Do you aspire to write better stories? Do you have the ambition to aim for a career that rivals the biggest names in publishing? Today’s interview with JD Barker will inspire you and give you some great tips around writing bestselling stories and building a long-term career.
In the introduction, James Daunt of Waterstones and Barnes & Noble talks about the impact of the pandemic and a possible revival in Nook [The Bookseller], the newly-formed Black Writers Guild calls for sweeping change in UK publishing [The Guardian], Smashwords CEO Mark Coker does a round-up of the impact of the pandemic for indie authors [Smashwords blog], I’m doing a Facebook Live this week, Fri 26 June at 5 pm UK / 12 noon US Eastern on Facebook.com/thecreativepenn.
Today’s show is sponsored by my patrons, those wonderful people who support the show with a few dollars a month. Knowing that you enjoy the show and still find it useful keeps me coming back to the mic every week after all these years! If you’d like to support the show and get an extra Q&A audio every month (as well as the backlist), go to www.Patreon.com/thecreativepenn
JD Barker is an award-winning and international bestselling author of thrillers and horror. He is also the co-host of the Writers, Ink Podcast with J. Thorn.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript below.
- Starting out working as a book doctor
- Getting career advice from Dean Koontz and co-writing with James Patterson
- How to successfully write cross-genre
- Choosing strong ideas and improving a story before it’s written – Writers Ink episode.
- On approaching our heroes
- The current state of the publishing industry
- On the business of selling books
- What trad publishers are looking for in book length and how our attention spans are changing
- The importance of grabbing a reader right off the bat
- Using new, untested platforms to market books
Transcript of Interview with JD Barker
Joanna: JD Barker is an award-winning and international bestselling author of thrillers and horror. He is also the co-host of the Writers, Ink Podcast with J. Thorn. Welcome JD.
JD: Hey Joanna. How are you doing?
Joanna: I am good. I’m thrilled to have you on the show.
Tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing.
JD: That’s actually a pretty long story. So I’ll go back all the way to the beginning. When I was in college and this is in Fort Lauderdale in the early…I graduated in ’89. I was amassing all this student loan debt and I wanted to work in the music business. That was my initial goal. I got a job working for RCA Records and I was essentially a glorified babysitter.
Whenever they had a famous recording artist show up in Miami or Fort Lauderdale, I’d have to pick them up at the airport and get them to their hotel and get them to the radio station for their interviews and chaperone them around town and hopefully get them back on the airplane without losing anybody.
And to really date myself, this was people like Tiffany and Debbie Gibson, New Kids On The Block, Madonna. Then a bunch of hair bands. I had Guns N’ Roses and Bon Jovi and Poison and Skid Row. If I managed to get everybody from Guns N’ Roses back on the airplane without anybody getting arrested in Fort Lauderdale, in Miami, it was a win.
I was with these people for days at a time and I had this student loan debt that was piling up. I’m like, well, how can I make money from this? And then I realized, well, I could interview them.
So I started interviewing them while I had them in the car because it was a captive audience. And then I would write up that interview and sell it to ‘Teen Beat’ and ‘Teen People’ magazine and ‘Tiger Beat’ and all these magazines back then. You just rehash the same interview and sell it over and over again.
That ended up landing me a job working for a magazine called ’25th Parallel’ which only put out about four or five issues, but we had a cool group. It was founded by the editor of ‘Circus’ magazine. One of the other guys that they hired straight off the bat basically became Marilyn Manson. I don’t want to throw his real name out there, but back then, he wasn’t Marilyn Manson. He was thinking about becoming Marilyn Manson. But that’s where I really started getting my writing chops together.
And when you work in newspapers and magazines in that world, you quickly realize that everybody’s got a novel at some stage of development in a desk drawer somewhere. It’s 500,000 words. They’ve been working on it for 7 to 10 years. It’s almost done. And they need some help with it. I became the de-facto guide to go to for that sort of thing. And initially, it was just grammatical stuff, just fixing punctuation and little grammar things. But then I started weighing in on more developmental ideas. And then it became a full-time career.
I was working as a ghostwriter and a book doctor. I would basically take one of those novels and I would tweak it. And I did that for 23 years. And over that timeframe word just got out. So I would get calls from agents, like an agent would, let’s say, have a book from a new author that an editor wanted to buy and it was really close but not quite there.
They had to cut, let’s say 40,000 words out of the book or something silly. The author was too close to it, so they couldn’t do it. So the agent would send it off to me and I would end up doing it.
Or I’d worked really closely with an editor. An editor would buy a book and they didn’t have time to run all the edits, so they would get it to me. Sometimes we had authors that were published a couple of New York Times bestsellers that just had too tight of a schedule where they couldn’t finish the book they were working on.
