The creative journey is often a winding path to success, but our experiences along the way can enrich our writing and help us develop a unique author voice. Johnny B Truant talks about his journey from scientist to non-fiction/self-help, to over 100 books and a TV show based on his novels.
In the intro, What Sells Books in 2022: at Kobo Writing Life [ALLi]; How to Survive Book Marketing Burnout [Kindlepreneur]; Introvert Writers Summit; Self-Publishing Show Live, London in June; Chirp Audiobook special on Map of Shadows; plus book recommendations: Life Force by Tony Robbins and Peter Diamandis, and The Genesis Machine by Amy Webb and Andrew Hessel.
Today’s show is sponsored by IngramSpark, which I use to print and distribute my print-on-demand books to 40,000+ retailers including independent bookstores, schools and universities, libraries, and more. It’s your content—do more with it through IngramSpark.com.
Johnny B. Truant is the author and co-author of over 100 books across multiple genres, and the co-founder of Sterling & Stone, a multimedia story studio, along with Sean Platt and David Wright. One of Johnny’s books, Fat Vampire, sold to NBC Universal for production in 2021 as a SYFY original.
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 is below.
- No experience is ever wasted — and may end up inspiring your writing
- From copywriting and courses to writing fiction
- A very slow first novel — to writing fast
- Collaboration and writing partnerships
- Letting go of what might be working in order to do more of what we love
- Knowing when a business relationship needs to end
- On planning and following an inner compass
You can find Johnny B. Truant at SterlingAndStone.net.
Transcript of Interview with Johnny B. Truant
Joanna: Johnny B. Truant is the author and co-author of over 100 books across multiple genres, and the co-founder of Sterling & Stone, a multimedia story studio, along with Sean Platt and David Wright.
One of Johnny’s books, Fat Vampire, sold to NBC Universal for production in 2021 as a sci-fi original, and some of you might even remember when he came up the idea live on the ‘Better Off Undead Podcast’ years ago. Welcome back to the show, Johnny.
Johnny: Hey, Joanna, it’s so great to be back here. You and I go back just about as long as I’ve been doing internet stuff. So it’s so cool.
Joanna: We do. We’re going to come to that in a minute. Because I was your fan way before you were a fiction writer. But I want to take us all the way back.
We’re focusing on creative pivots. When I first heard about your journey, you talked about doing a Ph.D., I think it was in genetics. So talk about that.
Why did you stop doing your PhD in genetics? And how has that knowledge still ended up in your fiction?
Johnny: This is actually really appropriate timing. First of all, I’ve recently revisited one of our smaller books, nonfiction books called The Story Solution, which is like how life is like a story. And so I revisited a lot of this.
Also, I did my daughter’s Career Day where I talked about, they asked for, like educational requirements for your job. And I was like, ‘Well, none, but I have these credentials. And guess what? They filter into my work. So very appropriate.’
I was always a good student. And I created that as my identity. I was valedictorian of my high school class, and I got a lot of validation from just kind of being good scholastically. And so it was natural for me when I went to college, aim high, and high, by my definition, was the ‘most prestigious degree.’
So this was basically an ego move, if you’re getting this. Plus, I did like science a whole lot. And so it just seemed logical to me, in the absence of any other viable considerations, including writing, because who in the early aughts was able to make a living as a writer? That was absurd at the time.
So a nice respectable job to me meant, I don’t know, following my trajectory and getting a Ph.D. And it was genetics, it was molecular genetics. It was about, I would say, six months into it before I started to realize, ‘Oh, this is a really, really bad fit for me.’
I wasn’t like the people who were doing the work. I didn’t enjoy the work itself, I didn’t enjoy the environment. The schedule did not fit with all my other interests, I didn’t have time for other things, because it was a lot of time, and it was far away.
I realized that I had made a misstep when I made the calculation of how many fruit flies I had looked at under a microscope. So we used to do these cultures, these stinking yeast-smelling cultures of fruit flies. And there was a gene that would express with red eye color.
I would know that they took up the gene if they had the red eye color. And so we used to knock them out with gas and use a little paintbrush to move them across the stage of a compound microscope and look for flies with red eyes, which sounds like the most absurd thing for anyone ever to do.
I figured I had looked at a half a million fruit flies. And then I said, ‘Okay, this is not what I want to do with my life.’ I jumped ship without a net at that point and moved into the next phase, which was sort of where we ran into each other.
Joanna: But you still put genetics in your fiction, don’t you?
Johnny: I do. And this is what I told the kids when I did Career Day, is that for a writer – and I know that you know this because you talk about it all the time, and you’re always traveling and stuff – is everything that comes into you… I like to imagine like a big old funnel on the head of a creator.
