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In this wide-ranging interview, James Scott Bell and I discuss aspects of making a living with your writing, including discipline and writing tips, plus mindset and how art and commerce can play happily together!
In the intro, I mention the demise of Oyster's subscription service but why I'm excited that there might be something happening at Google. Plus the latest longitudinal Author Earnings report that shows that if an author debuted in the last 5 years, they are making more money as an indie than through traditional publishing. This doesn't surprise me at all, but it's fascinating to see it in the data.
Thank you also to everyone supporting the show on Patreon!
We have reached the first big milestone which means I'll be doing private Patreon-supporter only monthly Q&A shows. Patrons will be able to ask questions and these extra audios will go out ONLY on the Patreon feed, so if you'd like to join in, you can support the show here.
The corporate sponsorship for this show pays for hosting and transcription. This podcast episode is sponsored by 99 Designs, where you can get all kinds of designs for your author business including book covers, merchandising, branding and business cards, illustrations and artwork and much more. You can get a Powerpack upgrade which gives your project more chance of getting noticed by going to: 99Designs.com/joanna
James Scott Bell is is the best-selling and award-winning author of thriller novels, zombie legals, historical romance, and lots and lots of excellent books on the craft of writing. He’s a professional speaker, teaching novel-writing and other skills for writers.
Today we're talking about his book, How to make a living as a writer.
- The audience of writers that James writes for and the influence of freelance writers on today's indie authors.
- What James is interested in currently including boxed sets for his writing craft books and investing in the future by paying for exposure in alert newsletters.
- The goals behind joining a box set, including discoverability and exposure to a wider audience. You can find the Writing Success boxset here on Amazon.
- Writing quotas and production plans and why this structure actually encourages creativity, as well as how to figure out what your production goal should be.
- Combining study of the markets with what you love to write and merging those with a production schedule.
- The strategies James uses to hold himself to his production schedule, including the ‘nifty 350'.
- Why writing prolifically isn't enough to earn a living writing. Why studying the craft of storytelling matters and where raw talent falls into this mix.
- The importance of the marriage between art and commerce for those writers who want to earn a living from their writing.
- On the sense of joy readers experience when a writer is having fun.
- The challenges of shifting from writing non-fiction to fiction and how non-fiction authors can use their strengths and apply those to writing fiction.
- James' beginnings as a writer and letting go of the belief that unless you're born with the talent to write you can't do it.
- The challenging feelings all writers face including whether they'll be able to do it again.
- On the advantages for indie authors of not being locked into a contract and being able to test the market with new ideas and a variety of book lengths.
- Why writers need to grow ‘rhino skin'.
- On the options available for hybrid writers and when to leave emotions out of publishing choices.
- Why writers should operate like a movie studio.
Transcription of interview with James Scott Bell
Joanna Penn: Hi, everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from the CreativePenn.com. And today, I'm here with James Scott Bell. Hi, Jim.
James Scott Bell: Hi. Nice to see you.
Joanna Penn: It's good to have you back on the show. But just in case people don't know who you are, just a little introduction. James is the best selling and award winning author of thriller novels, zombie legals, historical romance, and lots and lots of excellent books on the craft of writing. He's a professional speaker, teaching novel writing and other skills for writers. And today, we're talking about his book, “How To Make a Living as a Writer.” It's always hard to introduce you, Jim.
James Scott Bell: Well, that sounded great to me. No, I love it. This is good. Some people are teachers and writers, I consider myself a writer who also happens to teach. And both of those tracks have always been on my radar, and I enjoy both.
Joanna Penn: Me too, and that's why I feel we get on on that way. I wanted to start by just saying right upfront, yes, I stole half your title for my book. So, my book is “How To Make a Living With Your Writing” and yours is “How To Make a Living as a Writer.”
Now, of course I emailed you about this and apologized, but you were a lawyer, can you explain to everyone copyright on book titles, is there such a thing?
