Spotlight 27: James P. Sumner
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 indie authors at 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 James P. Sumner. He’s written 15 books in the thriller genre, and he lives in the UK.
James P. Sumner: Hi. Thank you very much for allowing me, Tom.
Tom Ashford: Great to have you on.
Would you like to start by talking about the series that you have in your thriller books?
James P. Sumner: Yeah, of course. My main series centers around an assassin called Adrian Hell. I’m currently putting the finishing touches to the eighth novel in that particular series. They’ve proven very popular over the last few years.
They are I suppose somewhat unique in the genre in that it’s the stories are told through the eyes of the characters. So it’s first person and it’s real time, so you’re very much kind of discovering the story as he is in that respect. And I think that kind of slightly different approach to the genres is what’s proved quite popular with people.
Tom Ashford: Yeah. Very cool. Okay. Let’s jump straight in with the questions we’ve got.
Question one is why do you write?
James P. Sumner: It’s kind of a weird kind of therapy I think for me. It’s my escapism. It’s like it’s the same reason why people watch Netflix or go the movies. I write to escape and I do it for me, and I’m able to put into my stories aspects of myself.
I often have my own kind of life as, I don’t know, I suppose as a way of transferring it in that respect. I find it quite therapeutic and I think it adds a lot to the stories as well. Again that’s what seems to have made it popular. But yeah, I write for myself.
Tom Ashford: Was there a particular reason that you chose the thriller genre to write in rather than anything else?
James P. Sumner: It was very much a case of stick with what you know. Thrillers are predominantly what I read, what I used to read when I was growing up, so it made sense to me to stick with the genre that I know. I know as a reader what to expect from that, so it made sense to approach it from a creative point of view as well.
Tom Ashford: Was there a reason why you chose, you say the first person, and did you say present tense, was it?
James P. Sumner: Yeah, first person present tense. Again, that was very much a challenge to myself because before I decided to sit down and really make an effort with the write and to really make a go of it, I did a fair bit of research and a lot of traditional industry people said it’s a very difficult and limited way to write your stories because obviously you can only tell it from one perspective. And I viewed that as a challenge, because the thing that appeals to me is what goes on inside the character’s heads.
Tom Ashford: Right.
James P. Sumner: And it was kind of a challenge to myself, because I mean my main character is an assassin. He’s not going to win any humanitarian awards or anything. And it’s very much the challenge for myself was to get people to like him despite what he does. And I thought the best way to do that was for you to understand him.
So therefore the stories are very much his own in a dialogue drives the narrative in that way. And again, that’s been the appeal of the series. The fact that despite all the terrible things that he has to do, my readers still email me now and say, “I’d love to sit down and have a beer with him,” because he’s just the kind of guy that you relate to.
Tom Ashford: And in terms of your publishing history, you traditionally published, self published or hybrid?
James P. Sumner: I’m full indie. I’m proud of that. I did try the traditional route. I think everybody is guilty of submitting to agents at some point, but I’ve never been traditionally published. No.
Tom Ashford: Would you want a traditional contract if one came along?
James P. Sumner: Honestly, I don’t know. I think obviously it opens up more doors. I think at this stage in the industry for the time being, doing it for yourself does, but at the same time it takes a lot of the control over your product away from you, and I’m quite OCD about it, in that I don’t think anybody could do it as well as I could, in that I know the characters.
I wouldn’t want to change things because somebody told me to. I would want to change things if I believe they were right to do. And I’m not convinced I could hand over the reigns in that respects so no, I think I will stick to myself.
Tom Ashford: Question number two is how do you write? Do you sit down and plot your stories out before you start or do you just see where the stories take you?
James P. Sumner: For the most part I tend to just, I’m what they call a seat of the pants kind of writer. I tend to just sit down with a blank page and see what happens. I’ve found that works best for me simply because of the way that the stories are written, as I say. Because it all happens in real time through the character’s eyes.