Everything comes in and everything becomes story fodder.
I’m completing our series, The Beam, right now. There’s a large component of science that’s in it, including genetics. My other degree was in philosophy, and it’s very heavy on philosophy. So I didn’t use anything directly. I have no formal writing training. So I’m not even using that directly.
But it’s all there. I think that it speaks to my unique voice as a creator. Not a lot of people do exactly the same melding that I do. It’s like my individual writer’s fingerprint. I’m real pleased with that.
Joanna: Me too. And I love The Beam.
I’m the same. I have degrees in theology and psychology, neither of which I’ve ever used professionally, but I use them in my fiction writing as J.F. Penn. So that’s a good message for people listening; nothing is wasted. It all goes in the story.
I came across you in around 2009 when you were working as a copywriter, freelancer, obviously, and also at Copyblogger, which I used to read, and I bought one of your courses, ‘Question the Rules.’
I actually went on the Wayback Machine to find the original website. And the tagline was The Nonconformist’s, Punk Rock, DIY, Nuts and Bolts Guide to Creating the Business and Life you Really Want.
Which is hilarious because you just talked about basically being a geek and a good student, and I’m a good girl, and I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, I reckon I could be punk rock like Johnny.’
Tell us about that phase. Why copywriting? What did you learn then that you still find useful today?
Johnny: As far as the the punk rock thing, it’s actually is kind of funny because I’m only realizing as I’m saying this, that I think that there are several major groups of people who know me and the people who would think Johnny’s more like punk rock, nonconformist, would never believe that I was the studious academic, and the people that knew me as the studious academic…
I mean, I was a nerd, right? I was not cool. I was not climbing the social ladder in high school. I was socially not anywhere near the top. The idea of me being a punk rock guy is probably ludicrous to them.
I think that I’ve always resisted that assumption that just because something is being done the way that it is being done, that it is the correct way to do it. Do you know the parable about the ham in the oven with cutting off the end of the ham? Do you know that one?
Joanna: You better tell it. I don’t recall.
Johnny: Okay, so this is one that I really like. It’s become lexicon in the company where we refer to the story all the time. The story goes something like this. And this is just allegorical.
A family’s sitting around for a big dinner Thanksgiving dinner, or, to be more universal, Christmas, because not everyone does American Thanksgiving. And they’re preparing a ham. The mom slices off the end of the ham. And the kid is like, ‘Why do you do that? Why do you slice off the end of the ham?’
She says, ‘I don’t know. That’s the way that my mom always did it.’ And so they go to the mother, who was also there, and, ‘Hey, Mom, why do you slice off the end of the ham?’ She goes, ‘Well, that’s the way that grandma always did it.’
And then they go to grandma, who’s there, too. And why did grandma do it? And she goes, ‘Oh, well, I used to have a really little oven.’
The joke is that you keep doing things the way that they’ve always been done. And you’ve completely lost track of the reason that they’re even being done. I think that a lot of the things that I’ve looked at, I tend to have that opinion that if this is the way that things are normally done, is it the best way to do things?
Or are we carrying a hangover from previous generations of believing that things are done correctly?
And so I think that the punk rock thing…I was very interested in punk rock for a while. I do like punk rock. But it’s really more about questioning authority, questioning the way that things are normally done and saying, ‘Does that make sense to keep doing it?’
Joanna: Yes. The course was called ‘Question the Rules.’ And I was definitely attracted to that even though I call myself a bit of a vanilla goth. I’m not goth on the outside, I’m goth on the inside. And it’s why I was attracted to that.
I also do generally obey the rules. But of course, 2009 was the early days of self-publishing. I started this podcast in 2009, which is kind of crazy. But yeah, going back to the copywriting. Most of your career at that point was copywriting.
What did you learn from copywriting and course creation that you still use today?
Johnny: I think that my driving instinct has always been how do I get to do the most of what I want to do and have the most freedom of time and still survive?
When you look at my journey through that lens, I think it makes a lot more sense, because there’s some steps missing here. Once I realized that my academic career was not going to happen and I was not going to be a professional scientist, I said, ‘What can I do? There’s got to be something I can do where I don’t have to go get a job. I don’t want to go get a job, then I’m tied down.’
My mom had a marketing communications firm. And I got a few jobs with her just doing sell sheets for products for like 35 bucks or something like that each. And I was working at like a Starbucks at the time to just make ends meet.
And then through writing, I always knew I was pretty good at writing. I started to get some magazine freelance jobs. I wrote a ton of human resource magazine articles and magazines for graphic design communication. So I wrote a lot of that. I did a lot of marketing copy as well.
