My guest this episode is Russell Nohelty, a bestselling fantasy author and ALLi's crowdfunding adviser. He has helped authors raise over $1.5 million through crowdfunding, and nearly $500,000 for his own publishing projects. And, lately, he's a big advocate of the Substack platform for indie authors.
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Inspirational Indie Author Interview: Russell Nohelty. About the Author
Russell Nohelty is a USA Today bestselling fantasy author who has written dozens of novels and graphic novels including The Godsverse Chronicles, The Obsidian Spindle Saga, and Ichabod Jones: Monster Hunter. He is the publisher of Wannabe Press, co-host of the Kickstart Your Book Sales podcast, cofounder of the Writer MBA training academy, and cofounder of The Future of Publishing Mastermind. He also co-created the Author Ecosystem archetype system to help authors thrive. You can take the quiz to find your perfect ecosystem or find most of his writing on his Substack. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and dogs.
About the Host
Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 35 years, and now amplifies the voices of independent author-publishers and works with authors as a developmental editor. Find Howard at howardlovy.com, LinkedIn and Twitter.
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Read the Transcripts — Inspirational Indie Author Interview: Russell Nohelty
Howard Lovy: My guest this episode is Russell Nohelty, a best-selling fantasy author and ALLi's crowdfunding adviser.
He has helped authors raise over $1.5 million through crowdfunding and nearly $500,000 for his own publishing projects. Lately, he's a big advocate of the Substack platform for indie authors. I'll let Russell Nohelty tell his story.
Russell Nohelty: Hi, I'm Russell Nohelty. I'm a USA Today best-selling fantasy author. I also run a company called Writer MBA with my business partner Monica Leonel. I'm most known for crowdfunding and helping authors on Kickstarter, but I also run a comic book company. I help authors run Kickstarter campaigns and a whole lot of other stuff.
I was born in New Jersey. I moved to this place called Woodbridge, Virginia in Northern Virginia. Our big claim to fame was that we had the largest outlet mall in the country called Potomac Mills Mall.
I didn't think writing was as big a part of my life as it was. My mother was convinced. She'd been telling me that I was a writer my whole life, and I was like, I don't think that was true, I don't think it really started until like my twenties, I wanted to be a director. But I went home a couple of years ago and she had a folder that she had kept that she had found, it was buried in files, but she was like, hey, I found this, and it was poems I had written when I was 10, articles that I had published in our local newspaper, kids’ books that I wrote when I was a kid, and so I had to admit that writing has been a part of my life for a long time.
As far as reading, I had gotten away from reading fiction books for a while, but I had a large crisis of faith, having grown up Catholic, and so I spent a lot of years reading Eastern philosophy books, and books that worked at the intersection of Western and Eastern philosophy, like Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh, and a bunch of things that kind of built my own spiritual practice, but I came back to fiction in a big way in my late 20s.
Howard Lovy: Russell went to college, which, much to his surprise, actually prepared him for his later career.
Russell Nohelty: I went to college for broadcast journalism and sociology, which I had been told were phony majors, and those two things, both of them, whether it's, I have a degree in demographics sociology, and so running Facebook ads or trying to figure out where big groups of people happen is very relevant in today's day and age, and being on camera and knowing how to speak appropriately and knowing how to run audio and build audio and video packages and such, is incredibly helpful.
So, I feel like all of their majors are phony and mine were two of the most helpful majors that you could possibly have in today's society.
Howard Lovy: Russell tried journalism for a short time, but realized he'd much rather work in the movies.
Russell Nohelty: I wanted to work as a filmmaker. I wanted to direct movies and shoot TV shows, and be a photographer. So, when I left college, I started on Capitol Hill for about six months, and I worked for a news organization that ran live. If you've ever watched a news show where they're in the Capitol and they're interviewing a Senator or Congressman, I was the person who was shooting those things, and that lasted about six months.
I found that I liked the journalism part, but I couldn't stand the newsroom part where they were constantly showing news. News programs are just horrible to watch because they repeat themselves every hour, and it's all just tragedy after tragedy.
So, I burned out on that, and I started my own photography company, and I went to Denmark to shoot a movie, and I was a fashion photographer, and I made my own movies, and then I moved to LA and had a car accident and got really into writing.
So, I was writing films and then it ended up being comics and then novels, and now I pretty much mostly do novels, which is a big transition from when I was doing film about 15 years ago, even though it's roughly the same set of skills, just put in a different way.
Just like journalism, it expresses itself in a different way, but in the base level it's telling a story.
Howard Lovy: For Russell, writing came because he physically could not shoot film.
Russell Nohelty: I got into a rather bad car accident. I was in a neck brace for six months, including at my wedding, which was not great, but I lost my job, and I was on disability for about six months, and unemployment for a lot longer than that as I was trying to figure stuff out.
