“The Architect” of the Sterling and Stone trio, Johnny B. Truant is also the co-founder of Sterling and Stone’s Realm & Sands imprint and the host of the Self-Publishing Podcast. Before Realm & Sands, Johnny wrote the Fat Vampire series and The Bialy Pimps. Then, co-author Sean Platt convinced him it was way more fun to write collaboratively. Johnny (mostly) agreed, and since then they’ve written a few Harry Potter series’ worth of words together, including co-writing a full novel in thirty days for their “Fiction Unboxed” project. Johnny would love to live in Austin, but is unfortunately stuck in Ohio for the time being.
Introduction: Tell us who you are, how and why you decided to be an author and where you’re at right now in your career.
I’ve always wanted to be an author, but there was no practical way to do so when I first started trying to publish in 1999. It was all about a lightning strike back then. Only after meeting Sean Platt (one of my partners) and seeing that he and Dave were doing this in a “do the work, produce and optimize” way that I felt it was possible for real. I’ve just always liked storytelling and am thrilled to be able to do it every day and pleasing fans.
Right now is a very exciting time for us at Sterling & Stone. We produced like mad in 2013, then iteratively improved across our six imprints and larger systems in 2014. 2015 is the year we optimize and begin making it all harmonize and generate the profit we’ve deferred for so long to put our systems in place. There are too many exciting new things coming to list!
What was/is the hardest thing about balancing writing with everyday life and/or a day job?
I never had to do this dance, as I’ve always been self-employed and tend to leap with both feet into whatever I’m doing — not the most secure ways to do things. The closest I had to balancing writing and a day job was when I was still doing my last entrepreneurial venture (online instruction via my old blog) at the same time as writing, but I always had plenty of time and can’t offer very good advice here. I really respect people who can make it work with tighter constraints!
Tell us about your schedule and habits from this time (or what you’re doing now if it hasn’t changed).
My schedule now is pretty set. I write every workday starting at 6am and typically put in 4 hours. After that I either have family stuff (Mondays and Wednesdays I’m in charge of my kids and we usually go do something together) or I move on to whatever non-fiction-writing work I have. Some of this is admin (optimizing product descriptions and detail work) and sometimes it’s blog posts or other less creative writing. We have a few meetings per week and we do our podcasts on Friday. Basically whatever needs to be done other than fiction, which I always do first thing because it’s most important. But aside from that family stuff, I always put in a full and rather packed day.
I don’t work formally on weekends but do sometimes kind of tinker on my laptop, doing things I want to do anyway (it helps that I love my work). I don’t work past 6pm either. Finding that work/life balance is really important to me. But this compacted schedule works for me, and I typically produce 30-40,000 words of rough draft copy per week, plus a bunch of other important things that need doing.
If you don’t mind, would you tell us how your sales first started out? How many books did you have out before you started seeing traction?
Initial sales were pretty terrible, but increased steadily. It took me a year before I could consider myself full-time as an author, but even then I was being a bit foolhardy and it wasn’t all perfect every month even then but I always made it work. I think I may have had seven or eight books out at the time? I’m not sure; it’s been a whirlwind. But there is definitely a critical mass thing, where you finally have enough out to give you a base. But others could get there faster than I did, with a lot of hard work, if they weren’t so scattered and focused on one genre with one popular series. We’ve always thought long-term and gone wide.
At one point in time did you make the decision to support yourself/your family as an author? What was that decision like and how did you feel afterward?
It took a year before I didn’t need an additional (entrepreneurial) source of income, but 1.5 years probably would have been more sensible. It actually didn’t scare me at all because I’m optimistic and always believe a bit too much that all will work out. My wife was far more nervous and stayed that way for quite some time. Only in the past year has she finally relaxed. For me, I just do what I believe. I don’t always think about the possibility that I might fail.
What is one thing about your author career that not many people know of? Alternatively, what are some of your other hobbies/interests outside of writing?
Ha, thanks to the Self Publishing Podcast, I imagine there are few things about my career that people don’t know! Outside of writing, I’m fairly athletic and like spending time with my family. We homeschool our kids, so there’s plenty of opportunity for that. But having the career I do, so much blends right into my work — creativity, IMO, doesn’t stop at putting words on the page. Everything about our business is creative and I spend a lot of time “creating” on it, in all forms, in many media.
What’s the single best piece of advice you have for authors who can’t support themselves with their writing yet? What should they be focusing on?
Focus on shipping work and getting new stuff out. Also focus BIG TIME on building your mailing list and communicating with the fans you already have. Sales do matter, but I’d honestly focus more on the tick-up in your mailing list subscribers early on. If you obsessively watch your sales, you’ll drive yourself nuts and get disheartened easily because sometimes stuff just doesn’t sell at certain times. The three metrics I’d watch would be total words written in rough draft, total works published, and mailing list growth. It might be a good idea to not even CONSIDER any other numbers for six months or more after publishing your first book.
Is there anything we haven’t asked that you’d like to touch on?
I just always like to tell people how hard this is. I know it can be discouraging to hear that, but I think that if you can be discouraged from writing, you probably shouldn’t be an indie author as a career. You have to soldier on when it’s difficult and when nobody is buying or paying attention to you. You have to write when the words don’t come easily. But if you love the craft and keep going, this is the best way to spend your life, for the right kind of person, that I can possibly imagine.