from the 2012 mag 7 interview event
I want to also thank you for taking the time to answer some questions along with the others! Before we jump into the fray, can you give us some background on who you are and how you got started writing?
Sure. I'm a Minnesota native and have practiced law in the city of Red Wing, Minnesota for more than 25 years. I'm also an avid volleyball fan and certified volleyball coach. I mention the volleyball because it was my involvement in coaching that led to my first published writings -- a series of three articles in Coaching Volleyball Magazine. Following the penning of the cover story for the April/May, 2009 issue (http://www.virtualonlinepubs.com/publication/?i=13938) I decided I could expand my writing a bit. Later that year, I released my first book: The Little Black Book of Volleyball Coaching.
From there I had caught the writing bug and moved ahead with the first two books in the Beck Suspense/Thriller series. That was late summer, 2009, and I haven't looked back since.
So your first three books were all published the same year? How did you find the time to write so much?
First of all, if you wait to find time to write, you probably will be waiting a long time. You need to make time if you want to write.
Perhaps more applicable to my situation, though, is that fact that I was working on both of the two Beck Suspense/Thrillers at the same time. Since The 19th Element was my first novel ever, it needed a lot of rewriting and editing before it was ready to be published. I started writing that book in late summer, 2009 and published it in June, 2010.
While I was hacking away at the first book, I decided to give myself a break from editing by working on Book 2, The Missing Element. I actually published Book 2 before Book 1, because the editing of Book 2 was less arduous and the book was ready for publication sooner.
The third book with a 2010 copyright, A Higher Court, had been percolating in my head for a long time before I started writing it in summer, 2010. I know many folks probably think it's odd that after publishing two books in the Beck series I suddenly spit out a spiritual "thinker." But to be honest, A Higher Court was a book I felt compelled to write at that time. So I wrote it.
I know it looks like a lot of books in 2010, but in reality, it was only one book every six months or so. That's not an undoable schedule if one writes daily.
Currently, A Higher Court is ranked #1 in both paid religious fiction and spirituality for Kindle (124 overall!). That's pretty amazing, and as one with a theology degree, I'm fascinated. Crossing over into the other interviews making up this event, Larry Enright has said that since he was just 7 years old, he has been in "a constant struggle within myself over moral and existential issues" and that the inner struggle began bubbling over into writing. I, myself, tend to use storytelling as a way to "settle" some internal debate within. It sounds like A Higher Court was one of those brewing stories aching to be hashed out and set before the world. How fulfilling was it to finally have it all out on paper and available to the masses?
I'm not sure "fulfilling" is the best word for finishing and publishing A Higher Court. Relieved. Satisfied. Hopeful. A sense of accomplishment. Those are certainly some things I felt. But honestly, I'm still not sure if A Higher Court is a book that I was supposed to write because of my need to write it, or because it might benefit others to read it. I'm leaving that decision up to the Guy who told me to write it in the first place. I have confidence that it will get to all the right people -- whoever they may be.
Until a few minutes ago, I didn't know that it was written as a story, I thought it was a non-fiction work. Did you ever have any thoughts of publishing it under a pseudonym? What if it had been non-fiction? I only ask because I have something in my head and heart that's been trying to get written for a few years now, but it would be non-fiction and aimed at a completely different audience than who I write fiction for.
You know, A Higher Court is ranked by Amazon in both nonfiction and fiction categories (including both religious and literary fiction). All are probably accurate. The book is filled with tons of facts. But the construct is a fictional trial. The style is literary. So technically, it's literary and spiritual fiction.
I did actually consider writing A Higher Court under a pseudonym. Doing so might have allowed readers to peg my writing genre more clearly. On the other hand, I didn't think that I needed to hide my spiritual beliefs. So I pubbed under my real name.
As far as writing the book as nonfiction goes . . . I didn't believe I had the theological credentials for anyone to take me seriously as a non-fiction authority on spirituality. Besides, my fiction experience helped me bring a richer texture to the book's message. You'll have to read it to truly know what I mean. Sorry.
