SPS-284: Writing Interactive Books for Children – with James Russell

After writing his first books on his commute, James Russell’s job was eliminated, so he struck out on his own into self-publishing. His books have now sold to international markets with traditional publishers, and he’s running an indie empire from his home office.

Show Notes

  • Writing for one’s own children as a start in children’s books
  • Writing in verse: it’s not as easy as it sounds
  • Creating interactive 3D elements for books
  • Developing a picture book series into middle grade novels
  • Changes in language use based on a book’s audience

Resources mentioned in this episode:

PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page

WEBINAR: Free advertising webinar with Janet Margot from Amazon on Monday, 28 June.

ADS FOR AUTHORS COURSE: available here for a limited period

MERCH: Are you a ligneous beetle or a yawning hippopotamus? Get your SPF hoodies and t-shirts in the brand new SPF Store.


SPS-284: Writing Interactive Books for Children - with James Russell
Speaker 1: On this edition of The Self-Publishing Show ...

James Russell: A lot of those efforts by publishing companies seem quite cynical, and just bang them out, bang them out, bang them out, you move onto the next one. Obviously as a self-publisher, it's all down to you. It's a different business model, as long as you can keep driving it.

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. It is The Self-Publishing Show with me, James Blatch.

Mark Dawson: And me, Mark Dawson.

James Blatch: How are you, Mark Dawson?

Mark Dawson: I'm all right, James Blatch. Not too bad.

James Blatch: In your house today.

Mark Dawson: Yep, in the house today with a gardener toodling around outside, so if anyone hears a lawnmower, that's what that is. Also have builders trundling past in dumper trucks with rubble.

James Blatch: You don't have a robot cutting your grass?

Mark Dawson: No, we don't. Well, I don't think he's a robot. If he is, he's very lifelike.

James Blatch: You can do a replicant test, ask him a few questions.

Mark Dawson: I could do, that's true.

James Blatch: Yeah, good. Okay. Little Blade Runner reference. Right, let's press on with this week's non-chit-chat stuff.

We have a webinar coming up in a couple of days on the 28th on June, which is a Monday, I believe ... let me just check that ... today ... I think it is, yes, June the 28th is Monday. It'd be 9:00 in the UK, so a little earlier in the US and very early the next day in the Antipodeans, in Australia and New Zealand.

This is on Amazon Ads and it's with Janet Margot who's become our go-to guru on Amazon Ads, somebody who worked at the coalface, literally on the project inside Amazon, so she's a very, very good person to talk to us about how to use them.

Like all these platforms, there's the juice. The profit is in the detail. It's not just setting up a campaign and forgetting about it. Forget about it. It's about understanding exactly what you're doing all the way through the process to find the profit. It is there for you, but you do need to work at it. This is going to be a great webinar for you to attend.

If you go to, you will be able to sign up for that webinar. Mark and I will be with you. It will probably be just you and Janet, actually, I think, on Monday night. I get a night off.

In addition to that, there are a couple of other webinars which we've run, which you may have missed, which were BookBub and Fuse Books, where we talk to Fuse Books like a foundational, all the things you need to have in place to start making profit with your books, and BookBub Ads is clearly a more detailed one about BookBub ads. But if you sign up for the Amazon Ads, we will make sure you get replay links to those as well, so you have a lot of learning to do.

Get lots of coffee in, sit down at your computer, make notes. Each one of those webinars, promise you, has actionable insights for you to take away and implement in your author career.

Okay. We don't have, I think, a lot to talk about outside of that this week.

Mark, any big publishing news from Unputdownable?

Mark Dawson: No, no massive thing. I'm quite close now to launching the next ... got two launches coming up. We've got on Monday the German launch of the 16th book in the Milton series, which is coming up to 1,500 pre-orders, which is quite cool. Then like two weeks on Monday or a week on Monday, the next Milton book, Milton 19 goes live, and that's, well, 12, 13,000 pre-orders, I think, on that one now.

James Blatch: Wow.

Mark Dawson: So that's really great, so looking forward to that, and I'm so pleased with how that one's turned out and the response from readers. It also ends on a little bit of what I call an open loop, so not really a cliffhanger, but it leads directly into the 20th book, and as the 20th, I want to do something a little bit different, more special for that. I've started working on that one as well rather than something else I was going to do. Yeah, it's all going well. Milton is as popular as ever.

James Blatch: He never seems to get old, Milton. Does he get old?

Mark Dawson: He ages slowly, but yeah, probably not quite at the ... if he aged at the normal rate, I'd have to retire him a little earlier than I might want to.

James Blatch: He's the opposite of a dog.

Mark Dawson: What, kind of longer years?

James Blatch: Well, they get seven years for each one that they're alive.

Mark Dawson: Yeah.

James Blatch: He has to lose seven years just to age one.

Mark Dawson: Yeah, something like that. I haven't quite worked it out.

James Blatch: If you can bottle that and sell it, that would be good. Good, okay. Look, our interviewee today is James Russell, all the way from New Zealand in Auckland. James is a very energetic marketer of his books, very entrepreneurial, started life as a journalist, has written children's books with a special little technological twist, which I think you're going to find very interesting, and also I think you'll find interesting his story of persistence in marketing and trying to be successful, and commercially successful, with his books. Let's hear from James.

