What are the challenges of writing a first novel — even when you think you know what you’re doing? How do you define success when you are just starting out on the author journey? James Blatch talks about these questions and more.
In the intro, thoughts from attending the Audio Publishers Association conference, and audiobooks being delivered by podcast apps [The Verge]; Music industry creator trends for the next decade [Creative Industries]; a tribute to Joel Friedlander and thoughts on estate planning; The Relaxed Author; The Premonition by Michael Lewis; and last chance to get the Writing Storybundle.
Today’s show is sponsored by ProWritingAid, writing and editing software that goes way beyond just grammar and typo checking. With its detailed reports on how to improve your writing and integration with Scrivener, ProWritingAid will help you improve your book before you send it to an editor, agent or publisher. Check it out for free or get 25% off the premium edition at www.ProWritingAid.com/joanna
James Blatch is the co-founder of Self-Publishing Formula, Fuse Books, Hello Books, and the co-host of The Self-Publishing Show. He’s also now a fiction author with historical military thriller, The Final Flight.
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.
- Learning how to write a novel over 11 years
- Lessons learned when publishing a first book, including the importance of proofreading
- Marketing strategies when you’ve only got one book
- Balancing work and other areas of life
- New avenues of book business including HelloBooks and Fuse Books
You can find James Blatch at JamesBlatch.com and on Twitter @JamesBlatch
Transcript of interview with James Blatch
Joanna: James Blatch is the co-founder of Self-Publishing Formula, Fuse Books, Hello Books, and the co-host of ‘The Self-Publishing Show.’ He’s also now a fiction author with historical military thriller, The Final Flight. Welcome to the show, James.
James: Hey, Jo. I was just saying, this is like self-publishing royalty. I’ve made it. I can look you in the eye now. When we meet, I can look you in the eye and say, ‘Yes, I’m also a published author.’
Joanna: Yes, finally, and we’re going to talk about your journey as we go through the interview. But first up, a lot of people have heard your voice, they’ve met you at events. But you had a life before self-publishing.
Tell us about your background in journalism, and also your connections with the military, the background to why you wanted to write this novel.
James: They are connected. I had a, long story short, a fairly disrupted time at school, because of the military. Actually my dad was an RAF pilot and just happened to get to that point where he was posted, they didn’t really know what to do with him I think when he stopped flying, and he was posted everywhere over a four year period, it happened to be my primary school year.
So I had four moves of primary school in the six years, which was very disruptive for me. And I never really settled at school as a result of that. And so I fell into a career I didn’t want, which was computing, but really wanted to be a journalist.
And also became, as I grew older, became quite passionate about the military because of my father’s career, which I knew virtually nothing about when I was a kid because he never talked about it, and I never saw him. He flew his last plane before I was born.
So I joined the BBC and quickly found military stuff as a niche that would do well for me in that environment. The newsroom is not overly stocked, I have to say, with people who know a lot about the military, and classically will show the wrong aircraft when they pick a picture out and I’m always the nerd.
I was like the geek boy. And it works well for you if you have a niche in that environment because you very quickly become in-house expert at something. And I also found that I could live my life vicariously, and perhaps should have joined the RAF when I was younger, but I missed that opportunity.
But this way, I was in the squadrons, I was in the building enjoying the banter, they quite liked having me around, I liked being there. I went to the Arctic Circle with them. I went to the Middle East for the Gulf War. I went to Kosovo and covered that.
I flew in a Harrier and a Jaguar and I did all of that stuff without having to go to initial officer training for a year, and then three years, that I probably wouldn’t have passed, of selection to be a pilot.
So I had that going for me at the BBC. I did lots of other stuff as well, cats up trees, and council meetings, and court cases, and crime, and all the things that you have to do. But I, as much as possible, covered the military.
People often ask me if I miss my BBC days, I honestly don’t apart from those bits where I lived on board HMS Invincible, the British aircraft carrier, as we went through to the Gulf, and that was living on board and reporting from there was something that was really special for me. I do miss that, those little bits.
But then when it came to writing this book, which was before, well, I knew Mark Dawson, but I didn’t really know him as an author. I worked alongside Mark and John Dyer at the British Board of Film Classification.
I started writing this book in 2010. And this story fell out of me and it really was about going back to that primary school era, and being moved about and having a father.
My dad lives down the road, he’s 90 years old. But he is of a generation that were not demonstrative in their emotions by any stretch. In fact, he might be even a rather extreme example of that. And that’s just how he is and it was slightly odd to be brought up like that without the ‘I love you’s’ and the tactileness that I display with my children.
As I grew older, I think maybe all of us as we grow older start to wonder a little bit about where we came from, what shaped us. And this book was almost a fantasy novel, where there’s my father type character who is going down that route, and has horrible experiences, like my father did, he had friends die next to him.
This was not uncommon, unfortunately, in the ’60s or ’50s RAF. But he comes to this point where he’s not going to put his head down and bury his emotions anymore and not think about things as a way of coping, which is what they did. For understandable reasons, they had to get back in the aircraft the next day, they had to go to war, potentially.
