Author and writing coach J. Thorn is on the podcast this week to talk about his book, Three Story Method, and to share some of his advice for new writers and established authors alike. J. has been an indie author for over a decade and he tells us how the indie publishing industry has changed throughout his career and why he believes this is the best time to be an indie author.
- J. tells us about his writing career so far, how he got his start in indie publishing, and why he’s looking to try traditional publishing for his next book
- He talks about the evolution of indie publishing and how his marketing strategies have changed as indie publishing has expanded
- J. explains why authors should be avid readers and he tells us how he finds his book recommendations (spoiler: word of mouth marketing is hugely important!)
- He tells us about the book he co-wrote with Zach Bohannon, Three Story Method, what their goals were when writing this book, and he tells us what makes a successful story in 2021
- J. discusses shifting to online events during the pandemic, how this has impacted his writing coach business, and what he’s learned from this experience
- J. explains why writers should strive for a balance between studying their craft and writing, and why having multiple revenue streams is his best advice for established authors
Three Story Method
Writers, Ink podcast
The Author Success Mastermind Podcast
The Creative Penn
The Poetics of Aristotle
The Story Grid
Project Hail Mary
J. Thorn has published two million words and has sold more than 185,000 books worldwide. He is an official member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the Horror Writers Association, and the Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers.
J. co-hosts the Writers, Ink podcast with J.D. Barker and has interviewed some of today’s most successful authors including Hugh Howey, Josh Malerman, Joanna Penn, Chuck Palahniuk, Blake Crouch, James Rollins, Steven Pressfield, David Baldacci, and James Patterson.
Thorn earned a B.A. in American History from the University of Pittsburgh and a M.A. from Duquesne University. He is a full-time writer, part-time professor at John Carroll University, co-owner of Molten Universe Media, podcaster, FM radio DJ, musician, and a certified Story Grid nerd.
Transcript provided by Speechpad
Rachel: Hey, writers. And welcome to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast,” where we bring you insights and inspiration for growing your self-publishing business. We’re your hosts. I’m Rachel, the author engagement coordinator.
Joni: And I’m Joni, author engagement specialist at Kobo Writing Life.
Rachel: On today’s episode, Joni and Steph talk to J. Thorn, who is an author, professor, and cohost of the “Writers, Ink Podcast,” among many other things.
Joni: Yeah. We chatted to J. Thorn a lot about the book that he recently released with Zach Bohannon, which is called the “Three Story Method.” And it is a book for writers who are looking for a process to get them from ideas and conception, scribbled notes, to bringing that all the way to a published novel.
So, it covers foundations of storytelling, including plot, structure, characterization, everything else that goes into a finished novel. We also chatted to him a lot about his publishing history, his experience, and his role within the author community because he does a lot of this kind of coaching work. It’s a great episode and we hope you enjoy it.
Thank you so much for joining us.
J.: My pleasure. Looking forward to it.
Joni: To start off, for anyone that isn’t familiar with your work, can you start by introducing yourself to our listeners?
J.: Sure. I’m J. Thorn. I’ve been a self-published independent author since about 2009, I guess. I write primarily genre fiction, horror, sci-fi, dark fantasy. I also am a Story Grid certified editor, and I’ve been doing client work and author services for the past four or five years. And about a year ago, released “Three Story Method,” which is a story methodology book that I’m sure we’re gonna talk about today.
Joni: Awesome. And can you give us a little bit of background to your journey to become a published author? Did you always plan to publish yourself, or how did that come about?
J.: I was never one of those kids who always wanted to be an author. I envy people who knew that when they were really young. For me, I was sort of in my early to mid 30s, and I was reading a lot, and I just kind of had one of those thoughts that I think all of us do where I go, “I could write a story like this.”
And it comes from a total place of ignorance like, you know, I think it’s, my wife has said sort of like childbirth. Like, “If you knew what you were getting into, or you remembered it, you would never do it again.” But, you know, that’s the case for writing. And so, I started writing in 2008, 2009, I was starting a big project. I don’t know why I thought I would start with an epic fantasy trilogy as the first novel that I ever wrote, but again, not knowing what you don’t know.
At that time, I went to the normal, you know, process of looking up and researching agents and sending query letters, and quickly realized that I was not going to get anywhere with that. I mean, it’s hard enough to get rejection letters. I think it’s even harder when you don’t get anything, and that was sort of the case.
