Today I had an interview with John Robin. John Robin is a writer, editor, and entrepreneur. As a writer, he has devoted the last twenty years to crafting an epic novel inspired by masters like Tolkien, Robert Jordan, and George R. R. Martin.
He’ll be launching his debut novel this fall, called A Thousand Roads. John also writes in numerous other genres, including self-help (Your Daily Journal: 100 Day Journey, and forthcoming Master Your Time: The Secret To Being Insanely Productive), education (math and writing courses on http://www.gohighbrow.com), and other fiction under pen names (Nannybot A3-4, Pet Human) or as ghostwriter for other authors.
As an editor and entrepreneur, John founded Story Perfect Editing services and has grown this business now into a book production company for Indie self-publishing authors, and recently, he co-founded a publishing division, Deep Desires Press.
My questions are in bold, and his answers follow.
Real People Success Stories:
Briefly, how did you launch your business?
I’d wanted to make a living as a writer for a long time but always felt the only way in was to perfect a novel and sell it to a publisher.
Back in 2014, I had the opportunity to enter this world from a different angle: as a freelance editor. I’d trained as an editor for a small press and had built a client base, so I decided to abandon my former work and go all-in. So, I started Story Perfect Editing Services and learned to build this business, while pushing my career as an Indie author forward as part of this endeavor. I haven’t looked back since.
What is one thing you have learned about running a successful business?
It was the “going all-in” bit that really taught me how to succeed.
When failure isn’t an option, you see other options you wouldn’t if it were easy to retreat back into comfort. - John Robin, Real People Success Stories Click To Tweet
When failure isn’t an option, you see other options you wouldn’t if it were easy to retreat back into comfort. Back in my first year starting my business, I went through some very rough patches. At one point, I have 10 revenue streams and moonlighting gigs just to keep things afloat, but during all those detours I never lost sight of what I was trying to do. Eventually, I gained more customers and expanded to lead a small team, and we also expanded into cover design, formatting, and then publishing.
It all came about because I didn’t lose sight of my goal even when things got difficult. I like to think we still aren’t where we want to be yet, but I always think back to that earlier time and how I got where I am now from that place, so when I think ahead to success, I only think about what obstacles are in my way? How can I overcome them creatively, where failure isn’t an option? I’m 100% in this, and there is no way out except for success and continued growth.
What is one mistake you made that you wish you could change?
The biggest mistake I made was when my business finally started growing and I still tried to take on everything myself. When I think of how much valuable time I could have spent further honing my fiction and my skills as a writer, that instead, I spent time taking on editing jobs I could have been passing off to my team, I see this as a big waste. Debt is crippling to anyone who runs a business.
Sometimes you want every month to profit. But scaling up is just as difficult as starting up, and the truth of successful business startups you don’t often hear about is they struggle and struggle and struggle for years and take losses as they learn their market, as they learn how to manage their workload and expenses—but it’s only through that steady investment in developing your brand, refining your service and client base, analyzing and learning and refocusing, that you get ahead. Unless you’re lucky to get a big startup investment or enter with significant overhead, you have to learn to ignore the debt and loss and see only the bigger 5-10 year projection.
It’s when I started trusting the power of delegation that I really saw results. Trusting that work should go to my team and my role is to be a director whose energy goes 20% into high-leverage delegation and management, and 80% into long-term investment to develop company direction. For me, personally, and how my company vision works, this means a high amount of time on producing marketable fiction for my company, as well as time spent improving through strategic reading. My team knows this and pushes me to do this.
The way one of my editors put it, it’s a bit like being a monarch: when you’re the leader everyone depends on, you have to lead by example and your work is to be the example that is your brand. It’s this investment that adds to our brand because everything is built around John Robin the Indie author who is passionate about developing and following a professional self-publication process. If I was stuck doing everyone else’s work, I wouldn’t be leading by example as the kind of author I want to empower all the authors we work with to be.
What advice would you give someone starting out?
Make sure if you’re going to do this, you’re prepared to struggle. Make sure you can take on enormous debt if need be, and live with that as a means to an end that exists in the business mission you’re passionate about fulfilling. If you’ve got lots of commitments, i.e. family, dependents, etc., then this might be something you’ll want to be extra sure of before you jump in. I’d recommend saving up at least 1-2 years of basic living income so that for the first 1-2 years you can go in full-time and lead your company as CEO.