Only after that did I decide that I was going to try my hand at online writing. I did the usual searches; make money online, make money blogging, and of course those things send you to… Back in the early ’10s, back in like 2010 to 2012, they took you to two primary sites. What were those sites, Joanna?
Joanna: Copyblogger.com and ProBlogger.com
Johnny: Yes, those are exactly the sites. I kicked around and got to know those people. And it just seemed natural to get into blogging. Just because that was a way that I could potentially make my own fortune rather than relying on somebody who was asking me to punch a clock.
I started with a humor blog and tried to monetize it with AdSense ads. And you’re lucky if you make a few bucks with an AdSense ad in a month. From there, knowing that community, knowing ProBlogger and Copyblogger, then I saw what people were doing with creating courses and sharing whatever knowledge they did have.
I got into a little bit of that and wrote a lot for Copyblogger because they were the primo institution to get ideas out there. I think that’s when we ran into each other.
Joanna: Yeah, absolutely. I still think the copywriting skills, headlines and all of that, that still plays a part in email. I know you guys don’t blog much anymore. But it does help, doesn’t it? With writing, sales descriptions, and all of that kind of thing.
All those copywriting skills are still useful.
Johnny: Yeah, emails, and I also think in fiction. The concept of burying the lede is not something that’s unique to copywriting.
For anybody who doesn’t know that concept, basically, the lede is the least you need to know to keep you interested in reading, usually an article. But if you’re talking about fiction, and if you don’t grab the attention of somebody, or if you’re further into a book and a chapter doesn’t announce its intentions, or set the scene, or do something that intrigues the reader, which is the equivalent of the lead, then you lose them there, too.
I think that those copywriting skills apply to just about any attempt that somebody is making to get attention.
Joanna: I still think authors should probably do some sort of copywriting 101, which Copyblogger still has, so people can go get that.
Okay, so let’s come on to writing. Your first novel, The Bialy Pimps, took you a long time to write. And of course, when I heard this, being British, I was like, ‘I don’t know what this means, is this some kind of dance?’
Johnny: Nobody knows what it is.
Why did it take you so long to write your first novel? And how did you move past all the problems of that first book?
Johnny: The answer to that question starts with why I wrote it in the first place. I always wanted to be a writer, a novelist, but I knew at the time how difficult that was.
For anybody who’s new to writing, you don’t know, maybe, that what you used to do was you’d write a complete book and then you’d send off query letters to agents, just a one-page letter explaining who you were, and what accolades you had, and try to interest them in your book. If you were lucky, they’d ask you to send three chapters.
Then if you’re really lucky, they’d ask you for the whole book, and there was this long, imperiled route to getting a really substandard royalty and back-of-the-shelf treatment, right. It kind of was a bad deal.
I didn’t write that book in the same mentality that I wrote my current books. It’s my job now. Just to be clear, I don’t have another outside job. I write books for a living.
But that book I wrote, I have the story I’ve told a few times where when I was in grad school, I started having panic attacks. It took that to get me out. Because I’m a very stubborn person in that way. I like to finish things that I start, and so I wouldn’t have left if it hadn’t gotten really bad.
As it started to get really bad, or I think actually slightly before it started to get bad, I was really missing my college days. I loved college and I did not like grad school, and they were cities apart. One was in Columbus, one was in Cleveland.
Looking back, I needed to return to those better times. The Bialy Pimps is fictional, but a lot of it is true. It’s about a bagel deli. It’s about a bunch of malcontents who work in a bagel deli at a college campus, and that’s exactly what I did in college.
I needed to go back there in my head to basically have some semblance of sanity. I was writing this book, and it was entirely autobiographical at the beginning. I even used the real people’s real names. There was nothing fictional at the beginning. I exaggerated things, like we had these crazy zany characters, and I made them more zany.
But mostly, I might as well have been writing in a journal. It was so extreme that I was halfway through the book before I realized I didn’t actually have a story. I was just telling the tales of what happened and they were amusing to me. It was like Canterbury Tales for the modern age.
Once I started to develop it into a book that was a process of learning.
Where is this going to go? I didn’t really have an antagonist and I needed to add an antagonist. I figured out how to write that book as a matter of I had to get it out. I psychologically had to get out of my current world and spend more time in the old world that I loved so much.
Part of the reason that it took more time than my other books is because I frankly needed it to. And when it was done, it was a mess because not only did it not really start as a story, it was self-indulgent. It was me telling me my story. It was me suggesting a way that maybe I could do it better.
Looking back, it’s really funny if I were to read that first version, because, ‘Why did I not understand this right away?’ I was clearly spelling it out. The way that that book was written was just a different animal than the way and the purpose that I write today. And then a lot of what I did was revise, revise, revise, revise.
