SPS-183: Trad vs. Indie: Which Should You Choose? – with Libbie Hawker
Libbie Hawker is the definition of a hybrid author. She writes in multiple genres, self-publishes most of her books, is published with an Amazon imprint, and is open to selling the right book for the right price to a Big 5 traditional publisher.
- Beginning in self-publishing and looking for an agent
- On the old days of formatting ebooks in Word
- Pricing strategies including price pulsing
- On writing 13 books in 12 months
- Comparing publishing contracts from the Big 5 to Amazon imprints
- Working with a subsidiary agent
Resources mentioned in this episode:
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
Transcript of Interview with Libbie Hawker
Speaker 1: On this edition of The Self-Publishing Show.
Libbie Hawker: I’ve watched a lot of my friends in historical fiction work with the big five, and have varying levels of disappointment with them until finally eight, nine, ten books into their big five career they finally have a hit that earns them a livable wage. I just look at that and I go, “I don’t know why I would ever leave self-publishing and Amazon publishing.”
Speaker 1: Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers. No more barriers. No one standing between you and your readers.
Do you want to make a living from your writing? Join indie bestseller Mark Dawson and first-time author James Blatch as they shine a light on the secrets of self-publishing success. This is The Self-Publishing Show. There’s never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Hello. Welcome back to The Self-Publishing Show with me James Blatch.
Mark Dawson: And me, Mark Dawson.
James Blatch: We’ve rambled on about England maybe winning two world cups by the time this goes out, but we’re recording this before that. Are we happy or sad?
Mark Dawson: I’m always happy.
James Blatch: Regardless of England’s progress. Well, I’m looking ahead to The Ashes now, where we can lose again.
Mark Dawson: Exactly. We’d lots of opportunities for losing this year.
James Blatch: There are. We have no idea how England have done. I have no idea how New York went, but I’m sure it went well. I’m actually currently in Crete on holiday, where my family are very excited because I’m visiting the battlegrounds of the Second World War, and the Commonwealth-
Mark Dawson: They’re not, are they?
James Blatch: No. They’re not. The Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, which is probably 1,000-odd graves there from a very fierce battle in 1941 when Germany invaded the island, and the Allies, including a lot of Australians and Canadians fought back. That’s my holiday treat.
Mark Dawson: God, you’re fun.
James Blatch: My wife is taking us to a leper colony, so that’s her big thing.
Mark Dawson: Happy summer in the Blatch household. Death and leprosy. That sums it up basically. Your poor kids. I’m going to call Esther Rantzen.
James Blatch: I know.
Mark Dawson: There’s another 70s reference that no one outside the UK will understand.
James Blatch: I think our kids have got to the point now where they’re quite good at humoring us, so we don’t really know whether they’re enjoying it or not.
Mark Dawson: Then trust me, they’re not enjoying it.
James Blatch: I don’t really know.
Mark Dawson: There’s no question. They’re not good at that humoring you. Either that or you don’t pay attention to them, or maybe they are tremendously good an actor and actress. I’m pretty sure they’re not going to enjoy the leper colony.
James Blatch: They’re teenagers. I have to pay attention to them, although I do actually stop listening after a while. Now, there’s a literary connection with the leper colony, isn’t there? I’m trying to think what it is. It’s an island just off Crete, and there’s a famous book of recent years set there. It’ll come to me in a bit. People are screaming at the show about that. I’ll look it up.
Enough rambling. We talked about business last week, about setting yourself up in business.
This week is a great author interview. Really good, inspiring author interview. It’s also the topic comes up as mixing those traditional contracts with indie contracts. This is something you’ve got experience of, because you’ve taken the Amazon coin for one of your series.
I know you would take a very businesslike decision if HarperCollins came to you tomorrow and said, “We want to buy up John Milton.” I know you would listen to them, but it’s a slightly different landscape from where it was, I think, even 18 months ago, seems to be changing.
Mark Dawson: It’s always changing. There are opportunities coming along all the time. I would take those kinds of decisions and think about them. I think I’m fairly certain what I would say, and I’m in the process actually at the moment of thinking about how I’m going to publish this new Atticus series, because when I finish the book I’m writing now, that will be what I go back on to finish. I’m actually having emails from commissioning editors who want to talk to me about it, which is very nice given that when I started I couldn’t get them to pay attention to me at all.
James Blatch: You can send out rejection letters to them.
Mark Dawson: I will. I am going to be in a position of sending out rejection letters, which it’s an odd change of circumstances. I’ll take everything under consideration. There’s lots of different ways that you can skin a cat, as the old saying goes.
Looking at digital rights, print rights, audio book, video, TV, all these different kinds, or translation. I could either sell them in a package or I could split them off and sell them individually. I’d be very surprised if I was made an offer that I think would stack up with what I could do myself by splitting those up and dealing with them individually.
If someone comes in and offers me a million quid, weirdly it wouldn’t be an automatic these days. It would be quite tempting, I’ll be honest.
James Blatch: Look, let’s hear from Libbie. It’s Libbie Hawker who’s our interviewee for this. It was a great interview. I really enjoyed it, and Libbie’s got great experience of both sides of this coin, and is doing really well from it.
Let’s hear from Libbie, then Mark and I will have a further chat off the back of the interview.
James Blatch: Libbie, welcome to The Self-Publishing Show. Thank you so much indeed for joining us.
Libbie Hawker: Thank you for having me.
