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I'm thrilled to have one of the uber-indies on the show today! Russell Blake is one of the most prolific and successful indie authors and in this show he shares his thoughts on writing fast, maintaining a prolific schedule and staying healthy, plus what it takes to stand out in a crowded market.
In the intro, I mention that Flipkart has closed its doors in India and their audience has been transferred to Kobo [Techcrunch], Amazon has launched a new Kindle Fire Reader's edition plus a Fire for the Chinese market.
If you want to write non-fiction, check out the step by step process at How to Write A Non-Fiction Book.
I also mention reading ‘Stages of a Fiction Writer' by Dean Wesley Smith, plus my new weekly creativity updates at JFPenn.com/now.
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.
Russell Blake is the NY Times & USA Today bestselling author of over forty books and has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Times, and The Chicago Tribune. He has also co-written two books with Clive Cussler and is regarded as one of the most prolific and successful indie fiction authors.
You can listen above or on iTunes or Stitcher or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.
- Russell's writing habits including daily word count, outlining process and using a walking desk.
- Writing genre fiction vs. literary fiction and whether indie authors can make a living writing literary fiction.
- Knowing the genre you write in and aiming to write in the top 10% of that genre.
- The pros and cons of working alongside a well-known writer like Clive Cussler.
- Russell's experience in Kindle Worlds, both as a writer in another author's world, and as a world creator with his Jet series.
- Recommendations for how to improve your odds of success as an indie author, including giving readers what they want, and embracing both the content creation and business sides of this life.
- Plans and predictions for 2016.
You can find Russell's books on all the online stores and his website is RussellBlake.com.
Transcription of interview with Russell Blake
Joanna: Hi, everyone. I am Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com and today I'm here with Russell Blake. Hi, Russell.
Russell: Hi, Joanna. How are you?
Joanna: I'm good. It's so lovely to have you on the show. Just a little introduction if anybody doesn't know you, Russell is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of over 40 books and has been featured in the Wall street Journal, the Times, and the Chicago Tribune. He's also co-written books with Clive Cussler and is regarded as one of the most prolific and successful indie fiction authors. So, Russell just tell us a bit more…
Russell: I think I should probably just leave right after that. How do you follow that with anything impressive?
Joanna: I was going to say you've probably written to more than 40 books and so I wrote that as introduction because you are so prolific.
Russell: I think I'm on number 46, 47. You stop counting after a certain point.
Joanna: I imagine. But just start off by telling us a bit more about you and where you are in the world because that's exciting and a bit of a potted writing background.
Russell: I live in Mexico, in Baja, Mexico, and I've lived here for 12, 13 years now. I come from an entrepreneurial business background and I had been writing probably for on and off just to amuse myself for the last 15, 20 years but I never really submitted anything or considered trying to go the trad route. And then I became an indie published author in June of 2011 and I've never looked back.
Joanna: Is Baja where all the whales are? Is that the right place?
Russell: Well, yes. They do pass by and I'm not just talking about the cruise ships, but they come by every year and it's spectacular. There's probably about three months where it's lousy with whales.
Joanna: That's just amazing. It's one of those places I'd really like to go, so I think if you're there and of course you've always mentioned tequila in your bios.
What part does tequila play in your life?
Russell: I would say that from around 10 o'clock in the morning to three in the morning, it plays a very important role. Either I hate it or I love it depending on what time it is. No, tequila is like the national drink of Mexico, and when in Rome.
Joanna: If I get to choose, I am a tequila drinker. So when I read about you, I'm like, “One day I'll just have to come over and have one.”
Russell: Oh, yeah. They make about 200 different brands of tequila so you can get into a lot of trouble just tasting them.
You write six to 10 books a year, I think. If you could maybe talk about how your writing process works right now.
Russell: I started off as a pantser, I guess, where I did nothing except sit down with an idea and then just mush forward and see what developed. But as I have been doing this more and more, I've become really a pretty copious outliner.
I don't have to really think about where the story is going or whether I've got sufficient twists or beads, because the way I outline I'm able to visually see whether I've got sufficient movement, reversals, beats, follow up of the good stuff for a story. Now I'm pretty much 100% outliner and I start writing generally at around eight to nine in the morning and keep going with a few breaks until about 10 to 11 at night when I'm in a novel.
