Ep 118 The huge self-publishing success of romance writers, and meet author John Birmingham.

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podcast-artwork In Episode 118 of So you want to be a writer: Are you writing a hybrid book? Discover the people writing poetry as a service and the predictive text generator writing fan fiction. We dive into the huge self-publishing success of romance writers and share the meaning of ineluctable. Our writer in residence is author John Birmingham. Find out how a literary agency discovered a writer on social media, and much more.

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Show Notes
30 Outstanding Podcasts for Writers

Are You Writing A Hybrid Book?

Poetry As A Service? Lyricists Pen Verses to Public On Street

Use This Predictive Text Generator To Write The Best Internet Fanfiction

Maverick women writers are upending the book industry and selling millions in the process

Writer in Residence

John Birmingham

john birminghamJohn Birmingham is the author of the cult classic He Died With a Felafel in His Hand, the award-winning history Leviathan, and the trilogy comprising Weapons of Choice: World War 2.1, Designated Targets: World War 2.2 and Final Impact: World War 2.3. His latest novel is Without Warning. Between writing books he contributes to a wide range of newspapers and magazines on topics as diverse as biotechnology and national security.

Follow John on Twitter

Platform Building Tip

Writer Discovered on Social Media, Signs With Powerhouse Literary Agency

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Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

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@valeriekhoo

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podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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Interview Transcript 

Interview Transcript: John Birmingham

Allison

John Birmingham writes a lot. His 1994 memoir, He Died with a Falafel in His Hand has become a classic, but he also writes fiction, such as the Axis of Time trilogy, non-fiction such as Leviathan: The Unauthorised Biography of Sydney, regular columns for the Sydney Morning Herald, a popular blog and more.

His new release is called How to be a Writer. It promises that it won’t teach you how to write, but it will show you, among other things, how to smash deadlines, nail your writing routine and promote yourself without seeming like a wanker.

So here is John who is going to promote his book without seeming like a wanker.

John

Hi, Allison.

Allison

Welcome to the program.

Alright, let’s go way back to the beginning, In the Midst of Time and talk about how you got started. You were writing features for magazines like Rolling Stone and Penthouse, and then in 1994 out came He Died with a Falafel in His Hand. How did that actually come about? Do you remember your start in publishing?

John

I do. I wrote for about ten years, I wrote for magazines before Falafel was published. I ended up writing Falafel almost as a commission, just like a magazine story.

And it was because one of the mags I worked for was going out of business, it was a fantastic publication called The Independent Monthly. And, it was very high quality, it demanded a lot of rigor from its writers, but it paid them properly for the demands that it made. And so consequently, of course, it went out of business.

Allison

Always the way.

John

I remember coming into the mag one day and — if you freelance long enough you will work for a magazine or a newspaper that is going out of business, and you can just tell, the stink of death is everywhere when you come in.

I went to Michael Duffy who was the deputy editor at that point, and said, “Michael, that smells like death.” And he went, “Yes. Yes, death is upon us.”

But, he had an exit plan, everybody always has an exit plan, and his was to set up a publishing company. And he had a need for a stocking stuffer for Christmas. I think we were having this discussion probably in June or July, and he asked me if I could get him a funny book together in five weeks. And he would get it out by, I think September, so he would get the Father’s Day sales and then, like, give it another push for Christmas.

I said I could do that because we both work magazines, it just — I was quite used to the idea of taking on a commission delivering by a certain amount of time. This happened to be 50,000 words rather than 3,000, but I approached Falafel the same way that I approached magazine stories, which was that I just made a list of people that I needed to interview, in this case ex-flatmates, rang him up, got the interview, transcribed it, and then cut and pasted it into what was hopefully a coherent whole. And, it was done in about five weeks.

Allison

So, did you imagine that Falafel would ever become what it did? Like, were you writing it thinking, “Oh yes, this is a cult-classic for sure,” or was it a surprise to you when it was taken up the way it did and sort of loomed so large in your life for so long?