And so, it just so happened that a few years later, Amazon rolled out Kindle Direct Publishing, which, you know, as we all know now in the history, you know, allowed anyone basically with a word document or, and a little bit of a story to sell directly to readers in the Amazon marketplace. And that’s kinda where it started. Over the years, I have self-published or independently published everything. I have, many titles are wide on all platforms, including Kobo Writing Life.
And I just recently have been working on a project that I’m going to try and get traditionally published, which is sort of a new spin for me because I feel like now, after being an independent publisher for 11, 12 years, I feel like I’ve learned so much, and now I just want to see if I can play in that sandbox.
I know, like, I’m going to lose creative control, I know I won’t make as much money as I would independently publishing, but I kinda just want to see if I can do it. So, in a way, I’ve kind of come full circle, but most of my stuff is and will continue to be independently published.
Steph: Now, were you surprised how self-publishing has evolved? Because I feel like 2009, what was even going on then, and, like, where it is now?
J.: I know. It’s crazy when you think about it like that. When KDP first rolled out, there was no Kindle Unlimited. I mean, you had, Smashwords was around, but, like, there were, you know, there just wasn’t as much. The flip side to that is I can remember a promo I did in spring of 2012, shortly after Kindle Unlimited was rolled out, and I put a book for free for five days, and I got, like, 33,000 downloads. And, like, that’s just not something you see today.
And I think that’s just because, you know, at that time, there were only a limited number of eBooks available. It was still, I mean, we were still talking hundreds of thousands, not millions, and free books were still an incredibly attractive way to get new readers. It was a relatively new concept.
So any time you put a book up for free in those days, in 2011, 2012, you’d get tons and tons of downloads. And the other thing that was crazy about it is back then, the Amazon charts would immediately port you over. So, if you had a book for free, and you peaked at, say, number 100 in the Kindle store, and then the next day you, you know, you went back to, you know, a $2.99 eBook or whatever, you entered the paid charts wherever you left off on the free chart. So you would come in at, like, number 100 in the store. So, yeah, there are a lot of things that have changed. That’s definitely one that I can remember specifically.
Joni: How have you had to adapt the way that you market your books, from going from kind of being, I guess, a bigger fish in a smaller pond to now there’s so much competition, and you still have to figure out how to make your book stand out?
J.: Yeah, I wish I knew. I mean, it’s a bit odd for me because I have a mailing list and I have readers who started following my work 2013, you know, 7, 8 years ago, but it’s gotten incredibly difficult. I think discoverability is the issue all independent authors are really trying to face. There’s so much out there. How do you get seen?
At one point in time, the competition, so to speak, was other books in the genre. Not that that was really competition, because we all know that readers will read more than we could ever write, so that’s not a problem. I mean, in hindsight, we know that it’s not a problem. Then, it might’ve seemed like, oh yeah, there’s some competition. Now I think the problem is how do you compete with Netflix and Spotify and all the other entertainment options people have. That’s what we’re competing against, not necessarily other authors or other books.
And every couple years, the Pew Research puts out some depressing study that says, you know, the average American reads, you know, 1.3 books per year, and it makes us authors want to go and cry. And like, you know, 60% of Americans have never read a book in any given year.
So, like, I think it’s sort of twofold, right? It’s discoverability within places where readers go, but then it’s also, it’s a competition for entertainment minutes and where are people spending it. And, you know, even, you know, things like Netflix, you know, those are paid, and Spotify, are paid options, but even, like, just social media. I mean, I think social media consumes much more time now, generally speaking, than it ever has, and that time has to come from somewhere. And if people are, you know, scrolling through Instagram before they go to bed instead of reading a book, like, that’s sort of all of our problems as authors.
Joni: So, you’re very vocal about how you think it’s important that authors are reading a lot, as part of their craft and honing their craft. How do you find books? Like, what discoverability method is most effective, from your perspective as a reader?
J.: Yeah. I think like most readers, word of mouth is probably at the top of the list. Any time I get a book recommendation from someone I know, that’s always the best kind, because typically, people know me and they know what I like, and they know what I’m into. That’s sort of top-level. I almost never…how can I phrase this? I almost always buy that book if someone personal recommends it to me.
Second tier for me is podcasts. I listen to tons of podcasts, and if someone is on a podcast and I really like what they’re talking about, and they’re pitching a book, I’ll almost always buy it. And that’s fiction or non-fiction, although it tends to be more non-fiction. And then, sort of third tier for me is BookBub. I get my BookBub daily email and I scan that, and I have my genre set of the things that I’m looking for.