James Russell. Welcome to the podcast, all the way from New Zealand. We always have a really clear strong signal when I contact New Zealand. As I often point out to people, you are the UK's antipodes. You can't be further, unless you were ... maybe there's a point in the ocean nearby New Zealand that's actually opposite me, but you're very close to opposite me now.

James Russell: You're a long way away. I've done that trip many times. Thanks for having me.

James Blatch: It's a very long flight. You're very welcome.

James Russell: I think I'm the second Kiwi on the show. You had Steff Green not so long ago.

James Blatch: Yeah, we had Steff. I don't think you're the second ever, but you are probably the second recently, yes.

James Russell: Right.

James Blatch: We had Steff for her second visit. At some point, we keep saying this, but at some point we will get down to your part of the world, not only because it's a lovely place to visit, so I've never been to New Zealand but only Australia so far, but there's a big indie thing going on in New Zealand and Australia at the moment-

James Russell: Truth.

James Blatch: ... so we're really keen to meet some people.

James Russell: You're going to come see us?

James Blatch: Indeed.

James Russell: I'll put you up.

James Blatch: Yeah, stay in the hobbit's house. Now, we're going to be talking picture books, which is great because we talk novels a lot and we occasionally talk nonfiction, and this is an area that is interesting to me.

We've had a couple of examples before of people doing very well with print on demand and print versions of books that do better when they're physical in your hand than they do as ebooks. It has its own challenges, but I think you've made a really great job of this, James, by the looks of it.

Why don't we start with a bit about you, your background and how you got into this writing lark.

James Russell: I was a journalist for a long time, about 16 years, and like most children's writers, I started writing children's books when my children were born, my two sons. I wrote three picture books, The Dragon Hunters, The Dragon Tamers, and The Dragon Riders, and I wrote them on the train to and from work at The New Zealand Herald. Then every afternoon my children and my wife would pick me up from the train station, and of course I had to have a few more verses written.

The first three picture books were written in verse, so, "Beside an ancient forest, before you reach the sea, you'll find a tiny cottage and a happy family." They were about two boys and a dragon. Their dog's stolen by a dragon and they go off and search for it to rescue the dog, and that kicks off a whole bunch of adventures over the three books.

I launched those, they weren't supposed to be books, but I interviewed somebody here in New Zealand that was a self-publisher and I came away from that so sort of fired up, I thought, "I'm going to give this a go." I found an illustrator, made all kinds of mistakes, but ended up with a book in my hand, The Dragon Hunters, in 2012, and over the next two years I published the next two.

After that, they were doing really well, I was made redundant from my job at the Herald, kind of out of the blue, and I thought, "Right, what am I going to do?"

I got, obviously, a redundancy check, I'd been there about 11 years, and I went straight to Bologna to the children's book fair. I filled up a backpack full of these picture books, and I took them, and I got a deal with Sourcebooks, an American trade deal, and that was great. They paid me a nice advance, I had my redundancy money, and then I thought, "Right, what now?" I wrote The Dragon Defenders, which was my first children's junior novel, so middle grade novel, and I wrote two of those in the first year, and they both went to number one here in New Zealand, and I was away.

I was making enough money then to forge a career as a writer and a self-publisher. I self-published the picture books here in New Zealand. They've been traditionally published in about a dozen countries now around the world, but I've self-published my novels here in New Zealand as well, and now I've just recently launched them on Amazon, the novels that is. The picture books are on Amazon through Sourcebooks, but I'm doing my own thing with the novels. They've been traditionally sold to, I think, Turkey and the Czech Republic, but the English language version are launching on Amazon at the moment. I launched them in January and they're doing very well, so that's encouraging.

James Blatch: Okay, let me ask you, I'll pick a couple of those points. First of all, you said you didn't intend them to be a book when you wrote the stories. Were you literally just writing them for your children-

James Russell: Yes.

James Blatch: ... just to remain in the house, you didn't think this would be a book?

James Russell: Right.

James Blatch: Okay.

James Russell: Exactly. But I think I did what a lot of writers do. I was reading books to my kids in bed at night, thinking, "I can do better than this." Than the average book. A lot of those efforts by publishing companies seem quite cynical and just bang them out, bang them out, bang them out, sell a few, move onto the next one. Obviously as a self-publisher it's all down to you. It's a different business model as long as you can keep driving it.

I've sold about 90,000 books in New Zealand across my eight books, which is amazing for a self-published author with no budget. In fact, the average print run in New Zealand is probably 2 or 3,000 books, and I print 5,000 at a time, and I've reprinted them many times.

James Blatch: Wow. Yeah, you're outperforming the industry in New Zealand. The verse, the little bit you quoted us there, I can remember when my children were younger, they're older teenagers now, but I remember really enjoying reading The Gruffalo, I suppose, and The Snail and the Whale. If people know, those books are in verse, the most famous ones. It's actually a really pleasing thing for adults as well, because I have to say, some children's books I just didn't enjoy reading to my kids. If I never read them another Enid Blyton in my life, I'll be happy.

James Russell: Yeah.

James Blatch: But there's something lovely about reading well-written verse.

