I think the the feeling that we know we should have made these better decisions earlier for some reason, instead of learning from that, it actually paralyzes us. It makes us feel like all the moments in my life where I could have seized the opportunities ahead of me are all gone. And I guarantee in another five or 10 years, you're going to look back at today as the day that you had the free time, the inclination, the talent to change your life.
Hello and welcome. I'm Shane Parrish and this is the Knowledge Project, a podcast exploring the ideas, methods and mental models that help you learn from the best of what other people have already figured out.
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On the show today is author extraordinaire and world sailor Hugh Howey. We're going to talk about wayfinding, the ancient art of navigating by paying attention to natural signs, the benefits of travel and what people have in common all over the world. And in the last part of the show, we're going to deep dive or geek out on the publishing house who has sold millions of books, and he knows the ins and outs. If you wondered how to go from the writing process to publishing and what some of the pitfalls are, you don't want to miss.
We're also going to talk about some of the things that he does differently with his books, including giving away a book like Wool and what that means and what the implications are.
It's time to listen and learn. Before we get started, here's a quick word from our sponsor. This episode is sponsored by Mud Mudder's, Masala Chai based coffee alternative that improves your focus. The for medicinal mushrooms that are in mud give you the benefits of coffee, but avoid the dreaded caffeine crash if you have trouble sleeping at night or can't remember the last time you dreamt TriMet is your new morning ritual instead of coffee. We had it here at the office and everyone loves it.
If you're wondering, it tastes like chai and chocolate. If you want to try, go to midwater dotcom and enter Furnham at the checkout for ten dollars off. That's Muda WCR Dotcom and enter the code furnham for ten dollars of. Human, I'm so happy to talk to you right now. They seem happy to be on you're on a boat in Australia, is that correct? That's correct.
It's a remarkable world we live in where I can be in Ottawa, Canada, in the middle of a snowstorm right now. And you're halfway across the world literally, and on a boat. And we have this connection. It's kind of neat. Yeah, that's weird.
I've forgotten that still exists, but that sounds awful.
I wish I could forget. That's now exactly how I think following the summer for a while now. So how did you fall in love with sailing?
I think it's, I don't know, nine or 10 years old. We used to go to the beach every I grew up in near Charlotte, North Carolina. So but in London, we went to the beach every every year for a couple of weeks. And one of the first things I would do is drag this little they're called sun fishes. There's little dinghies with tiny little sails. But for every kid my age, I felt like I was like watching the Titanic.
This thing was like really a pain to move around by yourself. It was kind of like a Herculean task when my brother and sister were running around, you know, choosing which bedroom they were going to have. I was dragging this thing down to the sound and launching it and trying to get the mast by myself. And yeah, I would just spend all day sailing around the sound in this little thing and even then was dreaming about sailing to the other side of the world, which at the time was always China.
We used to like dig holes in the sand and pretend we were digging our way to China as little kids. And and so, yeah, it's been a dream of mine for many 30 plus years to to do this. And it's kind of crazy that I've made it this far on this trip because it was just a just a fantasy for so long. And you're sailing around the world. Yeah. The goal was I figured I'd take about five years.
I started in South Africa over three years ago, about three and a half years ago, and sailed across the Atlantic and Pacific so far. And, you know, of course, I'm not doing it direct. I'm really meandering. When I went across the Atlantic, I hit the Caribbean. I went all the way up to Maine and then worked my way back down, spent about six weeks in Cuba and then went down to the Panama Canal across the Pacific.
If I was trying to wrap this up, but I'd keep sailing north along the Australian coast and across the Indian Ocean to South Africa. But I fell in love with this part of the world. So I'm going to do a couple little loops between here and New Zealand. I'm going to try to get back to Fiji in the next month or so, which has been one of my favorite stops so far.
And are you on the boat alone? I've got a girlfriend on right now, but I've done some long passages by myself, which is pretty fun. And but I have friends and family members join me here and they're like for New Year's in Australia. We had seven of us living on the boat and, you know, anchored out right in front of the Sydney Opera House. And with the that in the foreground in the the Harbour Bridge, in the background and all the fireworks, it was unbelievable.
So, yeah, I've always got people who are eager to come and join. It's actually more of a challenge to keep keep the boat semi empty.
And do you do you work better when it's empty or do you work better when people are around as far as writing or the writing?
I write better, but the zero distractions I can write with, like background noise, I could sit in a cafe with a lot of clatter and chatter and write really well and I can write in pitch black with absolute silence. But if I'm in the middle of writing and someone asked me a question like, sucks me out when I'm writing, I'm actually seeing the story like I'm watching a movie. I'm just trying to describe the action and and transcribe the dialogue as I'm hearing it.
And anything that captures my attention away from the story makes it really hard to dive back in.
I want to come back to writing a little bit later, because I really want to do not only a deep dive on writing in your process, also on publishing. But before we get there, I want to dive into a little bit more about sailing. And I think you called it wayfinding. What is wayfinding?
Wayfinding specifically? It's the art of navigating across the oceans, using natural science and not using a GPS or even a compass, but using the stars the direction of the setting. A rising sun cloud patterns, the temperature of the water, signs of migration from wildlife. And we now know that that's how all the Pacific islands are. The general progress of migration across the Pacific was very deliberate and skill-based we used to because of the terrible assumptions we have about primitive people, even though they had the same brainpower that we have and a lot more free time and less distraction to employ it.
Know, we assume that they just drifted downwind and settled the islands accidentally. But and there's even someone to set off from South America to try to prove this carnivorous name now. But he built a raft and drifted in the currents and made it to, I think, the Galapagos. But we now know another guy set out from New Zealand with a boat to show that you could sail into the wind without any navigation equipment and find any island you wanted to find.
And he proved that these people could have done that. And since then, a team left from Hawaii with a traditionally built boat and use only the stars to navigate and sail around the world and actually ran into them several times on this trip, shared a couple of harbors with them. And yeah. So wayfinding is basically just relying on the observing what's around you instead of a reliance on technology. And for me, it's always there's been some significance to that as like a self betterment principle, you know, like just trying to put the technology aside every now and then and say, like, OK, we're going to be life.
But what are my relationship connections right now? What am I feeling? What am I doing? What mistakes have I made one of my proud of how do I want to realign? Which direction do I want to go and be really deliberate about the choices we make in the direction that we go in life? Because honestly, I realised for myself and I think it's quite true for a lot of people, that I was just kind of drifting with the currents, like the guy who left from South America all those years ago and kind of doing whatever came naturally next.
And I wasn't employing a lot of free will. And I think I think most of us know if we analyze it very hard, that that will is definitely not free. You know, we make a lot of promises to ourselves around January 1st every year. And by February, we were exhausted from trying to budge our natural inclinations and our bad habits. So, you know, learning that that will was very expensive made me want to be a little more observant about, you know, what I was doing and where I want to go and push that direction.
So there's for me, there's a lot of parallels between this sailing adventure and also the adventure of navigating through life.
What are some of the other things that you've learned about yourself through sailing and a lot of time in solitude and a lot of experience with different cultures around the world through your travels?
Yeah, the cultural experiences have been amazing. I've always loved to travel, but there's something about when you travel to Paris and you, you know, get out of the airport and you have maybe have some friends with you or a loved one, you spend a lot of time with that person and you dip into the culture and you have some of the food and you, you know, have encounters with strangers and you kind of get a sense of what that culture is like.
But if you have to go study abroad and you live in a dorm or an apartment and you spend months there and you start picking up the language and you're grocery shopping and cooking with whatever is available in that place, instead of eating out that extra time, that deep immersion. It gives you a much better sense of the the flavor of the culture and the crazy thing about traveling like this is that I'm taking my home with me. You know, I have my kitchen everywhere I go.
So I'm always buying groceries and learning local recipes. And I'm having locals come stay with me on the boat. And like in French, let's see, in Fiji, I had a big, large family come on and do a kava ceremony like right on the boat. And a lot of these what is that ceremony?
Kava is this root that they grind up with almost like a cheese grater into a powder mixed with water. And if you drink it, it gives you a bit of a buzz, makes you your lips go numb and strangeness of the opposite of alcohol in a way that the more you drink it, the more sensitive you get to. Instead of developing a tolerance, you actually develop a sensitivity. So, yeah, the people who grow up and it's actually spreading around because you can't the FDA has like said, this is very safe.
