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Many authors still want a traditional deal and in today's show, thriller author Sean Black talks about his journey from winning the literary lottery through to happy indie success.
In the intro, I talk about the new multi-currency pricing feature on PublishDrive and a reflection on 10 years of the iPhone, released on 29 June 2007. In my personal update, I mention visiting The Hardy Tree in London this week, and also how I have turned a corner with dictating fiction using transcription.
Plus, How to Market a Book Third Edition launches this week, available in ebook and print from 6 July 2017. It might be for you if you want to sell more books and reach more readers 🙂
This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo ecosystem. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
Sean Black is the bestselling author of the Ryan Lock thrillers and co-author of the Malibu Mysteries with Rebecca Cantrell as well as the Byron Tibor series with Steven Savile. In September of 2008, after a heated auction, Lockdown sold to Bantam/Transworld in what Publishers Weekly categorised as ‘a major deal’. Dutch, German, and Russian rights were also quickly snapped up.
You can listen above or on iTunes or Stitcher or watch the video here, read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.
- Selling a book at auction to a trad publisher
- On whether movie studios are more interested in books if they're traditionally published
- The less-than-successful experiences that have been valuable for Sean
- Whether indie authors should pursue translating their books independently
- On whether awards help or hinder an author
You can find Sean Black at SeanBlackAuthor.com and on Twitter @SeanBlackAuthor
Transcript of Interview with Sean Black
Joanna: Hi, everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com and today I'm here with Sean Black. Hi, Sean.
Sean: Hi, Joanna, thanks for having me.
Joanna: Oh, it's great to have you on the show. Just a little introduction.
Sean is the bestselling author of the Ryan Lock thrillers and co-author of the Malibu Mysteries with Rebecca Cantrell as well as the Byron Tibor series with Steven Savile. Now, Sean, it's been ages since we arranged this,
Sean: I know, I know.
Joanna: I'm excited to hear about what's going on with you.
Start by telling us a bit more about your publishing journey from traditional publishing to indie and how you're into this thing.
Sean: Okay. I'll explain this and I'll try and speak slowly for your American viewers.
Joanna: Oh, everyone loves your accent.
Sean: Okay. I was wondering if this would be the first Joanna Penn podcast that had to have subtitles?
I started back and sold the first book to a traditional publisher in 2008. And I had kind of the dream start. You know, like the fantasy start.
Because I sold that book, “Lockdown” at auction, for kind of mid six figures. So it was a particularly strange experience because I was really broke at the time. I'd been writing television and I quit writing TV to concentrate on writing the book because, like a lot of people, you know, especially if you've got a day job, I know it's difficult just to have…it's not even necessarily the time it's just having the space in your head. Especially when it's your first one when you haven't done it before.
By the time that book when out, by the time I finished it, and it was one of those books that I kind of feel like it's a completely over-the-top book because I thought, “I'm not writing another one.” Like this is it or it's gonna take me a few years to recover. So I kind of threw, like, everything in the kitchen sink into that book.
Got an agent, and actually had an offer from a couple of agents and was gonna go with one and then was talked out of it by the agent that sold it. It was a guy called Luigi Bonomi in London. And I remember he kept me on the phone until I promised not to sign with anyone else. So he was very persuasive and he was so persuasive, I thought, “Well, he's got to be the guy that could sell it.”
The way Luigi works was a kind of classic auction situation. He has a table at the Ivy in London, which is this kind of very posh celeb-y restaurant/club in London. So he took editors out and he'd just sold Matt Hilton's first book for, I think, I think Matt's sold for like £800,000 sterling.
Joanna: Oh, the good old days of publishing.
Sean: The good old days. The good old days, remember those? So, he kind of buttered everyone up and got everyone excited and then the book went out to like maybe I think six or seven publishers all on the same day. And I thought I'd tell the story because before I sold, I loved hearing these stories.
It felt like you're winning the lottery, which it kind of is. So the first thing we got asked, I remember it went out on like a Tuesday and the first email I got on a Thursday, just for people who think publishing is about books, the first email was, “Have you got a picture of him?” I'm not a big picture guy, right? I don't like having my photograph taken. So I kind of managed to get a picture. And then I realized, actually years later, what I should have done was gotten, like, a picture of Gerard Butler or someone, and I think I probably would've gotten like, you know…
Joanna: More money.
