Eric Thomson is the author of the Decker’s War series and the Siobhan Dunmoore series. He’s a retired Canadian soldier with 31 years of service, both in the Regular Army and the Army Reserve. He worked for a number of years as an Information Technology specialist before retiring to become a full-time author.
Please join Eric and me as we discuss:
- How becoming a full-time author changed his life for the better.
- The freedom that being a full-time author provides him.
- His mindset on having to write constantly as a self-published author.
- The moment the switch flipped from hobbyist to professional.
- The success he’s had and how he got there without a Bookbub ad.
- How he got out of his 20 year writing slump where he practically gave up.
- Why he chooses to stay all-in with Amazon Kindle Unlimited.
- What he’d do differently if he could do it all over again.
- A breakdown of the marketing techniques that he uses today.
- His writing goals and why it’s OK to go at your own pace.
When did you take the leap to become a full-time author?
That happened, let’s say late 2015, around December or January. Technically, I’ve only been retired for about a month and a half, but I haven’t been working at my corporate job since early winter. So, I’ve pretty much been a full-time author since then.
So, when did you start writing?
A long time ago. I’m in my early 50’s, and I had this idea back when I was in my late 20’s or early 30’s when I left the regular Army. I realized that corporate life in a cubicle wasn’t for me. I thought, “I’d like to be a writer.” So, I wrote in my spare time. I actually wrote five novels in those days, the first three of which have never seen the light of day because they were absolute crap. You know how it is with early books. I looked at one of them a couple of months ago to see if I could salvage something out of it. I saw just a couple of characters, and then I cringed when I looked at the rest of it. So this was like 20 years ago. The fourth and fifth I actually thought were good enough after some editing. I tried flogging them around to try and publish them, but there was no Amazon, let alone eBooks and self-publishing. I actually got a personalized reply back from Baen Books with the fifth one I wrote. The editor said, “Listen, you’re almost there. Not quite, but you’re almost there. Try some more.”
Then life intervened, and I had to put all the writing aside for almost 20 years. My corporate career took off, and I was in the Army reserve at the time. So, I already had two full-time jobs almost. It wasn’t until sometime in 2014, I can’t recall how that happened, but somehow I got the inkling to self-publish eBooks through Amazon. I went, “Hey, wait a minute, I have those old manuscripts. Let’s throw something at the wall and see if it sticks!”
I pulled out the manuscript, the one that I got the personal message by Baen Books and worked it over. I handed it to my wife, and she says, “Yeah, whatever.” I wasn’t doing this with the intent to become a writer. This was about trying it out to see what sticks. So I put it out there, and to my great shock people bought it. The Amazon algorithm started pushing it into the top 100 in sub-genres. I mean, I made it into the five digit ranking, and I was sitting there stunned and going, “Really? Why do people want to read this?” So I pulled out the second one that I flogged around. Same treatment: polished it and put it out there. It sold even better. At the end of my first two months since I published those two books the reviews started coming in. It was like, “Wow, you know what? Maybe I can do this. Maybe I should try being a writer again.” Yeah, but I’d forgotten how to write. I could edit books just fine, but getting back to writing a first draft from scratch for the next book in the Siobhan Dunmoore series (which really took off with a lot of readers) was a real pain in the neck. I had to relearn everything from scratch. I finally got the second book in the series out last summer. It had gotten easier. Then I got my fourth novel out last November. By then, I was totally fed up with the corporate lifestyle. It was killing me, and I sat down with my wife last October and said, “You know what, honey? Let’s run the numbers. We ran it through, looked at what I should be getting through early retirement, and then looked at what had come in from royalties through my first year as an author. Then with my fourth book coming out, propelling all of my four novels back in the top 100 in sub-genres, the calculations showed that if I published two books a year at an expected return then I know I can do it.
I wrote up my resignation, handed it to my boss, and said, “Listen, I’ve got all this leave to take, and I’m going to be taking it.” The retirement day is at the end of the fiscal year, which is December 31st, and off we went. I didn’t plan on doing that when I published my first two novels a year before. It was all for fun. Then a little bit of success started, and I said, “Yeah, this is something I can do when I retire years from now.” Then it suddenly became, “Nope, this is what I’m going to do. Let’s end career number three and move to career number four, and just do what I’ve wanted to do for the last 20 long years.” So, I stumbled into my dream job without even planning it. Very few people knew that I stumbled into writing, but everyone was astonished when I put in my resignation. So, it took me 20 years, and if you want to look at it the other way it took me a year.