James Russell: Yeah, I loved it. I have to say that when I was reading Dr. Seuss to my children, I would hold some of the pages together to get through it better. I counted the words in those. They're about 1,000 to 1,200 words in Green Eggs and Ham, and I thought, "That's too long." Because I put the pages together and I'd turn them, and my son would go, "Dad, you missed a page."

James Blatch: Cheating your children.

James Russell: "Did I? Silly me." Just trying to get through them. So I optimised the word length. Mine are about 500 to 600 and I reckon that's about the right length. But they're hard to write.

James Blatch: I bet.

James Russell: Writing verse, you've got to be so economical. I'd take four or five train trips working on one verse, and then I'd be walking home on my 10-minute walk home, and I'd get four done, so it would take me almost as long to write one of those as it does to write a 30,000-word middle grade novel.

James Blatch: Had you done any writing like that before? You were obviously a journalist covering, I guess, news stories, or were you doing features and more sort of artistic writing for the paper?

James Russell: Yeah, I was the editor of a sustainable business and lifestyle magazine, so I'd done lots of normal journalism, all kinds of things, really, but my last four years were editing, so that was a handy skill as well.

James Blatch: And this moment you went to Bologna, took yourself off and hawked your books around, just tell me exactly how that conversation went. You walked up to people with a copy of your book ...

James Russell: Exactly, and I had no idea what I was doing. I had a really loose plan. I'd done some googling, whatever. I was googling each night, but it's big. Those book fairs are huge. I was walking around, and this was on the last day, and I was knackered, and I'd had enough. I saw this beautiful couch and a stand, and I didn't even care what the stand was or what they did, I thought it was publishing services. Anyway, I thought, "I'm going to go and sit on that."

I sat down on it, and this lady came out from the back. She was knackered as well, sat down beside me, and it turned out to be Dominique Raccah, the head of Sourcebooks. She goes, "Hey, how you going?" And I was like, "Yeah, good." And, "What are you doing?" she says. And I said, "I'm trying to get a publisher." She goes, "Give me a look." I handed them to her and she flicked through them for about 20 or 30 seconds, just flick, flick, flick, flick, flick, and she immediately said, "I'll publish those."

James Blatch: Wow.

James Russell: And I was like, "What?" I couldn't believe it. Getting that deal, it came at the perfect time because I'd been made redundant, I didn't have enough to live on very long, but with my redundancy money and the advance I got on those books, I had about seven or eight months of grace where I wrote those two novels, so it was perfect timing.

James Blatch: So that was an anxious flight out and a happy flight back.

James Russell: Yeah, exactly. Actually, funnily enough, I had no idea what to do with a contract and I was running around the back of her stand to another lady that I'd met, just got talking to, and she was an agent, and so I was just thinking, "Yeah, I don't know what to do." And she said, "Yeah, I can help you." Then she said, "Come out for dinner, we'll celebrate your deal." Actually, I was so naïve I didn't realise she was an agent until we were sitting at dinner that night.

James Blatch: And she was signing you.

James Russell: Well, no, she had no ... I said, "Would you do this for me, would you negotiate this deal and become my agent?" And she did. She said, "Sure, I'd love to." It was a good deal for her, probably, because she didn't have to find the deal, I had already found it, but she stayed on as my agent then for about, let me see, I don't know, about three or four years, but we've parted company now because I want to go on, I want to do this on my own.

I've done audiobooks. Actually, the other thing I should mention is all of my books, both the picture books and the novels, have an augmented reality component. What that means is that you download the free app on an iPad, or a phone, or whatever you like. I know that some people are watching it on YouTube and I can explain what's happening, but you download this app, get your iPad, and I'm opening the picture book to the map-

James Blatch: Ah, okay.

James Russell: ... which is on the end papers of the picture books, and when I hold the iPad over the top ... oh, this is going to be the world's worst demonstration.

James Blatch: Things never work when you try to demonstrate them. Oh, there we go. There we go.

James Russell: The whole thing goes 3D, and here are the kids running around.

James Blatch: Wow.

James Russell: The map turns into a 3D landscape, and by the time you've finished, there's two dragons flying around, the boys are riding on the back of it, so that's quite amazing. You can zoom in close and check out their house in detail. You can spin the map around and all that sort of thing.

Then when you get to the novels there are four or five pages in each novel that have a symbol of an iPad or a phone on the bottom of them, and when you hold the iPad up to those, it turns into a 3D model, and you can actually have a look around, and you can go inside these things.

James Blatch: So for people listening, I have to describe what happened. James held up the iPad, which was basically on camera mode, to a landscape in the younger children's picture book, and it suddenly became this three dimensional landscape with movements on it, and people, and noise and sound.

Then a similar experience with the paperback, a smaller picture of a boat which then became a 3D boat that you could examine on the inside and outside by moving the iPad around. Very clever stuff. So how did that happen-

James Russell: Some of them are super high-tech like those 3D things, but then you have videos of the bad guy giving a rant. The one I'm holding up now is the evil guy in the books-

James Blatch: He looks evil.

James Russell: ... and you can see that he looks a lot like me, and he will give a rant about something. When you get to that page, you'll see the evil guy, and he'll talk to you and he'll tell you what's going on. In fact, those are really low-tech because I starred in those videos, or some of them are audio files, some of them are codes that you hold the iPhone up to and it will unscramble the code written on the page. It'll work on a Kindle as well so you can hold up the phone and point it at the Kindle.

