biggest launches to date were for Number Five and Number Six, which were the last two. And I think that happened because people had time to build an anticipation: they got through the first four, and they were like, “OK, well now I’m ready, now I’m anticipating,” whereas so far, we’ve just been dum-dum-dum. Now, “The Beam” is the first one where we’re truly getting an anticipated second launch, and that’ll be out May 1st.
I don’t know, we’ve made a bunch of dumb mistakes. Little and big: we just blew a bunch of money on Facebook ads recently that didn’t get us anywhere, but it’s hard to find those, I don’t consider that the end: we’re going to keep experimenting with Facebook ads; we’re going to keep experimenting with blogging.
Joanna: I think that’s great, because I think this is part of what we do: we’re always experimenting and sharing things. I’m going to come back to the podcasts in a minute. But interestingly, also talking to Bella Andre and Barbara, Liliana Hart, for example: they talked about Book Five in a series being absolutely critical, as in, it is Book Five that takes off. And I was like, “Oh! Penny drops,” because I’ve got “Desecration,” the first in another crime series, and I’m like, “Why aren’t more people buying it?” and the fact is, it’s number one in a new series, so it’s just the same, you know, people don’t necessarily cross over between series, even with one author. So this was a real penny drop moment for me: it was like, OK, so you have to get to Book Five. Which, you’ve seen with “Fat Vampire.” And “The Beam” is so big, it’s almost five in one book!
Johnny: Sort of, but I can see that for real. Because another thing we’ve played with – not to go off on something – is the idea of serialization. We’ve gone back and forth on do we release individual episodes, or our book, “The Beam,” which is a couple inches thick, that’s a season. That’s six episodes. So it really is only one book. And so with Season Two, I’m like, “Well, we need to get Three, Four, Five,” you know.
Joanna: Yes, it’s a big one. I’ve read “The Beam 1” and it’s awesome, and it’s very big. I want to come back to that in a minute. The podcasting. One of the ways that we share, obviously: I have a podcast, you have a podcast, and we share what we learn as we go. But of course, podcasting is its own little time-suck and there are many issues with podcasting.
How do you think podcasting has been part of changing your life and do you recommend it for other people?
Johnny: You just asked me two questions there, and they may have different answers. Let me answer how has it changed? If it were not for the podcast, I personally would probably not be doing anything that I’m doing right now. But, unique to me, because what happened is, I knew Sean, I just knew him because Sean’s a marketer, too. He was in all the same circles as I was. And so, I said, “Let’s do a podcast,” because he and I had recorded just an interview, about their first experiences with “Yesterday’s Gone,” their serial, and it was cool to be, “Wow, that was fun to talk about: let’s keep talking about it.”
Meanwhile, I had one book. You know, what business did I have? But it, it’s not like I tried to hide that: I was just like, “Here’s my journey with these other guys, and I’ll be the reality check.” And so through that, through seeing how they worked, and how they got past their hurdles, it was both directly and indirectly responsible for helping to change the way that I thought about storytelling and writing. And then I started working with Sean, and I’ve produced a pretty good amount by myself, but I’ve produced way, way more with my partner.
So, for me it’s made a huge difference. And that’s not even counting the stuff that most people would normally think of. But I think that the masterminding that occurs between us, even if nobody was listening, is huge, because we get ideas for ways to do growth-hacking stuff. I don’t want to detour into “Write, Publish, Repeat,” but our non-fiction book has driven sales of our fiction, and our podcast, which is non-fiction self-publishing, has driven sales of our fiction books as well.
So, that’s huge. Now, as to whether I’d recommend it, I think that’s it’s definitely an 80/20 thing for a lot of people, and I think it would be a mistake if everybody took away from listening to the two of us, “I’m going to now talk about self-publishing,” then we have a ton of people talking about publishing. That doesn’t make sense!
But I know some people who’ve had some success, like Dave. Dave is doing his Walking Dave podcast, where he’s just talking about his process, and it’s an easy way for him to produce content and share with his fans, and that may be, depending on your level of tech ability and how much work you have to put into it.
Joanna: I think anything that makes people more human – because with words on a page, it’s still, there’s still no smile, there’s no sound of the voice. You know more about me by listening to my voice than you would otherwise, and by seeing us, people get that. I think that’s a big part of doing this type of thing, and doing video, as well. I, I think it’s, “Oh wow, look, that’s Johnny and that’s a picture behind him that looks really cool.” That type of thing. But you mentioned the ‘masterminding between us,’ you and Sean, and ‘even if nobody’s watching,’ but you have something going on where people can watch your masterminding and your process, don’t you?
