10 Questions with L.J. Sellers, bestselling author of provocative mysteries and thrillers
1. What was your inspiration for Detective Jackson?
Jackson is a composite of the first two detectives I interviewed, with a little of my husband plus some imagination thrown in. It’s easy for police officers to become bitter and cynical, but the good ones fight against it. I purposefully didn’t want Jackson to be the typical cop that you see in so much crime fiction: alcoholic, bitter, lonely, and dysfunctional. So I wrote about a stable, good-hearted family man who struggles with all the same things we do: divorce, financial troubles, and family issues. Readers have responded very well to the character, and I get emails every day from people who urge me to write faster so they can get their next dose of Jackson.
2. Are there any dangers or tricks to setting your stories in a real place?
I try to keep my stories as realistic as possible and include real places, but the danger is that those establishments might be unhappy if they think they’re not portrayed fairly. So with any place or situation that has a negative connotation, such as a connection to a crime, I use a fictional representative. I also consider the establishment itself and whether it’s likely to sue me just for using its name, then I err on the side of caution.
3. Dying for Justice is your highest rated book, at #2 on Kindle’s police procedural list. What was your motivation for writing it?
This story sprang from an interesting combination of driving factors. My first goal was to write another story that my loyal readers would love. Although Dying for Justice is the fifth book in the Detective Jackson series, it also features Detective Lara Evans, one of Jackson’s taskforce members. At the time I conceptualized the story, I was considering giving up the Jackson series, which was failing because of my small publisher. I thought I would start a new series, with Evans as the main protagonist and Jackson as a sidekick, so I could pitch it to new publishers and keep my readers happy too. Then everything changed, and I set the story aside to save my career. When I came back to it, I still liked the plot well enough to write it, but I beefed up Jackson’s role.
The motivation for the plot springs from suspects being coerced into false confessions. This issue keeps coming up in the news, and the idea of people spending years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit sickens me. This story is my way of processing and highlighting this issue.
4. As a reader, how would you describe your taste in crime fiction?
I love fast-paced, complex stories with realistic scenarios and vivid openings. I’m a busy person and I don’t have time to read 50 pages just “to get into it.” Which is why I didn’t read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and watched the movie instead. I’m also done with serial killer stories, no matter how creative the author is. I like novels with original premises. Two of the best crimes stories I’ve read in the last few years are Beat the Reaper, about an ex-hitman who becomes a doctor, and The Lock Artist, about a psychologically mute safecracker.
5. When did you realize that you had the talent to make it in this industry?
Many years ago, I sent a partial manuscript to Al Zuckerman, president of Writers House, who at the time was one of the top agents in the business. He called me personally to say that even though he couldn’t sell the story I’d sent him, that I had talent and he wanted to work with me on my next novel. That call changed everything, and I knew then that I could be successful if I stuck with it.
6. What has changed most for the indie author since you started out?
For me, literally, it’s sales and profit. I’m now making a good living as a novelist and I can write full time. I’m also getting more reviews than I used to, because I have a body of work with great Amazon reviews and sales. For everyone, what has changed most is writers’ attitudes. Many authors who would never have considered self-publishing a year ago are now “putting up their backlist” on Amazon, and they think it’s okay because those books were originally traditionally published. Once they see how easy and profitable it is, they start to realize self-publishing makes sense for their new books too. So authors are letting go of the idea that self-publishing has a stigma, or at least, they’re deciding that earning a profit is more important. I think it’s a healthy trend.
7. At what point do authors quit looking for a major or regional publisher?
A lot of writers are asking themselves that question right now. I hear from authors all the time and many are saying. “I’ll give the query process two more months, then I’m going to self-publish this as an e-book” or “I have this book out on submission, but if nothing happens, I’m going indie too.”
If your dream is to be published by a New York press, then there’s no harm in trying that route. But one of the main factors that led me to leave my publisher was the waiting time. In 2010, I had books completed and scheduled to be released in the summers of 2011, 2012, and 2013. I started thinking about how much money I could make on my own in the meantime if I published the e-books immediately. I decided not to wait. For me, life is too short to publish under someone else’s schedule. Especially considering how rapidly the publishing industry is changing and how many midsize publishers have already gone out of business.
8. Your Detective Jackson series is consistently a top-rated pick on Amazon, and you appear on lists of indie notables. How much energy to do you put into analyzing price points and sales trends? Have you found any one thing to be more helpful than others?
I’m not a numbers’ person, so I don’t go overboard in crunching price-versus-quantity calculations. I offer the first two books in my series at either $.99 or $1.99 and everything else at $2.99 or $3.99. I’ve tried putting all my books at $.99, but the bottom line is that you have to sell six times as many books at $.99 to make as much money as you do at $2.99, and it’s almost impossible. So I only keep one or two books as loss leaders.
When Kindle Select was new this year, I did several book giveaways that boosted all my sales, and they’ve stayed steady since. I have several co-promotions (excerpt exchanges) with authors in my genre that seem to help, and I’m visible and vocal online every day. Beyond that, I write articles for print magazines, run an occasional ad, and hope for the best.
9. Describe a day in your shoes. How do you balance writing, promotions and everything else you must do on a daily basis?
Truthfully, no two days are the same. Because I can be flexible, I respond to what feels most important to me at the time. And because I depend on my ebook sales to pay the bills, I’m driven to keep my sales at a certain level. But despite that, I still manage to keep writing novels. A typical day usually means some social networking and posting in the morning, then a workout, followed by blogging or website work. I start writing between nine and ten and I keep at it until I hit 2500 or five o’clock, whichever comes first. And I often go for a bike ride break in the afternoon. After dinner, I’m back to the computer to read and send emails, work on Q&As (like this one), and write book review queries or articles. But there are some days when emails, blogs, and website work have piled up, so I put the novel aside and get caught up. But I rarely take whole days off, even on weekends. And when I’m not working at my computer, I’m working in my yard or house projects. (Or having fun with my family members.) I like to keep busy.
10. How do you not go crazy, let alone write the next book?
You have to be a little crazy to start with to be a successful novelist! You also have to be driven and get used to feeling like you have more to do than you can possibly accomplish. Not everyone can live like that, but I thrive on it. Still, I have some days when I feel overwhelmed and I simply have to walk away from the to-do list for a few hours. Making to-do lists is essential for me. I have lists for the day, the week, and the month. I have lists for promotional ideas, lists of reviewers/websites to contact, and lists of blogs to write. It’s endless, but for me, it’s also a lot of fun.