James Blatch: Okay, that's brilliant. And how did that come about, then? Was this your idea, did someone suggest this to you?

James Russell: A friend of mine came to stay and he was involved in this 3D design business. He had a business card, and he put it on the desk, and he held his phone over it, and a weird little orb started floating above it. I thought, "I've never seen anything like that." It was amazing. I said, "Could this work with my books?" And he said, "I don't see why not." So I had it built.

It was a long, slow process, and to be truthful, quite expensive, and I knew it was a risk because you had to get these 3D models made, but it's paid off handsomely. It's an amazing sales tool for a shop to go, "These also do this."

But the other thing that's been extremely gratifying for the middle grade novels, I get so many parents emailing, saying, "My kids, they just get drawn through the book because they want to get to this next bit of augmented reality digital content." And it's not a game, you look at it once. You watch a video, you un-crack the code. They spend very little time with a device in their hand, but it pulls them through. So that combined with a really exciting kind of plot, it really encourages those reluctant readers to read the books. So that's been great.

The other thing that I did, I got thinking, "Right, I can use this augmented reality, I can use this app that I've got to do these whizz bang 3D things, that's all fine." But I thought, "I can use this another way."

What I've done now is I've made audiobooks of my three picture books, and when you hold the app and point it at the cover of the three picture books, a little play symbol will come up. Tap on that and you can just pop the iPad down beside you, hear the audiobook being read to you, and turn the pages when you hear the ding. It's the equivalent of when they put the CD in the sleeve in the front cover, but it's moved into the modern age. Now you're using a device to listen to the audiobook rather than having to ... No one has a CD player anymore. It's amazing, some people still put those CDs in. Who's playing them?

James Blatch: I've still got a CD player. And I got a record player, that's trendy now. That seems to take the role of tired parents who may not want to read for half an hour to their children in the evening, although it's really important that you do do that.

James Russell: Yeah, absolutely. I agree. It all adds to the package. You've got that picture book that's an audiobook at the same time that comes for nothing, and you can turn the map on the end pages into a 3D landscape. That all makes it an attractive package, and kids will go to it and read it themselves. You don't want them only reading when you're putting them to bed, you want them reading all the time.

James Blatch: And James, you're sure that these have helped sell the books, these augmented reality add-ons?

James Russell: Oh, undoubtedly. Yeah. Incredibly. I can tell how many downloads the app has had. I've got all that data. Yeah, they've worked incredibly well.

I've put little videos on Amazon to describe what happens, there's a small video that you can see on any of the books on Amazon that sums up that augmented reality, and I took the numbers this morning, actually ... I started in January, I think it was January the 11th, and I've sold 1,687 books as on this morning, so they're going quite well. I'm paying for advertising so I'm not really making much money. Jeff's making lots of money at the moment out of me.

James Blatch: Yeah, that's how it works.

James Russell: There's very little read-through factored into that, and I've got four books up there at the moment, the four novels, and I'm going to drop the fifth one at the end of this month.

James Blatch: Great. So your early picture books, you self-published those everywhere else in the world that's not ... well, you self-published them in New Zealand?

James Russell: Only in New Zealand.

James Blatch: Only in New Zealand, and they're trad published everywhere else.

James Russell: Yes.

James Blatch: Okay, let me just break that down a little bit so we know how these various deals and various projects have worked.

Your trad aspect, you got an advance, and has that earned out and owe you any money from those deals now?

James Russell: Yes, it has earned out. I've had a couple of royalty checks since then, but not big. I think the trajectory has plateaued and it's probably on the way down, whereas in New Zealand they just keep going. They keep selling.

James Blatch: Yeah, that's frustrating, isn't it?

James Russell: The other thing I didn't mention, of course, is that the three picture books, the characters in the three picture books are the same characters in the novels, so the story continues. In fact, it actually continues sort of ... if you read the three picture books and then start on the first novel, it will give you the background on what's happened in the picture books, but my American publisher didn't want to take the novels, and I guess that's because the picture books didn't sell as well as they thought. I think they sold around 60,000, but they didn't take the novels, which, I thought they had kind of missed a trick because you can use the novels to sell the picture books and the other way around. I don't know of any other series that does that.

James Blatch: Nothing like that.

James Russell: I'd love to hear, if anyone knows, I'd love them to leave it in the comments or whatever on YouTube, but I've never heard of another series that started off as picture books and then moves into middle grade novels.

James Blatch: I think that is quite difficult. It's quite interesting what you've achieved there, because I think if you're a child and you progress to reading novels, we call them novels, but yeah, effectively novels for children, you almost don't want to be reading what you were reading ... because at that stage when you move through the stages, you want to grow up, you want to be older. "Oh, I'm reading bigger books now." It's not like ... If there was a Snail and the Whale novelization, you probably wouldn't choose it-

James Russell: No.

James Blatch: ... as a nine-year-old because you did that when you were six. But you've got something going there, which is little bit, I think, intrigue early on that children clearly do want to read in more depth when they get older.