Tell us about Fiction Unboxed.
Johnny: So, OK, when we wrote our, our non-fiction publishing book, “Write, Publish, Repeat,” which is “Write, Publish, Repeat,” not “Write Publisher Pete,” which is what everybody thinks, people loved that, and we got a really great initial reaction, but, people were, “Yeah, but how?” And I think people even said that in their reviews, “Well, this is great, but how?” and we just spent all that time telling you how! But the question was, “But how do you write all that stuff? I got to write, publish, repeat, but how do I get the stories out? How do I get past my blocks? How do I arrange my day?”
And so they’d ask, “Well, so what’s your process? You outline, and then you do this, and what percentage of time?” and so rather than fielding all those questions, we said, “Why don’t we just show everybody?” So what Fiction Unboxed is, we’re going to write a novel, live, in thirty days, and let everybody watch everything. So it’ll be a 75,000 word plus novel, a full-length novel, and I’m going to write in the mornings, and I’m going to take those words and stick them up on a dedicated website so that people can see them in their raw form. Sean will write his beats, which are like a loose outline, and post those and explain it. We’re going to record all of our story meetings, like this between you and me, if this were between me and Sean, we’d record it and share all of those, share out emails. It’s basically end to end.
We’re doing it through Kickstarter, which has an ulterior motive that all of our podcast listeners know about, in that it, it promotes our self-publishing side of our business, but at the same time, we think it will do what “Write, Publish, Repeat” did, and raise our profile in general. So, we’re doing that on Kickstarter, starting April 22nd.
Joanna: And where can people find out specifically about that?
Johnny: When is this going to air?
Joanna: Let’s pretend it could be anybody listening any time, so is there a link they’ll be able to get?
Johnny: Alright, anybody, anytime. I’m not actually sure what happens to Kickstarters once they’re done and they go into the archive, but between April 22nd and May 21st of 2014, you will just search Kickstarter for Fiction Unboxed. Prior to that, we have an early sign-up notification that’s at selfpublishingpodcast.com/fiction-unboxed – because we’re going to have Day One bonuses and stuff, and after that, I honestly don’t know. I suppose it stays on Kickstarter, but I don’t know what we’re going to do with it.
Joanna: Hopefully you will package it up!
Johnny: Probably, although I got to tell you, working with Dave, and as many jokes as we make about info products, I’m, “So, that would be an info product, right, and will we sell it for $97? I don’t know if I could do that anymore, even though that seems logical!”
Joanna: It does seem logical, and it is funny listening to you guys talk about that, because, I have training courses for authors as well on my site, and, when people want something, they’re happy to pay for it, so, Dave will come round, I’m sure!
Johnny: And I had things for sale for $97 when I was doing a lot of that.
Joanna: Exactly! So, I want to briefly, before I come back to the business side, ask you about “The Beam.” Because I’ve tried a couple of your books, and this is what is interesting about you guys having all of these different products, you have some which are clearly in the humor category, of which I’m just not the type of audience for that. I really like “The Beam,” I think it’s brilliant. And I think you have degrees in genetics, am I right?
Johnny: Genetics and philosophy.
Joanna: Genetics – exactly! That’s my point: “The Beam” is a very intelligent book–as I read it, I’m, “Wow, this is the educated side of Johnny, and the far more serious side of you.” And then the funny stuff seems to me much lighter. So I wanted to ask you about that.
Are you finding that all of this means you can reconcile these sides of you, does this make you really happy, or how are you reconciling all of this?
Johnny: Oh, that’s such a fun question. I mean, I went to school for molecular genetics and philosophy, and I went to grad school for a year, I was getting a PhD. And I was on scholarship and stuff, so I don’t look and say that I wasted a bunch of money, but I feel like, “Why did I spend all that time?” Now I’m an author. And what’s really, really cool is that I didn’t intend to do any of that. It’s not like Michael Crichton stuff, it tends to be very scientific sometimes, or, Tom Clancy is very detail-oriented.
And I didn’t set out to do that. I didn’t say, I’m going to, do any of that. But the first time it cropped up was actually in “Fat Vampire,” of all things! I had somebody after one of the books email me and say, “I don’t think you really know what a retrovirus is, because you did this wrong,” and I said, “No, let me explain to you exactly how it worked in the book,” and they were, “OK, well, whatever.”
