Russell Blake is the acclaimed author of Fatal Exchange, The Geronimo Breach, the Zero Sum trilogy, The Delphi Chronicle trilogy, Night of the Assassin, King of Swords, Revenge of the Assassin, Return of the Assassin, The Voynich Cypher, An Angel With Fur, How To Sell A Gazillion eBooks In No Time (even if drunk, high or incarcerated), and Silver Justice (July 23). He lives in Mexico where he’s spent most of the last decade, and enjoys his dogs, writing, tequila, and battling world domination by clowns. Learn more about the hilarity and genius of Russell below:
IReaderReview: What are five questions that interviewers never seem to ask, but you wish they would? What would your answers be?
1) What is the number one myth about writing you would dispel if you could?
That it is some terribly mystical process. It isn’t. It involves committing yourself to mastering your craft, and then having the discipline to sit down and write every day for however much time you can invest. Get better as you write more, and write more. It’s not easy, but it is simple.
2) What would you write if not the thrillers you have chosen as your genre?
I’d try my hand at literary fiction. I don’t kid myself that I could write a Grapes of Wrath or Lord of the Flies or One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, but that’s what I would be writing. The problem is that I’m lazy and scared – writing literary fiction requires enormous courage if done correctly, as it should push boundaries and expand our understanding – and I’m afraid I wouldn’t be up to the challenge. All I have to do is pick up a David Foster Wallace book and I want to run screaming and hide rather than write.
3) What’s your opinion of self-published novels?
In general, and I know I’ll take a lot of flack for this, they are poorly edited (if at all) first drafts, with rare gems occasionally surfacing. That’s an avoidable shame, and it is one of the reasons I am so vocal about having rigid quality control in place – an editor, a copy editor and a proofreader. They can’t make bad writing good, but they can make mediocre writing better, and ensure brilliant writing gets taken seriously. I have recently read several books that restored my faith in indies, but they were a long time coming. I think we as indie authors, as a community, are too quick to praise each other and provide positive reinforcement.The best authors, indie or otherwise, are constantly trying to improve and set the bar higher. I understand that feel good aphorisms are all the rage, but in the end writing a good book is a cathartic and challenging process, and requires relentless forging and a lot of self-criticism. I think it’s almost too easy to upload a screed to Amazon and have it inflicted on readers. I have no solution to this problem other than to aspire to produce the best work I can, and constantly be wary of believing my own hype.
4) Why haven’t you tried to get an agent?
Honestly, over the last year, it never occurred to me. I’ve been too busy writing. I think agents have their place, but I don’t see where one would help me in my career right now. So I haven’t sought out any. I’m not all militant about trad pub being bad. It just hasn’t been a priority, because I’ve been focusing on building my backlist and readership.
5) What are the last few books you read that you liked?
I just read Giv, The Story of a Dog and America, by Boston Teran, and found it to be deeply moving and beautifully written. I would recommend it. And I recently finished Bangkok Burn, by Simon Royle, which I found to be a great hard-boiled/noir thriller set in Thailand. Very original and unexpected. Both indie releases.
iRR: Your new novel, “Silver Justice,” a fictional account of the 2008 financial crisis, is being released on July 23. What was the researching and writing process for that novel like?
Russell: Good question. I had to read a ton of financial books on the structure of the financial system and its history. Books like Creature From Jekyll Island, Fruits of Graft, Once in Golconda, and quite a few more. I spent weeks on the web devouring everything I could on economics, economic policy, hedge funds, manipulation techniques, you name it. I tend to go full immersion when I research, so by the time I was done I had a pretty good take on the market, derivatives, global economics, tariffs, the whole ball of wax. And what I found wasn’t pretty. It’s not really a fictional account of the financial crisis – it uses my personal fictionalized account of what caused the crisis as the driving force behind the serial killer in the novel. The art there was to impart a lot of information to readers without being dry or preachy, and keep it interesting even for laymen. I actually cut 15K of material from the book, rewriting all the technical and financial content and condensing it to only a few hundred words here and there. That’s a tough job – telling the reader everything they need to understand what happened in only a few paragraphs. But I think it turned out well. I guess we’ll see. As to writing it, I tried it in five hour a day chunks, and discovered that approach isn’t for me. I need to sit down and write 12 hours a day till it’s done – that’s how I’ve written them all till now, but I thought I’d try a more relaxed approach. I just can’t do it in smaller chunks. It makes for way more rewrite and polish issues. I switched to 12 hour day writing sessions about halfway through the book and will be doing that on all future ones. This was an experiment in sane hours, and unfortunately for me, sanity and my muse don’t go well together.
iRR: You write topical, polarizing novels. How do you keep your work so consistently unique?