It’s as if I’m standing behind him and just writing down what he’s doing, as opposed to sort of telling the story in the traditional formulated way. And that makes it exciting for me.
And if I’m enjoying the process, then I’m pretty sure the readers are going to enjoy what comes out of it and that’s how I’ve always looked at it. There is an element of plotting, in that I like to know where I’m starting and where I’m ending, but how I get from A to B, that’s very much up to the character in that way. I just kind of document what he does.
Tom Ashford: Is there a particular software that you like to use?
James P. Sumner: I’m pretty basic really. I use Microsoft Word. I tried Scrivener and I couldn’t get to grips with it instantly, and then got really impatient because I didn’t want to put the time in to learn. And that’s just my personal choice. Word is fine for me. I use, you know, formatting services and things to do all the technical stuff. So, Word is more than sufficient for what I do.
Tom Ashford: Yeah. I mean as long as you can get the words on the page, does it really matter?
James P. Sumner: Well, that’s it, that’s all that matters really. I mean I do use, I mean I have Microsoft Office, so I do use OneNote to for any planning important things, which that program, I think, functions in very much the same way as the corkboard feature of Scrivener. So for that aspect, for what planning I do, I do actually do, that’s again, that’s more than sufficient.
Tom Ashford: Is there a particular time and place that you enjoy writing?
James P. Sumner: It’s normally just when I feel like it and what’s available. I try not to keep things too structured, in that I don’t have a specific time period of the day where I write. I just know that it’s something that I need to do every day. So I make sure I do.
I fit in around other things, but I try and keep it flexible, because I think if it becomes too structured it becomes, you start putting pressure on yourself. It can get to two o’clock in the afternoon like, “Oh God, I’ve not hit the word count target I’ve set for myself.” And then you start to panic and then you start to rush and then the woods become a job and they become terrible. I prefer to keep it kind of fluid and flexible, but it’s something that I make sure I do every day.
Tom Ashford: Yeah.
That leads us into question three, which 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?
James P. Sumner: So it’s a bit of a long story that, really. Because I am a full time author, but I’ve actually chosen to stop being a full time author.
Tom Ashford: Oh.
James P. Sumner: I’ve been writing for six years. The first three years of which I was working full time and writing part-time, aiming to become a full time author. Having been a full time author for just over three and a half years now, honestly I personally don’t think it’s all it’s cracked up to be. I think it’s a goal, it’s something that a lot of people aim for, which is fine. If that’s what you want to do, then that’s great. I aimed for it and I achieved it, in no small part to the Self-Publishing Formula, most of that in there, thank you Mark.
But I’ve done that and I achieved it and when I got there I found that it suddenly requires a lot more time and effort that needs to be taken away from writing, and that never quite sat well with me because I wanted to write because I enjoy it, not because I have to do it, not because it’s a job.
I think it’s of that age when your hobby becomes your job it loses sort of the fundamental quality of what made it your hobby in the first place and that, I don’t think that is for everyone. Some people are more business minded, which is great. I’m not, I’m creative minded, in that I liked the writing but I don’t like the business side that comes with it.
Tom Ashford: Yeah. I don’t think that’s particularly unusual, I guess. It’s not common to hear that in the indie community, which is great to have a new perspective on it. But obviously you think of all the different writers who take traditional publishing contracts because they don’t want to do the business side.
James P. Sumner: Yeah, absolutely. And you know, the traditional side of things, does offer a way out of that because it negates the need to learn how to market your books. You don’t have to worry about any promotion, any formatting, anything. You just write the book and you had it over, and that’s fine.
I tried doing the traditional route early days, and it always makes me laugh cause you see that story that always does the rounds on social media about JK Rowling and how she struggled and she had to deal with 12 rejections before she was made into a multibillionaire. And it’s like I have like 200, 12 is nothing.
Tom Ashford: Yeah.
