How can you become a bestseller in a country where you don’t live?
I recently interviewed an author who has bestselling books in the US and the UK, and he doesn’t live in either country. Jack Ellem is the author of 14 thrillers, including his bestseller Mill Point Road, which has over 2,000 Amazon ratings and reviews. He has signed a TV series development agreement without the help of an agent, publicist, or publisher.
How did he do it independently and from afar?
What were his strategies? How can you apply them to your book marketing journey?
I asked him.
Thomas Umstattd, Jr.: How did you get started writing thrillers and crime fiction?
Jack Ellem: In 1995, I tried writing a thriller because I just wasn’t happy at work. I was an accountant, and I was bored. I thought I’d try my hand at writing a thriller, and it was an absolute disaster because I tried to copy the mainstream books.
In 2018, I wanted to try again, but I didn’t know what to write. I didn’t know where I would start, but a friend gave me some great advice. He said, “Go to your bookshelf and look at all the novels you’ve purchased. Look in your video cabinet and pull out all the DVDs you like to watch. Then write what you like to read and watch.”
I did that, and I discovered I like crime shows, thriller shows, and psychological thrillers. The genre stood out, and I decided I’d write a series.
I used to read a lot of Lee Child, and I wanted to develop a character like Jack Reacher. So, I created a traveling former Secret Service agent who’s been kicked out of the Secret Service for punching the vice president. He now travels the back roads and small towns of the US. And that’s how I started my No Justice series.
I did some market research initially, and I think that’s a good tip for writers. Decide on a market. Decide who you’re writing for. Some people say, “Write for yourself,” and that’s great. But if you want to sell books, you need to grow a following.
In my research, I found out that women are voracious readers. I wanted to write something fast-paced that appealed to a female audience because they were the biggest demographic of readers in the world.
I designed a series of books about this guy who travels. In every town, he runs into problems, squabbles, and power struggles. I came up with the idea that the worst villains hide in the smallest towns, and that’s where my No Justice series kicked off in 2018.
I had some great success. I was five books into the series when I wrote a standalone novel. But the real success came when I was in Maryland in 2019. My wife and I got lost on this back road, and we came out near this gated community high upon a ridge. There were five houses on the ridge, and I said to my wife, “I wonder what happens behind closed doors in those houses?”
We had planned to leave Maryland, but I stayed for a couple of extra days and outlined a book which has become my bestselling book to date, Mill Point Road. Sometimes the best success comes when the writing isn’t forced. It’s not planned. It just comes to you.
Mill Point Road came out in 2020. It got good traction. When sales started to increase, and Amazon picked it up and started pushing it, everything else went off the back of that standalone book.
Did you finish your first book or give up on it?
Thomas: You first started writing a book back in the 90s. Did you finish that book or give up on it?
Jack: I gave up on it. I wrote probably 5,000 words of science fiction. When I reread it, I knew it wasn’t going to work. It was more of a distraction, so that got shelved. I gave up and took a long hiatus.
In 2017 I had planned to sell my business and go all in. I said, “I’m going to put my back against the wall and just start writing,” and that’s what I did.
Thomas: You started writing full time right out of the gate, kind of as a second career?
Jack: In the last 12 months of my business, while I was getting it ready for sale, I was writing. I got up early at 4:00 AM to squeeze in two hours of writing before work. If I got a lot of work done during the day, I’d start writing again at 3:00 in the afternoon. I’d get home, have dinner, go to my home office at 8:00 PM and write for a couple more hours.
I was squeezing it in between running the business as many budding authors do. They try and fit writing around their full-time job, and that’s what I was doing. There were no weekends.
When I sold my business in 2018, I could concentrate full time on writing.
Thomas: That is the right way to do it. Don’t quit your day job until your writing brings in enough money to replace the income from your day job.
The goal is to jump from one sure thing to another sure thing. If you’re retiring and you’ve got some savings set aside, the rules change a bit.
How long did it take to write your first four books?
Thomas: How long did it take to write those initial four or five books?
