Today, I bring to you the last in the first run of the popular interview series: Secrets of Best-Selling Self-Published Authors. This interview imparts a lot of valuable wisdom that serves as a nice summary to this series. Russell Blake is a best-selling self-published author who has steadily climbed the sales ranks since he embarked on his prolific career. From his bio:
"Featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Times, and The Chicago Tribune, Russell Blake is the USA Today bestselling author of twenty-eight books, including Fatal Exchange, The Geronimo Breach, Zero Sum, King of Swords, Night of the Assassin, Revenge of the Assassin, Return of the Assassin, Blood of the Assassin, The Delphi Chronicle trilogy, The Voynich Cypher, Silver Justice, JET, JET – Ops Files, JET II – Betrayal, JET III – Vengeance, JET IV – Reckoning, JET V – Legacy, JET VI – Justice, JET VII, Sanctuary, Upon A Pale Horse, BLACK, BLACK Is Back, BLACK Is The New Black, and BLACK To Reality.
Non-fiction includes the international bestseller An Angel With Fur (animal biography) and How To Sell A Gazillion eBooks In No Time (even if drunk, high or incarcerated), a parody of all things writing-related.
Blake co-authored an action/adventure novel, The Eye of Heaven, with legendary adventure author Clive Cussler, to be released by Penguin in September, 2014.
Blake lives in Mexico and enjoys his dogs, fishing, boating, tequila and writing, while battling world domination by clowns.
Russell is a proud member of RABMAD – Read A Book, Make A difference."
Let's get into it, here he is, Mr Russell Blake:
You are a New York Times Best-selling author who has published most of your own work – can you tell us how you managed to get on the NYT best-sellers list? I.e. Obviously you sold a lot of books but what is it that you did to get on that particular list and receive that distinction?
I’ve been on the NYT and the USA Today bestseller lists numerous times, both co-authoring with Clive Cussler as well as with a few of my self-published efforts. I honestly don’t remember the first time, but I think it was a bundle I did that featured JET, which is also my biggest selling series.
Where do you get your inspiration from for your writing and for the way you brand yourself as an author?
I like to say it’s a combination of fear and desperation that drives the ideas, although the truth is that real life offers so many ideas the shortage isn’t in potential plots, it’s in the time to write them. I was a big fan of all the usual conspiracy thriller authors when I was growing up – Ludlum, Le Carre, Higgins, Follet – and so when I decided to try my hand at writing I gravitated toward what I read. I mean, I also love Tom Harris and Stephen King and the usual marquee names, but I cut my teeth on conspiracy/espionage thrillers, so that’s what I started with, and it later evolved into more of an action thriller thing, a la James Bond-ish fare. As to my branding, I struggled initially, because I wanted to avoid being pigeonholed as any one thing, but I quickly figured out that you need to be able to quickly summarize who you are for readers, as in, at a glance, or for many it’s just too muddled and they move on to something that’s clearer. As an example, Clive Cussler, you know exactly what you’re getting. Robert Ludlum, same thing. So I wanted to brand myself the go to guy for action thrillers, which is what I ultimately focused on. Ironically, I’ve written noir mysteries with my BLACK series, which does very well, and have tried my hand at everything from NA romance under the R.E. Blake pseudonym, to conspiracy fare like Umberto Eco and Dan Brown write, but what I think most identify the Russell Blake brand with is action thrillers, which is how I prefer it.
How important do you think non-fiction titles are to self-published authors hoping to enjoy best-selling status? I.e. Do you think that your non-fiction titles have helped your fiction sell and/or vice-cersa?
My non-fiction have done zero for my fiction. If anything, that was one of the early lessons I learned: target a genre with laser focus and establish yourself in that genre. Don’t dick around trying to be all things, be really, really good at one thing and become known for it, then, if you want, try branching out – but only after you’ve made your mark and are well established in your target genre. Don’t genre hop, don’t get distracted, and most importantly, make it very easy for your reader to know what they’re getting when they buy one of your books. You bounce around, you’re a question mark, and life’s too short for most to guess what you’re going to deliver next.
