from the 2012 mag 7 interview event
I really appreciate your taking the time to jump on board this little author event, an event that I consider to be of epic proportions considering that I'm a huge fan of you all! With that said, let's get started, shall we?
(Clears throat, shuffles papers...)
So... Mr. Blake... what I know of you is this: you live in Mexico, you write conspiracy thrillers, you're very smart, and, judging from your sales rankings, have found a certain level of success within the strange world of Indie publishing. So I obviously don't know much. I want to know more, I think we would ALL like to know more... Could you possibly fill in some of the blanks for us? Just who are you? How did you end up in Mexico? What made you start writing?
Well, I retired from my business about 10 years ago, and wanted to live abroad. I'd been to Mexico a bunch of times, and loved the beaches and the food, not to mention the blue water and cold beer, so I decided to make the jump 8 years ago. I never looked back, and it's safe to say that one can have a good life out of the States, contrary to what the media would have one believe. I took up writing when I retired, more as a hobby than anything else, with no aspirations of being successful. But one thing led to another, and I found I had a certain "voice" to my fiction that was distinct, and that some of my beta readers really liked. But I trashed all my early work, as it wasn't up to what I considered par. Last year, I decided to jump in big time and spend a full year doing this for real. The result was twelve volumes in 12 months. This year will probably slow down to 6 or 7. But you never know. I just finished up with my WIP, The Voynich Cypher, which will be done editing by mid-Feb, and I'm starting my next one, so by end of this year I should have 18 to 20 volumes out. Then I'll take a break, and see if I have anything more to write about. Maybe slow it to a couple to three books a year at that point and have a life. When you do it the way I do, life sort of has to take a back seat for the creative process to really work.
I've been very fortunate on my books to date. While the mix changes, my sales are about where I'd hoped to be within a year, but after only six months. My hope is I follow Konrath's trajectory and Jan 2012 sales are 10X what they were this year. I'd be a pretty happy camper at that point, and anything's possible. People seem to enjoy the books, and the following's going, so can't complain.
Can you please repeat that for the recorder? You said something about life able to be good outside of the States? (turns to other men in room). "Get the indoctrination tapes up and running, it's going to be a long night of reeducation for Mr. Blake."
Yeah, I've been to Mexico about half a dozen times, though only once was it for recreation. The other times it was building houses for the poor. My wife wants to start an orphanage there... but anyway... That is an incredible amount of writing, my friend! I don't know how you do it. Even being retired and having all the time in the world, I don't know how you can formulate so many stories! John Betcher is telling me how he makes time to write too... I need to be on whatever diet you guys are on.
Okay, so what opened your eyes to the stuff you write about... you know, the stuff you won't see on FOX or CNN... How did you get passionate about the themes you incorporate into your stories?
I've always been a big fan of Ludlum, and one of the undercurrents of all his books was conspiracies. I suppose I'm just naturally very cynical of the mainstream explanations of most everything, and I'm also skeptical in general, so when I hear an explanation that requires a leap of faith, I automatically respond, "Prove it." From that skepticism comes a propensity to dig deeper than whatever USA Today offers up as explanations. My experience with humans is that whenever there is money and power in play, there will be conspiracies. It's natural. I also am a student of history, which is literally filled with Byzantine conspiracies for as long as they've been keeping records. So when I look to material for my books, I don't have to look far. Essentially, every time a government entity says X, I assume it's a lie, and look into it. I'm right about 90% of the time, hence never run out of ideas. And not just the US government. All governments. It's just the nature of the beast, and is perennial. Use my recent blog as an example. The Fed assured Congress and the public it was being responsible, fought an audit tooth and nail, and now, after a limited audit, it turns out it handed $16 trillion to the banks that were instrumental in causing the global financial crisis. Which went unreported. Or take Cheney admitting that he issued the order to shoot down flight 93 on 9-11. Something the government denied for almost a decade. Or take that the US knew about Pearl Harbor several days in advance and did nothing. Or that Golf of Tonkin never happened, per Westmoreland. History is filled with governments lying early and often about everything. I just incorporate it into fiction, and throw a little action around events. So far so good.
It's a good thing you're in Mexico... I think you'd be labeled a terrorist here for saying that here:) But I completely agree. In fact, my novel Even The Elect is very similar in that it seeks to bring to light things like Northwoods, Jekyll Island, Operation Ajax, USS Liberty, and... well, as you said, the list goes on and on. In fact, I kind of wimped out and penned The Solomon Key as a second edition of ETE that was made to reach a broader audience... Meaning, I took out some of the more HOT button issues that you can basically get stoned in public for even questioning. Well, maybe not stoned, maybe just tasered:) But, as history shows (without a degree of media attention) what was once only an unpatriotic "theory", in a matter of years, somehow becomes accepted as historical fact - no apologies issued to the “tin-foil hat Nazi-propagandists” who had been blowing the whistle all the years prior.