You are also correct that the audience for A Higher Court is different from the one for my suspense/thriller novels. I'm doing my best to promote to Christian and Spirituality readers. But because the book is so different from everything else out there, Christian and Spiritual sites can't seem to figure out where it fits -- where to put it on their virtual bookshelves.
Looking back, I wouldn't change how I went about writing or publishing this book. I am finding, however, that I have to rely on my faith for marketing success. And as I mentioned earlier in this interview, I believe this book will get where it is supposed to go.
What has the response been like for A Higher Court?
When I first released A Higher Court, reactions from the public were mixed. Some readers loved the book, couldn't wait to tell their friends, and bought multiple copies to give as gifts. One reader bought twenty copies as Christmas gifts. Another bought ten copies in each of two successive purchases to give to people at his church.
Critics loved the book! But online readers didn't seem to notice it. This is probably due to the novel's subject matter and its unique approach to the God vs. No God argument. Folks just couldn't imagine what lay inside the pages of this unusual book.
A few days ago, I launched a free book promo through Amazon KDP Select. I gave away more than 14,000 Kindle copies and have sold several hundred since the promo began. If these readers follow the patterns of early readers of the print book, some will buy (or recommend) multiple copies of the book for friends. Others won't even read it. I can't wait to find out. In a way, the book is something like The Shack. It doesn't have at all the same message; but its message is unique, and intensely interesting to some readers.
The first review I have seen resulting from the free book promo was a 5 Star offering that was really quite insightful and described the book quite well. I guess I'll watch and see what happens from here.
Tell us a little about the Becker series, what inspired that?
There are two unrelated sources that combined to launch the Becker series.
First of all, the plot. In my home town, we have a nuclear power plant that has been with us since 1976. When one is a new novelist hoping to write a suspense/thriller, and lives in close proximity to a source of potential nuclear disaster, it is virtually impossible to avoid writing one's first book about a terrorist attack on that plant.
So the first book - The 19th Element - deals with a homegrown U.S. terror cell and its well-planned attempt to cause an explosive release of radiation at the nuclear power plant. Is their plan a realistic danger to nuclear power plants you wonder? In fact, nuclear insiders tell me that the plan is plausible, but unlikely. (I'm not comforted by that statement.)
Sadly realities of the tsunami at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Power Station in 2011 confirm that my terrorists' approach is, indeed, plausible. One reader living in Japan bought The 19th Element about a month after the meltdown began. He described reading the book while living the experience as "surreal."
The characters, I virtually stole from the late author Robert B. Parker. I had read a couple dozen of his Spenser Detective Mysteries shortly before staring to write my book. I loved the way they dealt with serious subject matter, but still managed to have intelligence and a sense of humor while they worked. Of course, my characters are playing out thrillers, while Parker's were solving mysteries. But if you watch closely as you read my Becker series you will see similarities between: Beck and Spenser; Beth and Susan; Gunner and the Boston Police Department; and Bull and Hawk.
Now don't be too literal, because my folks have different backgrounds and talents than Parker's characters. But his influence on my cast is clear.
After Book 1, the characters became part of my writing world. So they are here to stay.
If the Becker series was made into a movie and you had say in who played Becker, who would you try to get?
I've already thought about this one -- Mark Wahlberg. I think he could pull off Beck's sense of humor and respect for Beth, while still projecting a potent Delta Force-type persona.
I'll have to keep that in mind as I read Covert. By the way, after I started reading Covert, I realized that your novel is based in the same pool as Russell Blake's The King of Swords. You may be interested in what he has to say about the drug war. Anyway, both books open with a cartel being taken out by a force parachuting down on them:)
What are you working on now?
My next novel remains as yet untitled, but it will be Book Four in the Becker suspense/thriller series. Beth will feature prominently in the action. A fair amount of the plot will take place in and around Cairo. There will be stolen American military designs . . . the plans for the allegedly nonexistent "Aurora" hypersonic spy jet . . . which an initially undetermined Middle Eastern "presence" will attempt to bring to reality to further de-stabilize the region.
