SPS-265: How to Make a Living Writing Book Club Fiction – with Boo Walker
It took some time for Boo Walker to find the genre he loved, but since taking advice from a trusted mentor, he hasn’t looked back, publishing both independently and with Amazon imprint Lake Union.
- Updates on Mark and James’ works-in-progress
- What is ‘more readable literary fiction’?
- Advice from a mentor about the importance of writing what’s in your heart
- How to plot a book without external goals
- The importance of realizing that every writer struggles with the same questions
- On the back-and-forth editing process with a publisher like Lake Union
- The benefits of working with those who excel at their craft
Resources mentioned in this episode:
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
MERCH: Are you a ligneous beetle or a yawning hippopotamus? Get your SPF hoodies and t-shirts in the brand new SPF Store.
SPS-265: How to Make a Living Writing Book Club Fiction - with Boo Walker
Announcer: On this edition of the Self-Publishing Show...
Boo Walker: I come from a stock trading world and I think about diversification a lot. I still do, because I'm terrified that if Amazon goes under, I'm going under.
Announcer: 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. It's James Blatch.
Mark Dawson: And Mark Dawson.
James Blatch: You gave me a little three, two, one there, you've never done that before.
Mark Dawson: I'm a professional.
James Blatch: Was that like your frustrated floor manager? Actually, I think you're supposed to go five, four...
Mark Dawson: Yes.
James Blatch: Do you remember Wayne's World, and they all did it with you? "Now, stop doing that." Loved Wayne's World. That's a franchise that needs to be resurrected. I'm sure the 50-year-old ageing Garth and Wayne who haven't changed at all would be a Bill and Ted type thing they could resurrect.
James Blatch: Anyway, let's not produce Hollywood movies. Let's write books. Let's find out what's happening with our books. Mark, what's happening with your book, Atticus 2: Return of Atticus? This time, just when you thought it was safe to go back in the woods?
Mark Dawson: Yes, James. It's coming on. I'm at 95,000 words. I'm at the I think the penultimate read through. I'll return through and layer things on and I'm changing a character from a private investigator to a detective, so there'll be some consequential changes that I need to go through.
I just think with these kinds of books, it's quite twisty. And I wanted to chuck in a couple of extra red herrings to make it even twistier. It's been a little bit challenging, a bit of making sure that the twists are well seeded earlier in the narrative. It means just going through it again and then again.
So by the time I've finished it, I probably would have gone through it about six times, but I'm quite pleased with it. It's pretty good.
James Blatch: You layer and work on your existing manuscript, rather than park that and then rewrite it.
Mark Dawson: I've never understood total rewrites. I layer as I go. So I suppose probably if you looked at how many words I've been in Scrivener, it's probably 200,000 words. So in some ways, I am rewriting it, but not from a blank page.
James Blatch: What's your timetable for Atticus?
Mark Dawson: I don't really have one, but as soon as it's ready. My plan is, although current events have been slapping me in the face quite a lot recently, I think if I'm finished by Friday, that's been what I'm aiming for. Get it to my copy editor and my police, Neil Lancaster, who's probably listening is a ex-detective sergeant, writer in his own right now. He looks through it to make sure that I've got my police stuff correct.
So he'll get it at the same time as my editor. And then I'll get that back 10 days afterwards, probably.
James Blatch: And in terms of marketing, how much crossover is there with Milton's audience and Isabella's?
Mark Dawson: Not quite as much. I'll probably have, let's say I got 15,000 pre-orders from Milton, but I'll probably get 5,000 pre-orders for an Atticus book. So it isn't as popular. It still does very well. It's a long-term, different series. So there is a commercial reason why I'm doing that, just to have a different string to my bow, but most importantly, it's kind of a palate cleanser.
Because I'll jump straight into Milton after this. It's nice for me to write something that is a bit different in terms of structure, different characters, and set in a local area, which is quite fun to write about.
James Blatch: And you switched a PI to a employed detective. I was thinking about this, because we did, it my birthday yesterday. Thank you. And we did an escape room, an online escape room and the story was this private detective, you're working for them. It was quite well done. You make phone calls and there's false Twitter accounts set up and a few puzzles to solve. I did enjoy it actually.
But it did make me think that in the UK, we don't really have the culture of private detectives like they do in America, at least as far as I can tell, looking at TV. It's a bit more of a trade, more commonly used.
I think in the UK, they perhaps do a little bit of research for you, but they don't walk down the street solving crimes in the way that certainly according to Hollywood, they appear to.
Is that an issue for you, because of the limited amount of private detective work that goes on in the UK?
Mark Dawson: I've employed private detectives before, remember, when I was a lawyer. There is an industry, and some of it is a little shady as well. You don't have to look too far to find stories of corrupt private detectives, typically ex-police, who move into that kind of field.
There's a famous murder case in the '70s. Can't remember the name of the guy now, but he was killed with an axe. The suspicion is that it was a private detective who did that.
So it isn't quite as... you don't have the Raymond Chandler gumshoe idea of a private detective that you might do-
James Blatch: I was thinking of Magnum, actually.
Mark Dawson: Yes, well, Magnum as well you don't really get either of those. But it is an industry, there are people out there looking for missing spouses.
The thing is, in the UK, it's a little bit more prosaic and mundane. So it might be following someone to make sure, if they've claimed whiplash, the detective is employed by the insurance agency to take photos of them playing squash. So there is a lot of that.
I employed detectives to find out where people had hidden money. Without saying too much, I suppose, one detective was able to tell me how much was in the defendant's bank account. So obviously, I couldn't use the information. It was almost certainly acquired illegally, but it was useful to know where we should be looking in legitimate ways to get that same information.
James Blatch: Okay, that's interesting. That's useful background knowledge for you. Good. Well, we'll look forward to Atticus 2.
I'm still working towards the copy deadline for end of Feb to hand over, have a chat with Andrew Lowe in the next day or two. But I'm enjoying going through the scenes now, just rewriting them and just really genuinely running them through ProWritingAid and making sure that there's nothing too bad there.