Jack: I was putting out two books a year before I went full-time. When I went full-time, I was putting out four books each year. I’ve cut back some now. I’ve gone back and re-edited and rewritten some of the first books. I have a production table now where I look to put out two to three, or maybe four, books per year.
Thomas: As indie authors write subsequent books, they grow, and their craft improves. Indie authors often reread their first book and realize it needs to be rewritten or edited. Indie authors can easily clean up that first book and publish an improved version.
How do you rework a book that’s already published?
Jack: You’re learning, and you never stop learning your craft. After writing my fifth book in the series and a few standalones, I went back and reworked the first book. That was always my plan because, in the beginning, I knew I was still learning. Your first book isn’t going to be your best work.
While I was producing a new book, I’d also be rewriting a previously published book. As the years go by, you have these niggling feelings. You remember you didn’t like the ending in book three. Or you recognize there’s a character you should remove.
I probably take a month to tighten a manuscript and cut some of the word count. Then it goes back into production. It’s a process where you’ve got to be continuously improving. There’s nothing wrong with tweaking the books if you’re not happy with them.
Thomas: This is a new approach to writing, which wasn’t really technologically possible 20 years ago. Now, it’s feasible because the books are published electronically, and people read ebooks.
When you make changes to the ebook copy, those new changes are immediately pushed out to everyone who hasn’t downloaded the book yet. If they’ve already purchased your ebook but haven’t downloaded it yet, they’ll get the most recent copy when they do download it.
If they have already downloaded your book, they’re given a prompt asking if they want to download the updated version.
Even paper copies can now be printed on-demand, which means that when you publish a new manuscript, everyone who orders the book from that point forward will get the new version. The book becomes more like a web page where it can evolve and grow.
For example, if you visit a Wikipedia page today, it has some information. If you visit the same page in a few years, it will have more information. You can create a book that way too, but only if you publish independently.
It’s called the relaunch strategy. You edit an older book, rework the title and cover, and then you relaunch it. Some authors see incredible success because the idea that got them started in their writing career was good. Over time, their skills have gotten better, and when they apply improved skills to old work, they end up with a much stronger book.
Jack: I’ve even noticed a couple of traditionally published books that have been reworked and relaunched as well. I read a book that was published in 1995, and it mentioned Facebook. They mentioned cellular phones, the internet, and social media. Well-known, bestselling authors have a team of editors that will go back and say, “Hey, let’s edit that book from the 90s and bring it up to date.”
Traditional publishers want new, younger readers, and those readers relate to Facebook, Instagram, texting, and so on. They don’t want to read about the huge desktop computer or the brick of a cellular phone.
Thomas: That’s right. Back in those days, the mobile phone was the murder weapon used to club somebody.
That brings up a challenge, particularly for thriller writers because authors must now answer the question, “Why don’t they just call the police?”
In the olden days, answering that question was easier. The line was cut, or there was no phone available. But now, everyone has a phone in their pocket, so you have to develop more creative reasons why people can’t call the police. That’s always a fun challenge for authors to navigate.
Jack: My go-to is that there’s no signal. My character is in the middle of Manhattan, and they’ve lost coverage. How can that be?
Thomas: Sadly, that’s all too believable.
Why did you choose to indie publish?
Thomas: Your books have sold so well that you could be traditionally published if you wanted to be. What caused you to go the independent route?
Jack: It was the plan from the beginning. I needed to learn the craft, understand my readers, and build a following.
I wanted to see how the first couple of books turned out, and then I wanted to improve. It was an experimental testbed.
I thought maybe after the fourth or fifth book, I’d look at the traditional path. I was always looking to publish traditionally, but I wasn’t good enough as a writer. I looked at those early manuscripts, and I knew they had to be better. If I had submitted them, I would have been embarrassed. Being a hybrid author with traditional and indie books is the best of both worlds.
I’ve reached a point now where I am submitting directly to publishing houses. They’re asking me what I have in development for the next 12 months. They may not like the project, but they want to know what I’ve got cooking.
If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, you can use the platforms for ebooks, such as Kobo, Apple, and Amazon. It was an experiment for me. I wanted to nail down my writing style before I looked at the traditional path.
