Spotlight 25: Justin Bell
Mark Dawson: I’m Mark Dawson from the Self-Publishing Show and this is Self-Publishing Spotlight where we shine a light on the indie authors who are changing the world of publishing one book at a time.
Tom Ashford: Hello, and welcome to the Self-Publishing Spotlight. We meet in authors are all stages of their careers and ask them a series of five questions. Five questions about their process, their mistakes and their successes. Five answers that will help you level up your own author career.
My name is Tom Ashford and I’m part of the Self-Publishing Formula. Don’t forget that you can get your self-publishing resource kit at selfpublishingformula.com/starterkit.
This week’s guest is Justin Bell. He’s written about 30 books in the post apocalyptic thriller and sci-fi genres and he lives in New Hampshire. Welcome Justin.
Justin Bell: Hey, thank you very much. Appreciate it.
Tom Ashford: Would you like to start by maybe talking us through the different sort of books and and genres that you write in? Because 30 is quite a lot.
Justin Bell: Sure. Basically, what I’ve really cut my teeth on lately is the post-apocalyptic genre. I’ve been fortunate enough to be connected with another indie publisher called Muonic Press and I’ve been working alongside them for a couple of years and with a real focus in post-apocalyptic. And we’ve been able to put together a very nice kind of process of releasing books more or less monthly.
I’ve been doing this close to two years now. Really nailing down the genre and getting these books out. They were right in kind of short burst series so to speak. Typically six or eight books at a time. Try to tell a good new story that fits within those six or eight books with a real beginning and a middle and an end. And really pretty tightly targeted to the post-apocalyptic genre and have been doing pretty well with it all told.
Tom Ashford: Cool. Okay.
If we jump into the questions the first one is why do you write? Was there a particular story that you wanted to tell in the first place? Did you always wanted to be a writer?
Justin Bell: I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I was one of those fortunate kids who grew up in the 1980s and was pretty much inundated by pop culture medium for as long as I can remember. I had a single mom and she worked a lot so I spent a lot of time kind of consuming media and being familiar with sort of pop culture stuff and what really spoke to me was the characters and the stories and I always dreamed of having an opportunity to tell some of the stories of some of my favorite characters.
And interestingly that was my first introduction to self-publishing is through the Kindle Worlds platform, which allowed you to take existing properties and rights for those properties and leverage some licensed universes to tell your stories. And that was sort of where I first came up with the, or got into the self-publishing world.
But for as long as I can remember, I’ve been a fan of telling stories and I majored in English in college way too many years ago to talk about. So for a long time, it’s been really what I’ve wanted to do and what I love doing.
Tom Ashford: Which genre did you start off with?
Justin Bell: As far as Kindle Worlds goes, there was a selection of different properties. And so typically, I mean technically it would be military action. I wrote for the G.I. Joe Real American Hero universe and wrote some stories that aligned with some of those characters, which was more or less military thrillers, that sort of genre.
From there I wrote my own property in probably 2014. I was doing an experiment for NaNoWriMo that year and actually ended up writing my first self-owned story, which in that case was a military thriller with a little element of sci-fi in it. So that’s where I cut my teeth, was on the military thriller side of things, which actually does end up dovetailing pretty nicely into post-apocalyptic, which was a kind of a good transition for me.
Tom Ashford: Are you entirely self-published or have you got any sort of traditional publishing deals going on?
Justin Bell: Entirely self-published, either through myself or through the collaborator I work with Muonic. It’s all stuff we publish on our own, nothing traditional.
When I first wrote that thriller in 2014, I did what so many others do and spent close to a year to year and a half trying to solicit literary agents, trying to find somebody that might want to publish the story and didn’t have a whole lot of luck. So thankfully kind of coming out of that, I just discovered Mark’s course and decided to take the ball into my own hands.
Tom Ashford: Would you ever switch do you think if somebody came along with a contract?
Justin Bell: Oh, it’d have to be a pretty good contract. I’m doing fairly well what I’m doing now. I think a lot of independent publishers would find a traditional deal appealing. As much as I hate to admit it, there’s still this perception out there in the world that if you’re not publishing for traditional publisher, you’re not a quote unquote real author. You’re kind of taking a shortcut so to speak.
