Tuesday, 30 June 2020

London Noir – Greg Keen’s Soho Success Story

As soon as I saw the covers of Greg Keen’s novels I could see that here was a kindred spirit. They are dark and neon-lit so I knew I had to interview Greg for Dark Neon. Here Greg tells me not only about his writing but also about the benefits of working with his publisher, Thomas & Mercer – who happen to be a branch of Amazon!

What makes you want to write?

I think it’s basically a compulsive urge otherwise it would be difficult to face the amount of rejection tyro novelists almost inevitably face, including me. Where the compulsion comes from, I’ve no idea.

How much of your Soho novels is based on your own experiences and how much is pure invention?

The places are mostly disguised venues I’ve visited at some point. Very few are entirely invented.  

What’s your approach to research? I’m assuming you have never actually been a private detective or socialised with gangsters. So how did you find out what that world is like?

Right on both counts! I worked for a publishing company based in Soho for ten years and became obsessed with the place. There are a number of books about the area, many about criminals and criminal activity. Much research came from these.

Do you outline your novels before you start writing or do you just ‘go with the flow’?

I’m very much a plotter and usually write a lengthy document outlining the story. This always changes as I write - one character often pushes to the front  - although having the safety net of a plot gives me the confidence to improvise. 

On Amazon, I see that your novels are ranked in ‘Humourous Dark Comedy’,  ‘Noir Crime’, ‘Private Investigator Mysteries’, ‘Mystery’ and ‘Suspense’. Is it useful for an author to be categorised in specific genres? In fact, is it useful for an author deliberately to target a novel at a specific genre?

I’d say yes. It’s important to think about the genre requirements. That doesn’t mean they should stifle originality, just be aware that readers (and publishers) will expect certain ingredients to be in the mix. 

On your web site you say that you train and coach sales people, account managers and others. Can you explain (briefly) what that means?  Who are the people you teach and what, of practical benefit, do they learn?

I help media organisations and ad agencies pitch their services using narrative techniques. This allows them to show how they differ from their competitors in an engaging and memorable way. In addition to this, I also coach writers.

Your novels are published by Thomas & Mercer which is, I believe, a branch of Amazon. Did they approach you or did you approach them?

They were on my agent’s radar and she approached them along with conventional publishers.

What are the benefits of publishing with Thomas & Mercer compared with self-publishing?

Thomas & Mercer are great people to work with in general and I can’t imagine having a better developmental editor. By far and away the stand-out advantage is when it comes to marketing though. 

Based on your professional profile, I assume that you are super-good at marketing in a way that most writers aren’t? If so, what’s your top tip to help us do more effective marketing?

Actually, I don’t have a marketing background so am probably not the best person to ask. Also, as Thomas & Mercer is a division of Amazon, that means its marketing clout is considerable, as I’m sure you can imagine.

Do you do any advertising (for example, Amazon or Facebook) for your novels? If so, what, if anything, have you found works well?

Not really. Again having Amazon as your publisher is a huge advantage in this area.

Did you succeed in getting your first novel published right away or did you spend a few years starving in a garret papered with rejection slips?

Very much the latter. Soho Dead – the first book in the trilogy – was the fourth full length novel I completed. The first draft was rejected by several agents and entirely re-written twice. Winning the CWA Debut Dagger was a huge advantage in getting the book read by prospective agents.

What advice would you give to someone who is writing a novel for this first time?

Get your first draft down as quickly as possible. Many writers don’t finish as they are trying to write and edit at the same time. It's amazing how much your second draft can improve, but you do need to get to the end.

What are you writing now?

A book about a crime novelist and a serial killer. It isn’t specifically based in Soho, although a couple of characters find their way there.

Greg Keen is the author the Soho Series of urban noir crime novels. He lives in and writes about London.

Greg provides coaching services for writers at www.novelbuilder.co.uk 

Friday, 12 June 2020

Tony McHale Interview – The Art and Craft Of Writing, from TV to Novels

For the inside information on the art, craft and business of writing, you won’t do better than talking to Tony McHale. His writing credits are jaw-dropping. Having written scripts for many of the best known TV series – ranging from The Bill to EastEnders – he is also an actor and, most recently, a novelist. Tony is passionate about writing and (luckily for us!) he is very free with advice for other writers. Here I talk to Tony about everything from the ‘rules’ of good writing (and how to break them!) to the pros and cons of self-publishing…

Tony McHale has written for many hugely popular TV dramas. Check his bio on IMDB https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0570370/ and Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_McHale.

Ever since the 1970s, you’ve written an amazing number of scripts for theatre, radio and TV. Why did it take you so long to write a novel?

When I was an actor I started writing and directing stage plays, not as a means of making money, but because I loved that creativity.  Then, whilst driving home one night, I heard a rather horrific problem on an early days radio call-in show.  I found I couldn’t get it out of my mind so I wrote a radio play about it, which the BBC bought. 

From there I progressed onto TV and gradually the writing took over from the acting. I realised I much preferred writing and directing to acting, and if I had a choice between writing and directing, I’d choose writing. Nothing happens without a script – nobody works.  Through the whole of the 80s I was working flat out on TV dramas and didn’t have the time to even think about writing a novel. Then suddenly I thought, as a serious professional writer, I should write a novel.  At the end of the 80s I took time out from TV writing and started a novel only to have the process interrupted by a family drama, and somehow by the time the drama was over, I was back writing and directing TV projects.
Cut to 2016 and I made a conscious decision, because of the way the long running series were being run, the creativity having gone from them and format writing was the thing, that I needed to step back from them, which gave me the opportunity to write my first novel – BECK LE STREET. Now I’m on my third.

In terms of the writing process, what are the main differences between writing scripts and writing a novel?

A script for me is a shorthand version of a novel.  The same preparation goes into both, getting the plotting right, creating the characters – a script is just a more succinct way of telling the story.  Also, generally with a script, you’ll be working to a time frame. TV shows are, by the nature of scheduling, quite tight, not many of us want to sit through a five-hour screenplay. A novel is as long as it is. The character explorations are more thorough and descriptions of locations and atmospheres fuller. 

Having said that, I believe everything you put down in a novel, should be in your head when writing a script.  You should know your characters as if you’d written that prose description and equally location descriptions should be as detailed in your head, if not so much on the paper.  Novels allow you to explore avenues, you wouldn’t include in a screen play – at times it almost feels self-indulgent, but there again your reader needs to be able to ‘see’ every aspect, so they expect that amount of detail.  They don’t read a script, they just see it. Other than that, for me the story process is the same.  And as far as I’m concerned – story is god. Nail the story whether it’s a script or a novel. With a script you tell the story in a tighter, a more economical manner - it’s a great discipline. A novel you’re allowed to include all those bits you had to cut out of a script.

Tony’s series of lessons on the art and craft of writing is available now on YouTube.

You recorded some brilliant videos recently to advise and encourage would-be writers to get writing (You can watch the videos HERE). Do you think anyone can learn to write fiction or drama? Or do people in fact underestimate the effort and the skill needed?

I’d never tell anyone they couldn’t write fiction or drama; I think that’s something you have to learn for yourself, whether you’ve actually got what it takes.  But what I would say is that there are people who believe there is some sort of formula for writing drama.  I became aware of this many years ago when every producer and script editor at the BBC were being sent off to attend the Robert McKee Workshops. Robert McKee has toured the world telling people how to write using his particular formula. I’ve always doubted any formula is the solution to successful scriptwriting.  So I never say if you do ‘a’ then add ‘b’ minus ‘f’ it equals a script – because I don’t think it’s that simple.  I just like to offer up possible ways of working that hopefully make the process easier and more enjoyable.  What I call ‘by-passing the blank page syndrome.’ 

