SPS-197: Extreme Productivity: How to Write 20-Plus Books a Year – with Amanda Lee

Cozy mystery author Amanda Lee writes under two pen names and produces two books a month. She shares with James her tips about writing consistently, prolifically and keeping the writing fresh even after nearly 200 books.

Show Notes

  • On writing discipline and prolific word counts
  • Mobile writing with an iPad and a keyboard
  • Writing using a combination of pantsing and plotting
  • On DIY cover design
  • Advice on advertising and how a new book gives a bump to the backlist
  • Why writing consistently is a key to success
  • Keeping the stories fresh even when writing prolifically
  • Being inspired by real-life events and mysteries
  • On not writing to trends

Resources mentioned in this episode:

PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page

Transcript of Interview with Amanda Lee

Speaker 1: On this edition of the Self-Publishing Show.

Amanda Lee: Back in my day, I covered a lot of crime, and a lot of court cases, and there was this guy who killed his wife and dismembered her. And I was actually in his garage with her dismembered torso, and didn’t know it.

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 best seller 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 yes, welcome, it is the Self-Publishing Show with James Blatch, and on the other end of the line-

Mark Dawson: I-

James Blatch: Oh, sorry. I spoke over you. Because I forgot we do that.

Mark Dawson: You’re so unprofessional.

James Blatch: Let me try it again. It’s James Blatch.

Mark Dawson: And Mark Dawson.

James Blatch: Right, that was slick. How you doing Daws?

Mark Dawson: I’m okay, Blatch. I’m good.

James Blatch: You getting a little bit, what do they call it, demob happy, because you’re off out, aren’t you? You’re off to Disney World.

Mark Dawson: Off to Disney World, yes. As we record this on Thursday the 17th, in a week’s time pretty much I’ll be, well the day after, I’ll be heading off to Gatwick with two excited children, and an excited wife, and flying to Disney.

James Blatch: Pew, pew, pew.

Mark Dawson: No, we’re not doing Star Wars, James. My kids are too young.

James Blatch: You’re not going to Galaxy’s Edge? What do you mean too young for Star Wars?

Mark Dawson: Well, yeah, Freya’s seen the first one. But she wasn’t all that bothered.

James Blatch: What?

Mark Dawson: No, she’s not there.

James Blatch: Right. She needs Uncle James to come round, and instruct her in the ways of the Force.

Mark Dawson: Uncle James, God, sounds very-

James Blatch: Sounds a little bit creepy, doesn’t it.

Mark Dawson: Very, very creepy, yes. Uncle Jimmy.

James Blatch: Good. Well it’s been a busy time. You deserve a bit of a break and then we can… We’ll have a bit of fun in Vegas as well.

Now we should say, we have just decided that we are going to have a joint live podcast show and free drinks event at Vegas. How cool is that?

Mark Dawson: Have we decided that?

James Blatch: We have. I’ve decided it.

Mark Dawson: Okay.

James Blatch: I had a chat with Craig yesterday. It was a message. I think you were included on the… But you might not have read them.

Mark Dawson: I suggested it, if you remember.

James Blatch: What did you suggest?

Mark Dawson: That we have a podcast recording in Vegas.

James Blatch: Ah, no. I suggested that.

Mark Dawson: Oh here we go.

James Blatch: After we did the live one, I said, “We should do this in Vegas.”

Mark Dawson: And the same way that you suggested BookLab? Did you? Okay.

James Blatch: No BookLab, I do take the mickey out of you, was your idea. But you can’t claim everything we ever do as secretly your idea.

Mark Dawson: I can.

James Blatch: Right.

Mark Dawson: I mean, you watch me.

James Blatch: You speak to the lawyers. Right, anyway.

Whosever’s idea it was, we’re going to be doing this in Vegas on the Wednesday night. I’ve got that as the 13th on here. The 13th of November. So it’s at Sam’s Town Gambling and Brothel, or whatever it is. Probably a libelous comment.

Mark Dawson: I don’t think it’s a brothel.

James Blatch: No. Whatever it is in Vegas.

Mark Dawson: Casino, I think, is the word you’re looking for.

James Blatch: I think they call it a gambling hall.

Mark Dawson: They call them resorts, I think.

James Blatch: Yeah. But anyway, whatever happens there, stays there. Apart from this podcast episode, which will get broadcast. So we’re going to do that, probably at six o’clock will be the broadcast time, the time we start the show.

And if you get there after the day’s events, if you’re going to 20Books Vegas this year, head off to the balcony area. The balcony that overlooks the strange, animatronic goings-on in the bar in the middle. We are going to be setting up there, you’ll get a free drink, and you can get to take part in our show.

It’s going to be slightly chaotic I think, everybody drinking and watching us chat. We don’t know who the guests are yet. But it went so well at NINC, we thought we would do this again.