But in my character, in my fantasy, he has this choice to make and say, ‘I’m not doing this anymore like this because something’s going wrong.’ And he’s got a chance to fix the system. And in doing so, has an opportunity to save himself and become somebody who is open with his emotions because he’s learned the hard way that it doesn’t work the other way round.
So that’s the theme to the novel. And I have to say somebody could read my novel and probably not read any of that theme into it. But that’s how I came at the story from the beginning.
Joanna: You mentioned the word fantasy there, but it’s not a fantasy novel. That’s more, as you’re saying, it’s a made up version of your father’s world as opposed to a fantasy novel, right?
James: Yeah, that’s a very good point. It’s not a fantasy novel, no, it is a 1966, quite authentically researched, fairly meticulously researched novel.
There will be mistakes in there I’m sure from that era, because I wasn’t actually living and drinking scotch and some things I refer to that are already being picked up by somebody. But yes, no, it’s grounded in the real world.
It’s the fantasy of a service brat, of a service child whose life could have turned out slightly differently. This is sounding like a bit of a sob story. I love my dad. And he is of his generation. His father fought in the First World War in the trenches. And his father came away from the first world war as apparently a quite difficult and cantankerous man, which is completely understandable.
I’m sure he would have been suffering from some level of PTSD as we now know. And my father was brought up by him, and then he had quite a rough time with things happening to him. But then I’m completely different. And me and my wife often talk about us and our friends are so different with our children than our parents were with us. And that’s, I think, what triggered my story. It’s my fantasy, but not a fantasy.
Joanna: Exactly. Language is so important in the genre.
You mentioned 2010 there, you started to write this. And I feel like often our first book is the book of our heart. And certainly the first few novels, I think, are often things that have been bubbling up for many years for most of us. I think after you’ve written like 10 or 20 books you start to do things for other reasons.
But 2010, you started writing it and we’re recording this in spring 2021. So the process of writing this, what have been the challenges with writing? Especially as of course you’re now very well known in the self-publishing circuit, you meet a lot of authors. And it’s tough when you interview authors who’ve written a couple hundred books, like you do on SPF. And you’re like, ‘Okay, I’m writing my first one.’
What were the particular challenges with writing that you found?
James: It has been hilarious interviewing people who write a book every 10 days, to somebody who’s taken 11 years. But I mean, when I first wrote it, I was like anybody off the street who’s never written a novel before, but would say to when they met a writer, ‘Oh, I’ve got a book in me.’ And the writer sort of glazes over a little bit, because they hear this all the time.
I was that person. I just wrote this book. And to be fair, I did it in NaNoWriMo, sort of 1st of November, I could tell you exactly what day I started, 1st of November, 2010. And I continued it, I got to the end of that month mainly because my friend was producing a program on radio ‘Forces Network,’ a national BBC radio station in the UK. And she wanted to interview me as it turned out in week three.
At the end of week one, I thought, ‘I can’t do this. It’s really hard.’ But I thought, ‘I can’t turn up to do this interview having given up.’
So it kept me going actually, it’s probably the reason I got that finished. I got my 50,000 words done in November, then spent about three or four months doing the other 40,000, 50,000 words and got to the end, but it was a ramshackle mess really.
The semblance of the story was there and that hasn’t really changed. But I didn’t know what I was doing. I knew nothing about show, don’t tell. I’d perhaps heard people say it but I had no real concept of what that meant.
And then I became despondent. I’m sure lots of people in that situation do, didn’t know how to really fix it, didn’t speak to any novelists, never spoke to Mark about it, I don’t think. It just went into a drawer or an electronic folder and gathered dust until something like 2016 when Mark said to me, ‘That book you were writing at BBSC, why don’t you dust that down and have a go?’
But then I think what I did, Jo, was, I started again from, even though I was interviewing people and starting to take on board some of these concepts. I didn’t really properly research how to be a writer.
I’m definitely somebody, I’ve worked out, I’ve been thinking about this recently, who has to do things, make mistakes, redo them, and then possibly read about how to do it properly.
I can’t academically sit down and read something about how to write a novel before I’m doing it and then do it without making mistakes or do it in a better way. It’s just I’m very much a trial and error person.
And so I wrote it twice, I think. I wrote a really short version of it where I cut out everything extraneous and it almost made no sense, it was gobbledygook. It just happened, things happened too quickly. And then I wrote a really long-form wordy version of it where I put in italics what everyone was thinking at the end of every sentence.
Joanna: Thoughts in italics are a very common new writer thing.
James: That was the big learning point for me, I think, is what not to include in the book. That’s been the most difficult thing. It’s been the biggest revelation. And it’s been the thing I’m most excited about that finally I have got to a point, working closely with Jenny Nash and Andrew Lowe, two editors, who’ve helped me really understand what to leave out.
Really understand how to write a scene so that the reader thinks at the end the things that you attempted to tell them to think. And it’s difficult, but I’m excited about having got there, I’m very excited about novel two hopefully being able to start from a higher position of skill in terms of writing, if that’s the right word.