Joanna: Wow! Okay. So the outlining process; do you do that on a Word document or do you use Scrivener or are there any specific tools you use for outlining?
Russell: I just do it in Excel. I create a spreadsheet and I have across the top generally a list of characters so that I remember their names and who they are. And then across the left side running down a list, the chapters, and I tend to put down one to three sentence descriptions of the chapters so I know what the motivation of the chapter is, I know what's going to happen in terms of the story, I know whether I want it to end with a cliffhanger or whether there's an action beat or there is a reversal.
And I color code them so that at just at a glance, I can look at the entire manuscript when I'm done with the outline and visually conform that there's sufficient actions, sufficient reversals, sufficient beats of each type. I'm a little anal, but it works for me.
Joanna: It's funny because I mean I'm way behind you. I think I'm on number 11. I am still counting and it's funny exactly as you say, you've become kind of more and more into outlining. I certainly see of every book I'm doing more and more outlining, so it's interesting that you are at that point.
When you were back at book 11, were you doing that kind of outlining or were you still pantsing back then?
Russell: No. I was doing single chapter summaries. I would just have a Word document and I would jot down the first 10 or 15 chapters that I thought needed to happen and then I just trusted myself to be able to do the next 15 once I got it to about chapter 14 and a half. So it was a closed eye pantsing, closed eye outlining.
But I've just discovered that the more I force myself to think through the story and especially the structure of the story in advance, the better the story winds up being and the faster I can write it.
Joanna: And how long does that outline take you to create before you start the actual writing?
Russell: Two to three days.
Joanna: In that of 10 hour a day slot as well or do you…?
Russell: No, I actually slack off when I'm outlining. I do it maybe four hours a day because the cognitive process, when you're cogitating over what's going to happen with the story, a lot of times you want to go for a walk on the beach or whatever it is you do to get yourself in the zone where you get a breakthrough idea. Because otherwise it's just going to be hopelessly formulaic. I don't push myself in terms of the number of hours when I'm outlining, that's simply a writing thing.
Joanna: I'm glad you said that because I think that you are right. It's often when you are out walking or doing something else that you get those ideas.
And then you actually start the writing and are you still at a walking desk?
Russell: Yes, I have a treadmill desk. I've had it for two and a half, three years now, almost three years I guess, and it has been a life saver. I recommend it to everyone. I've lost, I want to say, 25 pounds since I got it. I'm certainly a lot healthier. Because that's one of the things most people don't discuss but being an author especially if you clock the kind of hours I do means that you're sedentary and that kills you.
Joanna: Yeah. And while I'm looking at it, I'm still trying to get into dictation.
Walking and dictating; is that something that you've tried at all on the treadmill desk?
Russell: I'm good on the treadmill desk. It took me about two days to get used to it, but I don't walk fast. I mean I walk maybe two miles per hour. So if I'm actually walking for three hours a day, I'll clock six miles and that's wonderful, and then I stand up most of the rest of the time. I haven't tried the dictation thing simply because the way my brain works. I mean I'm very visual. It's important for me to see how the words appear on the page, how they flow. And that's important when I look at the musicality of the verse and just the pauses. I can't do it speaking.
Joanna: That is my mindset at the moment and I'm like I've got to stop sitting down, I think, that's the thing. I have a standing desk now but I wanted to ask you about stamina.
The stamina in the hours you work; do you think it's purely the fact that you walk that you cope with that or do you have other ways of coping with working that many hours?
Russell: Well, yeah. I know it's the dope and the booze that really see me through. Are you kidding? A little bit of coffee but mostly it's just the excitement of getting to the next chapter.
I set myself up so that if I'm going to clock say between 6000 and 8000 words a day, I think of that.
That seems daunting, but if you think of it as okay, four chapters, well, that's not so bad. And now you're thinking only of those four chapters. And if you're eager to get to the next chapter as a writer, you're probably going to be eager as a reader.
Because nothing works than being in the middle of a chapter as a reader and going, “I don't really care. I just have no impetus to turn the page.” I find it if I'm not eager to turn the page so to speak as a writer, it's very difficult to fake that for the reader. My stamina is driven by a combination of desperation and greed, I guess.
Joanna: We'll come back to that. But on genre, I've read some of your Jet books. You write action, adventure, conspiracy, thriller, mystery under Russell Blake and you also write YA New Adult under R.E Blake, which are all genre fiction.