I think that there’s a long time between when I started that book, and when I published it. It was probably 10 to 15 years. I don’t remember the number I gave between when I wrote it and when I published it, but I wasn’t working on it that whole time. That said, it did take a lot more time.
Now going forward, Fat Vampire, which was my next book, I wrote in maybe a month. But again, I had a cheat because the markers were already set out for me. Because, yes, I was telling an underdog story in the vampire world and a non-conventional vampire story, but it was still a vampire story. So the touchstones are all there.
There’s somebody who gets bitten by a vampire. They don’t believe it for a while, they try their powers, they discover things, they have to feed. The landmarks of the vampire story are similar to every other vampire story. So it was simple for me to write that.
It was only when I wrote my third book, which I think… No, no, I wrote two or three Fat Vampire books. But the next franchise, I think, was Unicorn Western, which I wrote with Sean. That was when I needed story help. And fortunately, I had it.
I’m good at articulating a story. I’m good at working with somebody to figure something out and then working my way through a plot, but nakedly going after a plot is very hard for me.
So in one way, I did solve those problems and I do write a lot faster. But in another way, I had to get a partner to do it. And it would have been much harder if I didn’t have the cheat of number one, a real story, or a well-told story like the vampire legend.
Joanna: I love that. Some people talk about some first books almost like clearing your throat and it seems like The Bialy Pimps was you getting rid of all that stuff. You almost had to write that to get it behind you. And then things took off.
I like the idea of touchstones of genre. And also as readers, that’s what we love. We love those. We want to see those things.
But you mentioned Sean Platt there. And David Wright, obviously is also in Sterling and Stone. I’ve had all three of you separately on the show, and I was on your show years ago.
How did those collaborative relationships start?
You mentioned that you figured out you needed this kind of co-writing experience. How did that come about?
Johnny: I actually think this is kind of an interesting tale because Sean and I met at BlogWorld. That’s very much a Copyblogger world sort of an event. You’ve met Sean. Anybody who’s met Sean knows that he’s full of ideas, and he’s very enthusiastic and he has a way of making everybody else enthusiastic.
He and I started talking and we bonded over, of all things. Andre Chaperon’s course, AutoResponder Madness. We were like AutoResponder Madness fanboys. When I was done, and I was kind of high on having met some more internet people and shared space with them and all that, around the same time, I listened to Pat Flynn talk in Smart Passive Income. I actually don’t know if he still does.
Joanna: He does.
Johnny: Okay. I think Pat’s great. He talked about how his podcast and look who I’m talking to, right? That his podcast was like this great vehicle for him. And so I pitched Sean the idea of writing a podcast, of doing a podcast, largely because I knew that Sean and Dave were already writing like machines.
They were doing it in a marketing-minded way. They were writing episodes and serials because they could bundle things. They could do all these marketing tricks with fiction. And they were self-publishing, which is something I hadn’t approached yet. Self-publishing digitally, through Amazon to Kindle.
I was very hungry for that. I figured that if we got on a podcast, I could learn from them. I didn’t think we’d work together necessarily, but I could learn from them.
Once we started going then Dave made this now infamous joke about how Sean wanted to write a Western. And Dave, who was his writing partner, said, ‘That’s ridiculous. I’m not going to do all the research to write a Western.’ And even though I really liked doing research, looking back, it’s funny, we made fun of Dave for a while. You don’t need to do research to write a Western, you could just put the guy on a unicorn, and then you don’t have to do research because it’s clearly not really on Earth.
And Sean said, ‘I think we should write Unicorn Western.’ And so that was the beginning of Sean and I writing together.
I’ve written really much everything since with Sean.
Then Sean wanted to form a company, because another thing that Sean does is what’s next? So it’s not just what you’re doing right now. It’s how do we make it bigger and better? For Sean, that meant making a company.
Fast forward to today, we have, I think, a dozen people working with us. And we’re a little story studio that’s out there pitching to Hollywood. I actually didn’t want to form a company. I came along because there was this enthusiasm. I liked writing with Sean, I liked working with Sean. And we did form this company with the three of us originally, me, Sean, and Dave.
Dave was dragged kicking and screaming. Dave is not a business minded person and doesn’t want to be. And so very quickly, it turned into Sean and I running the company, and Dave being a writer. And just recently, well, it’s been about two years. I did the same thing.
Now Sean and his partner Niamh run the company, and Dave and I are sort of like flagship authors. But that’s been that evolution, because for the longest time we were doing both.
We were putting on The Smarter Artist Summit, we were running the Stone Table Mastermind, we were creating store shop software, like we were doing all these other things because we were co-running a business.