Joanna: You mentioned show, don’t tell there. In case people don’t know, so I always say, it’s like writing, ‘How are you James?’ And James says, ‘I’m angry.’ Which is obviously telling, or you might have in your italics, ‘I’m angry.’ You know, I think the character thinks, ‘Oh, I’m angry.’ Instead of, for example, you slamming the door and walking out. That’s a classic example.
But as you mentioned there, working with professional editors. And I do feel like the biggest learning curves with fiction is that first novel, you do learn so much that helps you in the future.
That was the writing side, so, what about the publishing side? Because you’ve been working now with obviously Mark Dawson with the Self-Publishing Formula, you’ve got Fuse Books, where you’re actually publishing other people’s books. So you know a lot about this stuff.
Have you found things when publishing your own books, that you’ve thought, ‘Oh, okay, I knew that intellectually, but I didn’t know it really?’
James: That’s a good question. I think the marketing point of view, the blurb has been a bit of a public standard humiliation because I find it really difficult to write the blurb, I think quite a lot of people do. But I got there in the end, and I knew what I was trying to do. So I was grounded in knowing where I needed to be and then got there eventually.
The cover, I was lucky to work with Stuart Bache who knew where to go to for the right person to get a good cover. The marketing and launch strategy where I tinkered and I talked, I did a lot of it on our podcast, openly talking to Mark, but I knew more perhaps than I let on about how to do that. I just wanted people to be there as we were making the decisions.
The bit I learned about, I think, was to do with copy editing and proof editing, which I had no personal experience of, because even with Fuse Books, as you say, we’ve published a couple of other authors, those books come edited to us so far. We haven’t had to go through that process.
I got the copy editing done and didn’t get it properly proofed. So the first 10 days of the book I think I probably changed it on Amazon about six times as we stumbled across stuff. It was a mistake I made and the copyeditor wrongly thought it wouldn’t need a proof edit because he’d been through it twice and he said in his words, ‘I’d be very surprised if there’s any errors in there.’ Well, there were probably about 35 errors in there.
Joanna: I always use a proofreader, because there’s always something else to find.
James: Yes. And that was my big learn. The brain is that thing, right? You can’t see it anywhere. You can’t see those problems when you’re close to a script, and my brain finds it difficult to see them. My brain works really hard at making sense of stuff that may not be quite in the right order in the sentence.
But I have one very good friend, he’s actually a computer guy. He said to me, he spotted something on page one and he said, and he sort of joked about it. He said, ‘Well, I’ll let you off that.’ I said, ‘No, can you let me know what it is.’
And he then became meticulous at sending me everything. And he saw stuff. Even when he sent me the sentence in a spreadsheet, I was reading and thinking, ‘Where is the error?’ Then it was blindingly obvious once I was going word for word that there were two those in or whatever. You don’t see that.
So that’s been a learning experience for me, that proofing, that polishing, and I feel slightly embarrassed that I got that wrong. But it was a new thing for me. So I’m really hot on proofing the next one.
And using an ARC team advance reader team, not just for feedback on whether they think the book works, but actually for that level as well that I don’t know if you do that sort of final polish to pick out, so by the time it goes live on Kindle or wherever wide it’s as polished as possible. That was my big learning takeaway, I think.
Joanna: I always use ProWriting Aid. I’ve used ProWriting Aid several times in the process, before I send it to my normal story editor and then after I’ve done all my changes. And then after I’ve done all my changes, then I send it to a human as well.
So I have PoWriting Aid and a human do a final proofread. So, that’s how I do it, but I only send to advance readers after I’m pretty much done and it’s already formatted for print and all of that type of thing.
But I think, it doesn’t matter what the process is, there just needs to be a process. And it’s so funny, isn’t it? Because sometimes I think, ‘Oh, is it worth paying a proofreader a couple hundred dollars?’ And then it’s like, ‘Yes, it is.’ Because even if it’s one thing, that would just really, really annoy me.
James: Yes, it’s really annoying. ProWriting Aid, you’re right to use that human at the end, because there’s a limit to the algorithms. And I think Andrew Lowe called them reading errors. So you’ll only really see them reading because they’re completely spelled correctly words.
I think the first one in the book was, ‘He could be forgiven for thinking so and so.’ And it was ‘forgiving for thinking’ instead of ‘forgiven for thinking,’ which is not something ProWrting Aid is going to pick up. It’s a correctly spelt word. And it’s not quite clever enough to know it doesn’t quite work in that sense.
Joanna: Well, I don’t know. It improves all the time. It’s built on machine learning algorithms, and the reason I use both a human and ProWriting Aid is because I find they pick up different things.
So, just a tip for people listening is, yes, use a proofreader. But in terms of marketing then, given that you’ve only got one book, and we were just saying before we started recording, one of the biggest pieces of advice we always say is, marketing can be difficult when you only have one book.
What is your definition of success with this one book? And how are you doing this launch when you’re really just starting out, even though you’re quite well known?
James: It’s a slight complicating factor, which is a lovely complicating factor to have. Because I have a very supportive community around me, many of whom have bought the book.
My first couple of days in pre-order looked bigger than they should have been for somebody in my position. But I think I’m a little bit away from that now. And looking into more sort of normality.