We've got a fantastic author today, a man called Boo Walker, whose swimming pool we have nearly swum in. We were invited to a pool party, a couple years ago very kindly by Boo when he lived in Florida. I had a very lovely evening with him and his wife in a beautiful house, in St. Petersburg. We didn't get in the pool, but some other people who may or may not have been on this podcast did get in the pool.
Boo has subsequently moved to Valencia. A bit of a travel bug, him and his family have that, and they've got a son and they've moved to Valencia in beautiful Spain, just in time to be locked down for the year. But at some point we'll perhaps go and see him and enjoy an orange juice, a Valencia orange juice down there.
Boo writes literary fiction. Think of Sideways, the movie. I think that's a type of story he loves, a book he writes well, he loves his wine as well.
Mark Dawson: "I'm not drinking effing merlot."
James Blatch: Yeah, exactly. And interestingly, Boo has signed with Amazon. So he was all for self-publishing and that's something that he was definitely actively looking at and does a bit of running ads. But he is one of these people who, if he can have a publishing deal and work with those professional editors, so he's with Lake Union, one of the imprints inside Amazon that's working really well for him. So really interesting to talk to Boo, lovely guy. Let's hear about his method, his process. And then Mark and I will be back for a quick chat off the back.
Boo Walker, welcome to the Self Publishing Show. How exciting to have you on.
Boo Walker: It is my pleasure. I'm so happy to be here.
James Blatch: We're going to talk about your life as a writer. But I think particularly I'm interested to hear the experience of signing with an Amazon imprint. What that's like, the difference between being pure indie, pure trad, working with Amazon as one of their authors.
And you're not the only one in our community. There's quite a few. Imogen Clark springs to mind, she got an offer quite early on and now works on their romance or women's literary side of it. But that's what we're going to talk about.
But before then, obviously people need to know who you are. And we should also say you have just recovered from the dreaded rona.
Boo Walker: Yes, indeed, I mentioned earlier, I've just gone on my first run since having COVID. I'm finally feeling back to normal, except I still can't smell and taste that well. I literally hold my coffee up to my nose and I can just barely tell that it's coffee.
James Blatch: Wow.
Boo Walker: Which is an improvement from Christmas day, when I literally couldn't have smelled gasoline.
James Blatch: It's incredible, isn't it, the effect it has on some people. Some people obviously very, very serious, other people asymptomatic and then somewhere in the middle, this spectrum and it sounds to me like you had a pretty rough time with it. You were I think probably confined to bed for a couple of days.
Boo Walker: Yeah, we live in Spain, and had been rather careful, pretty darn careful. But we believe it happened through school, through our son going to this small Montessori school.
And what's crazy is his two best friends' families, at least one person in each family tested positive. They were completely asymptomatic. My son had a little bit of a fever, my wife, a little bit of a cold and fever. I got hit pretty bad for about a week. Not hospital bed, but I was definitely bedridden for a bit and couldn't do anything except watch movies, which was nice for the incubator of coming up with new stories.
James Blatch: Yes, go into the incubator for a bit. Well, anyway, that's good that you're back on your feet. And it's January the 11th we're recording this, so it's taken a little while.
I do a bit of running myself. I don't go running unless I feel okay. So that's a good metric, isn't it, that you're feeling all right again.
Boo Walker: It's brilliant. We have this beautiful riverbed, dried up riverbed in Valencia. I was just running through it, just so thankful to be back to normal and ready to embrace the new year and start writing and that kind of thing indeed.
James Blatch: Good. Okay. Well, let's talk about you as a writer Boo. You and I first met in Florida, during the NINC Conference. You very generously hosted a really fun pool party and barbecue, which I will not forget, at your house in St. Petersburg.
I started to understand then that you wrote, I would say literary fiction with a romantic aspect or not, or how would you describe it?
Boo Walker: I would call it up lit. Upmarket literary fiction, meaning, I started out writing thrillers and even back then, there was always a love interest. So I always have romance in my stories on some level, but I would call it up lit, which is maybe better described as book club fiction, which has been my last five books. And the basic concept is more readable than literary fiction.
And certainly, I'm probably not capable of writing true literary fiction. I don't think anyone's going to study me down the line. But just more on the page turning level of literary fiction, and I guess where I find myself comfortable is writing about everyday characters that are getting knocked down by everyday things like death, getting fired, things that just grab all of us. And figuring out a way to get back up.
So that's why I've landed with Lake Union who classifies themselves as book club fiction.
James Blatch: Were you initially self publishing or have you been traditionally published in the past?
Boo Walker: I never have. I wrote two and a half thrillers, and it was my first, meaning a novella and two novels. It was my first novel where I did the whole thing, and I found an agent and I was quite sure I was going to be a millionaire. This was a decade ago.
I landed an agent and almost landed a deal with Bantam Dell, the editor was really excited. Sent me back to the woodshed to change a couple of the point of views. And by the time I got back to her, just a few months later, the editor left Bantam Dell, and it was over.
I wrote another thriller, and I really started to beat my head against the wall. I was like, "I'm meant for greatness and nothing's happening." I've learned 10 books later that you've got to lower your expectations, and just keep writing that next book.
So then I parted ways with that agent, a lot of it might have been because I really wanted to break into writing something different than thrillers. There was probably several reasons for that. One was it was just so darn crowded.
But also I was being pulled toward writing, like I said, something that was more meaningful than me. There's some incredibly deep thrillers out there. But I had moved out west and I was working in a vineyard and I was feeling a bit more romantic about life, maybe more pondering things, and also I had fallen in love, we were talking about children. All of a sudden my interest level in reading about children that had been kidnapped or any kind of dark stuff wasn't as interesting to me on any level. And especially now that I've had a child who is now seven. I'm still the same way. I don't want touch Harlan Coben novels, where I used to just rip through them.
I parted ways with my agent, because she wasn't that excited about this new path. I said I want to write about these four really colourful, interesting characters who are fighting for life, love and belonging in one country. She was like, "How about something closer to Gone Girl?"