Now I’m just a writer, a creator, and Sterling & Stone as a company is just ‘we create stories, we tell stories’ and nothing else.
Joanna: I actually think this is really important, because you were good at the business. As far as I could see, you were good at marketing. You were good at speaking. You were good at all this stuff. You’re good at podcasting.
And this is what’s interesting.
You made a decision to cut things back that you were good/successful at, in order to focus on the thing that you really wanted to do.
I certainly struggle with this all the time. What can I cut back? Not bad things, good things. What good things do I have to cut back in order to focus on creative work?
I know a lot of the listeners struggle with this too. It’s easy to give up stuff that’s not working. In terms of the things that actually we were enjoying in some way, or were bringing in money in some way.
How did you get to that point of going, ‘I really have to cut back. I have to step away from that. I want to focus on what I really love.’
Johnny: Sean and I were as good partners as we were going to be, meaning that I don’t in any way think that we were really bad partners. But I would say that we were ill-fitting partners for what we were trying to create.
I wanted to go deep and Sean wanted to go broad. So I wanted to tell more and more, and deeper and deeper, stories. I wanted to keep my hands in the story and keep doing more and more of that.
Sean wanted to do the stories and everything ancillary to the stories. He wanted to create a studio. And I’m really glad he did. Because I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate that I’ve been able to benefit from everything Sean wanted to do without having to yoke myself with it anymore.
One of the reasons that we stopped doing it is because it was just really painful after a while. We had a lot of well behaved disagreements, I would say. I’m not a person who enjoys or is good with conflict. I just don’t like it. And so that really bugged me.
It was just like a lot of agita for a long time that it was a little like the panic attacks it when I was in college, because I just knew it was wrong. And I just was like, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to fight anymore. I don’t want to worry about the business’s money anymore. I don’t want to do this.’
It made sense to both of us, it was a truly mutual divorce of that part of our relationship. Because it was just so clear to both of us that I shouldn’t be doing that version, and that I always should have just stayed in story.
Joanna: What’s interesting with collaboration, is that the whole point of collaboration is finding what you’re good at what the other person or people are good at, and then together creating something more than you can do alone. Right? And that’s the hard thing, I think.
It’s interesting to talk to people who collaborate in the way that you guys do. Because I know, for example, I’m such a control freak when it comes to story and business. I think I at some point decided right, I’m not growing my company because I’m a one-person business. That’s what I like. I have freelancers and things, but I don’t do that.
Coming back to the events, you had The Self-Publishing Podcast for years, you guys. You had the Smarter Artist events, including the one in Austin, Texas in 2016, which I spoke at as well. You guys still have nonfiction books up. And also you’re well known in the author community.
How does the non-fiction side still play a part in your life?
Johnny: It really doesn’t, actually. We do still have our Smarter Artist nonfiction books out there. So the best known of them is Write. Publish. Repeat. And I always say it with that cadence because usually if I say write, publish, repeat, people are like, ‘Who’s right-publisher-Pete?’
Write. Publish. Repeat was our big one. That was a self-publishing, writing instructional manual, that’s probably a little bit out of date now because the self-publishing landscape has changed a little bit.
We had some follow-ups to that. We had a series that was basically writing instruction and some of that has even come out yet. Bonnie wrote a lot of those. She’s our story expert.
The Story Solution, which I mentioned. They’re still out there. But we don’t really actively push them anymore. We used to have ‘The Self-Publishing Podcast,’ and that was our major vehicle. We now have a podcast. I think the ‘Story Studio Podcast’ is still running, that was an in-between for us. But we stopped recording that years ago.
We’re recording a podcast now that hasn’t seen the light of day yet, but it will shortly. It is largely story analysis, largely movies and TV, where we talk about things that we like, from a story perspective.
As far as, I would say, the nonfiction, the writers as customers instruction, I enjoy doing that sort of thing if it comes up, but usually in a broadcast way. I like to preach not teach. I like to be up on stage. There’s something about that that I like. I don’t necessarily like really working one-on-one.
Opportunities may come up. I know that you do some speaking, I think that I would be interested in speaking. But that’s just because that’s something I enjoy. I enjoy speaking. So we really don’t do any nonfiction at all anymore. We’re totally focused on getting our stories sold.
Joanna: Do you think that the non-fiction side played a part in bridging a period when you guys didn’t have a massive backlist?
In that it provided income for what was at the time a kind of fledgling company and provided that buffer at a time when you were leaders in the indie community around doing this stuff. But then I guess now it’s backlist.