But that’s conservative, and it’s down to preference. For me, personally, not having that security makes me push harder. It doesn’t just make me push harder to find solutions that increase company revenue, it also pushes me to spend less. I’ve cut costs ruthlessly and learned to work at home to save gas and money on coffee shops. I stopped paying my gym membership and instead invested in a home gym that’s crammed in my garage. It’s not comfortable, but it’s sufficient and I can do my workout—and I save $400/year in gas on the trips to and from the gym, $600/year on the gym memberships, and, most importantly, 150 hours/year of my personal time I’d otherwise waste driving to and from the gym. That’s 150 hours/year instead invested in growing my business.
When you push yourself to the extreme like this, you’re forced to start thinking big picture. What can you cut so you can grow more? What can you do when you’re growing more to grow that extra bit you need? Are you spending your time the right way? If you profit, are you investing that money in security to allow you to continue to be a leader, to develop high-leverage delegation?
Always be thinking about growth, with your vision in mind, and how you’re moving closer to it. This doesn’t always mean being comfortable in the present, and being successful in the long-term is learning to be okay with that.
What are you most proud of?
I’m proud of the fact that I can spend 80% of my workday on my primary passion, writing, as a result of how I’ve developed my business model. I’m not paid by a publishing company or by booksellers who pay me royalties. I’m paid by my own company and this role as a writer who leads the company is part of my salary position. I’m not waiting for a publishing company to “buy” my book so I can wear the badge of honor of making a living as an author.
I’m able to live it now, as a byproduct of my job responsibility for my company. I’m proud to be leader of this awesome company that empowers other self-publishing Indie authors to do similar to what I’m doing, and to know that as I’m doing this, I’m empowering not just authors but also the whole team who depends on me to lead, give guidance, and write the fiction that contributes to our revenue.
I know you’re a prolific reader. What lesson or lessons have you learned from reading sci-fi and fantasy?
I actually don’t read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, but I was heavily influenced by works in those genres in my early years starting out as a writer. The main lesson I’ve learned would relate to the main lesson in reading in general: after every book I read, I realize how wrong I was about my previous concept of how to write.
This happens every time. It’s not just changing my understanding about writing itself but also what I want to write about and what I want to say. Studying other authors, for me, is less about getting inspiration, and more about getting redirected, because I realize, “Hey, I thought I knew what I was talking about and had a unique angle on this certain issue, but I really had no clue and wow, I’m glad I won’t waste my time spinning my tires on this one!”
This is actually why I read beyond sci-fi and fantasy. That same takeaway goes up exponentially when I force myself to read broadly and targeted. I read Wikipedia following a targeted strategy (here’s a link to that article, for the curious). I read well-balanced magazines to inform me of world issues. Even just a simple article in National Geographic can radically alter my outlook and change the shape of my mind’s writing landscape.
Many authors and bloggers have trouble finding time to write. Do you have any tips?
There’s always time to write. I think that’s the hardest thing about trying to find time to write when you don’t think you have any. It’s about realizing that if you’re determined, there’s time.
What I find most often when I hear different writers talk about not having time to write is this: finding time to write is equated with finding the best time to write. You have to toss that nonsense out the window. There never will be a perfect time to write. Hemingway wrote at dawn in a cold room where he was uncomfortable, to remind him of the constant struggle known as creativity.
Writing shouldn’t feel comfortable. Sometimes it is, and that’s great. I’ve learned to always feel comfortable when I write but that’s only because I’ve learned to let go of thinking about anything but the keyboard under my fingertips and my eyes on the screen. My desk is a mess and my back’s a bit sore from sitting all day (I’m about 9 hours into my workday right now), but that’s all secondary because I’m writing.
Before I started my business, I had days full of commitments. I was a full-time student, a tutor, and I had a few other jobs—and endless homework. But I still found time to write. Sometimes I had to open my manuscript on my computer and ignore my homework just for 10 minutes. That’s all I could do that day. It was hectic and I felt like I had so much more to do and I could barely see progress. But I still opened the manuscript and did it, because I had to write. I didn’t care about the conditions, only the commitment.
The truth of being a full-time writer isn’t about living that life where you can do nothing but write all day. It’s about being able to write even just a little when you have no time to write, and through investing in that consistently and improving more and more, growing into that life where you write all day. That dream is built, not delivered like a winning lottery ticket.
The truth of being a full-time writer isn’t about living that life where you can do nothing but write all day. It’s about being able to write even just a little when you have no time to write... John Robin, Real People Success Stories Click To Tweet
What authors are you digging right now? And why?