But it’s the sort of thing that, I think any writer, if they’re lucky, has had that experience where you find yourself going down a path, and you’re, “Oh, I know how to explain that,” and for me, a lot of it has been stuff that has to do with biology. What you’re talking about in “The Beam” is, with a lot of the tech stuff, we’re just like, “This sounds jargony enough that we know it’s kind of akin to this, and we, don't need to understand what all those little things, we don’t need to know exactly the moving parts of a nanobot.”
“The Beam” is about the line between we as people and our connectivity as facilitated by technology. And so, when they’re working on things like brain beam, which is our network, interfacing or anything like that in the nature of consciousness, those are the explanations that come out of me. There’s a scene in the first one–this isn’t a spoiler–where our upgrades dealer (because people are getting biological augmentations, chips in their brains and stuff), our salesman, Doc, goes in to his upgrades wholesaler, and they show him to the wrong place, and it’s this really high-end stuff, and then I needed to have the scientists rattle on about like how these things would work: I’m, “Oh, I know how to do this!” And when we get into some of the stuff about consciousness, then that’s just all the philosophy.
So I love that that’s a part of writing, that suddenly this is fully integrated with what I learned, it came full circle.
Joanna: I like that best: for me, when I read a book, I want to learn stuff. And I feel that even though “The Beam” is sci fi, I still feel there’s enough of your research, and, like you say, your Sterling Gibson stuff, that’s there, I feel like, “Oh, I just learned something,” which is really cool.
Johnny: Did you read “Plugged”?
Joanna: I haven’t, but it’s one of those things I want to read, because it’s so interesting. Tell people about that.
Johnny: “Plugged” was fun. The scenario is, Sterling Gibson is basically Malcolm Gladwell. If you put Malcolm Gladwell in the year 2097, and you’re looking back at how things have changed à la “The Tipping Point” or anything like that, or “Outliers,” that’s basically Sterling Gibson. And so, he’s an author who writes in 2097, which is when “The Beam” takes place, and the book “Plugged,” the tagline is, “How Hyper-Connectivity and The Beam Changed the Way we Think.” It’s about the history of the evolution of thought, but going back in the past. I think the earliest times that are referenced are in the 1970s.
And so I had to do a lot of incidental research, not just in terms of what actually occurred, so there’s a guy named Denis Hope – this is real – who claims he owns the Moon. He just claimed it. He’s like, “Hey, UN, like, you know, I own the Moon.” That’s a real thing, and it’s in “Plugged.” But then there’s a bunch of stuff that obviously we made up, but that had to make sense. So something that, for example I refer to as the Lattice–it’s like a missile lattice, essentially, over the US, the US, Canada, and Mexico. Sorry, UK, you guys apparently got nuked over there in the Wild East. But it protects us, and it’s like this big dome. And I had to explain how that worked.
So, I described it as being about the size, the weight and thickness of aluminum foil. So I had to say, “OK, well, a sheet of aluminum foil that could cover the continent, how much would that weigh? And what would be the engineering involved to make something like that work?” And it was fun, like, it was a research project.
Joanna: Which is awesome! After the famous discussion around the pink smoke for “Unicorn Western,” where the objection was, “Don’t you have to do a lot of research for westerns?” and you said, “No, you don’t, you can just make it up,” and thus wrote “Unicorn Western,” …
… now it seems like you are really getting into research, and that that is playing a big part of the books.
Johnny: We talked about this when you were on our show. I think that the word “research” has a lot of baggage with it. It conjures up images of term papers and stuff. But in “Beam” Season Two, our character, Nikolai, he’s from Italy, and he goes up into the Netherlands, and then he goes over and he crosses the English Channel Tunnel, and goes up into England. So I had to research all that stuff. But that’s basically me looking at maps. There’s a Beam World story where we have an ultra-runner who runs this 100-mile race called The Western States, and so I got out a terrain map and figured out where they went. And that’s just kind of like, “Oh, I can imagine them there, I can imagine them that,” it’s just fun. And you do it for real, you go and travel.
Joanna: Yeah, it’s fun. Research is fun, it is part of the point of writing.
Johnny: I’ll get there!
Joanna: Well, I want more of those. I’m looking forward to “Beam” Season Two. But I wanted to ask, one of the things I’m kind of obsessed with at the moment is how people can go from being an author to running a business as an author: so, being a CEO of a publishing business, and this is something you’ve clearly done, in the last two years, even though you were already an entrepreneur.
How do you think people can go from being “just” an author to running a business as an author?