James Russell: Yeah. If you pick up the first novel, it's about these two boys living on an island, a deserted island that's kind of paradise island in the middle of nowhere. They have to catch or grow any of their food. They live with their family.

Paddy's an expert with a bow and arrow and Flynn's an expert with the slingshot, and they share this island with dragons. Then there's a bad guy that gets wind of it and he wants to catch them for himself. He thinks he's going to be rich and famous if he becomes the dragon master, and they have to stop him. That's essentially what happens throughout the course of the five books.

They're quite sophisticated in terms of the language and the story for that 8 to 12 age group, but then I remember, I was sitting watching TV with my two boys, we were watching Harry Potter, and I was looking at Hermione, thinking what a character she is, and I thought, "I need a Hermione." So the Pitbull, the bad guy, has a niece, and he's cruel to her, and she's forced to go live with him, but she becomes the heroine of the story. She arrives in book two and plays a major part through the rest of the books. In that way, also, it appeals to girls as well as boys.

James Blatch: That sounds good. I don't know if this is true, but I do remember hearing somebody once say about Dora the Explorer, that was basically created by a committee, and they said their idea at the beginning was a strong female heroine because the girls will watch her and the boys will watch what the girls watch, but the girls were the leaders in choosing what to watch.

James Russell: Yeah.

James Blatch: And they are, generally. I think girls, certainly in my case, my daughter and son, I think my daughter led what was watched and what was read, so that worked out.

You had your trad deal, you're self-publishing those books in New Zealand. The middle grade books, then. You sat down and instead of continuing with the picture books, which presumably you could have done another three of those, another series or whatever.

Why did you want to write middle grade? Was it because your children were growing older?

James Russell: Yeah, they were. I don't know, just to keep things interesting, I guess. They were growing older, and I did want to write for them, but actually, at the end of The Dragon Riders, the third picture book, the dragon flies off and goes back to its own kind, and in fact my American publisher, Sourcebooks, they went, "You can't do that, you'll break the children's hearts!" But that's the way the finish is in New Zealand.

James Blatch: There's no Hollywood ending.

James Russell: No, not at all. I kind of like it, it's kind of poignant. But anyway, I was reading this to some really young children, and there was a little girl in the front, and she was incensed by this ending. She got so mad at me, she stood up in front of all of her classmates, went, "That ending sucks!"

James Blatch: Oh.

James Russell: Yeah, it was very funny. Anyway, that was a bit of the catalyst for writing the first Dragon Defenders novel to carry it on.

I've really enjoyed writing the middle grade novels. I've come to the end. I think my dragon run is over. Now I've written one novel for adults in the first lockdown here in New Zealand, and I'm about three quarters of the way through the second one, and I'm going to release the two of those. I think it's more about amusing myself and keeping it interesting.

James Blatch: Has that carried on any elements from those first two series?

James Russell: It's entirely different. No.

James Blatch: Entirely different, okay.

James Russell: I love surfing, I'm a big surfer, so these are based on the world of surfing, and for me, there are two seminal works, two seminal novels that are based in the world of surfing. One of them is by Tim Winton that's called Breath, and the other one's called Barbarian Days, and the way that those two writers write about the act of surfing and waves, and all of this, is just poetic, it's amazing. It was kind of an itch that I had to scratch, I think. I wanted to do it, so I've written these two novels.

They're not all about surfing, they're just based on the world of surfing. One of them is set in Ireland where I used to live for a long time, and the other one's kind of set up in the Indonesian archipelago. Those have been a lot of fun, but I realised, when I looked on Amazon and I thought, "There is a massive hole in the market here. There is 33 million surfers in the world and no one is writing for them. No one." I obviously hope that it's going to have a much broader readership than just surfers, because essentially the books aren't about surfing, they're just set in this backdrop, but I saw this big opportunity. It was something that I kind of feel passionate about anyway, and I thought, "It's a no-brainer."

James Blatch: Write what you love. You enjoy writing about it, it's going to help.

So your self-published middle grade novels, what's your marketing campaign around them?

James Russell: Well, it was odd, because I couldn't launch them on Amazon, because they were already launched. They'd been out for a few years, so it was strange. All I could do was email my database and say, "I'm putting these on Amazon. I would love it if you would write a review." I think I'm on about 34 reviews for book one, but they're all glowing reviews, which is nice, and there's probably, I don't know, maybe even five or six for number two, but I'm concentrating all my marketing efforts on Amazon advertising.

I've got Mark's course and I've been working my way through that, so I'm concentrating all my efforts on the first book, but it's interesting because I'm doing the print-on-demand and I get about $3 for every copy that's sold, so it's a bit painful for me, really, because I'm used to getting 10, you know?

James Blatch: Yeah.

James Russell: I sell them to shops here in New Zealand. Every bookstore in New Zealand sells them and they do really well. So having to pay Amazon for all this advertising and then only getting three bucks for each one is hard, but I realise the size of the market. I had a look a few minutes ago. I've sold 40 books already this morning. It's only 8:00 in the morning.

James Blatch: Nice.

James Russell: I feel like there's potential there to really go.

James Blatch: And these are Kindle as well, right?

James Russell: Kindle as well. I've done Kindle, print on demand paperback, print on demand hardback, and I produced the first two audiobooks of the middle grade novels, number one and two, and I'll record number three shortly.