John

I was eventually really surprised and gratified by the success of the book. I thought that it would be conventionally successful. I’ve been writing for years, I knew what kind of things people liked to write. I recognized this is a reasonably funny book. And, I thought it might sell like a couple of thousand copies in the city of Sydney and Melbourne because it was a funny book.

I didn’t expect much more than that. I pretty much wrote it for the advance, the commission, whatever.

And then it came out and it wasn’t successful at all. It died in the ass, to tell the truth.

Allison

John

It… I think was… well, it was an independent publisher for a start. And, Michael didn’t have a distribution network, so he was hiring independent distributors. And, they were competing with the sales reps from the big five, big six publishers. This book — it was an odd shape, it was initially square, which was sort a reference/homage to Generation X, which in its first edition was square-shaped.

And booksellers hate that, because it sticks out from the shelves and you have to… and unless you want this thing with its ass hanging out in your shop you have to turn it around so that the cover faces out, and they hate doing that, because that’s actually an income stream for publishers. When you see a book turned out so you can see the cover in a bookshop that’s because a publisher paid the bookstore to do that.

So, they hated it. And, it obviously didn’t have a big publisher behind it. And, it was about six months before it got any traction, and I think the only reason it got traction was because the guy who was distributing it in Brisbane had read it and had really liked it. He got behind it. And, he was like a little independent guy, he used to drive around to bookstores with boxes of this thing in the back of his station wagon, and he just would not let go.

Michael and I had pretty much given up. Like, we figured the whole thing was just a disastrous failure, but this guy would not give up and he just kept hammering it and hammering it. And, I guess it was out there long enough it didn’t get remainded, probably because Michael had bet his house on it, that it picked up a couple of readers and word of mouth kicked in. And once that happened then it took off.

And once it took off it was a very, very fast acceleration. It just started to blow through 5,000, 10,000, 15,000 copies sold a month.

Allison

Wow.

John

And stayed at that level for a long time.

Allison

So, the power of one rapid fan right there…

John

Yeah.

Allison

I hope you sent him champagne.

John

I think we did. Well, he certainly — he was the distributor, so he got a reasonable percentage of the profits.

Allison

Of course.

John

And I was more than happy for him to trouser the loot.

Allison

After it came out and it eventually was a great success, I was interested in the chapter in your book when you talked about what you wrote next. And you wrote, Leviathan, non-fiction, the story of Sydney. And you even say in your book, How to be a Writer, that this was a conscious decision, that you avoided the lure of ‘Falafel the Sequel,’ ‘Falafel Returns,’ and other things like that.

John

Yeah.

Allison

Which is an interesting thing, because particularly now it seems like if you write something that is successful there seems to be this pressure on you to write the same, but different, again and again and again. So, why not write something similar but different to capitalize on the success of that first book?

John

I knew that was the road to madness. That book was very much — it was based on interviews. When people ask, “How much of the book is true,” well, pretty much all of it. I mean obviously I’ve changed names and I’ve changed the order of events, but they’re true stories from my share-housing life and the lives of the people that I shared with.

And, so I had a finite number of those stories. They didn’t all make it into Falafel, simply because I only had five weeks to write it, and I just ran out of time. But, I did have a finite number of stories, and once the book started selling obviously I stopped living in shared housing, because I didn’t have to anymore.

I could have just put the word out for more stories, and I could have collected them, but because the stories I put in the book were either mine or from people I had lived with, I was organically connected to them, whereas if I went on Twitter or Facebook now and said, “Oh, I want to do Falafel 2, give me your stories,” I’d have enough to fill 40,000 or 50,000 very quickly, but they wouldn’t be my stories and you would just feel that on every page of the book. It wouldn’t be the same.

I wanted to avoid that trap, because I knew publishers would be more than happy to drop me in there, because for them it’s diminishing returns, but it’s still a pretty good return. And eventually at Falafel 3 or 4 they’d stop doing it, but it wouldn’t matter because they would have banked some pretty serious coin before then, but I’d be left as a joke, “He’s that guy who couldn’t write anything but share-house stories.”

Allison

Yeah.