Anyway, can you talk about the methods that you've found effective in self promoting your books? I mean, how do you move so many copies? And do you find that the more books you have for sale, the easier it is to move them?
I have found a few thing that move books. First and foremost, is giving away content. I wrote Night of the Assassin with an eye towards that - if I get 20K free downloads of that over the life of its free run, that's 20K readers I have a chance to connect with, who hopefully will find my work entertaining and meritorious enough to buy the next book in that series, King of Swords. I gave away the first book in the Zero Sum trilogy, and saw thousands of paid downloads of books 2 and 3 (I've since wrapped them into one bundled volume, and sales are holding steady, as new readers discover it through the course of reading my work). So free, in limited amounts, is a viable way to prime the pump.
I am finding it easier to sell more books as I have more titles, although there's a downside. I really should only be releasing one book every quarter or so, because I'm so busy writing I have no chance to promote the books. So they sort of just go up on Amazon, and when they're discovered, they're discovered. As an example, I don't think I've even mentioned my newest trilogy, The Delphi Chronicle, anywhere. I just uploaded it, and have been so busy with The Voynich Cypher, I haven't had time to give it a push. I'll do so later, I guess. But as my flagship free books draw readers, I figure they'll move through my backlist and discover what else I've done, and hopefully be positively surprised. But I can tell you that the sales ramp has been faster than I'd expected. I was resigned to a multi-year slog to get noticed, and it seems that it's happening faster than planned, which is good. Not to be overly deluded, but I'd like to think that most will read one or two of my books, and then go through all of them, as their trust in my voice solidifies. But that means I can't just toss out crap - each book has to be as good as I can do. I think I'm only going to be as good as my last book in this game, so I can't afford any missteps. That, and there's pride of craftsmanship in this for me. Whether I do 2 books, or 12, this year, I want each one to be a book that my readers would eagerly recommend to their friends as a great new find. That's a high bar, but I think setting it any lower cheats the reader, and is ultimately shortsighted.
So I'm reading King of Swords and I'm kind of blown away by the environment your story takes place in. I knew the drug war was bad, but I didn't know it affected so many innocents. Can you share a little of the world King of Swords opens the windows to?
Modern Mexico is a series of contradictions. On the one hand, it's rapidly modernizing, and is very "first world" in a lot of ways, particularly in the proliferation of American brands. It's impossible to go to any city and not be inundated by Starbucks, Costco, Home Depot, McDonalds, Burger King, etc. etc. Many places truly remind me of towns in the central valley of California, replete with their strip malls with an Applebees and cell phone store and Nike athletic wear store. And there's a burgeoning middle class now, which there really wasn't 25 years ago. On the other hand, there are still huge sections that are "old" Mexico, colonial, and in many ways the impoverished, rustic stereotype we see in the movies. In the midst of all this is a de facto civil war, much like that in Colombia, where the hugely rich and powerful drug cartels are battling the government, and each other. It's estimated that between 8K and 10K people die every year in Mexico from cartel violence, including soldiers, cops, judges, cartel members, and innocents either caught in the crossfire, or family members of cartel members slaughtered for retribution or as a warning/deterrent. And yet outwardly, in all but the border towns, where there's a very real and palpable sense of impending violence, the country seems peaceful.
I try to capture that paradoxical sense in the book. In Culiacan, one of the bigger "drug cartel" towns and home to the Sinaloa cartel, which is the largest in the world, it's to outward appearances a modern, burgeoning city of over a million people. But it's also among the most dangerous places in Mexico, due to the near constant drug-related killings and the associated violent crime of the smaller time hoods robbing to augment their criminal lifestyles. The numbers don't lie, and it's shocking how close to the brink many areas of Mexico are - directly due to the government clamping down on the cartels, at the request of the US government, which seems unable to control its own population's rampant consumption of illegal drugs (virtually all the drugs going through Mexico go to the states), but wants to turn the corridors of supply into war zones. To me, living in Mexico, the hypocrisy of a nation exporting its problem (illegal drugs being as popular as hamburgers) south, to be dealt with in another country at tremendous human cost (and with no apparent effect - drugs are still plentiful in the US, as they have been for the 40 years of the 'War on Drugs') while that nation is unable to curtail the demand side of the equation is ludicrous. Add to that the only reason that all the violence is happening is due to the massive margins that are the direct result of illegality in the states, and you begin to see more of the true outline of the beast. As with Prohibition, when alcohol was made illegal and margins went through the roof, the illegal substance (booze) was still widely available, but the margin went from 5% to 100% or more. So suddenly the violence went through the roof, and the power of the Mafia was consolidated. And it was the illegality that drove the margins, which in turn made it worth killing over. Same exact situation in Mexico. And now the nation is a killing field in some areas, specifically due to those obscene profits.
