How I became a reasonably unsuccessful novelist

Article Title block - EditedIt would be good to be writing this article from a position of success. To be the author of a series of novels selling in their millions. Then, you – I suspect an aspiring writer – would be more inclined to read what I have penned. You might be fascinated by what went well. And what not quite so well. You’d be intrigued as to whether this essay would contain that one piece of evidence, that one action that all aspiring authors and novelists look for: the thing that enables you to sell books to more than just a handful of friends and the odd startled passer-by.

Well, sorry. As an author of a series of three thrillers (soon to be four), I am neither a household name, nor am I making a living wage; I’m assuming $25k or £20k a year depending on what side of The Pond you live. I reckon that’s about 45 books a day, depending on royalties and the medium in which you sell your books – more of which later, Let me tell you, that’s a lot of books.

But read on anyway. Why? Because I’ve been through the mill and have some scars to show for it. I’ve tried a number of approaches – including Kindle Scout; a painful but ultimately successful (for me) crowd-sourcing adventure with Amazon which gave me a leg-up in the US. And I’m still writing. And still loving what I do. And – I’m still selling books. Currently, in just over three years, I have sold around 4,000 copies of the Sam Green series. But not very quickly. And certainly not quickly enough if that what brings food to your table.

Every day I wake up and think today will be the day that a credible someone with a voice that new readers listen to might just provide the nitrous-oxide boost to the Sam Green series engine. Or, organically, by some social media magic dust, sales might just start to climb. I know there are plenty of people out there who really like what I write – that what the reviews say. But these people don’t seem to tell their friends. Or not enough of them. Maybe thriller readers don’t have friends? Perhaps they’re not inclined to stop people in the street and extol the virtues of the new novel they’ve found. Whatever, there has been no pyramidal sales expansion. And viral is currently not a word in my lexicon.

There are plenty of writers who live by the mantra that writing is the end in itself. I write – therefore I am. I don’t subscribe to that view. I am a storyteller. I write – therefore I want people to read what I have written. To join me and my friend Sam on fantastical journeys across continents. To explore and unearth the complexities and subtleties of the secret world of espionage. To accompany Sam on multiple excursions; to feel her pain – her angst. To be by her side as she toils, fails and then hopefully succeeds. I want everyone who loves the thriller genre to give Sam Green a chance. Otherwise, what’s the point? A story teller who doesn’t have an audience, is like a therapist with an empty couch – and no one in the waiting room. Why bother?

That’s a good question. Why bother indeed.

My journey started three years ago. My wife (Claire) and I had finished working at a school in the UK and taken, rather bizarrely, to living in a motorhome. It was early 2015 and we were touring Sicily, Italy. I bumped into an ex-Royal navy chap (as well as a maths teacher I’m ex-British Army of 25 years) who had written and self-published his first novel Until The Fat Man Sings. What he told me, which I didn’t know then, was that any idiot could publish a book. For free.

Don’t misunderstand me, Ned, that’s his name, is no idiot. And his (currently) two-book series is very good indeed. But the point he made was that to become a published author you don’t need to follow the traditional publishing route. You know, 75 rejections, a mental breakdown and only then, for the few very talented and/or lucky writers, that stroke of luck which lands you and a literary agent and/or publisher on the same page – of the same book.

No. To get your work out there you just need to write something and then publish it; almost exclusively using the Amazon platform. For free. Gratis. Within minutes thousands of prospective readers can sample your book via the Amazon portal, and if they like what they read, can buy it a price set by you. For e-books priced over £1.99 you receive (almost) 70% royalties. Under £1.99 and that percentage drops to (almost) 50%. That’s a lot of royalties when your average traditionally published author gets about 10% per book.

Paperbacks too! Amazon’s sister company, CreateSpace, will print your book on demand. Be warned, this makes for an expensive product. For a 400-page novel you’ll struggle to get its price below £9/$12 and earn just a few pence for the privilege. But it does mean for readers who enjoy the printed word you have the facility to reach them. Again, at no cost to you – which I think elicits an hurrah!

