SPS-223: Under Pressure: Mental Health for Indie Authors – with James P. Sumner
James Sumner reminds us that taking care of our mental health is as important as anything else in an author’s life.
- On dealing with home life while trying not write
- How our mental health can take a toll on our physical health
- Why it’s important for our partners to understand what the writing life requires
- Why talking about our struggles is so important
- The financial and mental pressures that can result from being a full-time author
- On the essential support we get from being truthful with our friends
- The importance of taking time off
Resources mentioned in this episode:
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
NEW COURSE: Learn the secrets behind writing a book that readers will love in How To Write a Bestseller. Save $100 until April 30, 2020.
SPFU: For a limited time, while the world is #socialdistancing, we are offering FREE access to SPF University* (*not a university). Click here for lifetime access.
DIGITAL EVENT: Were you not able to attend SPS Live? Get your digital ticket here.
MERCH: Are you a ligneous beetle or a yawning hippopotamus? Get your SPF hoodies and t-shirts in the brand new SPF Store.
Speaker 1: On this edition of the Self-Publishing Show.
James Sumner: I’ve realized now that I’m probably the only one that that’s happened to. I think the good thing about things like this is it’s important to show that you’re not alone if that’s your situation, then it’s not a problem telling people, it’s not a problem talking about it. I’m not ashamed to talk about that that’s a struggle, I don’t think anybody should be.
Speaker 1: Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers, no more barriers. No one standing between you and your readers. Do you want to make a living from your writing?
Join indie bestseller Mark Dawson and first-time author James Blatch as they shine a light on the secrets of self-publishing success. This is the Self-Publishing Show. There’s never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Hello and welcome to the Self-Publishing Show with James.
Mark Dawson: And Mark.
James Blatch: How’s your lockdown going Dawson?
Mark Dawson: All right. Thanks Blatch. We’re not dead, which is the main thing. Yeah, it’s all right.
This is our second time of recording this podcast because rural internet may not be playing ball with us today. So yes, it’s going okay. And as we said, last week’s episode, we’ve had some lovely comments from listeners and viewers who enjoyed last week’s episode, which I mean the basic message was everyone deals with this in the best way they can.
Some people like me are schooling kids with Lucy, and I, looking after the two kids who go back to school today so we’re homeschooling them. Other people aren’t in the right frame of mind to be able to write productively right now.
We just have to do as best as we can. And from my perspective, it is still involving getting up at 6:00 and working till 8:00, taking the dog for a walk and then basically being dad for the rest of the day, if I get any more time to work, either on writing or SPF or Hello Books or anything, then that’s a bonus. But that’s the best I can do at the moment and you can’t really get around that.
James Blatch: It is a period of adjustment. And if you didn’t hear last week’s episode, definitely worth listening to, particularly if you are struggling to write at the moment and think that you’re neglecting your day job.
Mark came up with a few things that you can be doing to do with your backlist and other things that could make the most of this time because there’s definitely an uptake in reading and purchasing of online things, whatever they are actually. And so, there are something to be taken advantage of.
But yes, we are a community and you can post into the groups and get some tips and helps and maybe just a bit of sympathy for your particular situation if you’re in our Facebook group.
Okay. Look, we’ve got a few things to do today. I want to kind of rattle through them just in case this rural internet gives up again. First of all, I want to welcome Peter M. Street from OR, USA, which I guess must be Oregon.
Mark Dawson: Oregon.
James Blatch: Thank you very much indeed Peter for being a Patreon supporter.
You too can get a name check on the Self-Publishing Show if you go to patreon.com/selfpublishingshow.
We are also going to talk about our bestseller course. So, in between last week and this week, we have launched it. It’s kind of at a soft launch for a few days where we just basically put it out there. And she was just quite pleased because one of the early people to pick up despite the fact it went through, I think, 20 beta readers. There were a couple of typos that we just picked up very early on. It’s inevitable with 12 hours of video.
Mark Dawson: Christopher Wills, so thank you very much Christopher. That was very helpful.
James Blatch: I went through this morning just changed out a couple of things. But anyway, the early feedback is, I have to say, very, very good for this course. And Suzy’s getting great plaudits.
Suzy Quinn, the bestselling author, has done How to Write a Bestseller. And I think people are really digging what the course does, which is to reverse the normal way of writing where you write away in the dark and then you hawk your manuscript around and you hope that an agent and a publisher chimes with what they’re particularly looking for, bearing in mind you started your book maybe a year ago or before.
Whereas Suzy says, well, why don’t you start with the cover, the tagline, the idea, what the product you’re selling is. And then match that to the market and then write the product then write the book. And do it that way around and start thinking. And when you get into the writing, what are those key ingredients that we know readers want that makes them turn the page.
It gets into a lot of detail. You will come away with pages of notes. The early feedback is people with works and progress that they are pivoting on and rewriting or going about making sure that they’re getting it right. And even some quite experienced authors. Mark, I’ve noticed posting in the … It’s reinforcing the things that they knew but maybe they’ve drifted away from a little bit, which happens.
So yes, the course has gone really well. You can read all about it at selfpublishingformula.com/bestseller. So, this is going to get out this Friday. We’re knocking $100 off the price, which is a third of the price, for the opening period of days that this is being launched as a kind of get it going, get people into the Facebook group, et cetera.
It’s a valuable course and I think it’s awesome priced anyway at $297 to be honest. So, we are probably going to lift that, I think on the Wednesday. So, if you’re listening to this on the Friday, let’s make this nice and simple and say the first of May will be the date that the course goes full price.
Mark Dawson: I suppose you missed a trick there. You missed a big trick.
James Blatch: What’s that?
Mark Dawson: May the 4th.
James Blatch: Oh, May the 4th. I’m not doing that. Star Wars is mentioned in this course, only fleetingly. Yeah. So, we will go to full price on May the 1st so midnight on the 30th of April. So, go to selfpublishingformula.com/bestseller.
That discount will be there until the 30th of April to get onboard with that course. As I say, feedback from the early readers, early students is very, very positive indeed.
Mark Dawson: Did you say they were digging it?
James Blatch: They’re digging it.
Mark Dawson: Welcome to the 70s with Hepcat James Blatch. Digging the podcast today.
James Blatch: Hepcat, what’s Hepcat?
Mark Dawson: Hepcat, look it up.
