How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months! by John Locke
Seeley James has wanted to be a writer since he was a kid. After a successful career in sales in marketing, he decided to make a drastic career change. Inspired by John Locke’s now-infamous How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months!, Seeley decided to go all in. He quit his job, wrote his first book in his Sabel Security series, invested in content editing, cover design, spent thousands of dollars getting everything right, and pressed “Publish” in November of 2012.
It used to be that traditional publishers, through their editors, developed authors back in the day of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Seeley notes. Eventually, that role got pushed back to the desks of literary agents in the ’80s and ’90s. However, as competition and the sheer number of submissions grew, agents focused their time and attention on authors who were already developed, experienced storytellers.
Seeley realized he needed someone to teach him, to help him develop as a storyteller. He knew he had to get better if he wanted to make it as an indie writer, so he set out to discover what makes a successful indie author. He read lots of books by popular indie authors, deconstructing them to figure out what made them good books. He also read as many books on writing as he could get his hands on. And he listened to a lot of The Creative Penn podcast.
After such intense study, Seeley has come to the conclusion that there are four elements that make a good book:
The concept of a book is what hooks a reader in. Seeley offers some great examples of high-concept books:
- What would it be like to be stuck on Mars? (The Martian by Andy Weir)
- Time travel, aliens, a great leap forward in mankind…with a love story. (The Atlantis Gene by A.G. Riddle)
- Jesus Christ had a daughter, and for 2,000 years the Catholic Church has been trying to kill her. (The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown)
- An 18-year-old girl offers her virginity to a vampire, and he turns her down. (Twilight by Stephenie Meyer)
- A bunch of people are trying to get out of a silo, but when they walk out the door, they die. (Wool by Hugh Howey)
The story, or the plot, of a book is the journey of the character. Story-centric books tend to be character-driven, Seeley says, and requires a strong storyteller to really bring the story to life. Mystery and romances tend to be more story-centric tales. He cites Sue Grafton, author of the bestselling Kinsey Millhone mystery series, as an excellent example of an author strong on story.
Composition is the way prose is constructed on the page, the nuts and bolts of sentence, paragraph, scene, and chapter structure. Seeley cites Lee Child as a great example of a storyteller with great composition and a compelling voice.
In one of the many books on writing he’s studied, Seeley mentions a quick tip that seems simple on its face, but makes a subtle and powerful difference on the reader:
Quick Tip: Start with a Subject and Verb.
Consider these examples given by Seeley:
Good: “Warriors massed outside her window before the prayer.”
Bad: “Before the prayer, warriors massed outside her window.”
Putting the subject and verb at the beginning of the sentence compels a reader to discover the why and the how. Starting with a descriptive phrase mutes the hook of the sentence.
4. The Beautiful Words
Literary novels tend to favor the beautiful words, the kind with language so scrumptious you can drink it all up in enjoyment even in the absence of a high-concept compelling plot. Books that favor the beautiful words tend to be more literary, more inward, and focus more on interpersonal conflicts.
Great examples of writers who write the beautiful words are Margaret Atwood (The Handmaiden’s Tale), Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner), Dean Koontz (Odd Thomas series), and Robert Galbraith aka J.K. Rowling (Cormoran Strike series).
The Next Big Thing
Now a seasoned, full-time author, Seeley is currently at work on the fifth book of his Sabel Security political thriller series tentatively titled Death and the Candidate, and continues to work hard on becoming a better storyteller.
“That’s why you have to keep learning. There’s something new every day that will get you past the sticking point. There’s something that you can improve your storytelling. To me, it’s all about the reader. Everything is about the reader. If I can make more people happy and entertain more people tomorrow than I did yesterday, then I’m going somewhere. And that’s what I’m trying to get to.”
“My characters are galley slaves.” ~ Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita
“Writing is a solitary vision. Take no advice.” ~ Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher series
“When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut, author of Slaughterhouse-Five
Action Steps to Improve Your Storytelling:
- Read great/successful indie and traditional authors. A good place to start is with the authors cited by Seeley.
- Watch great television shows. Seeley recommends House of Cards, Game of Thrones, and the very binge-worthy Orphan Black.
- Read great books on writing: Story by Robert McKee; The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell; The Writer’s Journey (Mythic Structure for Writers) by Christopher Vogler; Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain; Description (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Monica Wood; and Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder, to name a few of Seeley’s favorites.
- Identify your strengths and weaknesses in Concept, Story, Composition, and The Beautiful Words. This will help you be aware of areas you should focus on, both in getting better and in accentuating. Seeley realized that most of the successful authors in his genre wrote singularly-focused books, whereas his own style was more meandering and less-streamlined. He decided he could get a lot better at the kind of books he writes instead of trying to emulate other authors’ styles.
What are your favorite examples of great novels, films, television shows, and books on writing that you recommend to fellow writers?
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