Sean: …seven figures.
Joanna: Just to interrupt you there, it's really interesting you say that because that's still happening. There are authors who, and it's terrible to say, but are clearly…there's so much more promotion around them because they are camera ready. Or they're a certain age or they're a certain level of attractiveness. And you just go…
Sean: Oh, absolutely.
Joanna: …”Wow.” Some big deals for an attractive photo. So it's really interesting you say that, that that's still going on.
Sean: I actually think that perhaps next time I send a book out, which I haven't done in years, but we send a book out right to publishers, I may actually hire like a male model.
Joanna: A fake one.
Sean: Rather than having ghost writers who do the book for you, yeah, and I'm gonna have like someone, he can just go out and I'll find someone that can you know, construct a sentence and they can go out and do all the press. But yeah, and that certainly comes into it.
So, the book went out and then this is quite weird. I flew to London to meet with publishers. I got the first offer I was out of the first meeting I think which was where the publisher called Headline. I came out of that meeting and got a phone call and I think the first offer was kind of £120,000 for three.
Joanna: Which a lot of people would think was good.
Sean: This doesn't make me look good, but I remember being absolutely gutted. I was just like, “Oh, my God.” Because I guess, again, because of Matt's deal, I've kind of built it up in my head. I think we had like four publishers in.
And then it was the classic great thing for an agent. So he's kind of phoning them, “So and so's bid this and da, da, da.” So we ended up, I think we ended at…I'll do it again, I'll do the very un-British thing of giving you figures. My mother would have a fit if she knows I'm telling people, discussing money.
I think we ended up at £350,000 sterling for three books, but world rights, world rights in English. Actually no, world rights, pretty much everything. And so that was just like kind of an amazing experience. I got taken out to breakfast at the Wolseley, which is another kind of celeb place. And so I pretty much had like five minutes of being the most popular kid in school, right?
Joanna: Oh wow. It's the dream. It's what everyone dreams of.
Sean: It's absolutely amazing, but I always remember Zoe Sharp said early on, I read in an interview, fantastic writer. Said when she got her first deal, she thought she'd won the lottery but she'd won a lottery ticket. And now, and look, you know, it's a lot of money, it's absolutely fantastic, it takes the pressure off.
But then you have to have the sales to back it up. And we did…and also there are extra expectations on the performance of the book to earn out. So the first book did really well and then the second book came out, that did really well, everyone was flying along.
And then two things happened at once.
My editor, who is a fantastic woman called Selina Walker who's now at Penguin Random House, but was then at Transworld. She was being moved. I think Random House UK were not doing that well at that time and they needed someone really dynamic like Selina to kind of come over. So I lost my editor.
And that doesn't have to be, but very often is the kiss of death because they're the person that's really advocating for you in the publishing house and pushing you.
And the other thing that you're running into is while they were publishing me, they're also publishing Lee Child, and Jilly Cooper and Dan Brown, you know. So, you know, you're up against some heavyweight competition. People who have absolutely earned their place, but they're gonna get the attention. So she moved and then I had to negotiate a new deal.
And so this was about 2011. I think Sony had released their eReader. I do remember buying it. I have to say I never used it, so what does that tell you? Like I spent about €200 in the Dublin Airport, I bought it and ended up…I thought it was just too clunky. And then the Kindle was coming out.
So what I did was, and I was reading Joe Konrath's blog. Joe told the truth that everyone hated. And I was reading that. First of all, I did an economics degree and I've always been kind of fairly business-savvy, and I've always kind of kept up with tech stuff.
I just had a sense, and also similarly I was going into meetings I remember famously going into one meeting at Transworld and they said, “Oh yeah, eBooks, that's just not gonna happen.” And I can remember looking at the person that said to me…I was looking at them like this, “You're completely insane.”
I think it was pretty obvious that when Amazon came out with the Kindle because it was just so user-friendly and I always think technology that works is the kind of thing my mum can use. Like a TiVo for American people or Sky+ box, so whatever people can use that's gonna work.
So, I had to sign a new deal. What I said was, “I'll sign the new deal. I will take much less of an advance, but you've bought world, you haven't sold American rights so I want North America and all the rights back from the first deal that you didn't sell.” And they agreed.
Joanna. Wow. That wouldn't happen anymore.