James Blatch: Oh okay. So, you know we’re about 70s and 80. Listen, I’ve never really left the 70s. It was the greatest decade. It didn’t have quite so many pandemics in the 70s and then you had Southeast Asia wars but we didn’t have these. Let’s go back. Anyway, we’re going back.
The economy is going back to the 70s. The oil price is going back to the 70s at the moment. My camera shutdown because it’s too warm. It’s okay. I’m recording on the screen as well. That’s okay.
That’s the bestseller course and there’s stuff to come in the future on that front. We’ll learn that I think is going to be a very useful and fun edition for the SPF array of courses. We’ve put a lot of time and effort into this. I think two years. I think it’s been two years we’ve been building …
Mark Dawson: It’s been a while.
James Blatch: Yeah. We’ve been putting this course together. Had an early iteration then we went away again, went to beta, came back again, remodeled it and it’s out there now. So, it’s a very, very good product.
Let’s talk about the foundation. So, the number of people who won’t be in a position to pay for our courses, won’t be able to pay for covers is going to go up as a result of this crisis, I think because the economy is going to slump down. Particularly people at the beginning of their careers who are currently relying on paid jobs that might not be there in a few months.
Without going too doom and gloom about it, one of the things we’ve always done is we’ve run a foundation which picks up those talented authors. It’s people who just need that kickstart, that financial kickstart to get going.
And that scheme delightfully has increased, has broadened because a number of our existing students who’ve done well from your teaching Mark, have said to us they want to give something back starting with Marc Reklau, I think, was the first one who came to us and said he wanted to sponsor an extra place. And now we have quite a few more. So, we’re really broadening this scheme.
Mark Dawson: We do. Yes. And Marc Reklau is sponsoring a nonfiction author. Lucy Score is doing romance writers and Tony Moyle has also said that he would like to contribute. And Dawn Brookes is going to be sponsoring a cozy mystery spot next year.
So, that actually brings the total number of sponsorship places up to eight. And each of those, the people who are selected to win a scholarship from us and also we’re working with Reedsy. Reedsy and us, we kind of put half of the money and then these other authors are chipping in two and a half thousand dollars each, which is extremely generous of them. That means that they get the ads course 101, our foundational course. We’ll probably check in the bestseller course, we’ll probably check in the covers course as well. So, that’s four courses from us and two and a half thousand dollars each.
So, that’s pretty generous and we’ve had people, as we mentioned last week, Elle Thorpe who took the course or was sponsored last time around, or the time before, and is now doing really, really well. And she’s not the only one who’s done well through the foundation.
It’s definitely worth applying. There are some requirements that you need to hit in order to be eligible but you can find out all of those details at, I think it’s selfpublishingformula.com/foundation. But there’s a link on the home page up on the top bar in the right hand side. You can check that out.
James Blatch: Yeah. If you just go to selfpublishingformula.com as Mark says, at the top of the page.
We say a huge thank you to Emmanuel and Ricardo at Reedsy, reedsy.com. They’ve built a fantastic platform for finding editors and cover designers. Well, the rest of it. And have never hesitated in dipping into their pockets to help out in this particular scheme.
They also put a bit of money behind the bar when we go and drink in various exotic locations around the world. They’re great partners with us. So, I want to say thank you to them. And to those authors coming forward and doing that, brilliant. What a lovely community we have.
Mark Dawson: We do. Now before, I’m going to jump in because I know you’ve forgotten but before we jump into the actual interview today, we also should mention Hello Books, which as we mentioned it, was it last week? I think it was last week we mentioned it for the first time.
This is a project that we’re working on. It’s kind of still in gestation at the moment in terms of exactly what it might look like. But it will be something along the lines of a BookBub model, a Freebooksy type model with a big mailing list and segmented into genres that readers have indicated that they want to find out about. Free books to start with but discounted books as we build the list up.
We mentioned in the podcast, I posted in the Facebook group and I think I sent an email out as well just encouraging people to sign up to indicate that they’re interested. And I think we’ve had about two and a half thousand authors who have said that they would like to be considered or at least kept up to date as to what we plan when it comes to Hello Books, which we think will probably launch I think in about a month, is probably what we’re looking at.
So, we’re in the process of building a website at the moment. We’ve got a designer so it’s going to be nicely branded, high quality, hopefully as you’d expect from us.
I’m thinking about it quite a lot at the moment, on dog walks, as to how this might actually look. But we want to get a million subscribers in the first year. That’s the aim I have. We are going to be investing quite heavily in building a Facebook audience, probably spending four or 5,000, $6,000 a month, something along those lines, to build the audience up and advertising the offers as we do need promotions, maybe bimonthly to start with but eventually moving to a weekly basis and then probably eventually moving to a daily basis as well.
But we’re starting slowly. We will make mistakes. We probably don’t know what mistakes that we’ll make until we make them. I’m trying to keep my eyes on the ball to make sure that I anticipate the worst ones and we can avoid those but it’s a good start I think. We’re very encouraged with the response that we had.
James Blatch: Well, our very early aim is to give value to people who take part in the scheme. So, if you put your book forward, you pay whatever it is, we haven’t decided yet. Probably it’s going to be affordable, that’s for sure. Compared to quite a few of the other schemes out there, that you get value, that your book gets put in front of readers likely to be supporters or readers or yours.
Our aim really for the first year, we’re playing a long game with this, we should say to people. This is a long game. We are going to get this right over a period of time and build up a reader list that’s going to benefit authors in our community and I’m sure that we’re going to get there with this. And hopefully, hit the ground running. We’re doing so much work in the background.
Two and a half thousand people on the waitlist. You can join the waitlist to be the first to hear. We are probably going to end up prioritizing those first few promotions so you might want to get in early.
If you go to hellobooks.com, you’ll find a waitlist page sitting there ready for you. In fact, soon we might, by the time this goes out, we might have our new branding on that waitlist page because we’ve just got our designer who we’ve gone through the process of selecting …
It’s always fun selecting the logo, the colors, the font and the rest of it.
Mark Dawson: Yes. It’s been very entertaining for people who haven’t done this before. We have a Slack channel, which we have lots of Slack channels now but there’s one for Hello Books and we’ve been posting.
John who’s in charge, we’re working with Sara who’s the SPF designer. We’ve been working with her for three or four years now. She’s designed a series of logos and we started with five or six possible and we kind of argued amongst ourselves and narrowed it down to two, and then Sara works on those. We then picked one.