I kept getting pulled and then I met a woman named Leila Meacham, randomly, who is a big star in my genre. She's the one who encouraged me and said, "You're not writing exactly what you should be writing. Write what's in your heart, quit thinking about making money or any of these things. Write what's in your heart." So that's what's led me to the genre I'm in now.
James Blatch: I think we referenced Sideways, the film, when I was talking to you before, because you have a passion for wine. And that sort of story, the intertwining of relationships.
Is that the sort of thing that you're writing now?
Boo Walker: Yeah, exactly. I have realised that I absolutely love Woody Allen, I love Sideways, I love dysfunctional characters, dysfunctional families, because the conflict is just so real.
My big challenge as I was starting Red Mountain was all of a sudden I'm going to try to write a page turner, which is the number one standard that I'm holding myself to. If it's not a page turner, I don't want to write it. But how can I do that when there's not a mystery to solve, or someone chasing my character or the character chasing someone else?
In those first thrillers that I wrote, it's just the page turnability is a little bit easier to access. So how do you do that when you've just got four seemingly... well, not normal, colourful characters on Red Mountain where there's no guns involved and there's no one chasing you? How do you do that?
I think you start to look inward, and you start focusing more on the interior of the characters and what they need to do to learn. I got really fascinated by what characters want, and then what the characters need. We all studied that as writers.
I think maybe with my genre, it becomes a little bit more about what they need and a little bit less about actually trying to accomplish something. Though, of course, I've learned the hard way that even in my kind of genre, you do need something external that the character is trying to achieve.
James Blatch: I was going to ask you that. It sounds like a tough write to me. As you know, I'm famously very long-windedly writing a thriller, and the external goals drive the book. So it's pretty easy for me to plot it out. I spend time thinking about the internal goals and how they're revealed, in what they're doing.
It seems to me an easier way of doing it than writing what might be a family saga or a relationship over a period of time, where it is all about, as you say, those interior motivations.
How did you come up with the scenes, without an exterior goal, without a meaning to the scene to move it along?
Boo Walker: It's a great question. I can talk about it for about 58 hours, because I mull it over all the time. I tried with my last book that comes out in August, I tried to start it out without a very specific external goal. Maybe there were a few along the way, of course, but there wasn't an overarching goal.
I realised that even in my genre, it can get a little bit muddy. And the last thing you want to do, I'm in Valencia, Spain now, and last thing I want to do is pitch a book where it's just a character who lands in Spain and is just hanging out. They have to do something.
The most successful book that I know of in my genre is called When We Believed in Mermaids, by fellow Lake Union author, and she did a really smart thing. She had a character in the first chapter, is watching the news and sees the sister she thought died in a terrorist accident in Europe, on the telly, on the television. And there's so much more to the book. But she goes to Australia to find this character.
I tell you, I read it really fast. I'm reminded how important it is even in my genre to have that external goal. And then you can plot it. And as you and I both have talked about Aaron Sorkin lately, he talks about-
James Blatch: I was just thinking about Aaron Sorkin's description of some of these ideas. Go on.
Boo Walker: Yeah, he talks about just intention and obstacle, and he talks about, you still need to know where the character is going. And if you have that, it's almost like, I've forgotten what analogy he used, the clothesline, and then you can just drape everything else on top of it.
Because I have a lot to say, outside of just the plot. And maybe in my genre, I can get away with that a little bit more, because I can have a big, long dinner scene that might not be driving the character as much. But as long as you have that tight line running through it. And so I've been working on several stories now.
But to answer your question, maybe I can reference Red Mountain again, which is the first of the books that I wrote in this genre. And what I did is, where are the threats? And the threat is these guys are on Red Mountain in wine country, because they love this one region, and they want to put it on the map. So there's your first external goal, but let's get more specific.
This guy Otis that I wrote about, this old English guy who's rather grumpy, he is super passionate about protecting Red Mountain. So then where do the plots come from? And how do I dial that in more?
Well, let's send a guy who wants to do the exact opposite to Red Mountain and bring a carnival to Red Mountain, which would completely squash this man's beautiful British old world ideal of a Burgundy in Washington State, where you have this romantic vineyard. And then all of a sudden, he's threatened with three doors down, you have a carnival or something like that.
James Blatch: There is in a way, as you said at the beginning, you do have to have some sort of external goal, even if the balance... In a thriller, in Mark Dawson's books, and the book I'm writing, you do have scenes that don't really drive... It sort of feels like you are breaking the rule, but you have scenes that just reinforce, so people understand where a character is at that time. I think that's okay in a novel thing, I think that's what a novel is all about.
I think maybe the balance you're talking about is a little bit more of those scenes, so we are understanding to a much more minute degree, how a character is thinking and slowly changing. But also in the context of this goal being moved, whereas balance is the other way around with a thriller.
Boo Walker: Certainly. And I think a lot of times, the goal can certainly be moved. And also, the goal can be kind of silly and come out of a character thinking they want something that will make them happy, but they don't actually achieve it.
I've been going back and forth. I mentioned my mentor, Leila Meacham, who is in Texas. I've been writing back and forth with her and she feels pretty strongly that there just needs to be a goal and it can be rather vague on some level.
The first 30% of a book can be this character wants to find love after losing their widow five years ago, or they want to just find meaning. All the craft books will famously say, "Please don't tell me your character wants to be happy." And I agree, that's not very specific.
But maybe the first half of the book, the character just wants to find a way to smile again, because they lost their loved one. So certainly there is a balance.
But I did, like I mentioned, I learned the hard way in this last book, as I went head-to-head with a really wonderful editor named Tiffany Yates Martin. She just said, "I see where your external goal is and you don't see that you've written it." And she said, "This is it. Now go back and make sure the reader is aware of it all the way through." And that's what I did.
I think she made the book so much stronger and more appealing, because like I said, the last thing you want to do is have characters just walk into a room without an agenda and just flex your literary muscle and talk about the wallpaper for five minutes.