John

Whereas I had spent ten years before Falafel working across a number of magazines doing very different stories, depending on who was paying my commission that week. So, that was why I went in a very different direction and wrote Leviathan.

Allison

Even now, all of these years later, you’re still writing all of the themes, aren’t you? You’re still writing fiction and non-fiction and columns and all sorts of different things, as well as doing festivals and publicity and all of the other essentials of an author’s life?

John

Yeah.

Allison

Why do you do that? Is it because you like the variety of writing a million different things? Is there one thing that you prefer to write above all others? Or do you just equally like writing different things?

John

I suppose there are things that I like writing less. There are jobs that I have taken on as a freelancer, just to pay bills, that I really didn’t want to take on. I used to do a lot of sports writing, and I enjoyed writing quirky sport stories like — I profiled the worst amateur rugby team in Sydney once, and that ended up winning a Carlton-United Sports-Writing Prize, and was great fun to do. I loved doing it.

And, I went out to a country town called Narromine and spent a week out there following the players of the Backwater Cricket Club, and writing them and profiling them as though they were in the National Team, and I really, really enjoyed doing that.

But, if you assigned me to go write a conventional 3,000-word piece on, say, Manly Football Club, as Inside Sport did one day, that was death on a stick and I hated it. I did it because I had bills to pay, but I really, really didn’t enjoy it, and you could see it. It’s a lame limp, you know, dud of a story because I wasn’t into it.

There’s all sorts of different things that I like to read, and I tend to write in the areas that I like to read in. So, I’ve written a lot of technology coverage over the years, because it’s just an area that I’m interested in. I’ve done a lot of food writing, often without my byline on because I like to eat, and I’m very interested in the culinary arts and I’m quite happy to write anonymous reviews for people like Good Food Guide, because it means I get paid to go out and eat.

Allison

And do what you like.

So how many different things are you generally working on at once? Are you sort of like across a whole range of different things? Or do you try to stagger things so there are different stages or how do you work with that?

John

I divide my work time between long form and short form. And, so the books that I write are a separate business line from the media work that I do. And, the books are… they’re really the main earner, because if a book goes off it’s going to earn an enormous amount of money. But, also there’s a great freedom with writing books. You’re immediately answerable to an editor, you’re not trying to fit within a house style, you don’t have a deadline tomorrow morning. A book is due, specifically if you’re self-publishing, it’s due when you want to put it in.

Allison

When you’re ready.

John

A book is due when you’re ready to turn it in. There’s a great quote, I can’t recall who it’s from, but it says, “No work of art is ever finished, it’s merely abandoned,” and that’s very true of books, you just eventually give up on them and hand them over to the publisher.

So, with books — I’m actually standing next to my white board at the moment, and I can see on my white board in various colors of ink — I’ve got one, two, three, four, five, six… eleven books. Obviously I’m not working on eleven books at once.

Allison

Wow.

John

So, this is my schedule for the next three years, effectively. And at any given time I will have what I call my primary project and my secondary project. So, my primary project is the thing I’m working on most at the moment. So, right now that is Stalin’s Hammer: Paris, the last book in the Stalin’s Hammer sequence. I’ve given myself a deadline of August 5 for that. And being the primary project, what that means is that every day I come down to my office, I try to turn the computer on by 8:30 and then I start rolling out the Pomodoro, which is reference to a time-management technique.

Allison

Which I’m going to ask you about in detail in a little while, because that and the routine underpins so much of what you do, doesn’t it?

John

It does, yeah. So, the primary project gets a minimum of four hours a day. And I try to start at 8:30. I don’t obsess about doing my four hours by, say, 12:30 or 1:00 or 1:30. I work in, say, two hour blocks, or blocks of two hours. And I’ll have a little break in between for a cup of tea, I might read a comic book or something like that.