This war has destabilized the entire country and created enormously rich narco-trafficking cartels. Rich as in tens of billions per year of profit, in a country where the entire military's budget is a under a billion. You can quickly do some basic math and see what the result is likely to be.
So after living there for all these years, can you give us an insider's view of the whole border thing? I mean, we know what we see on the news, all the kidnappings, the drugs, the illegals, etc. Is it really as bad as we're told? Worse? And do you think a "wall" would stop the infusion of drugs and solve the immigration problem? I know I'm kind of going off the path here, but I've been having a discussion on the "war on drugs" lately, and I'm dying to know what you, being an insider, thinks of it.
My view won't be popular with most Americans. I view the drug problem as a criminalization problem, not a drug problem. As an example, you can buy any drugs you want anywhere in the US with very little difficulty. So it's not like 40 years of the "War On Drugs" has accomplished anything, except to make trafficking in them wildly profitable, as well as fighting the war. So everyone's making lots of money by them being illegal. But the demand is still very strong, as it will continue to be as long as people like altering their state, which they have since recorded history began. You look at countries where drugs are legal or decriminalized, and the violent crime drops to near nothing. But our politicians, who are more interested in arguing esoteric moral arguments, feel that it's a good idea to criminalize a widespread social behavior. The US has the largest percentage of its population in jail of any nation in the world. It is also the largest market for illegal drugs. And the profits have never been higher. If I was cynical, I'd say that an entire system makes hundreds of billions by that criminalization - for the population's own protection, of course, because citizens can be expected to be responsible for their own behavior, after all - they require government to act as parent for them, and tell them what they can and cannot do. And when all the arguments collapse, as they inevitably do, the machine falls back on the hackneyed bromides: "Do it for the children!"
Last time I checked the children have no problem getting drugs. Anywhere. In school. At the playground. Wherever. So the children are no more being protected by this criminalization than anyone else is. What's being protected are 1000% profits. Just exactly as we saw in Prohibition. Same exact lesson, but we as a society don't like to learn from history.
In Mexico, drugs are largely decriminalized. So the problems are from the trafficking of drugs to the US. The border towns are killing zones for cartels fighting it out for territory. And because the nation's resources are being spent battling the cartels, they aren't battling the gangs of robbers or kidnappers - there are only so many resources to go around. Again, the budget for the army is less than a billion a year. The wholesale earnings of the Mexican cartels is estimated to be between $50 billion and $100 billion. That's at 90% profit. So do the math. In a country where the min wage is $5 per day, what will be the result of a trade where a cartel member, low level, can make $5K or more as a street enforcer? What was the result in Chicago during Prohibition? The economics mean lots of killing. Then, as now. If drugs were legal in the US, the trafficking would drop to a 5% business. And you don't see a lot of killing over the same margin as cigarettes and alcohol - two legal drugs that are "OK" because the government says they are.
Mexico is very dangerous in areas where the cartels traffic. Juarez. Tijuana. Sinaloa. Any city along the drug transportation corridor. It's the trafficking that is the mother of the violence, not any domestic consumption. But of course that falls on deaf ears in the US, because then it's the US' problem. And nobody there wants to hear that. So build more prisons, and watch more 16 year olds shooting each other north of the border over trafficking rights in their neighborhoods, and condemn those bad dirty Mexicans for their role.
A wall? To keep Americans who are tired of an increasingly fascist, repressive and criminally operated country in, or immigrants out? I believe net inflows to the US are now down due to the economy, so that's another manufactured scare. Ironically, if you trace hysteria over "them" taking over "our" country, it has a centuries-old history. So it's nothing new. A wall wouldn't change anything. It hasn't in TJ. And plenty of drugs still make their way north. The solutions of barricading the nation to keep its own citizens from taking substances they want to take is absurd, but completely in keeping with puritanical measures that fail to work every time. Hey, maybe another 40 years of centi-billion dollar unwinnable wars on drugs will do the trick. Maybe then Johnny won't want to smoke a joint, or his dad won't, or mom won't want a line of coke. Maybe a century of that will yield a better result than almost half a century?