Like you can't O.D. on it. And what's weird about it is if you get drunk on kava, your brain is completely lucid, like you do not get a mushy, mushy thoughts, but your body goes completely numb. So the people who are like, I've met a lot of expats, people who've moved to Vanuatu specifically because they're kava is like 10 times stronger. And they move there basically because of how much they love this experience. And if they if you lived there long enough, you get what the locals get, which is this incredible sensitivity to it.
And if you drink it with an empty stomach, which is like necessary, if you have any kind of food in your stomach, it dilutes it and you get very little effect. But if you've done it for a while and you drink with an empty stomach, it takes like two little half coconuts of this milky muddy looking for. A lot of people say it tastes like mud. I think it tastes fine. But I guess it's one of those things that, you know, very individual basis.
But, yeah, basically just separates your brain from your body and leaves your brain intact.
Do you remember these things like after like when your body sort of like comes back, you know, your brain is used to completely clear the whole time.
There's no blacking out. There's just like complete. I don't know how to it's like an out of body experience and that your body just kind of disappears. Like you lose you lose motor function, but your brain is the same as it is right now, like you and I would have. It's like forced meditation. Best thing I can say, because you you can't do anything except be alone with your thoughts. Kind of cool. I don't know. But I've only I've only experienced it to that level a couple of times.
Normally when you first start, you just going to get like cottonmouth and tingly lips and your brain, you feel like you had a glass of wine, maybe ran as crazy people.
Are people really getting into this? Another cover, bars popping up in other countries. I've seen them in the US as well.
And so how how does that aid your perspective on yourself and sort of like maybe our existence? We want to go up to a philosophical level.
Oh, yeah. You say you started asking about what have I learned from different cultures? You know, the craziest thing from these deep emotions in these cultures is like how universal human nature is and how similar we are everywhere. And we really focus on very slight differences in order to try to group people or make it easy for ourselves, you know, to assign labels to different groups. But the things that we have in common are so numerous, I think we take them for granted.
It's almost like if you look at the body plan of most mammals, like even a human and a dog, the similarities are crazy. Like you can spend days just making a list of all the things that are similar in the bone layout and number and structure. And the way we go down to the cellular level, the way, you know, mitochondria powers us, like we have so much DNA in common. And what we make really a big deal out of is that two percent of us that's different.
And I think that's what I found with these cultures is like, you know, I was raised hearing, you know, Americans are overweight. We have terrible diets. And it turns out that's just what happens when you're wealthy enough to afford basically unhealthy foods. When you have an unlimited basically budget for food, you're going to eat too much. And and every. He is going to have to figure out how to deal with this as their population gets out of global poverty, and so some of the biggest populations, like physical size wise, are like these these islanders that used to be in great shape until they got access to our kind of diet.
So and then what's interesting is that we end up blaming the first cultures that experience these things instead of realizing that it's a universal challenge and that we can learn from each other instead of blame each other for the way these things spread. And so there's while there's some sadness to that, like you see the same disdain for the environment, you see pollution and some of those beautiful places in the world, some of the Caribbean islands have the worst and saddest levels of pollution that I've ever seen.
You also realize that there's this universal of people who are learning from their mistakes. And so the younger generation in almost every culture up into is better than the previous generation. And they're going to correct a lot of these problems that their parents or grandparents have made and of course, their kids and grandkids are going to be even better than them. So I in some ways, that universal human nature makes me sad, but it also gives me a lot of hope.
What are some of the other ways that you've found that we're alike in sort of like a counterintuitive sense, things that you wouldn't have maybe anticipated or didn't realize or.
You know, love of home is something that really struck me. I'm a fan of open borders. I think people should be able to live wherever they want to live in the world as long as they observe the local laws and pay the taxes. You know, if you if you obey all the the codes of conduct of of the place that you choose to live, whatever those people choose to set as the rules, you should be able to live anywhere.
It's no different than the freedom we have to you know, if I want to live in the US and have like 20 kids, that's that's legal. But one person coming in is illegal. It's kind of a weird, weird distinction that we make between population growth. You know, as long as it's not the other, then we celebrate population growth if it's the other than we fear it. But I think if we had open borders, the amount of people that would actually move would be much lower than people realize.
Because I visited some places that are just life is so difficult there. And the idea for most of the people that they would leave is crazy to them. This is their home. They feel rooted to the soil. They are their memories and their family connections are there. And convincing everyone of their extended family to all leave at the same time is so difficult that no one even considers it. So I think that's been really surprising to me because for those of us who have wanderlust or who dream of living wherever they want to, I think we forget that most people aren't like that.
Most people are really happy to have to be more grounded and more sedentary. And honestly, like, I don't want other people to be like me. I think that's a weird human part of human nature. We all kind of want to be around people similar to us, and we want to change people to be more like us for some reason. I think maybe because we're we feel scared and alone with our our thoughts are our insecurities.
Do you think we've always felt scared alone of our thoughts and our insecurities and technology maybe accelerating that? Or do you think this is like in part due to technology shortening our attention span and distracting us?
And how do you think about that? I think technology is changing us quite a bit, but the insecurity thing I think comes from, you know, most of what our brain is is built for is theory of mind. It's like the reason we had the reason our brains are so much larger compared to our body size than almost any other animal. Most of what that computing power is doing is trying to figure out what other people are thinking and then second level, third level theory of mind, like, what are they thinking?
I'm thinking and what what does Tom think? Jane thinks about me kind of stuff. And we're constantly computing this because we're supposed to be living in a small enough tribe that we know everybody. And if you see someone you don't know, you should probably like, you know, run and get enough of the people you do know to help defend against this person. You don't know. And we can we can look at chimps and the great apes to really figure out a lot of like what are where we came from and what our natural inclinations are.
So trying to figure out what everyone's thinking since we live in this tribe that's connected and you all know each other, you want to know what your place is and you want to figure out what everyone else's place is and what are their motivations and why are they doing that thing and what might they do next and how are you going to plan for that? And the source of so much of our anxiety comes from this constant computation of what is going on at everyone else's heads.
And there's a lot of game theory involved. I love studying game theory because so much of there's so much overlap between that and psychology and trying to understand, like, why we make really silly decisions. Sometimes when you peel back the game theory, there's a little bit of maybe some uncomfortable logic, but there's some logic behind a lot of these weird decisions that we make. So most of what we're doing is this theory of mind and that anxiety of like convincing people to think more like you, I think comes from that.
And just wanting to know for sure what people are thinking and having, you know, connection and trust and honesty is is so rewarding. And I think the reason it is, is because it takes away some of that constant computation of what what's going on in people's minds when you know that you can trust someone, you no longer have to do those sorts of things. Now you have a partner and uncovering information. And that's why we love spreading stories and gossip and and things like that.
The water cooler talk would have happened around campfires and latrines back in the day. And I think those things are universal. Technology is just allowing us to use them in a way that's probably unhelpful. And it's like the same thing. Technologies for our brains, which sugar is for our gut in our our bodies have a natural craving for cheap calories and our brains have a natural craving for connection. And what sugar is doing to, you know, fatness, because we weren't prepared for this bounty of cheap calories.
Well, we weren't prepared for this bounty of free connection. And I think that's like there's an equivalent to fat for our brain that we don't really have the vocabulary to figure out or discuss. Like we have been doing this long enough to figure out what this mental obesity epidemic is like. But I definitely think it's happening and it's going to be something that we have to, like, figure out how to dial back from. I think you're seeing that you're seeing people go on technology kind of diet because we understand that something bad is happening.
Were you an avid user of technology before you started sailing around the world? Yeah, I'm still here.
I'm I'm like the biggest geek and I am like an early adopter on everything. I love gadgets and upgrading stuff. I love reading manuals. One of my first career is in computer repair, so I was like building computers in high school out of spare parts and, you know, down to like the soldering level and and like chip level stuff and haunting RadioShack and building things that are like five fifty five timer chips and and LEDs and anything I could scrape together.
So but like one of my one of my very favorite people and I'm lucky now to call him a friend and travel and spend a lot of time living with him is Kevin Kelly, who was the first editor of Wired magazine. And Kevin wrote a great book called What Technology Wants, which I think everyone should read. It's really a primer on what technology is or what it's trying to do if we want to anthropomorphising it. Kevin is one. He knows more about gadgets and technology than just about anybody.
And he has this like podcast called Cool Tools where he's always telling people the best, like three things for anything you can imagine. And he's been writing about technology for decades, but he's also so far removed from technology like he analyzes every new piece of technology that he puts into his life and how it's going to impact him and whether or not he should adopt. And this is something I think we should pay attention to, like the people we've had these stories come out about people in big positions in tech companies who won't let their children use the products that they make and that made them wealthy.