Once I’ve done those four hours that’s effectively it. If I wanted to go play some video games or surf or whatever I could, generally what happens — I might go to the gym or I might have some lunch and then I’ll come back and I’ve got another hour or so in the afternoon before I have to start wrangling kids after school. And so that hour is my secondary project, and at the moment my secondary project is a conventionally trade published science fiction book, which is probably two years away from publication. It’s called The Cruel Stars. And, I’m in the process of just working out my character arcs and my story beats. And so for an hour or so a day I will sit around scratching my head, staring into the middle distance and working on that secondary project.

Now, at the same time as I’m doing that I also have other things in my media work which is due every week. I have a blog that I have to file for Fairfax. And, I do a lot of corporate writing, I’m doing some work for one of the banks at the moment, and I have to fly out to Sydney, I think next Monday to do that. So, that also gets slotted in, and often when I’m doing that work I would just give up on the book writing for the day. So, I go, “OK, today is the day that I’m doing this particular type of media work,” and I just quarantine that day, I go do it and I send off the invoice and then I go back to the books.

Allison

Wow.

OK, so let’s talk about this, because this is not how people think that professional writers work. I mean people would look at you and go, “Oh, he’s written all of these books, he’s really successful. He’s probably sitting around being fed peeled grapes and just writing when he feels like it.” You talk about the lightbulb moment and how you’re sort of not particularly positive about the lightbulb moment in your book, which I mean I agree with you. Routine is a deeply unsexy thing.

John

Yeah.

Allison

And it is not what people like to talk about when it comes to writers, but it unpins a professional writer’s life, doesn’t it?

John

Yeah, it’s hugely important. Even like after 20-30 years it remains important.

I’ve found myself, not blocked recently, but just trapped, I guess. I was trying to move a project forward and I just couldn’t. I had that experience that everyone would have had where I was going to my computer every day and I was just getting distracted by bullshit and I was finding other things to do. I would jump on any opportunity to get away from… and I’m very good at framing distractions and disruptions as alternative forms of productivities. So…

Allison

Aren’t we all?

John

If I’m ditzying around on news sites, well part of what I do is being a journalist, I should be reading the news. It’s all excuses and rubbish.

I dealt with that by going back to first principles, which is I structure my day by working in half-hour blocks, which I put together into two hour blocks, and I just said, “Look, you’re obviously feeling some sense of resistance to getting this job done, why don’t you just accept that. You have another job that is…” the grass is always greener, Allison. Like, if you’re working on one book, there’s always another book that will more fun to work on.

Allison

Yep.

John

So I actually use that. I was having trouble getting through Paris and I was finding myself thinking about The Cruel Stars. And I am doing things like — I’ve got research that I need to do for that, so I was reading — there’s a couple of cool books that came out a few years ago, The Physics of Star Trek, and I just found myself sitting around reading those instead of doing any work. I said, “OK, obviously you want to work on

The Cruel Stars, so tomorrow this is what we’re going to do…” I spend a lot of time talking to myself…

Allison

I was going to say — that’s hilarious. I love the way you speak to yourself like you’re someone else. But, yeah, OK, keep going.

John

My dog is not here at the moment, I talk it over with her, but… she’s asleep up on the deck, I think.

So, I just said, “Look, you know, obviously you’re feeling resistance to working on Paris, you want to work on Cruel Stars, so tomorrow what we’re going to do, we’re going to come down and we’re going to put an honest effort for half an hour on Paris and at the end of that half an hour if you’re still feeling the resistance then you know what? Fuck it. We’re just going to give up on that and we’re going to work the whole day on Cruel Stars, because that’s obvious what, you know, has turned your head at the moment.”

So, I then went down and I put the honest half hour into Paris, and at the end of the half hour I said to myself, actually to the dog, “Well, that was alright. I reckon I could do another half hour,” which is the heart of the Pomodoro technique. You just break everything down into these little bite-sized pieces.

And so just with that very, very simple technique, like basically a psychological trick for addressing what had become a psychological malady, I managed to step around the resistance I was feeling to that project and got back into work and was soon enough writing my 3,000 or 4,000 words a day.

Allison

Just by breaking it down into — because essentially you can do anything for 30 minutes, right? So, by breaking it down into the 30-minute block you only have to write this for 30 minutes, you get to a point where, “Actually, I could probably do a bit more if I needed to.”

