Ethan Jones is the bestselling author of more than 20 books, including the best-selling Justin Hall Spy Thriller Series.
Ethan always wanted to be a writer. He started writing novels seriously in 2008, but ever since he was a kid, Ethan would watch TV shows and movies and imagine future adventures for the heroes he loved.
He doesn’t have a favorite spy movie, although Salt, The Bourne Identity, and the James Bond films rank fairly high with him.
In 2008, he began carving out extra time to schedule to write his own stories. He always loved TV shows and movies that had to do with spies, so he figured that writing spy thrillers would be right up his alley. It turns out his audience agrees with him.
In this episode, we talked about Ethan’s author journey, his writing process, and the importance of treating your writing like a business. We also talked about Ethan’s marketing strategies, his daily routine, and some mistakes Ethan made early in his career you can learn from. This was a fast-paced interview jam-packed with information.
Ethan’s Turning Point
Ethan decided to write his first novel after he read a spy novel that wasn’t very good. He thought for sure that he could write something at least as good as the book he’d just finished reading. That was the beginning of his writing adventure.
It took Ethan one year to write his first book. The first book is always the hardest to finish.
He wanted to write something a little different than the standard spy story. So the story takes place in Canada and his hero is a member of the Canadian special forces. Usually in spy fiction, the hero is a member of some sort of US government agency, whether that be the CIA or FBI or another alphabet soup agency.
How Ethan Developed His Writing Process
Ethan developed his writing process by writing books. He wrote his first book completely by the seat of his pants. There were one or two places where he wrote himself into a corner, and he had to spend a few days figuring out how the story was going to work out.
These days, Ethan has an idea of where the story is going to end. He doesn’t have a detailed outline, but he has some idea of what the major plot points are and roughly where they occur. He’s not so tied to his outline that he won’t let the story change as he writes it. He allows his characters the flexibility to discover the story as they’re living through it.
Having an ending firmly in mind has been helpful for Ethan when writing his books, even if the ending might change as he produces the manuscript.
Why Pantsing Works for Ethan
Ethan tried to plot a couple of his novels in detail. He found it was difficult for him to force the story on to the path he wanted it to take. It broke his creative flow.
Ethan is much more productive with a loose idea of where the story is going and the flexibility to allow his characters to react naturally.
Most of his stories are about spying and spycraft. So his characters have a lot of trust issues, and it’s very easy for him to manipulate the mood of a character to make them more suspicious, then gently nudge the story where he wants it to go. Writing mostly by the seat of his pants just works best for Ethan.
How Ethan Comes up with His Story Ideas
To develop his stories, Ethan does a lot of research. He pays attention to international news, and specifically news about the region where he’s going to set his next book.
Recently, Ethan decided to write a book where ISIS featured prominently. He watched a lot of documentaries by journalists about the group. For Ethan, research is essential in coming up with his ideas and making sure his book seems like something that might actually happen.
Write in a Genre You’re Passionate about
Some time ago, Ethan tried his hand at romantic suspense. There was less research involved, but his heart wasn’t really in it. Those books took much longer to write because he wasn’t as passionate about the genre.
“Writing good spy thrillers does involve a lot of research, but when you’re doing something you really enjoy, it doesn’t sound like work.”
– Ethan Jones
Ethan’s Publishing Journey
Ethan wrote Arctic Wargame: A Justin Hall Spy Thriller back in 2008. At first, he tried to get a traditional publishing deal. Self-publishing wasn’t as popular back then as it is now, and a traditional publishing deal seemed like the way to go.
In Canada, the book market is smaller, so you don’t necessarily need an agent to have your book traditionally published. Ethan tried submitting his book to agents and publishers. Some of the people he submitted to requested a partial manuscript, and he got good feedback from them, but he couldn’t secure a book deal.
In 2011, a friend suggested that he self-publish his manuscript.
Before diving in, he took some time figuring out how self-publishing works. He was able to publish the first book in the Justin Hall Spy Series in 2012, shortly after finishing the manuscript for the second book in the series.
He published the second and third books in 2014 and hasn’t slowed down since.
Back in 2012, you didn’t need to do a lot to promote a self-published book. Just the fact that was in the marketplace at a price lower than traditionally published books was enough for you to make a few hundred dollars a month, as long as the story was decent.
The market was less crowded in 2012, and it was a lot easier to make money as a new author in the marketplace.
Today, it takes more work—and more books. Ethan has three series out right now, and he plans to add another series in March 2018.
Lessons Ethan Has Learned about Writing and Publishing in the Last 10 Years
- Things change in the self-publishing marketplace quickly. Things are often different just month to month! It’s important to adapt to changes as they occur. Don’t expect things to stay the same.
- Ethan suggests that all indie authors should consider wide distribution.
- There’s value in not having all your eggs in one basket, or all your books in one distribution system.
- Having your books available at different bookstores creates multiple income streams. That way, if one website’s sales slow down for you, the other booksellers might be able to pick up the slack.
- Ethan tried Kindle Unlimited as recently as early 2017, and his books didn’t stick in Amazon’s ecosystem. He’s had much better luck going wide.
- He’s done particularly well with his books in Kobo. Kobo also gives you opportunities to promote your work.