And it's very similar to like a football player not letting their kid play football because they know the brain damage and that the terrible effects that this could have on them physically and at these engineers who have come forward and said, look, I realize we're trying to make this as our product, as addictive as humanly possible, and seeing the links that will go to that makes me tell my kids you're not allowed to use it. And that should give us pause.
And it should highlight the fact that some of the people who like Kevin, who spend the most time with technology in the most time thinking about it and its impact are the people who are most wary about it. I think that should give more of us pause about what do they know that we don't know and what can we learn from them, you know, without having to spend the time that they've spent? You know, that's what but the great thing about expertise and sharing it is a shortcut to someone else's wisdom.
And, you know, I've I've listened to Kevin about this stuff, like the technology is fascinating and it's primates who love inventing and exploring. We should totally geek out about it. But we should also be wary about what habits were forming with the.
Do you think that we end up in a place like what do you think the future looks like in five years? I don't want to leave you with my question, but like, can you give me, like, fastforward in your mind five years from now and the role of technology on people, does it become almost socioeconomic? Does it become pervasive? Is it increasingly like embedded in us as humans? Like, what do you think?
I think five years we won't see much change, will recognize the world in five years. And I think that's true of any five years in history. And I'm not sure that things are changing as drastically now as they were one hundred years ago, which is everyone thinks that we live in the craziest of times and things are changing the most because we're going through them. But I think going from horses to to flight and trains in a very short period of time and the electrification of the world was even crazier than adding Internet as a layer on top of that.
So I think there have been crazy times, but even then, any five year period was recognizable because change happens, you know, incrementally and slowly. I think the biggest things in five years will be will probably see more regulation of social media, especially in Europe. I don't think it'll happen in the US for a long time. But we'll have countries, especially the E.U., saying, like, you have to make your product safer, which it's a long time coming.
And I think we'll have more conversations in five years about the the worth of our personal data and how we should have more ownership on how that data is used. I think that what's one thing that's really scary is knowing what's real and what's not. Like these deep fake videos are getting really, really good and important. Impersonating people and stealing identities is getting very easy. And I think proving we are who we purport to be to strangers is something that we'll have to figure out in the next five years and maybe in five years.
Self-driving cars become a pervasive enough to alter the way that we interact with transportation like globally. And I think we'll just start to see the first glimmers of that in five years. And in ten years, that will be the world will look completely different, the same way that the iPhone is only a little over 10 years old. And that made the world completely different. I think self-driving cars will be the next thing that will just change everything. Like it's hard to even that.
Like we'll do more reading and more listening to podcasts because of this. And it's hard to appreciate that, because the idea that will free up all these transportation hours to do other things like this is going to ripple effects in so many different directions. It's going to be incredible in car ownership is going to become a thing that only a minority of humans even own a car because of the way they'll they'll never be part, really the because every car that can drive itself is a robot, basically, that can go earn money by running uber routes.
So maybe car ownership will be 10 percent of what it is now, which is going to decimate some industries while concentrating more wealth and power to a handful of tech companies, which we've already seen in retail and other places. You're going to have every parking space in every city is basically freed up. You have more bike lanes and parks and pedestrian friendly areas. Lives are going to be saved, is going to be. But I think that might be 10 years out and not five years.
You mentioned just something I want to hit on there a little bit. I mean, it sounds like in that theory, it's almost a capital intensive business model where if you own the cars, you'll be able to own the fleet.
If you own the fleet, you'll have a lot of influence, not only in the city, but you'll just generally have a lot of influence. How do you think that plays out? Like what do you think it'll be individuals owning cars like and they contribute them to this common fleet? Or do you think it's like Google owns a fleet of cars?
I think it'll be both I think, you know, Google and and we don't know who's going to come out on top of this yet, it's always someone you don't expect. It's never the first mover will be Tesla. It'll be. And we've learned enough about disruption that it could be a big player who pivots. Well, it could be a GM to be surprising. But as possible, building cars is very different from building apps. The disruptions much more difficult.
I think there'll be a company that will come along kind of like a Tesla that will improve self-driving, will learn to trust them, like the way we trusted Apple's operating system over windows. Like imagine if and 15 years ago, Apple and Microsoft were both building self-driving cars. The blue screen of death would actually be a blue screen of death and no one would put their life behind a product. So there'll be a company that comes along and all it will take is a handful of crashes.
And there's only been a few with widely publicized deaths. Even though these cars are probably a lot safer than humans, we don't have enough data yet to to say that because we have driven, you know, billions and billions of miles as humans in these things. While they've done a lot of miles, they've also there's been some accidents and some deaths. So the numbers right now are a little fuzzy, but it looks pretty similar. But the potential is for self-driving cars to be vastly safer.
And I think we will achieve that potential. And whoever has the reputation, the way, you know, Saab used to have a reputation for building these tanks that you could like the other person in the other car would definitely die, but you would, you know, walk out unscathed. We're going to have the self-driving equivalent of that kind of trust and that company is going to take off. But you're asking if people selling cars. I think there will be individuals who are always tinkering and offering know bespoke kind of options or people who don't trust the the big companies.
Because if you think people are tracking your location now, when we're using self-driving car fleets, they're going to know exactly where you're going all the time. And there's going to be people I'm not one of these people. I'm too I'm naive when it comes to data. And I've been burned by it by a few times. But I don't worry about people having access to my data. But there will be enough people who have that fear that they'll want to own their own car, but they're also not going to park it and not have and make the money.
There's not going to be enough people who want to, you know, not have that income, but then they'll be people who need a car that they can leave stuff in and have it be accessible. Then we'll have to redesign cars around that will there'll be an owner compartment where you can't get into the trunk, even though it's this car shuttling you around or there'll be a compartment that you can get into and compartment you can't. And we've got to redesign vehicles based on this community share mode.
Thank you. You've thought about this a lot more in terms of the future than I think I have. And I appreciate you going into so much detail. I'm curious as to how you think the ways in which we're going to consume information is going to change in the future as well, from books to magazines to how does information consumption, how do you see that changing?
I'm a little worried about that, to be honest. Mostly for myself, my book Reading has really dropped off. I've been an avid reader my whole life and there have been periods in my life where I was reading a book a day. Those two like long periods of my life where I was keeping up that kind of pace. And I don't understand how is doing that now. There's just so many other things to distract my time. And I was doing this while I was in university and had full time jobs and stuff.
So I fear that when I when I got a smartphone and started using social media that my attention span started changing. And part of what's been great about sailing is that it's gotten me completely disconnected. When I take off and get out of range of a cell phone tower, you know, I have like no connection or access for long periods of time. And I've loved that. And then I get back. I'm living in the islands and reading a lot.
But when I get back into when I get plug back in, I guess you could say my ability to sit and read for hours at a time is diminished. And there's been great books on this and how our brains are being kind of rewired. They're still healthy reading population out there. I know that just from spending time in bookstores and talking to owners and much of my own, you know, sales and hearing from other authors who are doing well, there's always new people being born going through their own process.
And, you know, kids and younger people are always more voracious readers. And I think in late in life, we find time to read. But yeah, I do worry about our attention span. Then again, I think over time we're going to keep freeing up more and more free time and more leisure time and hopefully we'll spend a lot of that. But I have a hard time separating like large trends with what I'm going through personally and right now, finding time to read is very difficult for me and I should not extrapolate from that, that it's a universal thing.
Just try to look at the the actual numbers and data and see what's going on.
Is reading time going out now?
Because, I mean, in theory, all this technology should be free up time over the last 20 years. And wouldn't that bear out in sort of the I don't know what the numbers said, but wouldn't we already be seeing this increasing reading time?
Yeah, we are. And we're filling it with Netflix. So we're getting a lot more free time, but we're also getting a lot more stuff to fill it with. And there's just so much, you know, so many sports to watch and so many things to do with your with your kids and, you know, hobbies and activities. There are things that we can do now that didn't exist not that long ago. So we keep inventing ways like, you know, go to a trampoline park, like when I was a kid, like you were lucky of those someone in your neighborhood who had a trampoline, then what cities are these parks full of trampolines?
We can go, you know, feel like Magic Johnson and like, you know, fly off these trampolines and dunk basketballs and play dodgeball on trampolines and games. And like, you know, we just keep inventing new stuff to do with our time. And these businesses are doing well. So people are obviously engaged in the video game. Industry has become bigger than, I think the music industry. It's crazy how much of our free time. And I'm one of those people I love playing video games.
