How To Be A Writer: Traditional Publishing To Indie And Hybrid With John Birmingham

    Categories: Publishing Options

Today I’m talking with Australian author John Birmingham about his journey from the dizzying heights of the traditional publishing scene, to deciding to go indie and hybrid and his insights into how the publishing industry has changed. It’s an honest and really fascinating interview.

In the intro, I talk about how we can deal with the political upheaval, and how, as Toni Morrison says, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work.” (Quoted in Brain Pickings).

Plus David Gaughran’s report on what Amazon cares about, and the latest KENP rate, which has dropped again. Remember, it’s your choice to choose exclusivity or to go wide, but if you want a healthy long-term eco-system for writers and readers, then you need to support the other vendors.

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.

John Birmingham is an award winning and bestselling Australian author of science fiction, techno-thriller, crime, urban fantasy, memoir, and nonfiction. His latest nonfiction book is How to Be a Writer: Who Smashes Deadlines, Crushes Editors and Lives in a Solid Gold Hovercraft.

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.

Show Notes

  • How John got his start in publishing and what the industry was like then
  • Why John went hybrid in 2016
  • The type of author that makes money as an indie
  • Tips on marketing books in Australia and changes to the print market there
  • Advice from John’s new book, How To Be A Writer

You can find John at JBIsMyMasterNow.com and on Twitter @JohnBirmingham

Transcript of Interview with John Birmingham

Joanna: Hi, everyone. I’m Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com, and today I’m here with John Birmingham. Hi, John. Welcome to the show.

John: How are you doing? It’s been a while.

Joanna: I know. Well thanks for coming on. Just a little introduction.

John is an award winning and bestselling Australian author of science fiction, techno-thriller, crime, urban fantasy, memoir, and nonfiction. His latest nonfiction book is “How to Be a Writer: Who Smashes Deadlines, Crushes Editors and Lives in a Solid Gold Hovercraft,” which sounds awesome.

John, I first heard of you when I moved to Brisbane, Australia back in 2007. And actually, if people don’t know, you’re an Australia icon with your book “He Died With a Falafel in His Hand,” which is iconic.

Tell us a bit about how did your publishing career get started and what was the industry like back then?

John: Look, I was a late starter. I always wanted to write but what I most wanted in life was to write feature articles for magazines. I saw myself jetting off around the country, jetting off around the world, having these adventures, writing stories about it and being paid, I don’t know, $5 a word by magazines like “Rolling Stone” and “Vanity Fair.”

I got it all except for the five bucks a word. I started writing in the “Fringe Press,” student magazines, and “Street Press.” And you know what? If you’ve got people who are looking to get published who aren’t desperately just trying to do books, they just want to get into print, they want to be edited, maybe they wanna get paid or at least a food voucher sort of backhanded to them by an editor, then “Street Press,” “Fringe Press” that sort of thing, websites, they’re not bad places to start.

They get you working to a deadline. And even now, some of them still do pay. So I did that for about 10 years or so, and I got to the point where I was a very successful freelancer.

I could ring up the editor of pretty much any magazine in the country that I wanted and I could pitch them a story. They would usually send me 1000 bucks for expenses, and I’d fly off, and I’d do the story. It was actually pretty good but I was kind of slow. One of my editors, Mark Satch, at the “Independent Monthly” described me as chiseling my pieces out on stone tablets and it wasn’t far wrong.

So despite the fact that I had worked my way into this fantastic position where I could commission my own stories effectively, I think I was making about 10 or 12 grand a year. Anybody who’s worked in newspapers or magazines will have worked for a newspaper or magazine that’s died. It’s just what happens and particularly nowadays.

I had a period where just a bunch of mags I worked for fell over, a bunch of editors I submitted to moved on, and I suddenly found myself with just one paying gig. Which was pretty tenuous and I walked into that gig one day, it was the “Independent Monthly.” It was a fantastic magazine. Very, very classy. Really high production value, proper editing.

I remember I had to get a quote from Robert Hughes, the art critic, once to put into a story because he was in town. I said, “I’ll get one from Hughes. It’ll be good.”

So I got a great quote from him. Do you think I could break this story open, to just shoehorn it in? I couldn’t because these guys had edited it so perfectly. And that was good training for later on about knowing the importance of editing.

