This blog post is a little different from most others that I have written, as it is an interview with a non-Hubber who some might deem to be a little bit ‘odd’, but luckily for Robert Kroese that’s exactly how he wants to be remembered.
You see, Robert (aka ‘Rob’ or even better aka ‘Diesel’), is someone who has inspired me with the way that he has single-handedly taken his initial love of awkwardly entertaining humor and has turned it into a dream fulfilled after self-publishing a novel that he’s been working on for over 3 years now, called Mercury Falls (that’s quickly rising up the Amazon sales charts). I thought that a quick interview with him would be a refreshing look into how someone can literally go from starting a blog a few years ago to self-publishing a high-quality (and hilarious) book that is starting to sell like crazy. I’m always a believer in how a little inspiration can easily be turned into motivation and if seeing how someone as nuts as Rob can make it on his own doesn’t give you a ‘hey, I could do that, too!’ feeling, I honestly don’t know what ever will.
So, sit back, relax and get ready to be inspired….at least a little bit.
1. Rob (I can call you Rob, right?), you’ve been blogging for a long time now, what initially got you interested in writing on the web?
I literally started my blog, Mattress Police, as a joke. It seemed to me that most blogs were accounts of the blogger’s humdrum life told in a way to make them seem fantastically exiting. Stuff like “Jimmy was picked for the soccer team even tho he showed up at practice wearing 2 left shoes isnt that SO FUNNY LOL!!!” Reading stuff like that makes my insides hurt. So I decided to do exactly the opposite: I would write completely bizarre and fabricated stories as if they were mundane and boring. My first blog post was called What I Learned This Morning From a Sea Turtle, and it started like this:
I was accosted this morning by a large sea turtle. I had arisen early to steal the neighbor’s newspaper (I cancelled my subscription when I learned the editor was a freethinker and a bigamist), and just as I stepped outside, I saw it. The turtle must have been a good 5 feet long and 3.5 feet wide(these are shell measurements), and I would estimate that it weighed at least 200 pounds. I certainly couldn’t lift him, and I’m hella strong. I attribute my exceptional strength to a daily regimen of vitamins and backgammon, although I’m also 1/32 Apache Indian, so that’s sort of an X factor.
People seemed to dig it, so I kept writing.
2. Have you always considered yourself a writer? Do you consider yourself a writer now? How has the definition of ‘being a writer’ changed in the past few years?
I guess I’ve considered myself a writer since second grade, when I wrote a novella about Captain Bill and his spaceship “Thee Eagle”. (At the time, I thought “thee” was a more formal way of saying “the”, and I couldn’t figure out why my teacher kept crossing out the second “e”. It’s “Thee Eagle”, dammit, not “The Eagle”!)
I never called myself a writer until pretty recently, though. I think that making the claim that you’re a writer in the absence of some serious credentials to back it up just makes you sound like a poser. It’s like a painter calling himself an “artist.” Look, you’re just a painter until WE decide you’re an artist, okay? Now that my novel is done and is getting good reviews and selling well, I feel fairly comfortable calling myself a writer — although I’m not going to quit my day job any time soon.
I suppose that in the past the distinction between amateurs and professionals was a little clearer, but it’s usually still pretty easy to pick out the posers, in my opinion.
3. Your humor-blogs directory has been one of your biggest labors of love to date. How many millions of dollars is it earning you each month and what do you spend all of that money on?
Are you the one spreading the rumor that I’m actually making money on that damn thing? Actually, I probably have my self to blame, since that April Fool’s Day when I claimed that Yahoo! was buying Humor-Blogs.com. I suckered a lot of people in with that one, probably because it seemed like the kind of bonehead acquisition that Yahoo! would do.
Humor-Blogs.com was helpful to the extent that it was a conduit of new readers to Mattress Police and other high quality blogs, and it was a good way to network with other bloggers. But if you count the time I’ve put into it, it’s been a financial disaster. It continues to be more trouble than it’s worth, and I may end up just shutting it down.
4. So about a year ago you decided that you were going to get serious with a story that you had been writing on and off for a few years now — can you tell us what the story was based on and why you finally decided to kick your writing into gear?