And it's a different way of telling a story and you're more engaged in and have more control over the story. So that's really cool. But, you know, any hour I spend on that, an hour I spend not reading it actually, but I started writing the way I freed up time to write was just cutting out all video game play. I realized I'm spending a couple hours a day. I was watching a lot of TV, but I spent a couple hours a day playing video games.
I was like, what if I just spent that time writing? How long would it take to to write a novel? And it turns out if you take a time consuming habit and change it into like, you know, a second job, there's a lot of productivity time that we're squandering or, you know, one can say just enjoying. But, yeah, we have a lot more free time, but there's a lot more we can do with it.
You make it sound so simple. You're one of the most popular published authors in the world. And what I just heard was the key to this was stop playing video games and just write.
That's man. That's the best writing advice you could give somebody. Like it's the writing advice that I heard that finally broke twenty years of not being able to write a novel I had and the advice was given to me, but I was in the room while the advice was given to a larger audience, to one person asking a question in particular. I was at a writing conference in Virginia and I was there as a at the time I was reviewing this is one of the period of my life.
I was reading a book a day. I was getting flooded. My door stop at my stoop every day was just like a pile of books from publishers that weren't out yet, advance reading copies. And I was writing book reviews for a website. And I would like every day read a book, write a review and try to interview the author. And it's going to book conferences and and covering them as well. And this is because I'd given up on ever writing a book of my own.
I tried for twenty years since I was 12 years old and wrote my first Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy rip off. Got two or three chapters then and realized I didn't know where this was going. I didn't believe in myself. And it like when I was writing, I felt like an imposter. Writers had to be people who were much smarter than me and went to university to learn how to do this, are going to be born, you know, with a writing gene in them because their parents were writers.
I had no idea how any of this work. I just knew that I wasn't good enough. And for twenty years I thought that. And then the mother, half of the Charles Todd writing duo, they write these historical crime fiction books. And I just read one of them. And I was in this in on this panel to basically get more insights into them for what I was writing for the website. And someone in the audience asked, like, you know, what's how do I write my first novel?
And Caroline Todd stood up and like, slapped the table and like, blew our hair back, just kind of yelling at the room. Like, you stop talking about writing, you stop dreaming of writing, you stop telling people you're going to write and you sit down and you write. And she was like, you know, handclapping between each word basically as you slap on the table. And and I realized, like all the excuses that I give myself and all the the doubt and everything was right in that advice, like, I just need to sit down and write.
And basically the only thing stopping me from being a writer was myself and my insecurities. And I went home from that conference and I, you know, finish my assignments, the things that I had to do. But instead of picking up the next book to review it, I started. I shut down and started writing my first book was the first time I'd done this, but it's the first time I completed it and man, it was I just didn't have the fear of of how good it was going to be.
And if anyone was going to read it, if I was going to make a career out of it, none of that mattered. I was just going to sit and write until I got to the end of the story and I was able to do it. I give that her writing advice, all the credit in the world. I give the quality of that book, which turned out much better than it should have to. The fact that I was reading and writing reviews every day that was kept me in the habit of writing every day.
But it's also filling my head with a good story and good prose. And so, yeah, that's that's how I finished my first novels just by someone yelling at me, basically yelling near me to just write and replacing a lot of other things I was doing with my day with that daily habit of writing and accumulated a lot of words and maybe a little skill. And in about a five or six year period, I wrote about 15 novels and some of them did well enough that I'm now doing my other dream, which is to sail around the world.
I think most of them did well.
I want to come back to to the writing in a second here.
This sounds like another sort of universal, maybe core to human nature.
So much of life is just living. It is just doing the thing that you're you're wanting to do. And we get in our own way so often about not making time, not being conscious, maybe about where our time is going and where we're putting our effort in or being scared of sort of failure or and it gets really hard. Right. If you're if you're in your late 20s or 30s or 40s and you've never really had a setback, I mean, the ability to put yourself out there and have confidence that you can overcome whatever is going to happen is it's hard to acquire.
Yeah, it's sort of quiet and it gets harder with time, but also we get really hot, heavy with our lost time, I think, in my writing group in North Carolina. There was a lady who published her first book when she was like eighty six, published her second book, you know, and she was, you know, a couple of years after that was still writing in her 90s and. That really woke me up. You know, there's a lot of a lot of our calcification, you know, the inability to, like, break our status and get lunch our lives in a different direction is the feeling that we should have done it 10 years ago.
And we've lost the opportunity and now we can't do it. But 10 years from now, we're going to think the same thing about this very moment today. And like so whoever is listening to this right now, I think you've told me you've got like over a hundred thousand listeners. I bet half of them have already turned off because I don't know what you says. Usually a lot better than this.
But I know this is awesome.
And I write with that same insecurity every day, by the way. But you know who is listening right now? Like, whatever you think you could have done five or 10 years ago to change the direction of your life. Like you can do that right now, today, and make that deflection point, that decision like you can't get there in one day. But I want to start nudging. It's like there's a if there was a meteor coming towards the earth, you don't need to blow it up.
You just need to get like a rocket up there that can just put a little bit of energy into this massive amount of momentum heading this way. And if you can just maintain that consistent energy in one direction, it's incredible what you could deflect over a long period of time. And for me, like just one hour a day of writing, you'll write a novel in a year guaranteed. And if you don't care about the quality of that novel, it'll be better than you think.
And then you'll learn that an hour of editing a day can make that novel into something that a lot of people will want to read. And you don't sit down and do that in a day, just like you don't sail around the world in a day. You just look at the horizon and be like, I'm going to I can tell that far. And even as even as a young boy in a sunfish, I could sell to the horizon and sailing around the world is just doing that over and over again.
And writing a novel is just writing a paragraph that is legible, that tells a story it's nice and clean is in your voice, which is how you write emails to your friends. You do that one paragraph at a time and you will write a book. And I think the the feeling that we know we should have made these better decisions earlier for some reason, instead of learning from that, it actually paralyzes us. It makes us feel like all the moments in my life where I could have seized the opportunities ahead of me are all gone.
And I guarantee in another five or 10 years, you're going to look back at today as the day that you had the free time, the inclination, the talent to change your life. And of course, I'm not going to be writing for most people is going can be learning a second language, exercising, getting a better relationship with your mother, brother or sister or whatever, whatever the thing that you think is missing from your life, learning to cook.
I mean, it can just be something enjoyable that you've been putting off forever. You're putting it off right now. And that history of putting something off just gets worse over time until we realize that, hey, what's the what's the MI from in ten years going to think about what I did today? And that that gives you a lot of power.
Think about that future self that works and a lot of things to you, like relationships that are terrible for you, that, you know, maybe they're there's sort of like too good to leave, but too bad to stay in the same time.
You know, you're going to look back in five years wondering, like, why didn't I do anything five years ago?
And I think it reminded me when you were talking of the French proverb, I think it's French anyway, which was like the best time to have planted a tree is like ten years ago. But the second best time is today.
I love that. I've never heard of that before, but it totally sums up. Yeah. A lot of my thinking about this stuff.
What's your writing process for a book? So you get an idea, walk me through all the way until that becomes something that I can read in my hands.
Most of the most of my writing takes place away from the keyboard, so it helps working at a bookstore for years while I was writing because I was having to walk around and dust shelves and resell books and do very like quiet rote tasks. And the whole time I'm doing them, I can daydream about my story in the world that I'm thinking of next. And often I'm building up several worlds and stories in my mind at the same time, and I'll just seize on whichever one is interesting to me in my head and kind of think about that world and those people and what's going to happen next.
And the first time I started doing this was when I was working on yachts in my twenties. I was a yacht captain for about ten years and I would have these really long days of just staring at the horizon with the autopilot, looking at sensors and the GPS to make sure nothing bad happened and gives you a lot of free time to to daydream. And so it's a. Much easier to write when you know what's going to happen, when you've built up the world ahead of time and had all these conversations with your characters ahead of time.
So that's the first part of my writing process, is basically daydreaming that the very thing that used to get me in trouble when I was in school, when I was actually preparing for a career, oh, man.
There's so many things that we used to get in trouble for in school that turned out to be like huge advantages in life.
Totally. Yeah, there's a really good TED talk. One of my favorite TED talks is about a guy. It's a British guy who's trying to send you the link. You want to add it to the podcast, really, or whatever. But he's talking about how we need to have more freedom and schools to let people figure out what their strengths are. And if we see someone dabbling in something and we're like, no, you're supposed to be learning this like, no, they want to be learning that.