Like most government policies, that one is really stupid, and ensures that lots of money will be made by everyone except the taxpayers paying for the flawed policy. What else is new? Governments don't make rational decisions. They make what they hope are popular decisions, so they can get re-elected. As long as there are angry voters who believe the answer to everything is more laws against things, then we can bet this will continue.
That's not a political rant, BTW. Every country has the same hypocritical problem with its government. It's just that everywhere else, the populations understand their governments are self-serving liars. In the US, they drink the Kool-Aid more. That's the only difference.
Is writing for you a sort of therapy in the sense that it provides a means for you to get things off your chest? I know a few of my novels were like that. Until I had what was going on in my head down on paper and available, I was almost obsessed with them. Once they were out, I could kind of wash my hands of the subject matter and move on. Do you experience anything similar when you write?
Not really. I'm more soup to nuts. Get an idea, flesh it out, write the damned thing. Although my bestselling non-fiction animal biography An Angel With Fur was as you describe. It was definitely therapy, and while it was the hardest thing I've ever written, it did in fact help me bring closure to the death of my beloved pet and partner in crime. But when I write fiction, I'm pretty straightforward.
Oh boy, Angel with Fur sounds sad... Not sure I can handle that. Marley and Me messed me up for days! Do you have a new partner in crime yet?
It's sad, but also uplifting. Like most things, it takes the bitter to appreciate the sweet. I've got three dogs, all of whom I adore, and none of whom are anything like Lobo. He was truly one in ten million, which is what makes the story poignant. I can't get past the introduction page without choking up, truthfully, so I know what you mean about emotional turbulence, however some things are worth it. It's gotten universally rave reviews, and is really a love story combined with a coming of age book more than anything. Might want to skim the first few pages and see what you think - I guarantee it is a unique read. But he was a unique spirit.
Yeah, I'll have to check it out. Does the eBook come with tissues? So I guess it's safe to assume that of all your books, this one is the most special to you, right?
I think the most special to me will be the one that sells a million copies. After that one, Angel will have the number two spot. It was the toughest book I've ever written, by far, as well as my favorite as an achievement. Hey, maybe the public will discover it, and it will be the one to go platinum! Wouldn't that be nice...
Haha, yeah that would be nice. What would you say is the most important book you've written and why?
Important? Hmmm. I would have to say The Delphi Chronicle trilogy, because it so convincingly posits a scenario that explains the last 40 years of American policy on drugs and war. Now, understand, and I take great pains to explain that Delphi is fiction, but it's fiction that is eerily close to reality. Some have theorized that it isn't fiction at all, but all I can say to that is that readers should investigate anything they think smacks of the truth, and see what they find when they start turning over rocks. That's from a content standpoint. From a style standpoint, I think King of Swords is my watershed book, important because it perfectly embodies a style I've been working on for a while. It's a synthesis of everything I know about writing a taut, racing, gritty thriller that shocks and surprises at every turn, and has a voice that's completely unique.You know, I just realized that my new one, The Voynich Cypher, may well be my most "important," because it is the most likely to go big. That really narrows it down for you, huh?
So getting back to the childhood you're still trying to forget, who were some of your heroes growing up?
Growing up? I'm not sure I had any. I know that sounds kind of weird, but I can't think of anyone I wanted to be, other than Jimmy Page. But that was mainly for the chicks. I suppose I could invent something interesting, like Jean Paul Sartre or Noam Chomsky, but the truth is I didn't have any. Or I've blocked out the memories to shield me from the pain of all my dreams dying. I'm a lot of fun on dates, BTW. And available for children's parties. Wink.
Haha! So let's jump over into reviews. Yeah, I was reading the "reviews" in the beginning of HOW TO SELL A GAZILLION... If you had to pick one review that you've received from your books to frame and hang on your wall, which one would it be? Any favorites?
Boy. It would have to be either the one from Lawrence Block - an author who is a brilliant noir crime novelist and a legend - or the one from John Lescroart, another NY Times bestselling author and literary icon.
Lawrence's: “…a joyously vicious satire and parody that makes sport of John Locke, and indeed of the whole brave new world of self–publishing and self–promotion. If you don’t find Mr. Blake outrageous, and indeed offensive, you would seem to be missing the point. And the same thing goes if you only find him outrageous and offensive.”
John's: "How to Sell a Gazillion eBooks In No Time is by far the most important book ever written on any topic, although I exclude the Bible since the Bible wasn’t exactly written in the way we mean the word “written.” But other than that, Gazillion does it all. For everyone. A can’t miss, sure fire Gazillion hit-a-thon from the master of them all.”