James Blatch: And use the word discombobulate or something. That's another point that Aaron Sorkin makes. We both watched his masterclass recently, and I remember a bit at the beginning when he said people come to him with these story ideas. Like for instance, you said, we'll talk about your move to Valencia in a bit.
But you've upped your family, you've moved to Valencia in Europe. Someone would pitch that to Sorkin. That's a great story idea, isn't it? And he would say that's not a story. That's a situation. And then they'd say, "Well, okay, then they find a billion pounds worth of euros in the attic." Now we're getting to a story. There's a difference between a situation and a story that you can work with.
I think if you look at The Social Network, a really good example, he wasn't handed the story of, I can't remember the twins' names now. What were they called? Anyway, the twins took them to court to try and get their ownership of Facebook from Zuckerberg.
He wasn't handed that story. He was handed Facebook, the story, let's do the story of Facebook. And he knew straightaway, that's not a story. You can't make a two hour film of people developing a huge platform, being very successful.
And he talked to lots of different people, had those conversations, he talked about in the research aspect of masterclass, where he says. "You don't really know what you're looking for. You just talk." And then this little nugget came out, this conflict.
And of course, that's the key to a story for him, as you said, it's conflict, obstacle.
Boo Walker: And with Zuckerberg, in that specific case, I think what he came up with is, he wanted to be not just relevant, he wanted to be the popular guy. So it's somewhat vague at first, and then he comes to, "I want to start Facebook and crush." But I know exactly what you're talking about.
James Blatch: That was really interesting. It's worth watching. I think it's $99 a year or something for masterclass. They're not, I have to say, compared to the Mark Dawson-esque detailed courses of practical use to your life, they're not that. They're a little bit top level.
Boo Walker: Once you've done all the modules, then maybe masterclass.
James Blatch: But it's a top level thing. It's something to listen to while you're doing the washing up. But I've really, really enjoyed some of those. Sorkin is a very, very down to earth, the way he describes writing to come up with story ideas. I think he's a genius and I've adored everything he's done.
So there's a temptation to put people like him on a pedestal, that they're doing something different, that's unattainable. And when you listen to him talking, it's not at all. He's wrestling with the same things we wrestle with, and just making them work better.
Boo Walker: You and I have talked about this, he works really hard and he faces the same things all of us face, which is doubt, major doubt. And his whole point is I've just spent so many hours beating my head against the wall. But every once in a while, the muse comes to me. And if you can do that every few days, then you can string together and come up with a story.
It was so refreshing for me to see that, because I'm definitely one of these guys who can get a bit depressed and overwhelmed with the gig of writing and with the emotional aspect of it. It was so good to see a master of the craft like him say the same thing that, "Hey, I have times where I just want to jump out the window." But then it all comes back to perseverance, which is such a theme, probably in every single one of your interviews.
James Blatch: Yeah, indeed. We'll talk a little bit about process as well in a bit, but let's carry on with the books then, Boo.
So you started writing what you wanted to write, some good advice. And Red Mountain, was that your first novel?
Boo Walker: That was my third full length novel, after the thrillers.
James Blatch: When did the Amazon contract happen or how did that happen? Did you self-publish the thrillers?
Boo Walker: I self-published the thrillers and I was doing all the tricks we all have done in the past, Bargain Booksy and BookBub and that kind of thing, and making a little bit of money, but it wasn't much to speak of.
And then I wrote Red Mountain. And all of a sudden, I started to see that I had struck a chord, and I was getting a lot of notes from readers. And then this was my little window to success that I was able to take, which was, I'm sure SPF had a lot to do with it. I started dabbling with AMS ads.
And like all of us, I would run into times where I was just losing money, but I kept toying with it and kept toying with it. And then all of a sudden, I ran into a couple of auto ads, auto meaning auto targeted, sponsored brand ads. And the ACOS, basically, the measurement of the success of the ad was rather low, 60%, 55%.
James Blatch: Which is good for people who don't understand what ACOS is. 100% is breakeven, actually complicated by the royalties. But more or less 100% is breakeven. Above that, you're losing money in theory, although read through, below that you're making money. For authors, anything below 100 is golden goose time.
Boo Walker: Gold goose, ramp it up. I was a little bit scared at first, my thrillers were still not doing anything, really. But Red Mountain started climbing the charts. And I started raising the bid. I started raising the limit.
The ACOS was staying the same. And it was like, "What is going on?" And after a couple months, I keep cranking and I was getting to the point where I was spending $500, $800, $1,000 a day and keeping the ACOS at 75%. Sometimes it would creep up into the 80s. But the story was the same. It was 1,000 bucks a day and I'm killing it.
James Blatch: This is one book, Boo.
Boo Walker: One book.
James Blatch: You're spending $1,000 a day on occasion. 365,000 a year.
Boo Walker: Yeah, and really not on occasion. This was pretty much every single day, unless I was running out of money and I had to back off the ads to catch up.
So this went on for a year and a half. I'm reaching out to friends and I don't want to tell many people, because it feels like I'm cheating in a way and I'm writing David Gaughran and I'm saying, "What is happening here, am I doing something wrong?" And of course, I'm not making money. That was the thing is, I'm making a little bit of money. I'm spending six figures, but I'm not making any money, because I had one book. I had not even planned on writing a series, let alone a sequel.
But here comes a year and a half in, and I'm still spending this kind of money. And my mindset was not, well, of course, it's always to make money, but I was very much more focused on finding readership. I was like I've got a unicorn ad going. I just want to find readers, because this thing's going to die at some point. I just need to take advantage of it. And in the meantime, I started writing the sequel.
And finally I get the book two out and I start seeing some profit and then I'm like, "Hey." I went to NINC and I'm seeing how quickly some of our fellow authors can write and I said I got to just jump on this.
I got Dragon and I started dictating into a dictaphone, and I dictated a novella. That was just instantly more sales, more sales, and all of a sudden, that ad is still working, but all of a sudden, I have profit. I released a book three. I'm going to take this to exactly how I landed with Lake Union, somehow, because I know that's what you're asking.
But then, my fear of this ad really started worrying me, because I had renamed it the OG gangster ad. I was just amazed by it. And when I did share with people, people were shocked.