Readers will learn how U.S high technology and ancient Egyptian construction secrets can combine to form an action-packed, culture-rich storyline. There'll be spy stuff, too. And of course, the Minnesota connection and Beck's ex-special ops background, will play significant roles. But don't forget Bull. He'll be there, bringing his imposing stature to the role of the eminently able co-hero.
That's all I'm sharing for the moment. I'm excited to get it written. I expect to publish this book in the first half of 2012.
That sounds like a pretty wild plot and a fun read! How has the writing been going? It sounds like a lot of research. Do you enjoy that aspect of storytelling?
Research is my absolute favorite part of the fiction journey. I love encouraging people with interesting life experiences and unusual technological expertise to share those things with me. Usually, they are more than willing to offer viewpoints. They'd like the rest of the world to understand what their life is like, or what challenges they face.
Then my job is to share the knowledge I've accumulated with my readers in an entertaining way that reveals something important about their world that they had never thought about (or hadn't thought seriously about) before.
I notice that your prices are on the higher end of most indie authors. Can you explain your pricing philosophy? The pros and cons of a 6.99 eBook and a .99 cent eBook?
Well . . . you don't ask any hard questions, do you? Pricing of ebooks is as hotly debated as presidential politics.
When I published my first novels in 2010, I set my books prices at $8.99. I chose that price because it was a buck or so less than "name brand" authors. I was satisfied with the results of that pricing until spring of 2011. At that time I could see my sales suffering, and I suspected price was at least part of the problem. So I experimented. I tried 99 cents, $2.99, and $4.99 for various books for relatively short periods. Sales did not increase enough to justify reducing my price.
I finally decided I'd go to $6.99, hoping for a reasonable return on book sales royalties, while still reaching my market. That price point worked as well as any for me . . . and has been phenomenally successful lately.
Why does $6.99 work for me? I'm not sure. Readers may perceive more value in a book with a higher price tag? Authors who successfully, and profitably, sell their books at 99 cents would likely disagree with my pricing approach. And they probably have good reasons for their opinions as well.
To be honest, I don't think authors will be reasonably compensated for their work at a 99 cent price point. So I have a philosophical aversion to racing to the bottom of the price list. I do believe 99 cent pricing and even free books have their place in promotions, etc. I just don't see it as a sustainable price that authors want our readers to expect.
Yeah, I started out at 2.99 and then went to .99 just hoping to build an audience. But eventually sales died. So I tried 2.99 again and nothing happened. So I went back to .99 and moved a few... But ever since I had my Select promo for The Solomon Key, my sales (though light years away from yours) have picked up at 2.99. I set Progeny to 3.99 and that's been moving a little, too. My original logic was: who wouldn't give a book a chance for .99? But then it became clear that there were so many .99 books to choose from, why would they choose mine? I figure that most .99 books end up in the back of the Kindle and will forever take back seat to the higher priced books people have bought. Sure, it may help sales ranking, but outside of promotional use, I can't see .99 books being read all that much. If someone is going to spend 6.99 on a book, they're going to read it. At least that's what I'm thinking now.
Anyway (sorry), how long do you go with a method or strategy before you abandon it for another idea?
I try to evaluate results of various strategies on a case by case basis. There is no set time frame. Although KDP Select Free Book Promos are working very well right now, I have no confidence that the same will be true a month from now. I'll be monitoring the experiences of other writers.
If anyone wants to do a KDP Select Free Promo, I recommend they do it sooner rather than later.
Other than the Select days, what have you found works the best in terms of selling your books? Anything that you rely on more than anything else?
I'd have to say social media in general, and Twitter & FaceBook in particular, have been my best marketing friends. But then, that's where I spend most of my marketing efforts. The old fisherman will tell you that if you fish with the same bait all the time, that's what the fish will be biting on. So I can't say there's not a better approach out there.