- Think about physical products. Sony televisions are available in a number of different stores and chains. They aren’t exclusive to Wal-Mart or any other chain of stores.
- Don’t be afraid to experiment, but always focus on collecting data that gives you information going forward.
Ethan’s Strategy for Launching a New Book
Ethan didn’t do any active promoting of his books until early 2017. His promotional strategy for his early books was to:
- Tell his mailing list that a new book was available.
- Be active on social media. Write Facebook posts and tweet about the fact that a new book is available.
- Write a blog post on his website announcing that a new book was available.
Ethan’s Paid Promotion Strategy, Starting Early 2017
Ethan has been experimenting with Amazon marketing ads since early 2017. He’s also been experimenting with boosting his Facebook posts.
Ethan’s Free Promotion Strategy Starting Early 2017
On the free side of things, Ethan has been building his network of authors in his genre and cross-promoting with them.
The authors Ethan has teamed up with tell their mailing lists when he has a new book out. He returns the favor when they have a new book out, or when they have a deal going on.
“Cross-promoting with authors in your genre is the best marketing you can do, because that audience is already hot for books like yours. Also, you’re not an unknown person to them, because you’re coming with a recommendation from the author that is writing to them.”
– Ethan Jones
Depending on how involved the author recommending you wants to get, they can say they read the book and enjoyed it and their subscribers might enjoy it as well, or they can simply say that you have a new book out and it looks good.
It’s very important to be honest and aboveboard with your email list at all times. You shouldn’t lie to your readers to drive up book sales. You might get some short-term benefit, but it will cause you headaches in the long run.
Cross-promoting with other authors is kind of like dating. Working with some authors might get you a lot of book sales. Working with other authors might not get you many sales at all. You’ll never know which partnerships will work best for you until you dive in and give it a try.
It’s best to network with authors who write in your genre, because they have readers on their list who will probably like the books you’re writing.
Ethan’s Daily Routine
Ethan has a full-time job and has to carve out writing time wherever he can. He takes the bus to work every day, and that commute takes about an hour. He writes every morning as he commutes to work. There are times when he wishes the bus would take longer because he has to stop at a point where things are going really well for him.
Sometimes Ethan wakes up earlier in the morning to do his writing. He has to get on the bus at 7 a.m., so he’ll get up at 4 or 5 a.m. to start his writing day.
“I used to think writing was only to be done when you could have four or five uninterrupted hours on a Saturday. But realistically, that’s difficult to do when you have a family and other obligations. So even if I can spend 15 minutes and write it’s possible to get 100 words down in that period of time. So even if you only spend 15 minutes a day, by the end of the month, if you’re consistent you can get a few pages down for sure.”
– Ethan Jones
Mistakes You Can Learn From
Ethan has made many mistakes in his author journey. Here are some of the bigger ones:
- Ethan’s biggest mistake was not having a mailing list from the beginning.
- Ethan wrote his books without a mailing list for three years. Without a mailing list, Ethan could only communicate with readers who sought him out; he had no way to follow up with his audience.
- You should have an autoresponder, a mailing sequence for your readers, and a call to action to join your email list at the front or back of your book.
- It’s important that you adopt a business mindset when it comes to publishing your work.
- Ethan had to learn more about how a business is run, how promotions work, and how to market his books.
- Business skills don’t come naturally to many authors, but they’re important if you want to be successful.
- In the beginning, Ethan priced his books too high.
- He also wishes he had begun networking sooner.
It’s also important to improve your writing craft. It can be harder to see your writing mistakes than your business mistakes. When you’ve read over your manuscript a few times, you can get to the point where you’re tired of rereading it.
It can be much easier to see your business mistakes when you do a promotion for your books and they don’t sell very well.
Of course, if your book isn’t good, or it doesn’t have good packaging, that can certainly affect your sales. But you absolutely must have:
- A good story
- A good cover
- A good, succinct description
- An opening that grabs your readers. Readers can usually see about the first 10% of your story for free in the different online bookstores. You want to make that beginning as good as you can to draw readers in.
A promotion that brings more traffic to your product page should lead to more sales. Also remember that some promotional websites give you a better return on your investment than others.
Ethan Reflects on his Author Journey
Ethan tried to get his first book published through a traditional publisher. As with all authors, his first book was his weakest in terms of craft. He also wrote the book to be a standalone story, something he doesn’t recommend for today’s authors wanting to make a living. Series sell better because each new book is an advertisement for all the other books in the series.
He wants to improve his writing style, particularly focusing on some weak areas readers have pointed out in the past.
You don’t have to put all of your research into the book you’re writing. Nobody likes a show-off. If the detail of your research doesn’t add to your story, leave it out. You should only add details about setting if they’re unique to the place you’re talking about, or if they add to the story.
If you’re talking about a beach or a gun, you don’t need to describe every minute detail. Even if your readers haven’t been to the beach you’re talking about, most of your readers have been to a beach. Don’t get bogged down in details that don’t advance your story.
Links and Resources Mentioned in This Interview
Ethan Jones Books – Ethan’s website where you can join his mailing list and get a free short story. He wrote the short story recently and it’s one of his better works.
The Justin Hall Spy Thriller Series – Ethan’s first series. It’s about a spy in the Canadian Special Forces.