James Blatch: Now, you are a prolific writer. I always want to talk to writers about process and ideas and all the rest of it. We’ll get some of that done. I think we’re going to talk also about your particular mix of traditional publishing and self-publishing, and some of the tips and tricks we’ll try and draw out of you to help the rest of us. How does that sound?
Libbie Hawker: Absolutely. Let’s do it.
James Blatch: Let’s start off with your background then. How long have you been writing?
Libbie Hawker: Well, gosh, I’ve kind of been writing my whole life, since I was a little kid. I got really serious about it when I was 28 years old, so that was back in 2008. I set a goal for myself of becoming a full-time professional author by age 30, which proved to be a little too ambitious. Two years is a very short time to get together a full-time writing career. I made it by age 34, so I started writing full-time in 2014 and I’ve been doing it ever since.
James Blatch: Well, that’s not bad to have ambition. You’ve done well now. I think did you say to me in the notes before, you published 40 books, something like that?
Libbie Hawker: Well, close. 37.
James Blatch: 37. That is close.
How many are you writing, how quickly?
Libbie Hawker: Different years have had different speeds, depending on what was going on financially and what the demand was on my time. My busiest year was 13 books in a single year, under four different pen names. That burnt me out a little bit, so I’ve been doing about three books a year since then, which is a much more reasonable pace.
James Blatch: More than one book published a month. I don’t think I’ve come across that before. That’s impressive.
Libbie Hawker: That was rough. I don’t want to do that again if I can avoid it. Don’t recommend 13 books a year for most authors.
James Blatch: When you started, in terms of the genre you wanted to write in and where you are today, has that traveled at all?
Libbie Hawker: I started in historical and literary fiction. The two genres really cross over nicely together. That was always where I wanted to be. I have expanded into some other genres just to see what would happen, just because I liked them and it was fun.
I tried some romance for a while, and I tried urban fantasy, and it was fun. I had a good time there, but ultimately I’ve gone back to just focusing on historical and literary fiction.
James Blatch: Which historical period do you write in?
Libbie Hawker: Oh boy. That’s a loaded question. The majority of my historical fiction is in ancient times, specifically ancient Egypt, although I’ve done some other ancient cultures. I have done quite a range, especially at request of my publisher.
I’ve done a lot of 19th century stuff, including frontier wild westy sort of stuff. My most recent book for my publisher was World War II, which was really a departure for me, and they really tried to get me to do that one for a while. I finally gave in and did it.
James Blatch: When you do historical, I mean I’m writing a historical book at the moment, and there is that added element of research and wanting to be authentic. I think people forgive us for not being absolutely as authentic as some people who lived through it might remember it. It is an added dimension, isn’t it?
Are you like me, you have to dive onto Google every other page just to check details?
Libbie Hawker: Yeah. I do. I’ve narrowed down a working process which works well for me. I know what I’m going to write a little bit in advance, so I have some idea for what’s going to be coming up next, or a few books down the line.
When I’m not writing, during my free time I’m reading those research books. The majority of reading I do during my fun time is research for work. I mostly read non-fiction. Then when I’m actually writing the book, I’ll just stop when I need to verify a specific detail, or when I need to add some color into the story, like what kind of food would they have been eating, or what would their shoes have looked like, or whatever. I just do a real quick Google search on that.
James Blatch: That’s very similar to me. I read a lot of non-fiction about the Cold War, which I enjoy as well. You’re right, finding details, there’s just great websites that tell you how much things cost in 1960-something, and all that help we get today. Actually reading the non-fiction books, contemporary books in the era, that gives you lots of little feelings about the culture, the way people spoke to each other, stuff that’s not so easy to Google.
Libbie Hawker: Yes. That’s what’s been so nice about writing in comparatively more recent settings. I don’t have a lot of options for figuring out the actual culture of the time when I’m talking about ancient history. It was kind of nice to be able to read stuff from the 1940s and get a feel for the way people actually spoke when I worked on my World War II novel. It’s a good perk of being more recent.
James Blatch: You have 37 books.
You started off, I think, traditionally published, is that right?
Libbie Hawker: No. I started off self-published and was picked up later.
James Blatch: When was that? When was your first self-published book?
Libbie Hawker: First self-published book was either at the end of 2011 or the beginning of 2012. I can’t quite remember the exact time period. I was on my sixth self-published book in 2014 when my publisher approached me about working with them.
James Blatch: Let’s talk about the self-publishing start that you made.
Did you go out to agents? Did you fall back on self-publishing as it was seen in those days, or was it a conscious decision?
Libbie Hawker: I definitely was doing what everyone was doing at the time. I worked with two different agents for two years and got nowhere. It was very disheartening. I had no luck with agents at all.
Eventually with one of the books that was on submission with my agents, she had submitted it to pretty much everybody who published historical fiction and it got rejected from everyone. It just went into my sock drawer, so to speak.
Eventually I thought, “I might as well just self-publish that book. I don’t have anything to lose.” I self-published it, and, boy, it took off really fast. I found this eager audience. At the time there was really not much available set in ancient Egypt, and especially not that was available on the Kindle. I very quickly found this really eager kindle audience that wanted more Egypt, and I just kept giving it to them for five more books. It worked out well.
James Blatch: You found the Egyptologists and fed them. We had the Mummy in the cinema, didn’t we, and a few things to spark the interest, doesn’t it?
Libbie Hawker: Yeah.