Sean: Yeah, no chance. No chance, right? I can remember coming off the phone and literally like doing a jig around the kitchen because I knew, I had an inkling of what that was gonna be worth to me. And I had a feeling it was gonna be worth pretty much what the original deal was in the long term.
So that was the story of living the trad dream and then moving to indie. I have to say there has not been a single day, even though I would do a trad deal again if the right deal came along, the right publisher, the right editor. I don't see it as sides in a war at all so I absolutely would, but I'm just happier. I'm just happier.
Joanna: And why do you think you're happier?
Sean: I think it's because I'm a control freak. I get treated incredibly well by publishers. I got cover approval, I used the right copy for the books. Selina Walker, an amazing editor, couldn't have been nicer to me.
But there's still that thing of if you want to do a promotion. And also, you really are restricted in terms of the types of stories you tell. When we went out with the first book to sell it at auction, I mean one of the publishers that passed said, “If it had been just like Jack Reacher, we would've bought it.”
That's kind of thing you're dealing with on the one side with the financial side and the economics of it, and on the other side, you're dealing with the creative side.
In a way what's been interesting about the journey is there were times I had discussions with publishers and I could tell they were frustrated with me. And now, I get why they were frustrated with me when I said something. Because I see it from the other side. I see it from a publisher's side as well.
Joanna: I totally agree with you and I think this is really interesting because when indie started really taking off back in 2011, people were just throwing stuff up and being quite unprofessional about things.
But now, the indie market is pretty mature and many of us have these small publishing houses where we're putting out professional-level books. Pricing higher, doing audio, doing special print editions and I think things have very much changed since then. And you mentioned the intellectual property rights things. Back in 2011, you did savvy deals.
But you did say that you would still be interested in a deal now. What would make it worth your while, do you think? Or let's put it another way. So for people listening, what would you advise?
What is a good deal with a traditional publisher right now? Is it UK print only rights, for film, that type of thing?
Sean: Ooh, that's a big topic. I think there are some things that publishers could do…if it is a war, they could end the war tomorrow.
I think the first thing they could do is move as you do with foreign deals to fixed-term licensing. So most foreign deals, it's like four years, five years, seven years. They have the book and they have to make their money in that time and then the rights come back to whoever sold those rights, either a bigger publisher or the author.
And then the other thing that really is a killer is non-compete clauses.
Joanna: Just explain that for anyone who doesn't understand.
Sean: A non-compete clause can be quite loose or quite restrictive, but so they say, “You can't publish another book within a certain time period, you can't publish another book using those characters.” You know, there are all sorts of ways to…but basically, what it does is it means that you can't just go out and do what you want to do. You have to run it past them.
As I say, it can be quite restrictive, it can be quite loose.
Now, we're gonna get kind of a little bit intellectual property law here.
Joanna: That's good.
Sean: See, the thing is my wife, when I met her, she was working in IP law in Los Angeles in the film industry. I became quite au fait with all this stuff early on which actually has been a tremendous advantage to me especially with the transition.
I think in terms of ending all of this, I think fixed-term licenses rather than, “We get the book and you're never gonna see those rights again.” Because the thing is it used to be, Joanna, and you remember this, it used to be when it was print if they didn't sell, if they stopped selling print copies, they maybe only sold 100 copies, you got those rights back.
Joanna: But they were out of print, which doesn't happen anymore.
Sean: No, even if they say, even if there's a floor and they say, “We have to sell 500 eBooks.” There's nothing to stop them doing a flash sale for 99 pence or for 99 cents, and making those sales and they keep it.
Joanna: Yeah. Now, it's interesting.
You mentioned your wife in L.A. and the law and Hollywood and things, and you're a screenwriter and you've written for TV as well. Coming back and I think this is really interesting in traditional publishing.
Amazon has just launched their charts as we talk in mid-2017, and what was very noticeable is pretty much all the books, well not all of them, but a lot of the books in those top 20 were film adaptations or had been adapted into films.
My question there is do you think people are more likely to get screenplay interest or TV, Amazon Studios interest if they are with a traditional publisher? Do you think they'll be able to do that?
Sean: I think so. Yeah.
Joanna: So that could be one reason.