Hurrah!

Fuelled with Ned’s advice, and now meandering around Europe with more time than a solar-powered clock, I started something which had been burning in me for years. I would write a book. Tell a story. How difficult can it be?

In the 90s, as a requirement of a military course, I had written a short story instead of a formal military paper. It was about the woes of emerging military technology on the battlefield and how it would all go wrong … we, the military, would fall-back to paper maps and non-computerised equipment. My senior officer tutor told me that it was complete rubbish and that I was taking a liberty by not writing a standard essay. In short, he hated it. Conversely, my civilian tutor thought it a perfect first draft of a short story.

I liked my civilian tutor.

A little later, whilst teaching maths at a school in the southwest, one summer I found the energy to start writing a book I titled Unlikely Hero. It was about a woman who, through none of her own design, found herself embroiled in mid-Asian terrorism. I managed a couple of chapters before I had to start decorating my classroom with coloured shapes, right-angled triangles and posters of over-sized simultaneous equations. I wrote no further.

But the seed was sewn.

Back to Sicily.

Having left our campsite, and continuing our journey around that beautiful island, I opened my laptop and got tapping. And tapping.

It took me three months to complete draft one of Unsuspecting Hero – 85,000 unpolished words. I’d write regularly and pretty soon I found it reasonably easy to polish off 2,000 words a day. My time as a staff officer in the Army had honed my writing skills; other military training had provided me with the endeavour to get on with it. As I wrote I had no plan. I didn’t have the benefit of a creative writing course, so was clueless as to how the complexities of a thriller were pieced together. But I was undeterred. There was no plot, well not initially. I took Sam Green, an ex-military intelligence sergeant with horrific UH - third attempt (2)injuries sustained in Afghanistan, on a convalescing journey to Scotland. And then to West Africa. I tried to excite myself on each page. Surprise myself every chapter. Imagine myself next to Sam as she, unwittingly and often carelessly, blundered towards a conclusion. In the end, I completed the book too quickly. I was in a rush to get my work out there. To find some readers.

But it was done. I was finished. I breathed a sigh of relief and then asked myself – ‘what do novelists do now?’

Claire and I tried our best to proofread the story. At the same time, I dispatched UH to a handful of literary agents chosen randomly from the internet. I designed a cover based on a photo I had taken. I wrote some blurb. And waited. And waited some more. I think I received one lukewarm, but almost certainly cut-and-paste reply, from an agent. Maybe two, I can’t remember. In my brighter moments I had imagined a queue of hungry publishers forcing themselves on me. Sam Green was fab. They’d all think so.

Disheartened, but not without energy, I took up Ned’s advice and tentatively approached the kindle direct publishing (kdp) website. And there it was. A portal to print. More accurately a portal to e-publish; printing on paper would come a few weeks later. We both thought that Unsuspecting Hero was in good shape having read it four or five times, I had designed (via the Canva website) a reasonable front cover and I had a back-page blurb.

Here we go then.

Kdp’s publishing form is intuitive and reasonably straightforward. The only arcane part of the process is the US tax form, which I completed with my eyes half-closed looking away from the screen. I worried about how the conversion from my pdf document to e-reader format would go, but kdp lets you electronically leaf through how your words appears on an e-reader. And you can continue to make amendments – by resubmitting new copies of your manuscript – until you are satisfied. I found typesetting a pain, and even now I’m not convinced it’s perfect; I’m sure there’s at least one paragraph somewhere whose last line is fully justified across the page. Oh well.

Getting the cover right took me three or four attempts. Like human attraction, your cover – sorry, your thumbnail cover – is what brings distracted buyers to look further at your book’s blurb, and then, maybe, to hand over their hard earned cash for the privilege of reading the contents of your brain dump. I thought I had a half-decent cover until a friendly agent told me that it was far too bland to catch the passing reader’s eye – even in paperback form. Ho hum. Note to self – must try harder. Or get professional advice.