You talk about being pulled through the book and getting excited to do it.
Does that only happen for writers of that kind of genre, fiction, do you think? Because literary writers, I think, tend to write more slowly because they're not pulled through the book.
Russell: Well, sure. When I read some literary fiction, there's not a lot happening. There's a lot of introspection, there's a lot of beautiful use of language, flow, musicality, but not really a lot of, “Oh my god I need to turn the next page to get to the next 19 line sentence.” I mean, it's a different experience, it's work. Reading literary fiction is work and it requires that you as a reader do work. You need to have developed your reading appreciation and skill level to a certain point to appreciate it. So I think writing it, you're more cognizant that your reader is likely to be parsing every single syllable.
Whereas in genre of fiction, sure you aspire some sort of musicality to your prose if you're any good, I think. But the reality is it's more about the characters in the story. So it's more about keeping the plot moving.
It's entertainment, whereas literary fiction while it can be entertaining, I find it to be more sort of high art. And I don't mean that in a negative sense like it's the opera of a reading, but in a way it is.
Joanna: I agree with you.
And do you think that an indie author can be financially successful writing anything other than genre fiction?
Russell: If they can, I haven't seen it. I mean I hate to say that, but the way that Amazon works, it's really set up to be more along the lines at the Walmart to the world. And I'm not that sure that aficionados of literary fiction go to Walmart for their choices.
I think that's one thing that Trad Pub does well is they've got the entire chain and the entire prices and literary merit, etcetera, that they've cultivated and curated for a century. They really are very good at directing product to the 60,000 or 70,000 people that really care about it.
Whereas on Amazon, it's more of a fast food sort of approach rather than a gourmet restaurant.
And there's nothing wrong with fast food. You can make a lot of money in fast food. It's not a three-star Michelin restaurant, at least that's what I've seen.
Joanna: I agree with you. And of course you write some great blog posts, occasional blog posts but very good ones when you do. And you do talk about the quality is a highly subjective point of view. So in terms of writing fast can equal quality.
What are your thoughts on quality and the indie worlds and authors changing their mindset around that?
Russell: I think that you have to be mission-specific about your writing if you're going to do this with an expectation to earn a living at it. And given the market conditions, it's like the ride at the fair where you have to be at least this tall in order to get on the ride. And then being taller than that doesn't necessarily help you any. I think that as a genre of fiction authors, you have to develop a sense for whatever genre you're working in because the expectations vary from genre to genre.
If you're writing maybe, you see old billionaire stepbrother shifter stuff, you probably are going to have a different quality level expectation from your consumer than if your book is sitting next to James Lee Burke.
You have to understand your genre and you have to write well enough to satisfy the reader in that genre.
And that's why I say it's subjective because authors always get into those arguments about, “Oh, 50 Shades was terrible and this newly popular book is awful and blah, blah, blah.” But what they fail to recognize is that it's popular because it satisfies a popular desire for whatever the product was.
As writers, you need to understand what you're genre is and you have to understand the conventions and the norms, and you have to write at least as well as say the top 10% in that genre. Now I aspire to do better than that, but that's just a personal thing. If I'm going to do something, especially something I enjoy, I'm going to try to get better every time I do it. Otherwise, why keep doing it? What's 45 or 50 books out? It's not like there is a circuit of Russell Blake books available for consumers to buy. So I try to raise the bar with every offering. But is it necessary to do that? On a personal level probably. It depends on the genre.
Joanna: And it's interesting because I look at the action-adventure conspiracy thriller niche, which you are in, and I also write to a point. And that is actually very much full of big name traditional publishing authors and mostly men. And I mean, did you actually go after that genre? I said before we started recording that I read one of your earlier books, which was more in a supernatural thriller that I write in.
Did you go after a sub-genre that was dominated by traditional authors on purpose?
Russell: I actually wasn't that thoughtful about it and I probably should have been on reflection. What I did was I just wrote what I enjoy reading when I read fiction. Because most men read non-fiction and I know that's a generalization, but especially as they get older they tend to, if they have a job, when they are going to read, at least all of my friends, tend to read non-fiction. So when I read fiction, I'm doing it as escapism and the escapism for men's fiction tends to be the adventure-conspiracy thriller type of genre.