Mark Dawson: We should get Ricardo Fayet and David Gaughran.

James Blatch: That worked well last time. It’s time to mix things up. We’ll find someone else. And we should also say, we are heading towards, rapidly towards, our two hundredth episode.

Mark Dawson: We are. Yes, in four episodes’ time. So that’s going to be interesting. It’s fairly hard to believe that. How many years is that, then? So about four years we’ve been doing this for.

James Blatch: Yeah.

Mark Dawson: That’s ridiculous.

James Blatch: I think we did three or four at the beginning, but yeah, more or less four years. You say four episodes’ time, but this is going to be 197. So actually, yeah.

Mark Dawson: That’s four. 197, 198, 199… We haven’t had this episode yet.

James Blatch: Yes, but I would say the other way of saying it is two episodes’ time, because you’ve got 198 and 199 between this, and then it’s that episode.

Mark Dawson: Oh, I suppose so, yeah.

James Blatch: But anyway-

Mark Dawson: You say po-TAY-to-

James Blatch: So people know-

Mark Dawson: … po-TAH-to.

James Blatch: … it’s going to be released on the 15th of November. That is the scheduled release date for the 200th episode.

Mark Dawson: That’s if I can put up with you for long enough.

James Blatch: Yeah, well you know. That goes both ways.

Mark Dawson: We might end at 197 at this rate.

James Blatch: Let me just welcome our Patreon supporter. We did record an episode a couple of days ago, so not surprisingly there’s just one new Patreon supporter, and that is Diddy Miller. What a great name. Thank you Diddy very much indeed for going to, and becoming a supporter of this here podcast.

Today Mark, we are talking to a big beast in the world of self-publishing. We are talking to somebody who is a prolific author, a prolific marketer, and most of all, a prolific seller of books. Now I know you are a bit of a fan of Amanda Lee.

Mark Dawson: I am, yeah. She sells an enormous amount of books. And in, I would say, well a smaller genre than I write in, certainly. So she writes kind of I think cozy, witchy, mystery type books. Now I’m saying that without having read any of her books, which I know is indefensible.

But she is extremely prolific, and I hadn’t met her before, until we went to NINC. And I remember the first night actually I was called over by someone, and she said, “Oh hi Mark. I’m Amanda Lee.” And I’m like, “Oh right, hello.”

She’s very forthright. She comes from Detroit. She used to be a reporter, news reporter, and that’s how she explains her huge word counts. She’ll do 9,000 words a day. It’s discipline for her, and that was her job.

You can’t really moan to an editor that you haven’t filed your story because you didn’t get the words in. She’s kind of taken that discipline that she learned when she was a news reporter, and has brought that across to her new business as a writer. And has this remarkable, prolific work rate.

And really is benefiting from that. She’s making an enormous amount of money. Probably one of the top selling authors in the world, I would have thought, in terms of actual revenue generated.

James Blatch: Yeah, great to hear from her, which we’ll do in a moment. I think that can work both ways, having been a journalist. Because you’re always being pushed on word count. If you work for a newspaper, you always want more words, and the editor’s always saying, “No, we’re cutting that, cutting that.”

Column inches disappear as the week goes on. So you develop a talent for telling stories in short, few words, not more words. So I think she’s done a really good job of taking the discipline of putting your bum on the seat and getting words down, but also turn that into longer form story telling. Which I found a little bit difficult at the beginning.

Mark Dawson: It’s that daily discipline. And no such thing as writer’s block, and stuff like that. As I said, I did a talk yesterday, just for kids, in Salisbury. And one of them asked me, “How do you deal with writer’s block?” And kind of the lead child answer is, well there’s no such thing as plumber’s block, or truck driver’s block. These things don’t happen. That that’s the job. And you’ve got to get the words in. And Amanda just does that extremely effectively.

James Blatch: Excellent. Okay. Well we’re going to have a chat with you off the back of the interview with Amanda. And I know you’ve been into a school recently. So I want to hear about that, and that visit. So do stick around for this great interview with Amanda, and then Mark and I’ll be back for a chat.

Amanda, welcome to the Self-Publishing Show. How delightful to have you with us.

Amanda Lee: It’s great to be here.

James Blatch: I can’t believe you can spare the time, because we are going to be talking about productivity, and your figures have blown me away, when I see the level of writing and word count. We’re going to come on to that in a moment.

First of all, why don’t you just give us the skinny on who Amanda Lee is.

Amanda Lee: I write cozy mysteries, and some of them skew toward urban fantasy. I’ve been publishing since 2011, so I’ve been at it a while.

James Blatch: And have you been traditionally published initially, or are you self published from the beginning?

Amanda Lee: No. I was a reporter before this so… I always wrote on deadline, but I was not writing books.

James Blatch: Okay Amanda. So cozy mystery is your genre. And you say you were a reporter before.

Was writing novels something you had an ambition for from a young age? Or just something that came to you?