I use Twitter mainly to support other authors with retweets. But the comparatively few tweets I do post on my own behalf seem to get picked up and RT'd quite well.
My first year or so as an author, I blogged quite a bit about my experiences. I don't know whether blogging got me any sales; but that wasn't the blog's purpose anyway. Everything I learned during that time is still available and online at selfpublishingcentral.blogspot.com. Check it out. It will save you making some of the same mistakes I did.
Keep watching what others are doing and see if their successful approaches can be adapted to your own marketing strategy. Publishing is still an industry in upheaval. Look for new ideas every day.
As an indie author, do you hope to one day write full time, making all you need from your books, or is that something akin to winning the lottery, getting a-hole-in-one, bowling a perfect game, and falling in love at first sight all in the same day?
I aspire each day to try my best to do what God has planned for me to do that day. Right now, He seems to want me to be writing. So I'm devoting my efforts in that direction. I'm not sure what the future holds.
As far as your question about making a living goes . . . I'm not worried about making my living from writing, per se. I believe that if I do what I described in the prior paragraph, my living will come from somewhere. I don't really choose or care where the living comes from, or in what form I receive it. It's all from the same God in the end.
Because of these beliefs, I am certain that any author who writes because s/he does so in response to God's calling WILL BE as successful as they need to be. So it's not at all like winning the lottery, getting a hole in one, bowling a perfect game, and falling in love at first sight all in the same day. It's like writing because you're supposed to write, and living off whatever is provided.
Does that make sense to anyone? Oh well . . . it does to me.
Someone once told me that, even if God wanted me to win the lottery, at least I had to buy a ticket. I replied that if God really DID want me to win the lottery, I would FIND the winning ticket on the sidewalk. :)
So I'm going to put you in what may be an uncomfortable position since you probably can't say exactly how you feel, but... I was reading through the Amazon reviews for A Higher Court today and it has gotten great reviews, averaging almost the whole five stars. But then there were a couple that really spit some animosity in your face, one reviewer saying it was the worst book he's ever read. Now, it was quite obvious as to why they didn't like the book. They simply hate the idea of God and so hate reading about stuff dealing with the subject, all the while accusing you of having intolerant views... Anyway, what do you do with those types of reviews and what counsel would you offer other authors who experience similar ignorance from a reader?
If you plan to be an author, you should expect to receive negative, even hateful, reviews and comments. It's practically unavoidable. If you don't believe me, look up the 1 Star reviews for some of your favorite books. Getting negative reviews can actually be a sign that someone notices you.
In the case of A HIGHER COURT, I knew going in that this was not a book for every reader. I also knew that people who weren't willing to examine the book's questions with an open mind would get irritated, because about half the arguments are pro-God and half are anti-God.
How do I deal with negative reviews? Unless they have something helpful to say, I try my best to ignore them. Simple as that.
What is the best review you've ever gotten... or the one that meant the most to you?
I can never find a single answer to questions that ask for the best, the most, or the highest. All I can do is offer some of my favorite reviews. These are reviews of three different books: A Higher Court; The 19th Element, and The Covert Element. Each is special to me for different reasons. If you have space to reprint them here, you'll see why.
5.0 out of 5 stars An Age-old Battle Shared in a Fascinating New Way!, January 7, 2011 By Cheryl C. Malandrinos "johnnycat15" (Western Mass)
This review is from: A Higher Court: One Man's Search for the Truth of God's Existence (Paperback)
William Kensey is a well-respected and successful trial attorney. When his father is accidentally killed by a woman driving an SUV, William is concerned by his lack of emotion over his father's passing. A regular church-goer, he has been learning about God and heaven since he was a child, but the "memorized dogma" left him feeling skeptical. Did he believe in God? He just wasn't sure.
He receives a summons for jury duty for a week from that coming Monday. Little does William know that he's one of several people selected to serve during a special trial to prove, or disprove, the existence of God.