And then the last few days we’ve been talking about various different shades of green and yellow and red, and picking the color that we want and the fonts that we want. So, it’s quite fun. And she’s turned it around really quickly as well, which is great. So, I think we’re pleased with how it will turn out.
James Blatch: Yeah. And plus Sara is a very good designer so Capital should give her a plug there. She’s done some great work for us, and bless her. I think she was due to be in Japan on a family holiday at the moment so that didn’t work out for her but hopefully at some point-
Mark Dawson: You’re wearing her work James.
James Blatch: I wear her work. Yes. I am indeed. That’s her work. So, excellent. So, who are you wearing James? I’m wearing Sara. I should say when I go to the next awards group.
Okay. Look, we’ve got an interview today which is … We talk a lot about success in this podcast and trying to achieve success, what you need to have in place for success. This podcast turns that on its head a little bit and addresses the question of what happens when the success you think you wanted doesn’t turn out to be healthy for you?
This is an author called James Sumner who has appeared on the podcast in the past. He’s quite an early student of ours, walked up to us, I can remember very clearly the day he walked up to us in London Book Fair and introduced himself, said he couldn’t wait for the course to be launched, and was an early success story for us.
He quit his job, became a full-time author, had a big smile across his face. But things started falling apart for him and he, in part, blames his success as an indie author for that situation he found himself in.
So, we’re not shucking away from this subject. This interview is a very important part of everything that we do, is to think about the wholistic, your mental health as much as anything else.
I’m not going to ruffle on too much. I think James explains the story extremely well and I think it’s going to be a very useful interview for lots of us. So, let’s hear from James.
James Blatch: James P. Sumner.
James Sumner: That’s me.
James Blatch: Hey.
James Sumner: Hello.
James Blatch: Welcome back to the podcast. We first bumped into you, fact, we’re in what remains of London Book Fair has been canceled in Olympia. But we bumped into you probably three years ago.
James Sumner: Five years ago.
James Blatch: No, it was not.
James Sumner: It’s our five-year anniversary James. I’m hurt you don’t remember.
James Blatch: Was it five years ago?
James Sumner: It is. Yeah. Because I came to three and I wasn’t there last year. So, now that I’m back, this is my fifth year down in London.
James Blatch: Wow.
James Sumner: Fifth year with you guys.
James Blatch: And you came up to us and we were in the early stages of SPF and you said, “All about your course, all about your course. When can you open the course?”
James Sumner: Yeah, basically.
James Blatch: And you bought the course and you got back to us straight away and you said, “The course is amazing.” And you had success. And I’m going to cut a very long story short, there’s what we’re going to talk about.
James Sumner: Yeah.
James Blatch: Things didn’t go to plan, things caught up with you on the mental health side and you’ve had to make some changes in your life. And that’s what we want to talk about in a very open and clear way.
James Sumner: Yeah, absolutely.
James Blatch: Part of the point of this interview is not just to hear your experience but to encourage others to take a minute, to think about their own mental health and to talk to people, particularly us men who are bad at it and have a high suicide rate probably as a result of us not talking enough about how our mental health is.
So, let’s talk to you about at what point things started to not be on the upward trajectory that they were when we first met.
James Sumner: As you say, it went really well for probably the first 18 months, two years of my writing career. I was able to go full-time, June 2016.
James Blatch: What were you doing? What was your job?
James Sumner: I worked in a call center. I was account manager, answering phones but I was actually writing on the company dime, and I managed to get more books written on someone else’s time than on my own, crazily.
I went full-time June 2016. And that was an immense milestone for me. It was very much a result of the success I found on the back of your course but it was a lot of hard work, it was great.
I would say probably the first six, seven months was the honeymoon period. Every day, I was in my pajamas, I’d go make a coffee, go and lock myself in the room. It was amazing. It literally was a dream come true. It’s what everyone, I think every author aims for.
And then at that kind of six, seventh month mark, in hindsight, that was when it started to trail off a little bit. Not for the writing, not for the business side of things, but for my own mental health.
My personal circumstances kind of took over at that time. I was an unhappy marriage, which is now ended but I stayed in that situation for maybe two and a half years of being incredibly unhappy and very sad.
And the problem, when you work from home and when your hobby is also your job, there’s no escaping that. I used to have an argument with the ex wife and then just go to work and forget about it for eight hours, but when your work is in that room, there’s no escaping it.
The world soon becomes very small when there’s no escape and you don’t admit is a problem, that’s when it starts to burn the weight. And over the course of two years, that’s exactly what happened.
It culminated, originally in September 2018 when my wife essentially kicked me out. And that was obviously, that was a huge offset to my world. And writing at that point, got put on the back-burner and I would say I’ve been away from the writing business probably for a good 12, 18 months. I’ve not really done much with it.
I’ve needed to take that time away, going to a sabbatical from it and just focus on myself. And that was very difficult because writing was all I’ve ever wanted to do. It was what I would say was the only thing I was ever really, truly good at, I think it was. And it was difficult to be in a position where I actually blame that for the circumstances I was in.
Because the way I saw things, I was in this horrible sad situation and I was there because I was a full-time writer. So, I kind of blamed that and I almost started to resent the thing that I loved doing, which is a very strange situation to be in because it’s like, well, that’s all I know so if I don’t want to do it then well now what?
I lost all sense of identity, I lost all sense of motivation. I wasn’t getting out of bed. I was depressed. I never sought help of treatment but I was smart enough to know what was wrong with me but I just kind of rolled with it, and that was that.
From probably September 2018 through till September 2019, so that 12 month period, I kind of drifted and I just kind of existed. Things got on top of me until September 2019 when I had a heart attack.
Now, heart attacks are horrible. They’re scary, they immediately, in the moment of character, you have during the episode, you confirm your mortality and I’m like, I was just thinking, “God, I’m 37. This shouldn’t be happening.”
I was very fortunate. My sister-in-law was there at the time. She got me to hospital. I was in the hospital for about six hours. The doctor basically said, “You’re fine. That was a warning shot. I’m not going to tell you to cut out red meat or exercise more or anything like that, but whatever it is you’re doing in life right now, stop it because that’s the warning sign. You don’t do it anymore.”
James Blatch: So, in your mind, there was a strong connection with your mental health state and that physical heart attack.