Anyway, I came into the mag one morning and I could smell it, just it’s on the air. I just went death, I could smell death. And I went to the Deputy, Michael Duffy, “Michael, is that death I smell?” And Michael was like, “It’s death. It’s death. It’s death.”

So he said, “Look, look, look, we gotta get out.” And he was setting up a little publishing company and he wanted a stocking stuffer for Christmas, just a funny book that he could hopefully sell a couple hundred copies of. And I said, “Mate, I’ve got a couple of flat mate stories I could write for you. Why don’t I do that?” So he gave me a small advance and I gave him a small book. And to tell you the truth, Joanna, it died.

It died almost as badly as that magazine when it came out. And it looked like for about six months, Michael had done his doe, he’d mortgaged his house to set up this company and he was gonna do his day cold.

But then for some reason, it started to sell and it started to move by word of mouth. This is all pre-internet, pre-email, pre-mailing lists, pre-social media. This is old, old school publishing.

Joanna: What year was this?

John: This would have been ’96. As a sort of an example of the really awful ideas we have for publicizing this book… Because it was about share housing. I’d had about 100 flat mates by this point and they’d all been disastrous.

Michael got me to bring in all of my unwashed socks and underpants, and he’d somehow secured this biohazard bags from a nearby hospital. And into each bag went either a dirty sock, or a pair of unwashed underpants, and a copy of the book, and then they got mailed out to the literary editors of Australia, who surprisingly enough we’re just not that interested.

So when that didn’t work out, he then had me walking around the inner city of Sydney pushing copies of this book under the doors of houses that looked like they might occupied by people in share housing. And I don’t think either of those things worked for us, but at some point, I don’t know somebody read a copy and told a friend and that’s how you sold books in those days.

The magic, the arcane, scary, fateful magic of word of mouth, and it took off. And actually became a phenomenon. I honestly don’t know how many copies it’s sold now. I know it’s in excess of half a million. In fact, it came out in the UK at one point and did very well there. Did a couple of print runs.

And it was weird. I wrote that book as a favor for him, and I didn’t write it wanting to break into publishing. It was a favor for Michael, and a way to just put a couple of bucks in my kit bag while I looked for some other freelance work.

And it just completely changed the direction of my life, which has actually been the story of my life in publishing. It’s had a few sort of course corrections like that that weren’t exactly planned.

Joanna: Well it’s so interesting and I’ve been interviewing a few people lately who’ve had these books that they didn’t expect to be the bestsellers. I think this is the thing so many writers sit there trying to craft the book that’s gonna change their life, and change their career, and yet even someone like J.K. Rowling didn’t know what “Harry Potter” would be. And what you said there, you didn’t know that that would be the book that, I think fair to say, made you famous in Australia.

John: Yeah, definitely, for sure.

Joanna: And thus has led to other books in your career. So talking about pivotal moments. Obviously, you’ve gone on to write tons and tons of other books. But the reason I wanted to talk to you was in 2016, you announced that you were going hybrid as in you were going to self-publish some of your books. When I was living in Brisbane, I considered you part of the literary establishment and I was a newbie.

John: Did I snub you at an event or something?

Joanna: Yeah, probably. You didn’t have that feeling back when I lived there sort of mid-2000s, 2006, 2007, that that was something that you would consider.

Why did you go hybrid in 2016? What’s changed?

John: Look, long story short, I desperately needed to.

Long story long, I’ve been looking at eBooks for a while. The trade publishing business, which the big old houses that have been around for centuries in some cases, it didn’t always have the sort of fear and loathing of eBooks that it currently has.

When they first came out, it was kind of interesting, it was another income stream. And they figured, you suddenly sort of weren’t dealing with the grittiness and friction of having to put books into boxes, and put them on trucks, and send them all the way around the country.

And everyone was quite excited by that, and in quite a few of the trade houses set up these sort of in-house units which were devoted only to doing eBooks. And so everybody was looking at it as an exciting new opportunity. There were suddenly forms most of writing which were selling digitally, which hadn’t sold before.

I remember talking to my agent, Russ, in New York and he said he was suddenly getting all this money in that he just couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. And what it was, it was the publishers bundled together bunches of all short stories by some of these literary authors and they just put them out as books.

No publicity, no marketing, just dropped it into the channel. But there were so many of these things happening that some of it was suddenly becoming a significant amount of money flowing into the trade houses.

