Friday, August 10, 2012

Author Joseph Lallo on the Keys to His SciFi and Epic Fantasy Success

Indie author Joseph Lallo writes Epic Fantasy and Science Fiction. Like many successful self-published authors at Smashwords, his sales started off slow.  He joined Smashwords in February, 2010, and for the entire year sold only four copies for earnings of about $15.00.  Undeterred, he continued writing, made incremental improvements to his books, and experimented with pricing.  In 2011, his sales started to pick up, and then in early 2012 he experienced a breakout.   In his most recent quarter, he earned $15,600, led by strong US sales at Barnes & Noble, followed by solid international growth at the Apple iBookstore.

Lallo has experimented with different ways to help readers discover his work, including following many of  the best practices we recommend at Smashwords. David Weir interviewed him recently to discover the journey that led to his success.

David Weir: Where do your stories come from? Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Joseph Lallo: I suppose my brain has been wired for storytelling from a very young age. When I was little, every year the family would go camping for a whole month in Vermont. We literally slept in a barn, so to get us to go to bed my Mom would tell us stories, which she generally made up as she went along. Sometimes she'd ask us to give her things she should include in the story.

When I got a little older I'd play video games on the old NES. One of them, Dragon Warrior, was popular enough with me and one of my friends that we would act out little adventures in the setting. That's where the seeds of what would be The Book of Deacon Trilogy were planted.

As for whether I've always wanted to be a writer? I didn't really aspire to it at first. Writing down the big, sprawling story that I'd started to knit together was more or less just something to do when I was bored at school. I didn't really expect it to go anywhere. In fact, after initially being open about writing the story, I started to feel ashamed that I'd been at it for so long and became very secretive about it. Even my brothers didn't know I'd never actually stopped writing.

DW: Can you take us through the evolution of The Book of Deacon, and how your friends helped you along the way?

Well, as I said, it started as a sort of verbal fan fiction for a video game. Eventually we lost interest in the game and moved on to other things, but the ideas continued to kick around in my head. I'd daydream, ditching the parts that I thought were silly and adding things I thought would be cool. I was pretty good in school, so up until my late college years there wasn't really a lot of challenge in class. I carried around a spiral notebook and wrote down whatever happened next. It went on like that for years, and then I finally reached a conclusion of sorts. By this time, it filled something on the order of a dozen spiral notebooks and was probably half a million words. (I've still got those books, I took a picture not too long ago.)

After that, the handful of friends I'd let in on the secret that I was still writing a book became my sounding board. One guy in particular, Sean, was and is one of my best friends and lost quite a few hours of sleep thanks to me rambling about plot points while we were roommates in college. Once I'd finished writing the story down in longhand, they convinced me to type it. When it became clear that it was taking forever, they convinced me to learn to touch-type. Then came the proofreading, and the rigid assurance that it wasn't as terrible as I thought it was. Most importantly, though, they were the ones who said, break it up into three chunks. I wrote up a query letter and sent it to a few dozen literary agents. About half of them came back as rejections, mostly form letters, and the rest never even got replies. I was willing to call it a failure, but my friends prodded me into trying out self-publishing. 

DW: How did you discover the independent, self-publishing model?

JL: I think it was my friend Cary who linked me to Amazon's self-publishing platform, what is now KDP. The Kindle had taken root by then, so I knew I wanted to be on there, but I always knew that it was a bad idea to put all of your eggs in one basket. I wanted to see if there was an easy way to get on a lot of different platforms, and a quick search turned up some forums that recommended Smashwords to handle the non-Amazon stuff. Smashwords has probably been the most help in both improving my business and literary skill, since their more stringent formatting requirements and the transparency on the business side really taught me a lot. 

DW: As with most successful authors, your sales started off slow but then ramped over time.  Tell us what that period was like and the steps you took to improve sales?