And that’s a good lead in to discussing costs. At that point, for me, the price of publishing UH was £0.00. I had done everything myself. In comparison, for my latest book, The Innocence of Trust, I have paid £890 (yes, £890 – that’s a lot of money, which I have yet to recoup) for a company to proofread, typeset, assist with cover design and back-page blurb, and then publish the third in the Sam Green series on Amazon and CreateSpace. And I could have spent a whole lot more. There are people out there who, for a price, will assist with marketing; even get you a slot on local radio.

What’s my point? Be careful. It’s very easy to get lured into traps set by vanity publishers who semi-promise to turn you and your work into the next New York Times bestseller. There are various statistics out there, but the most consistent one is that self-published authors rarely sell more than 150 e-copies of their work. That’s in the order of £200 royalties ($250). Your book may be the best thing in its genre – but statistically the likelihood of you reaching a wide audience without the support of a publishing house or some other major marketing campaign, is incredibly unlikely.

I’ll talk self-marketing as I finish, because there are many things you can and should do to widen your work’s appeal. And there are also cheap(ish) and tempting avenues, such as Facebook adverts, which seem hugely powerful and can deliver some reward. Again, like any project’s spending plan, you do need to set yourself affordable limits. And stick to them.

Did I sell any copies of Unsuspecting Hero? Well, ehh, no. Not really. I sold about 100 copies in the first three months of the book’s release, mostly to friends and one or two to other, random strangers. And then sales petered out. I did a couple of books clubs (for friends) and what hit me straight away (and is, if you like, the major lesson on the self-publishing journey) was that UH wasn’t in good enough shape for public consumption. Indeed, one woman from one of the book clubs returned her paperback with over 250 notations. It turned out that she was a magazine editor. Interestingly, it wasn’t so much the editing that was a problem – I’m guessing my military training ensured that I could follow a plan through with consistency. Spelling, punctuation and grammar were the issue.

In the interim I paid a friend a small amount of money to proof the book. Still things were missed. In the end I paid a professional £250. And I have not to update the manuscript since. (Another hurrah!)

So, no matter how good you think you are at proofreading, put some money aside and give the manuscript to an expert. Nothing puts readers off more than a page littered with mistakes. I know. And that begs the obvious question. If I pay a professional to proof my work, and I can only (statistically) guarantee to sell 150 books, isn’t this a loss-making business?

Yes, it sure is.

Let me go and make a cup of tea whilst you digest that.

I’m back.

Good. I can tell that you are undeterred. You have that burning ambition. And that confidence. Well done – that’s the spirit. Because …

… there is one non-traditional avenue to the marketplace where the stats are more in your favour. It’s called Kindle Scout.

Be warned. It’s not for the faint hearted.

Get comfortable. This may take some time.

Think of Kindle Scout as crowdsourcing for never-before-published novels – that is a manuscript over 50,000 words (and you must be 18+ to enter).

The submission requirements are: a fully copy-edited manuscript (ie checking for inconsistencies/inaccuracies as well as a half-decent proofread); a completed front-page cover; a bio; a one-line ‘sales-pitch’; and a non-marketing book description. The submission process is straightforward and takes about half-an-hour, once you have ticked all of the above.

Let’s dissect that list. First, my manuscript (the second in the Sam Green series, Fuelling the Fire) was not fully copy-edited. I’ve already mentioned that my proofreading is about as useful as a chocolate fireguard, but between Claire I we are reasonable editors.

To be on the safe side I spent £200 having the manuscript proofread. And I kept my fingers crossed that there were no glaring editing errors.

Second, the front cover. I kept it simple: a photo which I had downloaded from a free gallery and, again using Canva, I added some words. I followed the theme set for Unsuspecting Hero and I tried to make it look as broody as possible. Thrilleresque if you like.

No cost.