James Sumner: Absolutely. It was the stress and the pressure that I was putting myself under, took a physical toll. And that was the first time, as much as I’ve always been open about my mental health awareness and my own mental health problems throughout the years, but I’ve never associated the mental problems with a physical problem.
And it’s like, actually if you let it, it will put that much of a strain on your body that your body stops. And I was like, “Oh God, now what do I do?” And that was it.
Within 30 days, I’d completely turned my life around. I’ve chosen to go back to work, I’ve gone and got a full-time job again, which is great.
James Blatch: It’s brilliant. A few things I want to pick up. I’m very interested in the plan that you made, and interestingly, one of the positive things you made.
I can hear it in your voice, is you positively decided to stop being a full-time writer living at home and you felt good about that.
James Sumner: I did, yeah.
James Blatch: Which is the opposite thing we say to almost everyone we ever speak to on this podcast.
James Sumner: Exactly. It’s a very strange thing because I would never discourage anyone from wanting to do it. I wanted to do it for as long as I can remember but because of the mindset that’s required to do that for a living, I don’t think it’s for everyone. I honestly don’t.
I know people who can just sit down and they just write for 12 hours straight and be fine, and that’s great. I’ve proven I can’t do it because I nearly killed myself trying.
I would never discourage anyone from doing it but with things like this, what I want to do is just make people aware of there’s more to it than you realize. It’s not just about now your hobby is a business. It’s not just about the mindset of having to run a company and focus on marketing and do all this, it’s the mental aspect of it as well.
Every author knows the regular pitfalls is cat videos on Facebook that will stop you working. We all know that.
James Blatch: They are awesome though.
James Sumner: They are awesome. If I could write a book about cat videos, I would be number one in the planet. There’s procrastination, there’s self-doubt. I was struggling with concentration and writer’s block. Anything like that, they are the things that we know about. They’re the things that authors are aware of and there were multiple options to help deal with them.
What people don’t necessarily think or consider it an issue at the time is things like an unsupportive partner or an unsupportive wife. Now, I don’t imagine I’m in a unique position when I say that’s one thing that happened to me but if you’re a writer and your world exists around introversion and your own space and that creative need to wake up at 3:00 in the morning and write down a way to kill someone.
James Blatch: In a healthy way.
James Sumner: Oh, in a healthy way, yeah. If the person you’re with doesn’t do that, it’s sometimes hard for them to understand and it’s like, “Why are you being miserable locking yourself in this bare room for three hours?”
And it’s like, “I’m not miserable. I’m just working. It’s like me going to an office. Imagine me leaving the house doing the commute and going to work. That’s exactly what this is. I’m just at home.”
But my situation, it was the case of, “Well, you’re home so therefore, here’s a list of chores to do.” And it’s like, “That’s not how it works.” But there was that fundamental lack of understanding which caused conflict.
And as I alluded to before, when there is that conflict in your home environment, which is also your work environment, there’s no escaping it and it very quickly becomes something that’s very hard to deal with.
People don’t always think of that as something that could be a problem. And it’s the same of introversion. Now, my first book fair I remember seeing Joanna Penn speak and so much she said stuck with me all this time. And it was, being an introvert doesn’t mean you hate people or you don’t like the outside world, it just means you find strength on your own.
And the same way an extrovert will go to a party and they will come alive and be … Like Freddie Mercury was an extrovert, you put him in a room full of people and he’s alive.
Introversion is just the opposite of that. Put you in a room on your own and suddenly everything’s fire and that’s where you’re happy. And it’s like, that’s all it is and it’s like, yeah, it is. But people don’t always understand that.
Being on your own for so long sometimes it’s like you forget what it’s like to not be that way. And you need to be able to turn it off. And if you don’t, again, the world becomes a very small place and suddenly going outside becomes a problem and outside is the escape and suddenly there’s no off switch and then you’re just kind of trapped in this cycle of your own life with no escape.
That all sounds very kind of drastic and doom and gloom but that’s exactly what happened to me. And I’ve realized now that I’m probably not the only one that that’s happened to. And I think the good thing about things like this is it’s important to show that you’re not alone if that’s your situation, and it’s not a problem telling people.
It’s not a problem to talk about it. I’m not ashamed to talk about that that’s a struggle. I don’t think anybody should be.
James Blatch: That’s brilliant. There is a point about, which I’m going to come back to, about how long it took you to address it, which is a very common thing as well. We’ll come back to that.
I think also about working from home is that even without the difficulties that you have with your marriage and an unsupportive partner, when you’ve been in a 9:00 to 5:00 and you quit that and you’re working from home, people may very easily dream of that when they’re 9:00 to 5:00 and see the positives but actually don’t realize that your 9:00 to 5:00 existence creates a framework that you exist in where other people take responsibilities for lots of parts of your day. When you’re on your own in your house, it’s you alone, and that can bear down on people.
You’re responsible for every aspect of the career and business that’s going to work and you live with that. And the physical aspect of it, even without, like I say, a partner with things going wrong, is you don’t change your environment at all for hours, days, weeks, months at a time.
I like working from home but I built an office in my garden. It was a really important thing for me to do. I actually could not have gone on working inside the house. It’s a small thing, it’s six yards away but it might as well be down the road, in London.
Those things you do have to think about that.
James Sumner: It’s making that distinction and that was the first thing. And again,
hindsight, at least 2020 as you say and those first six months when I left work and the next day I pretty much did the entire answer office calls.
I just binge-watched a Netflix special for like 18 hours straight, and that was it. And I worked, I would probably say, for two years straight I worked 12, 13, 14, 15 hours a day. I wouldn’t do that for anybody else and I justified it by saying, “Yeah, but this is mine. It’s do or die. If I don’t make this work, I don’t pay the bills.” And that fear kind of kept me going. Well, at the same time, you don’t need to work 18 hours a day to make that happen.
James Blatch: You’re a terrible boss of you.
James Sumner: My boss was horrible. He always made me work. I couldn’t take a dinner break. I got to walk the dog and that was about it, but I got to the point where I was arguing with the dog and that was my only conversation. And when it answers, you know you’re in trouble.
James Blatch: Definitely. Let’s talk about a very important part of this, is how long you went with deteriorating mental health with your level of awareness of what was going on and still really didn’t do anything about it, which is a long time.
Then you have a heart attack and it’s that old thing, you wouldn’t leave a physical element untreated, most people wouldn’t.
James Sumner: No.