And then, of course, the industry began to shake itself out and it got into a quite serious confrontation I guess with Amazon, who still is sort of the elephant in the room with eBook publishing. And they have now found themselves in a position where, I think to be honest, if they could wave a magic wand and just make e-books go away they would. I think they just really prefer they weren’t around.

But I was part of that business at that point, and I was as excited an anyone. And the thing which really excited me about eBooks was I eventually moved into thriller writing and doing a long series.

I tended to rise in trilogies and I built big worlds and populated them with lots of characters. And the thing that really intrigued me about eBooks was the possibility to write stories just off the page. You would have the experience of having fans and readers email you or contact you on Twitter or Facebook.

Or they’ll say, “That character,” who was a minor character in some story, they really liked them and they wanna know what’s going to happen with them. But nothing is gonna happen with them because that was just something you wrote to move the main character from page 57 to page 58.

But for whatever reason, some reader, often quite a few readers, would be deeply invested in this small character. And the thing that intrigued me about eBooks was the possibility of investigating the story lives of those characters away from the main plot and that’s all I wanted to do.

What I discovered very quickly was that writing eBooks for trade publishers is a mug’s game. Because you put as much effort into them as you do with a novel, but just because of the way the numbers fall you don’t make a living out of it. In fact, you probably, to be truthful, you lose money writing eBooks.

I got to a place where I could think about it in terms of, “Oh, look. I’ll write these eBooks as fan service and as relationship management with the publishers, but I’m not going to do them as a business.” Because doing eBooks for the publishers, that’s not a business. That’s madness, mate. Absolute madness.

Anyway, so that was the background to it. And at this stage, I had publishers in the UK, the U.S., Australia, a couple of other places. But the three big English language markets were the main ones.

I’d always managed to keep them in a sort of an easy balance over the years. And my American publishers came up with this idea for a franchise character, an urban fantasy, the Dave Hopper series. They wanted me to write a character that I could just keep writing for years.

So I came up with one. I really loved those books actually. At that point, they were the best books I’d ever written, and they were really funny they were the first determinately humorous books I’ve written since the “Falafel” and “Tasmanian Babes.”

We had this deal where they were all supposed to come out, I think it was like April 2014, April 2015. Anyway, April. And it would have been not on the same day but pretty much in the same week. And what that does, it means that if you do a chat with somebody like you, it has an effect in all the markets at the same time. So you get all these synergies in the marketing and it just didn’t work out.

I got a call from my then publisher in Australia, it was about two or three days before Christmas and they said, “Look, we got a lot of these books sitting in the warehouse.”

Because one thing I would give the Australian publishers they’re just ruthlessly efficient. They edit quickly but they edit to really high-level standards, they move quickly, they’re a polished operation.

What that meant was that they had thousands of these books I guess sitting in their warehouse, and they’ve got months before they can distribute them. And I guess some bean counter just went, “No, let’s get them going right now. They’re burning a hole in my pocket.”

So they rang up and said, “We’re gonna put these on Christmas Eve.” I’m like, “What?” Because I don’t know what it’s like in the UK or the U.S., but you might recall from your time in Oz that Christmas Eve, that’s when things shut down in this country. A shutdown for at least a month.

Everything closes, because people are about to go away for, not just their Christmas break but their yearly break, their summer break. And they were probably thinking, “Well, people are on the beach. These are great beach books. We’ll sell a few.”

No, you’re not because they dropped off them into these bookstores on Christmas Eve when, quite frankly, the booksellers, they’re exhausted. Honest to god, they’re there sick of the sight of books. They could happily never see another book as long as they live by the time Christmas Eve rolls around.

So that was kind of a disaster. There’s no one working in media at that point. They were all just taken filler from the wire services. So I couldn’t do any publicity for it.

And worst of all, however, because the eBook came out at the same time as the trade paperback, most of my readers who are overseas, not in Australia could see, “JB’s got a book out.” But they couldn’t get it because that book was geo-fenced within Australia. It was also pretty expensive, as you’d imagine, because they price matched between trade paperback and eBook.

And within, I don’t know, a day, two days, it was all over the pirate sites, and you’ve got thousands of copies just going everywhere. So by the time my U.S. and UK publishers released, it was dead. It was all over. It was a disaster.