So, those are sort of the top three. And of course, you know, there are other ways. I’m not a browser so much. I don’t necessarily go onto a platform and browse through genres, because it’s overwhelming to me. I love going into bookstores, because, like, I know, okay, if I walk down this aisle and then down this aisle, I will have seen everything the bookstore has to offer, technically, but, like, on an online platform, it’s harder to browse.
So, I like the personal recommendations or promotions. Like, you guys do great with your promotions, because that way I can sort of block out all the other stuff and be like, “Oh, just look at this.” You know, it’s sort of like the equivalent of an in-store end cap back in the day.
Joni: Yeah. I think that we have heard again and again that word of mouth is absolutely… And it’s true for us as well, right, Steph? Like, we do it a lot at Kobo. There’s a lot of, “This book is so great. You have to read it,” and, yeah.
Steph: I feel like I read an abnormal amount maybe, we’ll just say that. But I will read something someone tells me, or I’ll, at least I’ll buy it, so I know it’s in my library whenever I want to read something. But consider you want to try traditional publishing, do you think you’re going to reach a new audience through that way that don’t know you?
J.: Almost certainly. And, you know, I’m still pretty early on in the process, and I haven’t even thought about, you know, is it going to be under J. Thorn or is it going to be a debut author, new pen name? I’m not really sure. I mean, the genesis of this came from the “Writers, Ink Podcast”, which I do with J.D. Barker and Zach Bohannan.
And when J.D. and I first started the podcast… Well, we met at ThrillerFest in 2019, and I asked him if you want to do a podcast and he said no. And then I kept after him and he finally said yes, and so I tricked him into doing it with me. He’s very successful, a very successful hybrid author. He has independently published books in KU, he’s got independently published books wide. He has traditional deals, he has foreign licensing rights, he’s got movie options. He’s really savvy. He’s an incredible mentor.
And at one point, I said to him, I said, “I have a manuscript I would like to, you know, I would like to try, I would like to try and get an agent with it.” And he very graciously said, “Okay, well, let me take a look at it.” And mind you, this was a manuscript I’d worked on for a year, I had it edited multiple times, I had friends read it. Everyone’s like, “Oh, this is the best thing you’ve ever written.”
And I gave it to J.D. and he’s like, “Yeah, this isn’t gonna cut it.” He’s like, “You could polish this to a seven, and it’s gotta be a 10 if an agent’s gonna look at it.” And it was kind of eye-opening to me, and he’s like, “How bad do you want to do this?” And I’m like, “Pretty bad. Like, I want to see if I can do it.” And he’s like, “Well, would you be opposed to just starting over?” And I was like, “No, if that’s what it takes.”
So, I didn’t delete that. Like, I set that manuscript aside. I’ll probably come back to it at some point in the future. And I started from square one, and J.D.’s been helping me with that. And now we’re to the point where I just gave him my last revision. I said, “I can do nothing more with this. I worked on it for like a year and a half, I’m like, I’ve revised it like 30 times. I can’t look at this again without feedback.”
So I just handed it off to him, and then hopefully, you know, some time in the next couple months we’ll get a draft where he goes, “Okay, this is ready to go out.” At that point, I’ll start writing query letters, and then when I start writing the query letters, I’m gonna have to think about where’s this gonna be positioned in the market? What genre is this, the branding, the platform, all of those questions. I can see them on the horizon, but I’m trying not to think about them too much right now until I know I have a manuscript that J.D. feels confident I can take out.
Joni: I think this is going to be a really interesting process for you to go through. And, I mean, we kind of all know that the publishing, or traditional publishing, is pretty risk-averse, so I think going in there and saying, “Hey, I’m already successful. I have readers out there,” like, it puts you in a really good position to start with. But yeah, I think it’s very cool to be able to see both sides of the world, like trad and indie.
J.: Yeah. I mean, I’m approaching it like an experiment. Worst case scenario, I’ll have a manuscript that I can decide what to do with. I mean, maybe I self-publish it or whatever, if it doesn’t go anywhere, but best case scenario is I get a different angle on the publishing industry. And I’m going in with my eyes wide open. I don’t have any unrealistic expectations.
I know as a first-time debut author, I kinda know what to expect. And like I’ve mentioned earlier, being an independent publisher for over a decade, like, I know the control and the financial gain I’m going to give up, but I know that going in. So I kind of feel like it’s going to be a fun experiment, and I don’t have a lot riding on it. I like to tell my clients all the time, like, they’re just words. Make up new ones. You know, it’s like, that’s what we do.