And then I got a Prime deal, I can't remember when this was, two or three years ago, I got a Prime deal. And I really just wanted to back off my ad spend, because I wanted to collect some of these profits and to see what was going on.
And the Prime deal and it was a huge one, and it knocked me into the top 100 with Red Mountain, which is great, because it was a few years old, and it was like, God, this book has staying power.
I made a huge mistake, and I turned the ad off. And in hindsight, I should have just backed off the bids, but I turned it off and I turned everything off. And I was like I'm just going to see what I can do if I don't spend any money. And my books soared for six months, it was in the top 100 probably, or top 150. I think it got down into 30 or 40 for a while.
It was right during that time that I started to realise, man, this is a dangerous game I'm playing. My whole living right now and my profit, I had a day job, my whole profit is based off a couple of ads, and when they do die, because they will, I'm looking at getting the rug pulled out from under me, and I just want to diversify. I come from a stock trading world. I think about diversification a lot. I still do because I'm terrified that if Amazon goes under, I'm going under. I think that's probably the way a lot of people are, Jeff Bezos all the way down.
So anyway, I said I want to get back to trying to be, to going after a trad deal of some sort. But I had had my eye on Lake Union, and a lot of that is because when I was in the charts, I'm looking at my competitors, and they're all Lake Union.
And not only that, I just love the appeal of the speed of Lake Union versus a top five publisher, where I had played that game, and I had waited two and a half years trying to get an editor to bite, once I had gotten an agent to bite. So I was really excited with Lake Union.
I did something I don't necessarily recommend, which is I had reached out to a friend in Seattle, who I knew, knew the head of Lake Union. I got her email address and I emailed her. And if you guys all do this, I'm going to get in a lot of trouble, so please don't do this.
James Blatch: I guess it's not going to work every time. But you've got to have the right book. If they would have taken a casual glance at your sales in the previous two years, and Amazon's not a charity, they haven't taken you on Boo, out of sympathy, because you're a friend of a friend.
They've looked at your book for the last two years and thought this is probably a no-brainer.
Boo Walker: Yeah, exactly. And to my great surprise, she wrote back and the gist of it was, "I'm interested in talking and I know who you are." And that was really gratifying.
And then the greatest thing happened, which was not a week after that, an agent reached out to me, said, "I really would like to talk to you about representation." And me being indie, I instantly was like, "I don't need representation." That's the last thing I want to do is share any of the profits.
I took the call maybe for my ego, more than anything else, because I just wanted to say after a million rejections, someone comes to me, and I just wanted to say no. But we ended up having a phone call and I just fell in love with my agent who I still work with today.
She said, "I can help you with Lake Union." And sure enough, two months later, we sent a proposal to Lake Union with some first chapters. Lake Union came back and said, "We have a slot for you this year, if you can get a book done in three months, and get it to our editor." And I just tapped into my inner Led Zeppelin and said, "Absolutely, I can do it."
And thankfully, I had an idea brewing and I was ready to write it and fired it off. And that came out in August, and it's been doing great. It's been in the top 150, since it came out in August, broke the top 20 at times.
James Blatch: When you're working with Lake Union, what did you send to them after those three months, is that first draft?
Boo Walker: So what I did, and what I have done in the past two and I plan to do in the future is I have an acquisitions editor who is the main person. I send them a first draft of sorts, that's been cleaned up with my beta readers. And then he basically comes back and says, "I don't like the idea of two points of views," or, "Let's just go to one point of view," or, "This is a major problem."
And then I have about six weeks before I hit my developmental editor. That's when I really try to prep it for her. And when I hand it into her, it might have a third or fourth draft feel to it. And then she completely rips it apart.
Lake Union's timeline is deadly. She'll come back, my recent one, 10 pages of single spaced comments, plus just the whole manuscript ripped apart, and they say, "Can you get it back to us in three weeks," or a month. I just look at my wife, and I say, "Honey," and my son, I say, "I'll see you guys in a month." This is just the way it is. I'm going to be working 6:00 to 6:00.
Now, if I've done my job right, if I've been grooving, which I did for my first book, maybe it's not 15 hour days, but with the book that I just finished with my editors this year, it was a doozy. I bit off a lot and I had to face the fire, for real. But it was so worth it. It was so worth it.
James Blatch: Yeah, it's not for everyone, that, and some people don't... One of the reasons they do like indie publishing is that they don't have somebody cracking a whip and all those deadlines. Other people thrive on it.
It seems to me it's a framework within which you can work well.
Boo Walker: I think so. What I have learned is that I'm a better writer with editing. I am so excited to work with Lake Union, because they put me with really great editors. And this one in particular, Tiffany Yates Martin, who has an amazing book out that she released this year that I recommend, her vision is extraordinary.
And though it was a lot of work, and I was warned early on, there's no doubt that the book went up a level. And being an indie author for so long and following everybody in 20Books and SPF and everything, there is this mentality of you've got to get as many books out as possible. And Lake Union's push and really where my heart is too is, I'd rather write one really good book a year, or maybe if I can, one book every two years to where I can polish it and make sure the themes are strong, that every motivation lines up with every character's wants, and the payoff is strong on every level.
I can't do that in three months. I can't do that in five months. But having a developmental editor who can help see it from the outside point of view, helps me and guides me. Instead of them telling me, "This is the way it needs to be for Lake Union," it's much more like, "This is how I think you want the book and you're just missing a few pieces. Let me shine a light on these holes and let's fix those."
I really enjoy that. And I like reading books like that. If I look at my favourite book of all time, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, I don't know how many years it took him. Or Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, I think that took a decade.
And you feel it and you read it and you look at them on the charts years later, and it's still selling well. I think that's because that deep level of editing gives you staying power. And it's really how you want to write.
I know you've been working on your book for quite a while and it's going to show.
James Blatch: Hopefully, yes.
Boo Walker: I'm sure of it.