James Scott Bell: Generally speaking, no. However, I would not write a book called “Gone With The Wind” part two.
Joanna Penn: Or “The Da Vinci Code.”
James Scott Bell: Yeah. You've got to be a little bit careful about those. Generally speaking, titles are not copyrightable. But you've got to be sensitive to the audience because some of them may think you're trying to write this or trying to rip off that, but the content is what counts.
I think your strength comes from thinking in terms of a business person, which is what your background is, and taking those principles and applying them.
What I try to do is come at it from people who consider themselves writers, who want to write fiction primarily, but also non-fiction, that's what they do.
And then I wanted to help them incorporate business principles because I have an entrepreneurial background too, in order to support their writing. So, I think if you put these two books together, you have a graduate course in making a living.
Joanna Penn: Oh, yeah. And I love it. And also, I was wondering if you think the same way is that I think there's been a maturity in the indie market. These books were never around before.
There never were business books for authors, were there? There's been always craft books.
Do you think that's because authors are becoming more mature or the indie market is maturing?
James Scott Bell: Well, it's partly that. There was a niche in the old world, we call it the old world, pre-2007, called the freelancer writer market. And the people who made it as freelance writers were those who understood how to produce work, how to research the market, how to find niches.
And so some of those basic principles from that era do apply, and now we're picking these things up and giving them to indie writers so that they understand that it's partly business, partly creativity, partly marketing. And you put all those things together, you have the best chance of making some real income.
Joanna Penn: That was more for non-fiction writing, was it?
James Scott Bell: Primarily.
Joanna Penn: Yeah. Dean Wesley Smith talks about the pulp writers.
For fiction writers, there hasn't really been that much business education, has there? Certainly not in the NFA space.
James Scott Bell: That's right, that's right.
The old pulp writers primarily survived by being very prolific and then finding markets. So, when they had pulp magazines that covered all kinds of genres, from adventure to detective and so on, they would look at that market and they would try to write to that market, but being prolific was what counted.
Now, some of that is true today for indies is that it's quality and production over time, that really is the key to the whole thing, I think.
Joanna Penn: And you are prolific, I would say, I think. You have lots of book coming out, fiction and non-fiction. And a year ago, you were on the show, talking out on your dialogue books.
What has happened with you over the last year?
Because what I love to see is even experienced writers are learning new things, aren't they? So what have you tried in the last year that you're interested in right now?
James Scott Bell: Well, I think the basic fundamental for me is always to keep up the production in a way that doesn't sacrifice quality, what I call quality. That term, of course, is open for interpretation. I'm not necessarily talking about literary quality that would win some kind of literary award. I'm talking about, when you tell a story, no matter what genre you're in, you do things that make that story connect with readers. That kind of quality is the main thing.
I think over the last year, I'm participating in a boxed set of writing books. That is one way to gain a lot of exposure for your material.
And another major feature for indie writers, of course, are these deals, these alert newsletters, where the BookBub is the primary one. It's the big one, but it's very selective. So, it's hard to get into, it can be frustrating for newer authors and so on.
But there are a number of others. And I think a systematic use of those is a wise idea because they're not very expensive.
And even if you don't make back that initial investment, which is usually very small, over time you're going to make new readers from those, and those new readers have a value. So really you're investing for the future. And that's what you need when you're stating out especially is to get readers reading your work. And then your work has got to do the heavy lifting, that never changes.
Joanna Penn: And you were saying that you've done a book trailer this time, and book trailers are going out of fashion, and I've done some recently too. Why have you done a book trailer now?
James Scott Bell: Okay. Well, I am about to release a new thriller that is the start of a new series. And my son is a videographer and film professor, and he suggested, “Why don't I do a trailer for you?” The price was right.
Joanna Penn: Oh yeah, fair enough.