James Blatch: But we do leave creeping amounts of crippling mental health untreated, don’t even speak to our mates about it, to a point where it becomes a crisis. And like I say, you’re aware of this.
James Sumner: I am. I am painfully aware and to the point where I’m almost embarrassed by the fact I let it get as bad as it did.
James Blatch: Well, you shouldn’t be embarrassed because I think it’s a very common thing.
James Sumner: Yeah. Well honestly, it is and it’s a real shame because you put it perfectly. If you broke your arm, it won’t just suddenly heal on its own. You’d be walking around like this for the rest of your life.
It’s the same with your mind. If you’re trying to let it heal on its own, it’s going to heal crooked. You need to set the time.
Now, I spent probably 18 months very unhappy trapped in the marriage and then I spent a year drifting along after it ended. So, that’s two and a half years in total of me being very, very sad, very depressed, very unhappy. And I knew how unhappy I was but it’s not fear of change, it’s taking the step to make a change.
People say about victims of domestic abuse, male and female victims, it’s like, “Well, just leave.” It’s like, “Yeah, but I can’t because that’s all I know.” It’s a safe environment even though it’s an unhealthy environment.
It’s safe because it’s what you know and it’s very difficult to make a change on that scale, especially the last 12 months, especially it’s been just me. I’ve not actually been single on my own since I was like 18 so I don’t know what to do with myself, it’s weird.
James Blatch: Video games, surely.
James Sumner: Well, video games to a point, yeah. And that leads back to the procrastination.
James Blatch: Did you think you weren’t making changes because you feared it would make things worse?
James Sumner: Yeah. It’s because I didn’t know what changes to make. I didn’t know where to start. I, as a person, I had no identity. I didn’t know who I was, I didn’t know anything about myself outside of writing and I put writing on the shelf so it was like, it was nothing left.
It was a blank canvas and I don’t know what to do so I just drifted. I just let things happen. And things just got worse because well, I was in denial, I suppose.
It took me two and a half years and a heart attack to make me think, “Okay, next steps. Let’s think about this properly now. I need to make a change.” I’m nearly 40. I’ve not got that many more do-overs in life when it comes to things that you need to … Targets you need to set for yourself so I had to sit down.
My sister-in-law is awesome. She made me do it. She sat me down with a brew when I got home from the hospital and she said, “Here’s a pen and paper, bullet point through the rest of your life right now because you need to make changes.” And I was like, “That’s a good point.”
James Blatch: I was going to ask you how you went about it, the process.
I wondered if there was a list at some point.
James Sumner: It was not a massive list but there was like three or four bullet points on there and it was just like, “What do I enjoy? What do I want to do? What do I want to get out of it?”
And that was the mindset. I was like, “This is what I need to think about doing.” And the first thing was go back to work.
James Blatch: So, the steps you took, go back to work.
Basically not to rely on writing as a career but you probably don’t want to stop writing.
James Sumner: No. And I’ve not stopped writing. To be honest, going back to work has allowed me to find tune in my approach. So now, I’m not particularly following any trends, I’m not looking really what other authors do, I’m just doing it for myself. And if it works, great. If it doesn’t, I’ll try something else.
But the freedom of not having the pressure, and I remember this is something Mark said to me very early on when I first met you guys, he said, “You don’t do it until you’re ready.” I think I remember Mark said like he was going to give himself 12 months of making what he made full-time before he could trust it. But that’s a very good benchmark.
I always kind of thrown into it because I was fired from my full-time job at the time but I made it work, and it was great. But the financial pressure is a lot to handle, especially when you’re doing everything yourself.
As soon as you take that pressure out but you’re still doing something you enjoy doing, I love my full-time job and I never thought I would say that. But I enjoy because I’m not there for the money, I’m there to essentially get me out of the house and be sociable.
Having that environment to go to and then still being able to come home in my spare time, as a hobby, now focus on the writing, with no pressure. It doesn’t have to work for me to eat or pay the electricity bill, and it’s quite liberating. And it’s brought the fun, the love of it back, which I’ve missed greatly.
James Blatch: This is not so much a recipe for what you need to do to be happy. It’s being aware of what you are going to be comfortable with and enjoy.
Working on your own as an author, despite it being the dream a lot of people think they have or have, might not be for everybody.
James Sumner: It probably isn’t for everyone because there’s going to be extroverts who are writers but they’re going to have a physical kind of medical need to be around people. So, you’re going to have to adjust the approach to it.
I would say it’s perhaps not for everyone but that doesn’t mean it’s not something you can pursue. And this is something I’ve discovered because a lot of people who are full-time writers aren’t just writers. Mark is a prime example. Adam Croft, Joanna Penn, they have side hustles, they have other things that you do besides writing that will link to it.
So, writing, as a craft, doesn’t have to be the fundamental nuts and bolts of what you do. You can do all the things that relate to it and you’re still making a living from it.
And for me, doing that required me to go back to full-time work and I got a full-time job as a digital marketer. I’m now a digital marketing executive. And I don’t mind saying I got that job purely on the strength of having done the Self Publishing Formula course.
James Blatch: So there’s a kickback in it for us.
James Sumner: Possibly some commission, yeah.
James Blatch: 10% of the salary I think we said, didn’t we?
James Sumner: You’re getting my valuable time.
James Blatch: We are. And we love that. No, that’s actually brilliant, and we do. Occasionally people talk to us about the course saying, “I’m in a completely unrelated industry. Is there anything in this for me?” And we usually say, “No, it’s specific to books.”
But I think there is. I think if you understand digital marketing for one product, you can do it anywhere else. That’s a side issue. You mentioned your sister-in-law.
James Sumner: Yeah.
James Blatch: An important conversation you had and fantastic of her to sit down and focus you on that recovery plan. But during that two and a half years, the part, period in the unhappy marriage, in the period by yourself when there are not mates around or other people you spoke to.
James Sumner: No. There wasn’t. And this was the annoying thing because, not wanting to get too much into the boring personal side of things but when I got married and I moved away to where she was, I burned a lot of personal bridges to do so because they all said, “She’s a psycho. Don’t go with her.”
James Blatch: Just for legal reasons, she may or may not be.
James Sumner: I’m not naming her but I didn’t listen and I burned a lot of bridges. So, when I left, my entire life or my entire time I was there, so when I moved away from that, there was nothing from my old life there.