James P. Sumner: I tried the traditional thing and it didn’t work for me then. I don’t know if it would work for me now. I would want to keep the creative side of things, but I don’t want the pressure of the business side of things, and to me the obvious answer to that was you go back to working full time where you can write in your spare time. You can still, it can go back to being your escapism, it can go back to being just for you. You can still publish it, you still know how to do that, but there’s absolutely no pressure financially to make it work.
Tom Ashford: Yeah.
James P. Sumner: I found I can split my career of six years into two right down the middle. In the first three years, when I worked full time and wrote part time, were far more successful as an author, than the three years when I worked full time as an author. Which is again, it’s strange because you’d think the more time you have, the better you do. But actually, it was I found that was the opposite for me. So I’ve kind of gone full circle for the second time now and I’m back to full time work.
Tom Ashford: Fair enough.
Question number four is what mistakes do you think you’ve made and what have you got right?
James P. Sumner: The biggest mistake I made was not learning the business side of things as I learned the publishing side of things. Now I think learning to publish and market your own book is very different than running the business of an indie publisher.
The business side of things is a lot more financial. It requires a lot more organization and patience and a lot more awareness of things like your finances, like finding the right accountant, that kind of thing. And the mistakes are made, in that, were simply because there were things that I didn’t know I had to learn.
It’s that saying, “You don’t know what you don’t know,” and looking back on that time now, I was able to, I essentially made mistakes and everything kind of bottomed out and I went back to square one, and then I built it up again through blood, sweat, tears and paperclips.
I got back to where I was, but now that I’ve done that, it’s like, well, it’s an achievement. And I’m proud of myself for it, but it’s a lot of work that’s outside of the writing it and it’s not something that I any longer want to focus on.
So yeah, the mistake, and things might’ve been different if in the beginning I had more of a business mind, but I don’t, that’s just not me. I’m very much about the creative and nothing else. So the main mistake I made was ignoring the facts that this is a business.
I know it’s something Mark always hammers home. Do you want to be success, treat your books like a business, you treat your books like a product, and a commodity. And that’s absolutely true. And I’ve been doing that and for me it’s not something I want to do anymore.
In terms of successes I’ve never been shy of putting the credit with Mark and his course, because that literally opened the door for me to become a full time author. Which in turn led to me winning Kindle Scout, winning a couple of literary awards in 2017, which are huge achievements and milestones for me.
It’s very much, the success has come from learning, learning, learning the ropes. And I put more emphasis on learning how to write a good book than I did on how to run the business of marketing them I think.
Tom Ashford: Yeah. Though I suppose that’s not the worst mistake ever in writing a good book.
James P. Sumner: Well no, I mean at the end of the day I suppose it’s less of a step, a mistake, and more of a discovery.
But at least for me it kind of just put me back on the right path for myself. If you don’t quite know what you’re aiming towards, things can get difficult because you start to question why you’re doing anything, and that affects the things that you still like as well as the things that you want to kind of maybe take a step away from. So yeah, it’s definitely been a six year journey of discovery for me.
Tom Ashford: Question number five is, what’s your final piece of advice for authors starting out in indie publishing?
James P. Sumner: My final piece of advice would be to be patient. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
It takes time to build it up to a level where it’s self-sustainable and it’s important to put the groundwork in to learn how to do that. And if you do it right, then yeah, you set yourself up for what could be an incredible career and more power to you.
But if you rush it, you start immediately putting pressure on what you’re doing and you start needing to take away more from it than perhaps you’re ready for. And that can lead to all kinds of unsuccessful ventures, shall we say.
I think it’s important to, if you’ve got clear path in your mind of what you want to achieve, don’t rush to do it. Take your time, do it right and do it smart.
Tom Ashford: That’s good advice. And those are your five questions. So thank you very much for coming on.
James P. Sumner: Awesome. Thank you. It’s been great talking to you Tom, I do appreciate it. Thank you.
Tom Ashford: That’s it for this week, 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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