I sort of won’t go into the really grimy details of how everything went sideways hard and fast at that point, but it did. And I suddenly found myself with nothing.

I’d always been on contract. I’d always had more books to look forward to. I was suddenly in dispute with at least my Australian publisher, and I could see 15, 20 years’ worth of work just swirling down the dunny, as we say down here.

And the one thing I had in my back pocket was I had written a couple eBooks. And again by this stage, I’d wised up. I hadn’t written them for money because I knew I wasn’t gonna make any money off them. I’d written them as fan service and relationship management with the publishers, which turned out to be a bit of a sick joke.

So I just called them up and I said, “I’ll be taking those books back and I’ll be doing them myself.”

Previously, my agent had not just advised me but pretty much told me, “You won’t be doing any Indie publishing at all because the trade houses don’t like it.” Particularly, they don’t like the needless thought that’s going into it.

They’ll put up with their marquee authors doing it, because those guys have market power and they could get away with it. But if you’re a midlister, you’re selling anywhere between 10 and I don’t know 30, 40, 50,000 copies, you are a fair chance. Or you were a fair chance the last five or six years, to get cut if they found that you’d gone off the reservation and done something for yourself.

But I didn’t have a choice. I got kids. I got a mortgage. This is my job. I had been a full-time writer since I was about 21 years old. And I’m now quite a bit older than that, so I had no other skills.

I didn’t just charge into it. I spent about six months, maybe eight months actually, researching. I dived deep into your website and some of your books. I binge listened Johnny, Dave and Sean. Everyone knows who we’re talking about. I got their books.

Dave Gaughran’s, “Let’s Get Digital.” I have read that I think 10 times just cover to cover. Guidos’ book on “How To Code,” I read that from cover to cover and realized I can’t do this.

Joanna: Luckily, we have Vellum now.

John: Yeah, that’s right. I got a hold of Guido, said, “You’re just gonna do these books for me.” I sent him some money and he actually laid out the first couple.

But you’re right. Vellum is a great example of how quickly things are moving in this sphere. Because previously I had to allot of week to send a manuscript to New York, and then get it back and check it, and back and forth and back and forth.

Now, I came up with an idea for a book this afternoon as I was coming home. I’m just gonna take all the fight scenes out of my previous novels and bundle them together, and just call it “Beef exclamation mark”.

I’ll be able to do that in about an hour. It just comes straight out of Word into Vellum, and an hour so, later on, I’ll probably drop it in Pronoun and push it out.

I did spend a long time researching and I used those two early books as experiments to prove the model. But everything that you guys had been writing and telling us about it, all worked pretty much as advertised.

And this is the thing, I must admit having come from trade publishing which is a sort of genteel business in some ways, and yet as ruthless as an assassins guild in others, I found the sort of communitarian, one for all and all for one culture of indie publishing to be not just refreshing but life-saving.

I just couldn’t believe that you guys had done all this work and you were just sharing it. It was very, very strange.

But I’ve got the bug myself now. I just came back from a conference on the weekend and I had a lot of authors at the conference, the trade publisher was sort of quietly saddling up going, “This self-publishing thing, JB, how’s that working out?”

“You wanna go check out Joanna’s site. You wanna go read Dave’s book. You wanna listen to Sean, Johnny and Dave’s podcast, or Dawson. Oh my god, Mark Dawson. If he’s up for it, I’ll have his babies because that guy I reckon saved my bacon.”

Joanna: Mark listens to the show, so he’ll be happy for the shout out.

Thank you, so much for sharing so honestly about why you moved. Because I’ve been at conferences lately as well with quite big name authors in America and Britain, and a lot of them on the side will ask these questions about Indie.

But they won’t do it in public and they won’t necessarily talk about it because of this fear. And it’s interesting, you said the midlist going indie was frowned upon because they’re the people who need it most. You don’t need it as a debut and you don’t need as a big name. So that’s kind of crazy.

John: No, you don’t.

Joanna: I found coming back to Australia that it’s almost got more snobby than it used to be.

Do you think the attitude is changing? How do you think this is going to shake out?

John: Badly for the publishers, quite well for the midlist.

I mean it depends. If they’re willing to do the work and spend a lousy three or four dollars buying Gaughran’s “Let’s Get Digital” or just invest a bit of time in the car listening to god knows how many podcasts there are now, they will do well because they can write.

