Today’s treat at WU has two faces—I wouldn’t be able to show you their hands, because they are typing too fast. Welcome to Johnny B. Truant and Sean Platt of Sterling and Stone, the wide website umbrella that houses their “story studio” of fiction imprints, blogs and podcast. Together, along with their other partner David Wright, they have produced an astonishing array of novels and stories over the past few years, averaging over a million and a half words a year. And popular words, from looking at their Amazon pages. Their genres run the gamut from westerns, horror, fantasy, and thrillers to children’s books. (And naughty stuff too, for large children.)
Their 2014 Write, Publish, Repeat self-publishing guide has hundreds of positive reviews; I’m one of the happy readers that regards it highly. Today we’ll discuss with Sean and Johnny how they work as writing collaborators, their remarkable productivity, and how they promote their work. And whether Sean will open up a winery. From now on I’m going to sit under their keyboards and just catch the discards—should be worth at least three novels.
Jumping right in, you call your main site, the Sterling and Stone site, a “story studio.” Will you explain that for the Writer Unboxed audience in terms of your imprints and the fact that you guys write in various genres, from horror, fantasy, to even children’s stuff.
SP: I love the HBO comparison, so I’m going to say HBO. HBO has family shows and they have very adult shows and they pretty much have all kinds of different lines, but you understand what the word HBO means. So everybody knows what HBO stands for. When you hear something is an HBO show, you know it’s going to be edgy, there’s going to be a lot of quality, it’s going to be cinematic—they’ve worked for decades on that image and cultivating that brand. So our story studio is the same: we’re storytellers, and whether it’s an adult book or a children’s book or a laugh-out-loud book, it’s going to be done with quality and integrity.
JT: We have six different imprints; I was looking it in terms of auto-responders and segmenting our audience. We have a couple of masters to try and serve here, where we’re trying to make sure that people get the specific steps that they want. Basically, if they’ve joined a mailing list or are in a channel for us. Then, there’s that we want to introduce people to all of the lines. So Sterling and Stone is the umbrella brand for us, or the story studio, so it was natural to want to shove everybody into that and say okay, ‘Are you interested in Realm and Sands, which is just me and Sean? Let’s give you everything. Or you’re interested in the children’s stuff? Let’s give you everything.’ So that doesn’t make sense, for a viewer or listener or reader or whatever. We need to walk that line where we have the availability of the larger brand, the label, the HBO, but then we’re allowing for people to have the specificity if all they’re interested in is one aspect.
It’s a big variety store. The next few questions are about collaboration, because that’s going to be a big focus. At a higher level, to make collaboration work, what do collaborators on artistic projects need? What’s the mindset of a collaborator?
SP: Well, Johnny always laughs when I say you don’t bring ego to it, and Johnny says, ‘but I have ego.’
JT: It’s a very specific kind of ego. Do you know what it is? It’s trust in your partner. In high school, and I think in just one college course before, I wanted to punch a wall—you’d write something and then people would have to critique it. So you’d hand it to the next person or the group would critique it, and I always wanted to scream in these things because I was like, what the hell? No, no, stop that. You don’t understand what I was doing. But with Sean, it’s not even on the same plane. It’s, I hand it to him and I trust him to do whatever. He’s even scaled back, saying ‘well I didn’t want to cut too much,’ and I say no, trust your judgment. So I think the no ego is between your partners, but it’s more: I would put it more in terms of trust.
SP: Yeah, because we actually have a lot of ego for our stuff. We think it’s awesome, we love it, we like talking about it, and I think that ego is really important. The people who started Apple, Amazon, any company that goes out there and does amazing things, there’s a lot of ego there. But for collaboration, a lack of ego in your process is really important. You can’t be so precious with your ideas, or say my way is the best. That’s in my primary collaborative relationships: that’s Johnny, Dave, and my marriage. I don’t have a need to be right; I want to learn and be the best and please my partners. I think that those are all really important and for me the relationship comes before the work, and I think the work is brilliant because of that.[pullquote]That’s in my primary collaborative relationships: that’s Johnny, Dave, and my marriage. I don’t have a need to be right; I want to learn and be the best and please my partners. I think that those are all really important and for me the relationship comes before the work, and I think the work is brilliant because of that.[/pullquote]
The Mechanics of Collaborative Editing
How about the mechanics of collaboration? I’ve read that Sean, you’re the architect. So you have the initial segment of determining the story idea and maybe the world-building stuff, and then Johnny writes the first draft and then you guys bump it back and forth from that point. How does that work in terms of both the aesthetics of it and the mechanics?
