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 ├Źde and their family of rescue creatures. He writes post-apocalyptic, horror and dystopian fiction. Also known as ‘current affairs’.


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