James Scott Bell: Actually I did pay him a going rate. But I had an idea for the trailer, and my quick thumbnail review of trailers is I think that if they're over 30 to 45 seconds, I think they're too long. I think readers need to captured. It's like when you see a movie trailer on TV, it's not very long. So I'm going to try this. It's just for fun. I've got a YouTube channel, so I will upload that probably this week, and we'll see what happens.
Joanna Penn: Just coming back on the box set, so obviously the beginning of last year, I was in a box set that hit the New York Times and the USA today lists. And then they changed all the rules, right? So actually now, I don't believe that a box, a multi-author box set can hit the New York Times, certainly the New York Times. I think it can still hit the USA Today.
I know that a lot of goals are really important, is the goal to just get more readers? Or what is the goal going into the box set for you guys?
James Scott Bell: Yeah, I think the primary goal is to go out wide to as many people as we can, and at a very reasonable rate, 99 cents, to get our material out to new people. It's part of the discoverability process. So, we'll all kind of cross-pollinate, hopefully, from our various lists and so forth. And since it's a book that has already been done, then it's not a huge time investment. So that's the key.
And if we sell enough and maybe make it to the USA Today list, that would be gravy.
Joanna Penn: I think that's really important. All the things you've talked about so far actually cost money. Actually doing a multi-author book set generally costs money, right? You have to get a cover, you have to pay someone to put it together, then you have to pay for advertising. And then if you split the money between all the authors, you may not even make that much money.
So, I think that marketing is the point.
Tell people what the box set is because I think it's of value to people listening.
James Scott Bell: Absolutely. It's called “Writing Success” and it's available for pre-order, as we speak. I'm not sure when we're going to air, but it's certainly going to be available. And it's 99 cents, it's on all the retailers. And you can look under my name and another, the first name is Karen Ball and she's a well-known editor. She's now an agent, but she was my editor for a few books that I did back in the day, so she's very good. And we have a number of other people. There's seven books in all, seven writing books on the craft of fiction. It really is hard to beat that deal.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, right. Good. I'll put links in the show notes to that. I want to pick some things out of your book. There are some good quotes in there. And you mentioned the word systematic before, and I always hear creative people are cringing at words like systematic. So try this, in your book it says, “A writer needs a disciplined approach to hard work and fundamentals.” So there's the word discipline.
You also mention writing quotas and production plans. These are all scary words. So, what do you mean by these things, and what does your personal approach look like to fiction and non-fiction?
James Scott Bell: Well, when I look back at the successful writers under the old system, and especially those old pulp writers and the paperback writers of the '50s and '60s, what it came down to was you can't sell what isn't written, and you have to produce the words.
The best advice I ever got, in my opinion, was very early in my career, was to write to a quota. Now, I know some writers, the creative types, get very nervous about that because they think it somehow impinges on creativity, but it doesn't. The opposite is true. It forces you to be creative.
And that's what a professional is. A professional is someone who does the work, even when they don't feel like doing the work.
So, my advice always to writers is figure out what you can comfortably write in a week. You have all kinds of lives out there, people with family responsibilities, day jobs and so on. How many words can you comfortably write? Maybe it's only, say, 500 words or 800 words. Then up that by 10% and make that your goal, and then divide that up into work days, and try to do it by the week. And if you do that day after month after year, you'll be amazed at what you can produce.
And when I look back over 20 years of doing this, I've written a ton of stuff that almost amazes me, but it's not because I'm super human, it's because I've done the quota system regularly every single year. And I can tell you precisely on a spreadsheet how many words I've written since the year 2000.
And then the other thing is the systematic idea of developing your ideas, your concepts, your books. What are you going to write? I think it's a combination of studying the markets to be wise, and then putting that together with what you really feel passionate about writing, and trying to put those two things together and be productive. You've got to spend some time planning. All successful businesses, plan. Just apply that to writers.
Joanna Penn: It's funny. In the last couple of weeks, I started co-writing for the first time. And what's been brilliant is on the five working days of the week, although of course, we all write weekends) I have to get my words done because he's in America, and I know when he wakes up. I have to have done my words. It's really helping. So now, I'm like, how can I get this accountability when I'm writing on my own?