First of all, I’m not expecting to make money from this book. Obviously, if it turns into The Da Vinci Code then that’s different. But I’m not expecting that. I’m expecting to get people familiar with my name, get people liking the book, potentially joining my mailing list, and being there for when book two comes out.
And then book three afterwards for me to be able to market to, whether that’s building an audience using Facebook ads, so that I can retarget them on that, or whether they’ve actually joined my mailing list, or simply just noted that they enjoyed that book and I don’t have any particular way of reaching them apart from, they might seek me out in the future, or they’ll be there to respond.
My aim for this book is to get some visibility for me as an author.
From that point of view, I’ve actually started spending money on ads on this one book, and you’re quite right, we would probably say to people, what you should be doing now is writing your next book and your books two, three, and four, and planning those for a commercially successful future.
But I’m happy with the first three days, I think, away from that initial run of spending 40 to 50 pounds on paid ads each day and selling 40 to 45 pounds worth of books, I’ve lost about five or six pounds a day over three days. So I’ve spent let’s say 20 quid, I’ve lost in three days.
But I’m selling 20 books a day to people who are reading my book for the first time. Obviously I’ve got to have some faith that they’re going to enjoy the book and potentially be interested in the next one. But that’s my aim at the moment.
I think I’ve got a bit of a head start because I’m pretty good at Facebook ads now. I’ve run them successfully for a few years, and I’ve done some really good ones. Mark said to me, he saw one of my ads, and he described it as a killer ad that would have made him click and buy the book.
James: So yeah, that’s good. I’ve got that started and I’m using that to my advantage. I will see next week. It’s early days, Jo. If the sales fall away, there’s no point in losing 40 or 50 pounds a day. But five or six, or if I can optimize those campaigns to the break-even point, that’s my definition of success is the book simply getting into readers’ hands, even if it’s not generating any income at this stage.
Joanna: I think that’s very sensible. One of the biggest issues, I think, with indie authors, you see a lot of success by people who’ve got a lot of books is they think, ‘Oh, I will be able to make money with my first book, and I’ll be able to leave my job,’ and all this stuff, and it’s just not true.
But I did want to circle back. Obviously, again, you’ve been in the self-publishing world for, what? Six, seven years now I want to say?
James: 2015, I think, is when we first started, yeah.
Joanna: Yeah, so six years, but your background is in traditional media. The BBC, you have a lot of credibility, especially with your military background. You actually have a lot of the credibility and presumably the contacts where, if you’d wanted to go the traditional route, you could have. What have been your thoughts in that area?
Did you consider publishing traditionally? And from your traditional media days, have you seen the conversation change somewhat around self-publishing?
James: I think I definitely could have. I’ve got a couple of friends who are traditionally published. Little, Brown and other other big inner Hachette-owned imprints. And I’ve met a few people. I know a couple of the guys who are commissioning editors at the trads.
I definitely could have put myself out a little bit like that, but I didn’t want to. I think, partly, it’s a control issue for me. I want to be in control of this book, I want to test what I know about marketing, test what I can do in terms of selling books. I back myself, I think, a bit more than traditional publishing for a lower list author.
Now, if my writing was really good, if loads of people come back to me and say, ‘God, this book is amazing, James. This is the best book I’ve read.’ And I’ve met people I believe, rather than my close friends, then potentially that I might change because there’s a limit to how much I could do with one book or two books.
Maybe traditional publishing does offer something on that front, they’ll put them in airports and bookshops, which I can’t do very easily. But it’s not something that I really wanted at the moment, I would I think reluctantly let go of it.
I don’t think I’d be embarrassed about it. I think people have said to me, ‘Well, you can’t traditionally publish this, can you?’ Because you’re the co-presenter of ‘The Self-Publishing Show.’
But we’ve always said, what’s best for you is best for you. And we’ve never been anti-trad. Mark has a few traditional contracts mixed in with his self-publishing stuff. So I wouldn’t react, but I want to be in control.
I see myself in a few years time, I’m really excited about writing the next few books. I’m 35,000 words in, a bit more actually, to book two, and really enjoying it. And really thinking about what book three is going to be about.
I want to be one of the people I talk to like you, Jo, who produces books and has a series and markets them. And I think I can back myself, hopefully, to be able to make the sort of money that might pay my mortgage for the last 10 years of the mortgage existing. I don’t think that would be possible traditionally published unless you have super success.
Joanna: It’s so hard to say. And I just want to say, I agree with you in terms of what people think we think about self-publishing. People say to me as well all the time, ‘Oh, well, you could never go the traditional route.’ And I’m like, ‘Why not?’
I also have foreign rights deals and things like that.
We’re not anti-traditional publishing, we’re business people who make a decision about each book.
I have a lot of friends in traditional publishing. And every time I finish a book, I think about going that way. And every time I make a decision based on how it feels at the time, and this is the way I’ve gone so far, but that, as you say, it doesn’t preclude it changing in the future.
And I think that what has changed, like 2015 when you first came in, certainly sort of 2008 when I started, it was very, very negative about self-publishing. By 2015 it was pretty accepted, more accepted.