I champion ‘creativity.’ I want a writer, any writer, every writer, to be inspired to write. I don’t see how we can be creative if we’re all writing in the same way to the same formula.  Writing is about individualism, having your own voice, making the drama live - and I don’t see how that can happen adhering to some preordained structure.  There are lots of script writing gurus instructing people how to write and for me they cause more damage than good. Writers have to find themselves, find their own method, practice, practice, practice (in other words – write, write, write) and then there’s a chance they could create something special.

Watch the first episode of Tony’s ‘Write Time’ guides for writers.

Quite a few well-known writers have written books and essays about the art and craft of writing? Are there any that you can recommend (or, indeed, any that you would warn against)?

I’ll be honest the only one I ever really read was Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, I’ve skimmed lots of others and also attended The Robert McKee Workshop, I had to find out what all the fuss was about and the meaning of certain terminology that was being spouted by every editor throughout the land.  They all say very much the same, just using different jargon. And as I’ve explained I think it gives would-be writers the wrong impression, as if writing were like doing a maths puzzle – but a ‘first reversal’ and a great ‘mid-point’ does not guarantee a good script.  

The book I recommend everyone to read is William Goldman’s … Adventures in the Screen Trade.  Goldman wrote such classics as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride, Marathon Man and many, many more, he certainly didn’t use an A, B  and C of how to write a script. It’s an insight into the world of a professional writer and helps you the understand that it doesn’t matter how good you are, or what you’ve achieved, we all get treated the same.  

Some writers set out rules of good writing or good style. I’ve heard you say a few times that “there are no rules”. Can you think of any so-called “rules” of writing that you’ve broken – and explain why?

There’s this myth about writing that there are rules and patterns you have to follow.  One of the simplest is the rule about act structure.  It has to be a three-act structure, or a five act structure, I’ve even heard talk of a seven act structure. It’s often said that the three-act structure came from way back and is talked about in Aristotle’s Poetics.  In fact Aristotle was commenting on Greek tragedies, by observing that they all had a beginning, a middle and an end. There was no great theory with regards to three acts, it was just common sense.  I never consciously write in an act structure.  If I’m writing a stage play, then I know it’s going to be two acts. After an hour or so people need a loo break, a glass of wine, stretch their legs – whatever.  So I know I need to build to that act drop. But of course, in a half hour episode on the BBC there are no breaks, so I just write a story that fits the time slot.  Instinct tells you when the pace or direction of the story needs to change, not the number of pages you’ve written.  The same for an hour-long BBC drama.  If I’m writing for ITV, you’re suddenly into two acts for 30 minutes, whether you like it or not. The hour-long slot used to work for the theorists because it was three acts – then they added another commercial break, so it’s now four acts. How does that fit in with the rule?  

Basically, the story has to work – bottom line. If it helps to write with the idea of some act structure, then use it, I would say just don’t get hung up on it.  My belief is most things developed out of necessity.  An act in Elizabethan times was the length of time it took a candle to burn down and later in the 20th century when theatre going habits changed, gradually playwrights moved away from three acts to two, people no longer wanted to spend three and a half hours in a theatre.  For me all the so called rules are just common sense, instinct and/or necessity.

Most of your career has been devoted to writing scripts which must mean you’ve written a huge amount of dialogue. Not all novelists are good at dialogue. Have you got any tips to help them improve?

I think writing good dialogue is about hearing it.  Hear the voices of the characters in your head. To get that authenticity you need to constantly listen to people, their speech patterns, their phrases, their accents and their tones.  Once you’ve written the dialogue, especially if you’re starting out, read it out loud, then read it with someone and then if you can get some people to act it out, so much the better. You can constantly tweak as you move through each phase. I always end up reading out my dialogue, even if it’s to myself, because you should be able to feel when it jars.

What’s a typical writing day for you? Do you have a set routine? Do you set yourself a target – for example, to write a certain number of words each day?

I try and write every day, but I don’t have a set routine. This comes from when I was really flat out with TV scripts and I was constantly up against deadlines. So sometimes it would mean working way into the night, sometimes it meant getting up at three in the morning, sometimes it meant working round the clock. When I was starting out, I was an actor which meant I was either acting or fitting carpets, or loading lorries or whatever to make a buck, I had to write when I could. So I’ve never had a routine. What I do have though is an unfortunate habit of always believing I will get things written quicker than actually happens. It’s a sort of optimism, which I’ve never lost.  I do set myself targets, I need to get so much done before such and such a time – that can be words or it can be scenes.  It’s hit and miss whether I make it or not.

What do you do when you sit at your desk and you just can’t think what to write?

Taking on board there are no rules … I tend to plan quite thoroughly.  I don’t just set off blindly.  Things change on route, but I always know the direction I’m going. This means I rarely get writer’s block – if ever.  I might get to something that I need to sort out, clarify how something will work, but for me that’s just part of the process. I’m normally working on more than one thing at once, so if something needs serious thinking time, I just move onto another project. 

Many famous dramatists got their big break writing one-off plays for TV. But the days of ‘Armchair Theatre’ or ‘The Wednesday Play’ are long gone. How would someone go about getting their first chance at writing for TV these days?

I seriously lament the passing of ‘Armchair Theatre’ and the ‘Wednesday Play.’ I wrote a blog recently which was prompted by a re-viewing of Nell Dunn’s ‘Up The Junction.’  A lot of those writers had worked in theatre or written other things – Up The Junction was originally a set of short stories by Nell Dunn. And that part of it still remains good today. Writer’s write.  So the main thing is to write something. Get yourself a number of scripts that you’re pleased with and start to shop them round.  Look out for producers of programmes you feel you’re in tune with and send them a script.  You might get lucky and someone will read it.  Remember apart from the BBC and ITV, there are numerous independent companies who need material.  Then of course the BBC’s writer’s room (check out their website) there’s also BBC’s Writers’ Academy (again check out their website).  I’m not a great believer in the latter, but there’s no doubt it’s a route into the business.  The main thing is perseverance.  Don’t expect to write a script and immediately get a commission, it rarely, if ever, happens. I was writing stage plays before I moved into TV, radio plays are a great calling card and also a lot of fun to write.  Don’t get disheartened just keeping on knocking on doors.

What has been the most satisfying thing you’ve ever written?

I’ve written lots of things I’ve been proud of, things like ‘Silent Witness – The World Cruise’ and ‘Holby City’s Elliot’s It’s A Wonderful Life’ ( A Christmas special), but I think probably the most satisfying was a eight part thriller serial I did back in the 1990s called ‘Resort To Murder.’  The end result was somewhat disappointing (long story), but the writing of it was great.  There’d been nothing like it at the time, and I don’t think there’s been anything like it since.  More recently I’ve obtained the rights for Adam Adamant, the 60s cult TV series about an Edwardian gent who is cryogenically frozen and comes back to life in the 1960s. I always wanted to do a film version, which I’ve now finished. My Adam Adamant is a Victorian gent who comes back in the 21st Century. Just loved writing it and we have a reading of it in the next couple of weeks – of course on Zoom.

 And are there any things that you wish you hadn’t written?

Not really – the disappointment can often come with the final production, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I wish I hadn’t written it.

