J. Robert Kennedy is a bestselling author with over fifty titles under his belt and over one million copies sold. He was kind enough to take some time out his incredibly busy schedule (he’s currently writing the 28th (!!) title in his James Acton series) to answer some of our burning questions.
This post is a little longer than our usual content, but I promise you it’s worth the read. There is great information in here for beginner and veteran authors alike, and it’s also just a lot of fun. Enjoy!
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KWL: Let’s start at the beginning. When did you start writing?
JRK: I wrote my first story when I was five years old as a school project. It was a fairy tale with a prince and princess who fell in love and got married. In the end, everyone died. I think the final line was something like “And everyone in the Kingdom was sad for the rest of time.” I had to illustrate it on construction paper (yes, the final scene did have blood from a stabbing), fold it in half then staple it together like a little book. I still have it in my filing cabinet. I should pull it out just to see how disturbed I was back then.
I’ve always wanted to be a writer. My favorite thing in school was creative writing, and my favorite teacher was my grade 8 & 9 Language Arts teacher, Miss Boss, now the happily married Sue Turnbull. I reconnected with her through Facebook, so she’s been able to follow my career, and even helped me out on a few things, mostly grammar. As a teen, my favorite magazine was Writer’s Digest, and even as a young adult I had a subscription. When I finally cancelled it, I considered my dreams of being a writer dead, and moved on to a successful career in the computer business.
A little over a decade ago, I finally sat down and put to words an image that had been haunting me for years of a girl walking through tall grass, the blades flowing through her fingers. That turned into a short story. Does It Matter? was published in two different magazines, along with another, Loving the Ingredients. After this success, my best friend, the late Paul Conway, phoned me one day and told me about a TV show he had watched the night before about the crystal skulls. He said if I was going to write a novel, I should write about that.
That became The Protocol, and over a million sales later, I guess you could say the rest is history
KWL: When did you decide to turn writing into a career? What factors motivated this decision?
JRK: Being a successful consultant in the IT industry meant I was always comfortable. Once my writing income had outstripped my consulting income, the decision was easy. I made the leap over six years ago now, and never regretted it. As the sole breadwinner, it was a little risky, but the income from writing kept growing, and I figured the extra eight hours a day freed up would allow me to write even more. From a non-monetary standpoint, some motivators would be the luxuries of not having any more bosses—idiots or otherwise—nor morning or afternoon commutes. Not to mention no unrealistic deadlines, no useless meetings, no soulless cubicles. The typical gripes of the 9-5 office worker
KWL: You started your career in traditional publishing; what made you make the switch and start self-publishing your books? What are the advantages to indie publishing?
JRK: My first book, The Protocol, was accepted for publication by the first publisher I sent it to. That turned out to be a bit of a nightmare that resulted in the book not being published for almost three years. By then, the digital reading revolution had just begun with the massive price drop Amazon did when they released the Kindle 3. As someone in the IT business, business management, website design, and HTML were second nature to me. I realized very quickly that this might be the route for me, as I recognized writing was as much a business as it was a creative process. During the publishing delays, I finished my second novel, Depraved Difference, and submitted it to a different publisher. They accepted it. At the time, JA Konrath was preaching about the benefits of indie publishing, and I decided to take the leap, doing the unthinkable at the time.
I turned down a publishing contract.
Three months later, I self-published Depraved Difference, and within a month or two, it hit—if I remember correctly—#47 overall on Amazon UK. I bought back my rights to The Protocol, rewrote it, then republished it a month or two later, and things continued to take off.
And this is what I love about indie publishing: you have near complete control. You decide the publishing schedule. You have creative control. You decide on front and back matter, advertising, etc. If you’re not a details-oriented person, that might not appeal to you, though there are solutions out there for that. As a nit-picker, I found I really enjoyed the process.
KWL: Did you always know you wanted to write predominantly thrillers?
JRK: If you had asked me 30 years ago, I would have said science fiction, as it was almost all I read when I was younger. Tom Clancy worked his way in there through my father, then later Dan Brown. The original draft of The Protocol was heavily influenced by his Deception Point, in a mostly negative way. That was cleaned up during the revisions. My second book, Depraved Difference, was psychological suspense. The Protocol proved very popular with American readers, while Depraved Difference was popular in the UK. I alternated between the series for a few books, then realized a business decision had to be made, and with the US market much larger, and my sales indicating the James Acton series had a global appeal, I refocused on this series, adding a couple of spin-offs over the years.