Let's push them in that direction and see how far they can take it and how much more effective our school systems would be if we had that kind of attitude towards learning. And someone if someone saw me as a kid that had been like, you know, give this kid implements of art, let him draw and paint and and make up stories because we need storytellers, you know, and someone else is just like playing on the monkey bars and never wants to leave the the playground like that guy is going to be a draw is going to be an Olympic star, a gymnast.
And let's embrace that. Like the idea that and that's the bias of teachers. Right. Like the people in charge of school are all people ended up teaching. And if you think about what they're trying to generate, they're trying to generate a whole classroom full of teachers. They want us all have well-rounded knowledge and be really good at that school stuff. And that's because the people that we've left in charge of of instruction are people who ended up valuing teaching as a career.
And and I say this, my mom was a teacher. So I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that. I'm just saying this is the natural bias. If you put someone around me, they're going to start picking up like a love board games and comics and sailing things that I'm into. So I think, you know, having a school system that had more diversity in our expected outcomes would be a great thing. And I don't know how this is.
This is how my brain is applied. And I think we started talking about the writing process and daydreaming and look at where we are. But this is there's also how my storytelling process works, where I don't know where my story is going to go and you'll wander off away and be like, OK, that's not leading someplace interesting. Where was the last place?
My story was fascinating to me and I'll go back to that doing that as you're writing or you're doing it like as you're daydreaming or you're backtracking as you're daydreaming or you've actually like written stuff on edge and like your.
Yeah, a lot of both, but it probably happens more often while I'm in the daydreaming part, because that's where things are just so amorphous. You have a lot of freedom to break things and change things. I think the hardest part about writing and the thing that stopped me from finishing books before is that making decisions in the moment while you're writing, I think part of you knows you're making the wrong decision, like even if the book should be in first person or present or past tense, like these are very big decisions that if you haven't thought about them ahead of time, once you start writing and you make it, you realize, I wish I could go back and change the gender of my protagonist or change the person or the tents that I'm writing in making that change is very difficult later.
And that makes it really easier for us to abandon the project. And so the more the more of the story, the more the decisions that you have ahead of time. For me anyway, everyone everyone's writing process is different. Some people can sit down and write once upon a time and then a whole novel can flow out. Some people have to outline really heavily. And for me, I like to basically have a movie that I've seen that no one else has seen, and it's my favorite movie of all time.
And I want to describe it in such vivid detail to someone who can't watch a movie. They can only read a book. You know, that's my writing process. Like, I want this person to see what I've seen and enjoyed as much as I've enjoyed it and tell that story as clearly as possible. And, yeah, that's that's worked for me. But then every time I sit down with a blank page, I write another book. I'm like, how did I do that last one?
And it feels daunting. I'm not sure how I how I did it and how I'm going to do it this time and am I ever going to be able to do it again. So how do you publish now? I don't know.
Probably close to 20, I would think. And you still have that? Oh yeah. I like each book. I'm like, I don't I don't I don't know how did the last, you know, 19. And so how am I possibly going to do this? Because the last experience that I have with the previous book was like searching for typos. It was done. And the experience before that was just minor revisions and experience before that was a little bit of a rewrite.
And so that rough draft is like so far removed and my rough draft are much rougher than my finished product. So I'm sitting there watching myself write any rough draft. I'm like, this is terrible. This is like worse than anything I've ever written. How how how's my my mental faculties declining this rapidly? And it's because I'm it's been a long time since I've written a rough draft. It's been like many rounds of revisions of seeing the Polish work at the end with with editorial help and other kinds of Batur reading and my mom giving me advice.
So I'm seeing the the last thing I saw my writing was a basically a team effort over many iterations. And going from that to a rough draft is difficult every single time one thing leads to that. I think that's the hardest part about being an avid reader and trying to write is that we compare our writing to the great stuff we've been reading. And we have to not do that. We have to realize that the books that we love also existed as rough drafts and just embrace the the mistakes and the the rough nature of our writing.
Don't try to polish that first page to perfection before you move on. You might end up starting the story somewhere different. So the first the first advice I would give someone about writing is to sit down and write every day. The second advice I would give is to don't read your writing critically. That's not what the rough draft is all about. The rough draft is getting to the end of the story before you start polishing it. And that's the mistake that I was making for twenty or so years.
I would sit there and just fiddle around with my first chapters over and over and over again and not really improve them any. I would just be terrified of moving forward and feel like my writing wasn't good enough. But that's the point.
And so you take your rough draft, you edit it and revise it, and then do you send that to your friends? Do you send it to your agent? Do you like how do you get feedback on that or do you get feedback on that or do you just go? No, I'd get lots of feedback, I think, and we can talk about the storytelling tradition and in more in depth, but writing and telling stories was really never done in a vacuum.
For me, my first when I'm happy with my story and I can let someone read it, it goes to my mom first. Then she would like disown me. If I do anything differently. She she bugs me more than my agent does about when am I going to send something new for her to read and she'll print shop, print the whole thing out, get a red pen and just go through and demolish it and mail me a stack of pages and I'll get through and incorporate these changes and try to make the the book better for my mom.
And then it'll go out to some beta readers and my editor and each bookstore in a little different with how many beta readers I'll use or if I use them at all, and eventually my agent will get it once it's pretty much ready to publish. And she's actually gotten I think I get on her nerves some because I assume she's too busy for me and so I don't bug her with almost anything like and she's always told me you should be more like let let me know when you've written something and sometimes I'll publish something and forget to tell her.
And because I don't think it's good enough for her to shop around, I should be like, why didn't you tell me? Like we could go get a film deal with this and we can get like foreign publishers to publish this. And but eventually my agent will get a copy and then usually by then, it's already in reader's hands of self publishing and people are already devouring it.
What sort of feedback do you seek from, like beta readers? Are you asking them what works, what doesn't like where they get lost or confused? Like what specific questions are you asking them for?
Yeah, I don't have been a beta reader for other people and they've sent a document that's great detail about what they want and I haven't really done that with my beta readers. I kind of want them to share what what they're good at spotting. And I don't want people to I don't want to say I'm looking for typos when someone's really good at spotting plot holes and terrible seeing typos. So, like, here's here's a book as I would publish it and like, what?
What do you think? And some people come back into like, I think it's great. And I ignore that advice. I assume that they're too easily pleased. And then I'll have people say, like, you know, just send me a list of all the typos they find. And someone say, I was confused in the spot and someone say I was kind of bored. And for those people, it might be like, do you remember where you got bored or, you know, when you stopped reading, when you lost interest?
So for each beta reader, I'll get something different. My mom is really good at highlighting passages that she thinks I need to make clearer. She'll also highlight stuff. She says, I'm not allowed to change like things that she loves and and she doesn't give out. She she's my biggest fan. She loves my writing, but she doesn't hold back like she demolishes my stuff. Mom's are the best. They're the best.
It's like unconditional love. But here's what I think. Unfiltered.
Totally. Totally. Yeah. My mom was great about that and has been since I was a kid, like very permissive, like the let us do stuff. But if we messed up would make sure we knew that we messed up so great. Great parenting style. I think so. Yeah. I get something different for everybody. And I think that's I learned that from being a part of a writing group, which I highly recommend any aspiring writer to join a writing group.
If you don't have one locally, see if you can start one. If not, there's plenty online. But you'll learn that everyone, every other writer has something unique to contribute to your process and try to embrace that and get as many people involved as possible.
And then to talk to me about publishing like you are one of the actually, you're the only person that I know of that keeps their electronic rights. I want to dive into this publishing world, which is largely, you know, a black hole to everybody else. And, you know, I probably have a toe in it now and you're fully immersed in it. So I'm hoping I can learn a lot about this conversation with the publishing industry. But walk me through sort of like some of your some of what's available, your decisions and why you've made those decisions.
It was very, very lucky that I started writing. I've finished my first novel, I think in like 2008 or 2009. And I think the Kindle came out the same year just a bit after I'd written a book. I think maybe the first Kindle come out just before I had published my first book. So the the first publishing contract, I goes with a very small press and the tools that they were going to use to publish were very different than the tools they would have used a few years before they were going to put an eBook edition online, which they can do through the Kindle Direct Publishing system.
And anybody can start up a small press. You can just, you know, incorporate a name and publish under this publishing imprint. And you're now a small publisher in addition to being a writer. And so I was publishing with this press and. They were using not only e-book distribution, but print on demand technology, which has really matured and used to be if you wanted to publish your own book, you'd have to order this massive printing of thousands of copies and they'd sit in boxes in your basement.
And how are you going to distribute them? You know, you get to, like, either mail them out directly or go to bookstores to try to get them placed. It was just a nightmare. And now there are several print on demand companies, Amazon being, I think, one of the best because they're integrated with the biggest bookstore in the world and yet there's no upfront cost. You just upload a PDF, which is a type of document that prints exactly as it looks on the screen.