Sean: Just because of how they don't have that many. It used to be you had book scouts that would get manuscripts in the big publishing houses early. And so, yeah, my take on it is if you want to go for like the EuroMillions Lottery, and win €30 million, €50 million well, chances are you're not gonna win. But if you want to buy that ticket, you're gonna probably go with a traditional publisher.
Joanna: But if you want that long-term income every month, you're better to go into…
Sean: Just the fact that you look around with “50 Shades” and for that…and “50 Shades” was making good money for all those people. That's why there've been so many lawsuits afterward. But they were making nice money. But no one has the kind of distribution, kind of power and might of a Random House. I mean, they just don't.
Joanna: Yeah, and this is what's interesting to me. So, I understand the, “Yay, I'm gonna get a seven-figure deal with Random House,” or Penguin Random House or somebody big.
Why are authors now, taking digital-only deals with tiny houses? Do you know what is that mindset? How did you break out that mindset do you think? Did you go indie?
Sean: Do you want me to answer that honestly?
Joanna: Yeah. I do.
Sean: And now offend people? If you're offended by this, you can email me through the website or have a go at me on Facebook. I'm easy enough to find.
If you're taking a no-advance or low-advance digital-only deal, you're an idiot. You're an idiot.
Joanna: I think the same. I don't understand why people do this.
Sean: Because you have to ask. See, the thing is, the way the advance was explained to me and it makes a lot of sense. I can remember when I published, there was an Australian author I knew who was like, “I would have taken less of an advance if they put it into marketing.” Well, that just ain't gonna happen.
I would've done the same, if they could've like said, “Oh, we're gonna do this we're gonna do that and the other,” if someone has a lot of money on the line, they're gonna spend money to recoup it.
You see the same thing in the film business. I don't know if you follow the filmmaker Kevin Smith? O one of his last movies, he upset a lot of people because he made this movie called “Red State.” And he said he was gonna show it at Sundance and he was gonna live-auction the movie to distributors at Sundance after it was screened, right? It was very, very funny. It was kind of a Konrathian moment, shall we say, to bring Joe back into it.
And he basically got up and he said, “Yeah, I'm gonna buy the movie from myself for $5.” And he just went on this rant about the movie industry. He said, you know, “What'll happen is,” he spent like $2, $3 million making the movie, so what he said was, “You pay me $3 million so I'll make a million.” Then he said, “Then you'll spend $20 million on marketing and I won't see any more than my $3 million.” Because they do what they call net profit participation. And Eddie Murphy famously referred them as monkey points.
Joanna: Yes. I've heard this.
Sean: Because you'll never see that money. I have a friend, David Seidler, who wrote the movie “King's Speech.”
Joanna: Oh, wonderful.
Sean: Which was fantastically successful. But he actually had to take Harvey Weinstein to court to get his profit participation. That movie made like $100 million, $200 million. As far as the studio were concerned, it hadn't made a profit.
Joanna: It is crazy, but I mean this is all really awesome. But let's come back to indie because I know people are really interested particularly about indie books.
Now we were talking before the show and you said, like one of the great quotes, “Different books take off in different formats at different times.”
It's not like you came out of this big traditional publishing deal and every book you've put out since then has been just an amazing hit.
Sean: Oh no, I've had some complete disasters.
Joanna: Tell us about that.
Sean: Well, I'll tell you my biggest financial disaster, although I really enjoyed writing it, was I wrote a kids' book for two of my little nieces called, “Extolziby Gruff and the 39th College.” I thought, “Jo Rowling, watch out you know, here we go.” And I think I probably spent more on the cover than that book's made.
Joanna: Oh, they're expensive.
Sean: Yeah, so I mean it just you know, it happens. Did I have a fun time writing it? Yeah. Did I do one book? Which was really stupid rather than doing three?
Joanna: A series, yeah.
Sean: Yes, I did because I'm stupid at times just like you're all taking digital-only deals. I've just called you stupid. I'm stupid too.
The thing is with this business is we try stuff, don't we? I know you want to talk a little bit about translations and I've had stuff where I've paid for translations and I'll make that money back in maybe 2030.
But it's kind of the fun part too because A, you're learning. I know it's kind of a bit of an old cliché in tech circles, but it is true. “When you fail, you learn.” And especially when you put your own money out there, like you take that lesson on board. You lose two or three thousand euro or dollars, you've learnt that lesson.