So, I spent a fair amount of time on my own, and I needed a bit of time on my own. But I’ve since spent time rebuilding a lot of bridges that thankfully have become stronger than they ever used to be, which is great. And I now have a network of friends to talk to.
What I’ve noticed 10 years on, like my group of friends, you’re just going to sit in the pub and drink and tell bad jokes and things, but now everyone’s older. They’ve got married and have kids and stuff and when you sit down and you have a heart to heart and you say, “Look, do you know what? I’m having a really bad day today. I need a brew.” I’m like, “Yeah, of course. Come out.”
And you can just sit and talk and I think it’s important to have people around you who can take you out and get you drunk and have fun with. But you need people who can sit down, you can trust to say, “Do you know what? I’m having a really bad day. This made me upset yesterday. I’m struggling with this. Can you help?”
That’s important to have and I’m very fortunate to have a handful of people that I can rely on for that. And they can rely on me for it because that level of understanding and that respect, and that’s really helped me in this stage of my life and the next stage.
James Blatch: I think that’s a really good point and I think at a time when things are on top of you … everyone, as you get older life does get more complex for people and you have low moments. So, I think sometimes you think, “I don’t know where to go.”
And you have a long conversation with a good friend who has exactly that.
Even though they don’t have the answers for you, the solution, the therapeutic value of sharing or having that conversation and having some sympathy cannot be underestimated.
James Sumner: And sometimes you just need to talk it out. It’s almost like you’re having a debate with yourself. The amount of times I would literally sit, and even from a writing point of view, I would sit on my own in a room and not be having an out loud conversation with myself like, “How can I kill that guy?” And it sometimes helps.
It’s sometimes easier and that isn’t just for writing. I’m not encouraging people to actively start talking to themselves but talking out loud to someone, anyone who’s willing to listen. It helps you just find your own solutions sometimes and it’s that mental relief.
I always compare it to if you’re cooking and you got a pan on the stove, and if you put the lid on, it’ll start to froth and boil over, and it will all go wrong. Sometimes you got to take the lid off and let a bit of the steam out. That’s all it is.
You just got to look after yourself and that’s the important part, and not be afraid to say that you need to look after yourself as well.
James Blatch: Is it your experience that generally women are probably better at this? Is that a myth and men are talking to each other about stuff?
James Sumner: Do you know what? That’s a tricky one because I suppose you don’t want to say the male and female divide. There shouldn’t be a difference but the fact is women are more comfortable talking to their friends and their peers and other women about their problems.
Whereas typically, if you sit two men down in a room and one of them says, “I’m feeling really sad today.” They’d be like, “Man up, have a shot.” And it’s like, “No, don’t ever say man up to me. That’s not how it works.”
Thankfully, I think more and more men they’re getting comfortable, are realizing it’s okay to talk about stuff like that. And yet it is a predominantly male issue.
I think men throughout the years have had peer pressure balance with ego and thing it’s like, there’s nothing wrong with it. I don’t feel like I’m any less of a man because I’m telling you about mental health issues. I think it takes more strength to have met those problems and chose to hide them.
I know Tyson Fury is a recent interviewer and that’s gained a lot of attention because of how brutally honest he is about his own struggles. And it’s like, you tell that guy that he’s being a baby. Well, it’s because he’s talking about mental health.
James Blatch: I’m not going to.
James Sumner: Exactly. And I’m almost as tall.
James Blatch: Tyson Fury is a very aggressive boxer.
James Sumner: Yeah, exactly. And even someone in his profession has had the issues, has had the battles and has come out the other side and he’s talking about them, and good for him.
James Blatch: Yeah. And the statistics aren’t great for male suicide rates. They’re traditionally higher, have always been higher.
James Sumner: Yeah.
James Blatch: There are several campaigns on it in the UK at the moment. I’m not sure what it’s like in the U.S. and Canada and Australia but in the UK there is a kind of take minutes campaign which they’re using soccer, football in the UK, us, and then I think a few weeks ago, every game was delayed by one minute so it’s a symbolic minute for men to talk to each other and stuff.
You must feel heartened that these are conversations happening now.
James Sumner: I am. I think it’s great. And I know Prince William has done a lot for … Probably Prince Harry as well, over the last kind of five or six years to make it okay and to raise more awareness. And it’s taken this long but people are finally catching on.
Like you say, the extra minute in front of the football matches, that’s a prime example because football is predominantly a male oriented sport. So, putting it in that kind of environment, they’re thinking, “If them footballers are doing it, maybe it’s all right for me to do it.” And it’s like, that’s what we need.
I think it’s brilliant and I still don’t think there are enough people doing it. I think in an ideal world, there shouldn’t be any taboo subjects like that. There shouldn’t be any fear of talking about what’s wrong.
I’ve got no problem talking about it and believe it or not, I’m quite a shy guy. I’m a closed book to a lot of people but when it comes to something like this, it’s important and I have no shame in what I’ve been through.
It sounds cliché but if one person watching this sees it, it clicks and they avoid the pitfalls I’ve been through then job done. Do you know what I mean? That’d be amazing.
James Blatch: Did you seek professional medical help for your mental health issues you saw at the time?
James Sumner: No. I didn’t. I have done in the past when I was younger, I didn’t this time. And I’m not entirely sure why.
I think it was because, again, not wanting to get into it too much but my ex wife was a therapist. It was her job to help people and yet she was putting me through what she put me through. And it’s like, I don’t understand that.
It was very funny. And the thing, I don’t know, maybe subconsciously that put me off going and seeing professional help. It was like, “Well, that’s what the professionals are doing.”
James Blatch: It tainted a bit for you the therapy profession.
James Sumner: Yeah. Exactly. It kind of ruined it a little bit.
James Blatch: Therapy is a very strong thing for people to do and can be very helpful.
James Sumner: Absolutely it is. I’m certainly not knocking, going seeing a therapist. I think it goes back to talking about it. And I know the other therapist is not necessarily their job to tell you the answer, it’s their job to help you find it yourself.
Sometimes, that’s just a case of them sitting down, giving you a brew and letting you talk for an hour. And more often than not, you’ll come to the realization yourself and they’re just there to help you through it.
And you need that, and a friend can do that just as well as a therapist, but it’s important to have somebody. I would never recommend trying to do it on your own because I don’t think anyone can be that strong to pull themselves out and analyze it and sort of look on it.