Now it’s not entirely accepted but there’s still a lot of traditionally published authors also self-publish. And so it is a much more hybrid world than it used to be. But yeah, it’s funny that people said that to you.
James: I did a little bit of press releasing into the traditional world, a few local radio stations, I’ve had two invites for interview, I’ve done one of them so far. And I don’t expect these to be… Mark’s been on the sofa on ‘BBC One Breakfast’ and he said he doesn’t sell books, it’s a fun thing to do, but, you know, I wouldn’t put a lot of money into a PR company or a lot of time and effort into it.
But one of the things I was interested in is whether they would pick up that it was self-published for a start, because I used Vivid Dog as my company name, it’s published by them. At a glance, I could just be a publishing company, who knows when I often struggle to tell when I look on Amazon see who’s published a book, it’s sometimes not easy to work out with a self-published.
If they do, if that does come up, whether they’re going to go down the slightly sympathetic, ‘Oh, you couldn’t get a deal’ route, which is, as you say, where we were a couple of years ago.
But actually the first interview I’ve done, he started talking about self-publishing, started asking some quite interesting questions, and then said to me at the end of the interview, ‘Can you come back and just talk about self publishing?’
And I think that’s interesting. So I think that conversation is starting to change. I don’t think we’re there yet. I think there will still be people particularly close to the traditional industry who will say self-publishing is unleashing unreadable books on us.
Joanna: Oh, they’ve been saying that for years.
Joanna: Whatever! And now they say, well, AI is going to unleash unreadable books on us. And it’s like, ‘Yes, absolutely.’ But don’t worry, people always say that stuff and they assume that readers are stupid in some way.
James: Yes. It’s very disrespectful to readers as well.
Joanna: It is, totally. It is totally disrespectful. And we’re readers, everyone listening is a reader. We read so many more books than we write. And we are not stupid. Even if there’s a brilliant cover, if you open a book or you click one page in, you know whether you’re going to like that book or not. I have no fear of any of that.
That’s one of those arguments that only the people that decide to write a book or publish a book should be allowed. That just makes me so mad.
James: I completely agree. And it’s a slightly odd thing if you think about it. First of all, I think there are lots of people in traditional publishing who aren’t like this. They love books, they understand genre fiction is where the money is, and they love the voracious readers of romance and thrillers.
But there are also people who enjoy the lunches and the kudos of publishing a big name, or the kudos of publishing a book that’s really thought provoking, and are slightly sniffy about genre fiction and other fiction.
I often think, when they say, ‘Well, this book is not very good.’ My feeling is, I don’t care what you think. And the truth is, you shouldn’t care what you think. Because the only people who matter are readers, and if readers enjoy that, if that’s what they want to read.
I’ve got friends who rip through series, they’ll find you, they’ll find Mark, they’ll read all 25 books and move on to the next person, and that’s what they enjoy doing. And who the hell are we to say, ‘Well, they’re not very good books, because they’re self-published.’ It’s a ridiculous, silly thing to say or position to be in.
Joanna: It is, and also, at the end of the day, it’s about taste. I absolutely respect the romance writers, I think they’re amazing, but I don’t read romance. It’s not a genre I enjoy reading. But that’s about taste, it’s not about quality.
I also don’t enjoy massive literary fiction like The Goldfinch. You have your taste and everyone has their taste. And what is annoying is when people say, ‘Well, that’s not very good.’ And what they mean is, ‘That’s not to my taste.’ I think this is very important for us all to remember.
I did want to come back on something that I think many people would like to know, which is, you do a lot of things. You work very hard, obviously, you and the guys on Self-Publishing Formula.
You’ve now got Fuse Books, which is publishing some authors. You’ve got Hello Books, which we’re going to come back to, and you also co-host The Self-Publishing Show. And you’ve now got your own fiction career, and you have a family, and I think you have dogs, and you have a life. All these things.
Because this is the biggest thing for writers is how do they manage the day job, the fiction, the family, the everything?
How do you manage your time? How do you balance all of that?
James: One thing you missed out and you don’t know about is that we’re starting a business called 747 Dining, me and another friend, and we’re going to serve meals on an abandoned 747 at the end of August. That’s a new business. So, just to throw it into the mix.
Joanna: Seriously? That’s crazy.
James: It’s absolutely crazy. And I don’t know why I’m doing it. I am probably a bit too busy at the moment.
I think things are okay, lockdown, it’s been fine, because there’s been nothing else to do but spend long hours in my garden office. But it does require very full days for me. I’m a little bit of a workaholic, I think, and I don’t know if that’s negative or positive for me, but I quite enjoy Saturday mornings, quiet in the house. I got up and did two or three hours work just accounts and stuff. So, this morning was quite nice, because I did all that on Saturday.
And I did some optimization of Facebook ads campaigns above and beyond the value added stuff. But I do feel I’m probably too busy at the moment. I need to work better at outsourcing what can be profitably outsourced.
You can’t just give people stuff you don’t like doing. I think when you use VAs, an assistant, it’s got to be financially sensible. So I need to look at stuff that I can shell out a little bit more.