The business model of trade publishing houses is you’ve got the whales, and your J.K. Rowlings, your Stephen Kings, your James Pattersons, and they make enormous amounts of money.

And then you have midlisters who traditionally have always made money, they just don’t make enormous amounts. And then you have the bets that they’re taking on the new entries, and they usually lose money.

And a midlister can go from earning money to losing money, which at point they’ll sort of slowly get eased out of the company. The problem for the trades going forward is that their big name authors have generally come from the midlist.

J.K. Rowling was not a huge and immediate success. She was very successful, but I recall being on book tour when I think she was maybe two books into the series. And I was going through a Borders, there were still Borders in Sydney at that point, and my publicist, the lovely Annie Cothar, actually picked up a copy of one of the early “Potters” and said, “Oh you should have a look at this, JB, this is really interesting.”

And she started saying his was a book that was supposed to be for kids and we’re just finding lots and lots of grownups are reading it too, and it’s possibly going to be a bit of a phenomenon.

So at that point, she was not J.K. Rowling, the owner of castles and possible secret superhero fighting crime in her spare time. She was just a midlister who was very, very quickly becoming a global cultural phenomenon.

I met Ian Rankin at I think Sydney Writers’ Festival a couple of years ago. Fantastic guy. We murdered three-quarters of a bottle of whiskey on stage together. If I remember the night, I’m sure I’d remember it fondly. And he said, it took him seven books to break out.

And so the model in the past has been that they will invest again and again and again in authors in whom they believe. And also to give them their due, they’re book people, they love books.

I know of lots of really hard-nosed traditional publishers who just keep investing in books that they know in their hearts are not going to work because they feel in their hearts that these books should be published, and they should be given to humanity forever. And that’s admirable.

It’s just a model which fortunately is increasingly difficult to justify under the sort of neoliberal economic regime we all suffer under nowadays.

Joanna: And it doesn’t pay your mortgage.

John: No, that’s right. In the future, I suspect what will happen is it’ll go one of two ways.

Either they will just concentrate on what works for them. So massive franchises, obviously. The new Twilights, the new Pottermores, that sort of stuff. And lots and lots of first time authors, because there’s still real prestige to getting picked up by a trade house. And it doesn’t cost them that much to do.

And they’re certainly not spending the money on marketing, and in between, there will be nothing. Because anybody who’s been in the business for a couple of years begins to figure it out, that they could do it themselves. Why would you, in the end, as a midlister or if there’s somebody who’s got maybe… What’s the magic Nick Stephenson number? Ten thousand readers. That’s not a big midlist readership.

If you’ve got that many people, why would you settle for making 60 or 70 cents a book selling to them via a trade publisher, when you could be making $4 or $5 a book selling to them directly, yourself?

And also, as you would know, the amount of control you have over the process, the transparency for just go to whoa, it’s incomparable. And I think either the trade publishing houses will have to accept the reality that their midlist authors, who in the end are their future, have to be allowed to go hybrid, or those midlisters are just going to go off and do it for themselves.

Joanna: I’m so glad you got the bug. I think you’re a good ambassador for indie down under.

John: Well really, I love them both. I still publish with trades. I’m having a chat with quite a significant publisher in a couple of days about a couple of books that I came up with.

And in fact, it’s super hybrid in some ways because one of the plans I had was when I realized the trade publishers were just not interested in eBooks, I thought, “Well if they don’t want eBooks, may be they can leave them to me. They can take the French and I will do the eBooks.” Because that’s not going to work out because of the difference in the price differential.

But then it struck me, these guys, their global business model, is still stuck in the era of like sailing ships and big chests full of straw and sturdy leather-bound tomes.

They still divide the world up into British Commonwealth, U.S., Asia, Europe, whatever. And this is something for any published author or even self-published author who’s got a few runs on the board now.

What you could look at doing is something I’m going to look at doing with a couple of these titles as an experiment. Where I sell the prints and eBook rights to a trade publisher in one area, and then I just do it myself in another one. And that strikes me as a model you’ll see a lot of in the next 10 years or so.

Joanna: I completely agree with you. Whenever traditionally published authors come to me, the first thing I say is, “What rights have you sold? And if you haven’t sold world English, don’t sell World English. It’s crazy to do that. Sell by territory and then self-publish in other places.”