For anyone who wants to write books, the publishing process has been revolutionised over the past few years. Some writers (including some I’ve interviewed on this blog) have had huge success self-publishing their books direct to paperback or Kindle via Amazon. Is there really any point any longer in trying to get deals with traditional publishers via literary agents?

I still think there’s great value going the traditional route, the problem being it can be such a laborious route. You hear story after story about how really successful novels were rejected by numerous publishers, and whoever you are, that becomes tedious, because a lot of the time you’re clearly in the hands of people who are not confident about what they’re doing.  The Beatles were rejected by Decca in favour of Brian Poole and the Tremeloes – Who? … I hear anybody under 65 saying. But they were still getting their material out there, playing in clubs etc. If you’ve done the work it’s good to get it read or heard, but The Beatles needed the Parlophone platform to hit the stratosphere.

Your novel ‘Beck le Street’ is only available for Kindle. Why no paperback?

As it’s my first novel and I had no idea what the reaction would be, I decided just to get it out there as an e-book and see how it went down. I’ve had some great reviews and now have to decide where to go next.  

I believe your novel is published by Troubador which is an independent publisher that assists self-published authors. What advantage do they give you over doing it all yourself by publishing direct to Amazon?

I suppose the best thing they gave me was the know-how.  I looked into doing it without help, but I considered I would benefit more involving someone who knew what they were doing.

Did you consider publishing your novel with a ‘traditional’ publisher? If not, why not?

I very much did consider publishing it with a traditional publisher, and still am considering it. I just got bored of waiting.  My agent was sending it out and we were getting a great response.  One publisher contacted my agent halfway through and actually said they were totally hooked, and he couldn’t put it down. But then the timing wasn’t right or something.  There it was, sitting in my computer, I’d done the hard work and yet nobody had the means to actually read it. So I thought it was better out there, than just gathering the metaphorical dust in my computer.

Having watched a number of the videos you’ve recorded giving advice to writers, I can’t help thinking you should write a book on that subject. Any chance of that?

I wouldn’t mind writing a book on my take on writing, but I think I would need it commissioning. It’s such a specific market, needing a specific publisher, if not it would be difficult to get it out there.  The other problem would be, that my idea and approach to writing flies in the face of all the other people out there making money out of selling courses, methods and books.  I touch on a lot of my theories and thoughts about writing in my blogs. There’s ‘Blueprints are for Civil Servants’, ‘The Story is God’  ‘F****** Enjoy It’‘Never Recycle’ are a few of the blogs that deal with those thoughts and ideas.  So the short answer is – ‘Yes, would love write a book on writing’ … if somebody wants me to.

Tony McHale was born in Bradford and started his professional career as an actor, before moving onto writing and directing, for the stage and TV.  He has written literally hundreds of hours of popular drama including Silent Witness, The Bill, Trial and Retribution, Dalziel and Pascoe, Waking The Dead, plus numerous others, as well as being one of the original writers on EastEnders and co-creating Holby City for which he was Executive Producer, Series Consultant and Lead Writer. He has worked all over the world creating TV dramas and recently completed his first novel - BECK LE STREET.

Website: www.tonymchale.com       
Twitter:  @TonyMchale11
Visit my website for regular blogs which are a bit about writing, a bit about my career and a bit about life.

Monday, 6 April 2020

Nicola May interview: Chick-lit With a Kick!

If you are stuck in self isolation and feel the need to escape to a better world, Nicola May’s top-selling Cockleberry Bay books, set a quaint Devon village, could be just the thing! Here Nicola tells me about her books, her life as a writer, and why romcom appeals to men as well as women…
Your books are sometimes described as ‘rom-com’ or ‘chick lit’. What do you think about categorising novels in genres in that way? Good or bad? 

I think it’s a good thing.  If there weren’t categories on Amazon, there are so many books to search through, it would be kind of daunting and not easy to find the sort of read you preferred.  And my books are romantic comedies and fall under chick-lit. Although I like to call my books chick-lit with a kick, as I am not frightened to deal with issues like bereavement, infidelity, infertility and domestic abuse. So many people out there are stuffy about the genre I write. The fact that I was no 1 on Amazon for 6 weeks last January and I am again as I type, with the same book proves that this is very readable and sought-after genre.
Your books are very British in style and setting. Does that risk limiting their appeal to an international audience?

I did think it might, but in the past year I have signed translation deals with Italy, Spain, The Netherlands, Russia, Estonia, Czechia and am also talking to Croatia so that proved me wrong! This makes me think the setting holds no weight, it is the content which is full of love, life, conflict and community that is what is making the Cockleberry Bay series so popular.
What’s a typical writing day for you? Do you have a set routine? Do you set yourself a target – to write a certain number of words each day?

Once I am in the throes of a new book, I literally just write. I wake up, have breakfast and then write until I am too tired to write any more. Usually a chunk of 6 hours is my limit, but if I am in the flow after that, I just carry on. I am happy if I write 2000 words a day as a minimum.

The biography on your web site contains words that strike terror into the heart of every budding author – “unable to find a publisher…” Can you tell me what attempts you made to publish the ‘traditional’ way? 

Yes, back in 2003 I wrote to nineteen agents, got eighteen ‘No’s but then did sign with one. They sent my book to many publishers over two years but to no avail. We parted ways. I then self published to moderate success. I then did sign a 7-book deal with a publisher, but I wasn’t happy with the results, so decided to go it alone again.

I am lucky that I have a marketing background, which has no doubt helped progress my books to such giddy heights. I also am maverick and quite ballsy. I once chased the book buyer of W H Smith at the London Book Fair and then placed my book in his hand, which subsequently got stocked at W H Smith travel.
I do think that having a publisher suits many people well as they don’t have the marketing skills necessary to get their books out there. It is a constant job to promote your books to readers. It’s not a case of ‘oh its on the shelf, everyone will buy it now’, which I do think a lot of people fall foul to. You know it’s there, but nobody else does unless you tell them. My success is due to a lot of hard work and persistence; even when my books weren’t doing that well. It wasn’t until my ninth book that I could give up the day job.
You said you signed to a publisher. Why didn’t you stick with them?

I wasn’t happy with the financial reward. My contract was a 75/25 split for eBooks and 90/10 split for paperbacks in the publisher’s favour. I also felt constricted in what marketing I could do myself. This was in 2015. I decided to self publish again in 2018.
What was the biggest problem you had when you began self-publishing?

It was hard to make money out of paperbacks. By the time you have paid for a book to be printed in a relatively small run, paid a distributor – Waterstones only buy through a distributor who take around 45% of book value – and then post it, I was drawing even or even running at a loss.
What would you do differently if you were starting all over again?

I have learnt so much and met so many people through every success and failure that I wouldn’t do anything differently. The journey has made me the author and businesswoman I am today.
However, my advice when starting out as a self-published author is just go for eBooks first. It is so much easier to convert a word document into a MOBI for Kindle with a simple cover design. Very few overheads and little hassle.  And if you do decide to go for paperbacks, create them through the Amazon KDP platform. They are printed for you and posted out, so you avoid the whole distribution process.

Also just solely sell your eBooks through Amazon KDP, you can then make use of all their tutorials, promotions etc. It really is a no-brainer.

You have an astonishing number of reviews on Amazon (3,684, and rising, for ‘The Corner Shop in Cockleberry Bay’!).  That’s more reviews than some Stephen King books get! How do you do it?