How do you do that? Is yours just your spreadsheet? You have to fill in your spreadsheet every day?
James Scott Bell: Yeah, that's one way I do that is I have the spreadsheet. I have names of projects on the spreadsheet, and it tallies up the words that I write each day, gives me a weekly tally. That's the number that I really concentrate on. And it is, it's self-accountability, and I try to get writing done early in the day. I try to get at least part of the quota done early. I tell myself, “I'm not going to go on and do email. I'm not going to go on and look at the news until I get a certain number of words done.”
I still call it the nifty 350, as I try to write 350 words first thing, before anything. Three hundred and fifty words. Once I do that, I've made a good start to reaching my quota for the day and it just makes the day go a lot easier.
Joanna Penn: And it's interesting because I had an email from a reader this week, and I wanted to ask you about it.
It asks, “All the advice from established authors seems to be that if I write a number of books, it is inevitable I will make a living with writing. Is that really true?”
James Scott Bell: Well, there's one little caveat there that's major, and I mentioned it earlier, and that's quality. Remembering the movie “The Shining,” when the wife sees that stack of paper that he's been typing for all those weeks, and it's, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” This insane…now, you can't publish that over and over again and expect that that automatically is going to lead to income. It's a matter of learning the craft of storytelling.
There's two tracks I advise always with writers. I say do the writing, be creative, but also study the craft, and get better at what you do. It's a matter of creating a commercial product that enough readers are going to want to buy.
Now, in the old days, very few writers of fiction ever made a living from fiction, but it took them a long time, years in most cases, to learn how to write successful fiction. It took me several years to learn how to do that. So, don't be impatient, but be methodical in learning the craft and just keep getting better. And you can do that.
Any writer can start from where they are and learn what to do to get better and better as they go along.
And just keep those two things going.
Joanna Penn: And you're someone who believes that talent, raw talent is not really true, and you can learn anything, right?
James Scott Bell: I believe that talent is a factor because I think virtually every person who has the desire to write and has grown up reading has an inherent talent. Then the trick is to take whatever inherent talent you have and to make it better, to nurture it, to bring it out through the study of the craft. I believe anybody can do that.
I also believe that there are naturally gifted, very talented writers who never achieve great success because they think they don't have anything to learn, or they think it's below them to try to learn. So, that's true in all endeavors. It's true in athletics and it's true in the arts. So, if you have the desire to write and you have a work ethic, you can get better.
Joanna Penn: They might be really good books, but there are plenty of literary fiction, say poetry authors, who will never be able to make a living, right? They actually do have to be commercial in some way?
James Scott Bell: True. I use kind of a Venn diagram idea; the key is to take the one side, which is where your heart is, your passion is, what you love to read, what you want to write, what kind of stories you want to tell. Then the other side is commercial and marketability. That's the side that a traditional publisher looks at when they're acquiring books. That's the main thing they look at. This something may be great literary quality, but they're asking themselves, “We've got to make money, we're a business. Can we sell this?”
If you as a writer can find that sweet spot in the middle there where these two things intersect, that's what you should be looking at. If you're truly serious about wanting to make some income at this, and perhaps even get to the level where you're making enough to make a living at it, you've really got to marry those two things.
Joanna Penn: And it's funny because this co-writing book I'm doing, and it's an idea I've had for years and years and years, and we don't know what it is, it's one of these cross-genre books. It's kind of dark fantasy, maybe post-apocalyptic, difficult to put into a category. And I'm at the point of going, “Oh, whatever! Someone will eventually figure out. Somebody will buy.”
Stories can sell forever, right? So, fiction is a slow burn, and the more books you have, the better really.
