Mark writes: It’s been quite a year. At the end of 2012 I wrote a post about our first year as published authors and, looking at it now, we gave quite a rose-tinted view of what it had really been like. I’m writing this post now in an attempt to illustrate how, when you’re a writer, you never know what’s going to happen. While the quality of your books is down to you, success and failure – in terms of having a career – often feel like they are out of your hands. But now, in 2013, writers have a lot more options, more ways of finding readers and selling books, than ever before. To illustrate this, here’s what happened this year – and how taking action rescued me not only from giving up on my dream but got me out of a horribly sticky situation.
Back in February, Louise and I had a meeting with our agent in London. Our third novel, All Fall Down, had just come out and failed to set the world alight. Our publisher hadn’t been able to get it into any shops, apart from a few local branches of Waterstones. They had already warned us that a similar fate awaited our just-completed novel Forward Slash. It was gutting. We were so proud of Forward Slash, were sure it was our best book, and had been told that it wasn’t even going to be in any shops. With our contract with our publisher at an end, we had no choice but to write our next novel on spec.
This was disappointing, but a fact of life for many writers. There’s no point moaning about it. As a writer, the world doesn’t owe you a living. Yes, our publisher had given up on us after our first two books didn’t sell as many as they hoped. That’s the harsh commercial reality of publishing and there’s nothing you can do about it.
The big problem for me was not that my dreams of being a successful writer had taken a hard knock, but that I was in serious financial trouble. I had gambled by giving up my day job after getting the publishing deal, though still supporting myself and my family by doing freelance work. I was working by day and writing at night, just as I’d always done. But the books weren’t bringing in any money and I no longer had the security of my day job. My overdraft was at its limit, my credit card was maxed out, I had horrible debts and commitments. As well as having two young children, my partner was pregnant.
We were in deep shit. I could hardly sleep at night for worrying about all of it. How was I going to pay the mortgage? What the hell was I going to do?
Before starting to write with Louise, I had written a few books that almost got published. One of these was called The Magpies, a novel about neighbours from hell. Of all my solo novels, this was definitely the best, but my failure to find a publisher for it meant it had spent a long time gathering dust in a drawer. I only had a digital copy of it because I had once emailed it to my girlfriend and, luckily, she hadn’t deleted the email. For the last couple of years I had been intending to rewrite it, getting it out every now and then to tinker with it. But with all my other commitments, I didn’t get very far.
As Louise and I left the meeting with our agent, I told her about my financial plight and said, ‘I’m going to self-publish The Magpies now. I’m not going to mess around with it any more.’ Louise offered to read and edit it for me. My partner offered to do the same. So on the train home, I got my laptop out and started work on it.
Two years before, Louise and I had hit No.1 and 2 on Amazon with our first two self-published books. Yes, we had done it before, but the landscape was different now. There was far more competition, not just from other self-publishers but traditional publishers who were filling the charts with books that cost 20p. My only advantage compared to two years ago was that I had experience now and a small but loyal band of regular readers on the Voss & Edwards Facebook page, as well as on Twitter. I also knew quite a few bloggers and reviewers. After the book was edited, I was able to get a fantastic cover image from a photographer I’d befriended and my very kind sister-in-law offered to design the cover, just as she’d done two years ago.
I figured that if I could sell 20,000 copies at £1.99 I could pay off my debts and keep my head above water – just.
Then I had a stroke of luck. I noticed that Rachel Abbott, a writer I am friendly with, was about to self-publish her new one. I emailed her and she told me she was doing it through her agent, using Amazon’s new White Glove programme. This is where Amazon offer some promo in exchange for a period of exclusivity. My agent was keen to try this, so he set it all up with Amazon and at the end of March, the book went live. I held a launch party on Facebook which a few dozen ‘fans’ attended and, on day one, sold 133 copies. Not bad, though it had taken a lot of effort to achieve that. Now I had to hope it started to climb the chart…
Over the next few days, sales dropped off. 109 on day 2. Just 46 on day 3. 74 the next day. Don’t worry, I’m not going to give you a day-by-day account of sales! But I woke up on Good Friday and checked my ranking while still in bed (yes, I’m sad). It had dropped substantially overnight. I sighed heavily. This wasn’t going to work. I wasn’t going to be able to sell 2000 copies, let alone 20,000. I needed a plan B. That episode of Blackadder where he and Baldrick visit the docks to do favours for sailors sprang to mind…
Then something happened. I checked my sales figures an hour later and noticed I’d sold about 20 copies in the last hour. I hit refresh. Another half a dozen sales. Hit refresh again. More sales. I caught my breath. It was taking off. This was exactly what had happened with Catch Your Death two years before. I knew it must be because Amazon had sent out an email to people who had previously purchased my books.
That day I sold 858 copies and the book was No. 35 overall on Amazon. The next day it sold even more and went up to No. 25. It got stuck after that and began to slowly drop, until I dropped the price to 99p and watched it climb – into the top twenty, then the top ten.
A few weeks later, it hit No.1.
Over those few months, I sold 170,000 copies. Way beyond my initial target. Reviews flooded in, most of them positive. It was astonishing. This novel, which might easily have remained in my bottom drawer forever, had struck a chord with people. Gratifyingly, mine and Louise’s books also started to climb the chart, purchased by this new readership. At one point I had five books in the psychological thrillers top ten.
Then Amazon Publishing made me an offer I couldn’t refuse…
As I write, The Magpies is back in the Kindle top 100 and starting to sell in the US too. It’s also been No.1 in Australia. I have not only been able to pay off my debts, but am writing pretty much full-time now. Living the dream, at least temporarily. I know it could all go wrong again, if the next books don’t sell. There are no guarantees. This ‘job’ has no security. But for now, I am writing. I am not tossing and turning at night worrying how I’m going to feed my kids.
And this is all because of the new world of publishing we live in. Today, writers have options – more than ever before. Yes, it’s great having a publisher, and working with Amazon Publishing is a joy, but for me, being a ‘hybrid’ author is the best way, if you’re not an established bestseller, of taking control of your career…of having a career at all.
I can’t quite believe my luck – how I managed to dig myself out of such a huge hole. I am enormously grateful to the people who helped: to my ever-patient partner, to Louise, to my agent, my designer and photographer, my loyal readers and Facebook friends, the bloggers and reviewers who read the book and helped promote it, the other writers who have supported me. And yes, to Amazon. Because without them, none of this would have happened.
It’s been a great year. Genuinely, this time. Who knows what 2014 will bring? But one thing is for sure. I am going to keep doing the thing I love.