Johnny: I feel like I’m running about six businesses right now! Just to give you an example, and then I’ll actually answer the question. We’re doing the launch for both this Kickstarter project, Fiction Unboxed, and for “Beam” Season Two right now. What that means is, we aren’t just going to make the project available or make “The Beam” available: we want to think, “What can we do?”
One of the first things we did is we said in Season One, “Let’s pull that book and change the calls to action at the end of the book, so that they say, ‘Get ready for Beam Season Two’ and lead to an early sign-up list.” We’re thinking through the mechanics of that logical progression for a customer. We did a series of posts on the blog. The one that ran yesterday asks people to leave in the comments, their favorite moments from “Beam” Season One, and we’re going to give somebody a free print copy of Season Two.
So it’s all about not just “Here’s the material,” which is what I think a lot of writers do, but “How do I make this more rich for the consumer, for the customer and reader, how do I make them really interested, how do I bond them with us?” I mean, for us, it takes on crazy proportions, because we’re running four imprints, plus two podcasts, plus a non-fiction franchise and a Kickstarter project. But I think for most people, it can come down to treating it more seriously. Like, it doesn’t matter what your working hours are, but have them. You know, make them regular, make them religious. I like to ask questions like, “If you had a day job that you were being paid for, would you show up whenever you wanted, would you then talk about being blocked?” I say, “Nobody ever gets plumber’s block, ‘I couldn’t fix your pipes in the basement because I wasn’t struck by the muse,’ you know, like, you’re fired! What a jerk!”
And when you have a job that you’re taking seriously, you wouldn’t make stupid expenses, you wouldn’t say, “This book that I don’t really have any reason that it would sell, I’m going to spend $1,000 on the cover.” You wouldn’t have an open-door policy with your kids, if you have them, where they can just come in at any time: they have to respect your boundaries. I work with these big, huge headphones on, playing loud music with my door closed, and everybody knows not to bother me.
And I think if you consider your writing to be like, “A job,” something where you are responsible for keeping the hours, turning out the profit, making things make logical business sense, that will help.
Joanna: And then, I guess, my final question is, again, you are a businessman, you were running a successful online business before you were doing this. So, obviously, this is viable, this is a viable business, and you’ve seen that this is viable.
So I want you to explain why did you give all of that up for writing fiction, and what are you excited about in terms of the future of this business model?
Johnny: Well, I’ve always wanted to write fiction. I think that some people–I hope there aren’t many of them–get hooked with the Kindle Goldrush crap, and they say, “This looks like a good way to make money.” Not that I’m casting any aspersions, but that’s how John Lock said in his book he approached it: “Boy, this looks like an opportunity.” No, I’m a writer, and I’ve always wanted to be a fiction writer, but there was no viable way to do it. I did that thing where I submit query letters and I read “Writers’ Marketing” and just terrible. And you get rejection letter after rejection letter.
And so, I’ve always been steering toward this. When I was doing my other business, I was still driving all of my interest through writing: it was through personality, it was through creative ways: even when I was doing blog installs, it was my blog that was popular, writing about things that had nothing to do at all with what I did to make money, because it bonded people to me and made them like me. And, so I’ve always tried to find a way to use my writing to make money, because there was no way to do it directly.
And what I like about this, is finally–and this is what clicked when I did that interview with Sean two years ago–now this is viable. And it really is – it’s just about building assets. It’s just about, you don’t have to have one book that sells 100,000 copies in a month: you can have 100 books that sell 1,000 copies in a month, and you get exactly the same thing, or you don’t even need that, because you’re getting 70% for most platforms. I don’t know if I’m giving you the answer from going off track, but it’s a logical business for me: it makes sense if you treat it like a business. You asked about the future, I think, though.
Joanna: Well, then, taking it on to the future, if I interview you again – and I hope I will – in another two years, who will I be interviewing then? What do you see for the next two years?
Johnny: This is always fun, because then two years from now, I may even look like an idiot, but I do think – I mean, I have a friend named Lee and he has a quote where he says, “In the future, I predict that people will want to be entertained.” And so, when people start to talk about, “Will Kindles be around, will Kobo readers, because they’re our friends, right, will they be around, how will people be reading?” the answer is, “They may be reading differently, the rules may be different, the commission structures may be different, the laws may be different, but people are not going to stop wanting to be entertained.” Even if reading dies–I don’t see that happening–but even if that dies, you’re just a storyteller, right: you can tell a story in whatever medium there is.