The traditional path was always the end goal. Traditional publishers have access and reach into bookstores that goes far beyond the indie author’s reach. Even though we have access to print-on-demand, traditional publishers have a significant reach. But that gap is closing.
Thomas: Even with print-on-demand, it’s hard to price your books cheap enough to make it worthwhile for everyone in a brick-and-mortar bookstore. While print-on-demand is cheaper than it was back in the day, it’s still two or three times more expensive per book than an offset print run of 20,000 copies.
When Scholastic was printing a million copies of the Harry Potter books, they may have spent only $1 million to $2 million to print those books. But they were getting vast quantities from super printers in China for a couple of dollars per book.
When you can sell that book for $20, you have a lot of ways to make sure everyone up and down the supply chain is compensated and incentivized to make that book sell well.
You have to price it higher when you’re paying $4.00 to $7.00 per print-on-demand copy. At the higher price points, the brick-and-mortar model doesn’t work as well.
Jack: That’s the very reason I changed everything on my word count 18 months ago. I wanted to maximize the paper royalty from Amazon. My books are typically 80,000 to 90,000 words, and I was getting 8-10% royalty.
I wasn’t making any money on print books. So I did the math and figured out that if I wrote a 65,000-word book at 11 point font, that would be 250 pages. I could sell that 250-page book for $9.99, which was the mass market price of the comparable books you see in Walmart, Barnes, and Noble, or CVS. You have to be competitive, and the competition was $9.99 for a mass market paperback by the big authors.
If I pulled my production count back to 250 pages at 65,000 words, I found I could maximize my paperback royalty at about 20%. That was a game-changer for me. It also meant that my prose was tighter, the story pace was faster, and I produced books faster.
It was a win-win for the reader and me. The reader got a well-structured book. I focused on the pace and characters, and it was a quicker read. I worked that out 18 months ago, and it changed everything.
Thomas: A little bit of creative restraint gives our creativity its most glorious manifestation.
The difference between a rifle bullet and a firecracker is the focus of the barrel. It’s the constraint of the barrel forcing all the gunpowder to go in just one direction. If you normally write a 300-page or 350-page book, you can force yourself to tell that same story in 250 pages. Cutting it down will make it more fast-paced, and that’s exactly what thriller readers want. They want a page-turner.
It’s a little different in science fiction or epic fantasy, where people want longer books. On the other hand, selling your readers two shorter books instead of one long tome is often a more profitable strategy.
If you normally write one 300-word book, consider writing two 200-word books. Stretch it out. Create a longer series. If people like the first one, they’ll go on and read the second one.
What advice would you give to indie authors who are just getting started?
Thomas: What other advice would you give your past self?
Jack: First, you’re going to be stuck writing a series or a genre for quite a while, so pick something you like reading. Don’t jump into an unfamiliar genre where you don’t know the audience.
If you don’t read epic fantasy or science fiction, don’t try to write it. Write something you will enjoy for the next couple of months because it’s a long process.
Secondly, don’t give up. The first book is only a test. So is the second. Think about this as a long game. I always come back to Dean Koontz, who wrote 32 books before he hit the bestseller list. You’ve got to take that mindset as an author. It’s your fifth or sixth book that will hit the bestseller list if you keep improving. Those first few books got you to that point. They’re not wasted time. Be persistent and write what you enjoy reading.
Thomas: At the same time, keep the reader in mind. You have to be willing to read the books in your genre and familiarize yourself with what readers want.
Jack: I don’t understand when some authors say, “I don’t have time to read fiction in my genre.” I read two books per month in my genre, and it has helped me tremendously. My writing craft has drastically improved.
Thomas: Stephen King agrees with you. In his book on writing, he talks about how he reads and listens to audiobooks until he’s read everything in his genre. Then he has to go outside of his genre to find new stuff to read. I think that contributes to his success.
Now, Jack, one of the challenges you face is that you don’t live in the United States or the UK. You’re down under in Australia.
How did you make your books successful in foreign markets?
What was it like writing for these foreign markets, and what did you do to make your books so successful in foreign markets?