James Blatch: We do episodes every now and again on finding niches from a commercial point of view, and I think we’ve had Alex from K-lytics on recently, who does exactly that. He’s an audience that’s not being well served.
Did you set out to serve them or was it simply something you were interested in and you wanted to do?
Libbie Hawker: Initially I did not set out to serve them. I just love ancient Egypt. I’ve always been really fascinated by it. It was a natural place for me to go as a writer, because I’m so interested in it and I’ve already got so much of the setting details packed into my head. Once I realized there was an audience for that setting specifically, I was like, “Okay, here comes more Egypt.” I just kept writing more.
I’ve now done 10 novels set in ancient Egypt, all of them self-published, and I have the 11th through 15th coming out in the upcoming months.
James Blatch: Wow. You got your book self-published.
How did you go about the process of self-publishing back in end of ’11, early ’12?
Libbie Hawker: Back then you formatted your Word file a specific way and uploaded that directly to Smashwords. Remember Smashwords back in the day? They’re still around, of course.
You did the formatting. You learned how to code an eBook yourself, and you just it all by hand back then. It was kind of interesting. It feels like it was so long ago now compared to all the technology we have and all the aids that help you get there faster. We did it all that way back in the ancient days.
James Blatch: And covers and editing?
Libbie Hawker: I’m fortunate in that I used to work in some professional capacity with design and Photoshop, so I’ve been able to make my own covers and make successful covers that have sold the books well. I’ve done my own covers, and I started with a good cover back then, or what was a good cover for 2012.
For editing back then, I was trading manuscripts with other friends who were also going to self-publish, so we would just swap and edit for one another until we all had enough money saved up to actually hire professional editors.
James Blatch: This was a DIY, a collective going forward, and getting the books online. We do know from interviews we do that probably ’12, ’13 is when it started to change, but it was possible to gain traction quite early in those days.
Is that what happened to you?
Libbie Hawker: Yeah. It was still very common back then to do 99 cent sales, or to do free books and to build your audience that way. I did do some of that, but I actually started out intentionally pricing very high for the eBook market. That was a specific strategy I brought over from a past industry I was in, where my theory was if you price a little bit higher than average, you’re setting your reader expectation that this is going to be a better book than average.
Since there were so many Kindle books from self-published authors charging onto the market back then, I mean there still are, but it was really overwhelming back then when the Kindle was so new and readers were really starting to discover this new source of books. I intentionally presented myself as like the super, super-fancy book within my genre with that higher price point. It did seem to work. I didn’t sell as many books as some other people, but I made more money per sale.
What was really important to me at the time is I built up this really strong base of really good reviews on that book, because there’s this quirk of human psychology that if you pay more for something, you’re going to expect it to be better. Then if it does live up to those expectations, you’re going to be super-psyched about how good it was and spread the word about the great deal you got. It worked.
James Blatch: That’s a really good tip, and there’s a whole world of pricing to discuss, which is quite complicated. Definitely in other industries, I’ve run a couple of businesses where we buy in services, and on more than one occasion I’ve looked at the offerings and thought, “I’m not going with you. That’s not expensive enough. There’s something wrong here. It’s too cheap.” You just dismiss that, and you go with somebody you think, “Well, I’m going to get,” and you’re right. That does work in your mind. We’re very suggestible basically, aren’t we?
Libbie Hawker: Yes.
James Blatch: Once you’ve been told it’s a quality product, depending on your personality type, you’ll go with that. That was good. You got traction. Your little pricing strategy worked, and you were off to the races at this point.
Were you earning income elsewhere? You said you worked in design.
Libbie Hawker: I was still working at my day jobs up until June of 2014, I think, was what it was. I had about two years of self-publishing and earning pretty good money from that until I felt comfortable actually switching over and doing it full-time.
I started earning enough to fully replace my day job income pretty quickly into the self-publishing game. I think it was about six to nine months where I was earning as much or more than I made at my job every month.
I wanted to wait until I had a little bit of a safety net built up, and had a good strategy for what I was going to do with future books before I pulled the ripcord and went full-time, so I did.
James Blatch: Very sensible. When you first made that move then, which is a great liberating moment in anyone’s life to do that, and suddenly become your own boss. It’s a bit unsettling as well, at the first.
Was that the point at which you then went hell for leather in writing books?
Libbie Hawker: I think I was already hell for leather with it. Every day I would come home from work and I would write until bedtime, and then weekends I did nothing but write. It was kind of a drag sometimes, because I really had no social life during those two years while I was trying to get to the point where I could do it full-time. I just kept that same momentum going.
When I started doing it full-time, it was the same thing. I had set hours every day during which I would write, and I would just write that whole time and do nothing else. I think it was like four-hour blocks.
It worked out pretty well. I powered through that sixth novel, which was Tidewater, the one that got picked up by my traditional publisher. I wrote that book which was 160,000 words in about four months. That was split between, so the first two months of writing that book was while I was still working full-time at another job, and then the final two months was finishing the book as a full-time writer, so was an interesting adventure with Tidewater.
James Blatch: What were you doing marketing-wise with your self-published books in those first few years? Email list?
Libbie Hawker: I do have a mailing list, and that definitely helped back then and still helps now. I found what still works best for me is what was working back then was to do what David Gaughran calls price pulsing, where I temporarily lower the price on some things, and then I advertise that price drop in a variety of different ways, and just make it a short-term thing and then bring it back up to full price.