I don’t know how to answer this, because I’m actually not very good at managing my time. I sit in front of my desk, I have my usual list and whiteboard. I’m not that organized. I tend to spend half the time getting on top of things and being okay, and half the time firefighting, and I probably could be better at that.
But at the same time, Jo, I’ll down tools and go play golf. I always prioritize going out, walking. You like walking, I like walking, I cycle, I run with a friend. William is starting to play cricket in the summer. And I’ll very rarely say, ‘I’m too busy to go and do that.’ So I’m pretty good at prioritizing that, even if it does mean I’ve got to come back and do a bit more work in the evening.
Joanna: I think that’s the point. The point is that you’ve said, ‘Okay, these are the things I don’t say no to.’ I’m the same.
At the moment, this winter lockdown has been pretty hellish in many, many ways, but I have worked so hard because, like you, there’s been nothing else to do. But now the weather’s gorgeous. And every chance I get, I’m going to be outside, or walking, or doing something around my Books and Travel side that going out and seeing things now we’re not so constrained.
This word balance is also difficult. Maybe there will never be balance.
Maybe it’s just the different phases of your creative life and your family life, you have to prioritize different things. And even in the year, like I said about the weather. Right now, I’m prioritizing being outside, whereas in January, that really wasn’t a priority.
James: I agree. I think having some of those rules. But I think I get some of this from you, Jo, the way you talk about, ‘This is what I want to do now. This what I’m going to do.’ And I think you’re very good at that. And I do.
If my wife comes in and says, ‘Do you want to…’ She walks, we’ve got two dogs now. ‘Do you want to walk the dog?’ I’ve made a policy to myself that I always say yes, unless literally I’m like doing this interview or something. Because it’s very easy to say no, ‘No, I’m working.’
So I think making those sort of decisions, that’s been helpful. I didn’t used to be like that. I would very much be the martyr, ‘No, I’m too busy. I’m working.’ Particularly my BBC days. That was ridiculous. That was a toxic atmosphere where you were congratulated for working yourself ill. I’m really pleased I’m out of that. That is changing.
Joanna: I think that was the ’90s as well, wasn’t it?
James: Yes, it was. It was the ’90s. It was like the ’80s on steroids. So, that wasn’t great. And most of my friends are either still there and say it’s slightly better than it was, or they’ve out of it and washed up from it.
Joanna: I think that’s why. And like you said about the walk with your wife is interesting, because I do the same with my husband. And it’s mental health, and it’s physical health, and it’s marriage maintenance, and it’s bonding with the dog, it’s getting some fresh air.
To me, the very simple act of going for a walk at lunchtime is I think, maybe it’s a change we made in the pandemic that we can access the knowledge that this is important that perhaps we didn’t before because we were so busy.
We’ve got to hold on to that once life becomes I guess more normal, whatever that may be, like once we’re traveling again. I know you guys have put travel on the cards for later this year, right? You’re going to go to NINC. As soon as all that comes back in again, it changes the dynamic, doesn’t it? You are going to get busier. How are you going to manage that in the future?
James; Again, I don’t know. Honestly I don’t have the answer to that. I absolutely love traveling there. And I love those business trips.
Joanna: Me too.
James: I say the word holiday far too often when I’m talking to my family about what we’re doing in the autumn. ‘I’m going to be on holiday.’ No, no, I’m on a business trip in Florida. But I absolutely love that.
Jill knows that I love it. And I think she and Jo, who is John Dyer’s wife, are looking forward to us being back out there because we’ve got itchy feet a little bit about that. So I find that’s something to look forward to and part of my mental health, and we’ve got so many good friends out there as well.
That’s a positive thing. And it does get a little bit busy, but I’ll just be better, I think, at working up to it. Not leaving myself too much to do while we’re out there.
And we’re supportive to each other. Mark knows that I really enjoy that. And he goes out for more minimum period of time, his children are younger, it’s a little bit more difficult for him to go away. But he’s very happy for us to spend longer out there.
Going back to what you said about lockdown, at the beginning of lockdown, this time last year, we suddenly got confined to barracks, and we got confined to our homes, it was very weird.
Now, we’ve got a bit of a garden, a huge one, we’ve got a nice park on our doorstep. Although, in those 30 days, you weren’t even supposed to be out there, unless it was very minimal period. But there was also something quite exciting about being in the house with your family.
It’s the thing that you want to do but you’re too busy to do for the previous 10 years, suddenly, out of nowhere, forced on you. We were playing board games. We had a little contest, we decided to do some film, like lots of people. Did the Marvel films in order and all that stuff. I really enjoyed that. I felt that was telling me something that we had lost a little bit in the busyness.
Joanna: The silver linings of the pandemic, I think we will all reflect on as well as the difficult times. I think as a collective experience, we’re still learning. Obviously it’s not over yet.
But let’s get back to business. You mentioned Mark there and John and the team. You and the team have recently launched hellobooks.com.
Tell us a bit more about Hello Books and how it fits into the book promotion ecosystem?
James: Hello Books is very much a BookBub, Free Booksy, Bargain Booksy type list service. We had talked about this for a couple of years and we love BookBub. It’s a great company, they’ve done brilliantly, and they’re all lovely people.