But I couldn't shoot, because it requires you to carry gear, and my back was not strong enough, my neck was not strong enough, so I just literally couldn't do the work. The only thing that I could do was write, and that's when I found that writers are really the only people that have power. Really anywhere, because they're creating from nothing.
Everyone else in the movie/TV business is waiting on somebody else. A director's waiting for a script, an actor's waiting for a director, a producer's waiting for an actor. All of these people are waiting, but while they're all waiting you can just, with a blank page, create from nothing. Artists also can do that, and sculptors, but in the movie business, really, it's very hard to create from nothing without a script.
Someone said with the actor strike that's going on now, you can't create anything good without a script, you can't create anything without an actor. But I think you can't create anything without a script either, and the script is the only thing you have true control over, because once the script goes to a director, it changes, and you have to make compromises to make something happen on screen because of budgetary limits.
But in a script, or in a book, or even in a comic in large measure, you have to pay more to have someone do a more complicated scene, usually, or a more realistic scene, but the actual writing part is limitless.
Howard Lovy: What Russell wrote initially was a lot of screenplays that he later was able to repurpose into his other work.
Russell Nohelty: So, there's a rule that I heard when I first started doing screenwriting, which was your first 10 scripts are going to suck, so just make them as quickly as possible. It's still one of the best pieces of advice I give. I usually say, you're going to suck at first and that's okay, because it's a little bit different to write 10 novels really quickly than to write 10 movies really quickly, but each one of those things taught me.
So, I set out to just write as many scripts as I can as fast as I can, and in about six months I wrote something like eight scripts and they were progressively better over time, and some of them even had such good nuggets that they became a book later.
My movie that I wrote, I'm Going to Kill Myself, became a book, My Father Didn't Kill Himself, and a lot of the scenes actually ended up-
And it started my love of taking stuff I had written and repurposing it into something better over time, which I do a lot on my Substack.
My work usually starts out by saying, what have I written that I could build the scaffolding from? So, I was mostly writing scripts. movie scripts, and I went back and read a bunch of them, and they all are fine, but none of them are very good. But I think what that taught me was, and what I love about movies and also about comics, is there is a strict structure that you must follow. A movie, a TV show, especially, but a movie to; they work in sequences, you have to worry about the flow, a TV show you have to have different act breaks, in a comic you have to have a turn, like the way that page is laid out, you have to do certain things to make them work.
So, it taught me structure, even though I never had to specifically sit down and learn structure, because you literally have to do certain things, like an act break has to end on a punch. So, like someone comes back after the commercial break, and in the same way a chapter has to end on a punch, so people read the next chapter without going to bed.
So, they're all of these things that you learn by having these highly structured environments, and I'm a big believer that structure leads to freedom, not the other way around.
Howard Lovy: Writing screenplays also helped introduce Russell to the world of comic books.
Russell Nohelty: I moved to LA in 2008, and like everyone else, I was sure I would just rise to the top. I had the perfect script, like of course, everyone's going to like it. Nobody. I got a management team, and I was like, now I'm off to the hills, I'm going to have meetings with everyone. I had very few meetings, and eventually, it was like years that I had been struggling to even set meetings, and my manager worked at the company that produced Halloween, and Halloween had a comic book at the time, and so he had a ton of comic books in his office, and he sat me down one day, and he's like, this thing's not really working, have you ever thought about doing comics?
I was like, no, not really. I haven't read comics since the 90s, and I stopped reading comics because everything was like big muscles and huge things, and it just was too much for me. He's like, I'm going to give you this huge stack of independent comics. You read it and you can tell me then how wrong you are later.
I read them all and I was like, my god these are amazing, and so then I was like, you're right, these are great. So, what are these, like $100,000 to make? And he told me, no, probably $2,000 an issue, which sounds hugely expensive if you are talking about a novel, but if you're talking about a movie-
I made a very moderately budgeted movie that did not have a lot of action, and it still costs me almost $50,000 to make. So, to be able to compete with Marvel and DC for $2,000 an issue was wild to me, and also it did not require a bunch of people. It was just me and an artist. So, I went all in on comics.
Howard Lovy: Russell also went all in on going indie.
Russell Nohelty: I actually signed many publishing deals at the beginning of my career. What happened is they all sucked. They all sucked at publishing, at releasing books. They just couldn't release books.
I was like, this is so bad. Actually, why I bought all the rights back to my work was I said, if this is the bar, I can release a book badly. I don't know how to release a book well, but I can release a book terribly, right now, myself, and make as much money as this.
I had a comic book deal with a book, and the book was supposed to come out February, March, April, May, or something like that, and it ended up coming March, June, July, October, or some crazy schedule, and then the publisher punished me because they're like, oh, the book's not selling. I'm like, you didn't actually put the book out. You didn't actually fulfil your obligations. So, of course it didn't do well.