James Scott Bell: Absolutely. Also, when you do something that seems sort of genre breaking, as you might be suggesting, that's good because if that catches fire, then it becomes a leader in that new niche that is opening up. That's what I did with the zombie legal thrillers. There were legal thrillers and they were zombie books. I said, “Let's do legal thriller zombie book.” I enjoyed doing it.
And so that's what you need to do. Like you said, you need to have fun, you need to be creative, and then you also need to think about, well, where can I market this? And if it's great story telling, it will find some foothold.
Joanna Penn: And I'm definitely having fun with this one. I think that comes through, doesn't it, in the book, when you're actually having fun, that will communicate to the reader, and they'll probably enjoy it more.
James Scott Bell: Absolutely.
Joanna Penn: And I think I've only began to have fun because I've relaxed a bit.
And you presumably did, writing zombie legals, right? You don't take yourself too seriously.
James Scott Bell: There is an old writing text that I found from 1919 on the fundamentals of fiction by this professor. And one of the things he said was that there is a certain joy that you sense in people who are telling stories that they love to tell. He pointed to Robert Lewis Stevenson in “Treasure Island” and I would point to Edgar Rice Burroughs and his books about Tarzan and his books about Mars. He's having fun telling this story and weaving this yarn.
Years ago, Lawrence Block, who was a fiction columnist at Writer's Digest and a great crime writer, and someone I read religiously, and then I got to be the fiction columnist myself, so it was sort of like getting the tablets from Moses. He once wrote a column about that. And he said that Stephen King seems to have that quality where it's like he's inviting you in to weave you a story, and he's having so much fun telling the story. I do think that that has a quality that is evident.
Joanna Penn: Is Lawrence Block the guy who also wrote erotica as a woman?
James Scott Bell: I can't remember if he did as a woman, but maybe he did, maybe he did. I know he did softcore back in the '60s because frankly it's how a lot of authors like him were trying to make money while they did their legitimate work. So, yeah, I think he's the same guy.
Joanna Penn: I'll find a link and put it in the show notes. But that is actually happening a lot now.
There are a lot of people who are using pseudonyms and are quite literary authors by day and are writing other things by night, I think. And that's what's so great right now, isn't it? We can write these different things.
I wanted to ask you about that because you write non-fiction and you also write fiction. I do get lots of questions where people say how can a non-fiction writer, like someone who is used to writing, I guess, truth or opinion or in the way that you have to write non-fiction, how can that person switch to writing fiction? How can they become more imaginative?
I think people are blocked by this non-fiction, fiction thing. How would you suggest people break through that?
James Scott Bell: Interesting. I think non-fiction writers, like any other kind of writers, technical writers, people who write for computer magazines, whatever it may be, they have to learn the craft just like everybody else. They have to learn the fundamentals of storytelling, which are easy to understand if they're taught in the right way. But then they have to be practiced. And so for a non-fiction writer, I think maybe the strength that they can bring is their attention to detail. And one of the things that a good fiction writer will do is be able to put in realistic and significant detail in writing of their scenes and so on.
But I would suggest an exercise called writing practice, which is where you begin very early in the morning or as soon as you can, you write without stopping for 5 to 10 minutes. One of the ways you can trigger that is to take a dictionary, open it at random, and pick the first noun that you see, and just write for five minutes on that. What you're doing is you're trying to shut off your editorial mind, and just let the words flow.
That's a great practice. I've done that. I continue to do that from time to time, just to loosen up and let the imagination take over. So, that might be one suggestion. And then get some really good books on the craft, maybe take some classes, and just keep studying and practicing and learning and growing and writing that quota.
Joanna Penn: And again, maybe not taking yourself so seriously. I meet a lot of lawyers actually who want to write fiction. And as a lawyer, you're taught to be really stilted and really kind of, no, you can't say that just in case. And you've got to let all that go, haven't you?
James Scott Bell: Right.
Joanna Penn: Writing fiction, I almost lean into the first draft now. It's like, all right, just let it go. Stop thinking you're so stupid and silly by coming out with this thing.