But what I find interesting, and my wife reads a lot. She’ll go on holiday and read a book every day. So 10 books on holiday. And she sits down during the day and reads, she’s never heard of BookBub. And if you talk to your friends who are voracious readers, very…I’m yet to meet somebody outside of self-publishing who’s heard of BookBub.
Joanna: In England.
James: Yes, in England. Maybe they’re bigger in America, but it would be interesting to have that conversation in America as well. And my inkling was, my hunch was that the market penetration was very small for the possibilities there. I felt there was scope for another very well-run very well organized type service that would differentiate itself in small ways.
We’re yet to perhaps fully discover how we’re going to differentiate ourselves. We’ve spent a year building up to launch and we’ve just got it going now. But it is a list service.
So people will join, they’ll choose their genres, on a Friday they’ll receive emails with discounted or free books. And I think it looks very clean, fresh website. John Dyer has been the man really behind that.
It’s quite hard work, quite a lot of it is manual at the moment in the background, choosing the books, selecting emailing authors, because the price isn’t set and all the rest of it. But we will gradually automate more and more of that.
The idea is that it is a business opportunity, Jo. We just think that there’s a market there that we can exploit, to use business terminology. And we don’t need the investment because we’re going to invest probably 100,000 pounds into it. But SPF has done well enough that it can support that, we’re not putting six figures in in one go, it’s going to be every month we’ll put a bit more into it.
It’s going to make its own money as well during that build up period. We won’t look to make a profit at least for a year out of it. But that’s a good opportunity we’ve got, I think, to start a new business in a new sector, well, a related sector, but a new sub-sector of self-publishing for us or publishing.
It’s going quite well at the moment. I’d like it to be a little bit more automated, as I said. Fridays are quite busy at the moment, too busy because I want to play golf.
Joanna: That’s definitely something you could profitably outsource, as you mentioned. I’m so impressed with you guys. But I feel like the word entrepreneur, I do use it for myself, but I’m not someone who wants to run other businesses, like I’m very happy with my life, solopreneur is probably the better word for me.
It’s just me now. My husband’s gone back to pharmaceutical industry, so, it’s just me. But what you guys are doing is fantastic in terms of growing these. And we all need more book promotion opportunities. I’ve used hellobooks.com, and I definitely sold some books. So just to encourage people to go check that out.
Is it open to everyone to apply for? Or is it just still in beta?
James: It’s open to everyone now. And we are bunching up the genres a bit at the moment as we build the list. So, I think we need to probably get to 60 to, somewhere between 60 and 100,000 we’ll start splitting up the genres.
So thrillers includes sort of harder nailed thrillers and cozy mysteries at the moment, which is not ideal, but they go out together. And people in both those sub-genres are finding some success. Romance has got quite a big block of books.
At the moment, although you’ll choose your little sub-genre, there’s only I think nine emails that go out that block them up. But in some of those genres we’re seeing every week, people are reporting good results.
We’re struggling a little bit on some of the more niche-y stuff, so, erotica, we don’t get so many submissions on that. And LGBTQ, we haven’t had a lot of submissions. We had a few at the beginning. But yeah, it’s open to everyone, and hopefully, some of those niche genres, we could definitely do with some applications. I have to say, for romance and thrillers, we have six months worth of applications.
Joanna: That’s because of your audience as well, I think, the existing audience. But what about nonfiction? Because this is what frustrates me is that there is very little promotional opportunity on these email lists for nonfiction that is split out in more of a sensible manner.
What about nonfiction?
James: Yeah, it’s the same thing, Jo. At the moment, we have nonfiction and it’s a block. And nonfiction is so disparate, right? It covers history through to self-help.
James: It’s crazy that we put them together at the moment, but we do because the list simply isn’t big enough to sustain those individually. But every reader who signs up tells us what sub-genre they’re after. So, it’s very easy, it’s almost pressing buttons to say split those out.
And literally, we’ll get to a week where we’ve got five advice and self-help books, and they will all go to people who specifically want those. And we’re close to that point now. We’ve only been running four weeks, I think. So it will get more granular, I think it’s probably the word, as we go on.
Joanna: I think the book promotion community is missing a trick with nonfiction. I’ve said this to a lot of the vendors as well, like even Apple, their store just doesn’t split nonfiction down to a decent number of sub-categories. And nonfiction readers will generally pay higher prices.
So it’s potentially got a lot of lucrative readers in. I definitely feel that’s something I would like to see. So, there you go. There’s my wish list that that is expanded over time.
Right. We’re almost out of time. Is it okay to also ask you about Fuse Books? Because I feel like a lot of indie authors would love someone to publish books for them. And I’m pretty sure that a lot of people would love you and Mark to publish their book and market them on Facebook with ads and stuff. But I know Fuse Books is not like that.
Tell us about Fuse Books.
James: Fuse Books is an imprint. And we do publish other authors. We’ve got two on our books at the moment, in dialogue with two others, and another series from an existing authors.
We are a little bit overwhelmed with submissions, and all publishers always are. What is our remit here? Our remit here is only to take on a series of books where we are very confident we can at least double the profit. Because if we’re not doubling the profit, it’s not going to be worth it for the author, because of the terms.