It is a good book. And, I think probably volume of sales. I have now sold around 187,000 copies Also, it has been on Prime Reading, so another huge audience there. I also put a friendly interview request in the back of my books. And it is the kind of read that I hope evokes true emotion so maybe people feel driven to review it.
Do you ever read the reviews that people write on Amazon? If so, are there any that you particularly remember?

Yes, I read lots of them, good and bad.  One of them told me that I should go back to school and learn English. I think it’s the ones where readers who tell me that they hadn’t picked up a book for years and are now back in to reading because of my writing, that are the most heartening.

You said that you  a background in marketing. What did you do to market your books?

That’s a big question. But I usually do a pre-order build up campaign on social media. I then arrange a blog tour, around the book. This time for The Gift of Cockleberry Bay I have a 50 strong tour, where reviews and excerpts will be shared for a 2-week period from publication day. I then do blog posts, like this and usually would get out to festivals etc; maybe talk on the radio; but of course, this won’t be happening for a while. So, I will just continue to put up Facebook boosted posts and regularly post on Twitter.

What do you think is the biggest marketing mistake that authors make?

Not doing enough of it. You must be persistent. It’s no good just throwing one tweet or FB post up a week and hoping it will stick. I also see so many authors forget to include a link to their book on posts. People are lazy, so you need to make it easy for them. Every time you get a good review, throw it out there. Make use of occasions, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day etc., to promote.
Do you use Amazon or Facebook advertising? If so, how effective are they?

I boost posts on Facebook, which link to Instagram. I have no measure if they are successful, but they are not expensive, and you create a brand-new audience to keep ‘touching’ with your messages. I’m not very good at working out how to use the Amazon advertising, but I have used in the past. I need to go on a course!  Once you do get into a chart, even top 100, shout about it. People are very likely to download something that is charting.
At the moment, the world is a pretty depressing place. If you could recommend one of your books to cheer us up, which would it be?

It would have to be the Cockleberry Bay Trilogy. They are full of heart and soul and life lessons. Plus, the sense of community, which we are all beginning to experience, at the moment, features heavily in them. The characters are real, the emotions are true. I don’t sugar coat anything.  I love the fact that many men are reading them too. I guess they have romcom covers, but there is more kick, than chick-lit in them, hence the universal and worldwide appeal.
And a book by another author?

A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale. Love his books! Love his flawed characters! His writing has taught me a lot.

Nicola May is a rom-com superstar. She is the author of eleven romantic comedies, all of which have appeared in the Kindle bestseller charts. The Corner Shop in Cockleberry Bay is currently the best-selling Kindle book in the UK, across all genres and she was the number one indie author on Amazon last year. She lives near Ascot racecourse with her black-and-white rescue cat, Stanley.

website: www.nicolamay.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/nicolamay1
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/author_nicola/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NicolaMayAuthor

The Gift of Cockleberry Bay, the third in Nicola's much acclaimed Cockleberry Bay Series is out now: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Gift-Cockleberry-Bay-Third-loved-ebook/dp/B081S7JWRS/

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Mark Gillespie interview: The Joy of Dystopia!

Mark Gillespie is the author of numerous dystopian novels. In these dark days, that might sound depressing. In fact, this is an incredibly popular genre. Here Mark tells me how he started out by writing about The Beatles but only found real success when he switched to writing about life after the apocalypse.

You’ve written a great many dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels. To anyone whose never read them, it might sound as if they would be incredibly depressing. In fact, these are very popular genres. Can you explain the attraction?

Ah yes, the old doom and gloom fiction. And yet they are popular (although with COVID-19 on the loose we’ll see how long that lasts!). I think there are several reasons for the popularity of these genres. They’re fascinating forms of speculative fiction that allow us – within the safety of a fictional framework – to pull the rug out from under humanity’s feet and see what happens. It’s a misanthropy thing perhaps. It’s like shaking the snow globe and seeing a very different picture of reality emerge once the snow settles. As long as it’s entertaining first and foremost and not preachy we can, through these dark speculative scenarios, deliver both warnings about the direction we might be going in and at the same time, deliver some kind of hope that rebels against it. This hope we filter through the hero.

On your website you say that when you started writing, you “self-published a little without knowing what I was doing”. You’ve obviously learnt how to do it since then. What did you used to do wrong? And what have you done to make improvements?

Back then I just threw things out there and did nothing afterwards. I was only half-invested in the outcome as I had other things going on in life. These early releases were experiments, okayish short stories with crappy covers sourced from sites like Fiverr. I didn’t know anything about the real business of being an indie, such as high quality blurbs, pro cover requirements, keyword categories or any of the other intricacies that help books gain visibility. And back then if you’d suggested paid advertising I would have pulled a face and said ‘what?’

How many books have you written now?

I think I’ve written about 17 since December 2015. I can do about five in a good year (short novels) and I use box sets too because having multiple entry points for new readers to discover your work is a good thing. It’s a great thing actually because people love box sets don’t they?

Do you set yourself a target to write so many words every day, or so many books in a specific time?

I don’t have word targets anymore. They don’t seem to work for me so it’s usually a set number of hours per writing session. I go in and give it my all.

Do you have a target word count for each book?

I don’t have a target word count but for some reason I tend to end up in the 50-60k short novel range almost every single time. That might be because I prefer to read shorter novels myself.

Do people who read eBooks have different expectations of the size of a book than people who read paperbacks?

Regarding expectations of size, I think there’s less awareness overall with an ebook because you’re reading on a Kindle, a phone or whatever device and it’s less obvious how much there’s left to go in the book. With ebooks there’s more variety available too – you’re more likely to encounter novellas, novelettes and short stories in ebook form because there’s a certain expectation when submitting to trade publishers that your book has to be 80k or something like that. With indies, who thrive in the ebook arena, you can do whatever you want.

What software do you use when writing, designing or publishing your books?

I still use Word for writing although my writer friends are constantly encouraging me to use Scrivener. One day I’ll get around to it. I format my print and ebooks using Vellum. Vellum is fantastic and it actually makes formatting a pleasure. That’s something I thought I’d never say because historically speaking, formatting an ebook was a giant pain in the arse. But Vellum’s so easy to use, easy to add links to etc. I used to outsource formatting and that was a problem when it came to updating backmatter and adding new links.

Indie authors are bombarded with advice from ‘experts’ on covers, titles, blurbs and so on.  In terms of helping a book to attract potential readers, what would be your advice?

Bruce Lee said: ‘Absorb what is useful, discard what is not. Add what is uniquely your own.’ We can adopt and apply that to writing advice. The fundamentals are everything – a great book, a great cover, great blurbs and after that you’re on a rollercoaster ride of testing and experimenting. You’ll fail and hopefully you’ll succeed too. The mailing list is a great tool that’s going nowhere. Build that. Paid ads can help but they’re no guarantee and they can be a hell of a lot of hard work and often it’ll feel like you’re throwing money away. Blogging? That almost feels old school now but I’m sure it works for some. However, many authors with successful blogs will tell you that lots of hits still won’t move the needle in terms of sales.

Unfortunately there’s no shortcut to finding long-term readers. It’s a lot of hard work and you need to be willing to play the long game. Be there five years down the line when everyone else in your genre is flagging or they’ve given up. Your mindset is crucial. Shut out the negative voices whether that’s your inner voice or the doubting voice of others. Forget that. Write, finish and while you’re promoting that one, you’re writing the next book. Rinse and repeat. Be aware of the opportunities to market and find out what works for you. To condense all of the above, keep going!