James Blatch: Where are you doing the hardback POD, because that's a limited roll-out at the moment, isn't it?

James Russell: Yeah, so that was the beta ... they sent me an email saying, "Do you want to be involved?" But it's $8 to print on demand, a hardback. It's crazy.

James Blatch: And which territory is that?

James Russell: This must only be the US, I think.

James Blatch: Yeah, I think so. I think there is a UK one as well, but I'd be interested to know, I know I've been reading a little bit of some people's feedback, there's a factory in Eastern Europe, I know people have had some quality issues around it.

James Russell: Oh, really? I've ordered one but it hasn't arrived.

James Blatch: Yeah. Okay. It'd be interesting to see whether it's ... but if it's in the States, it's a different factory. Okay, so where you are now financially? Is this panning out for you? Because it's quite a big decision on the basis on the advance, which you said at that time gave you eight months.

Are you now in a position where this is your living?

James Russell: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, I have been for a good long time now. I was doing fairly well at the newspaper as a journalist, but I've probably increased my income by another probably 60% since then. I think I'm probably maybe $150,000 New Zealand.

James Blatch: Great.

James Russell: It's not a fortune, but it's certainly comfortable. It's fine. And I've got these two new novels coming out, and I expect them to do pretty well. I feel like it's going to be easy enough to contact the surfers of the world and let them know that it's there, because all surfers, they just go to one of about a dozen websites.

James Blatch: Right. You have to release them... Is it big Tuesday? Big Wednesday? I can't remember what-

James Russell: Big Wednesday.

James Blatch: Big Wednesday. I did watch it years ago, but you have to launch it on Big Wednesday.

Let's talk about writing for bit, then. You've talked a little bit about writing in verse, those children's books, and spending a couple of days, perhaps, over one line to get it right. Then you moved on to the middle grade novel, which is a very particular type of writing, vocabulary's got to be right, pitch of the story has got to be right. And just so I understand, when you say middle grade, what age child is in your mind at writing?

James Russell: Yeah, 8 to 12.

James Blatch: What was that like, writing, what was that transition like?

James Russell: I enjoyed it, but it's difficult to simplify your vocabulary sometimes, and it's sometimes a little frustrating. You think, "Oh, that's the perfect word." And you think, "Oh, maybe that's too tough." But you get used to it. You just sort of muddle along.

For each of my five books, I've had a different editor for each one of them, I've hired a different editor. Some haven't been available and I've had to get somebody else, but I've been so pleased that I've had so many editors, because they've all been great and I've learned something different from all of them.

James Blatch: Different editors because people weren't available, or did you sack your editors and move on?

James Russell: Yeah, a couple of times, yeah, and then other times somebody said, "Why don't you try these guys? They're really good." At that point I'd had to change three times, and I thought, "Yeah, this is actually really good for me to use a different editor each time." So that's great, yeah.

James Blatch: And learn something more. Now you're writing for grownups, where you can use the word discombobulate now if you want.

James Russell: Exactly, yeah.

James Blatch: Where did I read somewhere that you're supposed to stick your vocab at age 12 for novels? Which seems crazy to me, but anyway, or it's somewhere there.

Does it feel a bit more free in your writing?

James Russell: Yeah, it does. It does. I think you probably spend more time on each sentence. I'm not very good ... I read a book from the Sterling & Stone guys, How to Write Fast, and it talks about doing your vomit draft and just spewing it all out, getting it out quickly, but I just can't do it. I can't leave a sentence that's awful and just carry on. I'd far rather go back.

Before I even start writing for the day, I'll go back over what I wrote yesterday, fix it all up, get it to where I like it, and then I'll move on. It's just not pleasurable to just vomit it out.

But I did actually, funnily enough, for the story that I'm writing at the moment, for the novel set in Ireland, it's quite unusual because it begins in the middle, of the space and time where it's set, begins in the middle of the first chapter, moves forward. Chapter two goes back from the middle and then moves up to the middle. Chapter three moves on from where chapter two ended. Chapter four goes back to before chapter two.

James Blatch: Wow.

James Russell: So the story gets further and further apart at each end, and you learn things. And so that was quite a challenge for a long time. I didn't think it was going to even be possible because it was just such a head scramble, so I had to plan that whole thing out on a great big piece of paper and write what's going to happen. You learn things in the later chapters that actually took place earlier in time that explain the reason why things are happening now, so I've really enjoyed ... it's been an amazing experience. It'll be interesting to see how people react to it.

James Blatch: So it kind of almost Memento style, the revelations.

James Russell: Exactly, yeah. I love that film.

James Blatch: I know, that's a great film, yeah.

James Russell: Amazing film, yeah.

James Blatch: With an Australian, I think, in the lead role of that one.

James Russell: Yeah, Guy Pearce, yeah.

James Blatch: It's Guy Pearce, isn't it? So that obviously ... it, as you say, took an amount of plotting. You didn't do a rough draft, and when you plotted it, and you're writing now, because of that framework, and by the sounds of it the way that you write, you're not just sitting there writing, "Well, I wonder what will happen in this scene?"

James Russell: No, actually I am.