Jack: From day one, I decided I would base all my books in the US. All the language, spelling, and terminology are US-based. My proofreaders and editors are in the US. I have one editor on the East Coast and one on the West Coast because, as you know, within America, you almost have different dialects. I made that decision right from the beginning from a commercial standpoint.
I travel to the states, and I’ve lived in dozens of places in America too. I enjoy being in the US and the UK. If it weren’t for what’s happened in the last 18 months, I’d be living in the US now. As soon as Australia opens up, I’ll be moving to the states because that’s where my market is.
The lockdown and isolation were difficult, but with technology and the internet, I can hire contractors from all over the world. I can write from anywhere, and that’s the key. If you feel that your market is in India or the UK or maybe in Scandinavia, you can write for that market.
By the same token, it’s hard to write about a place you’ve never visited. Wikipedia or Google Map’s street view can only take you so far. It’s not the same as being there.
You can be anywhere in the world and still be a bestseller, but I want to be embedded in my market, which is effectively the US.
Your travel may be tax-deductible. In the course, we’ll show you when you can get away with it and when you can’t. We look at the actual tax court cases where authors won their cases and got to have a tax-deductible trip and when they lost their cases and did not.
But you weren’t traveling because you wanted a tax deduction. You were traveling because you were researching for your work. Arguably everything is research. You’re chitchatting with people at a gas station, and you discover they still buy gas by the gallon. That’s research.
Jack: Correct. It’s all part of the business side of being an author.
How do you handle the money you earn in foreign markets?
Thomas: How do you handle the money? You’re making money in US dollars.
Have you formed a US LLC to receive those US dollars? Or are you pulling that into Australian dollars and then converting it back into US dollars to pay your expenses?
Jack: I do everything through the US. Everything is set up in terms of the American market. The American royalties go into an American bank account, and the tax implications are all handled through the American IRS.
How do you handle your copyright in foreign markets?
Thomas: Do you register your copyright with the United States Copyright Office, or do you register with the Australian office?
Jack: Once again, it comes back to that plan at the beginning. I asked myself, “Where do you want to be as an author in the next ten years? Which market do you want to be in?” I wanted to be in the American market, and I set up my structures so that everything is registered in the US.
Thomas: Your books are also bestsellers in the UK. Do you have a UK business entity? Or do you run it through your American entity?
Jack: I’ve got a UK entity as well, so once again, everything set up in the UK for that separation. I haven’t pushed hard into the UK yet, but I’ve set up separate structures for each country. I may release a thriller based in England, and hopefully, I’ll get a little more traction in the UK.
Thomas: You could have one of your characters pull a James Bond. One of the appeals of a James Bond story is that each act takes place on a different continent. It’s like going on vacation with James Bond, except you see the world through the eyes of a super-assassin.
Your character could chase somebody to England for the second act and then back to the US in the final act.
How did you market your book in the UK?
Thomas: In terms of marketing, how did you get the word out in the UK?
Jack: In the UK, I started running Facebook ads that geographically targeted UK readers. If I’m going into a new market, whether it be Canada, France, Germany, or Italy, I will design a Facebook ad strategy to target that territory.
The second part of that is to look at UK authors who write similar books. I will go to a comparable author’s Facebook page and invite their followers to follow me. It was a targeted approach of going into a market, finding out who the readers are, finding out who the similar authors are, and targeting their readers.
After doing that research, I could follow up with Facebook ads.
How much do you spend on Facebook ads?
Thomas: How much do you spend on Facebook ads in a given month?
Jack: It averages out to $2,000-$3,000 per month.
Thomas: For a successful indie author, that’s a very normal ad spend. You’re getting that back plus a lot more. The ads pay for themselves.
Jack: Yes. At one point, the ROI was better than putting money in the stock market.
You’d spend a dollar, and you’d get three back within 90 days. It ebbs and flows. I know a few indie authors, who are spending at least $100,000 per month, but they’re getting it back plus some. It’s simple math.
Thomas: You’re doing the math the whole time. You don’t start using your inheritance to buy Facebook ads. No, no, no!
Jack: No. You start small.
Thomas: Learn how to spend $500 profitably, and then ramp it up to $1,000. You keep growing it slowly and steadily. Then, you take the returns you’re making from the advertising and sew them back into the ads.