You provide free books when people sign up to your newsletter. That sounds like you are giving away work that you could be selling! Presumably, there is more to your generosity than meets the eye. How important to your success are your email list and book giveaways?

My email list is my biggest asset. I’m working on growing it all the time and not just adding names but adding the right names. People who engage. So I check the list and make sure people who aren’t engaging long term are out. Bear in mind, after you reach a certain number of subscribers on the likes of Mailchimp you’ll have to start paying. I’m happy to give free books in order to land a potential reader for life. I get the hesitation though. It’s easier to swallow if you’ve got a decent volume of work behind you.

In order to get people to sign up to your newsletter, they have to know it exists. Where do most people find out about it?

There are clickable links in my books at the front and back. I also regularly take part in Bookfunnel and Prolific Works giveaways, which bring in a large number of new subscribers. These two outlets provide great opportunities to get your work into the hand of new readers, both free books for newsletter signups and also in terms of getting sales too. You have to pay monthly fees but it’s worth it to build that newsletter.

Your blog has a great article on Facebook advertising. You wrote that a few years ago, however. Is Facebook advertising still important to you?

My brother wrote that article. He’s a digital marketing expert who’s given me excellent advice in the past and helped me with the website, especially the technical aspects of WordPress. I use Amazon ads more nowadays to be honest. I would like to commit more to Facebook ads and get that going but again often it’s just a matter of not enough time in the day. There are also Bookbub paid ads, which I’ve been dabbling with. Not with a great deal of success. As of now, Amazon ads are working best for me.

Why do you think Amazon ads work better?

I’ve had more success with Amazon ads but I’m sure it’s because I’ve spent more time working on them. Other factors might apply too in terms of which platform is more successful, such as genre. Ads are bloody hard work no matter what the platform. They can be frustrating but there’s no doubt they can work. Just don’t expect it to be easy and don’t expect to become a millionaire. Again, it’s the long game.

What else do you do to promote your books?

I write more books. I’m fairly active on my Facebook page and I cross promote with other authors when I can, as in newsletter swaps. Every little helps. Be available and stay active.

What is the biggest mistake you’ve made in writing or marketing your books to date?

I’m not sure, to be honest. There are obviously mistakes here and there but it’s all just a learning process. I feel like I’ve learned on the job. At the beginning I was writing alternate histories that very few people wanted to read. I had to – if I wanted to make this gig my living – become more aware of what I enjoyed writing and what others wanted to read. I cannot write purely to market but I will consider aligning my interests with things that other people are interested in picking up and reading. That led me to the genres I’m working in now.

And what has been your biggest success?

Being able to do something I love all day every day. That was always the dream.

If you were starting your writing career all over again today, what would you do differently?

Knowing what I know I’d be a little less self-indulgent. I was writing incredibly niche stuff – alternate histories about the Beatles in late 2015/early 2016. I had fun with it but it wasn’t the right thing in terms of starting my career. I’d be a little clearer about what I wanted to write and more conscious about what people wanted to read.

Finally, what can you tell us about your “small menagerie of four-legged rescue creatures”?

The menagerie consists of one dog and four rescue cats! There was a gecko in there too at one point but she’s gone now. I’m an animal person and so is my wife (she’s an ECC vet). They’re glorious distractions and I love them but when I’m writing/editing they can drive me crazy! But I recommend all writers acquire a menagerie of their own. And please remember to adopt!

Mark Gillespie is a former musician from Glasgow, Scotland who lives in Australia with his wife Íde and their family of rescue creatures. He writes post-apocalyptic, horror and dystopian fiction. Also known as ‘current affairs’.

Website: https://markgillespieauthor.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/markgillespieswritingstuff/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/MarkG_Author

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Marshall Thornton Interview: Gay-themed Mysteries

If you enjoy detective stories with a good dose of '80s nostalgia, Marshall Thornton's Boystown series of thirteen books may appeal to you. The series has an extra twist since the main character, Nick Nowak, is gay. In this interview, I asked Marshall Thornton about writing Boystown and other novels, and whether writing gay-themed novels provides any special problems for an author. 

Was Boystown your first fiction book? What inspired you to begin writing the Boystown series? 

Yes and no. When Boystown: Three Nick Nowak Mysteries was first published I’d already written drafts of The Perils of Praline and My Favorite Uncle. What happened was… I ran across a call for Christmas-themed gay erotica which, at the time, was a very unusual idea for me so I had to give it a try. I wrote The Christmas Visit for Torquere Press and enjoyed doing that. Then I wrote the first Nick Nowak story and sent it in to them. At the time, they had a glut of short stories and suggested I put three of them together in a book and that’s how the series was born.

Since a traditional publishing company used to publish your books why did you decided, later on,  to publish them yourself?

I have worked with four different small publishers. Two have since gone out of business. The decision to go indie was mainly financial. I lost a survival job and was able to get my rights back. I needed to turn my royalties into a more sustainable income and I have managed to do that.

Have you any regrets about being an indie publisher? Surely it must be easier and less time-consuming to let the publisher take control of all the book-design, marketing and so on? What do you think are the pros and cons of indie versus trad publishing?

Occasionally, you still run across prejudices against indie authors but here’s the deal: All writers are self-published. Even when you publish with a top-tier publisher you never work for them. They simply provide services to you and then take a portion of your royalties—often most of your royalties—in exchange. It’s a big mistake, in my opinion, to forget that they actually work for you and not vice versa. It’s also a mistake, a dangerous one, to believe that publishers are “gatekeepers.” They’re not. Publishers are for-profit-corporations. They make decisions based on what they think will make money, the quality of the book rarely factors into this.

As to whether it’s easier to let a publisher take control… I’ve seen writers fall prey to that fallacy. Once again, publishers are there for the money so if you’re making money for them they lavish attention on you. If you’re not making money for them they forget your name. So, if your book doesn’t make money right out of the gate (and very often they don’t) then you’re screwed because they’re not going to revert the rights to you and they’re not going to spend any money marketing you and they’re not taking your next book. It’s a tough business. For many writers it’s one book and out.
If I wasn’t an indie I probably wouldn’t have a career.

How do you go about writing? Do you have a fixed routine?

I try to work every day. Even on days when I don’t work it’s always there in the background. Sometimes not writing is writing.

I know you do a lot of research to help you recreate the period in which your books are set. Can you explain how you go about research? Is there anything you are particularly proud of getting right (or wrong)?

Well, I lived in Chicago in the eighties and Silverlake in the nineties, so for my series I work a lot from memory. I research, or confirm my memories, on the fly. I’ll stop and double check. (My super hero name is The Mad Googler.) I also skim through a lot of old newspapers.

The Boystown Mysteries and the Pinx Video Mysteries both deal a lot with AIDS and HIV. Much of the AIDS literature from the nineties was focused on New York and the Ivy League educated gay men who had access to publishers. In many ways, they were at the epicenter of the crisis and their stories are important for that reason. I’m proud that I’ve been able to add a different view. My books are more focused on people who are not at the epicenter and whose lives have largely not been written about. They’re more the everyman of the AIDS experience, I suppose. I felt their stories needed to be told.

Your books have a fair amount of sex in them. Does that cause any special problems when distributing them on Amazon?

Many of my books have sex in them, though I’ve been moving away from that. I do have trouble advertising the Boystown Mysteries on Amazon. That’s mainly due to the covers. I have chosen artful nudes for the books to indicate that there is sex, that has prevented me from some advertising opportunities.