I want to ask you about those people listening who would like to sell more books in Australia. Australia is around 25 million people, I think. So it’s not a huge market and of course they’re not all the readers. That’s all the people.

But if people want to market to Australians, do you have any tips? Or do people read on iBooks?

What have you found works for book marketing specifically in Australia?

John: iBooks is important in Australia in the same way that KOBO is important in Canada.

I know from my own mailing list stats that just looking in the back end that I think about 55, 60% of my subscribers have iOS devices, which it doesn’t mean they are all reading iBooks. But it means they’re all potential iBook readers.

iBooks as an entity, they’re part of Apple but they very much see themselves as independent within that sort of monstrous, mega corporation. They are desperate to knock the skin off Amazon. And so if you have any way of reaching out to them. I’ll talk specifically to people in Australia and then I’ll sort of talk to people over…

If you’re in Australia, maybe think about getting yourself to one of the big festivals like Melbourne or Sydney or Adelaide, and tracking down the iBooks. They’re gonna be there. And introduce yourself.

And initially, say, “I’ve sold a few books on your service, because it’s a big part of the market here.” And if you offer say a week’s exclusivity on iBooks for a bit of space on the front page, if you sold a few copies, you’ll probably get that.

Because iBooks is not like Amazon. The beauty of Amazon is that it’s not a bookstore, it is a search engine for people with credit cards and no impulse control.

And so the thing which appears on the front page for you at Amazon is the thing that Jeff Bezos thinks you are most likely to buy.

At iBooks, the things that appear on the front page, the same way as when you walk into a bookstore, it’s the titles that have been organized to appear there.

Some of your listeners will know this but some of them won’t. You walk into a bookstore you see a great big stack of James Patterson, they’re not there because James Patterson is popular. I mean that that’s part of the reason they’re there.

They’re there because James Patterson publisher cut a deal with that bookstore, basically paid them to stack them up at the front. And there’s very, very intricate and quite restrictive contracts between the publishers and the bookstores about which books go where.

So yeah, if you are outside the U.S., you should definitely look at channels other than Amazon. And in Australia, iBooks is super important.

The other stuff though, all of the things which work in the U.S., the UK, Canada, wherever, they will all work here.

If you have a mailing list, then work your mailing list. That’s really that’s the best nuclear weapon that we all have. But if you have a social media presence, you can use that to target people down here.

Realistically as you know, the eBook market, it’s a global market. If you’re not addressing the entire English speaking market then you’re doing yourself a disservice. And apart from just the one thing with iBooks being important down here, there’s nothing specifically that you would need to do in Australia that you wouldn’t be doing anywhere else.

If you’ve got your readership, your mailing list, your social media game on point in the UK, or in the U.S., it’s gonna work down here as well. These methods which you guys have all developed over the past five years they work, and they work just as well here as say they do anywhere else.

Joanna: Fantastic. Now what is different is the print market in Australia in terms of right now amazon.com.au does not have print books. It has eBooks and audio books.

But I read that they have announced they’re going to set up a warehouse and that they all presumably going to attempt to disrupt the print market in Australia. Which as a reader, I think it’s fantastic. Because books are still 25 or 60 Aussie dollars which are really expensive.

But then I kind of heard rumors that things were not working out so well.

Do you know anything about the print market and Amazon coming in and how that might change things?

John: Well, they’re not just coming in to books. They’ll probably coming to books, but they do face significant headwinds in the book market here that they didn’t necessarily face overseas. I’ll go into those.

My understanding with Amazon coming to Australia, they’re bringing the whole wagon train. So it’s not just books, it’s goods, and food, and clothes, it’s fashion, electric, it’s a lot.

And so there is an enormous amount of terror being spread in the retail sector at this arrival. I’m sure that the book stores have their own feelings about it.

But the digitization of the book market in Australia has been ripping ahead, possibly even faster than it has in the U.S. and the UK. And that’s probably just a function of the demographics and the geography of Australia, people are spread out everywhere.

I know from touring in the country in the regional areas that there are hundreds of small towns without a book store. And if you want to buy a physical copy of a book, unless your local news agent carries them, you’re out of luck.

And the news agent is only gonna carry the absolute sort of top of the airport novel stuff. And in that sense Amazon coming, if they do come as a book distributor, which they probably will, that’s a really good thing for most people who live outside of the inner city in Australia. Because it means they suddenly have access to all those titles.