Amanda Lee: I started writing novels when I was a kid and whatnot, but back when I went to college, it wasn’t feasible really to make a living writing novels, unless you somehow really lucked into it. So I needed a job that was going to pay the bills.

And we thought at the time, journalism would be a nice fit. But the journalism field has really taken a lot of hits. So it really wasn’t that good of a choice, and by the time self-publishing came around, I was looking for a change anyway, and it just kind of happened at the right time.

James Blatch: It did. And you were a prolific reader beforehand, were you? Did you read a lot?

Amanda Lee: Oh yeah. I read three to five books a week.

James Blatch: Yeah, okay. So let’s move on then to the substance of this discussion is your productivity.

Tell me how many words you write each week, month, et cetera.

Amanda Lee: Well I tend to do 9,000 words a day, five days a week. Sometimes I add a little more depending, but I really hit 45,000 words a week, which if you go the standard four weeks, that’s 180,000 a month. Although I usually skew slightly higher than that, because it’s not really a full four weeks.

James Blatch: 45,000 words a week. And this is not you racing towards a deadline, because a lot of people can suddenly churn out 15,000 words in a day if they need to. This is the regular you, sitting down every week, writing.

Amanda Lee: I’m six months ahead. So the book I’m writing right now, I believe comes out in October or November, I would have to look at my schedule, it’s one of those two. I know the one I start on Tuesday comes out in November.

James Blatch: So you’re well organized on this front. You have a spreadsheet, or a project management?

Amanda Lee: I don’t know if people would think I’m that organized. I do everything by hand. I have a little notebook that I just write stuff down in. I don’t know how organized this is. I have a list, and I write down the words of each novel, and I cross them off and just go.

James Blatch: Do you write one novel at a time? You write sequentially?

Amanda Lee: Yes. I have found that if I try to jump from novel to novel, it doesn’t go as well for me. I’m hyper efficient, so it’s better for me to focus on one thing and go through it.

And what was really actually slowing me down was the editing, because I zone out and I can’t stand it. So I have modified my editing. I used to write completely through, and then spend several days editing. But that was like a depressing couple of days editing for me.

Because I used to actually write 12,000 to 15,000 words a day, and then have to spend a whole three to five days editing.

But now I do the 9,000 words a day writing, and then I edit 9,000 words a day too. It’s a different 9,000 words. It’s from an entirely different manuscript.

James Blatch: To give your brain a bit of variety.

Amanda Lee: Yeah. And it works out better for me that way.

James Blatch: When you sit down, you write your 9,000 words, obviously you know what book you’re working on. You’re working sequentially and that.

Do you sit there and aim for the 9,000? It’s not like you sit there and think, “I’m going to write for five hours,” or something.

Amanda Lee: No I sit down and say, “I’m going to write three chapters.” And my chapters tend to be between 2,800 and 3,200 words, and that pretty much equals out to 9,000.

I don’t force the issue. If I were to be at 8,975, I’m not adding an extra 25 words in a new chapter. But it just kind of works out to… My natural writing thing is 2,800 to 3,200 words a chapter. So I do three chapters a day.

James Blatch: How long does that take you?

Amanda Lee: About three and a half hours.

James Blatch: For the 9,000, or the chapter?

Amanda Lee: Yeah, it takes me about an hour to write 3,000 words.

James Blatch: Okay. So you write fast.

Amanda Lee: Yes.

James Blatch: I mean not only are you putting the hours in, but you write fast.

How are you writing? On Scrivener, or Word, or?

Amanda Lee: It depends on if I’m writing at home, or if I’m writing at Starbucks, because I do a lot of writing at Starbucks, because I play Pokemon, and I like to spin the staff while I’m writing. So I have my phone open, and every five minutes I’m spinning the staff.

And then when I’m at Starbucks, I usually do two chapters a day at Starbucks. So I’m there for two hours, which is two full venti green teas, and they know me. The minute I come in, they’re like, “Amanda, venti green tea.” So I sit there for two hours and do those two chapters, and I usually write one chapter before I leave.

When I’m at Starbucks, I write on my iPad, because it’s just easier to carry around. And when I’m at home, I write on my Mac.

I don’t write in Scrivener, I’ve actually never really bonded with the software. I don’t know what it is. I write in Word on my laptop, and then I write in Pages on my iPad. And then I just transfer it from the iCloud Drive into Word when I’m done for the day.

James Blatch: And you obviously have a keyboard with your iPad?

Amanda Lee: Yes. I have the Smart Keyboard. Honestly, I think it made me faster, because for some reason my fingers just fly over that sucker. I write even slightly faster, not a huge amount, but I write pretty fast on my iPad. I’ve even started just traveling with the iPad, because you know how it’s a pain with your laptop and whatnot, you got to get it out for security and whatnot.