I'm not saying it would have done better, but I'm saying you can't use this as the barometer of my success because you messed up distribution for, I don't know even why you did that because it's so easy to put the book out on schedule, because the book had been done for months by that time.
It wasn't like I had turned in a book in, let's call it, I think it was like September or August and the book wasn't coming out until February. I was like, they literally had the book. They had approved the book. Why, when the book was coming out, was it still coming out late?
So, there was all of these things. I found out that one of my publishers was just uploading to IngramSpark, and I was like, I can upload to IngramSpark. Give me the rights to these things back, and I will upload to IngramSpark myself, I can do that.
That led to a publisher that said, I'll put the book out in print, but you have to pay for the print run through Kickstarter, and I was like, well, I can do a Kickstarter myself. What good are you?
Howard Lovy: Russell uses crowdfunding tools a great deal. The secret, he says, is simple transparency: show your work.
Russell Nohelty: I was very big back then of showing my work to people. So, I was trying to justify my existence.
So, there was a little group that I met called Comic Book Sunday, and I would bring them the pages as they came down of Ichabod, which is the first book we did, Ichabod Jones: Monster Hunter on Kickstarter. I would show them, hey, look, this is a real book. I know I love comics, but also am I doing this right? I had no idea. It wasn't even necessarily to justify my existence, although it was that, it was also to be like, does this suck? Is this good? Do I even know what I'm doing? Everyone is telling me this is not like worth anything. So, is it worth something?
So, I had a pretty, I don't know, 50 or 60 people that were in that comic book Sunday group who were fans, that liked the book. I had released it with that publisher, even though it was bad news, so I had a couple of people there and some reviews there.
So, I spent, 2011 is when it came out, so I'd been spending since 2010-2014 talking about this book, building up another series, going to Comic Con for signings, and just talking about it enough that people seemed to care and tell me that it didn't suck and that it was at least interesting if it wasn't good.
But I didn't have a mailing list. My mistake was those people just had to find me on social media or something. Although, I will say in 2014 it was a lot easier to reach your audience on social media than it is currently. You used to actually post something and people actually would see it instead of what is happening now, but I made a big mistake of not having people on my mailing list, and then I just over the course of the month like I got very big into like comic book communities before then, and I was talking about stuff and I was showing my work and being helpful. I did panels at conventions and such, and so over that time it spiralled, and we didn't make that much for how much work I had done. It was only like $5,500, and the book cost way more than that.
That only paid for the print run of the book because comics are so expensive. So, it's a great result for a novel, but for a comic, it doesn't help quite as much.
So, I had to go to conventions and start selling the book, because I had a thousand copies of this book, and I needed basically all of them to sell to even hope to break even on this book.
But the crowdfunding was basically that I wanted to make an exceptional book, and that is the number one thing that I think halts people and makes people not do great crowdfunding campaigns, is they're not trying to, or they're not able to prove that they're trying to make something exceptional.
Whether you fail at that is one thing, but I think the things that really succeed on crowdfunding, whether they hit virality or they come from your audience, they are things that people believe in and want to make exceptional, and a lot of the stuff that's happening now in the last two years is people putting the same effort into the book that they put on Amazon. Look, I like Amazon as well, but they're just mostly not exceptional books. They're good books, like they could be great books, but Kickstarter is really for, I'm trying to make and deliver an exceptional experience to you.
Howard Lovy: Russell eventually became so successful as a crowdfunder, he began showing other authors how to do it properly. It all depends on the kind of ecosystem you work in; Russell explains.
Russell Nohelty: Monica and I started a company called Writer MBA, and it started with a book called, Get Your Book Selling on Kickstarter. We released it on Kickstarter, and then we released a Kickstarter accelerator course, and then we released the direct sales course to accompany the Kickstarter course, and then we released a wide course to talk about how to optimize wide.
Really, what we're doing is building what we call an author ecosystem, because what we found was a small cohort of people in the author accelerator community that went gangbusters. Then there was a group of people who did okay. Then there was a group of people who like, didn't fund, even at the $500, and we were like, why? How is this possible? They're all getting the same help. They're all successful creators. They're all getting the same material. How is it that some of them are working?
We found that different writers have different ways of doing marketing and sales that work for them, and Kickstarter is great for what we call tundras, like me, who do well with short release cycles, building a lot of excitement in building these unique experiences, but that's only one of five types that we found.
There's also deserts who really work well in optimizing one platform. So, like they're amazing at KU or they're amazing at doing their Shopify store. They want to find the best optimizations, the best tropes, the best things, so that they can really hit everything at one time and scale it by working with whatever the trends are working right now.
Then there are grasslands who like to go deep on one subject, like Monica's a grassland. She goes deep, deep on wide and on algorithms, and on direct sales, and she'll spend years doing that. Even if it's not trending, she's looking at trends in the future and she wants to know how to own the category.