John

Yeah, and the important thing was I gave myself permission to give up. If I got to the end of the 30 minutes and felt that it was just hopeless and utterly futile, I gave myself permission to just give up on that project, because I’m doing it for myself, I’m not doing it for a publisher or a media house. So, I would just give up on that and I would go work on something else, something that I really want to work on. I want to work out these story beats, I want to work on this character, I really want to write this big, honking space opera.

So, I have this — one of the things that writers succumb to is a sense of hopelessness and futility, and it affects all of us. You ask George R. R. Martin and he’ll tell you all about it.

And one way of avoiding that sense of futility, that idea that it is literally hopeless, is to give yourself an out. And, the out I gave myself was to go work on another book. And just having that option was enough to lift the pull.

It wasn’t just the fact that I was only going to work on it for half an hour, if necessary, it was the fact that at the end of that half hour it wasn’t working then I was going to go do something else. And, just giving myself permission to do that was enough, strangely enough, to break the lock.

Allison

You actually both traditionally publish and self-publish. Do you have a preference with those? Like, I mean they’re quite different skill sets, do you agree? Like, how do you balance those two things? Like, which of those do you prefer?

John

That’s actually a surprisingly difficult question to answer. There are some skill sets, which translate from one to the other, the writing, basically. The core business of both is writing. But, with self-publishing you are also a publisher. And, I’ve had my nose rubbed in this a couple of times in the last six months because I’ve had… I buy in a lot of talent. So, my editor, or one of the editors that I use is locally based, Deonie Fiford, who strangely enough, probably not strangely, in fact, edited my last series of books for Pan Macmillan. Deonie, like most editors, is a freelancer, so she doesn’t work in-house because the publishers, like a lot of businesses, have been pushing their talent out the door, then like hiring them back at freelance rates so they don’t have to pay them holidays or superannuation or sick leave or anything like that.

What that has meant, of course, is that talent is now available on the open market for people like me to hire.

But, the cover designer that I use is a — he’s a guy who lives in Ireland. And so we never talk live to each other, because the time zone doesn’t allow it. But, if I have something, like a crisis that I need to address, which I did with a cover the other day, it means that I have to get up at 4:30 in the morning and deal with it then. And that is… there’s not much that’s fun about that.

Allison

No.

John

You’ll always issues with the online bookstores, and they have to be dealt with because you’re the publisher now. But, this is a phrase that I’ve been muttering to myself a bit over the past six months, “You’re the publisher now, this is for you to deal with.” And having said that I do enjoy it. We’re coming up on the end of the month, as we talk today, and what that means is that in a couple of days thousands of dollars will drop into my bank account because Amazon and Apple will pay me the royalties from, I don’t know, three months I think, it’s usually two or three months before you see the money.

But, that two or three months, that’s a lot quicker than you get paid by traditional publishers. And the process is much more transparent. Like, I know how many copies I’ve sold. I know roughly when and where I sold them, and I know when that money is going to drop, whereas with trade publishing it’s a black box. You’ve got no idea what’s happening in there. I don’t know how many they’ve sold. No idea whether or not the figures that you eventually get from them, literally years later on, are in any way an accurate reflection of the units that they put through.

And so there is a great sense of empowerment and taking control of your own destiny when you publish independently. But, having said that I still work in trade publishing. I’m still writing for Random House in New York and I’m very much looking forward to having the next book come out with them sometime in the far future.

Allison

Do you think your position of already having such a sort of big readership, loyal readership as well, I would imagine, is a help to you when it comes to self-publishing, like in the sense you have a track record that has been built up over many years of traditional publishing? I mean how much promotion of the books you self-publish do you do? Do you put a lot of money into advertising through anywhere? How do you handle that side of things?

John

That’s a couple of questions.

Allison

Sorry, it is, isn’t it?