I had mentioned in a couple of interviews that I just talked about it off the air, but I’ve got a form of autism called Asperger’s. And one of the cool things about that it actually allows me to mimic other people’s voices. I can read a novel that somebody has started and I can essentially finish that novel and keep their voice intact.
I did this for 20 some years and during that time I had six different books that hit The New York Times bestseller list, all with other people’s names on them. And that gets really, really old after a while.
The sixth one hit up and we were in Fort Lauderdale. This was I think around 2012. My wife pulled me aside and she knew I wanted to become a full-time writer. And at this point, I had done what my parents wanted me to do. I finished college, I got a real job. I was a chief compliance officer for a brokerage firm, which is as horrible as it sounds, but it pays really good.
We had all the trappings of that, we had the big house, we had cars, we had a boat. She knew I wanted to be a writer. We couldn’t just walk away from that because we had to pay for this lifestyle. So she came up with this crazy idea. She said, ‘Let’s sell everything that we own. I’ve got family in Pittsburgh, we’ll buy a duplex, live in one side, rent out the other and get our monthly expenses down to as little as we possibly can and then figure out where we are.’
And we did that. We bought the duplex. We moved in. And about two, three weeks later, my wife pulled the bank statement out of the mail and she showed it to me and she did some quick math and she’s like, ‘Okay, looks like you’ve got about 18 months worth of savings to make this writing thing work. Go.’ So then I wrote ‘Forsaken,’ and it just kind of took off after that.
Joanna: I love that story and I love that so much. You have such a cool background. Everyone’s like, wow, you met Jon Bon Jovi. I’m still in love with Jon Bon Jovi after many, many years. I still listen to Bon Jovi songs. Don’t tell anyone.
JD: We do too. It’s one of the few things. My daughter’s two and a half and we’ve got Amazon Echos all around the house and she’ll go up to it and she’ll be like, ‘Alexa, play Jovi.’
Joanna: Oh, I love it. Also kudos to your wife. I actually did the same thing and I said, although I suggested it to my husband, I was like, for me to become a full-time writer, we have to sell everything and move too and downsize. So I think that downsizing is a really, really good thing.
Let’s come back to the writing under your own name and we’re going to circle back to the book doctor thing. But I first heard about you when I read Dracul co-written with Dacre Stoker and I used to write in the London Library where Bram Stoker did his writing. And I used to see the book there and I love horror. So and you include the supernatural in many of your own books as well.
What draws you to darkness in your writing?
JD: It’s what I read. It’s what I enjoy reading. And ultimately, I think I’m writing the books that I would like to find in the bookstore that just aren’t there yet. I think that’s what it really comes down to.
It’s become a sore spot between my agent and I, a little bit because my thrillers are the ones that really sell well. Those are the big advances and what people really know me by.
But I enjoy writing horror and I keep bouncing back and forth, which he hates, but I got some advice from some really cool people at the beginning of all this. I reached out to Dean Koontz. And he told me that early on in his career he got tagged with the horror label. And he said he spent 20 some years trying to get that label off of his name because he didn’t want it.
So he advised me to, if I was going to do this, try and find some type of common denominator between all my different books.
I’m not necessarily a thriller writer, I’m not a horror writer. I write suspense which tends to bridge that gap. James Patterson, a guy that I’m writing with right now, he had the opposite problem. His first book didn’t sell hardly at all. And most people don’t even know the name of it. His second book was Along Came A Spider, which was a huge hit. And then he turned out four or five other books, very similar in theory with a serial killer and the same type of storyline.
Then he tried to he had one called When the Wind Blows, about a girl with wings. That did not go over well with his fan base because at that point, four or five novels in, they expected a particular book from him. So he gave me basically the same advice that Koontz did.
But from his standpoint, he said, don’t write the same type of book. If you’re going to bounce back and forth, do it from the beginning.
Grab your fans from the different audiences, find that common thread.
And they’ll come along with you and eventually if you pull it off, they’re buying your book because it’s a JD Barker book, not necessarily because what it’s even about anymore.
If you think about it, the biggest names out there, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, James Patterson, I will buy any of their books without even reading the back of book blurb because they’ve delivered time and time again. They become a genre almost by themselves. So, I’ve got lofty goals. That’s what I’m shooting for. Whether or not I actually get it, who knows, but I’m reaching for that brass ring.
Joanna: I’m glad you said that because I also, like you, I have an action-adventure thriller series. I have a crime/horror series. I have dark fantasy. I have some other books that could be horror. And I struggled because some days I’m like, I should just knuckle down and just write thrillers. And then other days I’m like, no, like, life’s too short. I want to do what I want to do. So basically you’re saying that you’ve decided JD Barker writes suspense.
I find suspense is not a word we use in the UK.