And I hate that. But it would have to be a very good deal because I can spend a month writing a 100,000 word novel and make a decent amount of money, probably a lot more than I would make even with an advance through a traditional publisher. So it would really have to knock my socks off.
Tom Ashford: Yeah. Fair. Okay.
Question number two is how do you write? Do you tend to plot your stories out or do you just see where they take you?
Justin Bell: I am a meticulous outliner, but so I do write careful plots, both individually based and series based. Since we do write in six or eight books series, I tend to outline both.
However, I will say that probably about halfway through each individual novel and also part of the way through the series, a lot of times those outlines go out the window. I do let things build organically. I try to give myself a framework to work in, but as I’m going on, invariably things change and I’ve had entire series by book three completely dovetail into something else completely. Take a hard left turn and all of a sudden it’s becoming something else. So I do plot, I do outline, but I reserve the right to completely change my mind in the middle if I want to.
Tom Ashford: What sort of software do you use in terms of things like Scrivener, Word, Vellum, that sort of thing?
Justin Bell: I use a little bit of everything. I’ve stuck my toes in a lot of different pools hoping to find the perfect solution. I haven’t found the perfect one yet.
I currently use actually an online platform called Dabble, which I do like quite a bit. It allows you to sketch out a scene by scene outline and then click into each one of those individual scenes and flush out the actual full chapter or full scene and kind of put it all together and export it to a word doc. So that’s what I’m using now. It’s not perfect, but it does fairly well.
I have used Scrivener, I’ve enjoyed Scrivener a lot. I wish it was cloud hosted as I think a lot of people do. But, so there’s a lot of different things I use.
For finalizing the draft, it’s all done in Word. I export it to a Word doc. It goes to the editor and to beta readers through the Beta Books platform and then once they all make their recommendations, then I put those changes back into Word. Word lives underneath the covers in almost every stage. But I use a bunch of different platforms on top of it.
Tom Ashford: Is there a particular time and place that you like writing?
Justin Bell: Whenever I can do it, I do have a full time day job still. I’m doing pretty well in this stage of my indie author career, but not quite well enough. Typically, I get up about five o’clock in the morning or sometimes earlier and spend a good 60 to 90 minutes writing.
Then whenever I can get a lunch break during the work day, I pretty much always am writing during that particular lunch break. I’m fortunate that I work in IT so I pretty much always have a computer on hand, have a keyboard at my fingertips. So I’ll do it during lunch breaks.
And then after family time at night, I typically stay up until 11 o’clock or midnight doing writing then. So pretty much filling in whichever cracks I can find, I’m filling in with the writing.
Tom Ashford: Cool. Well you sort of answered this a little bit.
Question number three is, are you a full time author? If you are, how did you get there? And if you aren’t, what steps are you taking to make it happen?
Justin Bell: Yeah and no, I’m not yet, but I am working to make that happen. I’ve set a goal with my wife right now hopefully within the next two years to make that happen.
I’m in an interesting position right now. It’s a little bit of a difficult position because I’m making enough money as an author where I can’t really slow down or stop, but I’m not making enough money as an author to leave my day job. So as a result, I’m almost doing two full time jobs simultaneously. So it’s definitely a challenge and will be a challenge for the next couple of years.
But we’re taking advantage of the extra income to try to pay down some debt and I’m hoping within the next couple of years to have a lot of that debt paid off. So if I do leave my day job and become a full time author, I can weather the storm.
As we all know, selling books is not a 100% reliable experience. I want to put myself and my family in the position where we can absorb a couple of down months or six down months if we need to. So we’re working to pay down some of that debt and to get into a more stable financial place where I don’t have to feel like I need to continue making six figures a year in order to maintain what I’m doing.
Tom Ashford: Yeah. Fair. Okay.
Question number four is, what mistakes do you think you’ve made and what have you got right?