That’s always been my strategy. It continues to work for me in my genre, so I keep doing it for as long as it works.
James Blatch: You were doing well. As you say, you quit your job, and then, as you’ve alluded to this, Amazon knocked on your door.
Libbie Hawker: Yes.
James Blatch: Tell us about that bit. That must have been a great validating moment for you.
Libbie Hawker: It was really fun, and actually I had four different publishers contact me at pretty much within the same couple of week period. At that point I really wasn’t interested in working with publishers at all anymore. I was like, “I’m really all-in with the self-publishing thing. It’s going really well. I don’t think I want to do it.” This one particular editor from Lake Union, which is an imprint of Amazon Publishing, she was pretty persistent. She was like, “I really want to work with you. We’re not going to interfere with your self-publishing. We’re going to make sure you can still do that.”
She said, “Just take a look at the contract and see what you think.” I was like, “Okay. I will.” I looked over the contract and I was really impressed with how different their terms were from those I’d seen from other publishers. I was really leaning heavily toward it. I think she contacted me in August of 2014, and I didn’t agree and sign the contract for Tidewater until late October. I was really reluctant. I was like, “I don’t know if I want to do this.”
I am really glad I did. Ultimately, it was a great decision. I have loved working with Lake Union. I’m not sure I would love working with other publishers as much, but there are possibilities that I might. I’ve learned never to say never in this industry. I used to say there’s no way in hell I would ever self-publish either, and now it’s my favorite thing. It was the same kind of thing there, but I was really reluctant initially. I was like, “I don’t know if I want to risk it.”
James Blatch: Let me drill down into that a little bit.
What was going through your mind? Did you get your spreadsheet out and start projecting into the future? Was it like that?
Libbie Hawker: That’s exactly what I did. I was looking at what I was currently making from my self-published books, and the fact that I could continue to promote those books myself and continue to get more income out of them month after month.
It’s not typically something you can do with most traditional publishers. I really saw that as something that would be very difficult to give up. That control over promotion and the ability to keep a book profitable long term was a huge draw to self-publishing for me.
Once you self-publish, you understand what your copyrights are worth, and it becomes difficult to justify giving some of them up. I did come up with a strategy though. I decided that I would keep all series books for myself, and I would self-publish series books, and that I would give my publisher a chance to say yes or no to any standalones I wrote.
Because I figured standalones are a little bit harder to keep that consistent money coming out of. They take a little more work on the promotion end.
I figured I wouldn’t mind selling the copyrights to some of my standalones to a publisher that’s really going to promote them well. That’s what I did.
James Blatch: Let’s use the Amazon algorithm, powered by Amazon for the standalones, which is difficult to do, as you say.
Libbie Hawker: It is. It’s difficult to do, and they’re very proprietary about their algorithm too. A lot of people don’t realize this, but the Amazon publishing imprints are a totally separate entity from all the rest of Amazon. We all consider them to be Amazon, but Amazon considers them to be this other thing. They don’t know anything about the algorithms either. They’re using past data and best guesses like indie authors are.
James Blatch: Wow. I didn’t realize that.
Libbie Hawker: It’s something not a lot of people know unless you’ve had a chance to really talk to folks who work for an Amazon publishing imprint and strategize about promotion.
James Blatch: They’ve probably taken Mark’s course on how to crack Amazon ads.
Libbie Hawker: They may have. I don’t know.
James Blatch: I bet they get a discount on ads. You had this moment. That’s great, and it’s interesting to hear your reasoning and that sounds very sensible, the decision you made about the standalones. At that point, everything you’d written that was self-published was safe for you to continue self-publishing. It was presumably entirely your choice what you did with Amazon.
You said you went with the standalones, but you could have chosen to come up with a series specifically for that contract, right?
Libbie Hawker: I could have, although I talked it over with them, and we discussed how they market series. We decided together that I’m going to be happier if I keep series in my own control. They’ve gone back and forth over the years about whether they want to acquire and promote series anyway. They swing a little bit on that pendulum.
Sometimes they acquire series and sometimes they just have no interest. I’ve been very happy with just sticking to purely standalones for them, and keeping my claws sunk into my series.
James Blatch: You say you’ve been happy with the decision you made. That means commercially it’s worked out for you.
Libbie Hawker: It’s worked out staggeringly well for me.
James Blatch: Well, that’s great to hear.
Libbie Hawker: Yeah. I’m very happy with it.
James Blatch: The difference between 70%, and obviously it’s a confidential contract you signed with Amazon, but it’s not going to be 70%, right?
Libbie Hawker: Right. It’s not 70%. It is significantly better than the royalty rate from other publishers though. It’s well above the industry standard.
Without violating my non-disclosure agreement, of course, every aspect of that contract from the royalty rate to the way books are promoted, to when authors get paid, to even the threshold for reversion of rights is significantly better than anything I’ve seen anywhere else.
I’m now at the point where I’m considering taking one book, just one book to the big five for some really specific reasons, and I’ve basically told myself that book will never earn me any money if it’s going to the big five. I’m sending it there for promotion and outreach reasons to promote my brand, and to reach a wider audience. I don’t expect to make any significant money, maybe 100 bucks a month from that one on a good month.
Honestly, if you get a chance to look at big five contracts, or even a lot of small press contracts ever, it’s pretty grim sometimes. It’s not a good scenario for most writers. You really have to have luck on your side that just turns you into this massive breakout hit with that publisher in order for those contracts to become profitable.