Really? Why?

Most platforms restrict the amount of nudity you can have on a cover. Even when it’s relatively minor and tasteful.

Once upon a time, gay-themed books would have been regarded as very much a minority interest. Didn't you ever worry that you would be limiting your potential readership by having gay characters?

I’m not sure I agree with the “once upon a time” portion of this question. I would say gay-themed books still have a great deal of trouble with mainstream publishers. Or rather, gay-themed books from gay authors. The big publishers seem quite content to publish straight writers writing about gay characters. For example, The Long Call by Ann Cleves, Instinct by James Patterson, Love, Simon by Becky Albertalli, Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston and the list goes on and on. You simply don’t see major publishers picking up gay writers like this and it’s truly a shame. This isn’t just speculation on my part. I recently tried to get an agent and was turned down, repeatedly—even with three Lambdas. I think that says quite a lot about the publishing industry’s relationship with gay men.

I hope I don’t sound bitter. I actually love my life right now. I support myself as a writer so I’m thrilled that we now live in a world that will give an indie author a chance. Sure, it would be nice to make the kind of money straight writers are making from gay-themed books. But that’s the way of the world.

In fact, are your readers all gay men or do your books have broader appeal?

As to my readers, I’ve always been on the fringes of m/m romance. Of the four publishers I’ve worked with three have focused on that genre. In case you’re not familiar, m/m romance is a genre largely written by heterosexual women for heterosexual women. Though I’m not a romance writer, I do get a lot of my readers from this group. And, I’ve also been discovered by a lot of gay men, often around my own age.

Code Name: Liberty is a romantic suspense novel featuring a sexy CIA agent!
On your site, you have some interesting articles recommending writers of gay fiction. Some authors on that list didn't surprise me (such as Joseph Hansen who wrote the first Dave Brandstetter mysteries way back in the early '70s). The author that really did surprise me was Joe Orton. On the face of it, Orton's writing is far different from yours. Can you explain why you think Orton is so significant? What can a playwright teach a novelist?

Ah, Joe Orton. I have the better part of a theater degree (in addition to my English degree) and was a theater person in Chicago and L.A. for seven or eight years. I’ve always loved Orton, his plays are deliciously sexy and subversive and dark. I love that kind of farcical writing and do it occasionally, most notably in The Perils of Praline and Praline Goes to Washington. When I was in film school at UCLA I would alternate comedies with suspense scripts. I’ve begun putting these elements together with the Pinx Mysteries and my new series which I’ll mention later.

I think for many writers, the biggest challenge is finding that first small 'core' of fans. How did you go about finding your first readers?

This is where small publishers do help—provided they have a fan base of their own. They expose you to their fans and you gradually add to that base. Typically, you add readers with every exposure. I am still surprised though when people write a review an mention that I’m a new writer they’ve just discovered. I’ve been doing this for eleven years and feel like I’ve exposed myself—er, I mean—let people know I’m out there a lot.

Do you advertise (Amazon, Facebook, elsewhere)? If so, have you any tips on how to make advertising succeed without wasting money?

Let’s see. I do Amazon advertising on and off. It’s hard to tell what the return-on-investment is. They tell you how many books were purchased after click-throughs but it’s never really enough to justify the expense. That said, it’s hard to quantify how many books eventually get purchased or how many Kindle Unlimited reads happen based on repeat exposure. As for Facebook, I advertised there years ago when it was easy to boost, now I know nothing about it.

What else do you do to promote or market your books?

This summer I’ve booked six or seven pride events and I’ll be going all over Michigan and hand-selling. I’ve never done that kind of thing to this extent so we’ll see how it goes. Again, it’s not a direct return-on-investment but the exposure is good.

What's the secret of getting reviews on Amazon?

Time. I’ve always struggled to get reviews. My books with a lot of reviews have been available for a long time.

If you were just beginning your writing career today, what would you do differently?

Oh God. Everything. Nothing. Hmmmm. Well, it’s a different market than it was ten years ago. I think working with small publishers was valuable so I’d probably do that again… I think the one thing I’d do differently would be to let go of my survival job sooner. Once I began devoting all my attention to writing things really picked up. So, that’s the big thing I’d do differently.
After thirteen novels, you've finally stopped writing the Boystown series. Can you tell me a bit about what you are writing at the moment. And what we can expect from you in future?

My next book is The Less Than Spectacular Times of Henry Milch due out April 28th. It begins a new series set in rural northern Michigan, which is where I now live. I plan to continue the Pinx Video books and will probably add a third series next year.

Marshall Thornton writes two popular mystery series, the  Boystown Mysteries and the Pinx Video Mysteries. He has won the Lambda Award for Gay Mystery three times. His romantic comedy, Femme was also a 2016 Lambda finalist for Best Gay Romance. Other books include My Favorite UncleThe Ghost Slept Over and Masc, the sequel to Femme. He is a member of Mystery Writers of America.

Sign up for Marshall’s newsletter here!
Web site: marshallthorntonauthor.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/188124168470783/

Saturday, 8 February 2020

Keith A Pearson: Best-selling 80s Time-Travel Author

In 2016, Keith A Pearson wrote a time-travel novel called The ’86 Fix which takes its hero back to 1986. After briefly trying to get a conventional publishing deal, Keith decided to go it alone and publish the book himself. Good decision. The ’86 Fix rapidly became a best-seller and currently has over 1,100 reviews on Amazon. Since publishing his first book, Keith has written another eight books and is planning another three novels this year alone. Here Keith tells me about his surprisingly rapid rise to success.

It’s less than five years since you published your first book. You’ve been remarkably busy and remarkably successful since then. Tell us about it!

Three years, three months, and eighteen days have passed since I first clicked that ‘publish’ button. At the time I didn’t harbour any great ambition to become an author – I simply wanted to tick a box on a bucket list. Today, I’m nearing the end of my ninth novel and I write full-time. Thinking back, I could never have envisaged how that single click would change my life so dramatically.

Initially you went the ‘traditional’ route by trying to get a book deal via a literary agent. What was that experience like and when did you decided that it would be better to go it alone?

I think I emailed a dozen agents and two or three publishers. Being honest, I’m not a patient person and I only waited a few weeks before deciding to self-publish. The first rejection came in two weeks later. Ten months after I published my first novel, I received an unsolicited offer from a major publishing house – I declined it for several reasons but primarily because it made no sense financially.

Your books often go back to the 1980s and sometimes earlier. Are they based on what you remember of the time or have you had to research the period?

I was a teenager in the ’80s so it’ll always be a period close to my heart. Much of what I write about that period is based upon my own experiences (which remain fresh in the mind), although my first novel did include a cripplingly awkward scene in which the protagonist loses his virginity – I’m taking the fifth amendment on that one! For my seventh novel, Tuned Out, large parts of the plot were set in 1969 so I spent an inordinate amount of time researching as I wasn’t around at the time.

How do you go about writing? Do you set yourself a target of so many words per day?

Prior to my writing career I worked from home as a freelance web marketing consultant so the transition was seamless in that I already had an office set up at home. I have a daily target of 1,500 words and I write every single day whether I’m in the mood or not – it pays the bills so it’s imperative I treat it with the same discipline as any other job.

You finally quit your ‘day job’ last year to concentrate on writing. That’s a big step for anyone.  At what point did you realise that you could make a profitable career from writing?