So I just wrote what I am accustomed to and I knew the conventions because I've read 1,000 books in that genre. I didn't have to do a lot of research to identify what makes for a good one or a bad one. What's funny though is that, as I've written more books in the genre, I become much more analytical about how I'm achieving whatever I'm trying to achieve within the book. I noticed that it's impossible not to deconstruct other people's work to see exactly what they're doing structurally. I find myself doing that a lot more, but I think that if you read in the genre, you do that automatically, it's by osmosis.
Joanna: Definitely and your standards go up. I read in the same genre as you and I write in it because I love it too. So I'm glad you said that. And of course I grew up reading Dirk Pits and I met Clive Cussler this year so I was so super excited that you now co-write with Cussler.
What are the pros and cons of being alongside such a big name?
Russell: The pro is obviously that you learn a lot.
He's forgotten more about writing action and adventure than I'll ever know. So being exposed to that level of expectation and level of inventiveness and quality… the man is, I want to say, 84, 85 years old now. If you can still work up a decent plot at that age, hats off to you, seriously. He brings 45 years of writing in the genre to the table, so that's a tremendous learning experience. It's like going to school and church at the same time. That's the positive.
The negative is that readers of authors like Clive tend to only read their favorite, Clive and maybe a couple of other big names.
So you don't see the kind of audience following you over to your backlist or to your own work that you would hope. That was kind of a shocker for me because that was the entire idea in the first place of pursuing, working with a big name of a traditionally published author was, “If he's got five million people to buy his book, I co-write it with him, that gives me exposure to five million people.”
That's not how the math really works because when they buy a Clive Cussler book or a Robert Ludlum book or a Tom Clancy book, they only really see that name. They don't really see yours even if it's on the covers, it's incidental. That's just the reality of it. So there's pros and there's cons.
Joanna: It's so interesting you said that. I have talked to three people now who've co-written with bigger names and they've all said the same thing. It was a surprise because that wasn't the kind of carry over that you might expect. But as you said, you also learned a lot and it was super interesting.
Would you do it again or are you doing it again?
Russell: That's a difficult question. I think that I would be reluctant to do it again simply because there's only so many hours in the day. And if you're not going to see the audience carry over to your own work, it really just becomes a paycheck. Ask yourself, “Do you need the paycheck or would it be more satisfying on an emotional level, creative level, and a financial level to simply generate more of your own context?” That's not a question I can answer for anybody else. For me right now where I'm at, there's only a few people I would probably be interested in co-authoring with because I've been there, done that.
Joanna: But of course on the other side, you have Jet in Kindle Worlds.
And Kindle Worlds is only open to Americans at the moment, so that's something I haven't been able to do as a British author but…
Russell: You should talk to me. I've got some ways around that.
Joanna: I'm interested in your view of the other way then because in the Kindle Worlds' view you are the owner of that world. And even though people aren't co-writing with you, they're still writing in your world.
Have you seen fans of Jet go through into the Jet Kindle Worlds books?
Russell: Absolutely. That's who buys them.
Joanna: So people do cross over even if the author name is different because the character…
Russell: They do because if they're buying the world, they're not buying the author at that point. In other words, they like Jet, they like explosions and a female protagonist and a certain level of pros, etcetera, etcetera. And in between me releasing Jet books they want to read other… That's what they like consuming, they like the world.
I think it really affords the authors that work within the world an opportunity to get exposure to readers who wouldn't otherwise see them.
And I originally, I did a Kindle Worlds. I wrote in Steve Konkoly world. That's how I got into the whole thing. I wrote a novella for his Perseid Collapse world and I had a blast doing it. It was fun because I didn't have to invent a back story. I didn't have to invent characters in a world. I could use his and plug some of my own creations into it and it practically wrote itself.
That part of it was enjoyable but I think when you write with Dan Brown and if it says “Dan Brown” on the cover and then your name is in three-millimeter height letters, the chances are pretty good that nobody is going to go, “God, I need to go buy that guy's books.” That's just how it works. Would that it were different, but that's just how it works.
On the fan fiction, I think you're appealing to a different readership. For one thing you're appealing to people who like a world and are willing. They're probably buying books in the $4 to $6 range. They didn't pay $22 for your hard cover.
Joanna: Okay. That is going back on my list, fantastic.
Russell: I would recommend doing it. I wouldn't spend six months writing a novella for one, but I think it's worth doing for an author whose world is a good fit with yours.