You are a best-selling Amazon author – can you pinpoint what it was that spiked your success to date? Apart from the writing is there anything that you can isolate that helped your books climb the ranks?
Sure. I remember when Amazon’s Select program first came out in December of 2011, I didn’t participate in it for the first month, and then regretted the hell out of not doing so when I saw some of my buds hitting massive sales numbers after free promotions. So I put a book into the program in January, 2012 – The Geronimo Breach – and I want to say it sold five or six thousand copies after a free run, and pulled sales of my other dozen titles with it. For about six months there, it was like you could do no wrong with Select and a free run because of how the algorithms treated the free downloads, and you’d shoot into the top 10 on the Amazon store as paid after it was done. That visibility brought thousands of sales of a title, and because I had so many titles I could run a Select promo on, I was able to do a new title every three weeks or so and restart the cycle. By the time the algorithms softened somewhat, I’d already had ten or twelve bites at that top 100 apple, and the sales became self-sustaining as readers began trusting the brand to deliver what they wanted. But I think it really turbocharged when I released the first four installments of my JET series in Oct-December of 2012. It really went massive from that point on, and I remember spring of 2013 I was pinching myself at the sales figures every month. Those were truly the good old days.
Did you try to get publishing contracts for your books early on with traditional book publishers? If so, did you have any success there or if not what was it that made you decide to self-publish the majority of your work?
No, for a variety of factors. First, I’m impatient, and I don’t have a year or three to wait to find an agent, write something they believe in, then do the NY rounds with it. Second, I’m a lousy employee – I don’t do very well being told what to do, and when you’re in a trad deal as a new author, you’re an employee, but without the retirement package or the salary. Third, I write a lot, enjoy writing a lot, and enjoy seeing readers react to my writing. For me that’s a big part of why I do what I do. I’m kind of used to seeing a new title released every five or six weeks, and there’s no way a trad publisher could keep up with that output, so it never really crossed my mind to try. And frankly, the economics of trad publishing didn’t appeal to me as a newbie, because unless I hit the jackpot, I’d make more flipping burgers on an hourly basis, so I had no real desire to sign up to indentured servitude, which is how I saw the low to mid-list. I have nothing against trad publishing or those who work in the biz, it just never appealed to me economically, so I decided to start my own publishing business and keep the lion’s share of the profit myself. So far, so good.
What kind of marketing did you do to establish your author brand and what do you think is the most successful marketing for self-published authors? Is there any one thing that you have determined has helped you sell more books – i.e. could you outline your path to establishing your brand and your most successful sales method/s as?
I think having a recognizable cover treatment that’s distinctive is probably the most important thing initially, because that’s the first exposure anyone’s going to have to your work – they’ll see the thumbnail of your book online. If you can have an iconic look, and carry that through to your author page and blog, etc., now you’re a brand, not an author. As to the most successful sales method, that’s a moving target. I’m still a big believer in giving away the first book in a series free as a taster, if you will, of what the reader’s buying into, but that has changed recently and isn’t as effective, so it’s anyone’s guess what will work well by the time this interview hits.
What are some current best practices that you’re using to sell books? Any tips?
Subject your quality control to the same rigors you’d expect from a traditional publisher – there’s no such thing as “just good enough.” If it isn’t the absolute best you can produce, and hasn’t been professionally edited and scrutinized by informed, experienced eyes, you’re shortchanging the reader. Likewise, carry that through to your covers. Everything you do should be professional, polished, and worth paying for. The tip, if there is one, is to operate your publishing business like a proper business, not like a hobby. There’s nothing wrong with hobbies, but most people don’t expect to make money from their hobbies, and why anyone would expect to make it at their writing hobby beats me.
How important are ‘series’ books to your success as a self-published author?