Can you take yourself back to that point where you started writing fiction? Did you have to deliberately get rid of that analytical side?
James Scott Bell: Interesting. I've been told when I was in college that you have to be born with this talent, and if you don't really have it, you can't develop it. And I clearly didn't have it because I was taking a class from Raymond Carver, who's a great literary master, and I wasn't able to do what he did. So, I thought for years and years you couldn't learn it.
But then I'd been to law school, and then the desire to write came back. And I approached it like I would studying a course in constitutional law or contracts. I got books, and I studied them, and I was determined to try to learn. Now, what I initially started to do was learn as a screenwriter because I was living in Los Angeles, and everybody in Los Angeles has to write a screenplay, or you're not allowed to live here.
From that, I learned about structure, I learned about dialogue, I learned about writing cinematically. And so when I transitioned over to fiction, those were strengths that I brought with me. There was one point early on when a light bulb went off. I'd been studying, and I'd been trying things, and it was elusive, and I wasn't quite getting it. And then I read something in a book, and all of a sudden, it all came together and I took this gigantic leap. And that was really when I started to sell. So, yeah, it happens.
Joanna Penn: And I think we're similar that way. I spent a lot of time and still do, we all do…I own most of your books. We're always learning, aren't we? New books come out.
I think writers own loads and loads, like hundreds of books on writing, and that's completely normal.
James Scott Bell: You can see behind me, my shelf is full of writing books.
Joanna Penn: There we go.
James Scott Bell: I love that shelf because those are all the books that I've read and I've highlighted, and I can take them down when I need help in a certain area, or I want to remember something.
Joanna Penn: Do you have a vanity shelf as well with all your own books?
James Scott Bell: No, I don't a…well, I have one shelf where I keep one copy of all my books.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, yeah, that's what I mean.
James Scott Bell: I was amused to see that Dean Koontz, in his mansion, has an entire room, like a library with all of the editions of all his books…
Joanna Penn: All the foreign ones, yeah.
James Scott Bell: And he says he goes in there from time to time, and looks around and says, “Yeah, I can do this. I did it before.” I loved that.
Joanna Penn: And that's interesting actually because that “I can do this. I've done it before,” feeling. So many people say the emptiness you feel when you finish a book, you often, well I do, you feel like I will never write a book again, I'm completely empty.
And what you just said there about Dean Koontz, and I've heard it from all writers, is everyone feels the same. We all go through the same stuff, don't we?
James Scott Bell: Absolutely. I have a number of professional writing friends, people who've been best selling writers for years and years, and they say the same thing, “Why is it harder?” And one of the things I say is that, well, for one thing, your standards keep going up because you know more. You know that you've done something, and you know when you haven't done something, and you know it, you want to reach for this. So, consistently the bar is set high, and so you're naturally nervous about that.
But that's okay. Because just like a pole vaulter who wants to go that extra inch higher on the next jump, that's nerve-racking to look up there and see that. But you do it and you get better and you get stronger. And, yeah, it does happen again because you know so much and you can do it.
Now, on the opposite side, I will say that there have been some mega best selling writers who, toward the end, have just kind of mailed it in, and you can sense that in their books, that, now they don't have to try. They know that they'll get a certain amount. I don't ever want to be in that position. Writing means so much to me and the readers mean so much. I don't ever want to shortchange them.
Joanna Penn: I think that happens when people just feel like they have to write the same book over and over again. Whereas what's nice being an indie, you don't have to write according to what somebody else tells you. So, you don't have to write a 25-book series because your publisher says you have to. I'm reading techno-thrillers at the moment, like futuresque, like 2040, not sci-fi, I would say like techno-thrillers kind of sci-fi.
And now I really want to write a techno-thriller, and that's not at all my niche right now. But there's no reason why I can't write that, is there?
James Scott Bell: That's it.
Joanna Penn: Like you, with your zombie thrillers.