James Blatch: I think the first book is also a period of time where you learn how to write a book and some of the time I've spent has not been necessarily getting it to this amazing point. But it's been learning the process and rewriting, knowing what you now know. And that will get quicker for me, hopefully, but one a year sounds much more realistic for me as well. And I like that idea.
There are romance novelists doing one every two weeks, listening to this.
Boo Walker: We have mutual friends in that world. That's what you got to do. I love that and my hat's off to them. It's the most amazing thing in the world.
For me, the other piece to it is I like research. I like to go down the research hole for a while. The reason I'm in Spain right now is I wanted to tell a different story. I could probably spit out some novels about Southern guys from South Carolina who are chasing different dreams, because that's who I am.
But I really like the idea of, "Hey, I have something new to say, because I've spent my life the last six months going out and learning something new and I want to share it with you in story form."
James Blatch: One more question on the process, on the editing side of things.
The developmental editors, the process you're talking about here, these editors you are going out and paying? Or because you're with Lake Union, do they provide them?
Boo Walker: They provide them.
James Blatch: This is part of that.
Boo Walker: Yeah, that was the other nice thing that I was looking forward to with Lake Union and it's proved really nice is, I do enjoy doing AMS ads and I do them every morning. I really enjoy my newsletter and the website and stuff.
But ultimately, I want to write more. It's been nice to, they basically said in the marketing meeting, "You don't have to do anything. We're going to do the AMS ads and Facebook ads, and we're going to do all this stuff. All you do is be you and do your social media and your family of readers and that kind of thing. We'll do everything, including we'll pay for everything." And that's pretty amazing.
They don't even let me pick the audio narrators.
James Blatch: That's all done.
Boo Walker: Actually, which is the greatest blessing in the world. Because dealing with that, it will give you great hair.
James Blatch: Yeah. And in terms of the deal, compared to where you were before, when you owned all the royalties... well, the 70% that you're paid by Amazon, you said you weren't making much money, because it was one book. So despite the fact you were spending 1,000 a day on advertising, at the end of it all, you were probably drawing an average salary, I guess, by the end of that year.
Boo Walker: By the end of that... When was that? Five years ago or something. I was making a little bit of money. And then once book two came out, I was grooving-
James Blatch: A bit more.
Boo Walker: And getting to the point where I could support my family and stuff, but I still held on hard to my day job. I had a really good day job in global sales for a winery. I was travelling a lot. I had a lot of time on aeroplanes to write, and I was writing wine books. So being in the wine world was really, it was almost like just research all the time.
And then by the time book three came out, I was cruising financially. And then it was like, I want to see if I can do this for a year or two and this isn't just a moment of glory before actually leave my day job, because I just didn't want to risk it. Because, man, once you're supporting your family, there's a lot of pressure that comes on you as a creative. I didn't want to give myself the pressure too quickly. I wanted to feel a little bit more padded and comfortable.
Then Amazon came out and it became exactly what it is for me, which is diversify my income. So it's become a really great source of income that almost matches my self publishing stuff.
James Blatch: Great. So because they've got the power of their organisation behind it, being advertised from the inside, and who knows what metrics they get? Although kind of me half thinks you'll speak to someone from one of these Amazon imprints, and they'll complain that they don't get the metrics and the rest of Amazon like we don't. But anyway, they're clearly in a strong position to market your books.
Do you constantly reevaluate that decision? Do you constantly think about, do I want to write my next book for Lake Union? Or should I go back into indie, or are you just happy with this mix you've got now, this balance of being able to get on with being a writer?
Boo Walker: I am super, super happy. Now, I can't say that every writer for every Amazon imprint is happy, if they're not behind it, or if it doesn't catch fire a little bit, maybe the book in general.
But for me, specifically, I'm about to submit two new stories to Lake Union. I'd be really happy doing this as a career. Now, I have my pen name for my thrillers. I could see myself writing a thriller, maybe a self help book, an indie publishing it.
But, man, I'm pretty happy for right now. And they treat me really well. They're putting me with a super solid team. Between my acquisitions editor, my developmental editor and my agent, I feel like I'm working with people way out of my league and that is such a good feeling. It just constantly pushes me to be my best.
And then my book came out in August, and it broke the top 20. I could be living just off one book that Lake Union's done for me. That's great. And I'm really excited about the second one coming out.
So it's been a nice break to not wake up and spend so much time studying data. I love Amazon ads, which I mentioned, but when I watched Janet Margot and you get too deep into Excel, my eyes start to glaze over. I'd rather just not use the data too much and just keep creating ads till I find more unicorns.
James Blatch: I love a spreadsheet, but I'm a nerd. One really important point you made there, I think just worth reiterating. It's a bit of a mantra of mine, always has been, whatever your career is, surround yourself by people better than you.
When I worked in the media, there were people the opposite of that. They were really average, mediocre correspondents who made sure that anybody good got nowhere near them, because they were protecting their job. I always took the opposite approach. I wanted to be alongside people better than me, brighter than me that I could learn from and improve. And that was certainly the way with the best people in the organisation there.
I think it probably works as well here, writing. I can see that you thrive off those conversations with people who have been there, done it and can be very insightful about story.
Boo Walker: I really enjoy it. I absolutely love the mechanics of it. Maybe that's more of why I like having a little free time away from the marketing is because I love the story. I love reading a book and studying exactly what's happening. And then I love talking to people that I admire about it.
When I can get my hands on a great writer and start talking to them about external goals and about coming up with stories and about a character's growth and an arc, there is nothing... That's my high, which your readers will understand that.
James Blatch: Well, we have a lot of discussion, we have a little Facebook group, Boo, that you and I are in, and we have a lot of discussion about story there. I absolutely love that as well. I'm learning from you guys every day. That's what this podcast is all about.
Now you're with Lake Union now. Is it like a four book deal, five book deal, three book deal or do you just go one book to another?
Boo Walker: It was originally a two book deal. I've just wrapped up the wrap that up. And then I'm going to try to go for probably two more book deal. But who knows? It gets back to that diversification thing. I'm prepared for whichever the way the wind blows, because you never know whether my ideas are going to work at the right time.
