If we had any doubts that the self-publishing world could provide reads every bit as good as those traditionally published, that doubt was assuaged when an author named JTK Belle sent us this exquisite little story for review. Who the heck was JTK Belle? We had no idea. All we knew was that this guy could write!
There isn’t a word out of place in this fine literary tale — which is why the book earned a Starred Review from our critic. As is our policy with books earning stars, we then personally evaluated the book for its suitability for our highest honor. We are now thrilled to name “Carlos the Impossible” our first BlueInk Best Book.
Belle’s story about a matador who meets his match in an “impossible” bull is written in a lyrical style that has a timeless feel, as if it were a classic from the minute it entered the ring. Readers will sympathize with his ambitious protagonist, a matador full of his own youthful hubris who refuses to give up on the idea of slaying a bull that is seemingly indestructible. We’ve never dodged a bull’s horns, but who hasn’t met an obstacle in life that is completely infuriating, one that threatens to drive them mad if they can’t find a way to make peace with it? It’s a theme with universal appeal.
While we loved the story from the outset, we didn’t come to the decision to designate it a BlueInk Best Book easily. Despite the fact that the book is obviously lovingly produced — it comes with a beautiful glossy cover featuring a Manet painting (it’s rather dark reprinted here, but gorgeous in person) — the volume is so slim, it feels like a pamphlet. At 45 pages, it isn’t what we would traditionally have considered a “book.”
We wondered: will readers find value in such a short piece? Was it satisfying enough to feel like a main event — or was it just a teasing prelude that would leave readers wishing for more? As our first Best Book, would we be setting the right tone with this tiny volume?
Ultimately, we decided the length shouldn’t matter. It’s a new world out there, and while publishers once had to consider whether they could charge enough for a slim book to earn back the cost of its printing and distribution, that’s no longer the case.
Belle is marketing his book for Kindle at $2.99 — a more than reasonable price for this wonderful story. For the cost of a Starbucks latte, readers can download “Carlos the Impossible.” Better yet, they can buy a cup of coffee, too — and enjoy them both at the same time! The great thing about digital publishing— though sometimes worrisome to those used to the old ways — is that restraints to creativity set by the economic demands of print no longer apply. This is opening up a whole new world of story possibilities — and so much the better.
We now know who Belle is. We invite you to read our interview with him (below) to learn how he approaches writing and where he came up with the idea for his story. But more importantly, we urge you to read “Carlos the Impossible.”
We should be clear: This is not a story for readers who love commercial fiction (though we hope to find those books as well to honor with this award in the future). Rather, it’s for those who enjoy a wonderfully written story, the kind you might find in, say, the *New Yorker magazine. If you’re one of those readers, we promise it won’t disappoint. Like a matador who knows just where to place his sword, Belle has anticipated the effect of every word in his tale.*
His book is killer.
Meet Jeffrey Belle: a big-time exec with a pint-sized boss at home
We suppose it’s no surprise to find a talented writer working in a place that sells books. But we never expected to find him in a place that sells them by the ton!
As it turns out, we located our first BlueInk Best Book Award winner at Amazon.com. Jeffrey Belle (pen name J.T.K. Belle), is the company’s vice president of books, responsible for Amazon’s in-house publishing ventures.
It’s no coincidence that he has self published a book. He did so, he tells us, in part to educate himself on the process for his job. But what’s stunning is how well he accomplished the task, producing a story that reads as if he were an assured professional, rather than someone who, as he says, took a few creative writing classes in college.
Belle, 38, has a finance degree from Notre Dame and has worked for Amazon for 9 years. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Jen, and their 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. He recently spoke to us about his writing process, the pint-sized critic who spurs him to invent stories every night at bedtime, and his elegant novella about a matador who simply can’t defeat one stubborn, indestructible bull.
(The interview has been edited for clarity.)
So tell us a little bit about your background. What do you do for Amazon?