James Blatch: Oh, you are, so-

James Russell: I do a lot of pantsing.

James Blatch: Okay.

James Russell: If I plotted everything out, I'd be so bored. I love how things pop into your head, and you go, "Oh my God, that is good." I love how that happens. It's one of the most pleasurable parts of writing, how those things just appear out of nowhere and throw the story into disarray, and you have to figure out how it's all going to work. I've plotted more on this novel than I ever have. I might have a general idea when I start a novel of what's going to happen, where it's going to end, but in general I do an awful lot of pantsing. Maybe that's the reason I can't go too fast, either, because if I write really slowly and polish everything as I go, it gives my brain time to figure out what's going to happen next, I think.

James Blatch: To ruminate, yes. Okay.

James Russell: Yeah.

James Blatch:What's your writing routine, James?

James Russell: Usually first thing in the morning. Actually, for the first lockdown we had, the children were sleeping in quite late, and I would get up at six and I'd work for two hours, and it was great. It's amazing to be able to have that clear early morning mind space, so it's usually in the morning that I'll write, but if I'm fired up about the way a story's going, I'll just chip away at it all day, and I might just drop in and out and do some emails, or I've got about 25,000 books in my garage downstairs. I know it's terrible, most people say you shouldn't do it, but I can't ... And I could give it away to a New Zealand distributor that would take it and handle it all, but my wife helps me out with sending books off around New Zealand, and you know there's only 300 bookshops in New Zealand, so it's-

James Blatch: So you're a wholesale distributor of your own books.

James Russell: Absolutely.

James Blatch: You really are a self-publisher. You've got the entire production chain.

James Russell: The whole thing. Yeah. And I often talk to the store owners, I know them all. You can ring them all in three days. In fact, when I started, when I was still back at The New Zealand Herald, at the newspaper, when I wrote the first picture book, I'd go out for lunch, I'd sit in a café, and I had a big list of bookstores. I'd ring them one after another. "Will you take my books, will you take my books?" And of course most of them went, "No. Who are you?" And I just kept at them.

Every time I hit a sales milestone, I'd ring them back, say, "I've sold 5,000 books now, you sure you don't want to take it?" And they'd go, "No." One store I rang eight times, Paper Plus Papamoa, before they agreed, finally, to take it, and now they sell plenty of them.

James Blatch: Did they agree so that you wouldn't phone them anymore?

James Russell: I don't phone them too much anymore because I don't have to, generally they always just email in their orders, but-

James Blatch: Excellent.

James Russell: Although I like to have a chat to them every now and again, and New Zealand's small, so I'm often going to book fairs or to festivals, or I'll go on a school book tour and I'll always drop in and say hello when I'm in town. I visit a lot of schools. I do probably 50 or 60 school visits a year.

James Blatch: So presumably, are you someone in Auckland? I guess the newspaper's probably based there as well.

James Russell: Yes, I'm in Auckland.

James Blatch: Okay, so you got your little empire there, James.

James Russell: Yeah. Sure do.

James Blatch: And those trad deals on the picture books, are they seven years, or in perpetuity? What's the deal there?

James Russell: That's a good question. They're in perpetuity, I think. Yeah, if they stop printing, if they go out of print for a certain amount of time, I think I get the rights back, but to be honest I haven't looked at the contract release for a long time. I think they're still selling, and they will be selling now on the back of the strength of the middle grade novels, because the middle grade novels that are on Amazon in the front couple of pages have a picture of the three picture books, so they're getting some promotion that way, and they really do kind of cross-pollinate. They sell each other.

James Blatch: And what's your future, then? You've got these two surfing novels, for want of a better ... Call them surfing novels, what is the genre outside of the setting being a surfing setting?

James Russell: Outdoor adventure? I don't know, I don't know what the actual genre-

James Blatch: Is it a mystery, or ...

James Russell: No, they're not mystery. They would be thrillers, I guess. Yes, definitely thrillers, yeah. Suspense thrillers. The one in Ireland's got an Aussie protagonist. He's the main character and he gets caught up in a drug running-

James Blatch: The Aussie's the baddie.

James Russell: No, the Aussie's the ... well, he's the main character. He's a good guy.

James Blatch: Oh, he's a good guy.

James Russell: He gets caught up in this drug-running ring in Dublin and the rest of Ireland.

James Blatch: Because I know that there's a rivalry between the two of you. Normally the British are the baddies and everyone else's genres, but ...

James Russell: I don't know why, I think I wanted to do an Australia protagonist because Australia's got a lot of surfers, so ...

James Blatch: Yes, of course.

James Russell: I think that was a marketing decision on my part. I don't particularly write to market, but I try to stay a little bit wise to, when I'm making those decisions, who's going to be the big market in this. And I'd love to get those books translated. Portuguese, there's an awful lot of surfers in Brazil.

I'm launching them as paperbacks and audiobooks at the same time, so I've got a young Aussie actor narrating number one at the moment, and as soon as I'm finished number two, I'll send it to him as well. Yeah, that's exciting, so I'm going to launch them as audiobooks at the same time.

James Blatch: Excellent. And what's next after that?

James Russell: Oh, I don't know. I have no idea.

James Blatch: You've gone through the age groups now, unless you're going to write octogenarian literature.