But yeah, in terms of stuff working. I've done two things recently that initially didn't work and then have really taken off.
The first one was I wrote a biography, a very short biography of maybe 20,000 words of, and I sense you're gonna be an expert on this, on the mixed martial arts fighter, UFC fighter Conor McGregor. He's like the biggest star in Ireland, one of the biggest sporting stars among a certain demographic in the world.
That happened because I have an office in Dublin and literally, every young man and teenage boy under the age of 30, it was the only topic of conversation.
So, I got interested in him myself, I looked on Amazon and I saw that people had written biographies, but people do these Wikipedia scrape biographies and it was really embarrassing. And so, I thought, “Well, I'll write something about him.” And I wrote that and I put it out in eBook. Tumbleweed. Right? Nothing. Nothing. I didn't really do it to make money I did it because I, you know…you always have the hope that something's gonna take off. And then I had a publisher in London say, “Oh, we'd really like the print rights.” And I said, “Well, okay. It's 20,000 words.”
Joanna: It will be tiny. If people don't know, that's really tiny.
Sean: It might be like 90 pages. So, he said, “Well, okay we don't want the print rights. Would you like to fill that biography?” So we went back and forth. And again, this is where publishers' speed to market, it can be frustrating.
We finally made the deal and the deal they offered me was so bad, I told my agent not to counter. I said, “Just don't reply, it's ridiculous.” But what they did, they did me a huge favor.
I did a little CreateSpace edition and it just went nuts over Christmas because it was all these teenage boys. I knew this because I saw the reviews, you know, where they said, “Little Ethan loves Conor McGregor. I didn't know what to buy him for Christmas. I saw this, I hope he likes it.” So, you know, I made like €5000, €6000. €7000 in the space of a couple of months.
Joanna: Wow, that's amazing.
Joanna: That's really good.
Sean: But I was like an eBooks tumbleweed. So take an example. I do a series with the wonderful…her official name is, “New York Times Bestseller Rebecca Cantrell.”
Joanna: Indeed. A regular on the show.
Sean: Contractually obligated to call her that in that order. I did a series of books called the “Malibu Mysteries,” Sofia Salgado books. The first one was called “A is for Asshat,” which is now called, “A is for Actress.”
Joanna: Oh, really? Did you get complaints?
Sean: You can't get approval if you have the word, “ass” in your book title. But they won't tell you that's why they won't promo it, but that's why. Like, Apple wouldn't promo it. I love Apple by the way.
Joanna: Lessons learned.
Sean: So that came about because I had this idea about a former child star who plays a detective on TV who decides that she's gonna join a real detective agency. Because I'm always fascinated with this idea of fame. And everyone's so obsessed by it and I thought, “Well, what would be the strangest thing would be someone who decides they don't want fame. Like, they've done it, they're not interested.”
So every time I spoke to Rebecca, she would say, “What are you going to do? When are you going to write that series?” Now if there's anything I've learnt over my 20-something years of marriage to an American woman, is that they're really good at getting you to do things. They're genius. It probably applies to Englishwomen and all kinds of women.
I said to Rebecca, “Well, why don't you write it with me?” Because I knew if I said that, then I'd have to do it.
So we co-authored these books. So we've got “A is for Actress,” “B is for Bad Girls,” it's only four books so it won't be a long plug, “C is for Coochy Coo,” and “D is for Drunk.”
We thought, “This is gonna be great, it's the Janet Evanovich audience. We had a blast writing them. They were like the most fun of anything I've written. And we just didn't sell any. Compared to what she would normally launch with…you know, her CDs and I would normally launch with the Ryan Lock books, it was awful.
And then, and so we thought, “Well, okay.” But we still kept on every couple of months and, “We don't get it. Like, why aren't these books selling?” Like, we kind of felt there was an audience. So we're very lucky. We landed on BookBub.
We put them in Kindle Unlimited so, Kindle Select so they're only available there at the moment. We did a free BookBub on the first one, and sales just took off. And so we're now scrambling to write the next two books in the series. But that's the thing about intellectual property.
First of all, a book might not work in eBook, but it'll work in print.
Also, actually, with the Malibu books, where they were selling like crazy even when we couldn't give away eBooks or print books was the audio. We had this amazing, fantastic narrator, who by the way, completely lied about or certainly misled us about her age. She'll watch this so it'll be fine. She'll laugh. Because the main character's in her early twenties and she sort of has this picture that's not her.” But her audition was so brilliant.