On the outside looking in, you can’t separate yourself from the situation you’re in. You need someone to say, “I’ve got a minute.”
Now, I had a doctor. That worked fine but I don’t recommend waiting till that stage. Go and see a friend, go and just have a coffee. Turn your laptop off, put your phone on silent, go and talk about your books. Go and do whatever you want but just get out of your environment, just go and see someone and have a chat. It’s all it takes. A little bit every day, prevention is better than cure, that’s what my mother always used to say.
James Blatch: Very, very good advice. So, it was six months ago that you wrote that list, I guess September 2019.
James Sumner: Yeah. It’s approaching six months, yeah.
James Blatch: And how’s has it been?
How’s it fulfilled you now, the decisions you made?
James Sumner: Quite honestly, and I say this with no fear of tempting fate. I can honestly say I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. And I don’t say that saying tempting fate it’s all going to go wrong, it’s not.
I’ve worked bloody hard to get where I am. I’m reaping the rewards finally. I literally couldn’t be happier. I love my job, I’m really good at it. My first day they asked me what click through rate was and I answered and they’re like, “Oh my God, he knows already.”
James Blatch: He knows what click through is.
James Sumner: I’m telling you now, me and Mark. I love my job. It’s opening up a lot of doors for me, for my own work. And this is what I alluded to as well, you don’t necessarily have to stray too far from writing.
Or if you a full-time writer, there are other things you can do. I do freelance work where I assess social media posts for a company. I’m not allowed to name but they’re a big social media platform, you do the math. But I assess social posts, I assess integrity of them and how well they’re targeted.
Now, it kills a couple of hours a day. It’s not particularly taxing but with the author hat on, I’m seeing what all the other Facebook ads in the world are doing and I can take notes, so it’s related. It’s a bit of extra cash in the pocket but it’s related to what I do.
I’m a full-time digital marketer. There’s a lot that I can take away from work that helps me with my own thing, and that’s great. So, it’s not related but there’s no pressure and I actually enjoy it all. And I work under great bunch of people.
I’m not there for the money, which is great. I come home, I get a couple of hours to work on my books, do my own thing. I’ve got time to relax, I’ve got my own space.
James Blatch: And you can play video games without feeling guilty, which is another thing about working for yourself at home, is that, and with any leisure time you take, you have this nagging guilt thing in your ear.
James Sumner: There’s something more I could be doing. And it’s like, there isn’t.
James Blatch: It’s really important to go over that.
If you want to switch off a day or two days, whatever, do that. It’s very important.
James Sumner: In the first 12 months when I was trying to find my own routine, I’d take myself off to the driving range for a couple of hours, just 50 balls, a set of clubs and I’d go back and do another five, six hours then. And that did work me fine.
I did quite like that and I do miss that now being full-time. But you tend to frown on that because if you just do one middle of the afternoon, “Let’s go watch a cinema.” But yeah, there are ways to do it to manage your day but don’t forget that there is a job.
I think sometimes when you make the transition from something you do for fun, making that your living, it’s an adjustment that not everyone realizes they need to make. And you suddenly need to stop doing that in your spare time and do it 9:00 to 5:00 or whatever hours you work but have a cut off point.
James Blatch: Yeah. I can remember when I first quit, which was 2013, I was amazed at how much you get done when you work from home by yourself because there’s no commuting. You can even get up quite late and you’ll be working much sooner and quicker than you would have been when you got up early and went into London whenever.
And actually by 11, 12 o’clock in there, you can get loads done. You need to understand that. You don’t need to necessarily even put in eight hours a day to achieve a good work rate at stuff but we try to kill ourselves usually when we start off because of that crushing pressure.
Are there any specific steps you’re taking to ensure you’re going to carry on, on an even trajectory or upward trajectory mental health wise?
James Sumner: I’m making sure I keep enjoying it. I think that’s the main thing, is I make sure nothing changes that I don’t want to change. If I feel something slipping away, I know enough now, again, hindsight being what it is, I know enough now to spot the signs and nip it in the bud.
There was a period, it was only a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been doing a lot around sort of going through my old books and just reformat them and I’ve got Vellum finally. I’ve seen the light.
James Blatch: Isn’t it lovely?
James Sumner: It is amazing. I’ve been going through but typically as a writer, if you go through your old books to change the format and you’re going to reedit them all. That’s inevitable.
And I’ve been doing that and I was doing that for a couple of weeks and then I suddenly found I wasn’t shutting off at night and it’d be like 1:00 in the morning, I was like, “I just got to finish this page. I’ve got to finish this page because I’m limited with my time in the evening.” And it was like, I’m up at 6:00 to go to work. Stop.
I did that for about two days and I was like, “Hang on a minute, I’m starting to feel burnout,” so I stopped. And I took two days, I got off from work and did nothing. And then I went back to it, and I went back steadily and I went back to doing a couple of hours and then taking my own time.
I was like, “Right, there we go. I strayed from the path a little bit but I spotted it and we’re back now and it was fine.” And it’s just things like that and it’s just not getting complacent because as nice as life is, now as happy as I am, as fun as things are, it’s still work.
It’s still hard work to maintain everything because it’s so easy to just let things go, to think, “I’m all right now so no need to worry about it.” But you do because the moment you stop worrying about it, is when things start to overwhelm you again.
You need to keep on top of it but that doesn’t have to be a job. It’s just a case of changing your mindset a little bit, just changing your outlook on things realizing it’s okay to take a couple of hours for yourself. Just little things like that, little things make a big different, especially when it comes to mental health.
James Blatch: James, it’s fantastic talking to you.
James Sumner: Thank you. It’s been good.
James Blatch: Thanks. Well, thank you so much for being so open and so educational about it as well.
We don’t talk about this stuff enough.
James Sumner: I have no problem talking about what I’ve been through because there’s no reason it can’t be seen as a positive thing. It’s ended up being positive for me so it’s good to hopefully to show people that there were ways to cope with it, there were ways to deal with it and there’s light at the end of the tunnel because that’s not always the thing that people realize. There is a way out. You’ll be fine.
James Blatch: I’m so happy for you that you quit the author lifestyle and got a 9:00 to 5:00.
James Sumner: Exactly, yeah.
James Blatch: Because it’s the dream at the moment.