JD: It works here in the US. One of the things that I’ve found, I’ve taken a lot of classes on marketing and there’s something called an information loop. So if you put out a certain message, so to give you an example, if you read my Wikipedia page, it says that I’m the author of supernatural thrillers or suspense thrillers right at the beginning. In a lot of my interviews where people write about me, they quote from that Wikipedia page.
So I tend to put that thought into people’s heads and it seems to be working. My agent is getting ready to go out with my latest book, which is a full-on thriller. And she’s taken out to people that had just looked at my last supernatural book and they seem to be melding together a little bit. And honestly, I don’t think I could pull off having multiple pen names at this point.
Back in the ’70s, I think it was easy because I just did a review of a book called Roadwork that Stephen King wrote as Richard Bachman back in the early ’70s. It had Bachman’s name on it. Back then all he did was slap somebody else’s picture on the back. He made up a fake bio and you send it off in the world. There was nobody out there to think twice about it.
But now, you’ve gotta create social media profiles, you need websites, you have to do interviews as all these different people. I have enough trouble keeping the voices in my head straight without having to throw multiple names out there. But there are people that do it. It’s very difficult.
And if you think about just like J.K. Rowling’s with the JD Robb thing she put those books out and they did okay. But as soon as people figured out who that really was, that’s when they started to sell. So in my mind, like, why bother? I’m sorry, Nora Roberts and JD Robb.
Joanna: Nora Roberts, JD Robb and Galbraith, Robert Galbraith.
It’s interesting because I love Robert Galbraith’s books. I love Rowling as Galbraith, but I also loved her Casual Vacancy, which she wrote as Rowling, but it was in the voice of Galbraith and she got so much hate for that. She kind of had to change her name because…to escape that branding. But it’s so interesting, all of this. But what I want to get back to is the book doctor thing because you have so much experience.
On the Writers, Ink podcast, which I highly recommend that you do with J. Thorn, you’re helping J with the process of taking his fiction further. And you talked about the premise and putting together strong ideas before even writing and it was great to hear you talk about this. I’ll link to it in the show notes.
Can you talk about this process? I have lots and lots of ideas. We all do, right? Like tons of ideas.
How do we decide which book to write next, what ideas to put together, and how do we improve the story before we even start writing?
JD: I’m in a different place now because now that my books are selling, I’m actually selling books on spec. This means I’ve got a contract with a publisher and I’ve got a PDF document that has basically like a back of book blurb for the books that I’d like to write. And I’ve got probably a couple hundred or so on my phone, like just different books in different stages, just little notes here or there.
But I’ve whittled it down to about 10 that I’d like to write next. And from a genre standpoint, they’re very similar to what I’ve done. And we let the publishers decide, and it’s not necessarily my editor that makes that decision. He takes that back to the marketing people and they’re like a year and a half from now because that’s when the book’s really going to come out, in the traditional world, which of these books do you think will be the most marketable? So that’s kind of how it’s decided at that point.
What I’m doing with J. is I personally feel like I think being a pantser is the way to go. And obviously this is a personal preference kind of thing. But Stephen King in On Writing, he points out that if he doesn’t know where the story is going, the reader’s not going to figure it out either.
I’m totally on board with that because when I read books that were plotted heavily with an outline, I can feel that structure already there. And I think it’s just a subconscious thing. The writer knows exactly what’s coming next, it comes across in the writing and it’s subtle, but it’s there.
But I do think you need to have certain elements of this story in place in order to pull off being a pantser. You need to know the gist of your story. So basically that back of book blurb. If you can drill it down to even a tagline, that’s even better, but just something that you can put in front of you.
And I read it every day for whatever book I’m working on. I read that tagline or that back of book blurb before I’ve typed the first word, but something that’s going to keep you on track.
The next thing I do is I create my characters. And once I have my characters together and when I say create a character, like I know them inside and out. Like Sam Porter is the lead detective in my 4MK series. I could put him at the entrance to Disney World that I could tell you what ride he is going to go on first. Not necessarily something that’s going to end up in a book, but I know him as well as I know my best friend.
That’s how I feel you as the author need to know your characters before you should start writing because you’re in their head. You’re communicating their thoughts. That needs to come across.
Thomas Harris is a great example of this. If you read Silence of the Lambs, he very seldom uses dialogue tags, but you can tell just from the dialogue who’s speaking through that entire book. And that’s, again, one of the goals that I shoot for there.
So you need your tagline, you need your back of book blurb or your idea of the book. You need to know where your characters are, who they are. And then you can basically drop them at the start of the story and go.