Joanna: Come back to the photo again, yeah, “Don't judge me.”
Sean: Her cover pictures, all these weird expectations we have and ageism. So something might not sell in one format but it'll sell in another format. Or maybe the time's just not right. You know, so you just don't know. You can have stuff sitting on your KDP dashboard not moving and then you write another book in that series.
Joanna: Obviously, the multiple books in a series is so important. I think if it's not working, do something else so like pulling it and going in KDP Select, getting in BookBub, putting some ads on it, like that's really good. And the time isn't right.
Coming back to translations, this is what I feel about translations. I feel that the market for eBooks, which is where indies can make money, is not mature in any other language right now. It's in French, I think it's 0.01% of French books are sold digitally or something like that. Like, don't quote me. But, you know, a tiny French market. A German market is probably is the biggest one after English.
Sean: Pretty big, yeah.
Joanna: But still there are a lot more print sales in Germany than eBooks. Just so everyone knows, I pulled my translations, paid off my translators.
Sean: I read that. I read that. I was like, “Oh, oh.”
Joanna: Yeah. It was painful but also important. I had done joint venture deals with them so you know, they had expected to make money, neither of us were, then the translators weren't really able to market.
That's the biggest issue is marketing in these other languages.
So and even things like there's no BookBub in German and no BookBub in French. Like you say, you're out of pocket with translations.
Do you think in five years' time, for example, you're going to see those books start to sell?
Sean: I'm making money now in one market, which is Italy. I'm slightly scattergunned so I probably would be a rotten publisher. It's like if I had some company's money rather than my own money and someone saying, “Honey, where's the mortgage payment?” “I spent it on a translation.”
I'd probably go out of business pretty quickly because I just like to try stuff.
I have about four or five books in Italian via Babelcube, which I know not everyone's a fan. I actually think that contract is a fantastic deal for authors.
I'll tell you why because after five years, the author owns the translation in that contract. And it's shared risk. I've done a bunch of translations of varying quality. The Italian ones, I have to say, are excellent. I know they're excellent because they sell.
And it was just one of those things where I had them on Babelcube, you know, I use the same covers, I don't change the covers, I don't change the title. I started getting royalty payments from Babelcube and I was like, “Oh, oh, oh. Oh, this is quite interesting now. You have my attention.”
Joanna: These are fiction?
Sean: Yeah, these are the Ryan Lock series, so the main series in Italian and I think this month's, again, being crude and talking about money, sorry Mom, this month's royalties is about €700.
Joanna: Wow, that's for how many books?
Sean: I mean, I'm like, guys, I quite like you know, the Dean W. Smith thing about the magic cake shop?
Joanna: Dean Wesley Smith, yeah.
Sean: Wesley Smith? Yeah. So his whole thing is a book is a cake, right? And so you sell the cake, but especially with eBooks and digital, the cake, you don't have to bake another cake.
I look at it as like a kind of multichannel, international cake shop. So you bake one cake, but you have made about potentially 400 or 500, you know, different variations of that cake because you have print eBook, you have audio. I think my Conor McGregor book proved that if you have something that works and I know people like Hugh Howey, he made a bunch of money on print.
Joanna: Oh, he licenses his print only to big publishers.
Sean: No, but I think he's actually said that he was looking forward to getting those print rights back because he was making the same money himself, as I recall. Someone will correct me if I'm wrong.
So you have those channels and then if you look at it by country, you have all those channels replicated in all those territories. Now, you are absolutely correct. In terms of reach and distribution, we're nowhere near, especially with eBooks, I think partly because some I think countries like France, I think partly is literary culture.
I would imagine there's also governmental and state and lobbying by publishers. That stuff doesn't work as well in the States. The States watch more, for good or ill and as far as I'm concerned, a lot of times, it's for good. It's rampant capitalism, isn't it?
Sean: Which is…
Joanna: Quite a thrill.
Sean: Not even that equation is no bad thing, you know.
Joanna: Yeah. I know. I think that's a really good point. And I'm really interested in what's happened with Babelcube.
I have heard some really bad stories so let's just warn everyone, buyer beware, your results may vary.