The iPad is just easier, and lighter, and you can pretty much do everything I need to do. Because when I travel, I try to set it up so that’s a week I take off, if I can help it. Because I like to hang out with my friends, and I don’t want to be the person holed up in their room writing. So I tend to schedule those weeks off.

But my philosophy is, why did I work so hard to get six months ahead if I can’t take a little time here or there off.

James Blatch: There’s definitely got to be some payback. Although a lot of people of course listening to this who are working 9 to 5 jobs and dreaming of being in a position where their writing pays for a living do love the idea of going to Starbucks every day, and being recognized, and sitting down and writing for living. That is a lovely thing.

But also, it’s a lot of work. A lot of thinking goes into that.

When you sit down every day, are you writing out from a plot you’ve got? Or are you pantsing it as you go?

Amanda Lee: I outline. Do I have a notebook? Yeah. So this is the book I’m finishing up right now. It’s going to look like gibberish. But I outline a couple sentences for each chapter.

James Blatch: Oh okay. We’re looking at chapters. So for the people watching on YouTube, they can see that. Some people will just be listening to this. But what Amanda’s showing us is a notepad with some-

Amanda Lee: I outline each chapter by hand. Each series has its own notebook. I know where each chapter needs to get. And I’m kind of a half pantser, half plotter.

I write down the beats where each chapter has to get. And then I kind of let it get there however it wants. I know where I have to be by the end of the chapter, and then just let it go.

James Blatch: Do you deviate from the plot at all? Does sometimes your writing just take you off and surprise you?

Amanda Lee: Yes. I will, if I have better ideas. And then usually if I have a better idea, I actually hand write it in the margins and whatnot, so if I have need to go back, I can see where I made this jump. In case when I’m going back editing, all of a sudden it’s like, “Where did this come from?”

If I make a plot change, I don’t go back and change what I’ve already written. I make the note of it, and then the changes don’t come in until I’m editing, because it just streamlines the process more to keep going forward with the change I’ve made, versus going back and losing a bunch of time, maybe days, trying to edit in the chapters I’ve already read. I just save that for the editing.

James Blatch: That’s interesting. I’m at sort of that stage myself now, just the end of my first novel, I should say, not anything like the numbers you’ve got. But I’m exactly at that point now, where I’m wondering how… because I’ve just rewritten a scene that means that a scene four scenes ago needs to be rewritten.

And I actually had that thought this afternoon. Do I stop, go back and do that? Or just push on? Because I’m right at the end of the book. And I think probably the efficient thing is to get to the end of the book, get to the end of the draft, and then go back and do those changes. But you do need some level of organization.

Amanda Lee: Yeah, I used to go back, but I really don’t now. I just make notes and go forward. And most of the time, I stick fairly close to my outline.

But there are times when I’m in the middle of a book, and all of a sudden it’s like, oh this is such a better idea. So you just go with it. But then I just turn back around, and wait until the editing process, because I always have the notebook sitting next to me when I’m working on it. And then just go back and do it that way.

James Blatch: With all this productivity Amanda, how many books have you published?

Amanda Lee: It’s more than 150. I think less than 200. The second I can put something up for pre-order, I put it on pre-order, so I’m probably… I was at 150 at a certain point last year, so I’ve got to be getting close to 200. Because I write under two names.

I write under Amanda M. Lee and Lily Harper Hart. Each one of them publishes at least one book a month.

James Blatch: How many words are your average books?

Amanda Lee: For Lily Harper Hart, it’s 60,000 words a book. For Amanda M. Lee, it’s about between 90 and 95,000 is where I’ve pretty much settled.

James Blatch: And that’s the other thing about what you’re doing here, is you’re sitting down and writing every day. But there’s a production line of course, in terms of the publishing process. When do you do that? And that must also have the same level of intensity.

You must be every month getting a new cover, getting blurbs, all the rest of it.

Amanda Lee: Well I do my own covers.

James Blatch: Okay.

Amanda Lee: I like to mess around with Photoshop. But I do those while binge watching something on Netflix generally. And I have so many covers now that I am… I literally have 200 covers. I have series plotted out that I will not be able to get to for years. So I do that.

I have a VA who does things that I don’t want to do, like proofing my audio, and she also does some other proofreading for me. She helps moderate my reading group. Listening to the audio is the big time suck. So when you take that out… because I just don’t have 9 to 15 hours, depending on the length of the book, to sit down and listen to my own words read back to me. And I also hate that. So I do have a VA who does some of that.

I really only do the one massive editing pass on my book. And then I hand it off to other people to… I have line editor and three proofreaders who handle the proofreading for me.

James Blatch: When you say proofing the audiobooks, is that a VA who’s sitting there, with a copy of the manuscript, checking that it’s been accurately dictated, or narrated?

Amanda Lee: Yes.

James Blatch: Okay. It’s a little under experienced for me, because I haven’t done anything like this.