John L. Betcher, author of The Missing Element, The 19th Element, and the Little Black Book of Volleyball Coaching, has written an amazing novel unlike anything I've ever read before.
A character with a crisis of faith is nothing new in the world of fiction, but having that character, along with a diverse group of others, sitting on a jury panel where the very existence of God is being tried...now, that's original.
From the moment I opened this book, I was hooked. The reader can't help but sympathize with William Kensey's plight. He's lost his father, but he's distracted by his lack of emotion over the incident. Suddenly, he's not sure what he believes anymore, but it's not because he's angry with God over what happened. He's just not sure God is really there--in fact, he's never really been sure.
The trial is one unlike Kensey has ever been part of before. The proceedings are unusual, the jury selection process is highly irregular, and despite being in a room with many others, Kensey is only able to see and interact with a select few.
Betcher did a fine job in creating a cast of characters, whether they be jurors, the judge, the witnesses, or the attorneys, whose differences and similarities provided the necessary conflict for the story. In addition, while A Higher Court puts the existence of God on trial, the way the story unfolds and the information/evidence is presented, the author's true feelings on the subject aren't necessarily clear to the reader. I think that's something that is difficult to do--providing an unbiased view of such a controversial subject--yet, Betcher makes it seem easy.
Most people know by now that I don't care for surprise endings. I often come away feeling that the author has purposely tried to dupe me, though that's probably not the case. In this instance, however, the outcome is perfect. I didn't have to stretch my imagination to see it unfolding in the way it did. I didn't feel that the author had led me down one road when I should have been taking another.
I believe A Higher Court will appeal to a diverse group of people. Yes, it's the age-old battle of Science versus God, Evolution versus Creation, but not only is this a unique way to approach it, you are witness to jury deliberations, and therefore, it provokes your mind to consider possibilities outside of your comfort zone without the confrontation that can come about when discussing this topic with others.
A Higher Court by John L. Betcher is a must read.
5.0 out of 5 stars Bridget's Review, November 26, 2010 By bridget3420 "Bridget Hopper" (KY) - This review is from: The 19th Element: A James Becker Nuclear Thriller (Paperback)
The 19th Element is a heart-pounding, pure adrenaline rush. I actually felt exhausted after reading it. This is probably one of the highest compliments that I could ever give. When I get so wrapped up in a book that I feel like I'm the main character, I know that I've read a winner! I loved this book!
5.0 out of 5 stars This series just gets better and better!!!!!, June 18, 2011 By Lori Caswell "dollycas" (FALL RIVER, WI)
This review is from: The Covert Element: A James Becker Thriller (Paperback)This is the third installment featuring James Becker (Beck), a former Military Intelligence Agent and his ex-CIA code cracking, computer expert wife, Beth. They are both retired from their stressful jobs, Beck does some work as an attorney now, but they just can't seem to stay out of trouble.
In this edition the Mexican Drug Wars come way too close to home, very near to their quiet Minnesota community, and they aren't just selling the drugs, they are manufacturing meth at a huge grain company. The organic grain elevator and small dairy is a great cover. The CEO doesn't even know what is happening right under his nose.
To add even more thrill to this thriller we find out about some of Beck's friend Bull's past. A friend from his time in the military shows up and he is on a mission and wants Bull's help to carry out his plan. He has set up his planned assault for many years and it is all coming to a head now in Minnesota.
Beth and Beck try to help their friend Bull accomplish his friend's mission in the most legal way possible because if they don't they could all end up in jail or dead.
I was privileged to be one of the first to read the first book in this series, The Missing Element and then The 19th Element which tied with Harlan Coben's CAUGHT for my selection of Best Suspense/Thriller for 2010. I was worried that after the last one John had set the bar too high for himself, but The Covert Element surpassed both of the previous novels.
I think that John is not only a brilliant writer but he takes huge current issues in the world and brings them alarmingly close to home. He had made Red Wing, Minnesota the hotbed of some critical world issues in a truly believable way. I just hope the wrong people don't read his books and get ideas.
