Interview: Russell Blake on self-publishing and writing for 15 hours a day

The fact that Russell Blake has 21 novels to his name may not be unusual but, when you consider those tomes have all been released over 24 months, that figure becomes, well, downright strange.

Blake achieves an average of one book every five weeks by writing for 15 hours a day, seven days a week. “It takes me about 150 hours or so to turn a first draft, 100 for a second and 60 for a third,” he told me.

How did he get into the privileged position of being able to spend every waking hour and then some putting pen to paper? Blake managed to retire over a decade ago after selling his company and moving to Mexico.

It’s a chance most of us won’t have, but Blake has certainly made the most of a good situation.

“I don’t recommend that as a lifestyle, by the way,” he says, however. “It’s just what I did to get noticed. Thank God it worked…”

Give us some examples of work you’ve done over the years…

My latest, Upon a Pale Horse, is a bio-thriller about a group preparing to unleash a deadly plague. The one before that, Blood Of The Assassin, is an assassination thriller.

I normally stay in the thriller genre, alternating between action/adventure thrillers and conspiracy thrillers. I try not to stray too far from that, otherwise my readers aren’t sure what they’re getting each time I release a book. I think consistency is key for readers.

That’s one of the rookie mistakes many make – they try to write in different genres, which confuses the reader, who might have liked your first book, but if the second is in a different genre, they are apt to dislike it and never give you another try, because you’re too much of a question mark in their mind.

What’s a typical day like for you?

I’ll get up relatively early, have coffee and breakfast, and then hop on my treadmill desk and begin writing after answering emails and catching up on my social media stuff.

I’ll write for three or four hours, then grab a fast lunch, and then write another six or so, then break for dinner. Depending upon how much I’ve written (I shoot for 5-6K a day) I might continue writing, or if I’m where I need to be, I’ll do some more social media chores and then try to find some time to read. And of course, cocktails might also come into play around that point.

That’s if I’m in a WIP. If I’m not writing a book, I’ll do an hour or two of social media stuff and then head for the beach, where margaritas and friendly natives abound.

When did you first really feel you were making a living from writing? What was your first ‘big break’?

It wasn’t a feeling. It was measurable. In January, 2012, after publishing a dozen novels in 2011, I finally sold 5000 books and made back all the money I had invested in publishing.

In February 2012, I sold another 5000 books, and then in March, when I released The Voynich Cypher, I sold around 13-14K books. These were at $4, so I can state definitively that, as of February 2012, I became vocational rather than a hobbyist.

So far so good. I think my first big break was running an Amazon Select free promotion in January 2012 on The Geronimo Breach. I remember I hit No.5 in the free store, and what followed were huge (for me) sales.

Unfortunately, over the last 18 months, the effect of Select on paid sales after a big promo has faded to maybe 5% of what it was, so it’s largely useless unless you can get into the Top 5 overall free and give away 40K or more over a few days. It was fun while it lasted…

What’s the best way to get a publisher to notice your work?

Beats me. I haven’t queried. My hunch would be that, if you take the self-pubbing road, sell at least 50K of a single title and you might start getting nibbles.

How much of a difference does an agent make when trying to kick-start a writing career in 2013 and how do you get their attention?

If I were going to try to get an agent’s attention these days, I think I’d approach them with a well-worded query after confirming that they rep in my genre, and I’d stress whatever success I’ve had marketing my work myself. But in the end, I’ve found with the better agents, it’s more the quality of the writing that’s key for them.

I’ve been fortunate enough to strike up a good relationship with an industry legend who has repped me on international rights, and after interacting with him for many months, I can say that I’m impressed by his sincerity, acumen and honesty. Some are no doubt in it for the quick buck, but the best are in it because they are passionate about craft and love what they do. That’s not to say they’re not commercially savvy, but rather that they combine knowledge with business acumen and won’t waste their time on anything that’s not extremely strong.

I think one of the mistakes aspiring writers make is that they believe their work is better than it actually is (that’s a generalisation) and are impatient that the world recognise how great it is, when in fact it’s probably not all that good at all. I know that I wrote at least a million words before I felt my grasp of craft had hit its stride and was good enough to sell. The rest of those stories are in the garbage, where they belong.

