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.


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 na├»vely 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.