One of my ideas is being used by another author, it's different a little bit, but another author under the Lake Union family has something similar coming out. I'm not going to mention names, but I'm a little worried they might say, "We've already gone down that road, we don't want touch it."
But there is beauty in knowing that you have a two book contract because that means, "Hey, I've got a couple years of knowing exactly where I'm going." I realise more and more, be careful what you wish for, becoming a writer full time, because there's so many of us and I was in the shoes for a while that that's all you ever dream of. But there's new problems that arise once you make a living as an author.
And one of the things I've learned is, it's like being in politics in that every two years or every four years, you're looking for a new job. And I can't imagine what that would be like for a politician, or as a writer. If Lake Union doesn't work out, I got to get back to indie or maybe go after trad or something. But you got to own that and embrace it, because that's part of what it is.
I think if I had my dream right now, I would sign a five book contract with Lake Union and just marry them for the next five years and see what happens, because I'm really happy.
James Blatch: I've never thought about that connection before. Sports managers as well, aren't they? Football managers in the UK. I guess it's probably the same. I follow the Mets. They go through a general manager every season at the moment. So that's politicians, sports managers and writers, limp a few years along, and then it can end and then you have to start again. Interesting. It's not for everyone. That's for sure.
I've definitely got friends who would find it very difficult to leave the security of a 9:00 to 5:00 environment, although frankly, the last 12 months has left very few of those around. Anyway, let's talk about process a little bit.
Let me ask about Valencia. So this is South Carolina, I can hear the Southern twang, Boo, I love your accent.
Boo Walker: Thank you.
James Blatch: I've been to your house in St. Petersburg, as I mentioned, a beautiful house. Lovely situation. I've seen the boiler, which apparently was the first stop on the tour in your house. This boiler, this ancient boiler.
You've given all that up and you've moved halfway across the world to old Europe, to Valencia, in Spain. That's a big, brave move with a young child as well.
Boo Walker: During COVID.
James Blatch: Just add that in.
Boo Walker: Which is no joke. You saw my life back in Florida, and we had a lovely home and things were really nice and easy. But my wife and I, I've been married about 10 years, we are nomads. We find so much joy moving around. Matter of fact, we've moved across the US four times. South Carolina to Washington, to South Carolina to Washington, and then down to Florida.
We love the journey of exploring new places, setting up new life and meeting new people and having new restaurants and new experiences. And Spain or Italy has been on our radar for a long time. We've just been waiting for the right time, which turns out there never will be and that was what our decision ultimately was is, hey, you can always find an excuse not to do something scary, like move out of your country. And COVID was such an obvious one.
In about May, we just said, "Hey, next year, it'll be somebody hurts their knee and they need knee surgery, and then the next year, your son will get too old to pull them out of school, because they'll have their friendship, friends and stuff." So we decided to do it.
And a lot of it was the adventure. And for me it was following in the footsteps of some of my heroes who've done stints in Europe like Pat Conroy and Anthony Doerr. I feel like it's really fun to have this American in Europe perspective with a couple of stories.
I told you I'm a wine salesman, I used to be a wine salesman, I love wine. And when you love wine, you typically start to fall in love with European wine, which leads you to falling in love with European food and European architecture and just the old sense of things. Here we are, and it's everything we'd hoped for we, everything and COVID which it turns out, you can't run from anywhere, whether there's a massive mandate or not.
But there's just something about filling the creative fire by being in a brand new place. Valencia, it's really over delivered in every which way. I think you've been here, the weather, it's extraordinary. What they say is the actual holy grail is just down the block from me and we went to visit it.
The food's extraordinary. There's citrus trees everywhere, there's olive trees everywhere. There's olives, you can barely sit down in any table in Valencia without the most beautiful olives being sat down in front of you, next to almonds from the almond trees right outside. And then of course, they have their own grape varieties like Bilbao that you can't get anywhere else in the entire world.
So that's where I am searching for some new stories and hoping to bring this new perspective to them. Because as I've told my readers recently, I think when you've been given the blessing of making a living as a writer, you can't let up. You got to keep pushing yourself.
And not as far as going after more money and more fame, but much more about going after taking it as seriously as possible and excelling at your craft.
James Blatch: How's your Spanish?
Boo Walker: It's getting along. We've got a tutor that comes every day, and we're working on past tenses and stuff. Valencia worked out perfectly for that, because no one speaks English. So you really have no choice.
James Blatch: Immerse yourself properly in it. It's a beautiful city. We stayed there, actually, I've been there a couple of times, but we stayed as a family last year on our way back from, I can't even remember where but our summer vacation, we had a couple of nights in Valencia and just walked around.
I'm very jealous of the climate. You don't have to come, I don't know, probably only 1,200 miles north or something, but it gets cold quickly, and you go north in Europe.
Boo Walker: Yes, it does. But I will say your Instagram makes me very jealous of the English countryside. You seem to be living in a wonderful place yourself.
James Blatch: It can be pretty, it can be pretty, if cold.
Boo, I just want to finally just talk to you a little bit more about process then we're going to let you go. The three month deadline isn't the normal for you. Because that seemed like quite a packed period of time.
What's your normal routine, getting up in the morning and how you approach work?
Boo Walker: I turned in my book, my most recent book to Lake Union the beginning of August, and spent the next two months in a very rigorous developmental editing stage. And then by October, I think it was probably first or second week of October, I'm done. Next one's not due till the next August, assuming I continue to work with them. I've got some time.
Then the proofreads come in, in December and then the next, or sorry, the copy edits, then the proofreads come to me in another week or so. I'm still working it, but for the most part, done, and am looking at eight months to write a new one and get it turned into my developmental editor.
So the way I did it, I needed a break for this one. I embraced Spain and really looked at it as research in a way and have just been living life.
James Blatch: Topping up the tank a bit. Recharging.
Boo Walker: It's crucial. I really depleted it in a big way and not only depleted my tank, but my family suffered too. I'm reminded that I need to be a father and a husband and spend a lot of time with them. So we've gone to the aquarium and we have lunches together and really have taken a break. I've been reading a lot and doing exactly what you said, just filling up the tank.