There's no following of words. And to repeat, repeaters like every page is fixed even to the size that it's going to print on. And when someone orders your book and think about it from the perspective of the shopper, they don't know any of this is happening. They just go to an Amazon page. Here's a book with some reviews or some friend has told them about it. They want to copy, they click order. What happens in the background is there's a big printing press.
The biggest one is in Charleston, South Carolina. But a lot of the Amazon distribution centers have this printing presses inside them as well. And the electronic code gets sent. Someone order this book. They all have the PDF in their machines. They print the pages, bind them, print the cover, glue the cover on and ship that book out in the same day that it was ordered, which is just unbelievable. And the quality is very similar to what you would get if you did a massive offset print run in China and shipped these books overseas.
And I just when I found out about this, I fell in love with the process, actually went and toured the printing facility in Charleston, which Amazon doesn't let a lot of people do it. But I can be very annoying and get my way if I'm persistent. And I'm just fascinated with the because I was a bookseller for years and I've had a hand in pulping unsold books. And just the waste of this book was like shipped from China to the U.S. to a distribution facility, then to a retailer like me.
Then I would send it back to a place where I would try to be sold as a discount book and then it would not sell there and be sent to another place would be put. And it used to be there would be burned like you were boxes of unsold books that were thrown into furnaces. That's how the book industry worked for a while. So I'm looking at this print on demand technology and it's like, oh my God, this thing, the only thing we move around is the ink and the paper and you get the exact book you need where you need it.
It's as efficiently as possible with no upfront cost to the writers as unbelievable. So learning all of this stuff through publishing my first book, I realized, man, there's nothing my publisher is doing, I can't do for myself. Most of these services are one time costs like editorial cover, art, the pagination, the layout of the words on the page. They do that once and then they keep more for every sale that I get as the writer.
And that just seemed crazy to me. So when I got an offer for the sequel, I said, actually, I think I'll publish it on my own. And if I could, I'd like to buy the rights back to my first book, which is what I did. And from that point forward, just the the economics of it didn't make any sense to me to go with a major publisher. I didn't think I was going to write a book that could blow up because I've been a bookseller for years and I saw Random House put a million dollars into the launch of a book and it just be a dud.
I knew that no publisher could guarantee me that I would have a hit no matter what they sell you when they sign you. If they had that ability, they'd have hits all the time and they're very rare. So I knew I didn't have the hubris that I was going to write, you know, the next Harry Potter, which is what a lot of writers have and why they want to get a publisher. They feel like their book is going to be that big.
I never believed that about any of my books, which helped me in the long run. And yeah, so I started publishing my own stuff because I get to keep more of the money. I had more control about what I wrote next. I don't have to get trapped into, you know, writing about this one character over and over and over again. I could write any kind of genre without a publisher saying, yeah, we're not sure that sell.
I never had those conversations, which was the creative freedom that provided was worth, you know, going on on my own alone. I've been able to write a lot of genres. I started writing young adult space opera. And and it did well enough that if I had been with a publisher, they would have insisted that I only publish that stuff when what really took off for me was an adult dystopian novel called War. And I never would have had the freedom to write that book.
Even J.K. Rowling didn't have the freedom to write under her own name or her own name when she wanted to change the genre. She had to write under this Galbraith a pseudonym. So it's like creatively dampening to to be with a major publisher. There are advantages. I'm not saying publishers aren't good at some things. I'm just saying that for starting off for. Career figure out who I was as a writer and learning the ropes, there was nothing better than than self publishing.
What are some of the things that publishers bring to the table that maybe you wouldn't have thought of going into it?
Yeah, that's different, because almost anything like they're great at distribution in reaching bookstores. But that's only true because of how the relationship with publishers and bookstores has evolved over time. Bookstores are hesitant to order self published titles unless they see a history of sales or you see them on bestseller lists in the on ebook side, or the people are walking in and saying, what can I find this book? They'll eventually order it, but they won't do it ahead of time.
They order from catalogs and they have sales reps who come in and say, like, this is the title most excited about. And the shelves have kind of pressures bookstores into stopping certain things. And then bookstores end up restocking the things that are selling well and not taking a chance on other stuff. So publishers are good at getting a book, a book, a chance in a bookstore where it might not get that chance if it's not published. But that doesn't really guarantee anything and that chances are a very small window.
Usually we would leave a book on the shelf for three to six months before we would take it off, send it back and put something else on the shelf. So view if you spend years writing a novel and you think like this is my one shot and you go to the publisher, you're only going to give it a three to six month window to make it before no one will ever touch it again. And because of the lack of sales in that very brief window, maybe no one ever publishes you again.
So any time I can come up with a positive for a publisher, I can think of the way that there's a weakness inherent in that and an advantage to self publishing. I've done deals with publishers, though, like I I love the relationship that I have with a lot of my publishers. One thing they do really well is handle their local markets in a way that I can't if I'm just publishing for the US market like I'm here in Australia. My bookstore, my book is in bookstores here in Brisbane and Sydney.
And most of the places I go into, I can find a copy of my book to sign for the bookstore and I would never be able to do that from a distance or translated into German or Japanese. And and that's an incredible service that publishers provide. But honestly, anything that I can think of as a benefit, like the editorial process, I would much rather choose my own editor than some of the publisher and just get stuck with whatever editor they assign to me.
And I think freedom of choice is better than economies of scale. Like saying freedom of choice is better than economies of scale, it's going to stick with me for a second.
Walk me through sort of like you sell your books now, but you don't sell your electronic rights. You sell. Do you sell audio and physical distribution and foreign translation or do you how does that work?
Yeah, that's that's kind of the thing that got me on the radar from the publishing side. The people are really geeks about publishing news. When I when Wall took off, I was working in a bookstore, in the short story I wrote, went up the charts and I flushed that into a novel by writing four more parts and combining them into a story like serialized novels and the like, the way Dickens used to publish, I guess. And when the novel hit, the New York Times bestseller list is a self published e-book.
I started getting a lot of interest from agents and and publishers. And I was I was lucky in a few ways when I was living a very simple lifestyle. I didn't have a debt free. I had a very small house. I didn't need the money. So I wasn't going to be swayed by an advance. The second thing is I didn't need the validation from a publisher because I was already getting it from readers who were writing reviews on Amazon that I would read every day, like how much they loved the story and people were contacting by email and the email in the back of the book.
And I was hearing directly from readers all over the world. And so having an editor tell me I love your stuff, which probably would have done that, would have worked on me if I hadn't had anyone else tell me they loved it. And that's just part of the the self-doubt you have as a writer. You just like getting my mom to love one of my books is such a great feeling. And I think a lot of new writers get trapped into publishing contracts just because, like hearing from someone who's an expert in the industry, how great their work is is very enticing.
I was able to avoid the money trap and the the ego trap and continue enjoying my stream of sales while publishers were always missing the boat with their advance offer. So the way it works is a publisher offers you a lump sum of money to get the lifetime rights in all the rights they're going to get. The print rights, the digital, the audio, the foreign rights, by offering you a typical advance might be like fifteen to twenty five thousand dollars for a book.
A fifty thousand dollar advance would be a big deal. Six figures is like crazy. And then, you know, the seven figure deals that everyone dreams about are so astronomically rare it's not even worth thinking about them. And by the time I was getting like a fifty thousand dollar advance, I was making so much from self publishing that that was like an insult to me and my agent. You know, I was I would I would earn that in a month from my ebook sales.
And I got I was really lucky that publishers were behind on what the potential was of the digital rights. And if anyone had made the offer that they made later, early, I would have buckled them only so strong. By the time we got six figure offers, I was making six figures a month just on the e-book sales. And by the time a publisher finally made a seven figure offer and offered over a million dollars for the series, I'd already made a million dollars on my own.
And I really fortunate that it happened that they were that they were slower than readers were to up on to the series because I seriously would have not been strong enough had those late offers come early on in the process. I never would have assumed that the book would have continued to sell the way it did. So what I was able to do from all of that is maintain my e-book rights as I was seeing how powerful they were and basically they got too valuable for me to ever sell.
And I realized that as soon as a publisher owned that e-book. Right, they were going to jack up the price to protect their other e-books. And this is something a lot of authors don't think about your competition for them, like the people that own your book. Your book competes with their latest greatest thing that they want to do well. So they're not going to promote it as heavily later. They're not going to discount it because they don't want a cheap book of their own to compete with an expensive book they just released.