It’s funny you say you’re not doing anything, because I see the books in my also boughts all the time. And also, I think in my ads on my books. Someone in Sterling & Stone is keeping that alive in some sense.
Johnny: I’m actually curious about that. I’m wondering if we’re getting also boughts because they’re just tied in the algorithm?
To answer your larger question, yes, we absolutely enjoyed and needed those years. I think that I as an individual, and Sterling & Stone as a company, are both extremely scrappy. We always tend to do what was necessary in the moment in the best way that we could, and what felt right in the moment and what we were called to do in the moment.
At the time when we were doing writing instruction, that was something that we were really passionate about. I loved putting on ‘The Smarter Artist Summit.’ No, no, no, I enjoyed being at ‘The Smarter Artist Summit.’ I hated putting it on, it was terrible putting it on. We always lost money on it, that sort of thing.
But it was the right thing at the right time. And so many good things came out of it. Just to be a little squishy, I’m one of those people, I do believe everything tends to happen for a reason, the right things tend to happen at the right time, the teacher tends to show up when the student is ready.
Everything that came out of that, all of the people who work with us, came because we met them at an event. We wouldn’t have our studio of writers. Some of the cachet that we do have now comes from the fact that we have authority in the space either as podcasters or as writing instructors.
We wouldn’t know you if I didn’t do any teaching. If I was just out there writing books, I wouldn’t know you. We wouldn’t know a lot of people.
So it was definitely wonderful at the time, perfect at the time. It was a relatively straightforward way to make money. Not easy, but straightforward. Whereas selling fiction is not usually straightforward.
We actually did an analysis. We actually said, ‘What does each side of the business bring in financially? And what do we pay into it?’ Because all of our money at the time that we made this decision was coming from the nonfiction side. It was coming from our mastermind, it was coming from our events.
But then when we turned around and we looked at it and we said, ‘What are we putting into this?’ It was no contest. It was definitely losing us money, especially when you factored in soft costs, like our time, and our attention, and our distraction.
We had a huge payroll at one point. We had all sorts of people working for us to help run this big machine. And we said, ‘What if we just let it go?’
That’s what we did. Somehow we’ve managed to survive. It has not been easy. We’ve always had to do something to make ends meet.
Joanna: I find this so interesting. I’m loving this discussion. So often, we think we need to plan everything, right? We want to plan our lives. I do goals, and I love all that stuff.
And yet, everything you’ve said, so far, you might have had a broad intention to become a writer. But all of these pivots, were like, you said the right thing at the right time. Did you plan any of this?
Johnny: No, I don’t think I’ve ever really planned anything. I’ve always had a big picture. It’s funny that you asked me that. Because that’s a really interesting question.
I’ve always had a compass is maybe the best way to put it. I’ve always had a driving intention. Given enough time, it will steer me to where I want to go, but the ups and downs along the way are always surprising. They’re not always good.
I had some serious financial failures predating even anything that you even know about. This is actually the missing answer that I didn’t give earlier, because you were asking about how do you drop out of things and stuff?
The answer is that I’m stubborn. So obnoxiously stubborn about this is what I want to do. And this is what I don’t want to do. And this is how much I want to work. And this is how much I don’t want to work.
When I have partners, there’s a certain amount of bending and accommodating and just being cool, that needs to happen. But I always in the back of my mind is that comfort, it’s like, ‘We’re going to do this for a while. But really, we want to be over here.’
I keep that peripheral eye out for opportunities to move in this direction. But I just I don’t like to do things I don’t like to do. So the second I see a better way to do I’ll usually do them. I’ve been super, super fortunate that I’ve been with mainly Sean, who has handled a lot of that stuff that I don’t want to do.
I’m in a position now where I get to have an amazing deal as an author, I only really do what I want to do. But that only works because what I produce is of value to the company and they do the rest. So I guess stubbornness, stubbornness and a refusal to, you know, I don’t work crazy hours, either. I don’t work on weekends, that sort of thing.
Joanna: I like the idea of the compass that keeps bringing you back to where you ultimately want to go.
I think that’s such an important thing for everyone listening like you just don’t know what will happen.
Let’s talk about Fat Vampire. Because you said earlier, that was the second book. It was a joke that you guys came up with and then…
Johnny: At Dave’s expense.
Joanna: Yeah, at Dave’s expense. It was a joke, and you wrote it, and then you wrote some more, and now you’ve got this deal. So tell us about that.
How did the TV deal for Fat Vampire come to fruition?
Johnny: It’s funny, because only now that I’m at the end stages of this. By end stages, I mean that they’re in production right now, I’m actually going out next week to watch it be filmed for a week. They’re going to be wrapped in like a month or two.