If you had asked me then, I would have told you that they were all pretty good at the time I wrote them. They weren’t. They kind of sucked. But I hadn’t developed enough as a writer to appreciate how badly they sucked, or how to improve them to where they were passable to good.

One of the things I really enjoy about being an author is that you never run out of goals. Just the goal of trying to improve your craft every day makes writing a lifelong pursuit. So I’ll never be without something to do. At least I’ve got that going for me.

Should an aspiring writer give away work for free via e-publishing to begin with these days?

Depends. I think if it’s the first book in a series, it’s a valid strategy. I do it. But there’s a caveat: You’re reaching a relatively narrow audience – those that will read a free book.

As e-readers have lost their novelty, I think there are fewer and fewer people who will read a free book. They’ve finally realised that their time is far more valuable than the few bucks they might save by going free. I think that’s why we’re seeing free diminish in its usefulness. Two years ago, the idea of a free book was almost irresistible. Now, not so much. There’s an ocean of free content, much of it terrible, so adding one’s book to that doesn’t accomplish much anymore.

I still hear authors assure me that it’s great for “building visibility”, but those that are vocal about that invariably aren’t selling enough for me to care about their opinion.

I also hear it from those who take the stance of, “What can it hurt?” which also translates into those who aren’t selling much, if anything. So the most strident supporters of doing free promos these days are those who aren’t selling. Guess what? That tells me about all I need to know.

What one piece of advice would you give to an aspiring career writer in 2013?

Recognise that this is one of the most competitive businesses on the planet, and that your odds of making it to the level where you can support yourself from writing are extremely slim. That’s not to be a buzz kill, but rather to honestly level with budding authors.

For every 10,000 who try, maybe one will get to the point where they are making a liveable wage. The rest simply won’t. I don’t try to debate whether that’s right or fair or good. It simply is.

Understanding that, I’d advise aspiring writers to treat this like a business, where you allocate 75% of your time to writing and improving your craft, and 25% to marketing, assuming you self-publish. If you go the traditional route, you’ll likely spend years querying only to be rejected time and time again.

If your writing is actually good enough to sell to people, expect to have to invest in creating a professional package – paying for an editor, a proofreader, a cover designer. Too many think they can cheap out and that it “shouldn’t” cost anything to start a self-publishing business. Those people are deluded. All start-up businesses have costs. If you can’t or won’t put up the money it costs to create a pro package, you can’t afford to be in that business. I’m unpopular for saying that, but it’s true.

Being published isn’t a right. If you are going to ask people to pay you money they worked hard for in exchange for your product, then you need to invest in polishing it so there are no typos, everything’s grammatically correct, and it’s professionally presented and formatted, with a professional cover. Otherwise you are asking people to pay you for something you have invested no money in. Good luck with that. You didn’t feel it was worth saving up to do right, but you want someone else to value it enough to pay you for it. You may get a few rubes, but word will quickly spread that your product is crap and you’ll wind up with no sales and no career. I say that because I’ve seen it countless times, and it’s always the same. There is no free lunch.

Visit Russell Blake’s website for more about the author and his books.


3 Comments on “Interview: Russell Blake on self-publishing and writing for 15 hours a day”

  1. […] published 21 novels; the great thing though is he’s done this in 24 months. Here’s a link to an article I believe you’ll find interesting and […]

  2. […] A new interview on writing 15 hours a day at Writer’s Guide, with yours […]

  3. Russell Blake has blazed a new path to success on territory provided bythe new world of independent publishing. He’s a testimony to the primacy of hard work and continuous improvement when combined with talent. Lots of talented writers in the world won’t ever have this kind of success because they don’t have this kind of work ethic. Blake is my hero and my example. Call that sucking up if you will, but I’m emulating him and I’ve published nine works in thirteen months with two more on the way, and I’ve just about hit that 5000 sales mark that he talks about, hopefully turning a corner. There are worse professional examples to follow.

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