Then there's Aquatics, who are mostly brand managers. So, I don't know if Chrishaun Keller-Hanna, but Chrishaun is a brand manager. She has this universe called, The Shaman States of America. She's mostly dealing with card games and RPGs and writers for her series, and all of that stuff. She's less actually writing the books.
Then there is Forests. So, forests are really great at community and interconnectivity of their series, and they do like multiple pen names all over the place everywhere, like tons of pen names and tons of series, and somehow they have this community that just follows them everywhere because they love how all of their world’s interconnect together.
So, we found that certain of those certain types, and then certain people inside those types, really resonate with how the Kickstarter ecosystem works, but others resonate with KU. We found that a lot of people who teach, like a lot of the methodology around publishing is built around deserts, for instance, like a lot of the ways you succeed as a KU author and just in general independent publishing space, focuses on how deserts think, but that leaves out four of the five types of people who can also succeed, and we've seen succeed, but they succeed in different ways.
So, our real thing is about trying to find the personalized marketing that works for you, that's going to resonate with you, and allow you to flourish and create a business that you thrive in.
Howard Lovy: So, that's the business side of Russell Nohelty. Separately, as a writer, he creates worlds that combine myth and religion.
Russell Nohelty: I'm obsessed with mythology, so my universes are about the intersection of religion and mythology. My big universe, called the Cosmic Weave, which is the Gods vs. Chronicles, the Obsidian Spindle Saga, Dragon's Strife, a bunch of my, like how Brandon Sanderson's Cosmere is a bunch of different things all blended, my Cosmic Weave is a lot of that stuff.
It's about how the universe has evolved from polytheism to monotheism, specifically on Earth, but also just how the entire universe operates. With basically, all gods exist, and our main characters interact with them in different ways that kind of go against the faith that the gods prescribe them, and create their own universes and save the world.
So, it's a lot of noble, bright fantasy in this big cosmic fantasy universe where gods and humans coexist and try and I don't know. The big thing is this thing called the God's Church, which protects gods and saves apocalypses and keeps the world going together. So, my stuff is very mythology based, and the basis is my growing up as a Catholic and then leaving that faith, and then trying to find my own faith and exploring all of these other religions and this thought of, how would all of these things coexist in a way.
And the idea is when a habitable world is formed all the gods come and they make it work, and then they abandon Earth, they abandon that planet and leave one god regent in charge, and the god we get stuck with is Bacchus, who's a vain drunk and he turns everything from polytheism, which is where it's supposed to be, to monotheism, where everyone is worshiping him. You can literally see this when you go to, let's say Rome. You can see the polytheistic churches, either a cathedral or a Catholic church was built on top of it, or it was transitioned from a polytheistic church into a monotheistic church. So, I wanted to play with all of those things.
Howard Lovy: As for the future, Russell sees a lot of potential in Substack, a platform for independent writers to build a paid audience for their work.
Russell Nohelty: So, the biggest thing that I've done this year is I've really gone all in on Substack, creating a paid membership. So, I combined all of my blog posting, along with all of my fiction into what I call The Author Stack.
It's theauthorstack.substack.com. Members can read a dozen of my books; I try to add two or three a year. I'm planning to add five more by the end of this year to my Substack for paid members. Plus, there's weekly deep dive, something like a 3,000-to-5,000-word post, but sometimes they're up to 15,000 words.
Then also, I'm planning to do a podcast at the end of this year, and that's where a ton of my non-writer MBA focus is. I'm writing a new book in the God's Verse Chronicles, which is the most well-known part of the Cosmic Weave right now. So, that'll be the 13th book in that series.
Then we're gearing up for The Author Ecosystem membership. The biggest thing we're probably doing is an in-person conference. So, we have an in-person conference called, The Future of Publishing Mastermind at thefutureofpublishingmastermind. com, and with it we're doing an in-person, hundred-person exclusive event in New Orleans on the 26th to 29th of February, 2024. You also get membership into our community for a year and a half, and you get monthly coaching calls and all sorts of other cool stuff.
Howard Lovy: Russell says now is a great time for indie authors because there are so many sustainable models to choose from.
Russell Nohelty: Do you want to go viral, or do you want to have the security that having an audience gives you, because they are two very different things. I'm not going to help you go viral. I don't think that's a healthy way to exist in the world, but if you were interested in building a world where you have the security of being able to do your work now and into the future. I think that is a thing that is very attainable, more now than any time in the history of the world.
I often also tell people, until the 1940s, there was literally no expectation that you could ever make a living doing writing work. It was only with pulps and serials that it even became possible for a writing class to emerge, and it wasn't until the 2010's or 2000's at the very least, where like it became a reasonable expectation that writing was a career that you could do.
So, we are living currently right now in a world that is even more able to sustain somebody than any time in the history of the world, unless you've already lived in one of the privileged classes.