JL: I think in the first year (2010) I made $15, and I immediately reinvested $10 for a premium ISBN... I'm still not sure why I did that. I started my book at $9.99 and sold one copy. Somehow I got it into my head that the lack of interest was due to the fact that it was 150,000 words, so I whipped up a shorter story, Jade, and put that out. Still nothing. Around the time I released the second book in the trilogy, I dropped Book 1 to $4.99, then $2.99. Nothing seemed to make much of a difference, but I'd already written written a whole trilogy, so I figured I'd at least stick with it until the third book was published. I sent out requests for blogs to do reviews, and even got accepted to one or two, one of which hasn't gotten around to reviewing my first book yet. That first year and a half wasn't exactly a confidence builder.
DW: You've said there were two key changes you made that turned things around -- what were they?

JL: The first one, and probably the most important one, was actually inspired by an article I read here on the Smashwords blog. In a writeup about fellow indie author Brian S. Pratt (click here to read the Brian S. Pratt interview), it was established that he'd had a breakthrough when he made the first book of his series free. I figured, hey, I have a series, and I'm already making no money on the first one. After The Great Convergence, the second book in the trilogy came out, I made The Book of Deacon free. Slowly people started to try it out, and the sequel started get some nibbles, too. Once I started to see positive reviews, I hurried up and got the final book in the trilogy out. Then, on May 17th 2011, after refusing to make my book free for a few weeks, Amazon finally price-matched it to zero. It got picked up on some free book blogs, and things exploded. I think 18,000 people downloaded it that first month, and weirdly, sales spiked on the other platforms at the same time. I guess Nook users read the Kindle lists too.

The sales bonanza didn't last long, but by the time it had calmed down to a slow boil it earned me just shy of $3,000. I decided that I might as well spend that money back on the books, since the money was essentially a windfall. I tracked down an artist, Nick Deligaris, who had caught my eye with his magnificent fantasy art, and commissioned all new covers for the trilogy. I figured that would be the end of it, but within days of updating the covers my sales tripled. People do indeed judge a book by its cover, it seems. Sales have stayed pretty strong since, with the odd dip or spike to spice things up.

DW: It may surprise some readers who are not familiar with your work that the main character in your trilogy is female -- Myranda Celeste -- was that a conscious choice on your part?

Yes and no. Way back when I was first toying with story ideas, I'd come up with this phenomenally cliche story about five descendants of great warriors, four of whom were male. Eventually, I realized it was silly to write about descendants without at least thinking up who it was that they descended from, so I spent some time thinking about that. Since the descendants were mostly male, I decided the ancestors should be mostly female. Myranda was the most interesting, so she became the star, and since I was older and wiser when I dreamed her story up, I decided it was the better choice to start writing. I wish I had a grand, artistic reason for you, but mostly I did it to balance things out.

DW: What sense do you have of your audience and their demographics? Any surprises there?

I don't know of any way to get reliable data like that on actual sales, but when it comes to feedback from readers (and the distribution of likes on the Facebook Fan Page), my fans are overwhelmingly female. I've heard from quite a few guys, but when it comes to emails and comments, women probably outnumber the men three-to-one. Not only that, but women of all ages; everyone from a preteen who sent me fan art to a woman in her seventies who was practically my pen pal for a while. It continues to amaze me that I could have found so strong a following with the opposite sex.

DW: How do you interact with readers, using social media?

JL: I try to make myself available to fans in any way they would like. I started with Twitter (@jrlallo), and quickly after my friend Sean set me up with a dedicated web page,, and an email address. A reader suggested that I set up a Facebook Fan Page, so I did that, and I've tried to get an author account on all relevant sites, including Amazon, GoodReads, Shelfari, and others. Since then fans have inspired me to set up a fan art page, a forum, and a wiki, with varying levels of success. I still try to reply to every email, every tweet, and every comment on my site. I used to comment on customer reviews of my books, but I ended up having to cut down on that for a few reasons.

DW: Do you work with an editor, and if so, how did you find one?