If I could do one thing over again, it would be to write a series much earlier than I did. I love some of my stand-alone books, but there’s no question that readers embrace a good series with much more enthusiasm than stand-alone titles, at least in my genre.
Do you design your own covers? How important do you think cover design is to a potential reader and how big a part do you think it has played in your success to date?
I hire professionals to do covers, because it’s the first impression a reader will have of my work, and you only get one shot at it. I don’t have twenty years of graphic design or cover design experience, so I can’t compete with a really skilled talent who’s put in thousands of hours doing it. I would say the number one biggest mistake indie authors make is to go cheap or home-made on their covers, and the second biggest is trying to self-edit, usually for the same reason: they want to create a product people will pay for, but don’t want to spend the money to do it, so try to wing it at low or no cost. That rarely turns out well.
In your opinion, is traditional publishing on the way out? Do you think that traditional publishing can continue to keep up with the rise of self-publishing?
Traditional publishing is thriving. Contrary to the prognostications of its demise, profits are at record levels. Self-publishing does extremely well in some genres, like romance, but not particularly well in others, like thrillers (just my luck I picked one of the lousy ones, but hey). I never believed the model where trad pub goes paws up due to being unable to compete with self-publishing. That’s naïve. Self-publishing is a viable way to make a nice living as a mid-lister, or at least has been so far for me, and hundreds of authors I know of, but it’s not about to replace being able to put books in every airport in the world, nor of being able to deliver names people are willing to pay $15-$25 to read. They really service different markets. Self-publishing services the voracious reader, traditional publishing services the occasional reader and the fad reader (the reader who maybe buys a book a month, and the reader who buys one or two books a year – the book everyone else is reading). Once you understand that they service different segments, it becomes very clear why they can co-exist without causing too much grief, with the notable exception of genres like romance where the big players were in fact targeting voracious readers (I’m thinking Harlequin). For those players, it’s a different playing field. For someone putting out a Grisham? Business pretty much as usual.
Would you recommend that self-published authors, who get offered publishing contracts from large publishing houses, retain their digital rights for their books?
Sure, if they can, but good luck doing that. I can count on one hand the number who have been successful at it. eBooks are cash cows for publishers, and there’s little chance they’ll let an author keep the highest margin chunk of the pie.
Have you ever used free book promotions? Do you think they are a worth-while marketing tool for self-published authors? If so/not – why?
Yes. See my earlier comments.
What avenues of self-promotion did you find to be most effective and affordable? What’s the best ‘bang-for-your-buck’ advertising you have employed?
Bookbub, by far. Nothing else I do seems to have much effect. Wish there were more outlets, but I haven’t found any that deliver.
Once an author decides that self-publishing might be the best route, what financial and artistic considerations should they keep in mind before they begin their journey?
In my most popular blog (you can find it at RussellBlake.com and by searching “How To Sell Loads of Books”) I lay it out. In a nutshell, operating a publishing entity has zero skill-set in common with being a good writer. Sorry, there it is. As an author, I recommend focusing on craft, learning to understand story structure, grammar, vocabulary, technical issues like the difference between head hopping and omniscient third person POV, creating compelling, moving narratives with genuine and impactful dialogue, etc. As a publisher, none of that will help you. You need to get good at marketing, promotions, blurb writing, branding, product strategy, pricing, sales, quality control, etc. They are not givens, and authors generally don’t have the entrepreneurial or business expertise/drive to be good at book publishing. I think the very best and most successful self-pubbed authors I’ve seen are entrepreneurs who ran their own businesses before doing this, so they already have the skill-set of operating a business. Too many authors don’t want to learn that skill-set, and come from the perspective that they just want to write. Which is fine. But if that’s your perspective, start shopping for a trad deal, because the traditional publisher handles all the business end – point being that someone has to, so it’s either you, or someone else/the publisher.