Justin Bell: You name them, I’ve made them. The first novel I did in 2014, I wrote what I wanted to write, I just threw some words together and it’s something I actually am still pretty proud of, but I designed my own cover. I had friends and families editing it and kind of being my beta readers. Even people that didn’t really know the genre, they were kind enough to offer to read it for me, even though it wasn’t something that was really in their wheelhouse.
As a result, there were some structural issues, there were some grammar issues. The cover I made was something I was very proud of at the time but looking back at it now, was certainly not professionally designed. So I think I learned a lot of my mistakes kind of with that first novel.
And unfortunately, I wish I had discovered Mark’s course maybe about a year earlier because I’d actually published two novels in my original trilogy before I discovered his course and changed my tact a little bit for the third one. But by then it was almost almost too late.
I’ve made plenty of mistakes. As far as getting things right, I’ve been really, really fortunate to be able to connect with Muonic Press and Mike Kraus and do some work in the post-apocalyptic space. And it was my writing work that got me introduced to him and enabled me to do that.
And then really it’s about genre targeting as far as the post-apocalyptic world goes is knowing your audience and giving the audience what they expect and what they want. Keeping things interesting of course, but you know also finding that genre that you know what the audience is looking for, but it’s still something you enjoy writing.
I know a lot of the perception out there is if you’re trying to write to an audience and write to it, you’ve somehow got to sacrifice some of your creativity. And that’s really not the case. You’ve just got to find that sweet spot that allows you to be creative and tell the story you want to tell, but that also appeals to the right audience or appeals to the core audience in the right way.
I think what I’ve gotten right really is learning how to find that middle ground between stories I want to tell and stories I think readers will want to read and being able to tell those stories and having readers enjoy them then and having it show up well in the KTP reports at the of the month.
Tom Ashford: It can be a tricky balance.
Question number five is what’s your final piece of advice for authors starting out in indie publishing?
Justin Bell: Really, it’s don’t expect to be a blockbuster seller your first time out. It’s a long, slow road. I think I’m doing fairly well and it’s still something I’ve been doing for several years and will be doing for several years more to get where I want to be.
Don’t write your book and throw it out there and just expect to suddenly be able to retire. This is a marathon, not a sprint. And as much as you go through Mark’s course and kind of hear stuff you don’t want to hear. Like you’ve got to be a marketer, you’ve got to create a newsletter list. You got to do all this stuff. A lot of authors kind of say, well, I probably don’t have to do that. I can find my own way to do it.
But I would say just listen to the experts. Listen to the professionals. Take your time. And most of all, just keep writing. Without the books, you’re not going to be able to find an audience to sell to. So you need to keep writing and you will get better the more you write.
If you write a book and it doesn’t get a good response, doesn’t get good reviews, just sit your butt down and write another one. And you’ll get better as time goes on. You’re never going to be perfect your first time out. So it’s like anything else, just keep on writing and keep on producing.
Tom Ashford: That’s good advice. And unlike in traditional publishing world, writing a bad book or making some mistakes with covers and things like that, it’s not going to kill your career.
Justin Bell: Exactly.
Tom Ashford: If people don’t like it, you’d just write another one and hope that that one is better targeted or just better written or better marketed or whatever.
Justin Bell: Yeah, I mean, my first trilogy that I wrote is kind of a perfect example of that because I think there were some significant mistakes that I made. I’ve gone back and I’ve paid for some new covers, so I have plans to relaunch that and to tweak it and to get it back out in the world and hopefully with a better response.
So that’s the beautiful thing about independent publishing, is that you can do stuff like that. If something didn’t hit right, you can kind of analyze that and kind of see where you missed and do it again. Do it right with all the new things you’ve learned.
Tom Ashford: Exactly. Yeah. Well that’s it. That’s your five questions. Thank you very much for coming on. It’s been great to have you here.
Justin Bell: Fantastic. Thank you very much, Tom. It’s been great talking to you.
Tom Ashford: That’s it for this week’s Self-publishing Spotlight.
Don’t forget that you can get your free self-publishing resource kit at selfpublishingformula.com/starterkit.
And if you want to appear as a guest on this show, send us brief details about yourself and your writing at selfpublishingformula.com/spotlight-guest.
I’m Tom Ashford and I’ll see you again next week.
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