KWL: A few years ago, you wrote a blog post for us about the importance of promoting your author name as your brand. Do you still stand by this philosophy? Would you say it’s especially important when marketing a long-standing series like the James Acton Thrillers Series?
JRK: Yes, I do, especially with a series. You need to emphasize who you are through consistent imagery and messaging. Readers need to know what to expect when they buy your novel, and need to be able to spot a new one. With the vast majority of newsletters going into promotions or spam folders (I have an estimated 10,000 readers who have signed up for my newsletter who never see them) that means I have to get to them in other ways, and the only way is to get their eyeballs to stop scanning a page of books because they see something familiar.
My name is always in big print on the top of the cover, in consistent fonts for each series, and will appear the same in bestsellers lists, also bought lists, advertising, etc. Someone familiar with my work will spot my name, take that extra split second to look at the cover, then hopefully click because they don’t recognize the title. If every cover was a mishmash of different things, and my name wasn’t prominent, I would just be another grain of sand on the beach.
KWL: You have been writing the same series for over a decade. How do you keep it fresh, both for you, and your readers? Do you find it challenging to keep your readers guessing after so long? Or is that all part of the fun?
JRK: Sometimes it feels daunting, and I wonder where the next idea will come from, but something always seems to come along. My next book, The Fourth Bible, is inspired by an article my dad found on the web. He’s the source of many of my ideas, as he’s constantly sending me things he finds interesting. Extraordinary Rendition’s huge twist is inspired by an article a friend sent me that had me changing the entire novel just as I was about to start working on it. There are plenty of ideas out there, especially when dealing with history, but the modern-day elements are quite often torn from today’s headlines. As for the fun of it, I love these characters. Watching them develop over the past decade has been a blast, and when I sit down to write them, it’s like coming home for the holidays. Each book is like a Christmas vacation, though without the chaos of my favorite Christmas movie, Chevy Chase’s Christmas Vacation!
KWL: The Fourth Bible will be the 27th (!) book in the James Acton Thrillers Series, which to new readers, can seem quite daunting. How do you continue to draw in a new audience?
JRK: With each new book, it’s another entry point for a potential reader. My mailing list can shove a new release quite high on the bestsellers lists on most stores, and that puts new eyeballs on my books. With my specific branding of pushing my name rather than the title, they’ve most likely seen my name before. Every touch-point I provide makes me that much more familiar to them. Eventually, some of them give me a shot, and hopefully become fans. When they do, I have 50 other books to offer them. Beyond that, advertising will attract those eyeballs as well, especially BookBubs, which I’m fortunate enough to get almost every month.
KWL: Your books cover so many different topics, from mythology to history to special ops to secret agents. What does your research process look like?
My dad is my main researcher for the details. My writing method has me not wasting time researching specifics as I write. When I have a general idea (e.g. whatever happened to Cleopatra?) I’ll have my dad pull some info, then I’ll read it, get inspired, then start working. If I’m in writing mode, I might write:
B??? drew his ??? and aimed it at C???. He flicked off the safety??? then fired, the report of the shot echoing through the ???year-old church.
Each of those ??? represent something that needs to be filled in later. I don’t bother naming new characters up front, I just use placeholders. And while writing, I don’t need to know the specific weapon or age of a building. I just use the placeholders and keep on writing. Later, I’ll go through and fill in the blanks myself, or add a new question (like the age of a building) to the list I have for my father to look into, then I’ll plug in his answers later.
KWL: What does your writing process look like? Do you plot out all of the twists and turns in your books beforehand? Or do they sometimes sneak up on you and surprise you while you’re writing?
JRK: I just described the direct writing process, however I swing back and forth between being a plotter and a pantser. I used to be mostly a pantser, and that worked well for me, though I found sometimes I’d have to go back and rework things as new twists or ideas presented themselves. This worked fine when I wasn’t on deadlines and had a day-job paying the bills. I’ve been full time for almost seven years now, and I mostly plot. That being said, my plots quite often become extremely detailed the deeper I get in, and I just let it happen. If I’m in the zone, I never interrupt it. Quite often, when I go back to work on the actual novel, I’ll find segments of my plot merely need an edit and some formatting. A plot for me can be anywhere from 15-30k words.