I’ve watched a lot of my friends in historical fiction work with the big five and have varying levels of disappointment with them until finally eight, nine, ten books into their big five career they finally have a hit that earns them a livable wage.
I just look at that and I go, “I don’t know why I would ever leave self-publishing and Amazon publishing.” Money’s a big factor. I got to pay my mortgage. I don’t always live in my mom’s attic. I’m just here visiting.
James Blatch: There’s absolutely no reason, in fact it’s completely right that writers should be well paid for producing the bit of work. I understand the marketing and then the commissioning the cover and the work that goes in around promoting a book, but ultimately you’ve created this work of art.
Getting 8% to 15%, whatever the average is, for me it’s not enough.
Libbie Hawker: No. It’s not.
James Blatch: We see articles in the paper every now and again, I’ve mentioned this before in the podcast, of Booker Prize winners going back to their job as a solicitor despondent that I created this book that the critics loved, and I got an average 30 grand a year salary for the four years that it was there, and that was it.
Libbie Hawker: If that.
James Blatch: I completely see that. The insight into the way Amazon operates to the traditional five is pleasing to hear as well.
The other thing that occurred to me while you were saying that is your decision to potentially go to the big five with a book. I wonder what’s left for them to offer very savvy writers who understand how self-publishing works. I guess it’s exactly what you alluded to, is that their marketing is the old world, but reaches parts other authors can’t get to.
Libbie Hawker: Exactly.
James Blatch: I’ve got a friend who’s recently been published by a big five, and she’s got articles in Cosmopolitan Magazine and these big, Vogue, and magazines like that, which are difficult for us to get to, right?
Libbie Hawker: Right. Exactly. That’s what I want from them, and that’s all I really want from them is a chance to tap into a segment of readers that are really difficult to reach any other way, other than the prestige that you get from that connection.
I’ve got one book that Lake Union had to pass on. They loved the book, but because of the way the Amazon algorithms merchandise and push books to readers based on what they’ve bought before, they thought it would be a really terrible match. They’re like, “This is going to actually end up pushing this book towards readers that will be hostile toward it.”
They won’t just not like it, they’ll be like, “What is this garbage?” We thought this is not the right course for this book. I was like, I could self-publish it, but I think it’s the type of the book the big five would be interested in, so why not try to get those articles in major publications and try to get another shot at one of the major awards? We’ll give it a whirl and see what happens.
James Blatch: It’ll be very interesting to see how that goes. Of course, you could do what Bella Andre did when she had a traditional deal approaching her. Just turned her laptop around and she showed them the figures on her spreadsheet, and said, “Try again with your offer for me, because what you’re offering so far doesn’t come close.” They did. I think she got a seven-figure offer in the end for that series of books. It is possible. The tail wagging the dog, that’s what we want, isn’t it?
Libbie Hawker: Exactly. That’s the advantage of being an indie.
James Blatch: Let’s talk about writing process a little bit. You said you’ve always been writing since you were young, but in terms of producing these novels that have been published, do you plot them in advance?
Where do the ideas come from?
Libbie Hawker: Most of the books I do plot in advance. I’ve written a book, Take Off Your Pants, about my outlining method that I use when I do decide to plot in advance. If people want to check that out and learn more about my method, they certainly can.
The majority of them I will plot in advance, especially because I want to get them through the process quickly. I was really plotting heavily that year when I did 13 books.
Plotting just streamlines the process so much and makes it so much faster and more efficient to get to the point where you can send it off to your editor, and then format it and get it out there in the world.
Sometimes I don’t, and especially if I’m working on what’s called biographical historical fiction, where you’re fictionalizing the life of a person who actually lived and who has a known history. In that case, I follow the events of their actual life, but I try to bring them to life cinematically and make it more vivid for the reader than just reading a rather dry biography. In that case, I don’t usually plot.
James Blatch: These are historical romance books, right?
Libbie Hawker: No. They’re not considered romance. Because there are not usually happy endings in my books, just fair warning if anybody wants to check out my fiction. Don’t expect to be smiling at the end of it.
James Blatch: This is bloody raw history.
Libbie Hawker: Yeah. I tend to go pretty dark. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I like a dark story, so that’s what I write.
James Blatch: You don’t write them, that’s interesting, the biographical history. You get books, I’ve read some brilliant biographies of historical figures, but they are written as history books.
You are still writing effectively a novel, a novelization of a period of someone’s life.
Libbie Hawker: Right. It’s still fiction. One of the features of my books that my readers have really come to expect is I put lengthy historical notes at the end. It goes over what the real history of this person was, what really happened and what I fictionalized and why.
They’ve always liked that feature of my books. I get a lot of complaints if I fail to include those. I’ve started making sure I include the historical notes in every book.
James Blatch: That brings me on to your relationship with your readers. Obviously, you have one that’s very back and forth about precisely what should be in the book.
Has that come through your mailing list? Where is your presence? Is it Facebook groups?
Libbie Hawker: A lot of it has come through my mailing list, but I think mainly readers connect with me on Facebook, and I don’t really post about my books much at all. I just post about my life, post a lot of pictures of my cats, and my garden. People connect with me that way. Then we end up having conversations, like once in a while I’ll put up a post.
Recently, I asked my readers for input on some titles I was considering for some of my ancient Egypt books that are going to come out. I got a ton of really great feedback from that, and actually picked a title that one of my longtime readers suggested. She was so excited. She was just like over the moon about it. I was too, because it was a great title.