You've wrote again in one of your wonderful blog posts, “Your odds of being successful are lousy, better than traditional publishing, but still terrible.” So what did you mean by that?
Russell: Are you going to hold that against me?
Joanna: What can our listeners do to improve their odds as an indie author?
Russell: I think you have to go into this understanding that the arts and creating entertainment is the arts.
Content generation of any sort, whether it's music, whether it's dance, whether it's singing, your odds are beyond terrible and that's just always been the case. I mean 10,000 go to ballet school, but all 10,000 are not going to be professional dancers. It's not going to happen. So there's a calling process and maybe two of those will wind up being paid to perform 10 years after they start practicing and learning their craft.
I think you have to view writing exactly the same way. It's an art form. You wouldn't pick up the cello and expect to be Yo-Yo Ma after your third cello lesson. You wouldn't expect to be dancing Swan Lake after your third ballet class. And you would recognize, it's like everybody has played or most of my friends have played in a garage band when they were teenagers. Everybody enjoys playing in a garage band, but nobody kids themselves that they're going to be the next Rolling Stones. And if they do, they get disabused of that notion pretty quickly. The odds have always been terrible in the arts of making a living at it.
Once you just get that through your head, it's very freeing because now you understand that the odds are what the odds are. You don't have unreasonable expectations, but you can start looking at how to narrow, improve those odds for yourself.
The way I recommend any new author or even anybody putting out their 15th book that hasn't experienced the kind of success they hoped for is keep upping your game on craft because the readers that are going to follow you from book to book are not the ones that bought it because it was on sale and they're always looking. They're not coupon clippers necessarily.
The people that are going to make a living for you are people who feel that they can't get what you produce from anybody else.
So you have to figure out how you're going to be the exception. How you're going to be unique in terms of your voice, in terms of your story, in terms of your word choice, your craftsmanship. Then by extension, your cover, what does it convey, what level of professionalism. Can it sit next to a traditionally published authors book on Amazon and look the same or does it look like you did it in Microsoft Paint on a three-day drunk?
There's just presenting a professional product that appears to be worth paying for is a big part of it and then tuning your blurb so that it can stand next to a professionally generated blurb, your product description.
All of those things buy you just a little bit of edge, a little edge here, a little edge there.
They see the cover, “Okay, that looks interesting.” They read the blurb, “Okay, maybe,” so then they go to look inside and that's where the pedal hits the metal. If you don't have them within the first couple of pages, they probably aren't going to buy the book.
That's where your craft comes in. And also, if you pick a genre or even better a sub-genre, that's large enough to support you, you're probably going to do better than if the answer to, “Who would give a shit about your book?” is everybody. No, not everybody. Not everybody cares. If you're writing say military sci-fi, you're probably going to have much higher odds of finding a readership because it's a very specific niche. Whereas if you're just like, oh it's a book for the ages, well, okay but there's a lot of those.
I think that if I was starting all over again I would advise myself right in the series, pick a sub-genre of men's fiction because that's what I enjoy reading and publish regularly. And then when you publish, make sure that the packaging and the product looks professional.
Joanna: Many of your books are shorter, aren't they?
Russell: Shorter than what?
Joanna: I know some people think that a book has to be sort of 80,000 words, but a lot of yours…
Russell: No, that's what my books are. They're between 80,000 and 100,000 words.
Joanna: Oh, okay. I thought some of the Jet ones are more novellas?
Russell: No, no, no. The Jet ones are all like… My minimum work in on a Jet book is 79,000 to 82,000 words.
Joanna: Well, there we go.
Russell: They just read fast.
Joanna: Yeah, they do. They read really fast.
Russell: And that's good. If you can do 80,000 words and it feels like it was 40, you did something right. If you put 80,000 words and at about 60,000 you're groaning, that's not a good thing.
Joanna: You're right. They are reading really fast.
And you know how to hit a return key as the lovely Dean Wesley Smith talks about, the pacing.
Russell: This latest one I'm working on, really this is a third in the Ramsey's books that I'm right now, I'm at about 20,000 words on it. I spent longer outlining this book and worrying about plot and pacing than any book so far. I've got to say it, it's paid off.
Joanna: That's fantastic.
I wanted to ask you, when was the tipping point in terms of when you knew, “This is the right thing and I'm going to make this financially as well as anything else”?
Russell: It was a disaster for the first seven months.