Third, the blurb and bio. Come on, you’re a writer. If you can’t have a half-decent stab at this then maybe you should stick to gardening. As an aside, I hate writing synopses. Thrillers are, by their nature, complex works. Distilling a 530-page novel into 500 words – which is the Kindle Scout requirement – wasn’t easy. But getting these things right is important; because they are all part of Kindle Scout’s decision-making matrix.

Key, however, is a decent front cover and a proofread manuscript.

Anecdotally let me tell you why proofreading is important.

Fuelling the Fire was selected by the Kindle Scout team for publication early in 2016. It was a blood-sapping journey which I shall describe in a second. Throughout the process I kept an eye on the ‘competitors’. Afterall, they can’t pick all of us, can they? One was a hilariously funny book about a kid, a pile of geological rocks and some magic. It was really well written – well, apart from a huge number of spelling mistakes and typesetting that appeared to have been completed by a scientist with a random generator. But even imageso, it had me laughing out loud – it was far more entertaining than my serious thriller. Surely it deserved to be picked up by the Kindle Scout process?

It wasn’t. And I think the reason was was that it required a lot of work (= time and money for Amazon). Which is something the Scout process doesn’t seem to allow for. Kindle Scout is a great model for aspiring authors who have a half-decent manuscript and can’t find a traditional publisher. However, it’s a money making business run on a shoestring – from a closet in Seattle. Not a full-blown traditional editor/publisher combo that holds your hand every step of the way.

So, be warned. Don’t submit a non-proofread work to Kindle Scout.

How does it work?

During the ‘crowdsourcing’ process, Scouters – that is anyone who visits the webpage – have the opportunity to read the first 5,000 words of the 80 or so continuously updating books that have been selected by the Kindle Scout team from author submissions. Scouters then nominate books they think they will like. After a 30-day period Kindle Scout select the books they intend to publish (about 2 a day), using a combination of the number of nominations and, importantly, some editorial review. Scouters who nominate the right titles (ie, ones that get published) receive a free e-copy of the book when published.

Tee-dah!

Everyone’s a winner. The author, the Scouters and Kindle Scout.

Ahh, but – the selection process. How does that really work? For people like you – and me?

I pressed ‘return’ on my submission e-form in early May 2016. I then breathed a sigh of relief and put the kettle on. Which was a mistake. To my surprise, and this is apparently the natural speed of things, less than 48-hours later I was sent an email saying my title had been selected – and it was on the Kindle Scout website. People were already looking at my book.

Horror! Already?

Once your book is selected (and it seems to me, looking at the 80 or so books that ran through the process with me, getting in the front door is not too tricky), you have those 30 days to get as many Scouters to nominate your book as possible. After 30 days the book is taken down from the website and the Kindle Scout team then spend an excruciatingly long time (up to 15 days) letting you know whether or not your book has been selected for publication. I had to wait 13 days. If I were of a more nervous disposition I probably would have hung myself from the rafters in that time.

I mentioned times and days a lot just now because it does feel like the process takes forever. So you will need a lot of: patience; coffee; energy; humour; did I mention coffee?

Getting folk to nominate your book falls to you. Yes – you. You have to market like mad. Tell everyone. Tell anyone. Tell everyone to tell anyone. If you’re shy and retiring you will either find this incredibly difficult, or won’t bother – as a result your book is unlikely to be published. Sure, there are the Scouters whose sole aim in life is to get three free books a month by selecting the right titles. But, out of the 3,400 (yes, there is a running total which you will keep checking) people who nominated Fuelling the Fire, I had badgered well over half of those. Emails, Facebook, my travel blog, LinkedIn – anything or anyone I could lay my hands on. At one point I was trawling through emails from random people I had once had a single electronic exchange with.  ‘Remember me? Well, could you do me a favour?’.

Have I told you about the ‘hot and trending list’? This is the top-20 or so titles from all genres on the Kindle Scout site. It soon became clear to me that staying on this list was key to selection. My first experience of ‘hot and trending’ was at the beginning of the process; I think Claire and I were in an Aldi carpark about to shop for groceries. I had a ‘ping’ on my phone. It was from the Kindle Scout team: ‘Congratulations, your book has been accepted for the Kindle Scout process. Blah, blah’. I clicked on a link and there it was: Fuelling the Fire was already on the hot and trending list. I had to force my tongue back into my mouth with my fingers.