That’s a hard question for me! Every time I read a new book, I don’t just change the author but I change the genre. So I’ve really enjoyed the authors I’ve read recently because each of them has given me a unique angle on life:
Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations, but also, Greg Hays for his translation that puts the wise-yet-melancholy reflections in context. Lin Carter in his book on J.R.R. Tolkien that shed light on the fantasy epic and where it comes from, all the way back to the Iliad and Odyssey. Some time ago, I read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, and that radically changed how I viewed history and culture, and opened up my desire to get more informed on world issues—notably, adding Discover magazine and National Geographic to the list of magazines I read every publication, front-to-back. Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son gave me a deeper appreciation for pushing the far frontiers of the point of view and the interweaving of meta-narration, via an introduction to the grisly state of affairs in North Korea.
What suggestion do you have for people that are looking for ideas or inspiration for stories?
Read. Read, read, read. Get immersed in stories, as broadly as you can. Don’t just get stuck in books. Books are great, but books are only one form of literary information that will give you a sense of the stories that live in the world. Read as much nonfiction books as fiction, and outside of books, read quality magazines or other articles that inform you on a wide spectrum of issues, from different angles.
Don’t skim or read only what you’re interested in. You won’t appreciate the story lurking in the margins if you don’t have the patience to go in and really dig. Step outside yourself for that time. Read that article about the topic that always bores you the same way you’d listen to a stranger tell you their life story. There’s always a story there if you go in and pay attention. Become like a reporter and chase the story.
Soon your mind will be teeming with possibilities, and you’ll have to pick from only the best of them. And these are the kinds of stories you want to be telling.
What advice do you have for authors looking to publish independently?
Make sure you developing a proper production method for your publications. Self-publishing is great as it empowers you to begin working and making a living as a writer right away. You’re not waiting for a big publisher or literary community to “elect” you into their circle and become “one of them”. You’re an author from the moment you begin to publish professionally and work and produce more fiction and/or nonfiction.
Treat this like a job. Even if you work a fulltime job, treat this like a second full-time job. Don’t think of it as a hobby, because what you think will get reflected in what you do. Think of everything you do when you self-publish, and when you write for future self-publishing, as a business and you are the CEO, and a major spoke in the wheel.
You can build a team around your production. This doesn’t have to get expensive. You will need a good editor and a good cover designer. If you have to target your money to any one place, target it here. Just don’t delude yourself about spending lots of money on editing and cover as a way of giving your book that much more of a professional edge. At the end of the day, what will give your book the power to stand out is you, the writer, and the work you do. Your editing and cover design process is all just a method for you to hone your own edge and turn that final book into something that feels on par with anything else on the shelves at Chapters.
Copy from the best. Actually, go into the bookstores and on the Amazon pages of traditionally published books like yours and study inside and out what they do. Try to do this in your own book. Get help with formatting (though interior and formatting is something you can learn to do on your own if you’re trying to save on your costs).
Write great copy for your book. This is the summary that you see on the back of a print book, or in the description on Amazon. Again, learn from the greats by studying those top-notch books similar to yours. I recommend you have someone else write this for you, ideally an early reader who has a good perspective on your book. Then take this and adapt it into the professional format you’ll see online (i.e. third person present tense, opening hook paragraph, a paragraph that builds complications and high stakes, main dilemma driving plot forward).
There’s so much you can do to stand above the competition. Just like you shouldn’t think of your writing time like “hobby” time, neither should you think of self-publishing as “giving in”. True, many people self-publish because they’ve had it with traditional and rejection, but that should never be your aim. If you’re self-publishing, embrace it as an alternative career opportunity.
You have the power to become your own publisher, to create your own brand, to build that around your writing, to be fully in control, to learn and grow as you go, to keep improving. Only your readers will tell you what to write or not write as you go, and you can continually learn from them in reviews and feedback groups as you go.
What are you looking forward to?
I’m really excited about all the publications I have coming out in 2018. I’ve diversified quite a bit as a writer, following my own business model as a writer. I’ve had the opportunity to write courses, to begin publishing in the self-help market, and of course, the debut of my epic fantasy novel, A Thousand Roads, this fall, as the culmination of more than 5 years’ work. I have numerous other fiction ventures up my sleeve, some of which will involve the creation of new pen names and publication as ghostwriter through other existing authors.
I love that I can look ahead into the year and know that I’ll be writing for hours every day, 7 days a week, and will relentlessly have all these exciting adventures waiting for me, and all that is just a foretaste of what’s waiting for me in 2019.
Any upcoming projects you are working on?