JT: Is it the architect that you are Sean? Because I know we’ve had this debate.
SP: I don’t know; architect, alchemist, I think we both use both of those words. I’m not really sure.
JT: Yeah, I can make an argument either way. The way that Realm and Sands works is usually Sean brings the ideas. He’s like the big idea guy. When I get to the end of something and I don’t know how it’s going to end, I can abdicate a lot of that to Sean. For instance, I’m listening to The Beam [one of their sci-fi series] right now on audio because it’s a good way to consume it before beginning season three, and I remember the way we ended season two—all I needed to do was to get there and then hold my breath. Because I’m like, ah, Sean will figure it out. I don’t need to worry about that.
We do discuss those things, obviously. We had a hell of a cliffhanger for a series and we didn’t know how we were going to solve it, but we trust that we will. Sean will give me the beats of the outline and then usually we’ll discuss it a little bit and ask, do I have any questions? Can I shoot any holes in it? And we work out the beginning outline and then I write the first draft more or less uninterrupted from beginning to end, with checkpoints along the way where we discuss the story. Then Sean goes through and does the editing and then for some projects I’ll see it again and give it a final gloss, and increasingly I’m not even doing that. We work smoothly enough now that we don’t necessarily always need that.
So at the very end of a project, you’re saying it may have only gone through one full round of editing between you both?
SP: With Johnny and I, over time a lot of that pre-beats package is getting more and more robust. So there’s a lot of stuff that may not even make the draft, but it’s there for Johnny to kind of steep in. The better that he knows these people, the more real they’re going to feel and the more the reader is eventually going to believe them.
Something a reader really needs when they’re in a story is to believe it. If it feels hollow, they’re just not going to enjoy it as much. So everything from the dialogue to the little back-stories, if they have actual weight to them it makes for a better story. Rather than just make it all up as you go along, when Johnny believes these people because he’s spent time with them before page one, then it feels more natural. It’s funny too, because sometimes some of the stuff that I’ll cut out is elaborations on stuff that was in the beats.
There are like little long stories on the sides because it’s a grab bag, I’m pulling this and this in and I love seeing that. But sometimes it’s a slight distraction from the straight narrative, so it’ll get cut. But it doesn’t matter because what that really does is it anchors the reality and it makes these feel like real people, and the stuff that stays is good. The little branches that he takes off of those, it’s good. It makes the people feel real, it makes their dialogue feel real, it makes their insecurities feel real and that’s all really important.
JT: To clarify on the idea of how many passes, there’s my initial draft and then Sean hits it at least twice, so he goes through it twice. On those other projects, I will see it again. My wife usually acts as an informal proofreader and then we do have an editor that we hire. So there actually are a bunch of passes there.
SP: We’re talking four between us minimum, and then our editor, and then proofs after that. So seven before it gets out to market.
And your editor may ask you some questions as well?
SP: Yeah, there are always comments and stuff from the editor. So that’s a whole other time that has to be gone through that I’m not even counting. After he goes through it, we need to go through it again to answer all those comments and insert all those edits before it gets compiled. We don’t use beta readers as much as some authors might but that’s because we’re serving that need for each other. We’re passing a lot of questions back and forth.
I know you guys use Scrivener to get the first draft done. Are most of them done electronically? You’re not calling each other up and discussing things from that point? You’re just doing exchanges of the Scrivener file?
SP: Well we have story meetings every week, so we’re always talking about a story that we’re just starting, just finishing, in the middle of. So no, it’s not just Scrivener. For example, as soon as we’re done here today, we’re going to talk about a story that we just finished, and we’re going to talk about a story that we’re writing right now probably a lot more.