Sean: I would say to read the contract, really check your translator. Even if you have to pay someone to check the translation, then do that. I think that I do have a couple of translations floating around that maybe aren't the best. But it's a five-year deal.
Sean: But I'm much happier with Babelcube than I am, say, with ACX. ACX slashed the royalties.
I loved ACX. I think they do a fantastic job, but they're really in a monopoly position. I hope someone comes along and gives them a run for their money because I think taking 60% is greedy. And I'm the one that likes to be greedy.
I want royalties. I don't want all these other people being greedy. I've got a family, I've got a mortgage here.
Babelcube, I would say, look at the people that have said negative things about them. You know what? They pay royalties. It's a sliding scale, which I think it should be so the translator gets the bulk of money up to a certain sales level, I think it's $2000. That's absolutely the way it should be because, I mean, that's a ton of work.
But the converse side of that, for me, is I've already written that book. That's why I don't like…if stuff like that doesn't perform, I don't feel…and it's a royalty share, I'll feel bad for the other person, but I don't feel bad for myself because I literally had to send them a file.
Joanna: I think that's really interesting. You and I could talk for ages and I want to keep picking your brain, but we're pretty much out of time and there's one question that's really super important to talk about, which is, you and I are both finalists for the International Thriller Writers…
Sean: Yes. Congratulations.
Joanna: Oh, congratulations to you. Best eBook Original, my book “Destroyer of Worlds,” and your book “The Edge of Alone,” and a number of other books that we don't need to mention.
Sean: They're excellent books, they're excellent books.
Joanna: All excellent. I have got them all and I've started reading them all. I'm just checking out the competition. But this will be announced the week after this show goes out and we don't know right now who's gonna win. Next month, as we're talking. Obviously, I'm gonna win. But hey.
Sean: I have a very bad history with…let me reassure you here, right?
Sean: When I wrote for TV, there was one year I was nominated for a Royal Television Society Awards. And I was nominated for two shows, particularly for a show in the UK called “Biker Girls.”
Joanna: Oh, I remember that.
Sean: Yeah, and before anyone asks, this won't make any sense to anyone outside the UK. Ant and Dec were before my time, we're about the same age. But so, I was up for that and I had an original pilot show that was on ITV. And so I had two shows nominated and I was up in like five categories, right? And it's a big awards do, you have to dress up and blah, blah, blah. I won nothing. I sat there that whole night.
Joanna: I've gotta ask you, how does it feel to be nominated and not win? Because that may well happen.
Sean: Well, I would imagine if it was just once, it's okay. If you're sitting there through an entire awards show and you lose five times, I mean by the end I was thinking, “Surely, just for the sake of…I've been on awards juries, surely just for the sake, oh, just give him something.” We can't have him not winning anything.
Joanna: But what I want to ask you is…because this is the first time I've been a finalist in an award and it does mean a surprising amount to me because, as you know, it's judged by authors. It's not about sales and, in fact, “Destroyer of Worlds” doesn't sell that many because it's about India and a lot of people aren't that interested in books about India in America, surprisingly.
Is it all about ego as winning an award or does it actually help sell books?
Sean: This business is all about ego, Joanna. Of course, it is. Everything's ego. I mean, why would anyone assume that someone else wanted to read their story?
Joanna: Yeah, I suppose so. So awards literally are all about ego?
Sean: I mean I know from Rebecca Cantrell, my New York Times Bestselling co-author.
Joanna: Who won it last year, right?
Sean: She won it last year. And she's won like everything going. She's won just a ton. If you look her up, she's won everything. And I think she said to me, “It didn't make that much of an impact sales-wise.”
Joanna: Coming full circle back to traditional publishing: I am actually going to be pitching some screenplays and things at ThrillerFest.
Do you think that it does make the industry more interested?
Sean: Yeah, probably does. I think it's something to open with. I get asked a lot because I worked in primarily television for 10 years. And people are always, “Oh, when are the Lock books gonna be a movie?” It's just nothing I think about.
I'll tell you, I mentioned him earlier, David Seidler with “The King's Speech,” I was probably one of the first people to read that script and everyone turned that script down. Everyone. The way he got that movie made was he had one of the actors commit and then he had Tom Hooper who became the director, his mother happened to be at a reading of it in London and phoned him.
Joanna: So pure luck.