Personally, I’d like to have a beginning, an ending and something that’s going to happen in the middle in mind, as I’m writing. And I think that keeps my subconscious on track. I tend to liken it as like a straight road. You’ve got your beginning down at the bottom and you’ve got your destination as the ending for your book. And it’s okay to kind of go off the road a little bit and go off into the weeds as long as you get back to that road. And as long as your subconscious knows how this story is going to end, I think it’s going to eventually get you there.
So that’s how I tend to do it. But as a book doctor, I’ve worked with people that have worked across every different aspect of this. They’ve been on heavy outliners to the point where they have a 200-page outline before they start writing. Other people that just have a couple of sentences in mind, they have a rough idea what they want their book to go.
I’ve worked with so many different people that I personally just took the little bits of what I felt was the best from each of their systems and kind of threw it all together.
Joanna: Coming back to that back of book blurb that you create, like all these little ideas, see, my idea list, which is out of control and is lots and lots of one liners that need to be put together into a blurb. And you talk there about the back of the book. So everyone has an idea of what that’s going to be. Some kind of, like you say, tagline and then something that’s going to draw people in. How do we write that?
How do we take these little ideas in bits and bobs and write that back of the book blurb that you’re talking about?
JD: I tend to expand on it. I use a program called Simplenote, and you could do this with anything. Simplenote is just a note-taking document that it’s on my phone, it’s on my Mac, it’s on my iPad. And if I make a change on any one of them, it automatically updates all the other ones.
I’m like crazy averse to paper. I hate having piles of paper all over the place. So I do everything on there.
I’ll have one Simplenote document for each book I’m working on. And as I come up with those snippets that you’re talking about, I’ll drop them in to that document wherever they fit in the story. So it is kind of like an outline, but it’s not as stringent of an outline as other people.
I’m working with Patterson right now, so he’s a strict outliner. And when we first sat down I brought that up. We were at lunch in Palm Beach. We decided we wanted to work together and we came up with some ideas, but I say, listen, I know you outline. I don’t like working with an outline. If we’re going to do this, I think we’re going to have to do it without one.
And somehow, I have no idea how I did it, but I convinced him to write his first book without an outline, through his entire career. And we had a crazy fun time doing it. I would create a scenario and try and paint our character in some kind of impossible situation and I would hand it off to him and he would not only get that character out of that impossible situation, he would volley it right back and put them in an even more difficult one and say, ‘Here, JD. Your turn. You try.’
We went back and forth like that through the whole book and we knew how we wanted it to end, but we didn’t know any of the middle stuff. Now, the downside to that is probably 40,000 to 60,000 words ended up on the cutting room floor. When you’re a pantser, a lot of stuff gets tossed.
So we started working together on a second project together and that one did have an outline. So I got to see his method. And it does work, but we didn’t stick to the outline 100%, and I think that’s where the real difference was. If I had an idea that took the book off in a different direction, he was cool with it.
The outline was just a framework. It was more or less just a suggestion. So I just kind of feel it out. At this point, he’s got me trying to create an outline for a book because he still thinks that that’s the way to go. And I’m trying to do it because I think if I can get to that point, then I could probably successfully write two books at the same time, like one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
One of the things I took away from Dean Koontz, like a lot of pantsers tend to have a lot of drafts. They’ve gotta go back through that book over and over and over again to get it right.
Koontz only writes one draft from beginning to end. So he sits down in the morning and he rereads what he wrote the day before and he edits it and cleans it up. And then he starts writing as soon as he hits that last sentence. And he just keeps going and he adds like another 2,000 to 3,000 words to it, sometimes 5,000 or 6,000. The guy’s a machine.
But when he hits that last word on the final page, he’s done with that book. And I think it’s because he’s editing as he goes. He also told me that years ago he used to outline, he did that for the first 10 or 15 books, but the first book that he wrote without an outline was his very first bestseller. So that told me a little something too.
But again, like everything comes down to personal preference. What is going to get you as an author over that finish line? Because I’ve seen many people try to write a book and they’ll say they’re pantser, they’re working on their novel and like I said at the beginning of this I’ll pick it up and they’re at 500,000 words, no ending in sight and we’ve been with these characters for 7 or 8 years of their life and they don’t know where they’re going with it.
That’s the downside really to pantsing. That’s why you have to have that back of the book blurb. You have to have a rough idea of where your book is going to end in order to get there.
Joanna: You made me feel better because I feel like I am a discovery writer, but I do know the beginning and the end and then a couple of big scenes in the middle in my head. I just haven’t written it all down as an outline. So you’ve made me feel a bit better about that.
I didn’t prompt you with this before, but you’re mentioning some really big names of the biggest names in the industry and I know people are thinking, how does he know these people? I know you’re an introvert. I’m an introvert too. We talked about ThrillerFest off the air and I find meeting people, especially famous authors who I’ve been reading all my life and I kind of hero worship really nerve-racking.