I maintained both jobs for three years and although I don’t think there was a specific moment of realisation, in the summer of 2019 I came to the conclusion something had to give. Writing requires absolute focus and it was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain focus while answering calls and emails from clients.

Do you have other people to help you? For example, with proofreading, book layout and formatting, cover design and so on?

I use an editor but that’s it – I do everything myself. Perhaps I’m a bit of a control freak and that’s why being self-publishing works so well for me. I don’t have deadlines and I don’t have anyone telling me what I can or cannot write about.

The covers of your books are quite unusual. I’ve heard so many self-publishing ‘experts’ tell writers that they must get their covers designed in a way that fits in with the standards of the genre – so that they look like books by other authors. But your covers don’t really look like anyone else’s. Was this a deliberate decision? What are your thoughts on novel covers in general?

As a general rule, you should never design your own covers but that’s exactly what I do. However, I have twenty-odd years’ experience in graphic design and marketing so I’m perhaps more qualified than most. As for the style, my novels don’t tend to conform to accepted conventions so I take the same view with the covers. If you want to stand out in a crowded marketplace, you absolutely have to inject some individuality.

How long did it take you to find readers and how did you do it?

It didn’t take long for The ’86 Fix to gain traction but there was no great marketing campaign behind its success; it was simply down to positioning. I knew the audience I wanted to reach and I wrote that book for them. I didn’t care that anyone under the age of forty or readers outside of the UK wouldn’t understand the nostalgia or the cultural references – I simply wrote a book which resonated with my target audience. Consequently, they did most of the marketing for me.

Do you advertise on Amazon, Facebook or elsewhere?

Advertising-wise, I do next to nothing. The only promotions I run are instigated by Amazon, such as Kindle Countdown deals and Prime Reading. My sales are virtually all organic so I’m not ideally placed to offer advice on advertising.

What do you do for promotion (e.g. Blog tours, Bookbub, social media etc.)?

I’ve had one Bookbub deal but that’s as far as my advertising goes. I use Facebook and Twitter to engage with my readers although I only have a relatively small following. For someone from a marketing background, I’ve been incredibly lapse in my marketing and advertising efforts. Perhaps the lack of necessity is a good thing.

There are lots of people selling books and courses on how to succeed as an independent publisher. Have you ever bought any of these that you found useful?

I’ve been tempted to try a few courses but they’re expensive and I’m tight-fisted. Also, I’ve got this far by ignoring the rules and I’m therefore less inclined to adopt a ‘cookie cutter’ methodology most of these courses promote. If everyone is using the same strategies, how do you stand out?

You’ve got a ton of reviews on Amazon. What’s the secret?

At the end of every book I make it clear I’m an indie author, and I can only complete with the big publishing houses with the help of my readers. I politely ask them to spare a few minutes to leave a review and thankfully, many do.

When did you start releasing audiobooks? Are audiobooks really worth all the hassle and the expense?

I have a publishing deal with WF Howes for audiobooks so I don’t have to get involved with the production. Having seen the sales numbers, I’m glad I didn’t produce my own audiobooks. The time and investment wouldn’t have been justified.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m hoping to release three novels in 2020, which would take my inventory to eleven titles. The grand plan is to get to twenty titles as quickly as I can, and at that point I’ll slow down a bit. Of all the advice I’ve ever read about publishing, there is one piece of advice I absolutely agree with – the more books you write, the more success you’ll enjoy.

Keith A Pearson released his first novel, The '86 Fix, in October 2016. Much to his surprise, it went on to become an Amazon bestseller and a follow-up soon followed. Keith is about to release his ninth novel and now writes full-time from his home in Hampshire.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Keith-A-Pearson/e/B01M685HKL/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pearson.author/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/keithapearson
Web: www.keithapearson.co.uk

Monday, 3 February 2020

Sheri Cobb South Interview: The Romance of Publishing!

Why would a successful paperback novelist commit 'professional suicide' by self-publishing her books? Popular Regency Romance and YA author Sheri Cobb South tells me about the joys and the frustrations of 'going it alone'.

'In Milady's Chamber' is the first book in Sheri Cobb South's popular series of John Pickett Mysteries
You are a very prolific author, Sheri. What was the first book you wrote? How easy (or not?) was it to get it published?

The first book I wrote was actually the fifth one to be published. When I was shopping the manuscript around to agents, I got it back with a letter saying, among other things, that its “boy next door” plot was “far too familiar” in the young adult (YA) genre. I was devastated! I didn’t know any other authors at that time, so there was no one to put that letter in its proper perspective: an agent had taken the trouble to contact me personally and tell me exactly why she was declining to represent it. That letter was pure gold, and I was too inexperienced to know it! The second book I wrote was my first published novel, a teenage romance called Wrong-Way Romance,published in 1991 by Bantam as part of its long-running YA series Sweet Dreams. From the time I started writing to the time my first novel came out was 3 years; it seemed like ages at the time, although in fact, I got awfully lucky, awfully fast.

You’ve published novels in several genres. Some authors say that publishing different types of novels can confuse the readers. Have you ever found that to be the case? Have you ever published under other names?

I’ve never published under another name; in fact, I went from writing YA for Bantam to self-publishing Regency romances (more on that in a minute), back in the day when self-pubbing was considered to be professional suicide. It was almost a given that anyone self-publishing did so because they just weren’t good enough for the New York publishing houses. I felt that my Bantam books established my credentials, so to speak; going with a different name might have given me better placement on library or bookstore shelves, but I would have sacrificed the name recognition I’d built up over my five books with Bantam.

To me, the biggest challenge about writing YA is/was the fact that your readers outgrow you. So in a way, going from writing YA to writing for adults seemed like a natural progression. In fact, there have been times when I’ve been promoting my Regency novels at conferences and someone will come up and start talking to me about Wrong-Way Romance!I don’t mind; I’m delighted that so many people still remember it so fondly after almost 30 years—including two authors I’ve met who credit that book with inspiring them to write romance.
“With prodding from my husband, I took out a loan for $4,000 and had 1,000 copies of the book printed”
Many self-published authors are jealous of novelists who are published by ‘traditional’ publishers. In fact, you’ve gone from traditional publishing to self-publishing. Why did you do that?

Necessity! To my dismay, I discovered I have a superpower: I can destroy whole genres without even trying. After five books with Bantam, they canceled their Sweet Dreams series in favor of the “Goosebumps”-style paranormals that were squeezing YA romances off the bookshelves. So I decided it was time to try my hand at writing a Regency, which had always been my favorite genre for reading. I won the Beau Monde’s Royal Ascot Award in 2000 for Miss Darby’s Duenna, but by that time publishers were dropping their traditional Regency lines for the longer and sexier Regency-set historicals.

But even if there had been plenty of publishers to choose from, I’m not sure they would have chosen to acquire my books; I seem to be a bit out of step with what publishers want, or at least what their marketing departments say will sell. When I wrote The Weaver Takes a Wife, one editor sent it back to me with a note saying, “No woman could possibly fall in love with a man like that unless he was devastatingly handsome.” Maybe I was too attached to Ethan Brundy (the titular “Weaver”) that it clouded my thinking, but I’d seen online bulletin boards on which readers complained about the sameness of so many Regency romances that I was convinced at least a few people would welcome him as a refreshing change. With prodding from my husband, I took out a loan for $4,000 and had 1,000 copies of the book printed. That book is the most popular single title I’ve ever written. Armed with a few good reviews, I sold the large-print rights to Thorndike Press, and based on strong sales of the large-print edition, I pitched the John Pickett mystery series to Five Star, the first-edition fiction imprint of the same company. Then in 2016, Five Star dropped its mystery line (do you see a pattern here?), so I’ve been publishing the series on my own since then.