James Scott Bell: That's one of the great things about indie, and there are so many great things about the indie world. It's an amazing thing to think about. We're writers! Come on! Fifty years ago, there's no way you could be a self-published writer and do anything with it, and even 20 years ago.
But anyway, the nice thing about it is you can also do short-form work and test things. I've got a couple of short story series that I've just done because I wanted to try it, I like the voice, I like the concept. And then perhaps I can put those all together in an omnibus, or maybe I'll write a complete book someday. But it's there for the opportunity.
Joanna Penn: Now, I did want to come back on the mindset thing. Because one of the other quotes in the book is, and you actually quote David Eddings:
“This profession is not for the delicate. And authors need to develop calluses on their soul,” which I think is quite hardcore. So, what do you mean by that? Why did you bring that up?
James Scott Bell: Another term that I like to use is rhino skin. When I started, in the traditional world, it was very difficult to get an agent, it was very difficult to get a publishing contract, and there's lots of rejection. And if that rejection prevents you from going forward, you'll never make it. In the old system, it was all about overcoming rejection. And most writers, the overwhelming majority of writers, had numerous rejections before they ever got something accepted. So, it's a matter of perseverance.
Now, how do you develop that? Well, when my son was playing little league baseball and he was a pitcher, he would get very upset if things got out of hand, if somebody hit a home run, for example, and it would affect him. So I told him, “I'm going to give you this one rule. You can have one ‘Darn it!' And that means that you take your glove and you hit it as hard as you can, and you say ‘Darn it!' And then you go back and you pitch again.”
A writer can do the same thing. You will get rejections, you will get bad reviews, you will get poor sales, whatever it may be. And what you do is go ahead and darn it up for a while, but no more than 20 minutes. You get 20 minutes. And then immediately write something. Whatever it may be. Write an idea down, a new idea for a book, work on a new project, write something in a journal. But get the writing muscle going again, and that helps to crowd it out. And that's really what it's all about – you've got to keep coming back and producing. And you can do that. Anybody can do that.
Joanna Penn: This is the thing, it's very hard when you've just got one book or two books or three books. I've got 15 now, plus another three that have been withdrawn. How many books have you got now?
James Scott Bell: I don't know.
Joanna Penn: It's got to be around 30-plus.
James Scott Bell: Yeah, perhaps that's what available. I haven't counted.
Joanna Penn: Quite a lot. And when it gets to a point where you don't have to care about individual books, I think that helps, doesn't it? The problem is by the time you get to that point, you've gone through a lot of those negative things you've talked about.
Do you think it gets easier as you have more books, in terms of that feeling so attached to them?
James Scott Bell: I think so. There used to be a rule of thumb in the traditional book world for novelists, that it took five novels to get established. You had to really write that many. There were exceptions, of course. There were books that did really well out of the gate and then there were books that were supposed to do really well, but didn't. But really, you had to think in terms of 5 books and that was a 7 or 8-year period usually because a book comes out from a publisher maybe every 18 months at that time.
So, what indie writers who really are serious about this need to remember if they're just starting out is it does take years to build to a certain point. Now, in the indie world, you have the ability to move that schedule up because you can publish faster than a traditional publisher can.
But you have to have a certain degree of patience and you have to understand that it's going to take a while. And then along the way, you have to do everything with the best quality that you can, not just the writing but the cover design, and the book descriptions, and all of those things that we as indies talk about.
Joanna Penn: You did mention the traditional world there.
I wanted to ask you, would you ever consider or are you still a hybrid in terms of you have traditional publishing deals? What are your feelings about that right now?
James Scott Bell: I just finished a book for Writer's Digest books, another book on writing, and the reason for that is that I like the company. We negotiated a good contract, I got good terms from them, and I thought it was a fair deal, and they know how to move writing books and so on. So, that was a consideration, and I've worked with them before. I like them.