So with that in mind, I do see some trends that I would predict. I agree with Jim Kukral from Author Marketing Club, who says that this right here: maybe not phones, but mobile reading is going to be increasingly popular. We’re doing some direct sales experiments now, which are very, very preliminary, but I think that’s going to be interesting, because we can do some bundling. So, as an author, you’re sort of building: you used to have to be shelved next to people, and now you can kind of be shelved next to yourself. So I think that the new paradigm is, this is how people find you–they’re interested in you already. They’re going to the bookstore looking for you, because you’ve built devoted regular fans. And so I think that once you have them, you open up some things like, “OK, well you can get my entire catalogue, which you could buy separately for $100, for $50 on our website,” or something like that.
So I do see expansion of, of maybe direct sales, hopefully, maybe through apps, mobile reading, but in general, we’re just going to keep trying to satisfy readers: bond with and satisfy readers, as our primary thing. And the podcast will probably be a large part of that, even though it’s about satisfying writers.
Joanna: Absolutely! Well, I, I hope that continues. And my, my podcast is, I think, three and a half years old now, which is kind of crazy, and, I think yours is two years, isn’t it?
Johnny: Almost exactly two years. Yours just underwent a little reinvention, too.
Joanna: Yes, well, this is the crazy thing. I think the good thing about being an author, being a creative, is that we’re always changing, we’re always morphing into somebody else, and we’re just kind of telling people about it on the way. So, I’m really excited about our future: I really am.
Johnny: And I also think, too, that, even if you don’t have a partner or a mastermind or whatever, so there are three of us on the Self-Publishing Podcast, and that creates a little mastermind. But I think that even if it were just the three of us, it would be a little too insular. So the fact that we talk to you, and we talk to C.J. Lyons, and we talk to Ed Robertson and all the other people that we’ve talked to, you know, David Gargarin and everybody that we’ve had on, it’s, it is a community where we’re all learning from each other. One of the things we learned from you was about Kobo, we weren’t paying attention to Kobo. We’re looking at translation. I forget who it was who really kind of started doing audio that made us say, “Hm, maybe we should do audiobooks.” And so, those are things that may not have occurred to us, because I think any one person’s view can tend to be a little myopic. And so, I think that having community is huge.
Joanna: Yes. And the indie ecosystem continues to be ahead of the pack. Having just come from London Book Fair, it was like I was in a parallel universe between the traditional publishing room and the indie room: it was like, “Wow, I am so happy to live in my part of this universe!”
Johnny: I think that traditional publishing, there’s things definitely we can learn from them, but they’re not agile. That’s the one thing that can definitely be said: no matter who’s right, they can’t move as quickly as we can, and so I think in that way, we have a big advantage.
Joanna: We do. Wow: exciting times, Johnny! So, where can people find you and your books online?
Johnny: selfpublishingpodcast.com does tend to be our default hub, but for our writing, it is realmandsands.com (not Roman sands, or some reason), and we’re going to be doing a big Fiction Unboxed Kickstarter April 22nd through May 21st 2014, and we have our book, “Write, Publish, Repeat.”
Joanna: Brilliant. Thanks so much for your time, Johnny.
Johnny: Thanks for having me on.
You’re going to be in Toronto to visit Kobo? Awesome! I live and work in that area and if you’re doing any events in the area I would love to attend.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks Heather, there may well be some kind of tweetup going on, so I will let people know nearer the time 🙂
Jonathan Gunson says
Terrific interview Joanna. The highlight:
“… things that people don’t actually want to hear…“This is hard work, this is going to take a long time, things change slowly,” and “Write, Publish, Repeat” is all about that…”
Joanna Penn says
Thanks Jonathan, I am increasingly celebrating that most people don’t want to make this much effort though, as it means there will be fewer of us left standing at the end 🙂
Gary Swaby says
I as a frequent listener of both Joanna and the Self publishing podcast, this was an awesome interview to hear. I also enjoy when you go on their show Joanna.
Suzanne Anderson says
Every month I spend XXX-dollars on book promotion via FB ads, or sites like BookBub or ENT or BookGorilla, often with mixed results. Honestly, it is downright frustrating at times.
I’d be very interested in hearing more about your strategies for book advertising with these sites or others? And how much or what percentage of your monthly book sales your invest in advertising?
Carl Plumer says
This podcast was so much fun. But, Joanna, calm down! Too much enthusiasm. Just kidding of course. Your comment on telling your husband about Hugh Howey was so funny, and TRUE. I would go NUTS to meet him or Cory Doctorow or Polly Courtney or, of course, the “Elvis of Indie Pubbing”, Johnny B. Truant!