The next 30 days were easily the worst of my life. I hated targeting people for a nomination – and then reminding them again a few days later. I made a list of everyone I had ever come into contact with and, spread out over the 30 days, I sent them messages. One dear friend of mine got the same message from four different sources. We have remained pals, but I know it was a close call.

Thirty days later, tired and emotional and in need of therapy, Fuelling the Fire was taken off the Kindle Scout shelves. It had remained on the hot and trending list for the whole period. Surely, the good people at Amazon would recognise this and reward me with an e-publishing contract? Surely?

I waited.

And waited.

Seattle is at work when I, living in the UK, am sleeping. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and check my emails. Nothing. And then again. Still nothing. I searched the web for articles about the process. Trying to establish whether the longer I waited the more likely I was to be selected. There was no pattern – probably exacerbated by the fact that Kindle Scout was still in its infancy. One article, which I read after a week in limbo, explained that one author was told that they would be published within 24 hours of their book being taken off the website. Another received over 5,000 nominations, but their book wasn’t published.

There was no pattern.

‘Ping.’ Half-past-two on a weekday morning.

And there it was.

‘Congratulations …’

I didn’t read any more. I was going to be a published (technically e-published) author. People were going to read what I had written. At least 3,400 of them, if the nomination numbers were right. Oh, and I haven’t mentioned this yet, once selected, Kindle Scout send you an advance of $1,500. That’s quite a few dollars. I needed a drink.

It took another 5 weeks to get Fuelling the Fire onto the e-shelves. Kindle Scout do edit and proof your manuscript to a degree but they do not assist with the cover page, nor the blurb. Eventually my manuscript came back and I was pleased with what they had done. They had done a little editing and proofing, but overall not much. Interestingly, as I found out later, there were still mistakes in the text. At one point after publication, I sent back a list of 12 errors which a more bombproof proofread would have picked up. So it’s not a faultless process.

And then the day came. The launch.   

Amazon is one of the world’s biggest companies. It has a marketing department the size of a small town. And they are very good at it. Of course they are only as good as the quality of the products they market, but, they are good. They have algorithms as long as your arm, and everyone and their aunt’s e-mail address. They were going to find readers for my book.

They did. As of today I have sold at least 2,600 e-copies of Fuelling the Fire The ‘at least’ is because, for a couple of months early this year, they stuck Fuelling the Fire into Prime Lending, an Amazon library where books can be read for free for those who have a Prime account. I was paid $1,000 for the period. I do not know how many books were actually read during that time, so I can’t add them to the total.

If I had self-published there is no way I could have racked up that many sales. The third book in the series, The Innocence of Trust, is selling nowhere near as well as Fuelling the Fire did in the early months. One week, about three months after launch, I sold 450 copies of Fuelling the Fire. During that week the book made it into the top-1,000 e-books on all of the Kindle shelves. It was, technically, but only for a short while, a best seller.

But there is a cost. And that cost is control. You don’t have any. Kindle Scout own the e-book. For at least five years. They price it – changing that on a whim without telling you. They discount it (three times for me at $0.99) – informing you, not asking you. And they don’t talk to you – that is, they take forever (months – yes, months) to reply to any correspondence. In fact for a modern e-company their customer-relations (if, indeed, I am a customer) are the worst I have ever encountered. To be fair, this has got a little better in the last couple of months,

And for the record, you lose on royalties: only (almost) 50%, against a self-published (almost) 70%.

They are, however, good at marketing.

In the US.

I know this sounds petty, but the Kindle Scout process is US-centric. 90% of Fuelling the Fire sales are in the US. Don’t misunderstand me, that’s a good thing. The US is a huge market, even for an author of a Brit thriller. But only once, for a month early this year when it was offered at a discount price in the UK, did I feel that Amazon was marketing my book anywhere other than in the US.