Is that something that’s normal in proofing an audiobook?

Amanda Lee: I don’t know that everyone does it, but the big thing for me is that a lot of people like to Whispersync their books. And you can’t have too many deviations, or Amazon won’t Whispersync them. And you get more sales on audio through the Whispersync. So you always want them Whispersynced.

So it’s worth paying her to sit there for the nine hours to make sure they get Whispersynced, because I’m working really hard, I’m building up my audio. And that’s a very long process.

James Blatch: Okay. Fair enough. It’s just an area that I’m not familiar with.

You mentioned the covers. I’ve just been fiddling in the background, and getting some of your books up, and having a look. I had a look obviously before the interview. Your covers are really beautiful. Do you draw those?

Amanda Lee: No, I can’t draw. I photo manipulate them.

James Blatch: But these are almost illustrations.

Amanda Lee: Yeah, I can photo manipulate really well. I have a publishing account with Shutterstock and basically it’s like adult coloring. I like to just fiddle. And sometimes I will see something I really like, and buy it, and then just fiddle with it for months, like when I’m watching TV. And I will actually have a series idea pop up-

James Blatch: As a result of the illustration?

Amanda Lee: Yes. So, yeah. I like messing around with the Photoshop stuff. Some of my other writer friends think I have a problem, because I’ll be messaging them what I’ve been working on, and they’re like, “You have 200 covers. Why are you doing this?” And I’m like, “I don’t know. It’s a sickness. I can’t stop myself.”

I’m kind of a control freak though, so I like having control of it myself. I don’t always play well with others. And I hear all these other people having certain nightmare things with their covers that they want. So I just like having the control.

James Blatch: I think they look amazing. And obviously there’s a little pet talent of yours, among your many talents, Amanda, is that.

Amanda Lee: Well to be fair, I was trained on Photoshop for journalism. So I can also actually create book trailers if I want. Because I was trained on Final Cut Pro and whatnot, and I’m very good at it.

But I found book trailers to be kind of useless. So I don’t waste the time on that. But I absolutely love screwing around with Photoshop. And if I can’t do something, thanks to YouTube, all you have to do is go type it in, and there’s a hundred different people there wanting to teach you a skill.

So a lot of times, if I don’t have anything going on, I will go watch a 20 minute tutorial on something I don’t know how to do on Photoshop, and let them teach me.

James Blatch: That’s how I use Photoshop is reaching for YouTube. And it is remarkably good for that. Okay, well you mentioned marketing there, and let’s talk about marketing then. So what you doing in terms of… I mean right from the beginning, in was it, 2011 I think you said you started?

Amanda Lee: Yeah.

James Blatch: Which is a pretty good time to start in self-publishing.

A lot of people found it a little bit easier at that point to get a visibility in sales. Did you start well?

Amanda Lee: I didn’t hit it until my fourth book, which was my first witch book. Which was kind of a fluke because at the time, I just decided I wanted to turn my family to witches, and all my family are witches in there, and they think it’s funny.

So back then, there weren’t a lot of options. There were like, what was it, that Kindle Fire daily, I think. And I think ENT might have actually been around then. There weren’t a lot of options. And I really didn’t even attempt to start advertising, I don’t think, until 2014.

I just got lucky. The witch books took off, and then they dragged everything else with it. And I had absolutely horrible covers when I started, because I didn’t know what I was doing.

And I made the mistake of journalism editing. I tapped on my journalism friends to edit. That’s not the same as book editing. So I made a lot of mistakes. But back then you could get away with making mistakes and rebound. It’s not the same today. So I’m glad I have my team in place.

As for marketing today, I mostly rely on new releases as my marketing boost. I spend about 5,000 a month on AMS ads. Every once in a while, I get a bug up my butt, and will go do BookBub ads. But I don’t get very much from them. And occasionally I’ll do a Facebook ad, but mostly it’s AMS ads, and I only spend about 5,000 a month on them.

James Blatch: Quite a complex set of campaigns.

How much time and effort do you put into those?

Amanda Lee: I just set them up and let them go. I’m pretty lazy about marketing. I let the new releases do it for me. It’s never going to make sense to me to spend more than you make on advertising, which I see a lot of people doing. Because they think somehow it’s going to catch up at some point.

For me it’s all about the profit margin, so I just don’t overdo the advertising. At a certain point, I might have to, because as we all know the market’s constantly in flux. But right now, it’s still working that my new releases work as advertising. And every time I release a new book in the series, it bumps up the backlist.

Although honestly, I lucked out because I started at a time when it was easier to get visibility, and I built a very big readership back before everything was flooded, and they’ve stuck with me. I get the occasional attrition and whatnot, but for the most part, my fans read pretty much everything I write.

James Blatch: It sounds like that’s what’s happening here.

So your new release gets a very natural boost from a legion of Amanda Lee fans out there.