I have several irons in the fire. As a rule, I always have 1 longer nonfiction project and 1 longer fiction project to work on every day. I’m finishing a novel that I’m ghostwriting for an author, and for nonfiction, I’m working on Your Weekly Journal: 20 Weeks To Self-Mastery, the follow-up to Your Daily Journal: 100 Day Starter.
I’m excited about the Brain Teasers course I’ll be writing for Highbrow after that project, and of course, I’m excited for the 6thdraft of A Thousand Roads, which I’ll turn to shortly after the novel I’m ghostwriting. I have a crime fiction novel in the works that I’d hoped to get to before the 6thdraft, but I’ll have to write it after that draft (~August) to keep up with the production timeline.
How has social media impacted your business?
I love using Twitter. I’m not a fan of Facebook or other social media channels, though I do maintain some presence on them.
What I love about Twitter is how it allows me to connect with other authors. Twitter lets you as an author share tweets that can showcase your brand. People can click on my profile and scroll through my feed and get a sense of what kind of useful information they can expect to find from me. I think of it as the mainstream and heartbeat of my platform. I don’t automate my tweets and I don’t over-promote myself. I like to share things from other people I follow if I feel that will add to the overall brand I want to build.
What is truly empowering about Twitter is how my content can get shared through retweeting with thousands of people who don’t follow me. If someone sees something they like in my feed, and they feel this is something they want to share with their followers, then I can get discovered.
Looking for help with social media? Check out: Clash of Clans, Lessons in Social Media
I don’t approach social media with an agenda. It’s just to share. My objective is always to just be authentic, share myself as much as I can. Create gateways to the other content I share on my blog, and in my books, and through other aspects of my company, and through the growing community of authors, I network with. It gives me confidence as I forge ahead and build my career as Indie author that I as I create great products, i.e. books readers will enjoy, I’ll have a place where people can spread the word, and I don’t have to stress about it at all. I just have to show up and be myself, and follow the great opportunities that open up. And keep writing and writing and writing, and learning as I go.
Running a business, promoting and marketing can be a change. How do you manage it all? Any apps, books or tips that you use?
I actually don’t do a lot of this at all. The best decision I made regarding marketing and promotion, as well as the backend of management, was to get out of my own way. I brought someone else onto the team early in to take care of this kind of work so I could focus instead on being the director.
We have two people who run our marketing, and most of that is through strategic content on Twitter and Facebook. We have a third person who helps us promote our publishing catalog. They’re all fantastic at what they do!
We don’t attach results to these avenues, not unless we’re assessing if roles need to change. I prefer to let everyone do what they do best, then I assess it and offer redirection if needed. But I never jump in and micromanage it. I’ve learned when it comes to marketing and promotion that you can’t force results. You can only do your best to represent what you have to offer then foster those customer relationships that come about.
The absolute best and most reliable marketing for me has been the direct word of mouth from satisfied customers. We are very passionate about producing quality books. The authors we work with love how we are so collaborative and how we empower them while still pushing for a professional publication.
You have multiple projects you’re working on. How do you manage time?
I use timers to stay on track, as well as a time-block to-do. Every morning before I begin my day, I make a grid on a small sticky note. It’s 4 columns by 6 rows. Each of the 24 blocks represents a 25-minutes of time. I fill in the first 3 columns and sometimes the 4th(if I’m planning to max out the work day, which I usually reserve for Wednesdays).
I’m deliberate with each 25-minute block of time. For example, I’m writing this blog post right now and beneath me is that sticky note and the block that says “blog”. I’ve worked my way through all the important activities I need to do and I trust this list because absolutely everything I need to go gets put on this list and I always get done what I need to get done.
The only time this doesn’t work is if I’m having a bad day, especially if I’ve had a bad sleep or if I didn’t plan the day well, i.e. lots of appointments or interruptions. To work around this, I always put my list in order. The most important things are at the start, then the lesser priorities, i.e. things that can move to tomorrow if need be, go next. I redo this list every day (except Saturday—I take Saturday off everything, except writing), so I’m constantly distilling and staying focused.
I also have a list like this for the week and use it as a reference. This way I might have things I need to do this week but I can rest assured they will get done because I know as the weekday’s progress I can slot them into later days while I focus on other priorities.
Any apps you can recommend?
Multitimer. It’s the best app for keeping track of time. You can set up a panel of multiple timers to manage your day as you focus. I have one for 25-minutes for each of the 25-minute blocks I work in, then one for 4-minutes for the break I take after each work block. This helps me take short rests and always come back to my focused work fresh.
