An Interview With J F Burgess

This week, it’s my pleasure to introduce crime author, J F Burgess who I met recently. I was instantly intrigued by his books and have added his first to my reading list.

Q. Your latest book, A Place of Reckoning, has just been released. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

A. It’s the second book in the DI Tom Blake series. Blake and his team, along with FBI profiler, Lucy Stryker, are in a race against time to find the kidnapped wife of wealthy pottery owner, Charles Lancaster. It appears at first to be a revenge kidnap by a devious Irish criminal, Patrick Dunne, whose son tragically died in an accident working in a factory owned by Lancaster. However, there is a sadistic killer on the loose murdering women; their headless bodies turn up with cryptic tarot cards tattooed on their backs. It seems the killer is part of a sadistic cult. Blake, his team and Stryker are up against it in this fast-paced crime thriller, to solve the murders before Lancaster’s wife becomes the next victim.

Q. How hard is it to write a series?

A. To be honest, this is the first series I have written and I’ve been learning as I go along. Although each book in the series is a new gripping murder mystery, it’s all about being consistent with the police team of characters, their backstories and the tropes that define them within the areas that they operate.

Q. How did you first get the idea for DI Blake and how is he taking shape as a character over the two books?

A. Before I answer the question I’d like to provide some context and background to what has, and still does influence who my protagonist is.

There is a strong sense of place in my books. Stoke on Trent is my hometown and since the 1980s it’s gone through some very tough times, with the loss of all its industrial jobs, in the mines and steel industry. The greed of shareholders saw famous pottery firms ship another thirty thousand jobs in the 90s.

That combined with ten years of cruel Tory austerity and major local government cuts has led to a major rise in crime. This is reflected in “Cops Like Us”, a new BBC2 TV documentary following the Hanley police force, which my books are inspired by. They even used the same dilapidated 1960s station before moving into the fire station next door.

Staffordshire Constabulary is one of the most cut forces in the UK, with a loss of over 568 officers and because several mental health charities have had their funding cut by the local government, Hanley’s officers are left to cope with issues caused by unemployment and addiction.

Officers now find themselves dealing with non-police related problems such as suicides and mental health in the community on top of tackling crime and rising addiction to a vile street drug called Monkey Dust, which like PCP, causes users to become violently unpredictable and gain extreme strength.

It’s very sad, but also extremely inspiring to see what a wonderful job their depleted ranks do in the face of such complex challenges.

All this real crime and post-industrial dereliction has helped me to develop DI Tom Blake, his team and the crimes they investigate.

Q. What do you most enjoy about writing in the crime genre?

A. I read somewhere that all good fiction reflects how society is at any given point in time. Books that spring to mind are Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (The Napoleonic Wars and the French revolution), Charles Dickens Oliver Twist (Victorian Poverty Reform Act) and Irvine Welsh’s cult classic, Train Spotting (post-punk culture before the rave scene kicked off the second summer of love in the late 80s). 

The UK has been thrown into a form of chaos due to cruel, punishing austerity cuts since 2007. Crime has become much more devious and organised. British police now have to deal with everything from modern slavery, cannabis farms, knife crimes, to the ever-increasing threat of complex cybercrime and fraud from emerging economies such as India and China.

Being able to write storylines that mirror these changes in criminality and it impact on society fascinates me.  

Q. Where do you get your ideas from?

A. TV dramas, crime novels, real-crime books, and crime reports in local and national newspapers, to people I meet in everyday life. There are some great characters out there, the more eccentric or bigoted the better.

Q. You used to self-publish racing how-to manuals. How different do you find writing fiction?

A. Now there’s a question!  Putting together how-to-books is all about accurate research in your specialist field of knowledge, and then conveying steps the target audience needs to take to achieve something.  To be honest, it’s like paint by numbers compared to writing fiction, which is so much harder. 