So when I say done, I mean that, knock on wood, it looks like this is going all the way. Only from this perspective, have I looked back and said, ‘Oh, my God, that is really, really unusual. I got so lucky.’ Or things just worked out so well, because it’s extraordinarily rare to have something optioned and then purchased and then go all the way to completion, without a hitch. But the whole thing has been that way.
On top of you expecting an up and down trip with a lot of trials and tribulations and a lot of failure. You might think, ‘How many times did I pitch this? How hard did I work out to work to go sell it?’ And the answer is not at all.
I had a high-profile inquiry years before this one that came to nothing, but it was a name that everybody would know. And their agent contacted me and was interested and nothing came of it. But again, I didn’t do anything to get that. Somebody just emailed me.
This time, it was the same deal. I got an email from somebody who ultimately worked with the BBC of all places, but he knew this team that’s working on it now and they put the deal together. and just, ‘Are you cool with that? Do you want to do that?’
I brought in a lawyer, and they were very, very cool with me to the point of just agreeing to whatever I wanted to do and working with me however they could. And it was so easy.
I know that that’s not what somebody who struggled with this wants to hear. But it just fell in my lap. To me, that speaks to having a catchy hook and title, because the idea of that vampire, makes everybody’s antenna go up, and just kind of being out there.
I published that book, I think in 2012. And I think we had first inquiry, I’m going to guess 2019, maybe not. It might have been 2018. But that’s a decent span of time. And all that time, I was getting the BookBub ads, I was putting it free. I was making it paid. I was doing box sets.
It just got out there enough that eventually, the right people saw it. And they did see it wide.
We’ve had several out-of-the-blue inquiries for our various properties. They’ve all come from Apple books. People never find this on Amazon, it’s always wide.
Joanna: Interesting. Wow. So well, I think this is important. You didn’t have an agent?
Johnny: I still don’t.
Joanna: Okay, it didn’t hit like number one on Amazon, which is how people found it. It just somehow, presumably, people were sort of scrolling a lot or might have been searching for vampires. And again, Fat Vampire has a really good hook. So that is a good tip for people.
It’s a hook. The cover wasn’t even that awesome at the time. Your covers have all got amazing now. But early days, the covers weren’t massively great. Either way, you said this was really a hook. But again, your second book is just fantastic.
You said then it’s rare for a book to get an option, let alone to go into production.
Why is Sterling & Stone as a story studio now focusing on film and TV, if it’s so difficult to get these deals?
Johnny: Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean we’re not going to do it. So there’s a few things here.
First of all, once you have one success, then it’s much, much, much, more likely to have more. One of the exercises that I like to do, and I apologize to everybody out there who’s an independent single author, because you aren’t going to like what I’m about to say.
We do have a collective of people. And we do have an extensive back catalogue of, frankly, patting myself on the back, pretty good stuff. What I like, to do is put myself in the shoes of somebody who is looking for content.
There’s one producer that we’ve talked to who’s a name, and he’s done a bunch of stuff that again, people would know. I don’t remember the figures here, Sean would be able to give you exact figures. He has something like 70 projects going right now with Netflix that are live.
When you’re producing that much stuff, and when there’s Netflix and Amazon Prime, and Hulu, and Apple TV, and all these minor streamers, and Peacock, and Tubi, and Pluto, and all these, everybody needs content. If you’re somebody like that guy that I mentioned, who has so many projects, wouldn’t it be great to find somebody who was easy to work with, and who you could keep going back to and you knew that they were cool, you knew they had good stories.
Sean and Niamh have pitched something like 30, 35 different companies, most of whom have been like, ‘Oh, that’s really cool, what you guys are doing.’ They’ve liked what we pitch them. It’s just a very long and slow process.
By putting our attention on that million-dollar customer instead of the $5 customer as primary, lets us get books out into the hands of our readers. But at the same time, we know we’re playing this bigger game. And we can get in front of more people through that sort of thing.
Joanna: And again it might take a decade. But who knows?
I see there’s quite a few books in the Fat Vampire series now, which presumably when the series goes out, you might sell lots of.
Johnny: I hope so. The first season of the TV show covers the first book. I was in the writers room a few times with them, and the way that they were talking I think the second season if there is one will probably follow the second book.
So even the TV show will hopefully follow those books if they keep going. But then I have this deep funnel of actual Fat Vampire books to sell as well. So yeah, I hope so. I hope they take off.
Joanna: This is so important. I think it took 20 years for Lee Child to get the first Jack Reacher book made or for someone to obviously see Tom Cruise option it and now it’s on Amazon Prime as a series. These things can take a long time.
But as you guys are just building IP right? All the time, you’re building more and more books.