As vice president of books, I have the responsibility for our in-house publishing businesses: Amazon Encore, Amazon Crossing and Powered by Amazon. Crossing is the more recent imprint we launched last year. We published our first book with Crossing in November. It’s similar to Amazon Encore (which reprints worthy books that have previously been overlooked), in that we try to identify books that haven’t reached the audience they deserve. In this case, we’re looking at books in translation, books our customers are telling us are doing well internationally that are translated for an English (speaking) audience. Powered by Amazon is a new business we just launched with (author) Seth Godin. We will publish his first book with us on March 1. In this imprint, he is working with us to bring out books he has written and is working with us to distribute and market them. He’s the only author we’ve announced (for this imprint) so far. We’re excited about his first, which will be part of a series.
We were blown away by “Carlos” and have been wondering where you came from. What is your writing background?
(Belle notes that this is the first book he has written.) There’s really not that much to tell. I did take some creative writing classes in college. I’ve written stories in the past, but I’ve never written anything before of this length… But really, I have a lot of creative pressure applied to me by my 5 year old, who insists on a new story every night at bedtime… I have to create a story on the spot. The creative pressure of that, in combination with a couple other things, is where this came from, I think.
Tell us more about the genesis of the story.
We were reading Ferdinand the Bull, and I was coming up with stories based on the Ferdinand theme… But the genesis for the story comes as much from a Far Side cartoon as it does from Ferdinand the Bull. It’s a cartoon of an old married couple, a cow and a bull, and the cow is staring longingly out into a field and says, “Wendell, I’m just not content.” I remember thinking about what the cow’s contentment and the bull’s contentment might be, and it just sent me down this path…
It’s funny that this would be inspired by a cartoon. It’s so much more serious than that…
When I was younger, some of my favorite authors were the more offbeat ones: Tom Robbins, Kurt Vonnegut, those type folks, and certainly Gary Larson. If you look at Far Side cartoons, they’re not always funny; they’re just sort of odd in a way. ..I felt like, here’s a Far Side cartoon in long-story format…I thought,”Wouldn’t it be funny if there was just this giant indestructible bull and this matador who just could not kill him and would not give in?” It had a very Far Side feel to it. I thought, “Let’s play with these things — the unstoppable force and the immovable object, and where does that lead you?” It did end up being more serious than it started out. It’s a long way from fairy stories and stories about trolls and unicorns.
It has a timeless, classic feel. Was that by design?
I thought to myself, “I’ve been to two bullfights in my life, I better do some research.” So I jumped on Amazon, and picked up Death in the Afternoon, Old Man in the Sea. I got back to Hemingway and was thinking about his voice at the time. I really like the economy of language he’s so famous for. I also had A River Runs Through It (by Norman Maclean), so I thought I’d look at that, too. I wanted to be able to marry the sparse language with a little bit of poetry.
How long did it take you to write?
It took a long time, just because I have to do that in my free time and finding free time is not easy. It took about a year.
So you’re not the type who starts every morning at 5 a.m.?
(Belle laughs) I usually wake up when someone walks in my room, pulls on my arm, stares in my face and says, “Dad, get up!”
What were your goals in publishing this book?
I’m fortunate enough to be able to see behind the scenes here and see all the tools, especially all the tools for self-publishing authors that are available. I thought, not only do I want to write this, which was a good distraction for me at the time, but here I am in this position to be able to see all these wonderful tools (such as Amazon’s CreateSpace and Kindle) and I thought, of course I’ll take advantage of all these, and that’s what I did.
There’s not that many opportunities to get your book reviewed if you’re a self-published author. Through CreateSpace I thought I’d get a Foreword/Clarion review, and when you launched your service (BlueInk Reviews), that’s when I reached out to you guys.
I thought it (publishing a book) would be a great way go through the process as a self-publishing author, seeing how expensive it is, what does work and what doesn’t work. It’s been fun, educational and sometimes frustrating….
So it was an education you hoped to use in your Amazon position?
I have a specific interest in trying to understand how these things work, more so than just as an author.
What surprised you about the process?