James Sumner: It’s weird. Like three and a half years of being my own boss. When I went for the interview, the guy who interviewed me ended up being my boss and he’s like, “I’ve got to ask, how are you going to find the transition going back to working for someone else?” And I’m like, “Don’t worry about it. Just tell me what to do.”
James Blatch: You’ll be all right.
James Sumner: It’s been great. It’s been literally the best thing ever. I’m very happy. Fantastic.
James Blatch: Okay. There you go, James Sumner. A brilliant interview and a brilliant guy. And
I think it’s worth reiterating that he is a much, much happier person than clearly he was, as you heard from the interview. He had very low points in his life. Things got very desperate for him indeed.
He’s now back in full-time work where he has mates at work and goes for a drink after work or a cup of tea as he talks about a lot. And he still writes in the evening.
He hasn’t given up his dream of being a writer and it might be in the long run that James does end up quitting his 9:00 to 5:00 again and working full-time as a writer but it’s about adjusting your life and not necessarily thinking, “Well that’s my definitely of success,” without taking a step back and thinking, “Is that my definition of success? Is that what I want?” And it obviously went a bit too far in James’s case before he asked those big questions of himself.
Mark Dawson: Everyone has to consider what they want out of life really and which career is going to enable you to get what you want. So, on the one hand, I’m very happy with what I’ve built, the writing and then SPF and maybe we’ll have another business with Hello Books as well in the longterm. I’m happy with that.
I feel the kind of work/life balance is pretty good for me. I don’t work very long hours. 9:00 till 5:00, that’s kind of the maximum for me. I don’t work weekends. So, that’s fine but it is.
I do remember in the early days, it’s when you feel that you have an opening and you’ve got to work really hard to take advantage of that.
Actually, going back a little further now, I remember when I was originally published by Macmillan in 1999, 2000, I remember having an agent interested in a short story that I’d written and then saying … I basically lied and told them that it was an extract from a novel and they asked me for the full novel.
And I had to make a series of excuses whilst I went back and wrote a novel in six weeks, which for me, I was a lawyer at the time so working long hours in London and then getting home at 7:00 or 8:00 and then working till 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning to get the words in.
And at the end of that, I was … I don’t get sick very often but I was just exhausted. I couldn’t get out of bed. And it’s kind of not physical exhaustion, just mental exhaustion. I just completely drained myself.
I haven’t had that since but I think it is something that you can fall prey to, especially if it feels like the price you’ve always wanted is tantalizingly within grasp. And maybe you want to finish a novel to finish a trilogy because you think that’s what you need to go full-time.
Or if you are full-time as a writer, maybe you want to make 10,000 a month or 15,000 a month and you feel you’re close and maybe you feel that if you don’t hurry, then the audience will move on and forget about you.
It’s quite easy to forget about the fact that if you don’t look after yourself, everything else is irrelevant. You can’t write if you’re sick.
James, it’s a good interview. And I’ve heard James talk about him quite often about him on his podcast and I thought we should get him on to bring it to our audience would be a valuable thing to do. So, I hope people got plenty out of that.
James Blatch: Yeah. And another aspect of this to think about that James discovered is that working in isolation wasn’t for him and it isn’t for everybody. It seems like a dream and it sort of suits me because I don’t like other human beings but social people like James who enjoy the company of other people and being jovial but it doesn’t suit everyone.
Motivating yourself during the day, being for fairly long periods by yourself and being close to your family but they’re not really understanding what it is you do, which is certainly the case in mine. They have no idea what happens in my office.
That’s not for everyone and sometimes other people fry even in an environment where there’s people around them all the time and everything’s shared a little bit.
Now, there’s ways around that possibly. I mean, this current pandemic has brought zoom.us to everyone’s attention. And suddenly all my neighbors are using this product that we’ve been using for years.
Mark Dawson: Which we’re using now.
James Blatch: And using now. And people are realizing that actually you can do this. You can open a beer in the evening and get a couple of friends on for a chat.
And actually, if you’re working by yourself when you’ve got author friends, rather than meet up at conferences and just exchange emails in between, why don’t you also twice a month get a little Zoom chat going and just pass the time a day for an hour? That’s the sort of thing that’s I think a healthy thing to do for us.
So, well done James. I think first of all, because it’s quite brave talking about your mental health, talking about breakdowns, talking about recovery and all the rest of it.
It’s an important conversation that we have. Conversations that are more common today than they certainly were when I was younger, probably the same for you as well, Mark. You’re not that much younger than me. So yeah.
Mark Dawson: Well, I’m looking at me in the moment and it doesn’t look that way.
James Blatch: No. You look older than me.
Mark Dawson: I’ve gone full Robinson Crusoe at the moment.
James Blatch: Knocking on 60 if you’re watching on YouTube. I’m looking forward to your 50th. That must be coming up soon.
Mark Dawson: F off. It’s four years yet, granddad.
James Blatch: You’re the same age as my wife.
Mark Dawson: I was just looking out the window and there’s a great big brush this side brushing my window so the window cleaners have come around.
James Blatch: I hope he’s socially distancing himself. Our window cleaner is not cleaning windows.
Mark Dawson: He is very far away, yes.
James Blatch: Good. Okay. Look, excellent. That’s it for today. Quite a busy episode.
And just to remind you that our bestseller course. Do not miss that discount where we’ll not be retrospectively applying it. It’s $100 off the full price of 297 so you get it for 197, an equivalent for the payment plan which goes over 12 months to make it very affordable indeed.
If you go to selfpublishingformula.com/bestseller, you need to do that by midnight on April the 30th. Which midnight in the world? The last midnight in the world, I always say. So, midnight on April the 30th. I think it’s Easter Island, I think is the last midnight in the world.
Do you think we’ve got a big island in Easter Island? Right. I think the rural broadband has just frozen again, which is just in time for me to say a goodbye by myself. So, I have to do it for Mark.
I have to say it’s goodbye from me and it’s goodbye from him. Goodbye.
Speaker 1: Get show notes, the podcast archive and free resources to boost your writing career at selfpublishingshow.com. Join our thriving Facebook group at selfpublishingshow.com/facebook. Support the show at patreon.com/selfpublishingshow. And join us next week for more help and inspiration so that you can make your mark as a successful indie author. Publishing is changing so get your words into the world and join the revolution with the Self Publishing Show.
Grab Your SPF Freebies!
Sign up to receive your SPF starter package, which includes a free 3 part video series on getting started with FB ads, and inspirational and educational weekly emails.