As a result, proportionately sales of Fuelling the Fire in the UK have been poor. Kindle Scout, on one of the few times they bothered to reply to my emails, told me that they would speak to the UK. But that never seemed to happen. I find that sad. And frustrating; because I have no control over it whatsoever and finding someone to answer my emails is very difficult. I do not feel I have a relationship with Kindle Scout. Maybe that’s the same model for the traditional publisher/author route? I, of course, wouldn’t know. I’d be disappointed if it were.

As Fuelling the Fire rose through the best-selling ranks in the US, something special happened to Unsuspecting Hero. It sold as well; as of today over 1,000 copies. That was a nice surprise.

It is safe to say that by the autumn of 2016 I was feeling very pleased with myself indeed. Well done me. I was, after all, going to become a rich and famous author. And the reviews had started to come in – and they continue to come in. Currently in the UK, US and on Goodreads, I have over 350 reviews with an average score of 4.3, which I think is good (that rises to 4.8 if you only consider the UK, which is why I’m frustrated about the lack of marketing over here).

But inevitably, some people don’t get Sam Green and/or the way I write. I have, I think, five 1-star reviews. One of them starts beautifully with the line ‘There is no doubt that this author can write’. But it then goes on to berate me for penning a politically inspired thriller of the worst kind, supported by a number of other, not wholly complimentary, adjectives. Nice. Reviews are a hugely important marketing tool and can uplift and inspire you. They can also send you spiralling downward.

So here’s the thing. Not everyone will like what you have written. Period. You will get some bad reviews. The ambition has got to be to get more good ones than poor ones. You will, trust me, stand taller every time you read a half-decent review, especially if it’s written by someone you do not know. And you must accept that some people do not get you or your characters. Take it on the chin and move on.

Anyhow, by last autumn I was as happy as a bibliophile in Waterstones.

Onto book 3, then; The Innocence of Trust. Sam Green’s at it again. Back to the espionage treadmill, this time chasing Russian oligarchs and tracking down a radioactive bomb across Europe.

I finished The Innocence of Trust last Christmas – to plan (that’s the problem with us Army folk – we push on regardless). It was I thought, the best so far. I have a couple of regular pre-readers who, having read it over the holidays, loved it. It was going to cement my position as an up-and-coming thriller writer. With book one and two still selling, any fool of an agent would see the light and, this time, I’d get a proper publishing contract. I was on my way.

I figuratively wrapped the manuscript in cotton wool, packaged it in metaphorical brown paper and gently e-dispatched it to another set of agents – some based over The Pond. Why not? My books were selling in the US. Someone over there would be interested.

Surely?

Ehh, no.

I did receive some lovely replies from agents who liked Sam Green, but didn’t think it was quite right for them. Via a pal, I found myself on speaking terms with an agent who asked to see Unsuspecting Hero and Fuelling the Fire as paperbacks. The response was the same. ‘Love Sam Green, but not quite right for me. Not now.’ Interestingly, I received nothing back from any of the agents in The States, which I thought was a bit unnecessary of them. No takers then.

It was heading towards March and the summer season, my self-imposed deadline, was looming. If I wanted to keep with the programme I should be looking to publish The Innocence of Trust in early July. Sure fire, Plan B, was to ask Kindle Scout if they would take the novel without going through the Scout process. I asked them. They said they’d get back to me. I asked them again. I got an encouraging but ultimately delaying response. I asked again (there was a month between ‘asks’ and weeks before I got any sort of reply).

Eventually …

… ‘Oh. OK. We’ve had a look. We like it, but maybe you should self-publish.’

That was a kick in the teeth. After the elation of Fuelling the Fire (and now over 3,000 sales later and with confidence in book three sky high) it was a big blow. My publisher didn’t want to publish my next book. What sort of message was that?