The other obvious one to me as a guy who’s started and operated a number of businesses, is that you have to have a workable plan, as well as realistic expectations – including realistic investment capital with which to fund your business. Can you start with nothing and somehow succeed? Sure. Just like you can start with a cookie recipe and somehow parlay your love of baking into owning and operating a multinational cookie conglomerate. But the odds say, not likely, if all you have is a recipe and a willingness to work. Because book selling/publishing is a retail business where you have to be able to quality control, get pro packaging and formatting, and produce a product people feel is worth paying for. With the glut of free books out there, that means yours needs to be pretty frigging amazingly pro to have a chance, in my opinion, because readers have myriad choices and little time – and everyone wants superior value for their dollar. Only in this world have I met so many who expect to invest nothing in their business, and have it generate a return. How many start-up businesses call for zero investment? Not many, as in virtually no successful ones. So my advice is to expect to do what entrepreneurs have done for centuries, which is scrimp and save and sacrifice until you have sufficient capital to start your business. “But I don’t have any money” isn’t a substitute for doing so. Neither is hope, or prayer, or a conviction that you’re different like all the other different people. Starting a publishing business is starting a business, not living a dream or some sort of wish-fulfillment. So expect to face all the challenges those who start businesses expect to face, including needing money to QC and produce a product, and then promote it.
Do you feel there’s a good sense of community within the self-publishing industry?
Absolutely, but there’s a lot of bad advice and delusion out there masquerading as help, too. On the plus side, I’ve found self-pubbed authors open and willing to share about most aspects of their businesses. On the minus side, I’ve seen limitless terrible counsel parading as know-how. My advice is simple, and applies to any claims from anyone, ever, about anything: consider the source, meaning consider what results those preaching a doctrine have generated using that doctrine, and demand proof – if you want to be nice about it, call it trust, but verify. You can steer clear of a lot of trouble by applying those two rules with rigor. If someone is telling you X is the answer, consider what result they have achieved for themselves doing X, and then further consider that their circumstance and timing and competition might have been vastly different than what you’re facing. That’s why I don’t really offer any specific marketing advice. I can only tell you what worked for me, one, two, three years ago, when the marketplace was different, the competitive landscape was different, the vendors were different, the algorithms were different, virtually everything about the business was different. Will that help you? We’d always love to think that we can predict future trends by studying past trends, but the only thing we can really expect to achieve is to understand how history repeats itself.
I like to say this is a business of exceptions, as are all the arts. Every author who makes it, whatever that means to them, has done so differently. No two stories are the same. So the best advice I have is to figure out how you are going to be an exception, and then go be one. Because generally speaking, following the crowd leaves you nose to butt with a bunch of other herd animals, none of whom are likely doing much to speak of.
What would you say is the single biggest advantage of deciding to self-publish?
The ability to not compromise on the story you want to tell, how you want to tell it, and the speed at which you want to release your stories.
You recently collaborated with another best-selling author who has been around for many years – Clive Cussler. Mr Cussler’s works have been traditionally published as were the two books you collaborated on – how much of a difference did you notice in the process of publishing as a traditionally published author in this instance?
Not that much, really, because I hold my work to pretty rigorous scrutiny as a self-published author. I have two editors and a proofreader on my self-pubbed stuff. On the trad pubbed, I face the same sort of scrutiny, which I welcome, and which I believe serves the reader well. The more eyes on the work, the greater the chance you catch more nits. Having said that, there will always be a few that sneak through.
In light of your publishing collaboration with Clive Cussler, how has the experience helped to strengthen your own brand (and sales)?
I think it’s served its purpose, which was to expose me to the airport crowd, and to familiarize his vast audience with my approach. Would that I could automatically sell a million out of the gate like Clive can after doing this for 40 years, but that’s not how it works. It’s certainly solidified me as credible, a competent craftsman, if nothing else. And it can’t hurt that several million more readers have seen my name on the cover with Clive’s. I’m extremely fortunate to have gotten to write with a name of that stature, and only view the collaboration as a positive in every way.