James Blatch: That’s something I’d be excited about that. Do you ever put your readers in the … I suppose they have to be called things like Ramesses, or whatever, too. You can’t put Deirdre into a Egyptian book.
Libbie Hawker: No. I haven’t so far. Maybe some day. Maybe I will.
James Blatch: Maybe they’ll have a cat called Deirdre. You have that relation, and that’s important to you. It’s no question that the best authors we speak to talk about the feedback they get from readers.
I know some authors are wary of that, particularly traditionally published authors who don’t get to meet their readers, and are slightly wary maybe of the wide-eyed ones who come up to them at conferences, is their experience.
With indies, it’s a much closer relationship, and very important. You had suggested it was an important part of your writing process.
Libbie Hawker: I think it is. Whenever I’m writing, I’m always very aware that someone’s going to be on the other end of that, and reading what I produce. I want to keep clarity in mind for them. I want to make sure it feels entertaining to me so that hopefully it’s going to feel entertaining to my readers.
I do sometimes have a few specific readers in mind for certain settings, or for certain characters I’m working with, because I know they’re really big fans of that, or they have a lot of professional expertise. A couple of Egyptologists have enjoyed my books, so I always think about what are they going to think if I represent it this way.
I keep my readers in mind, and I have a lot of conversations with my readers. They’re real people to me, and of course they are. They’re literally real people. I do think about them as I’m writing, and I do my best to deliver something I know they’re going to enjoy.
James Blatch: That’s great. This is what the corporations do with personas, they call them, isn’t it?
Libbie Hawker: Yeah.
James Blatch: If you run a retail shop, you create these personas and you create products specifically for them and market them. It’s a clever way of doing it. It just happens these are real people for you.
Libbie Hawker: Yeah. Exactly.
James Blatch: As you say, you treat your readers like real people, which as it turns out they are.
Libbie Hawker: Yeah. Imagine that.
James Blatch: We haven’t got to the stage of having a Libbie Con yet.
Libbie Hawker: No. I don’t think I ever will. I doubt I’ll make it that far, but you never know.
James Blatch: You never know. It does happen.
Your immediate future is you’re considering putting this book out to query or to trads.
Libbie Hawker: Yeah. I’m feeling out contacts with a couple of agents to see if they feel it’s a project they can take in the direction I want it to go. There’s that.
Also, I mean more immediate than that, my book that’s currently out from Lake Union Publishing, The Ragged Edge of Night, I’ve got my subsidiary rights agent working on selling streaming, like for a series to Netflix or Amazon Studios for that.
Then it’s also up for the Pulitzer Prize, so we’re supposed to find out, I know we’re supposed to find out on April 14th if it made it or not.
James Blatch: Wow.
Libbie Hawker: A lot of really incredible books are up for the same award this year, so I don’t know if it even has a snowball’s chance in hell. It’s very exciting to have it nominated and to have it going in that direction. My fingers are crossed.
James Blatch: How exciting? Prestigious.
Libbie Hawker: It’s a good thing my publishers finally talked me into writing World War II fiction, because it turned out to be a good match for my style.
James Blatch: Wow. That’s so exciting. Well, good luck with that. We’ll keep everything crossed. I’m not sure when the interview is going to go out, but we’ll check before it goes out and see if we can update people on that.
You mentioned your subsidiary agent. Just explain that process to us.
Libbie Hawker: I work with Sarah Hershman, who a lot of other indies work with too. She helps me sell translation rights to my self-published books. The books that are with Lake Union, Lake Union has first dibs on translation rights to those books. She’s helping me sell translation rights and performance rights to my books.
I have performance rights to my Lake Union books as well, so anything that they publish I could potentially do a movie or a TV series of, or a stage play if somebody wants to do a guy trying to assassinate Hitler on the stage.
James Blatch: I like the sound of that. That’s great, and very sensible, because whilst we can do a lot of the stuff that agents do, and they aren’t really necessary in the self-publishing world, when it comes to film rights, translations, all these things, I think, just like Mark does, outsource that. Because there’s an expertise area, right?
Libbie Hawker: Exactly. I think you could learn how to do all that stuff, but, damn, that’s a lot of work. Your time is probably better spent writing the next book. I do think there comes a point where agents become worth the percentage they take. Where that threshold is, will vary from writer to writer.
James Blatch: Well, Libbie, a lot of things to be excited about in the future for you. Potential Pulitzer Prize, and potential Netflix series. Who knows where we’ll be in a year’s time? Maybe you won’t be in your mum’s attic anymore.
Libbie Hawker: Well, I’m already not. I’m just here because I’m visiting. I live on San Juan island, and I came over to the mainland because I have to go underwear shopping.
James Blatch: Sounds like a good reason to come to mainland Washington. We can see the cats have made an appearance at various points.
Libbie Hawker: Have they?
James Blatch: At least one cat. Good. Well, thank you so much. I think what’s been fascinating is hearing how you made your decisions about self-publishing and Amazon publishing and traditional publishing. Because they are basically three separate areas.
Libbie Hawker: Yeah. They are.
James Blatch: You’re a true hybrid in that sense, and the reasoning, I think, what we’ve got out of this interview. It was great.
Libbie Hawker: Great. Well, I’m glad to have been helpful to someone out there.
James Blatch: There’s Libbie. She writes a lot. She sells a lot, and she does quite a lot indie, and also has running contracts with publishing companies. She’s a modern gal in that sense, in the publishing world.