When Writers Disagree. Or Do They?
How about when you disagree? Maybe on something as major as a character’s place in the story or maybe even the place of the story itself? Have you ever disagreed in a big way, where it seemed to be an impasse?
JT: No, it just doesn’t come up.
JT: Well, honestly, I think it’s funny that Sean already made an allusion to his marriage and I’m going to make one of mine now. My wife and I pretty much never fight; really never, and I know that’s really unusual, being that we’ve been married for almost 16 years now. I don’t want to characterize it as, we just don’t care enough to fight, but it’s that there are very few issues in which we’re so inflexible and unwilling to bend at all that usually one of us kind of ends up deferring in a way that isn’t capitulating. It isn’t like, okay, well I’m going to give up, and I think that Sean and I work together in a lot of the same ways.
We’re usually able to see the other person’s perspective enough that we can tell when it matters enough, and there hasn’t been a time where we’ve both felt so strongly. Because it’s rare when we feel so strongly as to not be convinced otherwise anyway. It would have to be really, super, doubly rare for us to have opposite opinions, really strong, about an issue.
SP: There’s a tremendous amount of trust between us and Johnny said it all very well; there’s nothing that’s going to be so important that we’re going to fight about it. That just seems silly.
JT: The reason I think that I got so irritated in those critique circles is because whether it was overt or not, I was like ‘I know better than you,’ but I have respect for Sean and for Dave as people who know as well as I do. So that’s why it’s not an issue, because you guys know it.
SP: Because then it’s not a matter of right or wrong; it’s a difference of opinion. Dave’s a little more prickly, so Dave and I will have conflict more than Johnny and I, but even conflict is a really big word for what it is. Dave is more insistent that he’ll want things his way, and I’m okay with that. But in the cases when I’ll say ‘you know, I really think this is the way it should be,’ and I make my argument, he’ll always defer to me. It’s really choosing your battles. But most of the time I’ll defer to him because I don’t care. It’s way more important to have a happy, healthy partnership and do more stuff.
The Business of Fun
You guys seem to have fun with what you’re doing, besides the fact that you’re running a business and it has a lot of complexities. But it’s like you built in being able to have fun with it. When I listen to your podcast, when I read the blog stuff, it just sounds like there is a sense of camaraderie that is pretty good. Even with all kinds of deadline pressures, is that just built in to what you do?
SP: I wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t fun. If I wanted to be a successful writer and make a lot of money, I would write sales letters. Because word-for-word, that’s what’s going to pay me the absolute most. I have fun writing sales letters; I have fun telling stories. That’s what I love. Whether I’m putting children in jeopardy with Dave or writing inquisitive fiction with Johnny, that’s what makes me happiest and I think it’s really, really important to have fun with what you’re doing. Certainly that’s what characterizes a lot of Realm and Sands work and certainly the LOL [another story series] stuff is how much fun it is to write and that is really important to me.
I didn’t really realize how important that was to me until I started writing with Johnny. I had a good time writing Collective Inkwell [horror/sci-fi series with Dave] stuff, but writing Realm and Sands and LOL stuff is another level of actual fun. Dave enjoys his work, but he doesn’t really have fun doing anything. I mean he wouldn’t have fun at Disneyland; he’s just not wired to have fun in that way. A lot of people ask us why we do the LOL series: because they’re fun. For example, when we write something that is as difficult as The Beam, to come off of that and write something that just makes us laugh, I think there’s tremendous value in that. In both thinking of the ideas and articulating the ideas, I like how much we shake it up. Absolutely, I think that fun and whimsy is not just something that we do, it’s fundamental to what we do.[pullquote]In both thinking of the ideas and articulating the ideas, I like how much we shake it up. Absolutely, I think that fun and whimsy is not just something that we do, it’s fundamental to what we do.[/pullquote]
JT: It’s part and parcel right? So everything we do, even the most disturbing stuff—not that we have a lot that’s really disturbing, but we have some. There are some scenes in The Beam that are disturbing and Cursed is very dark. Even those things are fun; when we talk about them they’re fun. I don’t know if this happens in the Collective Inkwell side, but I am trying to impress Sean with the writing. I get excited like ‘You have to read this next section because it’s, you know.’ I’ve been bugging him for a while about the new project that we’re going to discuss because that is a really cool one and I can’t wait to see what Sean thinks.