What’s your favorite part about being a full-time author?
It’s great. I get up in the morning with my wife. She still has to go into work every weekday for the next couple of years. I give her a kiss goodbye, sit down on the computer, and screw around on the internet a little because I’m the greatest boss in the world with one staff member who can do what he wants. Then as the inspiration hits I write. I’ll go out walk the dog, come back, write, cook supper, and write. I mean, what’s not to like about being a full-time author working from home?
I’m wearing a sports shirt (not tucked in), jeans, and crocs. This is my suit for work. I decide what I want to do. If I don’t want to work this morning, fine. I’ll go garden. Got some errands to run? Uh, whatever, let’s go. I don’t have to answer to anyone but my readers and they don’t see me producing, thankfully. That could get ugly. You know that song from Alice Cooper “School’s Out”? That’s every day for me, and my wife hasn’t seen me this happy with life in a long time; I can tell you that. I walk around with the biggest grin in the world when I’m walking the dog. It’s 10:00 AM on a Wednesday, and where am I? I’m walking my dog thinking about my next scene. Where are all my former co-workers? They’re going insane on the latest project. Yea, I’ll take my life.
It seems like you get to spend a lot of time away from writing while walking your dog (which I love). Aren’t you worried about slipping in the rankings? How are you able to get up and do whatever you want without worrying about that?
You know, I’ve had such a lousy, stressful time at work over the last couple of years. Big IT project and big money involved and all that stuff. My doctor was telling me, “If you hadn’t taken an early retirement I would have told you to.” That was when I decided, “OK, I’m not doing that anymore. I’m not going to keep the pressure on me.” So I always sell X number of books a year, but you know what? I’m smiling. I’m never going to have a heart attack, and my dog’s having a great time because he sees me more often now. It’s just a different outlook.
Oh, I like that. Currently today, how are you generating revenue in terms of the different mediums?
Compared to my expectations, I’m still in awe. I mean at this point I’ve released four novels. What I made in royalties was about 30% of my corporate salary, which was nothing to sneeze at in the IT world. Salaries are pretty good. This year, in the first four months, I’ve already made more than that. If the trend continues, I’ve got a book coming out in two weeks, I’ve got another one coming out in July and maybe even one more in November. Right now I’m on a pension, and it’s a decent pension. I’m probably going to be making more in royalties than my pension by a factor of about 50%.
Did you ever think that you’d have this kind of success?
I’m still stunned. All of the research I did about the market, after I published the first two novels, I realized that I’m in the top 1% of self-published authors that make that kind of money. I don’t understand how, and I don’t understand my luck, but I’m going to take it. The last book I published last fall just lifted everything right up and there’s a market out there for it. I’m in awe of it. I just don’t get it, but it’s allowed me to take an early retirement and to kiss the cubical world goodbye. My wife was looking at my royalties from April the other day and she said, “You bugger. You’re about to make more in royalties for this year than I make for a salary for the entire year.” She works in IT as well!
Good for you, Eric! So, do you just have the eBooks or do you also have audio books?
I’ve gotten my books printed through Create Space, and that’s about it. I don’t sell very many of them. I’d say 99% of my revenue is from eBooks if not more. I won’t be able to do audio books very easily because ACX doesn’t allow you to have a Canadian account. You’ve got to be a resident of the United States, which I’m not.
OK, now we’re going to take a step back here. Can you tell us a story when things weren’t always so good for you? Share with us one of your worst moments as an author or while you were trying to become an author?
This was after I published the two books that I’d written years ago. I realized fans were clamoring for book two of both series. I’m going, “Yeah, I’ve got to do this; I’ve got to do this.” I sit down and say, “Ok, this is the story, and I’ll start writing it out.” 34 pages in and I’m going, “This sucks, why does this suck? Archive it, go back to zero, and then figure out the story idea.” I don’t remember ever being very good at outlining. I just don’t have that kind of discipline. I went through month after month trying to grasp what story I should be writing. I probably have over 100,000 words archived on my computer at that point. It’s all stuff that I wrote and discarded. I just couldn’t grasp it. I started wondering if I left all of my good writing mojo back in the ‘90’s.