Sean: That's the reason that movie got made. So I don't get too excited. I'll tell you what's really nice about the ITW just being nominated and I can actually say this now and actually mean it and be sincere, is being nominated by your peers is really nice. It really is. It's touching.
And I know people mostly say that and what they mean is, “But I better win.” But I mean I genuinely, because those are our contemporaries.
And also, “The Edge of Alone” was a bit of a disaster release for me because I think the wrong file went out on Kindle the first time it went out and so there were typos. I absolutely got battered in the reviews. And until I got that nomination that…you know you have favorite children? I only have one.
Joanna: I don't have any.
Sean: That's fine. So that's easy. But you know, but people favorite children, that was not my…it was weird because it was a book I felt was good. The Lock readers did not like that book. Just didn't like it.
Joanna: Yeah, it'll be interesting.
I hope that I win or you win. How's that?
Sean: I kind of hope you win too. You've talked me into hoping you win now.
Joanna: Ah, excellent. But it is interesting because it does mean more because it's nominated by authors.
We're finalists because authors really liked us.
Sean: Yeah. And so they know how difficult it is. And that's the other thing is, for all the, oh, six-figure deals and blah, blah, blah and stuff that works and stuff that doesn't work. You're at your desk on your own, thinking, “I'm gonna be found out now.” I mean I don't write books where I'm thinking, “Oh, this is war. Oh, my God. What a guy. You know, this is amazing.”
Joanna: No, we all suffer that self-doubt. But we're gonna have to go. I definitely could talk to you all day. We'll have to have a return match.
Sean: Yeah, well good. A rematch.
Joanna: A rematch.
Sean: Although it should be interesting, depending. Maybe someone else should win.
Sean: Maybe somebody else should win because then…
Joanna: James Scott Bell is also nominated. He's been on the show as well. And we loved him.
Sean: He's a cracking writer. I mean, they're all great and they're all terrific writers and terrific books. But I guess if you win or I win, this could be a little bit tense.
Joanna: I doubt it. Tell us where people can find you and your books online.
Sean: Okay. So, there's the Ryan Lock series, that's available all the usual places: Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Google, Kobo, all those good places. You could buy print, you can get the audio.
The Bryon Tibor series, two books in that. One of those is also ITW nominated. I've lost once already so I'm battle-hardened. And that's available the same places.
“Malibu Mystery” series starting with “A is for Actress,” with Rebecca Cantrell. That's available online. And then there's my website, which is seanblackauthor.com. And you can also have a go at me on Facebook if you've signed the digital-only deal and object to what I said.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Sean. That was great.
Sean: Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure and a privilege.
Great interview as always. Interesting guy and it’s good to hear the pluses and minuses of things; I know you give us this as well. I wish you both well in the awards season – can I call it that? One benefit is that you can add ‘International Thriller Award Winner/Finalist’ to your business cards.
Interesting to hear you are doing another walk. After reading about your experience last year I thought you might run a mile before doing another walk 🙂 Good luck with the walk. I am walking the ‘Race to the Stones’ in 11 days in the 24 hour 100k version which will probably kill me as I have only done a minimal amount of training but I feel I must do something stupid every year so that is this year’s event. Next year it’s a marathon.
Win or not you deserve it.
Joanna Penn says
All the best with the 24 hour 100k version – make sure you take codeine with you and a lot of foot tape and padding for your feet 🙂 50k was a challenge but I am not completely ruined, like I was with the 100km, so I’ll be sticking to this distance now 🙂
Vincent Zandri says
Great interview, great job. Sean’s story is almost exactly the same as mine…Amazing. As for the awards, my Moonlight Weeps won the ITW Thriller Award and The PWA Shamus Award, both for Best Paperback original in 2015, and neither did much for sales. But great to even be nominated for these awards which are judged by your peers. Congrats to you both!
Carla Conrad says
Please, please, please have Sean Black on again. This interview was not only informative–as all your interviews are – but equally entertaining.
Best of luck at the International Thriller Awards. Congratulations on being nominated. That must feel amazing, considering whom your other finalists are. Whether you win or not, enjoy a moment that relatively few authors experience.
Wish we could give you an award for all the help, encouragement and inspiration you’ve given to those of us you’ve carried sometimes kicking and screaming along the path you’ve forged as an indie.