Amanda Lee: Everything I write under Amanda M. Lee pretty much debuts in the top 100 now, and actually the Lily Harper Hart stuff has started debuting in the top 100 too. It doesn’t get as low as my Amanda M. Lee stuff, but it is now getting in the top 100.

James Blatch: And just to finish on the marketing side of it, did you start with a mailing list? You said you had a big readership early on.

Did you capture them into a mailing list at any point? Is that something that you do?

Amanda Lee: No, I was an idiot. I didn’t start a mailing list until 2014 either. My mailing list is completely organic. I’ve never once run a list builder. I don’t like them. I’d rather have a smaller list of diehard fans. So my list is honestly only like 9,000 people for Amanda M. Lee, and 2,000 people for Lily Harper Hart.

James Blatch: Okay. But are they high quality?

Amanda Lee: And when you compare that to other people, that’s nothing.

James Blatch: Yeah. But everyone does it a little bit differently, don’t they?

Amanda Lee: But they’re all organic.

James Blatch: Yeah. Okay, so where you are now? There’s no question about it I’m sure, debuting in the top 100 each time, you have a very comfortable living? I would imagine from your reporter days that’s sort of-

Amanda Lee: Yeah, I do pretty well.

James Blatch: … a kind of life changing amount of money.

Amanda Lee: You know trust me, I never thought… Yeah, no. I do pretty well. I have nothing to complain about that way. But I mean I still put in the work.

I’ve seen other people who hit it big with one or two books, and then they don’t write again for a year, and then they can’t figure out what happened. Whereas I don’t take anything for granted. I’m always working. Once we’re done here, I’m going to Starbucks.

James Blatch: Oh, right. Lots of people who are successful have a little bit of self doubt, and the slight worry that the tap’s suddenly going to be turned off. Or the imposter syndrome that they’re going to be found out. They’re going to wake up one morning and it’s all going to be over.

Is it one of the reason that drives you every day to write more, and get the next books out?

Amanda Lee: I think it’s more that I didn’t make a lot of money as a reporter, and I like my lifestyle much more now. But I don’t foresee that self-publishing is going to be this open cascade of money for people for a really long time. So I want to make sure that I never have to go back to a day job.

So I actually am investing my money, I have a plan for getting a place in New Orleans for the winter eventually, but I don’t want a mortgage or anything. I’m doing it all with cash. So I invest, I try to be pretty smart with my money.

I am not just throwing money out the window on anything other than all the Star Wars stuff you see behind me. I’m pretty careful, and I have a financial advisor, and I have a certain amount of money every month going into a retirement fund, every single month, no matter what.

I want to be smart about this, because everyone dreams of getting to this, and you don’t want to lose it. And I have seen people lose it. I don’t want to be the person who decides just to take a year off, because it was going well last year, because everything in this business changes every few months. So I just want to be on top of the changes. Plus I really do enjoy writing.

James Blatch: So the writing, the motivation to write is what I’m quite interested in, because it does take a lot of application to do the amount that you do. And there’s an intensity to it.

In terms of the stories themselves, I’ve got a couple of questions about this.

How do you keep them fresh? How do you keep yourself fresh and interested when you’re doing I guess quite similar stories one after the other?

Amanda Lee: It’s always hard, because you don’t want the mysteries to be exactly the same. I’m one of those people that I love those Dateline shows on Netflix. On the weekends I’ll pop those in. And I will take… I keep a notebook around, and I jot down, not the story itself, but like if there’s an interesting way the individual was caught. Or if there’s an interesting motivation, or if there’s an interesting business intrigue area. I always jot all those down in a notebook.

So when I’m getting ready to start plotting a mystery, I then start looking through, and I’m like, “What do I like in here? What do I like?”

I’m still on top of all the journalism stuff in this area, because all my friends are journalists in this area, and I still get the paper all the time, and we always have really weird crime here. So I’m always on top of that.

And I always get inspiration from… we recently had this clerk who managed to accidentally get in. She rode Donald Trump’s coattails into the clerk’s office here, and she was nuts. She would put tinfoil on herself so the smart readers couldn’t get in her brain. And she was doing all types of weird stuff.

So she gave me a lot of inspiration for a book I’ve been outlining. Usually I just see something on the news, and I’m like, “Oh, that would be a good idea.” Like everything that went on with that Fyre Festival. You saw those documentaries about the Fyre Festival. I’m like, “Oh, I’m doing a witch festival set on my island.” So I get a lot of inspiration from television, which is weird.

James Blatch: That genre has exploded, these real life, the documentaries, The Staircase on Netflix, of course the Avery story from somewhere in the Midwest. I have to say, John Dyer and I absorb all of this. We always say to each other, “I’ve just watched another brilliant series.” And they’ve exploded with Ted Bundy of course, a big film in the UK at the moment, about him.