The amount of work involved in the editorial process, for one. Obviously, I’d never written anything of this length. Writing is rewriting. You get to point where you think it’s perfect, and then you come back to it a little while later and realize that it’s actually not. Then you write it and rewrite it and rewrite it…
Then the next phase is the formatting phase, which is just an enormous amount of work, trying to get it formatted to do whatever you want to do with it. Once you get it formatted, it’s easy to produce. Using CreateSpace was incredibly easy. The Amazon Kindle process was incredibly easy.
Then, the next question is what do you do to market it? Trying figure that out, there’s a learning curve there.
Was there any special challenge involved in marketing a book of your length?
There are a lot of books out there and a lot of stories to be told that don’t fit into the convention of a 300-page trade paperback or a 5,000 word New Yorker short story….That does present a challenge. What makes it possible to get it in front of people is the new digital format. With Kindle, you can make it work in digital and you can find an audience for it, really quickly.
But people have expectations about what constitutes a “book”…
As long as you’re up front about what the book is, you’re not surprising anyone. The way you find the audience is… on Amazon, there are any number of customer communities these days. Some are dedicated to fiction; the Kindle community is very active. And they’re always looking for recommendations. One thing I’ve learned, it (marketing) doesn’t have to be incredibly expensive, but you do have to put a lot of time into building relationships that create that word of mouth. If you do choose to spend your own money and market the book, there are simple ways to do that as well, (such as targeted ads on Facebook and Google) and you can find the people most interested in your type of book.
Did you do all these things?
This comes back to what I said before: this is really hard to do and takes lot time. (Laughs) I’ve started to do those things, but haven’t dedicated a significant amount of time to that yet. I’ve sold enough copies and pointed (customers) to free downloads … There’s a company called aerbook.com, and they created a custom WordPress blog for me and added some nice features and the ability for people to download the book. Through paid sources like Facebook and Google, I’ve been pointing people to that website to download the book.
I’ve gotten great feedback (from the downloads). People have reached out and said, “Hey, I loved your book, have you started anything else?” “Hey, it was terrific,” those kind of comments.
Then of course, I’m just reaching out to people, talking to other authors…It takes time, but you’re going to have to do that if you want anyone at all to read the book.
I certainly don’t want to present myself as a model for the self-published author — I’m still trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t myself. Going through the process has been educational for me on a couple levels. But I am encouraged by all the success stories I see in my work every day — people like Karen McQuestion and Amanda Hocking who have really figured it out. The list is getting bigger, literally, by the hour.
So how many have you sold?
About 200 at this point, between paperback and Kindle sales. I’m pointing people more toward the Kindle version — the 70% royalty option on the Kindle version makes it a much better deal (for the author) than the physical version — so it’s outselling the paperback version.
And how many people have downloaded the book?
And you mentioned to me that you now have an agent?
I knew him from my early days at Amazon when he was CEO at Warner Books, Larry Kirshbaum. He runs a literary agency….I reached out and shared (Carlos) with him, and he fell in love with it and said he wanted to take it to some editors and see what they think. So he’s in the process (of doing that)…He’s hearing interesting feedback, things like, “We don’t know how to market it because of the length,” or “We don’t know where it fits because it’s in between literary fiction and YA (young adult).”
That’s interesting. We never once thought it was written for a young adult audience…Do you have any desire to write a full-length novel?
I’m not sure I could. I think that would require some skills and talents I don’t possess. I like the short story and novella format. I look at any number of authors I love to read who produce those enormous tomes and think, “I can’t do that.” I do see short stories and poems, and think, “I can do that.” I love Richard Powers, William Vollmann, Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen, people who write these big books with big themes. I can’t do it, I don’t think. It took me a year to write a 40-page book; I couldn’t imagine writing a 700-page epic novel. (Another author I admire is) Thomas Pynchon. I’ve never finished one of his books. Is it possible to be inspired by someone when you’ve never finished one of their books?…
So what are your writing goals now?
My daughter actually rates my stories. She gives me between a 1 and a 10. I said if I ever get a 10, then I’m going to write that book. My immediate goal is to receive a 10 and then publish that. I’ve got a great idea about a unicorn who, instead of having a horn on his head, has an umbrella. We’ll call it the Umbrellacorn…
Thank you for your time, and best of luck with your wonderful book!