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Bestselling Indie Author Russell Blake On Writing, Big Bucks and Clive Cussler

Russell Blake
Russell Blake

Book publishing industry media seems to make out a war between indie authors and traditional publishing. A lot has been written about the lack of quality and the "slush pile" uploaded on Amazon for sale but Russell Blake and a host of other indie authors have proven time and time again that for authors, quality material, whether independently or traditionally published, can make the difference between hitting it big and barely scraping together a living.

Russell Blake was recently featured in the Wall Street Journal after quietly racking up sales from his 25 thrillers. The books, which often top the thriller bestsellers lists on Amazon, have netted him over a million dollars in the last 30 months as well as caught the eye of a certain bestselling author.

I had an opportunity to chat with the straight-forward author about his view of the indie publishing scene, what has made his books so popular and why editing is so important to becoming a stand-out success.

The industry media talk about the decline in eBook sales and the over-saturation of competitive books. Do you believe any of that and if there is truth to it, how do you keep motivated and writing when people write that the walls are closing in on indie authors?

I think that data is misleading. For instance, after 50 Shades and Hunger Games, it might appear that there’s a decline in the growth rate because there simply hasn’t been another mega-hit that was largely sold as an ebook. That said, if you aren’t including indies in your numbers, it’s an unclear picture, or at best, incomplete. Indies make up 25-35% of the Top 100 any given week, and if you exclude those sales, many of which are substantial (think H.M. Ward w/3 million sold in 2013, for example), you paint a different picture – and the studies I’ve seen do exactly that. You’re essentially not counting at least 25% of the ebooks sold, and your data is biased against indies (because you’re ignoring them), who are a force in the market nowadays. I’d bet if you took both indie and trad pub into account, ebooks are somewhere from flat to rising as a percentage of the total mix. That’s just a gut feel – because Amazon doesn’t report in a granular fashion, we have to guess. And you also have textbooks skewing the data, most of which are sold as hard copy, which gives an unbalanced impression. Sure, if you factor in textbooks it makes it seem like there’s a huge appetite for paper. But I’d really like to see an analysis of only fiction books, paper vs. ebooks. I bet that’s a completely different animal.

Why is an editor so important to you? And what type of editing does she do for you?

Most writers can’t edit their own work. Their brain automatically fills in gaps, and they’re blind to their own faults until the flaws are pointed out and explained. Editing your own work reminds me of the old lawyer adage: The lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. If you don’t know the difference between their and they’re or its and it’s, you won’t catch your misuse of it. At best, most self-edited work is only slightly better than using spellchecker, which is to say, not particularly good. I’m sure a huge contingent of do-it-yourselfers will howl at hearing that, because they want to believe they can do it, but in my experience, self-edited equates to amateur and kind of crummy. I know one author out of hundreds who can effectively edit her own stuff, and it takes her a year and a half to put out a book. To me, that’s not a great use of resources.

Where did you find your editor? Why did you choose her in particular over other editors?

She had edited several books I thought were very well done. I approached her when my old editor had to bow out of the business due to health reasons. We seemed to be a good fit after she edited some trial pages, so we went ahead and did a book. That was...7 or 8 books ago now.

Is she reasonably priced? What tips do you have for indie authors who are strapped for cash but know they need a good editor?

She is reasonable, although that’s not my first concern with an editor. Foremost, I want someone who will level with me and who has a sharp eye, and gets my voice.

My suggestion for indies who can’t afford an editor is twofold: Either save up the money, exactly as you would have to do if you were starting any other sort of business, or barter with someone qualified. But I see too many offerings where the author decided to forego editing because they either didn’t want to invest the money in doing necessary quality control (but still wanted readers to pay for their work), didn’t want to sacrifice and save the money to pay for someone (claiming they didn’t have it, as though money isn’t hard to come by for most authors), or had a multitude of other reasons why they just couldn’t afford it. I tend to take a dim view of that, having started numerous businesses. When you self-publish, you are the publisher. Abdicating your responsibility to the reader to quality control the product is nothing short of screwing them. Obviously I’m not in favor of that. And too many naively believe they can self-edit. They don’t possess the knowledge, the skill, nor the 20 years of germane experience.