What is the business model now? What does the company look like? And what’s your role?
Johnny: I’m flagship author is the role, the word we’ve been using. I’m a content provider, essentially. But I’m a flagship content provider.
All of the marketing, and the shaking of hands, and making a pitch packages, and all that stuff is being done by Sean and Niamh, who are the two primary partners right now, I would say, CEO and COO is probably the best way to describe their roles.
They’re just pitch machines, and they just go out there and they pitch. But honestly, I think that time and exposure are doing half of this job for us.
This is an interesting thing worth pointing out, is, you never know where your stuff is going to go. And you can’t know it until it shows up. You gave the example in a previous podcast of my essay, which I don’t know that I’m allowed to name it.
Joanna: You can name it without the swear word.
Johnny: Yes, the universe doesn’t give a flying bleep about you. That was a blog post it was in before I was writing fiction. And a ton of people have contacted me and said, you know, ‘Hey, I read this. It was really interesting.’
Recently, Oliver Burkeman, who did Four Thousand Weeks, and which, Tim Ferriss played that chapter on his podcast. He reviewed it, and he mentioned it again in Four Thousand Weeks. And so like, how did that get out there?
Sean and Niamh were talking to a producer pitching something that we had going, and they mentioned, ‘Johnny B. Truant works with us.’ And the guy said, ‘What, who? Johnny B. Truant?’ ‘Yes, Johnny.’ And the guy turned around, they were on a video Zoom call, turned around and pulled a paperback of Fat Vampire off his shelf. And he goes, ‘You mean this guy?’
So that’s sort of thing. The Fat Vampire TV show which currently has the working title, ‘Reginald, the Vampire,’ which oh, my God, I so hope that’s a working title. I’ve been told it is because I just don’t like that title. That stars Jacob Babylon, who’s in Spider Man movies, and I exchanged a few emails with him. He said, ‘Oh, yeah, I read the books years ago. I think they’re really great.’
People on his Instagram comment that they, ‘Oh, I love those books.’ So you get in this bubble, as a writer where it’s you don’t get feedback all the time. You get feedback that’s negative. You get feedback that’s really superlative. But that average, ‘I read your book, I like it. I enjoy you.’ You don’t see it.
It’s easy to forget that your books are out there working for you right now. And you’re building a fan base you don’t even know exists.
Joanna: This is so great. Let’s as a final, final tip. What would you tell Johnny, who was writing The Bialy Pimps?
There are a lot of people listening who are still on their first book, or second book, or third, but in the early days and can’t even imagine your career path. What would you tell that early Johnny?
Johnny: I’m assuming in this example, that I don’t have foreknowledge of the future, I can’t guarantee future Johnny that things are gonna work out the way they have right?
Joanna: No, of course not.
Johnny: What I would say is that you need to do this job, you should do this job if you can’t ‘not’ do it. If you are a writer, you find a way to do the writing. And just because you need to do it because you’ve found some way to do it.
You’ve found some way to subsidize you. In the meantime, you found the time before you go to work.
And you should do it for the love of it, rather than with some goal in mind. Because, yes, with smart marketing savvy persistence, time and talent, you will eventually find a fanbase that’s almost inevitable by the numbers. But you don’t know that it’ll ever be a full-time income. You certainly don’t know that you’ll ever have a best seller or get anything optioned or made for TV or film.
You have to do it on faith. And you’d have to do it for the love of the game, basically.
I would not have wanted to hear that. Younger Johnny would have been, ‘Screw you, I’m gonna be a millionaire.’ But I would have kept doing it anyway, even if I heard that advice.
I think that that’s a tough thing to hear because we all want to believe. I want to get to the point someday when I’m only writing, I don’t want to do this other stuff. I don’t want to have my day job.
I know a bunch of writers who quit a job, and then had to go back to it. And that’s got to feel like a defeat. So I get that it’s a tough road. But if you love it if you’re a storyteller, if you understand that stories really do change the world bit-by-bit, then I think it’s a noble pursuit and you just have to do it for the love of it. It’s not a very fun answer, but it’s the truth.
Where can people find you and everything you and Sterling & Stone online?
Johnny: If you’re a producer then we want to talk to you and make some movies with you. If you like fiction, just search Amazon or wherever for Johnny B. Truant. Sterling & Stone website is sterlingandstone.net. But again, it’s fiction focus. It’s for readers at this point. But that’s where we are.
Joanna: That’s fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, Johnny. That was great.
Johnny: Thanks for having me, Joanna. It’s always fun.
The post Pivoting On The Creative Journey With Johnny B Truant first appeared on The Creative Penn.
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Author: Joanna Penn