Then I got encouragement! My family found out (other than my wife) that I did this, and they said, “This is great stuff; you need to write more.” I’m going, “Oh, God. I’m trying! I’m trying!” I don’t know what finally helped me breakthrough, but at some point I got a grip. It took about four months before I could get a grip on things and start writing the first draft that made sense. I was ready to chuck it because the thought of becoming a full-time author hadn’t occurred to me. This was for fun, and you know what? There are other things I like to do with my weekend instead of sit in front of a computer and try to squeeze words out. Then it seemed like a switch flipped over. I finished the next book, published it in July, and then moved onto the fourth one. So, I don’t know what happened the first four months.
Do you think it became a habit at that point?
That’s what I suspect. Even now where I have five days a week for writing I still write on weekends. I still put in an hour, two hours or whatever on Saturdays and Sundays. Even in the morning, after breakfast, late in the afternoon when gardening’s done or when I’ve gone hiking or something. I still have that habit where I use every waking moment. So, you’re probably right, it did become a habit, and it was just with sheer stubbornness that I broke through.
How do you feel when you don’t write?
Like I wasted a day, but I’m not hard on myself. If I wrote a sentence it counts. If I wrote a whole chapter, cool. It may not be my best work, but if that sentence is so finely crafted that it makes the hardest, toughest person cry then I’m happy. Then I also count blog posts, reaching out to my readers, and story boarding the next story.
What’s your biggest take away from that story?
When I look back, I think that I didn’t take the whole writing thing seriously when I posted those first few novels. When I came back to it I was like, “Hey, let’s see what happens; let’s see if this is right.” From then on I didn’t have a plan to follow through. I didn’t have a plan for pretty much anything. But decided that, “Hey, this is may be worth a little more effort.” If I had a plan when I started and I actually decided that I wanted to do this as my next career then I might have had an earlier breakthrough rather than keeping the hobbyist mindset.
So, the switch had flipped from hobbyist to professional? What was that switch?
Well, it was when I published my third novel last summer and how it was well received. All of my books shot back up into the top 100 in the sub-categories with a nice, long tail, and this is where I went, “Wait a minute, there’s a business side to this, and you actually have a product that people are buying.” At that point I was working on the fourth one and when the fourth one came out it had shot up within a matter of days. I think the highest I did was 1,400 in the entire Kindle store in about two weeks. That was it when I realized that I have a product that people are willing to pay money for. I thought, “OK, off we go, this is my new business.” Yeah, when I make decisions the switch is rather quick and intense.
We’ve talked about how you didn’t really have a plan until last fall. What’s your launch plan look like now?
This is going to book three in the Decker’s War series, which has done surprisingly well since I published the second one last fall. I’ve already got a fairly big following on my blog, and I’ve been keeping the readers up-to-date there. I’ve repeated that on my Facebook Author’s page in terms of progress as to where it’s at, when it’s coming out, etc. In the days before the publication I’m going to be dropping the first book in the series to 99 cents, and then I’m going to advertise the heck out of it in the sponsored products category (which Amazon was kind enough to use me as a beta). I tried it on one of my other books a couple of weeks back and using a sponsored product went very well for me. It was the first time I broke even in Amazon marketing so I’m going to use the 99 cents to get more new reviews going for that series. I think I’m going to have a pretty good follow-through on people who’ve already invested the time in the first three books based on the numbers I’ve been tracking (in terms of borrows and sales). Probably 75% follow-through from the first to the second. So if I can get around the same amount I know I’m going to be smiling.
You’re all-in with Amazon?
Oh yeah, I tried going wide. This is the guy who’s looking at this as a hobby who didn’t plan and went, “Oh, look, I can go wide using Draft2Digital. Cool, let’s try that!” After the first 90 days both of my books were wide and I sat there waiting and hoping. It didn’t work. Then I caught wind last summer that Amazon was changing Kindle Unlimited to cater more towards full length books. Then I was like, “Wait a minute that could be more money than it used to be. Well, I’ll try it.” I put both books back in, and in the first week I made more than the six months I was wide. I’ve been all-in ever since, and I’ve made a half to two-thirds of my income through Kindle Unlimited. In December, which is the first month I launched my fourth book, I had 1.6 million pages read in the four novels. Then I had 1.3 million pages in January and 800,000 in February. I’d be mad at this point to go wide again until Amazon changes their formula to something that is less appealing. I suppose once I’ve got a big enough backlist, if Unlimited doesn’t have the same effect anymore, then I may try breaking out again.