Joni: We have a no eBook emergencies phrase at Kobo.
J.: I like that.
Joni: There’s no eBooks emergencies.
Steph: I like that your friend was like, “You know what? You can do better.” Like, that’s, I think, particularly when you’re working or, like, you have a close friendship, getting the honest feedback is sometimes hard to give, and also maybe receive, I don’t know, I think. But for you to, like, completely start a new manuscript is, like, pretty wild.
J.: And I have to walk the walk. So, like, when I work with clients, and I run a little mastermind group for authors, and I tell people, like, if you’re looking for me to tell you what you want to hear and give you a nice slap on the back, like, you gotta find a new coach. That’s not me. I’m very supportive, but I’m also very direct, because I don’t want to waste people’s time, and I don’t want to mislead people.
And J.D. kind of has that same perspective. So, I told him, like, “No holding back, man. You need to tell me, like, be brutally honest with me, because number one, I want to learn. And number two, I want this to be the best that it can.” And I’m not saying that other people weren’t, but he has the perspective of someone who’s been there. He has traditionally published. I mean, he’s co-written with James Patterson. He wrote the prequel to “Dracula.” This guy knows. And so, like, if he tells me, like, yeah, this isn’t good enough, then it’s not good enough.
Joni: I also think it’s important for people to know, like, because you do a lot of author coaching, and yet, you also need that feedback. There’s, none of us are exempt from needing feedback on our writing, and I think that’s really important to understand, that no matter where you get to in your writing career, you’re always going to need that.
J.: Yeah. That’s a question that comes up every so often on podcasts and in the mastermind community, is, like, do I need an editor? And I’m like, “Everybody needs an editor. Everybody.” And like, you know, some people will make arguments about, you know, “Well, if I’m in this circumstance, do I…” They try and build loopholes for themselves.
And what I basically say is, I don’t even put up a blog post without running it past my editor. I will send emails that I’m sending to my list, I’ll have my editor edit them first. So, I’m not saying everyone should do that, but, like, I have a commitment to excellence, and I know my blind spots. And I know that if I’ve been staring at a certain page for hours or days or weeks, I’m going to miss things. I just am, like we all do. And I don’t care how accomplished you are, you need an editor. I mean, Tiger Woods has a golf coach. Like, it’s not just in this industry.
Joni: Yeah. Nobody outgrows it. Nobody gets to the point where you can… It’s not a one-person job. Or, you know, it is in a way. The finished book never is. Can you tell us a little bit about your book, the “Three Story Method” and why authors should read it?
J.: “Three Story Method” was… I gotta give credit to Zach Bohannan for this. We’re business partners, and we do author events and things together. And at one point, we were doing an author event, and at these events, we do, like, world-building retreats, and we have people write short stories, and we compile them into an anthology for charity. It’s a great time.
And we’ve done several of these, and they’re always themed and they’re always geographically dependent. So, like, we’ve done, or we’re doing “Vampires of New Orleans.” We’re doing “Witches of Salem.” We’ve done “Sci-fi Seattle.” We did “Rock Apoc” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. We’ve done a bunch of these. And at one of them, he said, you know, “We teach people how to create these stories. Like, we should write that down. Like, we should codify that.” And I was like, “Yeah, you know, you’re absolutely right.”
And I realized, like, every methodology builds on the ones prior. So, there’s nothing original in “Three Story Method.” Like, there’s nothing that someone’s gonna be like, “Oh, I’ve never heard that before.” What I’ve hopefully done is I’ve teased out the best elements of all the story methodologies that I’ve been studying for decades, because I was a humanities teacher before I was a full-time writer. And I pulled out all the best stuff and kind of used it in the way that Zach and I were using it at these retreats.
So, example. The basic element of “Three Story Method” is conflict, choice, and consequence. Those are the three things you need to make a story, a beginning, a middle and end. What happens that sets the protagonist out of their everyday life? That’s your conflict. What do they do about it? They have to make a choice. And then the consequence, what’s the result of that choice? That’s story. That’s it at its core. Like, you go all the way back to Aristotle’s “Poetics,” and that’s what a story is.
So, for three-story methodology, I read and researched literally dozens of craft books. And I can see the lineage. You go back to Aristotle and then you come up to Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey, and then what Vogler did with Campbell’s work. And then you have, you know, the heroine’s journey and the Virgin’s promise, and Robert McKee developed story. And then Shawn Coyne developed story grid from that. And I came from story grid and developed “Three Story Method.”