Seriously, the best lesson I’ve learned about managing your own time and being productive is, when you get specific about how time passes and be deliberate about how you spend it, your efficiency goes from 5-10% up to 75-90%.
If someone was having a hard time managing projects is there a book you would recommend?
I would recommend the book that I just finished (currently in production for an August 14 publication date): Master Your Time: The Secret To Being Insanely Productive. I’d also recommend The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, as that’s a real cornerstone of productivity.
How important is fitness?
Extremely important! If you sit at your computer all day or sit down reading books or other material, your muscles get tense. You also put on weight and your metabolism isn’t the most efficient. You build up adrenaline and this makes you feel stressed and often the response to this is to mask it with caffeine, sugar, or comfort food. This, in turn, makes you feel worse, or sleepy, and you get less done. You sleep worse, and in turn, you feel worse the next day to make it all happen over again.
Getting fit helps you kick all that. You get more oxygen to your muscles and you use up that excess adrenaline. You build better muscles for posture so you can sit longer and not have your back and neck muscles seize up in cramps. You sleep better. Most importantly, you feel better.
There’s also the side-benefit that you have to eat better when you exercise. You have to drink more water, so you get more hydrated. You have to get more nutrients, so you do things like eat potatoes and more vegetables to get raw energy, potassium, calcium, and other minerals.
Your mental clarity and freshness doubles if not triples when you’re fit. You still have your bad days (because none of us are perfect), but overall I can say when I invested in exercise I noticed the results not just in work time but overall how I feel in every other part of my life.
How do you find time to work out? Do you enjoy it? If not, how do you stay motivated?
I’ve had periods where I’ve dropped my workouts. This is how I appreciated the contrast in mood and productivity and focus.
The biggest problem for me has always been time, especially since I started working for myself. It’s one of those things that’s easy to push aside. “I’m super behind and really, I’d be best to go hard and get all my work done.” That’s an alluring trap I fall into many times.
I’ve learned to get out of that only from building the habit and seeing the with/without contrast over time. The truth is, I love working out. It’s hard and sometimes I have to get motivated, but when I’m there and I’m lifting weights, or when I’m doing my sprints, I feel truly alive. Afterward, when I get back into the stream of my work day, I feel great. Even on days like today, where I’m resting between workout days, I can feel the residual benefits.
Do you have any money tips you have picked up along the way?
Try not to worry too much about money. Debt is not evil, not unless it’s stupid debt.
You actually have a lot more money than you think, if you can learn to stop spending it on things you shouldn’t. Every month when I get my credit card bills and I go over my banking, I look at every cost and reassess and try to make 1 small change to spend less. Being poor is actually a good place to start because you don’t take costs for granted. Even $1 saved can add up if you think of it over weeks and months and the year. Waste nothing, so you can use everything. This principle will carry you far when you get into higher profit.
What games are you playing now? And what if any games are you looking forward to?
I always have a game of chess on the go on the Chess.com app. I don’t play many other games, but I am a fan of RPG games, especially Final Fantasy and Zelda. I’m just starting Final Fantasy X but find I only get to play sometimes in the evening if I’m not as busy—and the last 3 weeks have been hectic! I do like knowing it’s an adventure waiting for me when I get really busy, or when I have to push extra hard at work. There’s always something to look forward to.
is the one thing you wish everyone knew?
I wish everyone knew just how much power and agency they have in their individual lives. Many of us go through our lives and days feeling out of control. Life happens to us and we want to complain, through blaming circumstances or blaming others. Really, we only have ourselves to blame for everything that happens, because we are the ones who choose what we want to think about what happens to us and what that means. I
t’s one thing to be victim to circumstances or the behavior of other people, but it’s another to perpetuate that through then complaining and blaming and investing your energy on railing against those sources. You’re better to invest your energy in forgiveness, compassion, and transformation that you can share with others. Instead of being the flame that makes the flames bigger, become the rain that cools the land, and allows new life to grow.
What Franchise has the best Dragon or Dragons? Show your work
I really enjoy the dragons in Game of Thrones. I feel like that really rides the line of what dragons are all about—the large beasts of chaos that echo the prehistoric dinosaurs. When I think of dragons, I’m inspired by the reimagining in the Jurassic movies, as well as the Alien franchise. Exotic scales beasts that are a source of awe and horror, the idea that we come from this chaotic past and our peaceful, stable civilizations are such a contrast to the unpredictable survivalist reality we woke up in long ago.
Thank you, John Robin, for your candidness and words of wisdom. We will watch for your next books – please keep in touch so we can share that with our readers!