I was just shotgunning stuff out there, learning my painful lessons. I put out 10 or 11 books in my first seven months, all across the board in terms of genre. The first one, Fatal Exchange, was really a crime mystery, I guess. And then the second one, The Geronimo Bridge, was a conspiracy, action, thriller. And then I tried a bunch of different things all very loosely in men's fiction but realistically popped all over the place.
I didn't start to see any traction until I started writing my first series because those were all stand-alones.
And unfortunately, this market doesn't reward stand-alones the same way that it rewards series. So once I got that through my head, because I'm stubborn and I was like, “Oh no, I'm not going to be contained and limited by writing a series that's so formulaic and predictable.”
Once I got past that and went, “Yeah, but your customers are saying they want series,” so give the monkey what it wants. Don't fight with it. I started doing that and then things took off.
Timing wise, I hit in the golden years of KDP Select. Because of that, I had generated enough content, I was able to run a free day about every 10 days on a new book for a solid four months. And that happened to be the four months where each time you ran a free, you would expect to see 7,000 to 10,000 sales after. I was able to do that for I want to say a dozen books, whereas the average person had one or two. So that was a huge leg up, it got me a lot more exposure.
Joanna: So it's still is writing a series and have a lot of books, that it's not rocket science.
Russell: No, nothing in life is.
Joanna: Just being consistent.
Russell: Nothing in life is. I have friends that write in the movie industry and in TV and I have friends who have been professional musicians and make good livings at it and they all say the same thing. They all work their asses off, they work long hours, and they all say it's not rocket science.
Joanna: And longevity. It's amazing how many people fall away, isn't it?
Russell: Because they don't have expectations that match reality. I think there's a lot of magical thinking in this business. And because I come from a business background, I tend to ask myself different questions and I tend to view the business differently.
I view it as two separate and distinctly different disciplines, one of which is content generation and that's the writing, and then the other is packaging and selling, and that's the publishing business. And they're very different, they're distinctly different skill sets.
You have to sign up to being good at both and typically the type of personality that enjoys content creation doesn't really have the skill set nor enjoy the publishing part of it. So it's difficult. I think most of the people I've seen that have fallen by the way side that had a fairly strong start and couldn't keep it up did so because they just couldn't get a handle on the publishing part, not the content generation.
Joanna: All those people who went back to traditional publishing because they just didn't enjoy it.
Russell: They tried to. They tried to. It's not like it's easy to get picked up by traditional publishing either. That's getting harder and harder. The royalties are down, the advances have never been lower. I am very happy being an indie, let me put it that way.
Knowing everything I know, unless you're going to have a lottery win on the trad side, you're better off being an indie, in my opinion.
Joanna: You've talked with Clive Cussler and you've hobnobbed with big name traditionally published authors. Do you see a shift in their attitudes towards indie books and indie authors?
Russell: I'm always surprised by the polarized invective that you hear from the trad versus indie. Clive, he didn't care whether I was indie or not. He cared to whether or not I could write. So he evaluated the work based on the quality of the work. He wasn't really interested whose imprint was, whether it was my own or whether it was Random House. It didn't matter.
One of mine has become somewhat of a friend, an Internet friend, is Lawrence Block. I think the older guys who are in the business who don't have a dog in the hunt so to speak, they don't care. You're just one of them. You're another schmuck trying to make a living telling stories.
And then there's this other, the whole, “Amazon is the devil,” that group. I don't understand that group, I really don't. It's like, yeah, I understand you've got your position of privilege and you've been awarded this, the imprimatur of quality by being sugar-rated by supposed experts.
But at the end of the day, it's you writing and readers reading. So I'm not sure I understand why everyone is so angry at one group or the other?
Joanna: I agree with you. It's interesting when I go to Thriller Fest every year and I agree with you.
I've talked to Doug Preston and he was of one of these groups and yet in person he is charming and nobody says anything negative at all. Everyone, in fact, wants to know about things.
Russell: I think a lot of that is manufactured. I really do. I think that a lot of it is manufactured because the traditional publishers have an agenda that they are trying to advance and Amazon has an agenda it's trying to advance. So both of them will use the media however they can to get across their perspective and the authors meanwhile are creating content every day and trying to find readers.
Joanna: Exactly. Back on your blog again.