Russell: I think it’s just the way my brain is wired. I see things from a different perspective than most, and I think I’m more cynical, so when I hear official explanations of anything, I immediately start looking for the lie. That results in interesting story ideas. “What if X is all a lie, and what really happened was Y? And what if Z found out?” I’m proud of my work, because I can honestly say I have never read anything like most of my books. Whether that’s for good reason is a completely valid question I won’t go into…
iRR: You are thoroughly saturated in the indie community. How did you carve out a name for yourself among the masses?
Russell: I am? Really? My total marketing consists of being a wise ass on Twitter and writing my blog, so I’m not a good model to follow. Having said that, my strategy has been twofold. I’ve tried to be myself, with no apologies, and I’ve tried to let the work speak for itself. I try not to pander or insult the reader’s intelligence. I just write what I like to read, and I’m grateful that enough folks seem to enjoy it that I can keep doing it. I also believe that I was very lucky in terms of timing. I’ve only been at this for a year, and I believe I built my following when it was still possible to differentiate yourself relatively easily. So many have come into the fray since then that the signal to noise ratio is overwhelming. But I do think that people respond well to being genuine and authentic. I have a really twisted sense of humor and a warped idea of what is funny, and I think that helped, because I never tried to throttle it. But however I did whatever it is I did, I can guarantee that it won’t ever work the same way again. If I was going to advise other authors, I’d say just wing it and invent your own style, because molding yourself after someone else is doomed to fail.
iRR: Recently, you mentioned that free books may not be having the same effect that they used to. What is your stance on free books today?
Russell: Free has a place in keeping you in front of readers who otherwise wouldn’t be familiar with your work, so from that standpoint it still has value. I have two books on permanently free status at Amazon – Night of the Assassin and The Delphi Chronicle, Book 1. I also run a free promo for a few days from time to time for my older titles when they start dropping in ranking. But I’m a special situation. I’ve released 15 books since I started doing this in June, 2011. I can afford to have 6 of them be free occasionally without hurting my brand. But I’ve decided against making any of my latest work free, and none of my new releases will be from here on out, unless something changes in the way Amazon’s algorithms treat the free days, in my favor. I feel that free inevitably devalues the perception of your work’s integrity and value regardless of what anyone says. I’ve heard all the arguments on both sides, but from where I sit, free moving forward is a marketing gimmick I’ll use, like any other tool – but sparingly. I think the free thing has hurt a lot of indie authors, who got used to that crack hit of post-free sales spike, and then when Amazon changed their algorithms they were still conditioned to try to repeat the early successes that were no longer possible. Back in the good old days of Jan-April, I could take a book free for 2 days, see 25K downloads, and watch a spike of an extra thousand or more books in the following week from the way the algorithms exposed the title to new readers. Now, I see 15K from 2 days, and maybe a few hundred extra sales – nothing to sneeze at, but also not worth mortgaging your brand for. My gut says free is about 10% as effective as in the heyday, which ain’t much. It’s still worth doing, but not like it was. The downside for authors with one or two books out is that I think readers perceive their work as cheapened – something to wait to get free rather than purchase. That’s antipodal to building a brand for long-term sales success. For me, it’s like alcohol. A little is fine, but get drunk on it and the hangover is a killer. Hence the “use sparingly” aviso.
iRR: The appropriate pricing for an indie book could hardly be more difficult to determine. Where do you feel the ideal price lies? Why?
Russell: For me, at present it is about $5. I’m not sure that’s best for everyone, though. I see CJ Lyons selling mega copies per month, and she’s at $2.99. So I wonder, should I maybe put all my titles there? Am I losing volume by having my price too high? Should I put a few titles at $2.99 to see what happens? Should I have a few at .99? Then I remember that I already did that maybe four months ago on a couple, and didn’t see any appreciable increase in sales. So I sit back pragmatically and look at two things – building a brand, and finances. I want my brand to be associated with high quality work. I think price is one way many people differentiate quality, so I don’t want to price myself too inexpensively. But I also want readers to feel they’re getting high value, so I don’t want to put my price up at $9.99, and be competing against the big houses. Not yet, anyway.
One of the things in my favor as an indie author is the ability to use price to my advantage to build my audience, and to change prices quickly and dynamically. My gut says $3 is too cheap, $4 is better but still is sitting with a lot of questionable material, but $5 is about right. From a financial side, I run my self-pubbing business like a separate business from my writing. Meaning I write for the joy of writing, but I self-publish in order to market and sell my books and make a fair return on my investment. At my current pricing and volume I am being fairly compensated for my work as a writer, and I see a build in my audience, which I hope will translate into a jump this holiday season. If that happens, I’ll be doing well. If it doesn’t, I’m still doing well.