What are your tips for networking with people who we hero-worship?
JD: I honestly think it comes down to the Asperger’s thing. My wife says that I’m fearless because I will try anything. I will approach anybody. Unless there’s a restraining order in place, they’re not going to keep me away.
Stephen King, I got lucky there. When I wrote Forsaken my first novel, I had to explain where the wife buys a journal. So just to get the book done, to get that last page on paper, I wrote that she walked into Needful Things and bought it there, the Stephen King store, fully expected to have to change that. And my wife who’s way smarter than me, she read it and she’s like, ‘Nah, let’s just get his permission to use it.’
‘Well, how do you get King’s permission to do much of anything?’ Turns out he had a house that was maybe 10 minutes from my mom’s house down in Florida. So we printed up the manuscript, hopped in the car and figured, well, we’ll head over to Steve’s house. He’s probably outside gardening or something. We’ll catch him if he’s in a good mood, he’ll glance at the manuscript, give me the thumbs up and we’ll be on our way.
It didn’t quite work out that way. If you’re in Florida, he lives on a, what’s called a key. It’s basically an island right off the main coast.
Joanna: Duma Key.
JD: He lives on his version of Duma Key. If you go over a little one-lane bridge, it’s the kind that swivels in the middle. And if you make a left to go to the public portion of this Island where the beaches are and the restaurants and the bars and all that kind of stuff.
And if you make a right, you go to the entire half of the island that he owns. And there’s immediately a private drive sign and then a no trespassing sign. And then there was a gate and another gate and we’re like maybe a half mile into this drive and I’m looking up in the trees thinking a sniper is going to target us and like, this is a bad idea. We need to try something else.
So we went back to a little restaurant and I called a friend of mine that I had known for years, a guy named…he wrote under Jack Ketchum, he passed away a little while ago, but his name was Dallas Mayr. I called him up and told him what we were doing and he was a real good friend of King’s. He said, ‘Yeah, don’t stalk Steve, he hates that. Here’s his email address. Just send him the book. If he likes it, you’ll hear back. If the book is shit, then he probably won’t contact you. Just leave the guy alone.’
So I did that and then I ended up hearing back from King and he gave me a thumbs up and I’ve just hit them up over the years via email for writer advice and kept in touch that way.
And Dallas, the guy who introduced us, that came about through a relationship. I used to get a newsletter about horror writers. And years back, I think this is like maybe ’92 or ’93 he had put a notice out there. He needed help getting some files from a Mac to a PC. And this was way before even Windows existed. So I knew how to do that. So I helped him do it.
We kept in touch over the years and I think that’s why he helped me get in touch with King. With Koontz, I sent them a fan letter. I was trying to get a blurb for Fourth Monkey when it was coming out and I sent him a copy of the book with a letter. And then he emailed me back and just kind of kept in touch.
Patterson was the same kind of thing. I sent him a copy of Fourth Monkey and he actually called me to give me his review which was weird because you don’t normally expect to hear James Patterson giving you a review. I thought it was my buddy’s kind of playing a joke on me until I actually started talking. And then he knew I was from Florida and invited me out to lunch and that’s how that whole thing happened.
I just moved to New England and New Hampshire and Dan Brown lives right down the street. So I sent him a copy of my latest book with a little note saying, hey, we just moved to the area and he invited my wife and I out to dinner at his house.
Joanna: Okay. You’re like royalty!
JD: Then this virus thing happened. Well, the gist of it is you have to do that. You have to try.
You mentioned ThrillerFest at the beginning. If you’re at ThrillerFest, you’re going to be around some very famous names. But only for like a minute. You might be in the elevator with Lee Child. So you’ve got two minutes to make your pitch, so you can either stand there and stare at the numbers and watch them tick away and watch Lee walk out the elevator when it’s all over or you can say something.
And the way I see it as, the worst thing these people will do is say no, but at least I tried. And to try and fail I think is way better than to not try at all. So I’m a firm believer in that. You can’t be afraid to reach out to these people because they’ve all been where we are. Dan Brown wrote The Da Vinci Code sitting between a washer and dryer.
[Note from Joanna — I actually think that was Stephen King with Carrie, but I might be wrong!]
Joanna: I love that. I really appreciate that advice. And I don’t know whether it’s because I’m English, you just don’t bother people ever, don’t bother people.
JD: You’re way too polite over there.
Joanna: We’re super polite. You see somebody famous and you don’t even look at them. I was sitting next to John Cleese in our local restaurant and you don’t even look, you just carry on. But I love your attitude. It’s really interesting.
JD: I think a lot of that came from back in the RCA Record days when I was doing that job I was telling you about it because I was in a car with famous people. And they were like that at the very beginning.