What are the pros and cons of self-publishing versus traditional publishing? Isn’t it simply much harder work to do everything yourself when you publish your novels?

Yes! The advantage, of course, is that you have complete control of your work, and keep all the income it brings in. The disadvantage is that you wear all the hats: writer, editor, typesetter, art department, marketing, etc. I’m fortunate in that my writing is finally bringing in enough that I can afford to hire good people. I liked the way my Five Star cover designer “branded” the John Pickett series by using the same font for the title, etc., so I retained her to create the covers for the series. As for the Regency romances, there are so few stock images available for Regency covers that there’s bound to be a certain amount of repetition. I went to the fan-art site Deviant Art and found a young Japanese woman living in Budapest whose style I liked, so I commissioned her to create custom artwork for my Regency romances. As for the marketing, I feel like I’m always a step behind others in discovering the newest Big Thing in book marketing. Rather than lose valuable writing time just trying to stay up to date on it myself, I’ve hired a publicist to promote the last two books, and I’ve seen a corresponding uptick in sales.

Do you sell more in paperback or in Kindle format these days?

Paperbacks are actually a distant third in my sales, behind first eBooks and then audiobooks.

How do you go about finding a narrator and creating an audiobook?

I’ve done my audiobooks through ACX (Audiobook Creation Exchange), the audio arm of the Amazon/Audible/Createspace publishing behemoth. ACX allows authors to audition narrators by uploading a (very) short excerpt from the book.

Publishing audiobooks sounds like it might be hard work and expensive.

It depends on how much you’re willing to spend. Then, too, what do you want from your audiobook(s)? Personal satisfaction, or real income? ACX allows for a 50/50 royalty split between author and narrator, so in theory it’s possible to create an audiobook with no money upfront. But . . . the best narrators won’t audition for these books. I always suspected as much, and at the Independent Audiobook Awards this past summer, I heard one say that she only works for a royalty split if the book is in a genre that she’s trying to break into.

Then, too, the very best narrators are members of the Screen Actors Guild, and the terms of their membership prohibit them from working for less than $250 PFH (per finished hour; that is, the actual length of the finished book) or $100 plus a 50/50 royalty split. It’s a bit of a sticker-shock, I know: when I was looking for a narrator for the John Pickett mystery series, I naïvely offered $100 PFH. Joel Froomkin emailed me, telling me that my book sounded exactly like the sort of thing he most wanted to do, but SAG requirements prohibited him from accepting my offer as stated. At that point, I had listened to almost a dozen auditions, and every one of them had the same problem: they all pitched John Pickett’s voice very deep and “manly,” when he needed to sound young (he’s 24), insecure, and completely in over his head trying to solve his first murder case as a Bow Street Runner.

Since I hadn’t yet found what I was looking for, I encouraged Joel to submit an audition; if I liked it, I was sure we could work something out. He absolutely nailed it. (He’s said since then that he voices John Pickett as “John Pickett as played by Eddie Redmayne.”) Since this was the first book in a series, I knew I would want the same narrator to do all the books, and I wasn’t sure if it would sell well enough, even with $100 PFH up front, that he would want to continue. So I bit the bullet and offered him the $250 PFH. It was the best business decision I’ve ever made.

Would you recommend less established authors to publish audiobooks or do you really need to have a dedicated readership to make this worthwhile?

I would say hold off until you can afford the level of talent you want, whether that comes from writing income, income tax refunds, work bonuses from your day job, or whatever.

Oh, and one other thing: for the love of all that’s holy, don’t narrate the book yourself! If you’re afraid the narrator will read it “wrong,” don’t be; I know that changes in inflection can change the meaning of a sentence, but in nineteen audiobooks, I can count on one hand the instances where I’ve had to ask the narrator to redo a sentence in order to convey the right meaning. The more important reason, though concerns sales. The best narrators have fans of their own—and those fans may buy your audiobook simply because they love the narrator. If you read your own book, you cut yourself off from being discovered by those potential listeners.

What do you do to promote novels? Do you have a mailing list? Do you use Amazon or Facebook advertising?

I have an emailing list, but I only send out a newsletter when I have real news to share. I don’t want to inundate people’s inboxes with mailings, but more importantly, I don’t want to have to spend time composing newsletters when I’d rather be writing! I have used both Amazon and Facebook ads, although the Facebook ads were actually created and run by my publicist. With Amazon ads, it’s important to set limits on how much you’re willing to spend per day, or it can get expensive in a hurry. For the author with only one book, I doubt if they would earn enough to cover the ad costs, so I would advise authors not to do it unless it was to promote the first book in a series, or unless they were prepared to operate at a loss in exchange for building name recognition—a tactic that certainly has its place, as long as you know what you’re getting into!

Your books generally get lots of reviews on Amazon. What’s your secret?

A lot of the reviews on Amazon are the result of BookBub promotions in which first The Weaver Takes a Wife and then In Milady’s Chamber were offered for free. I’ve always been leery of giving away my books for free—there is a school of thought that says we’re training readers to expect free books, which makes them less likely to pay for them—but at my publicist’s urging, I gave it a try. And she was right. Many people downloaded and reviewed the free books, then went on to buy the other books in the series.
“I emailed the Bank of England and asked for their advice on the best way to rob it.”
Your novels often have a historical British setting. How do you research the details?

The internet has been an amazing help, not just for the information that’s available there, but for the way it can connect you with valuable sources. A case in point: When I was working on In Milady’s Chamber, the first of the John Pickett mysteries, I needed to know where the Foreign Office was located in 1808. I knew it had been in Downing Street, and at some point had moved to Whitehall, but I couldn’t find anything that said exactly when it had moved. So I went to the Foreign Office website and emailed the historian (because apparently that’s a thing). The next day, I not only got an answer to my question (it was Downing Street), but a whole paragraph vividly describing what the street would have looked like at the time! That experience made me a lot bolder about contacting people directly and asking questions. In fact, just this week I emailed the Bank of England and asked for their advice on the best way to rob it. (Yes, I really did!) I made it clear, though, that I was working on a book (Brother, Can You Spare a Crime?, coming later this year) set in 1809, and that I knew the bank had undergone a major renovation since then. They responded the very next day, sending me links to several documents and images in their archive, plus a book recommendation that I might find helpful.

If you were starting over again today, having never previously published a book, what would you do differently?

It’s tempting to say I would have started sooner. Had I done so, I would almost certainly have found it easier to find a publisher. But the “golden age” of the romance genre as we know it was in the 1980s, and by the time I began writing in 1988, many of the minor players had already vanished from the publishing scene, or soon would. On the other hand, sometimes it takes a seeming disaster like being “orphaned” by a publisher to force us out of our comfortable little ruts and into a new direction. I sometimes miss the satisfaction of going into a bookstore and admiring my book on the shelves, but when I compare my earnings then and now, that feeling quickly passes!

Sheri Cobb South is the Amazon Bestselling author of more than twenty books. Her John Pickett series of historical mysteries was featured on USA Today’s book blog, and is now being released as an award-winning audiobook series. Her novels have been translated into half a dozen languages and published in large-print editions.

Website: www.shericobbsouth.com
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