You have another good quote, “If you're successful, you've bought yourself a job.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
Russell: I think anybody that's done this “successfully, vocationally” understands that. Unless you have a lottery win, and I can think of a few people who have. Hugh Howey is my favorite example. He's a very talented writer and he acknowledges right upfront that he doesn't know exactly why Wool went mega and it's not like he did something particularly different, it just did.
So unless you have that kind of success, you're only as good as your next book and your readership will forget about you very quickly because there's so many other people making noise, trying to get their attention. This is a job, this is like writing for TV. You're only as good as the next episode you're writing for.
If your muse doesn't show up today and you don't generate the required 10 pages so that somebody can film the show next week, you're out of a job.
It's a wonderful job, but at the end of the day unless you're on of the top 50 authors in the world who have film deals and are a household name, you're working.
It's exactly like if you are a businessperson, you go out and you buy a delicatessen or a restaurant. You are buying yourself a job. You're showing up every day, making sure that the food is fresh, making sure that nobody is stealing anything, it's a job.
And that's what content creation and publishing is. You're creating content, which is a job, and publishing is trying to sell the content, and that's a job. It's a wonderful job by the way. It's my favorite job ever.
Joanna: Yes, and I agree with you.
I think it is wonderful and I love all parts of it as well. But it is hard work, as you say. I work harder now than I did as a business consultant.
Russell: Me too.
Russell: Me too. This is the most hours I've ever clocked doing anything whatsoever.
And I've done a lot of different things and this is by far the hardest, but it's also the most rewarding just on a holistic level. I've done things that have made me a lot more money but I wasn't looking forward to waking up every day to do it again.
Joanna: I was writing about this the other night just to myself in my diary going, what is the most fun thing? And it's finishing that book and going, “I made this.” And I just made another one.
Do you still get that with each of your books with so many?
Russell: Of course. Otherwise, yeah, why write it? I went through a period where I was like just dreading the act of writing because it had become like a job. And that's why I had to talk myself through that and go, “What did you think it was? What is your expectation in this? Do you think that every day is going to be a day where you are clocking at 10?” Because no other job or career do you clock at 10 every day. So why are you expecting that here? There's going to be days where you have to push yourself to get through the work and it's a job.
Joanna: And many people would say you're at the top, you've got this great success, you've been on all the lists.
Russell: I don't think that. I need more people to say that, that's what I need, and then buy all of my books.
Joanna: Even Lee Child says that. Most people have never heard of Lee Child. That's so true.
What is your ambition now? Do you consider yourself ambitious and do you have a 10-year plan as such?
Russell: I think it's silly to have a 10-year plan because so much changes from year to year.
I've been doing this for four and a half years and the market place is completely different and Amazon can flip a switch tomorrow and decide that none of my books get seen or none of an indie's book get seen or that they really do think 35% is the right royalty instead of 70. So, so much can change. The only thing, I don't have ambition to become a household name because I'm at an age where I don't require that.
I don't require the entire world to think that I am a unique voice and talent. I'm not kidding myself that I am Steinbeck. I am producing genre fiction and I aspire to be able to make a better than average living doing so for as long as I want to do it and as long as readers are willing to purchase my work. Anything beyond that is icing on the cake. If a movie deal comes, if somebody says, “We must hand you seven figures for your next work,” whatever happens that's all great, but I have no expectation of it.
I think it's very important to be… There's that old cliché that the work is its own reward, etcetera. But after a certain point, once you have the car you want and you live the place you want, whatever it is in your life that you need in order to feel like you are complete and have done what you want, the work really is the reward. So, it's one of those clichés, that's a cliché because it's true.
Joanna: And it has to be because you can't guarantee the success.
Russell: No, you are likely not to succeed. So you might as well write something that you personally are proud of and like.
Joanna: Yeah, exactly. Right. Last question before I let you go.
What do you see coming in 2016 in the indie world? Do you think it's global translation? What is your pick?
Russell: Boy, I don't know. I'm going to try to write fewer books next year, which my editor is probably listening to this. She's like, “I need the screen save of that.” I'm going to try to only write five to six books next year.
I've been selling my translation rights. I've been very fortunate that publishers in other countries have bought Jet and have bought the Ramsey's series and translated them.
Audio, they kick the chair out from under audio when they changed the royalty scheme. So I'm not that excited about audio anymore. I invested I want to say at least $50,000 in narrators and doing 25 or 30 books in audio.