The first time Madonna hopped in my car, that was crazy, to see her stepping out of a private jet and then to get into the car with me. This is somebody that I knew from videos and they’re not real people at that point. But I think because I rode around with them or I was just hanging out with these people for so long, they became real people because I saw them going to McDonald’s for lunch. Not Madonna, she would not eat McDonald’s. But, you know, just doing what normal people do.
And when you see that side of them, it takes it down a notch and it takes a little bit of that shimmer away from them. And not that that’s a bad thing, but it makes them human.
Joanna: I wonder the other thing, the stigma of self-publishing. I want to come to that because I as much as I love ThrillerFest, I’ve been going since like 2012, something like that. And I felt very much in those early years, the stigma of being an independent.
Now, you’ve started out indie, you’ve moved into traditional, you’re kind of hybrid, you do all kinds of things.
What are your thoughts on what’s the current publishing environment and how you’ve managed to navigate both? And what are your thoughts on it right now?
JD: I think a lot of it’s merging and I totally get what you’re saying. Back in 2012, even 2014 when Forsaken came out, I ended up self-publishing that because I didn’t get the right deal. But I sold about a quarter-million copies, which put me on the radar of the traditional guys.
When they see you making those kinds of numbers, they want a piece of it. And, you have to weigh everything. From my standpoint, I had to weigh the dollars. With Fourth Monkey, I got a seven-figure advance, when we added everything up, there was a TV show and a movie attached.
I got a call from my agent, I was out on a run and she said, ‘Hey, we just got a preemptive offer from the UK for $130,000.’ So I ran back home real quick. I told my wife we were going out to dinner and by the time we got to the restaurant, we were at $800,000. And by the time we left, we had broken seven figures.
I had plans to self-publish that novel and I could have but knowing that that kind of payday was in my future, I knew that that would secure my position and be where I would be able to write full-time and not have to worry about anything else anymore. That would be my focus. So in that case I pulled the trigger on it.
But for me it comes down to a financial decision and what is that publisher going to bring to the table that I can’t do?
My latest book, we’ll use that as an example, or actually my last two The Sixth Wicked Child which was the third book in my serial killer series, and my latest book, She Has A Broken Thing Where Her Heart Should Be, I self-published those in all the US territory, the English-speaking territory, so the US, the UK, Canada.
But my agent sold all the foreign rights to those books to regular traditional publishers. Random House and Harper Collins, those guys have it in other places. And I think as long as you can turn in a product where it’s on par with what they expect, you can do that kind of thing.
Every book that I write, it goes through the ringer. I have alpha readers, I’ve got beta readers. It goes through a professional copyedit. It goes through professional formatting all before I send it to my agent. Because when it lands on an editor’s desk, I want them to feel like they’re reading a finished product.
I don’t want them to see something that is a job, is going to be work to them. I want them to see something that is polished as it possibly can be. And if you’re going to indie publish or self-publish, I think you need to do that.
You have to remember who your competition is. Your competition isn’t other self-published authors.
It could be, but in my world, my competition is Random House. It’s Harper Collins. It’s the books coming out of the top five. So I try to make sure everything I do is on par with that. And I think as an indie author or traditional author, you need to do that.
But like I said, I think the worlds are blending together. I think it’s becoming less and less clear which side that you’re really are on. And if you do it right, the reader will never know the difference. Every book that I put out, I put it out as a hardcover, an audiobook, softcover, mass market paperback couple months later. I follow the same model that I see the big guys do.
And I’ve got distribution through the same channels that they do. I use IngramSpark for hardcovers. I’ve got just a distribution through deal through on Baker & Taylor, which is another big one here in the US. They handle most of the libraries. So even from a bookseller standpoint, they don’t see a difference. They don’t realize that I’m even self-publishing these titles anymore.
And I think that that’s important because I get BookBub every day and I always go through it. When I see something that I like, I’ll load it up, I look at the Amazon page and if I see that it’s only out there as a soft cover and as a Kindle book, I’ll usually pass because that immediately tells me it’s a self-published book.
In my world, the author didn’t take the time to put out a hardcover or put out an audiobook. People like all these different formats and if you want to get the largest possible reader base, you have to satisfy as many people as possible.
Joanna: I’m so glad you said that. I also am doing hardcovers now as well as paperback. I do large print as well, which is a good library format and audiobook and the rest. So it’s really good and I feel the same way.
I feel it looks professional on your page to have all of these different formats which many traditionally published authors don’t have that anymore. They don’t get hardbacks.
I want to come back to the craft again because your books are standing out from the crowd. As you say you’re getting these deals. What are indie authors doing wrong when it comes to story, particularly in the genres you write in. However we want to publish, I still think we want to lift our story game to the level of the top-selling writer.