KWL: While your brand is predominantly thrillers, is there another genre you hope to dabble in one day? Or, is there a mythology or a moment in history you have yet to examine in your books that you’re hoping to cover soon?
JRK: I have several ideas that I think might be fun, including a zombie series, a dystopian fiction trilogy, and I’ve always had a desire to give science fiction a shot since it was my first love when I was a child. I also have a series idea that would take place during the Cold War. So many ideas, so little time!
KWL: You frequently have multiple series on the go. How do you keep track of scheduling and writing so many ongoing stories at once?
JRK: Checklists! I have checklists for editing, pre-orders, launches, proofing teams, etc. I know exactly what needs to be done and when in the process, and I just check off each item as it’s completed. Microsoft’s OneNote is fantastic for this, and once I discovered it, it changed my life. I also have created a Wiki with Sharepoint where I keep details about my characters to try and keep track of things from one book to the next.
KWL: Do you have any advice for new writers, or any resources you’d recommend to someone looking to work on their craft?
JRK: Don’t give up. Many think when I started it was some “golden age” of self-publishing, and it was easier back then. I don’t think it really was that much easier, though the field was definitely less crowded. But keep in mind, nine years ago when I self-published that first book, there were still approximately a million books in the Kindle store, and far fewer readers willing to use an eReader. The biggest difference, and this is where I think those starting out today have an advantage, is that there are experts out there now who can answer your questions. Back then, few people knew anything. Now, there are plenty of great discussion boards, Facebook groups, podcasts, etc, where a new writer can ask their questions and get answers from those who’ve already been through it. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it is easy today or even easier, I’m simply saying that it wasn’t easy back then either. No matter when you started, there were challenges.
As for specifics, there are a few podcasts I listen to in the car, including Kobo’s Writing Life podcast, Mark Dawson’s Self Publishing Show, and a few others that you can find on Spotify by typing “self publishing” in the search box. I lurk at the Writer’s Café and Writer’s Sanctum discussion boards just to see if there’s anything happening in the industry that I should be aware of. As for tools, I write in MS Word, use OneNote to manage my To Do lists, EmEditor for editing my HTML, a hosted VPS site with Inmotion Hosting using WordPress with the Divi plugin for my website, and a custom PowerBuilder (every coder out there just pinned an age on me) program I wrote to automatically create my eBooks and dynamically manage my front and back matter (that’s my old IT background paying dividends!).
KWL: Are there any authors that inspired you when you were starting out, or that continue to inspire you now?
JRK: JA Konrath was definitely an inspiration, and it was a thrill last year to have him contact me out of the blue, asking me to be part of a promotion he was organizing.
KWL: What are you enjoying right now (books, movies, podcasts, tv shows etc.)?
JRK: Every Thursday night at 9pm, despite recording it, I’m glued to Star Trek Picard. I feel like a kid again. When TNG launched, I was 15 years old. Wil Wheaton is about two weeks older than me, and I found I related to the character perhaps a little too much! STP brings back a lot of those feel-good memories from those days. As for books, I try not to read my genre. I don’t want to be accused of ripping anyone off. I find I read a lot of non-fiction and biographies, and when I really want to escape, I continue working my way through Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels.
KWL: What’s next for you?
JRK: I have to finish the work on The Fourth Bible, of course, then I’ll be writing Templar Detective #6 followed by James Acton #28, both of which I already know the general details for. I try to crank them out every two months, so about the only thing for certain is that getting any rest is not what’s next for me!
With over one million books sold, award winning and USA Today bestselling author J. Robert Kennedy has been ranked by Amazon as the #1 Bestselling Action Adventure novelist based upon combined sales. He is the author of over forty international bestsellers including the smash hit James Acton Thrillers, which has had the distinction of having five titles in the top 20 Men’s Adventure Bestsellers list in the United States, and eight titles in the UK, on the Amazon Kindle.
At the same time.