So, I think it’s a very streamlined storytelling approach that’s really accessible, and my goal is to not over-complicate storytelling. And I think a lot of times, as writers, we’re overthinkers, we’d like to over-complicate things. And sometimes, you know, I’m not saying it’s easy to do, but story is simple. It’s a beginning and a middle and end, and any five-year-old can tell you that’s what a story is. It just takes a lifetime to master that. And so hopefully, “Three Story Method” will help people figure out the best, cleanest, most simplest way to do it.
Steph: Me and Joni were talking before this. It’s like you said, there’s no original story, technically, we want to say, like, but there’s still stories that continue to surprise readers. What do you think is, like, the magic to having a really successful story that continues to surprise readers with the same, like, hero archetype, but it’s different in little ways, or, like, surprises along the way?
J.: That’s a great question. And the phrase that I’ve heard used a lot in different contexts when it comes to writing and craft is “surprising but inevitable.” And I think that, to me, is sort of the essence of how you create a story in 2021 that will get readers. Because, as you said, I mean, you wanna get technical about it, there’s only like six or seven story archetypes that have ever been told, right? I mean, you could probably even narrow it down further. So, you are not gonna tell an original story.
And any time I talk to a less-experienced author, or someone at a cocktail party who’s like, “I’ve got this great story idea for you. You’ve never heard it before.” And I’m like, “That’s not true. I guarantee you, I have.” So, it’s not necessarily the idea, it’s the execution of the idea.
And right now, we’re at a time, and this is a good thing, where people who are reading are the most sophisticated readers in the history of the world. I mean, up until a few hundred years ago, hardly anyone read. Hardly anyone could read. And so now, we are at a place where over the past few decades, readers and storytelling in the modern sense has really evolved into something magnificent, and it’s hard to tell a story that’s engaging readers.
I mean, if you think about it, if someone released a Tolkien-like story today, it would not have the same impact that it did in the ’40s or the ’50s, because we are decades beyond what the sort of the parameters of storytelling were then. So you have to come up with something that’s both surprising, but inevitable.
So, you know, the inevitable part could be a hero’s journey archetype, or a Virgin’s promise style story. Or it could be genre, like maybe there’s a cozy mystery is inevitable because you kind of know what the reader expectations are. But you’ve gotta surprise readers in how you do it.
One really tactical, tangible example of that is combining two things that don’t necessarily go together. And this was advice that J.D. gave me. So, one of the exercises he had me do when I was coming up with the new manuscript idea was to write… I wrote out, like, 10 or 15 Pixar pitches, just, you know, very simple story pitch ideas. And then what he did is suggested a combination of two of them. So, whether it’s genre or story style or idea, if you can sort of combine things that on the surface don’t look like they’re connected, and you can weave those together, I think that’s where the surprising ideas come from.
Steph: Do you have an example of a story that surprised you recently? Putting you on the spot.
J.: Ah, yes. And this is not a recent one, but I think Outlander is a great example. I mean that, you know, that series started in the ’90s, but still, this idea of, like, time travel and history and romance, like, you can’t really peg it in one place. And I had a, talking about book recommendations, my friend Cathy Spader said, “Have you ever read or watched ‘Outlander’?” I’m like, “No, that’s romance. I don’t have any interest in that.” And she’s like, “No, trust me.” She’s like, “You will like it. Trust me.” And I did. I loved it.
Another example of these kind of books that are a bit different is I’m a big fan of Andy Weir. So, you know, he did “The Martian,” and that was pretty straight up, you know, hard sci-fi. Well, he’s got a new book coming out in, I think a few days, in early May, and it’s gonna blow minds. I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of that and read it, and it’s a surprising but inevitable story, in a way that it’s gonna blow people away. It’s gonna be huge.
Joni: Oh, that’s awesome. We’ll have to share the link in our notes. So obviously, you come at this from quite a bit academic perspective. Do you think that it’s helpful to all writers to know and think a little bit about writing methodology, or is it something that’s helpful to some and not necessarily everyone?
J.: That’s a great question. Crys Cain and I run the author success mastermind group, and we get this version of this question a lot. It’s phrased in different ways, but it’s basically, like, “Do you just, do you go in and write from the heart and not even think about, like, story and structure, or should you sort of study and know what you’re doing, and then try it?”