I could speculate as to why: I only knew of one other Kindle Scout author who had had their (her) second book published by Kindle – it was an exclusive club; they’re incredibly busy, and it’s easier to say no than to say yes; Fuelling the Fire wasn’t selling at a sustainable rate for them to risk taking on another novel (plug it into the cost-effectiveness algorithm and the computer says ‘no’)?; or, simply, they didn’t think The Innocence of Trust was good enough. Who knows. Whichever way I dissected the answer, I couldn’t hide my disappointment.

Take a deep breath Roland.

And remind yourself: there are a good number of highly successful self-published authors out there (although, maybe not so many in the heavy, thriller genre). Go on. You can do it. Self-publish.

Which is what I have done – with the help of someone else. I knew I had to get the manuscript proofread, and ideally I wanted a professional to take on the responsibility of typesetting and publishing the book both electronically and in paperback (as print-on-demand). I carried out some low-level Internet research and discovered a small UK company who, for £890, would do all of these things.

I haven’t the energy to describe the difficult month that followed. In short, they published the book strewn with errors (thankfully they agreed to republish it after re-editing). And there were some other issues, like they wouldn’t talk to me on the phone. I should have pulled out when I realised that that was how they worked. But I didn’t. By then it was too late and the deadline was approaching, Thankfully, The Innocence of Trust is out there now. In good order.

Kindle Cover for Rob

light the blue touch paper…

Is it selling?

Currently (two months in) I’ve sold 175 copies, nowhere near enough to pay back the initial commitment. Are the reviews good? Yes, fabulous. Better than Fuelling the Fire and Unsuspecting Hero. So, why isn’t it selling (I’d sold over 1,000 copies of Fuelling the Fire by this time last year)?

It has to be down to marketing and reach. Early on with The Innocence of Trust I made the conscious decision not to spend any money on marketing. Nothing. As a result every sale of Unsuspecting Hero and The Innocence of Trust is organic. And they are selling. On average (and I’m only eight weeks in), I’m selling two copies a day (spread between both books). Fuelling the Fire, which is still being gently pushed by Amazon, has hit highs of three copies a day – however, yesterday I sold just one. My current ambition is a collective ten copies a day, 4,000 a year; about £5,000 of income. I will make it so … Trust me.

How?

After advice from people a good deal younger than me, I am now working really hard at broadening and sharpening my social media presence. I have a Facebook page (170 followers), I’m on Instagram (270 followers) and recently I took to Twitter (40 followers). All of them are growing in followership – Instagram at a rate of about ten a week. I have been penning a travel – now a travel and writing – blog for three years. I’m working much smarter at the quality of all my posts. And I’m being selective about whom I follow, and what I say to them. I post religiously (once a day on Instagram and Twitter, and twice a week on the blog).

And I write articles. I have had one published in the British Caravan and Motorhome Club magazine (which has one of the largest circulations in the UK), and I am due to have a separate article published in their competitor’s magazine, The Caravan and Camping Club. I know that the first article contributed to an uplift of sales of around 150 books. I have sent The Innocence of Trust to Soldier Magazine, the British Army’s monthly circular, which has an audience of 100,000. They have promised to review the book. And I’m writing this, with the hope that it will be published somewhere.

I have given away copies of Unsuspecting Hero via Amazon, something you can do for a couple of days a month if you have self-published. I reckon 300 copies have pinged their way to readers via that route. I am about to record a podcast of Unsuspecting Hero and will make it available for free from my blog. And I am about to offer free e-copies of Unsuspecting Hero via Instagram and Twitter. Hopefully some reviews will follow.

But I am not spending money on advertising – yet. When sales are poor it’s really tempting though. In the early days of Fuelling the Fire I did use Facebook advertising. It is incredibly easy to use, you can run an ad for as little as $5 a day, and demographically you can target as accurately as a microsurgeon: women between 45 and 55 who live in Baltimore and like Jack Reacher. But, I remain unconvinced that it pays for itself. As one CEO commented some years back: ‘50% of my marketing budget is successful. The problem is, I don’t know which 50%’. How true.