John

I’ll try to remember both. To address the first part, does having an audience help you out? Of course it does. But, it helps in ways you might not imagine. Obviously, if there are people out there who have previously bought your books and they like your books the chances of them buying them again are good, and that puts you well-ahead of 98-99 percent of people who are just throwing their work up on Amazon or iBooks or Kobo or whatever.

But, having said that, it’s not enough. The thing to remember about a store like Amazon, for instance, is that it is not a bookshop, it is a search engine for people who want to spend money. And when you approach it like that and you understand that what you’re doing is your working with an algorithm rather than a reader, you open the door to selling a lot more books than you would have sold only to the people who’ve read your stuff in the past.

And so while I do sell books at Amazon or iBooks or so on to people that I have sold to in the past, quite a few of my sales are people who have never heard of me and have no idea who I am, and in a way that’s kind of liberating.

I enjoy that aspect of it. But, what I said before, it’s an advantage in a way you might not imagine.

Having that audience is a great resource. So, for instance, if I’m self-publishing a book, or indie publishing a book, one of the things I have to do is make sure that when it comes when you buy it you can’t tell the difference between something that I have put out under my imprint, which is Gigantic Weapons Corporation, you can’t tell the difference between a Weapons Corp. book and a Random House book or a Pan Macmillan book or Harper Collins or a Penguin book. If you just bought it electronically, for instance, it would look exactly the same.

One of the ways I can achieve that is that having a core of readers who have been with me for a long time, they’re a great resource. So, when I’ve completed a draft of a book I can’t take that book to my publisher now and say, “Make it nice,” because I don’t have a publisher, I am the publisher. So, what I can do is just on my blog, for instance, say, “Well, I’ve got this manuscript, if anybody would like a read of the raw first or second draft,” usually, “so that I can get some feedback, let me know.”

Allison

Interesting.

John

Twenty or thirty people will put their hands up, and once I have that many I sort of close the door. I send out the manuscript and we actually work on it cooperatively, or collaboratively in Dropbox or Google Docs. So, they will go through and I give them permission to suggest whatever changes they want. And they’ll pick up things like typos, obviously, but also if they don’t think a character is working they will let me know.

They’re not professional editors, they’re not professional publishers, they’re just readers.

Allison

Beta readers.

John

But, readers in the end are the most important part of the process.

So, by the time they have gone through and given me their feedback and I’ve either taken it on board or gone, “Nah, I’m keeping it the way it is,” I have a much tighter manuscript, and that is the manuscript that I then send off to someone like Deonie to do a proper, professional edit. And then when she has done that it then goes off to a copywriter and gets edited to industry standards so there aren’t any typos or missing punctuation or anything like that.

I can do that because I have those readers already. And it also helps with things like when you launch the book, you can say, “Well, the book is out,” I might drop the price for the first 24-hours, “So go and grab it cheap, or even go and grab it free. It would be really cool if you left some reviews online.” And if you get enough of those reviews coming through in a short enough time the all-seeing algorithm picks you up and suddenly you start appearing on lists for hot new releases. And, this again is addressing the fact that you’re not in a bookstore, you’re in a search engine. And as you begin to surface in that search engine more and more potential readers/buyers can see you, and you don’t need to get in front of a very large percentage of them to suddenly start spiking your sales.

Allison

It’s interesting, isn’t it? I can hear in your voice and your interest in technology comes together here with your interest in writing, doesn’t it?

John

It does.

Allison

In the sense that you… I would imagine that you probably enjoyed the research through all of this process of how it works and what you need to do.

John

I really did. Yeah, I spent about six to eight months researching the indie publishing industry. I had honest fun doing it. I like to learn stuff, it’s one of the reasons that I write. There’s a lot of research involved every time you decide to tell a story.

And I had… I had reason to research this last year. I was having a pretty tough time with it… with some of my traditional publishers. Also the media organizations that I worked for, their business models did — Google ate that a long time ago. I’ve been telling myself for five years, “You really need to do something about this, and replace that income which is sputtering and dying and heading towards the end of a cliff.”