And my response always is that it depends. If you can tell… Because there’s a difference between quality writing and storytelling. People can be great storytellers and terrible writers, or people can be wonderful writers and terrible storytellers. And so, it’s this constant desire for, you know, how do I create a great story and get, you know, keep readers engaged? And one of the challenges is that I consider myself a teacher and I’m trying to help people, especially people who are relatively new.
The people I serve, they don’t want to be six-figure authors. They’re not worried about hacking their Amazon ads to get 10x their revenue. These are people who love writing and they wanna talk about writing, and maybe they’ll publish a book a year, or maybe a book every 10 years. Maybe they love their day job, and they just, this is a great outlet for them. Those are the people I want to serve, and the people who are in our family.
And the thing is, you can come at it with no experience, but that’s not the advice I would give someone new to anything. Like, if you came to me and said, “I wanna learn how to figure skate,” I wouldn’t be like, “Well, just go put skates on and see what happens.” I mean, there might be 1% of the people who do that who sort of find their way, and their ankles tighten up, and all of a sudden they’re zooming around, but, like, the other 99 people are gonna get frustrated, overwhelmed. They don’t even know where to start.
So, is it possible to write great stories or write great books without any methodology or studying any craft? Yeah, it’s certainly possible, but I’m not gonna give that advice to someone who’s…it’ll crush them. Like, you know, it’ll crush most people if I just say, “Well, just go try it.”
So, I think, at the other end of the spectrum, I think there’s also resistance in constantly studying craft and never doing the writing. So, you kind of have to fall somewhere in the middle there. You can’t use all of your academic exercises as an excuse not to write. At the same time, I think you need to know a little bit about story structure and conventions, so that you know which ones you can use and which ones you can break.
Joni: So, you have a pretty established community of authors that you work with, and I know that you do a lot of in-person events. How did you find COVID and the limitations on in-person stuff? How did that affect what you were doing with authors, and were you able to easily pivot to everything online?
J.: Sort of. You guys were wonderful sponsors of the Career Author Summit last year, in May. And we had a very tight window. This was right when the pandemic was, the pressures around the pandemic were building to a crescendo in May of last year, and we had about a week or so, and we pivoted to completely online summit. And we pulled it off. Like, it worked. It’s clearly was not as great as if we would all been in a room together, but, like, it worked.
And then, we postponed several events that were scheduled for 2020 to 2021. And those are hopefully occurring this year. What’s interesting is that we have “Witches of Salem” in July, we have the Career Author Summit in September, and we have “Vampires of New Orleans” in October. And we’re gonna move forward as if all three of those events are happening in person, and they probably will, but like everyone else, it’s so confusing, and it changes from day to day, and it changes based on where you are.
I mean, you know, there are people in the states now who are fully vaccinated and will have no issues traveling and they’re making their hotel reservations. And there’s folks like you north of us who are, like, can’t cross the border or can’t leave Toronto. Like, and so, it’s very unpredictable.
What it taught us though, especially the Career Author Summit, what it taught us is that we can do an online event if we have to. We know what it takes. We have contingencies now that we didn’t have before, so we’re much better prepared, but make no mistake about it, we absolutely prefer in-person events, and that’s what we’re trying to do. And the virtual ones are a fallback, but they’re not ideal.
Joni: Yeah. Fully agree here. It’s nice to see other humans.
Steph: So, you’ve given a lot of great advice for writers in general, particularly aspiring writers. Do you have any advice for an author who’s, like, kind of established like yourself, 10 years, or longer than 10 years into it, but has an established career, and they’re kind of looking maybe to take the next step up, or, like, is there anything…advice you’d impart to someone who is a common name, a big name in the indie and also publishing world?
J.: It’s tough. I tend to shy away from giving advice because I don’t really know much. But what I can share is my experience. And this is what I learned from my friend, Joanna Penn, which is multiple revenue streams. If you listen to the “Creative Penn Podcast,” you hear her talking about that all the time. And she drilled that home with me.
She’s been a great friend and a mentor of mine over the years, and I think that is critically important. And it really plays into your career in so many ways. I mean, multiple revenue streams can mean that you can’t just publish an ebook. You need a paperback, maybe a hardback, maybe a large print, maybe audio. It also means that you can’t just publish in one place. You’ve got to be on Amazon, and Kobo, and Barnes & Noble, and etc.