Heh, one of the main reasons I had to quit commenting on my reviews was the psychologically torturous frequency of comments every six months, finding dozens of errors each time. My friends each read the books twice, finding dozens of errors. And fans continued to complain about hundreds of remaining errors despite the revisions. After the new covers, I decided I'd reinvest as much money from the books as I could, and it was clear that finding an editor was a priority. I did some searches for freelance editor who could be trusted. My searches led me to someone named Anna Genoese, who has been a pleasure to work with. I've also had some fans offer to edit for me, but I've noticed that interest starts decline once the enormity of the task becomes apparent. (For the most part, anyway. There's at least one fan who has stuck with it.)

DW: I understand you have a Bulgarian connection -- care to tell us about that?

Ah yes, the Bulgarian Deal. (Every time I say that my brother tells me it sounds like I'm in a Guy Ritchie movie.) Earlier this year, I got a letter from someone from a Bulgarian toy distributor, MBG Toys. He'd apparently read my story and really enjoyed it, and was interested in translation rights for a small publishing label that was associated, MBG Books. I did a lot of research, because my brain would not allow me to accept that such a request could be legit. No red flags popped up, so I decided to take a chance. I contacted a lawyer to get a translation rights contract made up, and took the plunge. Evidently it is almost ready for market. I've gotten some praise from the translator, and I've been sent a copy of the cover. Incidentally, it turns out my middle initial, R, translates to P in the Cyrillic alphabet. Wacky.

DW: And you also have some news about your sci-fi stories, is that right?

JL: Indeed I do. A few months ago I submitted the first of them to a website in development called The idea behind the site is that they would gather submissions from indie authors, choose the cream of the crop, and bundle them together. For a limited time, readers would be able to pick up the bundle for whatever price they choose. I'm proud to say I made it into the inaugural bundle, called The Big Bang Bundle. My book Bypass Gemini is in the main bundle, and if you pay enough, the sequel Unstable Prototypes is a bonus. The bundle is set to run from August 8th to August 28th, I believe.

DW: What is different about writing sci-fi from writing epic fantasy? Do you, as an author, have a preference?

Science Fiction and Fantasy are actually alike in a number of ways. In both cases you're building worlds, either by enhancing reality or inventing entirely new concepts. The main difference to me is that fantasy uses magic and sci-fi uses science, which for all intents and purposes is just magic with numbers to back it up. I once heard it put that Science Fiction is Fantasy but dignified and literary. My dip into sci-fi is more focused on spaceships, explosions, and exploding spaceships. That said, I can't really say that I prefer one over the other. Sci-fi is fun to write, and I've got an engineering background, so I'm pretty good at bluffing with technology. I'm sure my professors would be thrilled to know that I've been using my Master's Degree in Computer Engineering to add realism to a story in which a mad scientist shoots dog doo with a laser. I've had a lot of fun writing both fantasy and science fiction, though.

DW: Will you continue writing in both genres?

JL: I definitely plan to alternate. At the time I started writing the science fiction, the trilogy hadn't really gotten much interest, so I suppose there was a chance I would have stuck with sci-fi if it had caught on first, but now I've got a small legion of fantasy fans who would come after me with torches and pitchforks if I didn't give them a few more books in the Deacon series.

DW: Your current sci-fi series, which isn't named yet, consists of two books so far -- how many books do you envision in this series?

I didn't have an endpoint in mind for that one. The Book of Deacon was a trilogy because initially it was one massive book. (Note: As published the trilogy runs close to 450,000 words in length.) For the science fiction, I wanted to focus on books that were more self-contained. There's a little bit of a sequel hook at the end of each one but for the most part I wanted to avoid things like cliffhangers. For now, the sci-fi is open-ended, with at least two more books plotted out. 

DW: Now that you are gaining so much success, are you considering quitting your day job?