With every new ad campaign, you’re learning. You can take courses on advertising and learn how to optimize those ads better. We have episodes on advertising, but nothing beats spending your own money, digging into data, and making adjustments to optimize.
Facebook is constantly in flux. If you can find little things that no one else is doing, you can get a little edge that can help.
Thomas: Besides Facebook advertising, how else are you promoting your books?
Jack: This is a word of advice to indie authors: take whatever deal Amazon throws your way. If they offer you a Countdown Deal, take it. If they throw you what they call a Gold Box Deal, do it. Whether it’s an Exclusive Deal, a Prime Deal, take whatever they offer.
Many indie authors think they won’t make any money with those deals or that Amazon makes all the money on those deals, but that’s the wrong way of looking at it.
You’ve got to play the long game. At first, I turned down Amazon deals because I didn’t think they were profitable. But then I picked up a few, and two or three months later, the books took off purely because Amazon is the biggest bookstore in the world. They know their readers, and they know how to sell books.
I always tell first-time authors, “Don’t focus on selling your books to your readers. Focus on someone like Amazon, Kobo, or Apple selling your books to their readers because they’ve got a lot more readers than you do. When I changed that marketing mindset, my sales took off.
We had an Amazon promotion a few days ago, and everything went through the roof. When those big book distributors push your book out to their huge database of readers, you’ll get a lot of organic, long-term growth in your book sales.
Track your promotions and see how they affect your sales. Readers who pick up your first book may never have read anything by you before. But if Amazon pushes that first book, readers will find out they like your books. They’ll pick up your next book, and you’ll get natural growth.
Take any deal that these platforms send your way.
Thomas: Being offered a deal is a big honor. Amazon only gives those deals to the top 1%-5% of authors.
What’s an Amazon deal?
Amazon has a whole box of goodies for you. Once you’re a little successful, they’ll open up the goodie box and offer you some kind of promotional deal. Take it! They can’t force the deal on you, of course, but go ahead and take the goodie they offer you.
If a million people download one of your books for free due to an Amazon deal, you’re going to win. You’ll have a million people reading and talking about your book, and if you have more than one book, a percentage of those million readers will buy your second book.
Now your book is the buzz, and all your other books are going to sell well. Focus on that long game. Focus on getting people reading and talking about your books.
And don’t be so concerned about the percentage. Look at the absolute number of dollars and the absolute number of readers. Focus on introducing your book to as many new people as possible.
Jack: Exactly. The best returns are delayed, so have that long-term focus.
What final tips or advice do you have for us?
Thomas: What final tips or advice do you have for us?
Jack: It has never been easier to be an author, to create a market, to create a book, and to publish it. Fifteen years ago, you were restricted by agents and gatekeepers.
It’s also never been easier to become a good author. There are so many resources. The internet is full of courses, so embrace everything. Don’t be a closed shop. Look at everything you can do to promote your brand and to write better books.
You don’t have to be traditionally published. You can be extremely successful as an indie author. But approach it as a long-term game. You’re here for a while. Enjoy it. If you put the work in, the success will take care of itself. Simple as that.
Thomas: Your book Mill Point Road is selling like a traditionally published book. It’s potentially begin made into a TV series. So don’t let anyone tell you that going indie means you can’t get some of that Hollywood money.
Learn more about Jack Ellem and his books by visiting his website or connecting with him on social media.
In this course, you will learn
- 19 tax deductions authors can claim
- How to qualify for tax deductions for your writing-related expenses (not all writers qualify)
- How to create a business plan
- How to make a living as an author
- How to be a business in the eyes of the IRS
- How, when, and why to form an LLC
- How to reduce the likelihood of being audited by the IRS
The course is taught by Tom Umstattd, a CPA with over 35 years of experience working with authors, and his son Thomas Umstattd, Jr, founder of Author Media and host of the Novel Marketing podcast.
Learn more at AuthorTaxTips.com.
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What: Episode 300 Live Recording & Listener Q&A
When: September 30 at 4:00 PM Central Time. (Convert Timezone)
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