If you could do it all over again is there anything you’d do differently?
*Laughter*, pretty much everything. Well, I approached this in a very amateurish way. It was like, “Ah, let’s throw it out.” I struggled with blurb writing. 30 odd years in the military and the corporate environment doesn’t turn you into someone who can summarize things easily because it’s always the more words the better, right? I struggled with that. I didn’t know marketing or the market itself. I didn’t know what the standard tropes were for military sci-fi. I just knew the highlights, well, sometimes.
There was no rational plan, whatsoever, not even through my third book. It’s only when I started working on a launch plan that resembled what most authors discuss on Kboards. I actually thought about how I was going to do it instead of just throwing it out there. If I had the knowledge on how to approach the market then I would have had no problem, but I wonder how much better I would have done. Then the other part of me is saying, “Shut up, you did so amazingly well anyway.” If I had to do it all over again I’d approach it like a business instead of an amateur.
That’s perfect. So what’s one marketing technique you currently use, before and after your launch?
Right now, I’m sticking to the Amazon marketing service. Kindle countdown deals. A little bit of product display: I use my blog a lot, and I’ve got business cards. My self-owned business cards that I have people I know pass around. They’ve got my books on the back and my website. So when we travel my business cards go everywhere especially in hotels where you have take-a-book, leave-a-book libraries. I put a lot of those in there. There’s also word of mouth. I have family in Europe, and I let one of them know. Immediately I started seeing Germany as my third biggest market. That’s where my mother’s side of the family is from. Better than in Canada. So word of mouth is working there like crazy. At one point my books were in the top 10 in one of the sub-categories on Amazon DE (Germany).
Top 10, in the military fiction category, and I’ve never used a Bookbub. I’ve never used any of those advertisers because I haven’t felt the need. My sales have been good so why would I? Of course, now I’m thinking business (because last year I wasn’t thinking business). I was just watching those royalties go up thinking, “That’s cool; it’s pocket money. Oh yeah, I owe the government 36% of that, so it’s not all our pocket money, but fair enough.” I’m putting a bit more effort into Amazon marketing. I don’t know, I will probably try some of the external advertisers at some point, but right now my focus is on bringing that next book out.
Well, that’s just going to help your future promotions anyway.
Yeah, it’s going to shoot up all of the previous four books.
Let’s change gears a little bit. How many words do you normally write in a day?
My goal is a minimum of 1,000. Lately, with my current work in progress I’ve been averaging between 1,500 and 2,000. I have one with my editor right now. For that one, during the final writing push, I was doing between 5,000 and 7,000 words per day.
When you got back into writing after 20 years how many words were you putting out a day at that point?
During all of my 4-5 month on my board of attempted story lines I probably wasn’t writing much on weekdays after work. I was writing on weekends and wrote 3,000 to 3,500 words on the Saturday and Sunday. When I got into the view and started writing after work in the evening I’d usually be able to put in over 1,000 words between supper and going to bed. Not every weeknight because some days I just didn’t want to sit in front of a computer for another minute.
What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success as an author?
Not sure if it’s a habit or a personal trait, but I’m stubborn. So the stubbornness says, “Though shall do something related to the writing business every day. Write a couple of lines to progress, one line of dialogue, then go write a blog article. You don’t feel like doing that? Pull out your story boarding software and keep adding to the next product.” I always do something, and it’s become a habit over the last year. I can’t go a day while I’m at home without actually doing something for what I’m writing and working on. So I just think that my stubbornness to publish the book, where it’s something that I’m not embarrassed to show readers, is what’s pushing me through because I’m a very lazy guy by nature.
It’s interesting you say that. What do you mean by being “lazy”?
I’ve always been lazy. I’ve always been the guy who would look at the problem and figure out the easiest way to get the solution. It used to drive my army instructors insane. “Eric, you can’t do that.” But it works. Ever hear of the Geneva Convention? Oh, yeah right…
Do you feel like that ever hinders your writing?
Sometimes I think it does because I look at some of the power houses in the military sci-fi area like Chris Nuttall. The man’s a machine. He just pounds them out, and I’m going, “Wow, I wish I could be such a hard worker.” Then I realize, “OK, you know I’m happy with 2,000 to 3,000 words a day.” So, I put out three novels a year instead of six. What about Chris Nuttall? Well, I’m not going to be a machine like him. I’ve got to recognize my limitations, right?