It also means that you can’t necessarily rely just on royalties. So, maybe you have, you know, author services, or maybe you have real estate investments, or you invest in the stock market. But just thinking about diversity of revenue and multiple income streams, in all aspects of your business, is really the key to financial security.
And I think the world has finally… Well, I shouldn’t say the world. I will say the average American has finally realized from this past year that that W2, that salary job, isn’t as safe as you thought it was. So, like, when I was starting out, I would have conversations with relatives who said, “Well, now, you have a wife and two kids, and you’re gonna be paying for college and a mortgage. Like, isn’t it risky to be an entrepreneur? Isn’t it risky to start your own business?”
Now I’m kind of saying, “Wow, isn’t it risky just to rely on only your day job?” You know? Because, like, if something gets downsized, I mean, think of any example of entire industries that were completely evaporated in March of last year, and what do those people do?
So I think, you know, what I’ve done, and I guess this is advice, is even if you’re established and you have a readership and you’re selling books, have little revenue streams here and there. And if they’re not connected to publishing, maybe that’s even better yet. But that way, you have a little bit of a safety net if one or two of those major income streams disappear, you can still cover your bills. So, I like that idea of a multiple revenue stream.
Joni: I mean, that’s really great advice for anyone, authors and everyone else. How does that play into publishing wide versus one platform? Have you always been an advocate of publishing in as many places as you can?
J.: Yeah. I’m a bit of an outlier, I think. I don’t necessarily carry the flag for self-publishers. I’m always about opportunity. So I would never say, like, “I’m only gonna self-publish. Self-publishing rules. I hate traditional publishing.” Like, it’s a book-by-book decision. Like, and I think depending on what you want, you have to be opportunistic and see the best path.
I’ve also said that about, you know, being exclusive versus being wide. I think a lot of people who are misinformed think that, like, it’s an all-or-nothing decision. And again, it’s a title-by-title decision. I can have a book in KU, and then I can publish a book wide, and that’s okay. And I think it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.
Now, I will say, sort of from a position of mindset and belief system and values, I firmly believe in wide. I hate exclusivity, and I will be part of things that are exclusive if I have to for certain reasons, but generally speaking, I’m much more about open competition, and availability for many people. But that doesn’t mean I’m not gonna put a book in KU.
So I think it really, you know, you really have to look at your situation and realize that it’s just a book-by-book decision. And one of those books doesn’t affect the decision on another book.
Joni: I think this is one of the advantages of being indie that authors need to realize going in is that you have so much flexibility and opportunity to say, “Well, I’m gonna try a thing, and if it doesn’t work, like, I tried it and I’m gonna not do it anymore,” or, “Hey, this works, and…” You know what I mean? I think that doesn’t exist quite so much in trad, and you have so many opportunities to explore everything, and also be hybrid, and do trad and indie, so I think that’s one of the coolest things about publishing.
J.: Yeah. I mean, it really is, you know, there’s a lot of doom and gloom. There always is. You can, like, go back… I’m reading a Kurt Vonnegut book right now on craft, and he was basically saying, like, it’s impossible to get published anymore, and this was in 1973. And that’s nothing against Vonnegut, but, like, I think these ideas that, like, “Oh, the good old days are past. It’s too late now. Publishing is so hard these days…” I think that, people have always been saying that. But realistically, there’s never been a better time to be an independently published author, whether you’re doing that yourself or with a small press, or whether you’re being published by one of the big five, like, there’s never been a better time.
Like, the accessibility, we still have a ways to go in giving equal opportunities to marginalized people, but, like, there’s never been a time where we’ve had more of that, where more people’s voices can be heard. And even from the reader side, there’s never been such a fragmented, highly niche market, which I think is a good thing, you know? You can write something so specific that only 5,000 people in the world care about it, and make a living doing that. You don’t need to be on billboards or on Oprah or be on an influencer’s Instagram account. You can just find the right people, and serve them.
Steph: Do you have a Patreon account?
J.: Writers, Ink has a Patreon account, and what we’re doing there is we’re offering a live Q and A on our monthly bonus episode.
Steph: I’m noticing a lot of people are [inaudible 00:32:35] Patreon account so I was just wondering if you have some experience with it, because to me, it’s like a mystery sometimes
J.: Yeah. You know, Steph, it’s another great example of diversifying revenue streams. You’re not gonna… Well, I shouldn’t say that, “I’m not gonna make a million dollars on Patreon.” There are some people who do, but, like, I have a friend who posts short stories, and he puts up a couple a month, and he might make a few hundred dollars a month, just from Patreon. And, like, that’s a car payment. You know, like, it’s real money. It’s not retirement on the beach money, but, like, you have…that’s one example.