James Russell: I'd be crazy not to write another children's book series, I think, just because I have a big following now.

James Blatch: Yeah.

James Russell: Every time I go to a school, there's always half a dozen kids just shaking with excitement to meet me, they're a real fans. It's that kind of fan stuff, which is just brilliant, to see the kids loving them so much.

James Blatch: That is brilliant, and you're converting kids into readers, which is the most brilliant thing.

James Russell: Yeah, yeah. Actually I got the best one. I was in a bookshop, and a lady came up to me and she said her son, her 10-year-old son, she went into his room and she saw he had his duvet pulled over his head, and she could see the light from the iPad coming out from underneath it, and she went, "You little!" And she grabbed the duvet and ripped it back, but he was using the light from the iPad to read one of my books. And I thought, "That's good stuff."

James Blatch: That's cool.

James Russell: He's choosing to read a book instead of use the iPad-

James Blatch: Secret readers.

James Russell: ... when he's got both options.

James Blatch: Superb. Well, James, thank you very much indeed for coming on all the way from Kiwi land down there in New Zealand.

James Russell: I listen to you guys all the time. I live right on a volcanic cone here, so most days I run up that mountain and I pick a podcast and listen to it, so I'm really appreciative of everything yourself and Mark have done to open up this world, really, because I knew nothing about this whole new thing, because I just started in January, this whole new thing of Amazon and all that has just been a mystery to me, so it's quite exciting to be able to do it and do it reasonably well just because of the advice that I get from you guys on the podcasts.

James Blatch: Well, that's very kind of you, and I've got an image in my mind now for next time we're recording the podcast wrap, of somebody running up a volcano. I always imagine people in the gym, or in a dog walk-

James Russell: It's not an active volcano. It's dormant.

James Blatch: It's dormant, is it? Well, I'm pleased to hear that.

James Russell: It's dormant, yeah.

James Blatch: There's quite a lot of activity in New Zealand recently, isn't there? But yeah-

James Russell: Yeah, there is.

James Blatch: Okay, James, again, thank you so much indeed. Brilliant to have you on. Good luck with those surfing novels. Let us know when they're out and we'll give you a shout on the podcast again.

James Russell: Oh, thank you. Thanks for having me. All the best.

James Blatch: There you go, interesting ideas from James. He's obviously very adventurous and imaginary in the way that he approaches marketing. Mark, augmented reality for children, I think it's a good idea.

Mark Dawson: I don't think his marketing is imaginary.

James Blatch: No.

Mark Dawson: I think it's imaginative.

James Blatch: Imaginative, yes.

Mark Dawson: If it's imaginary, he won't be doing much marketing. I'm looking at his website now, but I haven't had the benefit of listening to the interview before we've spoken about it, but his website is quite interesting and he's clearly got some unusual ideas. Normally when we get unusual ideas, I think generally, I've said this, and Joanna Penn is quite big on futurism and stuff like that, and I usually say to Joanna, she's about five years too early, so she was about five years too early with translation. Her new thing is kind of-

James Blatch: AI.

Mark Dawson: ... Non-Fungible ... Well, yes, and things like NFT, so Non-Fungible Tokens and things that she's quite keen on. Again, I think that's probably a little early, but I certainly could be proven wrong. But yeah, with AI, with augmented reality, I think there's a very strong possibility that Apple is working on Apple Glass, so that's going to be AR, and looks like that might be announced in the next 6 to 12 months, so these kinds of interesting ideas are going to become much more mainstream as we move on.

James BlatchYeah, so on the one hand you could think, "Well, let's get children off devices and reading books, so why are you introducing devices to them?" But of course it's not like that. Children are going to be on their devices and actually integrating it and making book reading part of that, I think is a really good idea, and particularly as James points out, children with dyslexia, it helps them because reading can be more challenging for them, then watching some of the stories come to life can give them some relief from that. Also, just this idea, hiding eggs around Auckland, getting publicity like that, and relentlessly contacting the bookshops in New Zealand to say, "Stock my book," until they eventually just wearily gave in and now all stock his book.

Mark Dawson: Squeaky hinge.

James Blatch: Leaky hinge. What's that called?

Mark Dawson: Leaky hinge? No, squeaky hinge.

James Blatch: Squeaky hinge, yes.

Mark Dawson: Yeah, a hinge can't leak but it can squeak.

James Blatch: Right, well, if you put too much oil on it.

Mark Dawson: The squeaky hinge gets the oil.

James Blatch: Yes.

Mark Dawson: So yes, that's exactly ... I've done that a few times with just basically making such a nuisance of yourself that eventually they do what you want just to get rid of you.

James Blatch: Yeah, and here I am. Right.

Mark Dawson: Exactly, they ...

James Blatch: There you go. Okay, thank you very much indeed to James for being our guest today, and don't forget we have that webinar with Janet Margot coming up on Monday the 28th of June. You can go to You'll also get replay links when we send the replay out, get replay links to all the replays from our three webinars we've run recently, all of which are full of actionable insights for you and your author career. That's it from us. Have a great week reading and a great week writing. All that remains for me to say is this is goodbye from him.

Mark Dawson: And goodbye from me.

James Blatch: Goodbye.

Mark Dawson: Goodbye.

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