At around the same time that I started blogging (a little over three years ago), I was selected to be the treasurer for the deacons of my church. In case you don’t know, the deacons are in charge of the church’s finances, and they are generally the people who coordinate the church’s efforts to assist the poor and downtrodden in the community. I won’t claim to have been a particularly good deacon (and I was a terrible treasurer), but I did my best to fulfill the role that had been assigned to me.
These two new aspects of my life were somewhat at odds with each other. I can be a bit of a misanthrope, and I often exaggerated that quality in my Mattress Police posts for comic effect. At the same time, I was trying to fulfill my role as a deacon, helping the widows and the homeless. Out of this odd juxtaposition came the idea of Mercury, an angel who is a complete smartass. He wants to do the right thing, but he has a little trouble being an unquestioning minion of Heaven. And when Heaven assigns him to help bring about Armageddon, he decides he’d rather play ping-pong.
I worked on this story off and on for about two years, not really knowing where it was going. Working on a novel for two years is a little like having a sore that just won’t heal. It’s always on your mind, and you just keep thinking, “When is this thing going to go AWAY?” I guess pregnancy would be a better metaphor, but it would be the kind of pregnancy where you ask the doctor your due date and she says, “Oh, that’s up to you. It all depends on how hard you work on having the baby. If you don’t apply yourself, the baby might still be in you 20 years from now.”
So about a year ago I finally said ENOUGH and decided to keep writing until I had an ending. It took a couple of weeks, but I did it. Of course, it turned out that what I thought was the ending (the scene with Harry speaking to the crowd in Anaheim Stadium) wasn’t the ending at all, and it took another year for me to resolve the rest of the issues with the story. But there is definitely something to be said for forcing yourself to write, just to get some kind of structure on the page. That’s why I’m always supportive of people who do the NaNoWriMo thing — your novel will probably be sh*t, but if you can write something with a beginning, middle and an end, that’s half the battle.
5. Everyone wants to get published, but obviously we live in a world where that just isn’t possible. What were your hopes in first getting published and when/why did you decide to go the self-publishing route with Mercury Falls?
Actually, we’re living in a world where anybody can get published, but hardly anybody can get noticed. In any case, I’m convinced that these days being “published” by a traditional publisher is a meaningless detour on the road to being a successful author. I tried going the traditional route with Mercury Falls, and while I got some positive feedback from literary agents, I just couldn’t get any bites. So I started to float the idea of self-publishing it.
The fascinating thing to me was that the people who screamed “NO! DON’T DO IT!” were themselves aspiring authors who had not yet been published. All of the published authors I knew said, “That’s a great idea. Go for it. Get your work in front of readers and show publishers that you can sell a few thousand books.” Published authors already know that being published ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. That’s not to say there aren’t challenges associated with self-publishing, but compared with the challenges facing any unknown author, the challenges of self-publishing are nothing.
It’s true that the odds of a self-published book being successful are extremely small. But to say that self-publishing generally results in failure is to confuse cause and effect. Books published by traditional publishers succeed because publishers have the luxury of cherry-picking the one book out of a thousand that they think will sell. Saying that publishers create bestsellers is like saying the NFL creates great football players. The NFL doesn’t CREATE great players; all they do is try to predict which players will be great. Similarly, if a publisher decides to publish your book, it’s because your book has a good chance at success. The difference between writing and playing football is that writing is a solitary endeavor — you don’t need the approval of a Big Publisher any more than a marathon runner needs the approval of the National Marathon Runners Association.
6. Can you give me a sense of what it’s like to self-publish a book like you did and how it all actually works logistically? What was the hardest part of the process?
Here are the biggest differences between self-publishing and traditional publishing:
1. If you self-publish, you don’t have an editor. That means you have to mercilessly edit and proofread your own book, and probably enlist other writers that you know to help you. Mercury Falls wouldn’t be nearly as good as it is without the help of five good friends who gave me constructive criticism and help me find errors. I personally read through the final draft in its entirety three times before going to print, and a few typos STILL made it into the final version.
2. Self-publishing is much faster. Once you have what you deem to be a final product, you can have it in the hands of readers within days, rather than months or years. This is a two-edged sword, of course, because most self-publishers tend to publish their books before they are ready.