So you have to be somebody who’s ideally a brilliant author writing page turning books who cannot market for toffee, that’s our perfect person.
One of the things we do when we talk to someone, we had a conversation recently with somebody who’s done really well, really well with their books, and they wanted us to market them. And our conversation with them was a slightly odd one, is instead of us rubbing our hands thinking, ‘Oh, we’re going to get all this money instantly because their books are selling,’ is, ‘Why on earth would you be handing these over to us?’
We eventually got to the point where they, I think, understood that. And we were not going to take them on for that reason. It’s got to be very clearly and ethically, from our point of view, in the interest of the author.
We don’t ever want to be in a gloomy situation where people could say, ‘Well, this is exploitation.’ Mark and I, we’ve always said to people, despite the contract, we would simply hand the books back if we felt it wasn’t worth their while anymore.
But we have found some people. Kerry Donovan, who I’m sure he won’t mind me saying, was not great at marketing. I think his series that we took on was making 17 pounds a day, or $17 a day profit, and we’re now doing, this month will be 250 pounds a day profit, it was 400 last month, but that’s off the back of BookBub.
But that’s a dramatic change, demonstrably worth his while. He’s now happy because he’s obviously seeing a rise in income, but also just able to concentrate on writing books. So it’s worked well for him. Other authors we’ve looked at we felt, don’t know how much we can do here.
I think the only other thing is, I’ve been thinking about this a bit more, Jo, recently, is people who’ve got a big back-catalogue who are getting old. I think that’s probably going to be an area that Fuse and other imprints could probably help with this is, you’ll get to a point when you’re probably in your 70s, you just don’t want to be doing that anymore, even if you are making a profit.
For them, it’s not us thinking, ‘Can we do as well as double what you’re doing?’ We could say, ‘Well, we’re going to take this over so you don’t have to anymore.’ And you understand that you’re going to see a reduction in your income. But if we keep that going for 20 years longer, that will be definitely worth it in the long run.
And of course, when they pass on, I say if they pass on, we all do at some point pass on, we could continue to make money for their family. So I think that’s an interesting area as well. It sounds slightly exploitative when I talk about it like that. But I think it’s a genuine thing actually, as people get older who write books.
Joanna: Oh, absolutely. It’s not exploitative at all. It’s the reason why there are a lot of literary agencies, because they were off the back of a dead author estate basically. In fact I have been talking about this with a couple of people for years. I’ve had people on the podcast talking about it in terms of what would it take for us to set up like a dead author agency where, because when…
James: A dead authors society.
Joanna: Yes, basically. Because when many of us, obviously we have our, we do our wills, we do our letters of intention for what happens when we die. Who’s going to run it?
If you’re an indie author, most of our partners are not going to be able to run the business. So I do think this is a growth area with dead indie authors! You just have to laugh about it. If you want to do estate planning and protect your estate after you die, these are things to think about. I’m very excited to see what you guys do.
The final question I have for you is, you started doing this five, six years ago. And since then, you’ve expanded into what? Four, five? We haven’t even talked about your Self-Publishing podcast, really. ‘The Self Publishing Show’ podcast, I should say. And you’ve got the fiction.
So, for you personally, James Blatch, what do you see yourself doing on your next 5 years, 10 years? What are you excited about?
How are things going to change since they’ve changed so much since you first joined the self-publishing area?
James: Honestly, I want 2021 to be a peak of how much I do. I definitely need to scale down. Hello Books does feel very busy, and the idea of Hello Books is it will run itself. I’m deliberately doing a lot myself now because I need to understand it and make decisions about its strategy. But as soon as they’re settled in, I’ll hand some of that over.
SPF, I think by SPF because the longer we do it, these are the online courses, the easier I think that becomes. I sat down and did a module in two days this week on dynamic creative ads. And that I can do quite comfortably and easy.
I think it’s new ventures and new things I need to be saying no to probably in the future. I would like to do more writing. So, gradually morph myself into somebody who relies on their writing as an income and does a little bit less in terms of the other stuff.
But having said all of that, Jo, I do enjoy being busy. It’s that balance word again. It’s that balance of just being over busy, work becomes stressful. I hate that. I don’t want that. And I think I’m probably bumping on the cusp of that where I am at the moment. So, 2021 is the peak for busyness. You can hold me to that.
Joanna: More golf.
James: Golf is great. I love golf, it mixes walking with sport, which I enjoy. But you can hold me to this in 2022 and ask me how many companies I’ve got going.
Where can people find you and everything you do online?
James: Self-Publishing Formula is selfpublishingformula.com and you’ll find links to Mark’s teachings and my teachings there.
We also host, ‘The Self Publishing Show,’ on that platform. We have a community on Facebook, if you search self publishing formula.
And me, I’m jamesblatch.com for a thrilling, exciting, I’ve got to sell my book. I’ve got it here, a 1960s page-turning thriller and all that. So, yes, that’s my writing home, is jamesblatch.com
Joanna: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, James. That was great.
James: Loved it, Jo. Thank you.
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Author: Joanna Penn