Having said that, there are a couple of Amazon-like local businesses here. There’s this one group called Booktopia, who are fantastic. And they have been ramping up and building up their giant robot book factories for a few years now.

Everybody who publishes in Australia with trades has had the experience of going out to the Booktopia robot factory and just marveling at how these probably are going to enslave us one day. I don’t see those guys getting buried by Amazon in the same way that say Borders were buried by Amazon.

The other thing to bear in mind in Australia is that independent bookstores did not die out here the same way that they did in huge swaths of the U.S. and I’m not sure what the situation is in the UK.

Over here, indies control I think about maybe more than 40% of the print book market. And they’re massively important. And when I say independent books, I mean a lot of small, often family-run operations who still hand sell, and you get this very fine granular control by a couple of people about what goes onto the shelves.

You go into this independent bookstore, and you’ll see these books. You go into that independent bookstore, you see a whole bunch of other books. They’re very, very different.

And it’s actually one of the joys of working in this business in Aussie, is that I know bookstores have struggled the same way that most businesses have struggled since 2008.

But the ones who have survived and thrived have done so because they’re just really, really good at what they do. And it’s just a joy to go into a well-run indie bookstore of which there are hundreds in Australia.

Joanna: Yeah, that’s fantastic. I could talk to you for ages, this is so interesting. But we’re almost out of time.

I did want to ask just briefly about your book “How To Be A Writer,” which of course my audience would be interested in. And particularly you talk about multiple streams of income, because you do have books but you also have a paid newsletter. You’ve been blogging for years.

Just give us a bit of an idea as some of the other things that writers can be looking at in terms of multiple streams of income.

What else people can find in that book?

John: Well that book… there are lots and lots of books around about how to write. I advise you, go read them, particularly if you haven’t had the advantage that I had of being trained by brutal editors in the media for 10 years before I wrote my first book.

I didn’t want to write one of those books. What I wanted to talk to people about was the business of being a writer. How to chase up a check that’s gone missing as checks inevitably do when you deal with magazines. Or how to do an interview. It’s actually an important part of the research process for instance.

What I wanted to do with that book was basically provide a tool bag for people who want to get into the business. There’s no advice about how to balance a sentence, or construct a narrative arc, or anything like that, but there’s lots of advice about how to chase delinquent editors who owe you 1000 bucks and that kind of thing.

And one of advice points I do make is, if you’re going to make a living from writing, you need to be making it from lots of different sources because it is a risky, contingent sort of business.

I’ve written stories for magazines that have gone out of business. And some of them big name publications, who basically had an unwritten policy of not paying people. They’d say they’d pay you, and then they just stiff you.

I was always a member of the journalists union when I was doing freelancing and feature writing, because I’d just put those mad dogs onto the job whenever a check went missing. Checks, I can’t believe I’m talking about checks. This is how long I’ve been in this business.

But yeah, I did my tax recently and I was looking at where my money comes from. And it’s all over.

I still get money from trade publications, which generally comes in the form of advances and royalties obviously. And advances are more significant than royalties, because you have to earn out the advance to get the royalty. But that’s an important part of it.

In Australia, we have a really nice public lending rights scheme, an educational lending rights scheme. So every time one of you books gets borrowed from a library, or picked up in a school, or something like that, you’ll you get something equivalent to a standard commercial royalty payment on it.

There is something you have to do, there’s a form you have to fill out each year and you make sure your ISBNs and everything are right.

I advise anybody who’s got anything in print in Australia to do that, because it can be quite significant, the amount of money which comes in.

I have experimented the past six months quite successfully with a private column. I’ve always written columns for newspapers and magazines. It’s a type of writing that I enjoy doing. And it’s a type of writing that traditionally working writers have done.

If you look at some of the great columnists in the UK, they would probably consider themselves novelists first. They just happen to have an interesting column in “The Spectator,” or “Punch,” or something like that.

So I’ve always done that, but media it’s had a much tougher time of it than book publishing. And for a long time I have been planning, not to get out of media because I love it as a business, but to basically prepare for the day that it’s not there anymore. Because that day is probably coming in the next five to 10 years. So I do that.