And that's an Eye-Opening realization.
When there's people that you sign your lifetime rights over, don't have your best interest in heart for the the entire length and breadth of your career, it's only during that launch window, really, I just sort of discovered this whole the Kindle pricing thing where if your book is priced above nine ninety nine, your royalty rate changes to 30 percent instead of 70 percent of his nine ninety nine or under, you get 70 percent of sort of there. If you're self published, you get 70 percent of the.
So any book, basically any Kindle copy price between, you know, ten dollars and basically like twenty one dollars is a lot like people are losing money on that compared to pricing in at 999, if they're self published, the publishers have a different pricing scheme, so they'll continue to make the same royalty.
But what Amazon is also the theme royalty.
They get the 70 percent through Amazon the whole way. So it's just self publish the Kindle treats differently.
Yeah, but I don't know. But those publishers don't get 70 percent. They it's a completely different structure. They get like a wholesale price. And so, yeah, it's very, very complicated. The difference between what publishers get and what so published authors get. But they they have a fixed percentage where what Amazon what Amazon would love is for no publisher to to charge more than nine ninety nine for e-book. Like they they decided that 999 was the max that you should pay for a digital book and publishers.
There's a huge fight over this that's like was concerned the publishing world for a couple of years and led to an antitrust suit against Apple that Apple lost. And the publishers that colluded with Apple lost as well and had to basically change their their policies for a while. But they're back to where they wanted to be, where they have control of pricing. And what Amazon can control is how they incentivize the the pricing process for so published authors because we signed a contract with them and we're not going to we don't have enough power to collude with an apple and and and try to change that.
But it's logical to me. So I don't I don't begrudge Amazon at all. They think ebooks should be between two ninety nine and nine ninety nine. And if you price it there they'll give you 70 percent if you price a blow to ninety nine. Hey, you're welcome to do that. But they're going to pay you thirty five percent, which is half. If you price it over 999 again, your royalty is going to get cut in half.
And so it's just an incentive for from them for you to price the e-book. What do they want the customer experience to be? And I think it makes sense for a company to have this kind of guidelines and still allow you the freedom to make the choice however you want. But it does it does really compress all the self publishing price to be in that to ninety nine to nine ninety nine range.
You've you've sold millions of copies. What have you learned about pricing on the Kindle or electronic pricing in terms of selling books?
I haven't learned as much as a lot of other self published authors because there's there's so many brilliant saw published authors out there who do spreadsheets and they they price pause the experiment. They they'll do a B comparisons over time. Really some brilliant people, especially in the romance and erotica realm where you've got some of the savviest business minds just making a killing because they treat this as a business and they're very logical about it.
I is sorry about that background noise. That's a pump in my boat going off of yours. I I've always devalued my work, which I think has worked to my benefit because I would rather someone take a chance on one of my short stories at 99 cents or even a dozen novels at 99 cents before, even though I'm not making much money on it, I want to give people a chance to get hooked on my writing or my characters, my story.
And I found somewhere in the four ninety nine range what I remember paying for a mass market paperback when I was a kid. And I know, you know, the dollar is not what it used to be, but something like like five bucks isn't a big ask for someone to get a novel's worth of reading. So yeah I, I have books all over the place but like between two ninety nine and six ninety nine is where I'm comfortable asking someone to take one of my novels.
And I think you just made wall free didn't you. Or was that like in the last year or something.
The first part of wall which it's the short story that, that launched my career that's been free for years now, probably seven years. You can read the first part of the book and there's a lot of and I do it's not like I don't think about the things I spend a lot of time thinking about the psychology of pricing and reading. I would rather someone read something for free because if they don't like it, they don't feel like they're not likely to write a bad review because what can they say?
Like, I feel ripped off, like I didn't pay anything. I didn't enjoy this. And so there's a bit of a sifting mechanism there. If someone enjoys it, they're likely to buy the next part of the story, which is only ninety nine cents. And they're inclined to write a good review and tell people about it and convince their friend, like what you have to lose. It's free, you know, give it a try.
Have you noticed a major sales increase in all of the other books in the series?
Yeah, I did when I first started doing this, but then I had. I think it was just one one email from a reader who was like, you know, I have to click five times to read this book, like, why don't you just put them into one file and make it a novel? And so I when I did that, more people started saying, just pay the four ninety nine or whatever for this for this e-book. And the the freemium kind of system that I'd set up for, Will initially kind of fell out of the wayside in the individual parts, just fell down the charts as the novel climbed up the charts.
So I don't know how much effect it has now. I don't look at my sales dashboard at all anymore. The it's a trap you follow too early on self publishing, like watching every sale and tracking your weekly and daily and monthly streams. But that I found if the stream goes up a little bit, you fill it puts you in a good mood, but it doesn't last. If the sales dip at all, for whatever reason, the despondency that kicks in, it's just paralyzing and getting hooked on that cycle of checking your sales.
I think it's it's probably a process that every writer has to go through. But I encourage writers to, like, get off of that as quickly as possible. If you need to know for income reasons, just like look at your statement at the end of the month and plan your expenses and your and everything accordingly. If you're trying to do a promotion and you need to track sales to try to do it dispassionately. But now I can't even tell you what how many people are downloading my free ebook versus individual books because, yeah, I just found it healthier, not just to ignore all that stuff.
Honestly, are you purely an artist when it comes to this, or are you also a businessman like are you you mentioned some people in the romance and sort of erotica space are a little bit more savvy about how they go about positioning the book or maybe selling or marketing it.
And do you do any of that? Have you done any of that? You just don't do it now.
Yeah, I would say it's a pretty even mix. I'm I'm probably more the business and marketing side. I'm so fascinated by that. I probably do more of that than I give myself credit for. Yeah, I think about everything like just business. I think I know. And really early on when I was just starting my career, I knew more about publishing than publishers who were the biggest in the world, who had been doing it forever because I was questioning everything and they were very ossified in their thinking.
For instance, what I published with Simon and Schuster, they categorized my one of my books under just science fiction on the Amazon store. And I knew from experimenting that the way the categories worked is the parent categories were inherited by the child categories, which sounds confusing. But the way it works is if you put your book in, you know, general books, dash science fiction, dash general dash dystopia, then your book shows up in every one of those categories.
They're all inherited. So if you're browsing the general books bestseller list and if your book is in the top 100, it shows up on that list. It also shows up in the science fiction list, in the general science fiction list, in the dystopian list. And this is a free way of making your book show up on multiple bookshelves in a bookstore, which anyone would want if you could do that for free, where you walk into a bookstore and and as shoppers are turning their head everywhere they look, there's a copy of your book.
This is an unqualified, great thing. And I had like eight emails back and forth with Simon Schuster trying to explain to them. And I had no, this is because I'd done a deal with them. Now they have access to the metadata on the back end and they can control how this appears. I cannot get them to understand that by making this one change, they would make basically duplicate copies of the book on all these other virtual bookshelves absolutely free.
It's going to keep doing what they want it to do, but it's going to do more stuff and there's more opportunities for people to stumble upon it. And this was eye opening for me because I realized, like the sort of really early on in my career, I realized that I couldn't get not only did I know more than them and I'm a pretty clear writer and explainer, like I was really laying out why this is a good thing. And I could not convince the people at this publisher to to do this thing that, like, I think you understand, even after me talking about it briefly, that this is like it'd be crazy not to do this.
And it took, like, getting my agent involved and getting kind of like, if you don't do this, you know, we can have a business relationship and now they understand, you know, now enough time has passed and they've experimented. And they would do this with all of their books and they all publishers. Now, if I want Amazon to get extra categories even, but early on I realized, man, I'm just using logic. I'm more savvy on the business side and the marketing side, then these major publishers.
So, yeah, that's always been I was a bookseller for years, I was always trying to sell Strangers' books and when I everything I learned doing that was something I was able to employ with selling my own books.
What do you do with audio? Right. I used to sell published audio books, and that's been that was really lucrative. It's amazing the growth curve on audiobooks. Now I'm happy to do deals with publishers and sell them off. It's actually it's might be counterintuitive, but now that I don't need the money, I can do more deals with publishers because it's it might be more lucrative if I, like, put all the extra work into it myself, but I don't need the extra money.
And I'm happy to have publishers do the work for me, even though I'm going to make less per sale. So it's it's weird how my my success has allowed me to use publishers, even though it's probably it's not the best thing to maximize my income. But AmEx's maximizes my free time and still gets the story available to readers. So now I do lots of deals with publishers and it's mostly because I can afford to, which is kind of a weird it's a weird situation, like you would think it'd be the other way around.