So yeah, if we aren’t having fun we aren’t going to do it. As a matter of fact that’s kind of our decider on a lot of things. There have been things that we’ve turned down that maybe we could have done, but they just don’t sound fun. Yeah, it’d be money but this is more fun.
SP: Yeah that’s absolutely true and on the CI side, yeah we definitely write to impress each other. In fact, the big CI project that’s been in development since late last year, there are several sections where Dave has gone too far and I had to cut it back and it’s because he wants to shock me or impress me. There’s absolutely that element, and our story meetings are very verbal. A lot of our ideas don’t come up in the copy so much as during the ideas, and there are a lot of those moments. That too is part of the marriage. You want your partner to be not just happy in the relationship, but excited by the relationship and pleased.
Pages and Pages (and Pages)—How?
You guys have done a mind-boggling amount of publishing in the last couple of years. Something like 1.5 million words a year. So you set the bar quite high for your output. Do you feel that you have to outdo yourself? And do you have any concern about quality with the volume of stuff you do?
JT: Absolutely not on the quality. It’s almost a rule of thumb: the faster I write stuff as a first draft, the better it tends to be. I’m currently working on the second Invasion book and I had a slow start. For some reason that took me a while to get going, and it was the sort of thing where at one point I was putting out a tenth of what I should have been doing. Today, by contrast, I wrote fast. I was like, ‘okay this is good.’ This means I’ve found the rhythm, because it is about rhythm, and Sean has told me over and over again that the passages that I report writing fast enough require very few edits, because it’s much more natural.
But as far as outdoing yourself, this is sort of tongue in cheek, and I forget who it was that said it, but being an indie author is like being a shark. You have to keep moving forward or you’ll die. I agree to some degree. The name of our book is Write, Publish, Repeat. We believe that putting out new stuff is some of the best marketing you can do and having a big footprint. I don’t believe that you have one shot and then it’s gone; that’s part of what our auto-responder project is meant to do, to keep tickling new readers to expose them to our older stuff.
So there’s no element of outdoing for me. I just want to write better stories. If there’s anything there, it’s not about volume; it’s not about being shocking or doing a crazy amount of stuff. But I do want to keep telling better stories. I want to improve my craft.
SP: I would echo that exactly. I want to get better at what we do. I don’t necessarily want to tell more stories, although I want to tell as many in my life as I can. But I do want to tell better stories; I want to make sure we are improving as craftsmen year by year. Right now I’m reading For Nevermore to my daughter, which is the second book Dave and I did after Yesterday Is Gone, a few years ago. There are so many things I’d want to change and I’d want to do differently.
It’s kind of cool. Like part of me is like, ‘oh man, this is balls.’ But on the other hand I’m really happy because if I was thrilled with it then, how much have I grown in two or three years? So I’m glad to see that there’s that growth. As far as quality, no, not at all, and I have two things to say about that. Just like the stuff that Johnny writes fastest tends to be some of the very best, and Dave has said the same thing about things that I’ve given him, copy that he struggles with a little more is usually stuff that I struggled with, that I spent a long time writing and rewriting it. Then he’ll send me the email ‘that this is why I love working with you,’ with a lot of exclamation marks. Like I was in a fugue—it just came out. I believe that the faster you write, the more your internal critic is just off and you’re in flow and you’re flying, and that’s good storytelling at its best.
Our muscle memory is very good. We tell stories every single day. So it’s not hard for us to get into the rhythm of a story. It’s harder when we unplug and try to come back in, which is why the start of a story is always a little harder, because you’re just getting into it. But by the end, your rhythm should be good, you should be fluid.