I'm not planning on quitting my job, but it is getting really hard to avoid thinking about it. At some point my brain went from saying, "I can't quit my job to" to saying, "I certainly can't quit my job before this project is done." For now, writing remains a very attractive and very enjoyable Plan B, which at the moment is out-earning Plan A by a fairly wide margin..

DW: What advice do you have for others who may wish to try and emulate your success as an independent author?

Be patient, listen to your fans, and be willing invest back into your books. It takes a tremendous amount of work and more than a little luck to get things rolling, but once it happens, it is absolutely worth the effort.

DW: Thank you Joseph!

Smashwords distributes Joseph Lallo to the following retailers:

Apple iBookstore
Barnes & Noble


John H. Carroll said...

Congrats on the article, Joseph! That's awesome. I'm glad to see your success. Your books are excellent and you deserve it.

Charles E. Wells said...

Another great interview David.. and congrats to Joseph for riding out the early storms. About two weeks ago Mark Coker told me the same thing.. to lower the first book in a series to FREE. Last night I was checking ratings and at Sony I found my free first book (of 9) running at number 3 on the free list from there. My downloads from smashwords are now climbing as well so I'm very shocked this is actually working so far.

Good luck to you Joseph and keep on writing.. keep on trucking..

Charles Wells

Celtic Sprite said...

Great interview as usual Mark, and glad to notice that sci-fi novels are still kicking and alive...Regarding the FREE book marketing strategy... I do agree that FREE books upgrade the level of downloads (my work The Celtic Harp tripled my usual rate), but even though I also spread the word in other social media like Blogger, Facebook, Pinterest, and so on, current sales of my other books never rised up!... Maybe strife and perseverance is the rule...

Joseph Lallo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joseph Lallo said...

Thanks, everyone! I'm proud to have been selected for the interview, and I sincerely hope that some of the things that worked for me will work for you as well!

Lani Wendt Young said...

An informative and insightful interview. Thank you JOseph for sharing your writing and publishing journey - and congratulations on your success thus far! I recognized the name of yr book because my 14 yr old daughter got it as a free download and LOVED it ( and pestered me to get the next book...) I havent read it but wanted to let you know that you have a 14 yr old female reader in Samoa who is always looking for books with strong kick-butt female heroines and she highly recommends your book.

D. L. Mackenzie said...

Thanks, David and Joseph!

Outstanding advice which I am taking to heart. After twelve years of tinkering with my stories, Smashwords to rescue!

James M M Baldwin said...

Shoot for the stars. Keep it up Joseph.

Unknown said...

Great article with advice I've already put to use. Thanks so much and continued success to you both!

Unknown said...

Inspirational Joseph, truly so. Thanks for your honesty, times are tough for the indie author and articles like this really help. Keep up the good work.


Marjorie F. Baldwin said...

Great interview Joe! As a classic SciFi writer and fellow engineer, I had to LOL at your remarks about Science Fiction and Fantasy being, essentially, the same. (I think John W. Campbell just rolled over in his grave a little, too) but I think you know they're different given your "alternating" remark.

It's amazing how many people start at a snail's crawl and then just break out. I wish I could write faster because it seems like the 3-5 title mark is the break (out) point. Knowing the "make the first one free" rule, I even churned out a short story/novella just to have a second title (even though it's a prequel to my first novel). I've moved 1,000 copies of the free story in a month which has floored me but it wasn't selling the novel--until Amazon started "price-matching" my Smashwords price so it seems like it's discounted 22% on Amazon. I think people just like getting a good deal--free or cheap, so long as it's a "deal."

Thank you so much for sharing your journey. It was really interesting to read. I had one question but asked it over on Twitter, my second home :)


thedragonchild said...

Interesting. Maybe I should unpublish all of my short stories and focus on the collections? I've been trying really hard to promote this one dragon book. His story is truly inspiring, but does it work for an author with just one book to focus on?

Elijo said...

Inspiring stuff. well done Joseph!