And now I'm submitting my books in the next couple of days to Lake Union, but I think tomorrow I'm going to pick a book and just start typing and get after it. And then my process, once I start, I'll try to work till noon, seven days a week. I'm going to set a goal starting tomorrow of no less than 2,000 words. And if I can sneak up into 4,000 on the occasional day where I'm feeling inspired, then great.
Much more than that, I don't really enjoy it. I've had hand problems as a musician. And during this last developmental edit, I had one day where I wrote 7,500 words, and it was 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 non-stop and I was taking Advil. And for me, as much as I did feel tapped into the muse on that day, I don't love that as much.
So in my perfect world, I drink coffee, I read a little bit, read the news, get fueled up, meditate. Just get in the right mindset, sit down and really tap into the muse and let the magic happen for say four 25, 30 minute sprints. And if I can do those, with a sprinting app of sorts where I literally turn everything off, put on some music and allow no distraction.
If I could put in two deep writing sessions, I'm sorry, two hours of writing sessions a day, then I'm super happy. And then, what's that? You can get a first draft done in a couple months.
James Blatch: Yeah, that's good. 2,000 a day. That's more than a book a year, Boo.
Boo Walker: No doubt. But I think that first draft, if anybody read my first drafts, they'd think I was the worst writer in history. So then you got to do it all over again and again and again.
James Blatch: I think it may have been Hemingway who said, "If you don't think your first draft doesn't stink, you're not doing it properly."
Boo Walker: I try to really have that attitude of, my first draft sucks more than your first draft. And it's very comfortable, it's a very nice feeling to have. Hey, I'm just going to let go.
And one of the things that I've really learned, since I've had to make a living as a writer is, with all the pressures of that, which is insane, you still have to tap into creativity. And you have to tap into that magic and the muse.
At least for me, I know I'm writing well when I don't realise the time is going. I don't realise that my sprinting app dinged an hour ago. I'm just rocking and rolling. I forgot where I was going with that. But that's everything to me is just figuring out how to get into that groove. And that's why I write.
The thing that I've really tried to focus on with this book, especially is I don't want to think about the result, stop thinking about the result. I don't read reviews for that exact reason. I can't help how anyone is going to think my book is, or the sales coming in, but I can focus on the process. And that's all I can do.
As long as I stick to my 2,000 words a day, which is higher than it used to be, but once you hang out with some great writers out there who say they're doing 8,000 to 10,000 a day, 2,000 feels like, "Come on, punk, get up and at least do something."
James Blatch: I think 2,000 a day is a good effort. I think 1,000 a day, although I have a lot of other things, unfortunately, I'm doing, is a lot for me.
Boo Walker: Hey, just five minutes a day in the end is phenomenal.
James Blatch: In fact, actually, that is a really key point is just write every day. Once you get into that mantra, you'll find the rest of the stuff comes a bit easier. It's when you don't get around to writing for days, that's when I fall into a rut and fall off a wagon.
Boo Walker: Oh, it's so easy to procrastinate.
James Blatch: Yeah, indeed. Boo, I've absolutely loved talking to you. I knew I would. One thing I haven't mentioned actually is I think your covers are gorgeous. Your books look gorgeous.
And by the way, you should read some of your reviews, because they're gorgeous as well of your books. You're certainly a person who's found their readers and they appreciate what you've done.
We look forward to seeing the future books. Good luck with your submissions to Lake Union for your next two books then. That's fingers crossed for you that they come back positively. I think they probably will, by the looks of it.
Boo Walker: Thank you very much. I really appreciate it. It's truly an honour to be chatting with you here. I'm so thankful to you and Mark and everything you guys have done. It means a lot. I've spent a lot of hours working on your stuff. And you guys are the real deal.
James Blatch: You're in my patch now, you're in Europe, my continent. You're only as I said, 1,200 miles away. So we'll be knocking on your door as soon as this COVID nonsense is out of the way and we'll share an olive together. Maybe a wine.
Boo Walker: I look forward to that.
James Blatch: Thanks, Boo.
Boo Walker: All right, my man. Take care.
James Blatch: There we go, Boo Walker, and I can tell you updates since we did that interview the Boo has let me know that he has signed for another book with Lake Union. He sent a few proposals off to them. They chose one. I'm not sure if they chose the one that he was most excited about. But they have their ways and they've got an eye for the market. So he's moving on to another book with Lake Union.
You have been published by, you are published by Amazon, aren't you?
Mark Dawson: Beatrix and Isabella. Some of them anyway. The Beatrix ones were republished and they publish for Isabella's. They decided they didn't want to do a fifth. I'm going to do the fifth. I still get a lot of requests for that book. So I'll be writing that this year and publish that myself.
James Blatch: Yeah. Okay, that's interesting. But you can see the attraction. You and I love our marketing side of things. I really enjoy it. I wake up in the morning, go through the KDP stuff the day before, think about what to do, made some tweaks today. It's not for everyone. And it's a lot to take on board.
And there are definitely authors who will see that loss of income, which it is, it's the sharing of the income in return for a lot, if not most of that being done for you as being a fair deal or a deal that works for them.
Mark Dawson: It's not a loss of income if you never had it.
James Blatch: Yeah. True.
Mark Dawson: That's the thing, isn't it?
James Blatch: And if they reach the market that you can't, of course, this is Amazon itself. Then that's extra income that you wouldn't have had.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, absolutely.
James Blatch: Good. Okay. Well, look, it's a school day for you, headmaster, so you need to go back into the classroom. I know you're excited about that new career.
Mark Dawson: Thrilled.
James Blatch: You didn't think you were going to have this year. So we'll let you get on with that. We'll say thank you very much indeed to Boo Walker. As I say, can't wait till this lockdown thing is over and we can actually see each other again, looking forward to that. Good.
All that remains for me to say is that it's a goodbye from him.
Mark Dawson: And a goodbye from me. Goodbye.
James Blatch: Goodbye.
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