Promotion: Putting It in Front of Readers’ Eyes
You just released Invasion. I’m on your list, and in one of the emails you showed a number of sales images from places like Amazon that were live links to the books and that demonstrated how successful it had been. In the same email you promoted a cheap bundle for your Fat Vampire series. I know you’d set up advanced reviews for Invasion so on the first day you could tally a bunch of Amazon reviews that already had a lot of good things to say about the book. So you guys seem to have a fairly formal promotional structure in place: you’ve got the free starter library on the site, you do bundling, you do limited prices, sometimes you periodically adjust your prices. Is there an actual formula how you promote or are you always tinkering with things?
JT: Thank you for saying that it seems like we’re organized because we’re not. If you listen to the self-publishing podcast you’ve heard us say that we want to iterate ad-nauseam and then the buzzword for this year, for 2015, is to optimize. So between those two, between the idea of iteratively improving the way that we do things just inch by inch, and the idea of optimizing, you sort of have the magic; if there is a formula, that’s it. Which is, we want to do a little better every time.
With the email that you’re discussing, I’m glad that that seemed like it was strategically good because it was the best solution we could manage to a problem. We had three things going on. One was that there was that bundle that we hadn’t told our list about yet. We needed to tell them about it before I raised the price and time was running out. As we record this tomorrow I’m going to raise the price on that—it’s been 99 cents for way too long. So we needed to tell people about that and then we wanted to report and thank people for Invasion, because that was largely a thank-you email. We announced Invasion and then said, ‘look, you guys have already gotten all these reviews up; thank you very much’; we made the front page of the iBook store and #1 in iBooks for science fiction.
So those were two aims, and there was actually a third one: we needed to start some stuff with the auto-responder series that would have sent a third email with a totally different purpose. How many aims do we have, what can we defer and do later? That was the auto-responder one, and how can we do this so that there’s one main purpose to this and then we can have an ancillaries as a PS. That’s the way we ended up doing it, because I figure a lot of people who already know us will already have heard about Fat Vampire and maybe have picked it up.
If you’re going to get that, you don’t need a lot of selling. It’s 99 cents, so a mention does it. So that’s why we did that. But that said, we are iteratively improving our promotions. We are trying to hit a lot more unpaid advertising this year and every time we do it, we’re trying to tick a few more boxes. We want to have better covers and product descriptions and better calls to action in the fronts and backs of our books before those promotions go live. We want to ask, how we can tie them together? So if one book is promoted, is there something we can do to sort of spill over to the other?
A BookBub promotion for a six-book bundle will tend to attract a lot of attention—I had 2,000 buys of that in the first 24 hours. So I put a little note: hey Invasion is out today. I don’t know if that sent anybody over but maybe it did. So we’re always looking for things to do like that, but it’s case-by-case and we hope to get a little better every time.
So with BookBub, you did do a paid promotion. Do you use a number of other places like that?
JT: BookBub is the juggernaut, and after doing this a few times one of the things I feel like I’ve noticed, and I don’t know if this is accurate, but it feels to me like BookBub does most of the heavy lifting and then we do back up on a few other sites: Kindle Books & Tips, eReader News Today, and we like Buck Books. But I feel like it’s diminishing returns after a while. I feel like most of the people who are going to pick it up on the free Kindle Books and Tips here on day seven may have already seen it. I don’t see the big rush that I used to, but we do stack them because compared to BookBub they’re cheap, and why not? Why not draw that long tail and hope to get Amazon promoting you or something like that?
How does the self-publishing podcast and the Authorpreneur’s Almanac fit into your book promotion? Do you feel that they are promotional vehicles as well, with you guys discussing a lot of different issues on publishing and writing?
SP: Well, very indirectly. The self-publishing podcast definitely helps to get our name out there and it’s a way for us to think our ideas out loud and to really bond with that segment of our audience who wants to bond with us. But in general, it’s not a good way for writers to market themselves at all. We’ve done a better than average job of getting listeners to move over to listen to fiction. But for most writers that is a very difficult proposition because you’re not marketing to other readers, you’re marketing to writers and those writers are way more concerned about selling their book than reading yours.
So it’s very difficult, by and large. For us, I think that because our show has a lot of personality and our books show some of that personality, the transference is there. I think because we talk about it, it’s personal too. People bond with us in that way and they want to check it out. But something like the Almanac, no. It’s not there to move books or market anything; it’s there as a community builder to help people along and do that kind of thing.