But the ROI, the return on investment on those have shifted from where you expected it to get your money back in a year to where now if you can make it back in two years, you're lucky. And two years is a lifetime in this business, so that stopped being as attractive. I think it's going to be a tough time.
I think it's going to get tougher and I think that you're going to have to paddle harder to make the same money. But nobody is holding a gun to your head either, so if you don't like it, go get a day job.
Joanna: Okay. Well, it's been fantastic to talk to you, Russell. So where can people find you and your books online?
Russell: Well, wherever fine e-books are sold. You can read my thoughts such as they are at russellblake.com. I'm on Facebook, just search for Russell Blake. I'm on Twitter although very, very rarely these days. And all of my books are available through Amazon and 85% of them are available on iTunes and Kobo and Barnes Noble and Wild.
Joanna: All the rest. Well, thanks again, Russell. That was great.
Russell: Yeah. No, it was a real pleasure.
Neve Cottrell says
Love your podcasts, Joanna, and love listening to Russell. His advice is always spot on. Not sure if he knows that Lawrence Block wrote a review on Amazon for Ramsey’s Gold but the best bit about it is that someone criticized the review for stating the obvious. So funny.
Natalie K. says
Yay, I absolutely LOVE Russell Blake! I’m a huge fan of the Jet series and I can’t wait to listen to this.
Thank you, Joanna, for this lovely post.
I admire both of you so it was inspirational to listen to all of this excellent advice. If only I had approached my writing with the professionalism of writing to what the genre wants and expects instead of my writing first and then trying to find and fit in to a market!
Hey, ho, as we say when banging our head on a brick wall.
Thank you so much and please accept my wishes for even more success in 2016.
BTW, I understand Noddy Holder earns at least half a million every year in royalties for Merry Christmas Everyone – he is also worth every penny.
Joanna Penn says
Glad you enjoyed it – and re ‘merry christmas everyone,’ we should all learn to write for the festival season … I am totally doing a Xmas story next year!
Shayna Box says
Just found your blog, awesome interview, loads of good info! Thanks!
Laurence O'Bryan says
Great post, Joanne. I just bought one of Russell’s books because of this. His devotion to his craft is inspiring. He is 100% right about genre and the work ethic needed to survive as a writer.
Russell Blake says
Thanks for the opportunity to come on your show, Joanna. It was a lot of fun, and I’m glad to see that it resonated with some. Happy holidays and a Happy New Year!
Jill Paterson says
Thank you Joanna and Russell for a wonderful interview. I found it most interesting because I’ve been attempting to create an outline also. Unfortunately, I don’t seem to have been as successful as you, Russell, because I find that a lot better ideas coming into my mind as I write than what I had put down in my outline, Consequently, I’ve gone off track!
Happy Holidays to you both!
Hans Maerker says
It’s a great interview and shows again that successful writing means hard work. 🙂 As for the pantser vs. outliner, I totally agree that outlining is the way to go. At least for me.
Yet, in my case, this may have to do with my aviation and engineering background. In those metiers, you don’t start anything without knowing what the outcome will be. 🙂
Merry Christmas to all who read this blog, to Russel of course, and especially to you Joanna!
Inge H. Borg says
Joanna and Russell,
You both deliver great articles on your respective blogs; they are always helpful and encouraging for a lesser mortal who tries to glean some helpful hits from them – and then still must go off and do it alone …
I trust 2016 will be a fantastic year for both of you.
Just read the transcript of your interview with Russell Blake. Very interesting. I too have tried the outline approach but I work better with getting my head down and do a brain dump go see what story comes out within the rough guideline I have set myself. Then rewriting and rewriting and rewriting follows over the next several weeks. I also try to distance myself from the writing for a week or so or longer before repeating the next phase of rewrite.
I must give more thought to choosing the right sub-genre for my stories.
Thanks to you and Russell Blake once again.
I like the attitude that the ‘reward is in the task. Anything else is icing on the cake.’ To be as prolific a writer as Mr. Blake is, sacrifices would need to be made.
I earn an income, not as a writer. I see writing, right now, as a hobby – something I enjoy doing. I do have a book ‘out there,’ but that’s about it.
I’ve been learning a lot from these podcasts about what it would mean to make it as an indie author. Thanks for the postings.
Joanna Penn says
Exactly – we all have to choose what pays the bills and what is an enjoyable hobby 🙂