Mark Dawson: Yeah. Absolutely. As we mentioned, there’s lots of different ways to do things, and she’s riding several horses at once, which is pretty sensible. It’s another way of splitting your risk. She doesn’t have all of her eggs in the Bezos basket, so to speak, which makes a lot of sense.
James Blatch: We’ve noticed a couple of trends. One is we’ve noticed a growth of small indie publishers, to give them want of a better expression, people who do a more equitable deal with an author, closer to 50-50 than the kind of 10%, 15% you’ll get from the big companies.
I wonder if there’s another trend of this just general knowledge of indies and the amount of money that they can make, when you go direct to your readers and get 70%, starting to permeate the traditional world.
And whether, not the JK Rowlings, but the authors a little bit below that, the mid-list ones, whether they are starting now to look at their contracts, start to delve into this world.
Mark Dawson: Yeah. A bit. We see every time we offer our course, people will come to us and say, “I’m traditionally published. I’m thinking about going indie.” Certainly, they are becoming aware of it.
Then on the other hand, I posted a Guardian article into the community last week. God knows why I do that. They’re effing annoying. This one came out and it was another one of these, “Woe is me. You can’t make money as an author. It’s minimum wage stuff,” all this nonsense.
Then if you looked in the comments, it was some brave souls, actually, I think some names that I recognized had said, “Actually, why don’t these people think about doing it themselves? You can make so much more money.” The majority of responders to those comments were like, “No. It’s vanity publishing. Why would I want to do that?” It is still a prevalent attitude. Now, it’s ignorance.
Obviously, you know my view on vanity publishing is a dogged, blinkered determination to get your books in a store, at the back of a store, spine out where no one will ever see them, where eventually they’ll be taken off in an Alan Partridge style fashion and dumped into a landfill somewhere. I don’t really care for that.
I’d rather sell hundreds of thousands of books. That’s the main thing for me, and if I can get paid well to do that, then that’s even better.
It’s permeating slowly, I think, but I don’t think we’re anywhere near this being common currency or common understanding as to what’s possible with indie publishing.
James Blatch: Although it’s really annoying when you read the Guardian, and I’m not sure whether the New York Times is the same, but there’s a very cultural close alliance, love and romance, with the idea of traditional publishing amongst those journalists and that set.
I felt the same way watching Newsnight Review, which was a BBC program on a Friday night with Mary Beard. I remember watching an episode with Dreda Say Mitchell who’s one of our alumni on there. Dreda did so well keeping a smile on her face as these authors say, “Well, it’s not all about the money.”
I’m sitting there thinking, “The only reason you’re saying that is you’re locked into some awful contract with one of the big fives.” Dreda’s sitting there thinking, “What car shall I buy next?”
Mark Dawson: Fanning herself with twenties probably.
James Blatch: Maybe we should be celebrating that that’s still a prevalent view. Looking at it, I want every individual who wants to write to be successful. On the other hand, it is a competitive market, and at the moment the truth is even by listening to this podcast you are cornering it. You’re helping to corner this market.
Mark Dawson: It’s not a case of celebration for me. It’s just a fact. I suppose if there is anything to celebrate, it’s that you go into certain communities and they’ll say, “The golden days, I remember. 2012, 2013, you could fart out a book and put a cover with Microsoft Paint and you’d make a million pounds.”
I was around in those days, although not really getting going yet. That was never really true. It’s definitely not true now. It’s still pretty easy. If you know what you’re doing, if you write good stuff and you’re prepared to advertise, learn how to advertise and then spend a little bit to find readers, it is still possible to make a really good living out of this. We see it all the time.
There’s a guy in the mastery group on Facebook from the Ads for Authors course called Tony Harmsworth. He took the course. I think he’s taken both of our courses actually, and he posted in the group the other day. He had his first month where he sold a thousand copies was last month. That’s making a lot of money. He paid the course off in less than a month.
Now he’s like, “When will I be able to sell 10,000 copies?” Which that’s exactly what you should be looking to achieve is to level up.
People like Tony, I doubt, I don’t know, I mean I haven’t spoken to him and I haven’t read his books, but I doubt he’s ever been able to get anywhere near a traditional contract. I think if you offered him one now, he would turn away. Not interested.
Because he can see what’s possible with doing it going to the dark side. It’s great. People hanging around with us in the community groups and seeing those kinds of successes, they are still in the 1%, I think. Most people, judging by comments you see in Guardian articles and at conferences, which you will have seen in New York, people will still be sniffy about it. That’s fine.
What else did I see the other day that I thought was … I posted this into the Alliance for Independent Authors, posted that Guardian article, or those comment on it. They actually quoted me in their press release they did. I was like, “This is so stupid. I’m almost not bothered.”
I’m a Guardian reader. Well, I was a Guardian reader. Not sure I am anymore. I was like, “This is so annoying.” They’re almost willfully ignoring the facts here. They must know this is nonsense. It’s willful ignorance.
Then someone came back saying, “I actually feel sorry for all those authors who don’t know.” I’m like, I don’t feel sorry for them, don’t feel sorry for them at all. If they want to learn, it’s not hard to find. Type in self-publishing, eventually you’ll find Joanna Penn or us, or any of the other resources that are available out there, and they’re off. Anyway, I’m ranting.