So, I had the motivation and I basically gave myself a PhD in self-publishing over six months. I just spent every day reading all of the books that had been written, listening to the literally thousands of podcasts that had been made on the topic. By the end of it I felt that I knew as much as anybody in a trade publishing house’s ebook division, and probably more in a lot of cases.

Allison

I love the way that your whole skill sets come together with this, because that kind of research, because as you say there are a thousand, billion podcasts and articles and self-made, self-publishing experts, and I think probably what your researching skills over all of these years has given you too is a great filter for what actually is gold amongst all of that stuff as well.

John

Yeah.

Allison

That then brings me to your new book, which is called How to be a Writer. What’s made you decide to write that? Like, why are you writing that now?

John

In a way it was an accident and yet not. As I said, I had a reasonably tough time in 2015. I had three books come up with my trade publishers and they did OK, but they didn’t do great, and I’m used to doing great business with my books. There was probably a couple of reasons why that happened, but the bottom line was if you don’t sell books for these guys, they don’t want to publish you.

And, so I was looking down the barrel of that and I thought, “Now is the time to go investigate that alternative income stream.” And, I had a sort of distant amateur interest in indie publishing for a while. Like, I was aware of sort of the work being done and the case being made by people like Hugh Howey and Joe Conrath. So, at that point I didn’t have any skin in the game. But, when the three Hooper books came out and really didn’t do as well as I wanted them to, and the publishers wanted them to, I then suddenly developed an interest in putting my own stuff out. And, partly because I had already written a couple of eBooks to support the Hooper series, and I was just going to give them to the same publishers, not because I expected to make any money out them, like writing eBooks for traditional publishers is a mug’s game. You simply wouldn’t do it for any reason other than relationship management and fan service.

So, I had written a couple of these things for relationship management and fan service, and suddenly they were the only eggs I had left in the basket. And, I suddenly thought, “Oh gees, maybe I should be putting those out and taking the 70 percent royalty. I don’t need to sell that many of them at a royalty rate that high. I might sort of provide a bridge.” And that was the point at which I started to look at indie publishing and also at what resources I had.

One of the things that I had was the blog that I’ve been writing for a long, long time now. Over the years a lot of people, places like Twitter and Facebook, or even on the blog had asked questions about the writing biz, the writing industry, and they tended to be very practical, not how do you balance a beautiful line of prose, but, “How do I get my money from this magazine, they’re not paying me.”

And, I just did a search through the blog to see how much of this stuff I had done over the years, I had about 30,000 words’ worth of copy.

Allison

Wow.

John

I thought, “Well, that’s a better part of a how-to book. And, I had been thinking about investigating indie publishing for a while. I might spend the time researching how it’s done and I will take my 30,000 words. I’ll write another 15,000-20,000 words and I will self-publish this book as an experiment, just to see how the process works.”

It didn’t work out that way.

Allison

No. No, I was going to say, “It didn’t work out that way.”

John

No, it didn’t.

I had written an essay for an anthology on copyright, and — I think it was New South who published that book. And they really liked the essay and the copyright agency who were funding that project really liked the essay. And, so I was talking to Pippa from New South, and she said, “Is there anything else that you’re working on that we could do?”

And at that point I was still sort of tossing up what kind of relationship I would be having sort of in the future with Pan Macmillan here, and said, “Well, I’ve got this book that I was going to self-publish, you can have a look at that, but if you are going to have a look at it, I’m sort of honor-bound to offer it to Pan…” So, I offered it to them and they went, “Nah.”

So, I then went back to New South and said, “Look, yeah, sure if you want to back a truckload up to the front door, feel free. It’s yours.”

Allison

Which of course is what they did, right?

John

Yeah, exactly. And actual, literal truckload.

Allison

And here it is.

John

And here it is, yeah.

So, I was happy to work with them because they actually did a great job. The editor really pulled together what was a quite disparate bunch of blog posts, effectively and turned it into something I was very happy to have out in the world.

But, having done the initial research to do that as a self-published book and having had those other two titles in the Dave Hooper series good to go. I thought, “Well, I’m just going to have a go ahead and do those as well.”

And it all worked out quite nicely in the end.