Writing is an art/craft that costs nothing but the time you invest in it. But publishing ain’t writing. Publishing is packaging a product for commercial purposes – to sell it. It’s a business where you are trying to make money by selling that product, and as such, needs to be treated as a business. Don’t have the money to package and QC the product adequately? That’s called you don’t have the money to be in that business. Sorry. That’s the truth. It’s very unpopular with those who feel some kind of entitlement to publish at no cost and foist their unedited screeds on the public. But those people are also the same people who complain that their books aren’t selling. Gee. I wonder why. If someone asks them for $4 for a product, they damn well expect the product to be worth it, and yet it never occurs to them that they’re asking consumers to pay them for their product, and as such, their responsibility is to ensure it’s worth it. No, they want to sell books, but don’t want to invest in a book selling business. That doesn’t end well.

You mentioned in one of your blog posts (and I'm paraphrasing) that we've come to the point that authors cannot rely on cheap books, that we have to go back to writing great novels that are noteworthy, or spread-worthy as I like to call them. Please, tell us more about this.

The golden age of self-publishing, where you could put out almost anything, charge .99 for it, and sell a bunch, has passed, and now we’re back to where all the gimmicks - .99 books, free books, bundles – aren’t really having nearly the effect they used to. We’re back to what’s between the covers. The book itself. I believe that if you want to have a career as a writer, you need to be relevant and deliver a reader experience nobody else can, or you’re just another commodity. And commodities are very tough to differentiate. I don’t want to be just another author with just another book. My work isn’t fungible. There’s a palpable quality difference, I hope, that keeps the reader coming back, and makes them willing to pay to read it.

I think what’s happened is that as the market’s matured, readers have realized that their time’s way more valuable than the two or three bucks they might save getting a bargain. My goal has always been to deliver books that readers feel are a steal at $5-$6. I’ve never been a fan of selling on price – it’s the rookie sales approach, and ultimately fails, because there’s no barrier to anyone lowering their price as well: a race to the bottom. But there’s a huge barrier to anyone duplicating your voice and your quality if you’ve really invested in differentiating it. You need to write books that would be great values at $10. If you’re writing books that are basically worth a buck, you’re going to be a bargain bin author, and there are tens of thousands of those, few of whom make any real money. In my opinion that’s over.

Weren't you afraid of pricing your books so high compared to the 99 cent books?

Not really. I never thought that was a good long term branding strategy. I was trying to position my offerings as quality, not dirt cheap. The authors who relied on selling at .99 are now having a massive problem getting anyone to buy their tomes for more than that. Because they’re branded as the .99 guys. Which is what they shall forever remain in their readers’ eyes. At least in thrillers. It’s still a popular price point for romance, but that genre is a law unto itself. I do use .99 on special promotions or on limited duration bundles, but that’s it.

You mentioned on your blog, and again, I'm paraphrasing, that you believe in volume writing. You don't expect every book to be a blockbuster, if you sell 10,000 books a year (roughly 800 books a month) you're fine because you've written so many you make your money on volume. How important is this strategy?

To me, it’s the difference between creating a sustainable business that acknowledges the extremely long odds of breakout success, versus hoping for a lightning strike. I’d love to have a bestselling title that goes ballistic, but I don’t want my business to depend on it. So I’d rather make a nice living based on ground balls – base hits and doubles – rather than go all or nothing on hitting a homer. Part of that strategy says that the more books you have out, the more chances at bat, as well as the more attractive you are to readers, because many will find an author they really like and then go on to read their entire oeuvre. A decent size back list makes it easier for the reader to want to invest their time in you. There’s a body of work for them to enjoy rather than a title or two.

Note: I’m not saying you should churn out crap. I’m saying that my approach was to generate high quality genre fiction at a rapid clip – not by taking shortcuts, but rather by putting in the hours. You want two years worth of work out in one? Cram in two years worth of writing hours into one. That’s the only way. So that’s what I did. I routinely work 12-15 hour days when in a novel, doubling to tripling what I would be able to produce if I wrote a few hours a day, then did other things. So I sacrifice those other things to obtain my objective. Nothing worthwhile ever comes without a sacrifice, I find, so I just knuckle down and do whatever it takes. I’m sure many will say that’s stupidity, but it’s my approach. You want something? Want it bad enough to do whatever it takes. Don’t whine about how it’s too hard, or you don’t have the time or the resources. That’s just saying you want it, but not badly enough. You want success to come to you. My experience is that success tends to gravitate to those who drag it kicking and screaming to their door, not those who expect it to come on their terms. Sorry. That’s just the way it is.