As far as fiction writing goes, as we all know, it's a very challenging time for both traditionally-published fiction writers and the companies. The Authors Guild has come out with this big push to try to get “fairer contract terms for authors,” and there are a whole number of terms that publishers have been holding firm on. But that's because they have to. Their business is so challenging now. It's economics. They're in a tough spot. They can't give away the store, so to speak.
From my perspective, it would always depend on the offer, the terms and so forth.
What I like about indie publishing is that I own the rights forever, I can control the quality, I can publish when I'm ready, I can produce what I want.
So, certainly no author closes the door on all the options. See, that's what it's all about, we've got options.
But right now, I think if new authors want to go the traditional route, be sure to educate yourself on what the contract terms are, what the standard issues are, and work with your agent, and do what's best for your career. And there's still a traditional publishing industry, and they still produce books, and some of those books do very well.
Joanna Penn: What you're saying is you're weighing it up on a case-by-case basis. And choosing things that work for you as a business, not an emotional decision.
James Scott Bell: That's exactly right. It is, for example, a dream of many writers to see a printed book published by a big New York company. That's an emotional thing. It's a nice thing, I loved it. You get a box of those books and there it is.
But then those books have to sell, those books have to be on a shelf. That's another dynamic, that the book shelf space is shrinking out there. Don't be just emotional about the decision. Certainly emotion can play a part, desire and dream can play a part, but also this is a hard-headed, numbers-driven business. It certainly is for the publishers. They will nurture your dream until it's costing them money, and then they won't nurture it anymore. So, be sure you take that into account as well.
Joanna Penn: And then just looking forward because you also say a successful business makes a profit, and to make a profit, you need a plan.
Given that we're seeing changes every single month in the indie world, what does your plan look like for the next year or two? What do you see coming?
James Scott Bell: Number one, I do have a master projects board, a cork board, it's a virtual cork board in Scrivener, but I have probably 30 projects on there that are prioritized. Some of those projects are one's that I have long wanted to do, but in terms of what would be the best use of my time, I prioritize those projects. So, really, the top five are the ones that I really concentrate on at any given moment.
Writers should be like a movie studio. They are shooting a movie, they're developing a movie, they're acquiring new ideas and so on. You need to be developing your material all the time and getting it ready to write. So, that's the basic fundamentals of what I do is to produce and to decide what I produce.
Now, in terms if changes in the indie world, the new Kindle Unlimited payout plan is something that a lot of writers are looking at. I have not made any decisions on that because I haven't seen enough data. But that might be something to consider in the future for all writers, especially ones that are just getting started. But right now, I enjoy being widely-read, widely-spread on various retailers.
And the other thing is the changes that come are really out of our control, they're out of our control. What we have to do as writers is be like corks on a roiling sea. We just keep our head above water, and we go with the tide, and we analyze what's going to happen and what is happening, and we do our best. So as long as you're producing the words, I don't think that fundamental's ever going to change. You keep in touch, you read the CreativePenn.com all the time, and you keep in touch in the podcast, and you just learn, and keep the information flowing.
Joanna Penn: Good. Happy times ahead.
James Scott Bell: I think so. They've been happy times so far.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, we're both happy people, aren't we Jim?
James Scott Bell: I think so. I do.
Joanna Penn: Right. Well, it's always lovely to talk to you. Tell people where they can find you and your books online.
James Scott Bell: Well, just go to JamesScottBell.com, and you can sign up for my email alerts so that I will just tell you when new deals come up from me and new books are available. And all my books are there, and you can browse around to your heart's content.
Joanna Penn: And one of your latest books that I've just bought is “27 Fiction Blunders – And How Not To Make Them!” which is a must-buy title.
James Scott Bell: Thank you, thank you. It's a book I wanted to do for a long time because over the years, I've seen and read so many manuscripts from new writers, and I've seen a number of errors that have been committed, and I just wanted to write a book that would address those, and be a good reference.
Joanna Penn: It is. It's fantastic. So, thanks again for your time, Jim. That was great.
James Scott Bell: Always good to talk to you.