Something I think a lot of people don’t realize is there’s definitely a downside to doing something like the podcast. A lot of what we’re doing is public. It’s very hard to just do things and keep them close to the vest. You’ve got a lot of people checking on everything you do and having opinions about everything we do, and that can get old and tiring. In the same stretch, we’re always very honest and transparent about what we do and we’re creating a lot of success for others in the community.
We don’t really believe in competition. We believe in creating a healthy environment. But the truth of that is that we do help other authors to be successful, which then they are in competition for things like BookBub ads and general attention. So there is a downside to doing the podcast for sure, but we think it all evens out and at the end of the day we love the community and it’s absolutely worth it.
Live, It’s Fiction Unboxed!
Since this is for the Writer Unboxed audience, I have to mention Fiction Unboxed because there’s obviously some brethrenship there. In Fiction Unboxed, the premise was to write a novel in 30 days live, starting from zero, doing the whole brainstorming for the book structure with an audience. Can either of you comment on what that was like in terms of the actual physicality of being on line live doing the audio and videos and putting together a book that both of you said you were pretty pleased with?
JT: Some people said, ‘Why are you doing this?’ Well, it was, ‘We’re going to write a novel. Do you want to watch?’ We wrote 1.5 million words last year at the time and did it again the next year.
The experience itself was exhilarating, it was one of the high points of my professional writing career, as short as it is at this point. It was interesting because it gave us insight into our own process as well as showing that process to other people. Stephen King talks about writing with the door closed, and we wrote with the door open. There was a period where it was kind of intensely vulnerable, and I remember during this period I would lovingly remand Dave for saying that reading the first chapter, the first day’s words, made him cringe. Because Dave hates everything that we do.
SP: Cringe in all caps too.
JT: Dave is not a young adult steampunk reader and bless his heart, he was trying to save us from ourselves. He was not trying to knock us down. There were a lot of people that contacted Sean because I was in the box. [writing live in front of their audience] They contacted Sean and said, ‘I know I’m not supposed to say anything, so I’m just saying it to you, but just so you know this isn’t quite right.’ It’s day one, first draft, and of course then that got in my head and messed with my mojo.
But overall, the entire experience was exhilarating. I said in the author’s note for The Dream Engine, which was the book that we wrote, that it was my favorite book until Axis of Aaron was next, and that’s my current favorite book. But at the time it was my favorite, which isn’t the same as saying it’s my best, our best book, but it was my favorite. It was a thrill ride, because we had nothing, no idea on day one. If you’re going to brainstorm a book and you know nothing about it and you’re going to do that and write it, edit it, publish it, get the cover, I mean everything—it didn’t exist on day zero. It was finished and ready to consume on day 30.
You think, okay you could write a book, but we wrote a book that was a hell of a book, in my opinion, with a lot of lore and it birthed this world. I think that’s an example of fences make great art.
SP: I have something to add. I think it was an amazing experience.
JT: A community builder too. Community really showed up for that.
SP: I just, I couldn’t be more proud of what we did there.
About that Winery
So this’ll wrap up: Is there a master plan? Do you guys do so many books in so many years and then retire and start a winery or is this forever? Are you guys just going to do what you’re doing?
JT: Why would we retire? People retire so they can do what they want with their time. I’m already doing what I want with my time.
SP: Yeah, I mean I can’t speak for Johnny or Dave, but I think it will take various forms. I think we want to build apps and have our stuff translated into other environments. I think we’d love to see graphic novels and movies and all of that. We’ve got a really cool project in production that could be a game-changer as far as the way stories are told and media and all of that.
I think that we are driven men who love new things and our team is growing and we’ve got some really awesome ladies working with us. We’ve got a cool story studio and I think that we want to tell stories. So I don’t think that’s going anywhere. Will we be doing digital files on the Kindle forever? No, I think it will be that and other stuff. That will totally evolve.
But no, I have no plans to open a winery.
Citizens of WU, have you had productive collaborations like this? If not, can you envision that such a tight, collaborative process could work for your writing? Like me, would you like to borrow their minds, wrists and fingers for a month or two?