Of course, there are other advertising vehicles. Goodreads (you must get an account and encourage reviews, they are worth their weight) and Amazon do their own ‘pay-per-click’ programmes. However, I know Penguin/Random House use Facebook – so that’s telling you something. They all cost about the same amount.

For me, and I count myself incredibly lucky in this regard, I do have another avenue. I shall, because I know you’re now getting bored, keep this short. In January this year I received a phone call whilst I was skiing in France. It was from Frank Harper, a British director/actor. He had read Unsuspecting Hero and ‘wanted to make it into a film, mate’. Frank, who plays gangster rolls, talks with a London East End accent, which is both amusing and unsettling at the same time.

After I had picked myself up from the piste, he added the caveat, ‘but, I need a screenplay. Capisce?’ (He didn’t actually say ‘capisce’, but it would have been perfect if he had.)

How difficult can that be?

Armed with Final Draft, the industry standard screenwriting programme, I got cracking. Two months later I presented Frank with draft one, expecting him to discard it as if it were pellets from one of his on-screen sawn-off shotguns. We met, he liked what I had written and he gave me some valuable advice – in short, sex it up. Off I went and knocked up edition two, which now looks like a four-part mini-series. I think it looks the part and Frank loves it. Whatever, he has told me to do no more work on the screenplay unless I get paid.

It’s now five months later and, sadly, we are no further forward. ‘Things ‘appen much more slowly in my line of work, Roland’, he said. OK, Frank. I get that. I’ll hold firm for a while. A little disheartened we’ve agreed to meet again later in the year.

In conclusion and I guess this is the bottom line, I am nowhere near making a living wage. I am marginally successful, in that I have published three novels, which is more than two, which, if my maths holds good, is better than one. And I have sold around 4,000 books in the ratio of 98%:2%, e-books:paperbacks. But I can hardly feed one mouth on that, let alone two. So we do other stuff to make ends meet. And, with sales of The Innocence of Trust very slow, it doesn’t look like it’s going to get any better anytime soon.

So, what now?

Keep writing, of course. Literary history is awash with stories of competent authors who eventually get their eighth book published. I know, I know. What about the other 10,768 who don’t? Well, that’s where self-belief and tenacity are supposed to see you through. And if you’re enjoying what you do, and you like what you write (and can feed yourself and the cat regardless of poor sales) then crack on.

I certainly intend to.

Instagram 1 (2)

my latest marketing shot

 

 

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11 thoughts on “How I became a reasonably unsuccessful novelist

  1. Hi Roland, I’ve been following your blog for a while – very enjoyable reading – and now your book – a promising start!
    Cheers, Simon

  2. Ok, I’ve started. Need more time as I never seem to be able to get my head around a book these days. Possibly the format of reading electronically will need getting used to. Now I know where to find it I will give it a go. Boris Johnson’s Churchill will have to wait.

  3. Just bought your book Roland. I didn’t realise you were now an author,enjoyed reading your blog. I look forward to reading it. Have shared my purchase on facebook 🙂 . cheers Monica (in Calgary)

    • Hello Monica! Thanks v much, I now have my first Canadian sale! If you like it then if you could pen a review that would be great.

      I understand from Mary that we might see you next summer? I hope so. Hope the children are fine.

      Roland

      • I would be happy to pen a review. Yes we will (fingers crossed) make it to the UK next summer. The kids are growing up and v well thanks.
        Monica

  4. I didn’t read your book on your blog pages as you were writing as I’m one of those who reads very quickly and needs to know the end has been written before I start! Finally downloaded it and very much enjoyed it (apart from a couple of grammatical errors). I like a fast paced thriller and that’s what your book is. The characters are believable and well drawn, the conspiracy intriguing. Now get your head down and write the next book – you already have a customer for it. Best wishes, Maggie
    Have a good time in the USA.

  5. And it would appear that Fuelling the Fire has been selected for publication, congratulations Roland! I look forward to reading it soon.

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