Naturally, I’ve been a keen reader of the crime genre for many years, and I did tons of research and learning before I began (I used the Teach Yourself book series), which are essentially creative writing courses. But nothing can prepare you for the enormous task of writing an 80 to 100,000-word story chocked full of intrigue, suspense and relatable characters. To me, it was like learning a new language: extremely challenging, but very gratifying, and with the help of a good editor, things eventually fell into place.

Q. What’s the hardest thing you find about being a writer?

A. Gaining a foothold within the crime fiction or any other market on Amazon is enormously difficult: it’s hugely competitive! 

A few years ago it was possible to write a great book, self-publish it on Amazon and make organic sales on the site, and lot of authors did extremely well during those days by using a FREE ebook as a lead magnet to their other work. 

Amazon actually ranked books in both the paid and free categories in those heady days, which meant it was much easier to gain exposure and higher rankings when there was only a few hundred thousand ebooks on the platform. Now it’s massively different. For starters there are over six-million ebooks on the site and we are all competing with successful authors and publishers who spend literally thousands a month on marketing on the platform: everything from sponsored ads to AMS ads.

It’s no longer an even playing field, and as I’ve been told by a very successful self-pub author–“Amazon isn’t a book store anymore, it’s a search engine. Ignore keywords readers search for at your own peril.”

Avoid listing your book in the main categories for your genre, as the majority of writers won’t sell enough books to gain a decent ranking in those. For example, you’d need to sell 5000 books just get in the top 10 of X.” Why handicap yourself massively before you even begin. Instead, list in the less competitive sub-categories where you need to sell a lot less books to get a decent ranking and exposure.  However, simply writing a great book is only just the beginning.

Q. Can you tell us about your journey to publication?

A. I tried like other writers to get a trad deal and had my fair share of rejections, but after reading an online survey regarding the most successful self-pubs on Amazon, my mindset changed. The survey concluded that thousands of published authors don’t earn more than reasonably successful self-published authors, and in the top 100k earning authors on Amazon, most make considerably less. Excluding household names of course, and irrespective of earnings, all self-pubs can make 70% royalties on each book sale. Something unheard of in trad publishing!

I’m firmly now in the self-publishing camp. You have 100% control over everything and the royalties are so much higher. And given that a publisher expects an author to do most of their own marketing anyway, I feel there’s a much better chance of succeeding as a self-pub as long as you have the right mindset and plan in place.

Also, every published writer I’ve ever spoken too has told me, everything in trad publishing moves at a snail’s pace and the level of control over your work is limited: whereas a proficient self-pub can bring a book to the market with 12 weeks or less!

Having said that, if the chance came along to sign a deal with one of the newbie online publishers like Bloodhound or Joffe books, who I know pay 50% royalties, I’d seriously consider it.

Q. Do you get time to read yourself and if you do, what books do you read?

A. I read every night between 7-8 pm, then in bed from 10.30 until 11.30 pm, fairly religiously. My reading tastes are quite eclectic. Crime fiction is my favourite, but I also love reading historicals, true crime and thrillers.

But when I’m writing a new novel, initially it’s all about the research, which I find fascinating, and can spend weeks doing. 

In a Place of Reckoning there is a clan of Irish travellers, involved in various criminalities. To ensure my facts were accurate I read and dissected a book written by a journalist who spends tons of time with various traveller communities, in both Ireland and the UK.

The fact a retired Crime Squad officer from Northern Ireland contacted me to say he enjoyed the book immensely because the characters were similar to his daily investigations tells me the research really paid off. Here’s what he had to say…

“I am a retired Crime  Squad  Officer in Ireland  and your book and details are incredible and almost the same when I was serving. I could go on but I better not. Great book!”

Q. Finally, what advice can you give to writers who haven’t yet had the break they’re looking for?

A. As Dr Richard Wiseman says in his book The Luck Factor: “Successful people create their own luck.” Barring winning a lottery ticket LUCK is a combination of hard work and emulating those who are already successful.

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2 Responses to An Interview With J F Burgess

  1. An entertaining and interesting author interview, Esther. The last sentence “LUCK is a combination of hard work and emulating those who are already successful.” particularly impressed me. I also believe this.

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