And, like, you can find… I have a spreadsheet where I keep tracking my profit and losses. And in the income one, I think I’m up to column, like, AQ or something, which is like 35 or 40 revenue streams. And some of them are like, like, I get a check from Medium for, like, $5 every three months, you know. But it’s something, you know, and, like, you add all those up and that’s how you can make a really stable, secure living.
Steph: I need some extra revenue streams now that I’m thinking about it. I just had a question back to, like, Kindle Unlimited. When you put in a book and then you take it out, do you have, like, a plan that you follow, like, I’ll let a book in for the three months I think, and then move it out? Or, like, how long do you wait to see if something is working well, and then you need to switch it up?
J.: I’m honestly not the best person to ask on that. I don’t do it too often, and when Zach and I were publishing our co-written post-apoc series, he was kind of handling that. These days, like, “Three Story Method,” we didn’t even do KU. We just went wide right from the beginning. And, you know, like, these days, I kind of feel like the stuff I’m writing, I might not go into KU at all.
I think it’s very genre-dependent. If you’re writing a certain type of romance or a certain type of fantasy or sci-fi, as a reader, you should probably know, you know, what those behaviors are, and feed them. There are romance readers who will read five to seven books a week. So, like, yeah, KU’s great for them.
Nonfiction, I haven’t had a lot of luck with nonfiction in KU, so, like, you know, it’s really dependent. And I think, too, you also have to figure out, like, what is it that you want. Are you trying to make royalties? Are you trying to make money? Or are you trying for discoverability? Are you trying to build a back catalog?
If you’re gonna be around for a long time, and you want your books to sell for decades, KU’s not the place. If you need to pay for your muffler that fell off your car last week, and you can crank out a few, you know, romance novellas, KU might be the way to go. So, you know, you have to think about what your needs are and what you’re trying to accomplish.
Joni: Yeah, that’s a great point, actually. It definitely varies for different reasons and different goals that people are going for. And we always like to ask authors, what have you been loving lately? It can be anything, book, podcast, movie?
J.: I just finished season one of “You,” based on the book by Caroline Kepnes, and it was so dark and so funny. I absolutely loved it. And I’m getting ready to start season two. It’s just, it’s so well-written. It’s not for everybody. It’s very…
Steph: No, it’s not.
Joni: It’s come up on this question a lot, though, that that answer has come up.
Joni: Oh, yeah. People love it.
Steph: I kind of think it’s because of what you said. It subverts what you think is gonna happen maybe, like it’s mushing two things together that not necessarily go together. That’s my take on it.
J.: Yeah. And I interviewed Caroline for the “Writers, Ink,” and I asked her about her choice of POV, because she wrote that in second-person POV. And that’s unusual, I think, in terms of genre fiction. Generally speaking, you don’t see that. You don’t see second-person POV too often. And I think that might be the surprising but inevitable part for her. I mean, it’s sort of like a dark stalker style. I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s written in the second person POV. So you combine those two things and you get your surprising but inevitable.
Steph: And then, where can listeners find you online?
J.: Easiest thing to do is to go to theauthorlife.com, and I have links out to everything from there, podcast, free resources, all of it’s there.
Joni: Awesome. So, we’ll make sure we include that link, and then the link to your other…you have two podcasts right now, right?
J.: Yes. I’m doing the Writer’s Ink podcast with J.D. and Zach, and then Crys Cain and I are doing “The Author Success Mastermind” podcast.
Joni: Perfect. So we’ll make sure we link to those. Thank you so much for coming on today.
J.: Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks for having me here.
Rachel: Thank you for listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast.” If you are interested in learning more about J. and the work that he does, we will be sure to include links to his book and his website in our show notes. If you’re enjoying this podcast, please be sure to rate, review, and subscribe. And if you’re looking for more tips on growing your self-publishing business, you can find us at kobowritinglife.com, and be sure to follow us on socials. We are @kobowritinglife on Facebook and Twitter, and kobo.writing.life on Instagram.
Joni: This episode was produced by Joni Di Placido and Rachel Wharton. Stephanie McGrath was my cohost. Editing is by Kelly Rowbotham. Music is provided by Tearjerker, and huge thanks to J. Thorn for being our guest today. If you’re ready to start your self-publishing journey, sign up today at kobo.com/writinglife. Until next time, happy writing.