Allison

It’s a very straightforward… I particularly like how straightforward it is. You might even say it’s quite a blunt book, How to be a Writer. There’s no sugar-coating, there’s not sit around and wait for the news, there’s none of that. Is it the kind of advice you wish someone had handed you when you were starting out?

John

Yeah, very much so. I had some crusty old blokes as editors and publishers in media when I started out. I’m thinking particularly of Brian Toohey and Max Suich, who were both ex-Fairfax. And, I got a lot of help and mentoring from them.

Other than putting in my copy on time and not ****ing up too badly there wasn’t much I could do to repay them, because these were guys sort of coming down the ass-end of their careers. And I always wanted to, you know, somehow return the favor. But, because I didn’t work in mainstream media, I was always an outsider, I always submitted my copy as a freelancer. I was never going to be, say, chief of staff at Good Weekend, where I could take a bunch of younger writers under my wing and basically show them the mistakes I’ve made and say, “Don’t do that. Just, don’t step into that big pit.”

The fact is a lot of this book originally grew out of people asking for help, and I was quite happy to offer it, and very happy to have had the opportunity to just bundle it all up.

It’s not the be-all and end-all. You made the point, it’s not going to teach you to write. I make the assumption that anybody buying this could probably put one word after another. It’s for people who can’t write or who have to write. Students doing their thesis would get almost as much from this as some graduate of a fine arts program who wants to write their first piece of heart-breaking genius literature. Good luck to them.

Allison

See, I love that. The thing I find quite interesting talking to you today is when I’m talking to you have quite a calm, measured, you know, approach. Your speaking… it’s a very calm, measured approach, whereas the book is like a hurricane. I feel like it’s a torrent, and that’s your writing style, isn’t it? It’s quite different to how you would approach the interview process?

John

It’s a voice. Yeah.

Allison

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

John

It’s one of the voices I have when I write, it’s not the only one. But, I was looking, when I started this project, for the best way to communicate this… the best way to set this book aside from other books in the genre or the field, if you will. And, I just liked the idea of metaphorically grabbing some, like, you know, panicky, sweating young writer by the lapels and just bitch-slapping them into submission.

Allison

Right. “Do it this way, get on with it.” Right.

John

Yep.

Allison

And that is really what it’s all about, really. Is get on with it, isn’t really?

I’m going to ask you for your top three tips for writers.

John

OK, the first is you need to read. You need to read probably more than you need to write. I mean that literally and figuratively. If you are writing for four hours a day you probably need to be reading for five hours a day. You cannot write if you don’t read, and read critically.

That’s the first one.

For people who are working particularly in the non-fiction area, I would pass on the warning that was given to me very early on, a lesson learned, the story you most want to believe is the story of which you should be most skeptical.

If I had anything to tell young would-be journalist that would be it.

And, I think finally you really need to commit to a method. You can’t just wander into a café and order a flat white and a muffin and what for the muse to write your heart-breaking work of ****ing staggering genius. You need to decide, “If I’m going to be a writer, I’m going to write. And, I’m going to do it this way… I’m going to be at my desk at 8:30 in the morning and I’m going to be there until 2:30 in the afternoon.”

And you’ll have your own way, it may not be the same as my way, but you have to settle on a working routine and you need to stick to it.

Stephen King has a rule, he writes 2,000 words a day, every day, that’s just it. That’s his rule.

My rule is a little different, but you will need a rule and you will need to stick to it, because the thing about writing is that it does afford you unlimited freedom for ****ing up. And, as much as possible you don’t want to indulge that freedom.

Allison

Right. Well, all right, thank you so much for your time today, John. It’s been a great pleasure speaking to you, in your calm, measured tone. And I do recommend the book, I think it’s a great read for aspiring writers. It says all of the things that I say often, but it says them in far more colorful and interesting ways than I’ve ever said them. And it also includes advice about how to write 10,000 words.

But, yeah, good luck with everything. Good luck with the next book, and we look forward to seeing more of your work on the shelves.

John

Thanks, Allison.

 


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