Amanda Lee: I watched it. They have a four part series on Netflix on Ted Bundy which I watched. You don’t really go the serial killer route in cozy mysteries.

James Blatch: No.

Amanda Lee: That’s a little too dark for the readership.

James Blatch: Ted Bundy is quite a dark story.

Amanda Lee: I’m actually fascinated with serial killers. I watch Criminal Minds and stuff. So I even watch those occasionally, just to… And you don’t steal the entire episode. But if something interesting happens, and da da da, which sparks in your memory, what if it was just like this character, but this happened? So I just have a constant notebook that I’m jotting ideas down, and when it comes time-

James Blatch: I think this is the reporter in you, because I used to be a news reporter as well, and I always remember little details. Sometimes they’re quite horrible little details that just stick in your mind.

One thing, I wonder if you remember this as well, that there was an astronaut. A female astronaut who decided to murder her-

Amanda Lee: Oh the one who wore the diaper?

James Blatch: She wore her diaper.

Amanda Lee: Yeah.

James Blatch: That’s the detail that I remembered. She drove a long way, I think down the east coast, down to Florida, to murder her love rival. And she wore her astronaut diaper, so she didn’t have to stop on route.

Amanda Lee: Back in my days I covered a lot of crime, and a lot of court cases. And there was this guy here named Stephen Grant who killed his wife, and dismembered her. And I was actually in his garage with her dismembered torso, and didn’t know it at the time.

James Blatch: Wow.

Amanda Lee: However, the part of his story after he was caught was, he took her body in his children’s sled, and it was because it was snowing out, and threw the body parts around a local park. And the sled took off on him down a hill at one point, and it’s the middle of the night, and he’s having to chase the sled full of his wife’s body parts, down a hill.

So you hear certain things that like. So I actually used him as the inspiration, and people who live around here are always like, “Oh my God, that’s Stephen Grant!”

James Blatch: They spot it.

Amanda Lee: I still follow the news pretty closely. But for cozies, you don’t want to go too dark.

James Blatch: No.

Amanda Lee: Like you can never have a school shooting in a cozy. You have to be really careful with any sexual violence in a cozy as well.

James Blatch: Yes. I understand that’s not why people are reading the book. But it’s a very interesting area to me, and I’m sure to you as well, as to why some crime stories take off, and others don’t.

I’ve been in news rooms, and sometimes you know exactly what it is. Like just the right photograph of the young girl or something, looking wide eyed and innocent, just something sparks the imagination.

I remember being in California at the time the Scott Peterson murders happened.

Amanda Lee: Right.

James Blatch: Do you remember that, with the body?

Amanda Lee: Yes.

James Blatch: And everyone was gripped by it, and I was on holiday at the time thinking, “Why is everyone following every ounce of this story? How many murders were there in LA last night?”

Amanda Lee: Well it’s because she was very pregnant and due to give birth any day. And he was an attractive… I think it’s different when the suspect is attractive too.

It’s like with Ted Bundy. He’s not my personal cup of tea, but apparently back in the ’70s, women everywhere were swooning all over him.

Who was the guy who dressed up like the clown, and killed all the guys? He looked like a killer. Ted Bundy was charming. John Wayne Gacy. So he dressed up like a clown, and killed all those young boys. But he looked like a killer. Ted Bundy looked like your average guy next door. He volunteered his time at a suicide help line. So I always find all that stuff interesting.

James Blatch: I think this is a really interesting discussion for people who are constantly looking for ideas, and how to get those sparks.

I think Mark Dawson does a bit of this as well. He reads newspapers, goes back over old stories, and tries to find those little quirky things that have happened to put into his own thrillers.

With your level of writing, and your level of production, are you able to take note of what is starting to take off in your particular market, and adapt your books around that?

Amanda Lee: I don’t really like to trend.

James Blatch: Okay.

Amanda Lee: No, I don’t write to trend. Other people who can write to trend and stay on top of it, more props to them, but I write what’s true to my brand, and stick to it.

Over the long haul, I think a lot of people can hit… like those Supernatural Academies are hitting really hard right now. You can make a lot of money from them right now, but then it’ll be like the Billionaire Biker or the sadomasochistic Fifty Shades of Grey dude, eventually they run their course.

I would rather have my backlist be more solid, if not going through the roof. Because what if you make all this money on a certain trend, and then what happens when that trend dries up? So I really try to avoid writing to trend.

I do write to market. But I avoid trends as much as possible.

James Blatch: How much contact do you have with your readers?

Amanda Lee: I have a very active reader group and I try to keep up on my messages and emails as much as possible. Sometimes that’s not always possible, because I get 30 to 50 messages a day. Some of it is quite easy. I can just point them towards my website, because a lot of times they’re just looking for the reading order list. So you just point them toward the website.