James Blatch: I agree. I think probably what I feel sorry for is more to do with the authors who haven’t quite found us or Joanna or someone who are self-publishing, who aren’t even going after that traditional contract. I think there’s an evangelistic job that we can do, each one of the SPF community can do it and most of them do do it really well. We’ve probably grown as much organically as we have through the paid advertising that we push out. Maybe not quite, because we do quite a lot of paid ads.
That feels good to me, being able to say to people, and I’ve had friends around here who’ve started to write. It’s almost like just opening the window, isn’t it? You just give them this one Facebook group or one podcast and then suddenly there’s this whole world they weren’t really aware of.
Mark Dawson: Yeah. It’s so much easier to learn these days than when I started. I don’t have any sympathy for people in that situation. If they want to learn, Google is pretty easy to use. You just have to be a little bit inquisitive and open to possibilities. Anyway, James is looking off-screen, probably watching pornography.
James Blatch: No. I’m not. We used to do that profession. I don’t do that anymore.
Mark Dawson: I didn’t.
James Blatch: I was looking up that Crete leper colony. The book is called The Island by Victoria Hislop. I think it was one of those books that lots of people read when it came out a couple of years ago.
Mark Dawson: And now no one’s reading.
James Blatch: No. I think it did very well. I’m almost certain it was traditionally published, being Victoria Hislop.
Mark Dawson: So well that I haven’t heard of it.
James Blatch: You haven’t heard of it?
Mark Dawson: No.
James Blatch: You’ve heard of Victoria Hislop.
Mark Dawson: Vaguely. I don’t know. Is she connected to Ian Hislop? Probably not.
James Blatch: I think she’s his wife. I’m not 100% on that. The Wikipedia entry in a very modern non-patriarchal way doesn’t mention who she’s married to.
Mark Dawson: Right. Well, quite right.
James Blatch: Which is probably how it should be.
Mark Dawson: Quite right.
James Blatch: But it’s slightly annoying because I want to know if she’s married to Ian Hislop. Yes, she did. “She married editor Ian Hislop,” is there, in 1988. Yes, it was one of those books that people read, set on this leper colony.
I just thought I’d throw that in as a matter of completeness, so people know what it is I’m doing on my Cretan holiday with the Cretans.
Mark Dawson: When James comes back to the podcast next week missing an arm, you’ll know what’s happened.
James Blatch: I think that’s prejudicial to people with leprosy.
Mark Dawson: Do people still get leprosy? I suppose they do, don’t they, in the other places around the world.
James Blatch: Apparently, bubonic plague’s making a bit of a comeback.
Mark Dawson: Brilliant, and straight in at number one.
James Blatch: Good.
Mark Dawson: Anthrax.
James Blatch: I’m really hoping at the time that we’re saying goodbye to this, it’s going out so that our next episode is going to be ThrillerFest. I always feel slightly nervous before we get to the conferences. There’s a lot to do and a lot of things have to fall into place. We’re hoping to have a couple of episodes from New York in the next couple of weeks, and there’ll always be some good names and interesting people to talk to.
Mark Dawson: You’d better.
James Blatch: We’d better. At the very least I want to have a little catch-up with JD Barker because he’s a really interesting guy.
Mark Dawson: It’s a very expensive catch up with JD Barker.
James Blatch: Well, it’s going to be more expensive when we get to the pub on Wednesday night.
Mark Dawson: Yes. That’s true.
James Blatch: That’s going to be the most expensive night. I think we did-
Mark Dawson: Your bail money.
James Blatch: I’ll tell you what, we got to four figures at London Book Fair.
Mark Dawson: Doesn’t surprise me at all. There was a lot of people there. They were drinking a lot of beer.
James Blatch: They did drink a lot of beer.
Mark Dawson: Good for them.
James Blatch: You drank a lot of beer. A couple of people drank a really lot of beer.
Mark Dawson: Was it you, James?
James Blatch: It wasn’t me. I didn’t drink that much.
Mark Dawson: Did you smell of alcohol when we did the podcast the next day?
James Blatch: I reckon our bar bill was approaching $1,400.
Mark Dawson: Jeez.
James Blatch: I think it’ll be a smaller affair in New York. Hopefully. I’ll report back on that when we get to ThrillerFest.
Look, thank you very much indeed. I want to say a big thank you to Libbie Hawker for spending some time with us on the show. Really interesting to talk to her. Hope you’ve learned a little bit more and felt a little bit more inspired, which is the main aim, I think, for a lot of the interviews we do with authors. That’s it. We can go on holiday.
Mark, enjoy your time in Tenerife, the volcanic Tenerife, a big cycling island. I know you’re thinking about getting into cycling. It’s a huge cycling island.
Mark Dawson: It is very big. Yes. I’ve seen it.
James Blatch: Probably a bit hot at the moment.
Mark Dawson: Yes.
James Blatch: Get up early. I was going to say I want to see you in Lycra, but that’s not what I mean.
Mark Dawson: No you don’t. No one wants that.
James Blatch: Metaphorically, I want to hear that you’re wearing Lycra. Good. That’s it.
Mark Dawson: Not sure if that’s worse.
James Blatch: Yes. It is. I’m not thinking about it. With that …
Mark Dawson: Yes, you are.
James Blatch: … on that bombshell, on that Lycrarian bombshell, I’m going to say it’s goodbye from him.
Mark Dawson: And it’s goodbye from me.
James Blatch: Goodbye.
Mark Dawson: Goodbye.
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