How can you tell the difference and how can we lift our game to that level?
JD: I honestly think a lot of indie authors don’t take the time to really get the book done. They finish the book and they put it out there, but they don’t go through some of the steps that I mentioned. They don’t get a professional cover. They do it on their own. They don’t get a copy editor. They either do it on their own or they ask another writer friend to go through it.
These aren’t expensive things to do, but they make a big difference. And if I pick up an ebook and I start reading it and I see typos and I see errors, I’ll usually put it down because first of all, I don’t want that stuff in my head. I don’t want grammatical errors in my brain because it’ll start coming out in my own writing before I realize it just because I’m reading it.
But if the author didn’t take the time to do those things, then they didn’t care as much as they probably should have. And I think that’s important.
I think also because they write fast the story is not quite 100%. The book that I’m writing right now, it’s done. And if you’ve been listening to the podcast with J. and I that I’ve written like five or six different endings on this particular book. My agent just sent it back to me last week and she’s like, ‘I absolutely love it until chapter 79. You gotta go from there and write the rest again.’
I’m doing that because she’s got the ear, she’s talking to editors. My film and TV agents, they’ve got the same book. They’re talking to people on that side. And they’re all telling her what they’d like to see in this book. And I’m not afraid to make those changes or I guess I’m willing to make those changes.
One of the other things I see a lot, I run into quite a bit, or I see people that see this as an art, which it is. But they don’t realize that they’re creating a product. When somebody tells them they need to change something, a lot of times they won’t do it. They won’t cut the novel down. They won’t do this. They won’t do that because they feel this is the book they want to tell, the story they want to tell and that’s it, take it or leave it, which is great.
But let’s say building a car and you design the car that you want and that the buyers are telling you, well, we absolutely love this car and I would buy it if, and you’re not willing to make some of those changes, you’re not going to sell any cars. So you have to decide why you’re actually in this business.
Are you in the business to sell books? Are you in it just because you love to write?
And all of those things are valid. I was writing for years without anybody paying me for it, it was my outlet. Just like anybody, probably everybody listening to your podcast, it’s cathartic. It’s one of those things.
So if people stopped paying me tomorrow, I would still write every day. So that’s not an issue. But knowing that I am writing professionally and that people are buying my books, I tweak them and I make sure that I put out the best possible product that I can every single time. And I don’t let it leave my desk until I do, even if it is painful, even if you have to write that ending 10 times.
Joanna: I wonder what’s your thought on length because I feel like many of the books I read from traditional thrillers, I know Dan Brown is a bad example because he’s an outlier. Well, let’s take James Patterson. His books are shorter, but I feel like many indie authors are writing shorter books, whereas the traditionally-published books are still 80,000, 90,000 words for say, a thriller.
Do you think there is a word count difference and is that reflected in the depth of the writing? Dracul was very long, I think, I seem to remember it being a pretty long book and had a lot of depth in terms of the characters and the atmosphere and all of that type of thing.
Do you think length has anything to do with it these days?
JD: It does and it’s not something that I realized until I really started talking to editors. But it comes down to a cost. Dracul for example, it’s 160 some thousand words. The original Dracula was 166,000 words after they cut 102 pages out of the book. The final book was 166,000. That is on the high end.
Most traditional publishers really want to see a book that’s like 80K to 100K at this point, especially as a debut. If you’re going out there for the first time. My last book, She has A Broken Thing Where Her Heart Should Be was 206,000. And because I self-published that, in a lot of these territories, I realized how that length impacted the cost. And unfortunately, it meant that I had to put the hardcover out there for, I think it’s at $39 in a lot of the territories just in order to more or less break even.
I think I make like 50 cents or something on a hardcover. So it’s not a moneymaker for me, but in order to get it out there, I have to do that. So it’s something I’m very conscious of. But that’s something that I think has changed over time.
I’m going to show you something real quick. I found it yesterday. So this is something I actually bought at auction. And I don’t know if you can…you probably can’t see it on the camera, but this is Stephen King’s actual draft of Needful Things. It’s pages off his typewriter.
Joanna: Wow. That’s amazing.
JD: I bought it from David Morrell, the guy who created Rambo. He used to be a beta reader for Stephen King.
Joanna: David’s been on the show. [Interview with David Morrell here.]
JD: Okay. I’m going to see if I’ve got the letter here because he actually touches on it in the letter.
‘Dear David, here’s the manuscript I promised you. The size is daunting,’ because he knew it straight off the bat. I don’t think you could get away with a book this size and this was 200 some thousand words too. And I don’t think you could do it in today’s publishing world. Attention spans are too short.
Readers like to be able to consume content. But they like it in small bits. I think that we’re being conditioned for that. I find it very difficult now to just watch TV, as an example. If I’m sitting in front of the TV, I’m also on my phone while I’m talking to my wife or talking to my daughter.