I experimented with lower prices, and was reminded of the Laffer curve and taxes – higher taxes past a certain point result in lower overall tax revenues and decreased economic activity. I think book pricing is like that – there’s a point of diminishing returns on pricing. I found my sweet spot on the curve, where the balance of price and volume is optimal. But I’m always experimenting, and I am thinking of moving up a buck or two on a title to see if it results in better sales due to Amazon’s favoring price now in their algorithms. I’m debating going out with Silver Justice at $5.99 for that reason. I did that with Voynich, and sold briskly even when the book was in stealth mode pre-launch. So my core audience doesn’t seem to much care whether it’s $5 or $7. Which again, speaks to value perception. I think if you deliver quality at whatever the price point is, and it’s perceived as high value at that price, you’ll still sell. But when I did move Voynich to $3.33 for the first few weeks of the launch, I sold 5000 copies, so I can see why pricing lower isn’t a bad idea. I wish I could be more scientific, but as much as I analyze all this, it comes down to gut feel. For me, I think $5 for a book is fair, $10 is too much, unless it’s an author I really, really want to read and whose work I trust immensely.
iRR: You’ve been referred to as a “guru” when it comes to self-promotion. What are the best, most innovative methods that you use?
Russell: I have no idea why that is. Other than declaring myself to be one, tongue in cheek, to launch How To Sell A Gazillion eBooks In No Time, and having spent way too much of my time on Twitter. My marketing approach has been pathetic. I tweet whenever I can. I have a lackadaisical Facebook presence. I can’t figure out what the hell Triberr does, but wish I knew how to use it because many of my best online friends are on it. I did Google plus and promptly forgot it. I do nothing on Goodreads but tune in occasionally to see how many people think my work sucks and how many like it. I’ve done promotions with World Literary Cafe, which seemed to have helped the last few book launches, so I continue to do them because they make it easy and idiot-proof. Also because Melissa Foster has become a friend whose knowledge and integrity I respect. I’ve tried a few haphazard blog tours, and will do one for Silver Justice. But overall? I’ve relied on word of mouth. Which is still how I believe many folks find new authors. Heard it from a friend, and so on. But if someone wants to pay me to be a guru, I’m all about being one. I have a white robe. Or at least it used to be. It’s more stained and off white now. But still.
iRR: Which aspects of the Kindle store do you feel are beneficial and which are not? What about the Nook store?
Russell: I have virtually no knowledge of the Nook store, other than being annoyed at how hard it was to get my books pulled when I put a title into KDP Select. I’m planning to spend more time focusing on B&N soon. As to Amazon, I like the also bought feature, and I like the excerpts, and as an author, I like the income from the loans – I see nearly a thousand a month, so it’s a nice atta boy.
I dislike their approach to reviews. I sort of feel like you should have to have bought a book to review it – I’ve gotten both five-star and one-star reviews from folks who clearly didn’t read the book they reviewed. But overall, I’d say Amazon basically has handed everyone their head and shown them how it’s done. Which is why I can’t wait to see Kobo grow as a competitor – I would like a world where Amazon has someone giving them a run for their money and keeping them honest in terms of book sales. I keep waiting for the day they decide to drop commissions from 70% to 50% or something, just because they can. I believe that if there are strong competitors out there, that is good for everyone, and will keep them more competitive.
As an author, I think that Amazon paying you 35% on sales to other territories is robbery, pure and simple – it costs exactly nothing additional that I know of for them to sell a book in Australia versus Nebraska, and yet they pay me only 35% on the Australia sale – because they can get away with it. Did I mention life wasn’t fair?
iRR: What advice would you offer to authors trying to do well in the Kindle store? And in the Nook store?
Russell: Focus on your cover. That’s the first impression. The second is your product summary. Make it a scorcher. Suck the reader in. And tune your first few pages so they rock. As a reader my sequence is probably 2 seconds spent on cover, then if that is appealing 5 seconds reading the product description, and then if that holds my interest, I’ll scan a few reviews assuming the 5 stars are Mom and the one stars are the author’s ex, and then I’ll read the first few pages of the Look Inside. If I like it past the 3 minute mark, I’ll buy it. I assume others do it about the same way. Which brings me to my pet peeve. Editing. Authors, use an editor – a pro, not your wife or cousin, unless she’s a professional editor. And a proofreader. There’s no excuse not to, even if you are broke. Find someone you can trade favors with. But it is inexcusable to put your work up and make readers suffer through it with marginal or no editing. You are shooting yourself in the foot. You only get one chance to make a first impression, and one made by unedited content ensures you will fail. Not that I have an opinion.
iRR: As a dedicated indie author, how do you feel about the traditional publishing industry today?