3. You have much more control over the process. Again, a double-edged sword. For example, you can choose exactly what your cover will look like. On the other hand, you have to choose exactly what your cover will look like.
4. As a self-publisher, you will have to personally deal with distribution issues. For example, for Mercury Falls I went with CreateSpace, a print-on-demand company owned by Amazon. I like working with Lulu.com better (I used Lulu for my collection of blog posts, Antisocial Commentary), but Lulu couldn’t come close to matching CreateSpace’s prices. CreateSpace is ridiculously cheap; I can order a single copy of my book for just over $5 plus shipping. That’s cheaper than printing it at Kinko’s.
The problem with CreateSpace is that despite being owned by Amazon, books published by Amazon are (at least presently) not automatically available on Amazon’s foreign sites (Amazon.ca, Amazon.co.uk, etc.); nor are they available for distribution to retailers or other sites, like BN.com. You have to purchase a distribution package with another company to get your book distributed through these channels, which is pretty lame, but that’s the price of living in an Amazon world.
I also found that as soon as I make my book available in one format, somebody asks me if it’s available in some other format. I announce that the paperback is available, and somebody asks about hardcover. I announce that the book is on Amazon and somebody asks about Kindle. I put it on Kindle and somebody says what about Stanza? Or the Sony reader? Or the Nook? I make it available in all those formats and somebody asks about an audio version (which I’m working on right now, using a free recording/editing app called Audacity). There are different challenges with each different format, but it’s worth it to get the book out there in a way that works for every kind of reader. (I haven’t done a hardcover version yet, but I might, if only to get into libraries.)
5. With self-publishing, you make a lot more money per copy sold. If you’re smart, you’ll plow that money into free copies to send to reviewers, which will gain you more sales. If you had a publisher, that money would go toward your publisher’s kids’ orthodontist bills, which won’t help your book sales nearly as much as you might expect. You also have complete control over the pricing, which means, for example, that you can price the Kindle version at $1.99, undercutting most traditional publishers and possibly getting your book into the top 300 books available for Kindle, at which point traditional publishers start to think that their kids are just going to have to deal with having crooked teeth.
6. If you self-publish, shallow people will turn up their noses at you. This lasts until you sell your first thousand copies or the first time you appear on television, whichever comes first.
7. According to your multiple Facebook statuses, Mercury Falls is the greatest book ever created and it is now single-handedly taking over Amazon’s humor section (with both paperback and Kindle versions). What is it like to be on top of the metaphorical publishing world?
You mean the ones where I mention that Mercury Falls has gotten 39 five-star reviews on Amazon, and where I quote reviewers who compare Mercury Falls to books by Christopher Moore, Douglas Adams and Dave Barry?
Shameless self-promotion aside, it’s pretty freaking fantastic. This has been a dream of mine since second grade. I’m not charting on the New York Times bestseller list (yet), but just seeing my book listed on the Kindle bestsellers with Charles Dickens and Douglas Adams is unreal. By the way, if you’d like to be subjected to more of this, you can become a fan of Mercury Falls on Facebook.
8. Finally, what advice would you give to our Hubbers who are looking at potentially heading down the self-publishing road that you’ve somehow seemed to steer yourself straight down? What advice/guidance would you give them?
Don’t pander to your readers. Don’t write for agents, editors or publishers. Write the book that you want to read. Write the book that if you picked it up in a bookstore, you would think, “Holy crap, I never knew this book existed, but this is exactly the book I’ve been looking for!” That’s what I did with Mercury Falls. I wrote the book I wanted to read; the book that’s been missing from my bookshelf. Ironically, I think my refusal to write a book that intentionally appealed to a large demographic is what makes people like it so much. I threw in references to Wargames, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Thomas Pynchon, Rice Krispies… anything that I thought was funny. I knew that a lot of readers wouldn’t get many of the references, but when one of those references hits you just right, you think, “Wow, it’s like this guy KNOWS me.”
That’s what you need if your book is going to succeed, whether it’s traditionally published or self-published. You want complete strangers to read it and think, “You know who would LOVE this book…?” You don’t need everybody to love it, but somebody’s got to. If you love it yourself, then you just have to find some other people like you.
If you can write that book, you’re well on your way.