Joanna: Me too.
JD: And having like a news channel on with its scrolling ticker and different headlines and this. Our brains are being conditioned to consume all this content very quickly in small little bits. And I think it’s making it more difficult to sell books.
That being said, Broken Thing, because of the length is doing phenomenal on Kindle Unlimited because people are getting hooked on that first page and there are almost 800 pages in that book. So as soon as I grab them, I know I’ve got them.
So my page count is, I’m selling almost twice as much in there just because of the length. But if I were to try and take a book to the traditional publishers, we did shop it and they wanted to see some cuts there. They wanted to see it down by about 60,000 or 70,000 words. And I didn’t want to do that with the story.
I guess the gist of this is, because I’m rambling here, if you’re trying to pursue a traditional deal and it’s your first one, try to get that book between 80,000 and 100,000, that’s just the sweet spot where they want to see you. Fourth Monkey was 126,000, that was on the long side, but they were willing to deal with it because they liked the story so much. But you know, 80,000 to 100,000 is where you really want to be.
Joanna: Fantastic. And then we’re almost out of time, but I did want to ask you about marketing.
What kinds of marketing do you do or have been successful for you in selling books?
JD: I do everything. Facebook ads, Amazon ads. I was talking to J. about this the other day because we had a guest on who specializes in Amazon ads and I honestly don’t understand them. I’m trying to hire somebody to actually do that for me. And none of these people seem to be out there because I’m throwing money at it.
I’ve got ads running like crazy. And I’m afraid to turn it off because I don’t know whether or not it’s working. So I’m just letting it go and that’s obviously not good business practice, but that’s the way that it is. But I tend to do all that.
I look at a lot of the new stuff that’s coming out, like I’ve been studying TikTok like crazy, trying to figure out how to market and sell a book on TikTok. And I haven’t broken that formula yet, but I’m sure it’s out there. Snapchat is another one, like how do you sell books on Snapchat?
So as these new programs come out, I immediately run out there and get my username, whether I’m going to use it or not, just to make sure I can get JD Barker and somebody else doesn’t grab it. And then I try to find some way to utilize it.
Back when I was driving these recording artists around, Madonna once told me that when she gets a marketing plan for one of her albums coming out, or back in the day I think ‘Vogue’ was coming out when I talked to her. She said she goes through that entire marketing plan and she looks at what they’re doing and then she makes a list of everything they’re doing and then she makes a new list of stuff that they’re not doing. And that’s where she would go out and she would hire her own people to actually fill in those blanks.
I’ve been doing that on the book side because when you’re with a traditional publisher, they give you a marketing plan. It’s a PowerPoint presentation and it’s usually like a 30,000-foot view of what they’re going to do. But I tend to see holes in it.
They don’t use BookBub, things like that. They tend to not rely on bloggers or Instagram, readers where I do, and like right now that’s helping tremendously because I’ve got a new book even now that I’m working on with Patterson, it comes out in September. We’re hitting up bloggers for that because we can’t go to stores. We can’t do a book tour right now. But that particular world and they’re still spreading the news through social media.
So they’re kind of coming around. I tend to liken traditional publishers, their marketing departments are like a big cruise ship and an indie author is sorta like a little speed boat. We can zip around that cruise ship and we can run circles around them.
If you have a handle on what you’re doing, you can turn a lot faster than they can and try new things. So if you see something as an indie author that looks like it might work, try it. Like I said earlier, you either try and fail or you don’t try at all. But at least if you failed, you know that you made an effort at it.
Joanna: It’s great to hear that. Because so many people just say oh, I just write great books. I’m like, no, no, you definitely do something. So I’m glad you said you do.
JD: Yes. Writing a good book is just a small piece of the whole puzzle. It’s a given at this point the book has to be like a five-star read. If it’s not, I don’t even know that I would go out in the world. There are a million books published every year and yours is just one of them.
If it’s not a five star read, if you’re willing to put it out there knowing that it’s got problems and you’re getting three and a half stars, whatever it ends up, something’s wrong you need to tweak that or you’re going to be stuck in that world forever.
Joanna: This has been really fantastic. Tell people where they can find you and everything you do online.
JD: Easiest place is jdbarker.com. On Twitter I’m JD Barker. I’m on Facebook and Instagram and the other ones, but my publishers tend to run a lot of the stuff that is on those. Twitter and my website are probably the best places.
Joanna: And the ‘Writers, Ink’ podcast with J. Thorn.
JD: I can’t forget ‘Writers, Ink’ podcast every Monday.
Joanna: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, JD. That was great.
JD: Thank you. This was fun.
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Author: Joanna Penn