Exactly. I like that because if you’re comparing then you’re despairing, and that will get you nowhere fast. So, what are you most excited about right now?
The next book! Actually, I haven’t gotten my editor’s comments back. She told me yesterday that she was putting them up. I think it’s the third one of the series, and it’s the best one yet. I’m going to be really excited to see if she thinks the same thing or whether it’s going to be like the previous one: “Yeah, cut that crap out and don’t assume people are just going to understand this – explain some of this stuff.” I’m excited to see what reception I’ll get because that series seems to have found a surprising amount of fans. You know, if I can be excited about every book that I’m writing then I’m going to die a happy man hopefully at the ripe old age of 103.
You’ve mentioned that you have an editor a couple of times. What kind of a team do you have set up?
I have an editor who likes to remain kind of nameless where he won’t fear telling me when I’m wrong. I also have a proofreader. I call her a proofreader, but she’s also a bit of a beta reader, and she’ll question some of my decisions. Not necessarily because they’re wrong, but because I could explain something in a different way. So that seems to have worked. Do they get everything? No. But do they do a great job? Oh, yes. Then covers I do myself.
Why do you choose to do that?
I like working with images. I’m a photographer. It’s one of my big hobbies, I’m an underwater photographer. You can’t see it from this view, but my office walls are covered in pictures that are underwater. I’ve got the software to do it, and I like creating images. So, what I’ve been doing now is buying images from guys that like to make science fiction-type pictures. Then I do my own lettering; my own sort of title arrangements and all that good stuff. I’m sure a professional can do it better, but you know what? I think it’s fun. I make tons of them. It’s like what I tell my wife: “This is my business. I’m the writer, the illustrator, the accountant, the bookkeeper, the chief bottle washer, and I’m having a great time with it.”
What advice do you have for those of us trying to become full-time authors?
Don’t do what I did and just throw something out to see if it sticks. I think the biggest lesson that I learned, and I mentioned this before, is figuring out that this is not a vacation. This is something that I like, and it’s also a business. If you treat it like a business, at least for me (it might be just my CPE genes speaking) I get pleasure out of running the business being a publisher and an author. By treating it like a business it fulfills my need, but it also makes sure that I’m trying to use the tools that I should to get my product out there. The other thing is I picked this thing up again after 20 years, and I’m in my early 50’s. I’m taking this as my fourth career. Don’t be afraid. When I said I’m putting in my retirement papers I know a lot of folks that said, “Well, what are you going to do? You’re going to go crazy. You’ve been going gangbusters for 15 years doing IT.” I told them, “Don’t worry about me. I have it figured out. Maybe someday you’ll figure it out when you see my face on the internet.” Then I took the plunge. I had my wife’s support for it. We ran all the numbers and did all the figures and calculations. What happens if I can’t write anymore? OK, put money aside. What happens if my next book doesn’t sell as well? We can cut back on things. I had a lot of support, and I took the plunge right in. Plan it out and don’t do what I did being an amateur.
What’s the best way that we can reach you?
I’ve got a website, and my email address is on there. So I’m always happy to interact with writers and help out and try to explain how I figured out my own luck, I suppose. I just get the feeling sometimes that it just dropped into my lap like that to make up for a bad karma from a previous life. My website is here. And my email is in there (firstname.lastname@example.org), and I’ve got a blog as well that’s linked to that website. I love interacting with people who write comments on my blog.
We’re coming to the end here. I’d like to end on a positive note. Could you share with us one of your favorite success quotes and what it means to you?
“A hero is someone who’s afraid of running away.” It means, if I get this urge to back out of something I’ve got to fight it because whatever I’m trying to back out of isn’t going to be nearly as scary as the consequences of backing out, like become a full-time writer. Most people would say I’m insane to have dropped a successful career so early in my life. But, the point where I made that decision I was more scared of running away from becoming a full-time writer than missing the chance. Running away is always the wrong decision.
If you like military sci-fi with a definite space opera slant then check out Eric’s Amazon author page.
If you enjoyed the interview then please let me know! Email me at Brandon@buildyourauthorcareer.com or leave a comment below. I read every email and comment.
Feel free to check out some of my previous interviews with other inspiring authors:
To your consistent progress,