Is there anything weird that you, like, put in your contract that would be non-standard or somebody would look at and go, Oh man, I wish I would have thought of that. Yeah, really crazy stuff, like probably the thing that I don't think many people in the publishing world realize what I did with my agent, really did with the with war that we've now done with some other books, is we've put a time that the rights revert back to me.
And rights reversion is a really tricky thing in publishing. Most of it's based on whether or not the book is still in print and now publishers can what rights reversion means when publishers take your rights, they get it for like your lifetime plus another certain number of years. You're never going to see your rights back unless there's a reversion clause in most publishing contracts have them, but they're laughable. They usually just say as long as the book is in print, the publisher retains the rights.
And we talked about print on demand earlier. Now, publishers can just move this book from an offset print run of thousands of copies at a time just to make it available as a pod print on demand book. And then it's still on now. Yeah, it's in print forever and you'll never get your rights back. So the change people said made was like, well, we want to see it actually selling. So they made the clause say the book has to sell a certain number of copies of a certain time period to show that it's still an active product for us and we get to keep the rights.
While those numbers are ridiculous, it's like I've seen contracts where it's like if we sell twenty five copies over six months, we get to keep the rights. And at some point, especially now that publishing is a viable competitor to publishers, it makes sense for them to buy twenty five copies, you know, to use as doorstops around the office or just give away to a school or burn to to keep a competitor off the market. And so a lot of these reversion clauses are just terrible for the writers.
And writers are thinking about this when they're signing contracts are just excited and they think this publisher wants to sell millions of copies the way I do. So they're always going to work on my behalf instead of realizing that A in six months going to be working on someone else's behalf more than yours if you didn't get lucky. So one of the things we did, we set up like the book reverse on this date, and we were able to say no to every other offer.
And meanwhile, we're selling lots of copies and making lots of money and publishers are being left out. So eventually publishers are like, OK, we'll do this deal. And we get the book for five years, say, well, we're still selling really, really well in print. And by Simon Schuster and bookstores. And next year I'm going to get the rights back. And it doesn't matter that the book is selling well, does matter. That is still in print like we have in the contract.
The date that I get the rights back. And when we did a print only deal with Hooved and Mifflin Harcourt for Shift and dust, the sequels to this book, we timed it so that we get the rights back to those books at the same time, about the same time we get the rights back to war. So I don't know that this has happened in publishing before, but in a year I'm going to have the rights to three books that are still selling really well and how that's going to play out.
I don't we don't know because no one's really done it. But like, the book is going to be on the the shelf and now I own the rights and we can take it to other publishers and say, like, who wants these three books? And I can say, like, I've worked with publishers that are treating me really, really fairly and they're going to have like first crack at it, getting these proven perennial sellers and do another deal and maybe we do another five years.
But this has been a dream for a lot of writers and agents to get these kinds of like limited time deals. I think as another another author who told me really early on that this is the future of publishing these kinds of deals. We hadn't seen them. We fought for them and we were able to get them. So that's that's just one example of something that is non-standard, that by having success and self publishing and being able to say no to every contract, we were able to get something that really hadn't been done before.
What are some of the other examples of terms or clauses that you might tweak in a contract that wouldn't be so obvious to other people?
Price limits. So I negotiate like what the e-book pricing can be in the contract. Again, assuming the publishers can do the best thing for you at all times, it's just a mistake. You have to be like loving and trusting on one side, but very adversarial when it comes to actually setting up the contract. You don't know who's going to own that contract down the road. There's so much merging and acquisition in the publishing space that saying, well, I really have a good feeling for this editor and I'm going to trust that person.
I've had three editors on wall at Simon Schuster over the years because people leave and go do something else. So I don't think with your heart, when you're making these contracts, like lay out what you the decisions that you would make if you're a self published writer. So for the price, I don't want my ebooks price so high that people won't take a chance on them and there's a lot of pushback with publishers and they want to be able to have the freedom to make it fourteen ninety nine, which I think is a crazy price for a digital book that you can't resell or hand off to a friend or dodgier.
You know, it's not it's not printed. There should be e-books should cost. The physical costs are virtually nil for ebooks.
So you would think the difference between the e-book and physical book, the price would be a lot, but it's actually, you know, maybe a couple of dollars with the printing and shipping and all that. The most of the cost is the overhead they have for their, you know, stupid building in Manhattan, which was the dumbest place to set up a publishing empire. But that's what they decided to do it. And the editorial costs and the promotion and marketing and all that take up a bunch of the budget.
But the physical cost is there. And the fact that you can treat it into a bookstore or sell it or give it to a friend, you know, that should be priced into the value of the the e-book. So in contracts, I'll say like, I don't want the book price over seven ninety nine, which is a low number to publishers, but the high number for me and that's part of the negotiation process and I think it should be for most authors, I think price limits should be in every publishing contract, but I think there is almost none of them.
Is there anything else that comes to mind?
Farming out things individually, giving worldwide rights to appeal to publishers now is crazy because the the world market is getting more and more lucrative. So I'll do deals just in North America, basically. And that lets me do separate like wars with Random House in the UK and here in Australia and New Zealand and basically worldwide English. And the book is different. The it's localized for the for the four Queen's English basically instead of American English, and they know their market better and put them in charge of it.
Instead of having someone in America shop that out to subsidiaries. It's not only makes for a better product, it makes for better business sense. So I've done like amazing deals in Brazil, you know, sixty thousand dollar advances, which I would have been gaga for in the in North America with my first books. And here I'm getting it from a country that is exploding with interested new readers. And I had no idea that was a market. And we've done we've now done deals in over 40 countries and doing them individually as maximized the decisions we made.
For instance, in in Taiwan, we went with a very small publisher. It's a one man operation, literally, like one guy runs the whole business and does the translation everything that he did. Yeah, he's amazing. There's like two books a year. And he was offering the least amount of money. But I had a foreign agent who just works the Asian market who said, like, we're really lucky to have this person involved, is is considered a poet by the publishing industry there and by readers.
And people will buy the book just because he's the one who translated it. And he's in my agent, my agent agent said I we've got bigger offers from other people, but I would recommend we go with this person. Now, if I was with a publisher, they would have gone with the biggest offer, but I was at the freedom to take a chance and sure enough, my agent nailed it. A year later, I get invited to be like flown first class to Taiwan to to go to book fairs and sign books.
And we're like, why in the world am I going to Taiwan? And we found out, like, what was the number one selling book that year in Taiwan and an easing? Yeah, it became the best selling work of science fiction in the history of the Taiwan market. So I had no idea this was happening. Like I landed in Taiwan and there's people like with books waiting for me to sign them. My my driver, like, had a copy and people at the hotel waiting.
And I have never had this level of success comparatively anywhere in the world. And that never that experience and in my popularity with Taiwanese readers never would have happened had publishers been in charge of my foreign rights. So again, it goes back to that freedom thing. And self publishing used to be thought of as the last resort for four writers. Now, publishing contracts are the last resort because as long as you own the rights, you have the freedom to make any decision you want down the road.
You can still sign with a publisher if you want, but once you do, you no longer have any choice. Once you've signed with the publisher, they own those rights for whatever the contract stipulates in your decisions are now over. So if you think about your decision tree, what used to be the last resort support. Publishing because no one else would take it, that's now the place of the most freedom and most choice, and all you can do from there is win your decision, tree down till you have no choice.
And and just from that reason alone, forget the economic advantages, the creative advantages, just from the decision. Tree self publishing makes the most sense for where to start your career. And then there could be factors that make you decide to give up those rights, like you write that first book and like I'm going to self publish no matter what, because I've read all these blogs about how publishing is the best thing. And then someone read your rough draft and says, I'll give you 10 million dollars to publish this.
If you still self publish your crazy like, you know, there's there's always a reason to go with a publisher, you know, if if it makes sense. But to start there is basically saying, I don't want any more freedom over what happens with my artwork for the rest of my life plus years after that. And that has never made sense to me.
Thank you for being so open and honest about what it's like behind the scenes here. This has been an amazing conversation. I want to thank you so much for your time. And I know you're sitting on a boat watching the sun come up in Australia right now.
It's yeah, it's pretty cool. Yeah, maybe. But come back on. We'll talk about the sailing part. Oh yeah. But I think I can speak out about anything. Thanks for having me on man. It's been awesome. Really appreciate it. Hey, guys, this is Shane again, just a few more things before we wrap up. You can find show notes at Farnam Street blog, dot com slash podcast. That's fair. And s t r e t blog.
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