I do some speaking gigs. Again, it’s not something I go looking for but if you put yourself out there, particularly if you’re doing fiction work it’s something we haven’t touched on tonight, but there are great opportunities for publishing in the nonfiction area. And with that comes opportunity to do speaking gigs.

And in fact, a lot of people publish the books almost as giveaways to build up their speaking business, but that’s a whole other podcast. You can probably get somebody else to talk about that.

Where else do I get my money from? I still do a fair amount of freelancing. I don’t go looking for it now. When I was a younger writer, I used to put aside a day every month, and I would just walk around Sydney which is where I was based in those days.

I would go from “Playboy,” to “Rolling Stone,” to “Inside Sport,” which is a big sporting magazine. I’d visit the editors and we’d have a cup of tea and a chat about what I might like to write.

It was all very old-fashioned, and old world and fantastic. But I don’t do it anymore because that business, it’s on its way out.

Honest to god, Joanna, looking forward to the next 10 or 15 years, most of my income is gonna come from self-published books.

Joanna: It’s been so interesting to talk to you, and it’s a really great round off of the changes in publishing and how your career has changed over time as well. So super exciting.

Where can people find you and your books online?

John: Well they can find me on Twitter. I’m trying to spend less time there but I’m hopeless. I’m addicted. So I’m @JohnBirmingham on Twitter.

I have a blog, which I sort of haven’t done much on the last past couple of months because I was looking after my dad who was very sick, and had a few books to do as well. But I’m about to start cranking that up again. So that is cheeseburgergothic.com.

And if they wanna join my book club, which is what I call my mailing list because it sounds less sort of needy, that is jbismymasternow.com.

Joanna: Your writing is very funny too. I advise people to check out all of your books. You have so many books and we didn’t even talk about your thrillers or your nonfiction. And yeah, you just have so many books. It’s amazing. So definitely check out John. So thanks so much for your time that was fantastic.

John: Thanks for having me, mate.

Joanna Penn :

View Comments (8)

  • Great podcast. What an interesting guy and he was forthright and honest about the traditional publishing world. I enjoy podcasts which plant seeds in my head. A seed grew uncontrollably from this podcast.

    I loved John's idea of collecting together fight scenes from his published books and making a book from them. One could do the same with love scenes, or comedy scenes. One could take groups of scenes from out of copyright books and collect them together - Dance scenes from Victorian novels (that might sell), Gothic house description scenes, Character death scenes, etc. One could create teaching books based on this idea like a book of main character introduction scenes, or a book of antagonist introduction scenes, et al. I'll leave it to others to pursue these ideas as my mind is stuffed with too many other ideas.

  • Great interview. Confirmed all my feelings about self-publishing and I am looking forward to the future of ebooks.

    To all authors: you can do this. With the help of people like Ms. Penn and all her wonderful ebooks you can successfully self-publish without loosing all your hair or turning grey over night.

    So, see you on the flip side everyone, because the future is here.

  • Another great show.
    As I'm across the pond in NZ I found this particularly interesting.
    I love taking the podcast on my walks but I then find I want to cut my walk short.
    Your interviews bring so many ideas to the surface that I want to run back and start typing straight away.

    And yes it is pronounced Jed but a hangover from my military past :)

  • I had one reader tell me that they had rethought their stance on same sex love after reading a story I wrote. Carve that on my gravestone; I'll take it.
    ugh... I'm not good at rewriting drafts. I prefer a clean first draft, too.
    How cool, your advertiser thinks you're awesome! ♥
    egad... hasn't John thrown out a horror story about the Aussie sea flea blood sucker thing?
    And Aussie publishers get ebooks SO wrong... I've seen them load a sample with an ISBN and you can just press a button and get a sample on amazon. It was so... dumb.

  • Fascinating interview, Joanna. Great insights here about the books world in Aus. Strange how the trad publishers keep pushing the line that eBooks are dying, print is back. wishful thinking or what?
    Keep up the good work.
    Tom Bryson

  • Picking up on your first bit (that's definitely not political) my current book, my protagonist Steve 'dusty' Miller a British criminal , goes to a near future fascist america to rescue his gay friend Aldo who has been sent to a 'treatment' camp (inspired by a blog by my gay friend Reinaldo about his fears for the future as a gay Hispanic living in the US)

    • I find that in this political climate, the best thing to do is turn OFF the news and social media in order to get some work done. I have also taken Facebook off my phone!