The dialogue between Beck and Beth is so real. I know some critics have panned their romance and relationship taking too big of part in these stories, but to me it makes the stressful situations even more real. There is less of that in this installment but you still see and feel the calming effect Beth has on Beck. Without that he could develop quickly in a character out of control. She is a vital character and their strong relationship is a huge part of why these stories work.
You can see the author takes great pains in his research in every one of the books but this one took intense investigation to get the facts right to make this story credible.
It continues his "ripped from headlines" style. This is yet another book by John L. Betcher I recommend you click the link below and order today. You will be enthralled from the first page until the very last and you won't be able to wait and tell your friends they have to read it too!!!
Well done John!!! Now get to work on the next one!!! By hot little hands are waiting!!!
Wow, those are some good ones:) Ok, some more hypotheticals... You're about to leave on a long journey. I don't know why or to where you're heading. All I know is that you have a backpack loaded with survival gear. And a Kindle. It's a new Kindle, your old Amazon account is being monitored by the NSA... I don't know why, but you've become a threat to national security. So you created a new account under a false name and you have a 50 dollar gift card to use. There won't be WiFi where you're heading and you want to stay off the grid anyway... What books are you downloading before you set off on your journey to wherever no one will find you? Oh, and you've MacGyvered some generator contraption that will charge the Kindle while you rest beside your campfires! Note: you may not actually be guilty of anything. But the NSA doesn't care. Maybe someone set you up.
I've sure gotten myself into a "situation." Let's see. What will I download to my Kindle?
1) First book is SURVIVAL, published by the U.S Army @ $2.99. I need to survive in order to read.
2) Then I'd need to concern myself with remaining anonymous and evading capture. So I'd get SURVIVAL, EVASION, RESISTANCE AND ESCAPE HANDBOOK, SERE and GUERILLA WARFARE AND SPECIAL FORCES OPERATIONS, US Army Field Manual, FM 31-21 combined [Kindle Edition] @ $1.99.
3) Next item: Moby Dick by Herman Melville for FREE. I never could finish that darn book. So it should last me a long time.
4) I've got to nourish my spirit, so I'll take the NIV Bible (Study Version) by Zondervan @ $19.99.
5) I'd get a bunch of free Kindle games because they will keep me busy and entertained longer than the few books I could buy. Some are here:
6) I think I'd blow the rest on a selection of Robert B. Parker's Spenser books. I never get tired of re-reading that gentleman's stories.
That's the best I can come up with given my unusual circumstances. :)
Yeah, I really hope you make it out okay:-) Okay, last question. If you could write on any topic or issue, knowing that the book would bring major change to it, what topic would you choose to write on? A Higher Court doesn't count, for the sake of my question, this hypothetical book will bring greater change than that one, though it could possibly be on the same topic:-)
If I MUST exclude A HIGHER COURT...then the book that has the greatest potential to bring major change will be my next offering in the Beck Suspense/Thriller Series, entitled THE EXILED ELEMENT.
It will be a book that personifies the may elements that come together to create the incompatibilities, distrust, and even hatred that pervade the Middle East. As you might imagine, this is not a subject which I take lightly. Differences in religious beliefs (some vast ans some minuscule), cultural disparities, incompatible outside influences (such as the US and Iran), and widespread misinformation, all play parts in the complex Middle East dynamic.
Who's at fault? Everybody...to one degree or another. As John Donne would say, "No man is an island." Will we all accept our share of the blame? I can't say.
But if I can bring a smidgeon of understanding to people interested in finding solutions in ME politics and culture, I will have accomplished quite a lot. If I can make this story an irresistible read for even those who don't care about the ME at present, I will have written a successful book. And if a tiny bit of enlightenment and understanding can lead us all to just one step closer to helping these amazing peoples live in peace, despite their differences, I will have hit a home run!
Okay, thanks so much for being part of this event, John! I've had a great time, and I hope you did, too!
Fun...Absolutely! Thanks again.