Russell: I’m ambivalent. I would love a trad pub deal, if it meant I could reach a lot more readers and would get the input of seasoned editors and other pros, and not take a huge drop in my income. But knowing what I do about trad pub, what it mostly means is that unless you win the luck lottery, you’ll be selling your work for a pittance, and will ultimately not sell many books. Those are the statistics. I do think the industry plays a decent gatekeeper role, but in the end even that is of questionable value, as the vast majority of trad pub books don’t sell, so all that supposed expertise doesn’t necessarily translate into success.
I have exactly zero interest in the ego reinforcement part of the trad pub equation. Ego is a lousy business criteria, and has no place in my model. And taking a trad pub deal is a business decision. If I was approached with a trad pub deal that made sense I’d jump on it. But all the ones I have heard of recently don’t make much sense to me. If I can make a decent amount of money self-pubbing, writing what I want when I want, without having to pander to a committee whose track record is one of overwhelming failure (again, most trad pub books don’t earn out their paltry advances), then I’m happy. Would I like my books to sell millions? Sure. I think they could do so. I think a few would be huge Hollywood draws. And I know I would need trad pub to do those sorts of things. But for me to take a deal, I’d need a house that also thought they had a hit on their hands and was willing to commit resources to make it happen, and the ugly reality is that it’s much like the record or film business – most products put out by the experts fail. As in 90+% (most self-pubs fail too, but they don’t claim to have expertise). So all that acumen fails to translate into an advantage – the only advantage in this digital age is rapidly becoming money, and even that only does so much.
iRR: Give us your thoughts on self-publishing now and in the future.
Russell: I believe that we will see more trad pub authors moving into self-pubbing. We will see some cream rise to the top, but it will be a tough slog, and a multi-year proposition to be a success. I think romance will continue to dominate indies. I think that the gold rush mentality that existed when all the hype surrounding a few atypical cases got everyone frothy is about over, and what will remain is an ocean of books, most of which aren’t that great, some of which are brilliant, and some of which are good – but not great. It will remain an extremely tough and competitive business where just because you sold well last week doesn’t mean you will sell well this week. I think .99 will die slowly, and will be glad when it does. I think free will remain viable as a gimmick, but one should be wary of basing one’s aspirations on a gimmick. The biggest challenge we will have as self-pubbed authors will be in maintaining high quality standards. The most popular books won’t be the best ones, and the best ones won’t be the most popular. There will always be a new new thing that is bright and shiny that moves the herd in one direction or the other. I do think that reading will increasingly become hip again, which is good for humanity – an illiterate population is a doomed one.
iRR: Where do you see yourself next year? What about the publishing industry?
Russell: I’m hopeful that I can continue to put out books that people like, and that my audience will continue to grow at a sustainable pace. I don’t want to be a fad curve, where I go parabolic and then see a drop off a cliff. I’d prefer to build at a reasonable rate. If one of my books is a hit that would be wonderful, but I’m not basing my business plan on it. If I can double my sales in another 12 months, I would be ecstatic. Given that I’ve seen an 18-fold increase in sales from Dec to July, I would love to believe that can continue, but I don’t see it as being a reasonable expectation. Then again, there are millions and millions of ereaders out there, and more being sold every day, so I like my odds of at least growing with the market, plus a bit more due to increased awareness. As to the publishing industry, I think it’s going to be rough going. Not because indies are taking all the revenue, but because readers are discovering that their dollar goes a longer way in a world of quality $5 books than a world of $14 books, and the market is adjusting to that. But quality will still win out over the long run, which isn’t a guarantee that quality will do spectacularly, but rather that the people who wind up having careers rather than being flashes in the pan are likely to be writers of a certain skill level and authority of voice. Of course, the only guarantee is that most of what I say will probably turn out to be wrong. That’s been how most predictions in this business play, and I see no reason mine would be any more enlightened.
iRR: Are there any other details about your personal or professional history that you would like to have included?
Russell: Not really. I’m actually a fairly private person, who prefers to keep my eye on the horizon rather than dwelling on the rear view mirror.
iRR: Pick your five favorite novels that you’ve written.
iRR: What genre do you identify most with? Are there any other details of note?
Russell: I love a good thriller. Always have. I’m a sucker for Ludlum, Le Carre, Forsyth, Harris, Grisham. I try to write books that could be read alongside them without having to apologize. I write what I read, and that’s what I read for relaxation and escape. As to other details, I am plotting out my next one, JET, about an ex-Mossad operative who faked her own death to get out of the game, but whose past has come back to haunt her. I’m VERY excited about writing that one, as I already have the character vividly outlined in my noggin. Beyond that, I will probably write one more Assassin series book this year, a Fatal Exchange sequel, and probably a sequel to either The Delphi Chronicle or Silver Justice. Next year, I’m backing it down to three books, and focusing on having a life again. I think by that time, with 20 or so Blake books to choose from, the world will have its fill of me for a while.
Thank you, Russell! Thank you, readers!