My favorite on any of my fiction novels is probably from The Geronimo Breach, from author Steven Konkoly, who is no mean talent in his own right: "The Geronimo Breach exceeded all expectations, and establishes Russell Blake as a first rate thriller writer. Russell Blake delivers the goods in his second novel. Once again combining international conspiracy with a bluntly honest story of survival against a relentless enemy, Blake gives the reader a book that is hard to put down. His characters are finely developed and described, to the point of near perfection. I could thoroughly envision all of them, and grew to empathize or hate them. Albert Ross, State Department diplomat, is one of the best characters I've read in many years. Despicable, and barely redeemable, he continues to charm the reader to the very end. I laughed out loud on several occasions at his character's thoughts and actions. I highly recommend this fast paced thriller to anyone with two straight days to read."
I think you'll agree that these are dream reviews, and I didn't even have to pay or threaten them to write them.
Nice. Is there any part of you that gets annoyed by bad reviews? Not necessarily critical reviews, but the ignorant types (you know the types I mean)? Or are you able to shrug them off and keep going, not wasting a second more of your time or the brain synapses it takes to ponder them?
I'm writing a blog about that as I speak. I've noticed that when you take a book Free on Amazon, then, and only then, do the one star reviews come out. They fall into two categories: angry, bitter two sentence slams by new IDs or those who have only left negative reviews for others, or 600 word dissertations on why your work stinks. The latter are undoubtedly other writers. Only a writer will spend half an hour crafting a missive about how much they hate your book, and point out the real or imagined flaws in it.
I've definitely noticed that the one star reviews come out after a book goes free on Amazon. It's like free brings out a certain type of person. Not a particularly happy or nice one.
Look, I get that not everyone will like your work. Many say they hate Le Carre. That the Da Vinci Code is pedestrian. That David Foster Wallace is too verbose and abstract. I understand that reading is subjective and a matter of taste. But having read more than my share of stinkers, I've never felt compelled to write a book review about what a turd I've just stopped reading. I have other things to do. Life's too short, and why expend my energy running down someone else's efforts? Having said that, there appears to be a distinct type of reviewer that comes out once the book is free - the disenfranchised or marginalized angry & petty reviewer who desperately wants to be heard, and get attention from a world that likely finds his opinion meaningless. Reviews are a way to express that resentment and spray venom in an anonymous and cowardly way - it's seeking to get noticed by destroying, rather than building.
I think I feel more sorry for those types of reviewers than anything. But the 600 word writers are a different matter. They almost always smack of sour grapes, or sheer meannessy. My public position is that my critics can suck it if they don't like my work. I mean that respectfully, of course, and brimming with compassion. I would hate to think any of them slip and break a hip and spend days in a pool of their own blood begging the universe to help them while they die cold and alone on the bathroom floor, as their cries go unheeded by a God that hates them, or anything. I know that would be bad. So instead, I say, hey, sorry you didn't like the book, have a nice day.
Haha... Well, I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who thinks that...er...sometimes...:-) Okay, given the nature of your books and the issues you touch on within them, I'm really interested to know what issue or topic you would write on if you knew that the book would make a huge impact on the world in some way. What issue or topic would you choose to write about knowing you would bring change to it by doing so?
I think I'm already trying to do that. I'm trying to get people, using fiction as my foil, to view the statements of governments with skepticism, and to recognize that few governments actually work in their populations' best interests. Funny you should ask, though, because one of my thrillers this year will try to deal with the sensitive topic of the international banking cartels that own the central banks in almost every modern country. Most people don't realize that the Federal Reserve is not a government owned bank - it's privately owned, created by the most powerful families of the period (1913), with a government appointed board of governors (big deal) and a governmental sounding name - as one wag put it, the Federal Reserve System is no more federal than Federal Express, has no reserves, and isn't a system at all. I think if people understood that most markets and financial policies are operated largely for the enrichment of the private owners who schemed for generations to institute central banking, at the direct cost to the citizenry, there would be a kind of revolution. Unfortunately, most don't want to hear the truth, preferring to believe in a fairy tale, or alternatively, retreating into irony and apathy so as not to have to deal with difficult issues.
I believe that one of the single most amazing stories is the methodical manner that the private bankers have altered history to achieve their ends, including funding both sides of every major war over the last five centuries, and imposing central banks (which only drain a percentage from the national annual value and put it into the pockets of the private owners) on every civilized nation. Once one understands all the facts, the world becomes a darker place, but one also actually knows what's going on, as opposed to being fat, dumb and happy. Which I aspire to, BTW:)
Thanks so much for being with us, Russell, I look forward to your upcoming novel! Good luck!
Thanks for the exposure. Good company to be in...
CLICK HERE FOR RUSSELL'S INTERVIEW ON HIS NEW NOVEL, THE VOYNICH CYPHER