To help launch the A-Z of Self-Publishing blog, we have an interview with Russell Blake, one of the most successful self-published authors today. If you haven’t already, check out Russell’s website where he often shares his thoughts on the industry today (be warned though, he tells it like it is).
Hi Russell, I’ve been a big follower of yours for a while now, but would you like to quickly introduce yourself?
Sure. I’m a fiction author who’s lived in Mexico for 15 years and has written somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty novels to date. I specialize in action/adventure thrillers and post-apocalyptic/dystopian, but have a successful noir detective mystery series (BLACK) and even a New Adult coming of age romp (Less Than Nothing trilogy) under my RE Blake pseudonym. I’ve also co-authored two novels with Clive Cussler (Eye of Heaven, The Solomon Curse) and have been translated into about ten languages at last count.
What is your origin story? How did you get started and where are you now?
I started writing maybe 15 years ago, mostly to amuse myself and see if I could generate anything worth reading. I pretty much failed to impress myself for about 10 years. At some point in 2011 I wrote Fatal Exchange, which I thought was pretty decent, and my buddy insisted I check out the success people like John Locke and Amanda Hocking were having with self-pubbing. I did, and published my first novel in June, 2011. By the end of the year I’d released 9 or 10 books. As to where I am now, I’m pretty comfortable releasing about 5-7 novels a year, and see no reason to slow now that I’ve settled into that pace. 5 would feel like a vacation, actually. Probably wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I actually stuck to that.
The thing that has always impressed me most about you is your work ethic. I think you may publish more books per year than anybody else right now. What’s the secret?
There’s no secret other than putting in the hours, and having a plan that works. I now outline, which has cut down on production time as I am forced to decide the story I intend to tell before I start writing it. I typically work 10-12 hours a day when I’m in a novel, and will generate 5-7K worthwhile words in that time. If there’s a secret, it’s having a daily word count goal and not stopping until you hit it, regardless of how you feel, or what mood you’re in, whether you’re sick, or hungover, or distracted. Just like a real job, where you go in and do the work every day whether you want to or not.
You’ve often struck me as a realist, so without sugar coating, what do you feel about Self-Publishing in 2016?
It’s gotten harder every year since 2014. 2013 and 2014 were the golden years, where it seemed that anyone could sell 10K books with a decent cover, a decent story, and Amazon algos. Now, it’s tough to get visibility because the algos have changed, and there’s a glut of content out there you need to rise above. I suspect it will get harder each year, and would advise those who believe that this is a marathon rather than a sprint that in a rapidly maturing marketplace, there’s a term for those who fail to adapt and recognize the realities of the new landscape: road kill. As Zero Hedge likes to say, on a long enough timeline, everyone’s dead, so your marathon may take longer than there’s a market to sell into.
I tend to view this differently – there’s content creation, and there’s publishing. Publishing is the business of selling your content. Content creation is the process of creating it. They are different animals. Businesses are generally not marathons – they are competitive endeavors that require you respond to market forces, including pricing, competitive pressure, effective release schedules, promotions, etc. And they require that you constantly up your game, or someone eats your lunch, because they’re working harder than you, or doing something better. That’s reality. Now, it’s true that reality can be depressing. Too bad. If you want to sell books, you must recognize reality and develop business skills as well as mastering your content creation chops, or you likely won’t make more than beer money, if that.
So, what would be your best advice to struggling authors out there?
Look at the odds dispassionately: most won’t make any kind of serious money at this. That’s just the fact. Always has been. If you can’t handle that fact, if your require some sort of rah rah sugar coating, you shouldn’t be in the game. If you can accept that, and are determined to be an exception, develop a realistic plan on how you’re going to be an exception. I can’t tell anyone how to do that. Mine was to master my craft, and to produce at a prodigious pace – to put out more books per year than many manage in a career. I figured that was one way to be an exception, and for me, it worked.
If I had to advise struggling authors, it would be to recognize this is a business of exceptions, and to devise a workable plan on how you intend to be one. Are you willing to work 100 hours a week to do it – is that your edge? Or are you going to write the next To Kill A Mockingbird – a story so compelling and singular, recounted in prose so masterful, everyone simply must sit up and take notice? Whatever your edge is, develop a plan to maximize it, and then reconcile yourself to the idea that there is content creation, and there is book selling, and you have to devote time to mastering the skills of both disciplines if you’re going to make it in indie publishing. They are completely different skillsets, and you have to get good at both, not just one.
Most struggling authors don’t want to hear that, because they view the skills involved in book selling, which are really true entrepreneurial skills, as being beyond them, or skills they have no interest in. That’s a recipe for failure, IMO. Get good at both, figure out how much time you can reasonably devote to your new business of book selling, and how much to content creation and mastering literary chops, and then come up with a realistic set of objectives based on those two elements. Hint: if you can only put in part time hours, say after work, or between taking care of the kids, plan on making the kind of money part time work pays, at best.
If you believe you’re going to make full time money working part time, I’d say you’re deluded, and ask why it is you believe that’s going to happen, other than because you’re a special snowflake? Bluntly, be hard on yourself and demand more, and set realistic goals on what you can invest in time and money – be the worst boss to yourself you can imagine, and force yourself to excel. Otherwise what you’ve got is not a plan, it’s a dream, and dreams rarely come true outside of the movies or bodice rippers. Winning is generally the intersection of planning, considerable effort, and talent. I’ve found that the effort and planning part can compensate for what might be lacking in the talent department, but everyone’s mileage may vary.
Having said all this, I will also say attitude is key. I completely believe that I can accomplish absolutely anything I commit to 110%, and my experience has been that’s largely true. Having that conviction can motivate you to put in the extra that takes you over the top. So that’s another way to be an exception. It’s all cumulative.
Looking inward, do you have any intentions of expanding or developing your own way of doing things, or do you think you already have the perfect formula for success?I’m constantly experimenting with improving my approach, and always will. One of the things I enjoy about writing is that each time I sit down to do it, I raise my own bar. That challenge keeps it interesting. Otherwise why do it? Why put in the ten thousand or more hours it takes to master your craft, if the odds say you won’t make a dime? Can’t be for the money, because even a cursory glance at the numbers says you’d make more at McD’s than writing, per hour. So if not continuing to push yourself to develop as an artist (pretentious as that sounds), what’s the point of pursuing an artistic pursuit with the only time you get on the planet?
One last question. I, myself, have found lots of great tools to help my work during the last few years, such as Scrivener and Vellum. Are there any programs or tools that you simply can’t be without?
I write in MS Word, and outline in Excel. I don’t use any of the great tools available, probably because I’m too lazy to figure out how.
Thanks for the advice, Russell. How can we return the favour? Do you have any new books coming out that people will love?
I’m super excited about my new dystopian post-apocalyptic series, The Day After Never. If you’ve never read anything of mine, get the first book in the series, Blood Honor, and give it a shot. I’ve been told it’s some of my best writing, and I’m inclined to agree. Although I will say that the third novel in my Ramsey’s adventure series, The Goddess Legacy, is about as good as I’ve managed in years, so you could do worse than to check that out when it releases in August.