Would you recommend other aspiring self-publishing authors pay for particular services? Editing or cover design, for example?
Yes. Many don’t want to hear that, but yes, they should hire professionals to do a professional job if they want to produce a product that will be taken seriously as being professional.
You use social media a lot and interact with your readership – how important do you think this is to becoming a success as a self-published author?
Only to the extent that engaging with your readers is fun for you. I have yet to see any structured social media strategy that doesn’t seem like just trying to sell people crap, which I automatically tune out. My approach is simply to post whatever is of interest to me, whatever is on my mind, and not use social media as a selling tool. Doesn’t mean that’s the only way to roll, just means that’s how I do it.
Are you in regular contact with other self-published authors and how important was any input you may have received early on in your career? Do you have a mentor in terms of your self-publishing success – someone who may have inspired you to ‘give it a go’?
I talk to hundreds of kindred spirits, but while I digest all their input, none of it really factors into my decision making past a certain point. Everyone’s got an opinion. I want to hear ‘em, but in the end, it’s my book, my name on the cover, so the buck has to stop here. As to someone who inspired me to give it a try, it was a non-author buddy who badgered me for about six months with articles about self-published authors selling like hot cakes. Thank goodness I finally listened.
Where to from here? Are you currently represented by an agent and are you working with any publishers on future projects?
I have a top agent, I’ve sold foreign language rights on a nice, steady basis, and I’m working on a couple of spec concepts we’ll probably shop around. I’m circling with some fairly serious Hollywood names about my JET series, and some other stuff I’m not allowed to talk about. I’ll believe any of it when it happens.
Can you offer any advice to fellow writers if you could go back in time and “do it all over?” What’s your top tip for other indie authors?
1) This isn’t easy, so if you’re looking for an easy way to make money, this ain’t it.
2) Make sure you’ve studied your craft enough to be able to tell a hell of a story, well.
3) Have a hell of a story to tell.
4) Don’t cheap out on editing and covers. Hire professionals to do the things you’re not competent at a professional level to do. If you have no money, start saving, or barter (although as with most competent professionals, if they’re competent, they’ll want to be paid for that competence).
5) Stick to a single genre until you’ve given that a serious whack. If it doesn’t work after, say, a half dozen or more shots, reconsider either the genre, or your skill, or the look and quality of your work. 6) Be your harshest critic. As with babies, nobody wants to hear theirs is ugly, but most of our babies are in fact ugly, so just suck it up, get used to the idea, and realize that it’s about 98% effort and application, and 2% talent, that turn our ugly babies into gems. Walking around delusional about how ugly your baby is does nobody good service, especially if you are willing to do the work to make it shine.
7) Whatever you do, do it passionately, because in the end the glow of the passion will matter more than all else.
8) It’s rare to make more than beer money writing books. That was true a hundred years ago, it was true last year, and it will likely be true 10 years from now.
9) Write because you love it. Operate a publishing company because you have a plan to make money selling books, and have acquired the skill (or are willing to) to have a good shot at selling books, regardless of who wrote ‘em.
And probably the single most valuable thing I can impart: Treat your own work as though you had to pay thousands of dollars to buy it and publish it. Pretend you didn’t write it. Would you bet the farm on whatever it is, if, say, someone you didn’t know wrote it? If not, you shouldn’t publish it either, because you’re making an author decision rather than a publisher decision. Don’t let your author dictate your publisher’s actions, and listen carefully to what your publisher is telling you when considering what to write. If you were a big name, you’d have an agent who would tell you not to write the autobiography of your pet duck as your next magnum opus. You’re not a big name, so you have to act as your own agent in this. Be pragmatic, cynical, and above all, only be willing to publish something you absolutely believe in – and not because you wrote it, because it’s great.
That’s all I have.
Finally, thanks for sharing your thoughts on self-publishing. Where is the best place for readers to find your books?