But occasionally I get a few weird people. I’m in my reader group every day. They’ve very active though. I had to go to a memorial service Monday. They entertained themselves for the entire day. So they put up bacon memes, because I always have a running joke about bacon in one of my books. And I’m a Star Wars fanatic, so they put up Star Wars memes. They totally entertained themselves for the entire day.

James Blatch: So you have your own little community there. Are you in danger of having a Comic Con event after you? That does happen with enthusiastic reader groups.

Amanda Lee: I don’t know that I would want that. If I go to a Comic Con, it’s because I want to stalk people.

James Blatch: Yes, you don’t want to be the person being-

Amanda Lee: I like writers’ conferences, because I like hanging out with other writers, like NINC is my absolute favorite. I met Mark there. Then I developed a very strong reader group.

A lot of it is other cozy authors, like Annabel Chase, and Bella Falls, and Linsey Hall, and we all just were in New Orleans together in March. So we do a couple trips a year. And then a couple of us, like Leighann Dobbs, and Pamela Kelley, and Bella Falls, and I are going to be in Salem, Massachusetts this year for the run up to Halloween.

James Blatch: Wow, that’s a very cool place to be.

Amanda Lee: We had to book our hotel rooms in the haunted hotel a full year in advance, because it’s so hard to get in there.

James Blatch: Yeah. Well you might not get out alive, so I hope it was worth it.

Amanda Lee: Yeah.

James Blatch: Good. Well look, Amanda, it’s been really interesting talking to you, particularly about the ideas.

I don’t know where to go with the productivity, because basically you just sit there, and you write 3,500 words in an hour. Is that right?

Amanda Lee: Pretty much. The only tips I can give is, one thing I do that I think saves a lot, is when I am… because I’m writing 11 different series at once. When I am done with a book in a series, I immediately do the outline for the next book, and I make note of where it is in the timeline for the year.

So it does save time, and then I don’t have to go back and double check all this stuff. I know that it’s summer. This just happened in the last book. And this is where they’re at in their relationship. That is a big time saver. So I do recommend that.

The other thing, I never stop in the middle of a chapter. I always finish the chapter, because when you start the next day, I don’t have to remember where I was in that chapter, reread it, go through it again, get caught in that editing loop. I always finish the chapter, no matter what. And that’s a big time saver too.

James Blatch: I heard another tip the other day, which is when you do stop, stop when you’re enjoying it. When you’ve come up to a bit you’re looking forward to writing, because then for those of us who have to sort of find the time during the day, it’s a much easier process to go to, to open it up and start writing, rather than stop when you’re-

Amanda Lee: This is my full time job, so I do treat it like a job, and I get stuff done. When I was still a reporter, I was working 80 hours a week, 40 as a reporter and 40 doing this, for more than a year, because once you get off the journalism train now, there’s no getting back in. If you’re out, you’re out now.

I wanted to make sure they money was going to hold, before I actually quit. So that was a very rough year, but I’m not sad I did it, because it worked out well for me.

Now I can basically set my schedule. Usually I don’t have anything get in the way, but this week I had a bunch of stuff pile up. I had to go to my grandfather’s memorial, my mom’s coming Saturday, and I’ve got to get this house in order, and then I had this, and I had a massage, and then my pool opens Monday. So I’m not quite getting as much done this week as I do on a normal week. But that doesn’t happen that often for me. This week it was like eight things piled in all at once.

But generally a normal week is, I get my 9,000 writing in, and I usually have it done by noon, or one in the afternoon. Then I go play Pokemon for an hour, and then I go home and do my editing, and I’m usually completely done, and I take my time editing, I’m usually completely done by three, and can do whatever I want.

Although in the summer that’ll switch, because I’ll spend three hours in the pool every day that I possibly can. In Michigan, we take advantage of that pool as much as we possibly can. So the editing will be moved until I’m done in the pool, before I go to bed. But it’ll still get done.

James Blatch: Living the dream.

Amanda Lee: Yeah. I’d live in that pool year round if I could. I love that pool.

James Blatch: It sounds perfect. Well look Amanda, I want to say thank you so much indeed for joining us, and sharing some of those insights with us. I’m going to take some inspiration from that amount of… I’m meticulous in my spreadsheets about my words.

I do run two businesses, so I’m quite busy. But I thought I was doing really well. I write somewhere between 25 and 30,000 words a month. And I was really pleased with myself. And then I started talking to you. And that’s like three days.

Amanda Lee: You have to work up to it, until it’s your normal. Just having a day of 15,000 is great when you’ve got to get that stuff done. But I almost think it’s better if you go down to 9,000, but you can stick to it. Or even 5,000 words a day, and stick to it, and have that steadiness versus 1,000 words here, 1,000 words here, then all of a sudden you’ve got to get 15,000 words in one day. That’s a lot of stress that I don’t necessarily think is good for the creative process. But everyone has their own thing they do.

James Blatch: Right, well let’s double down on that. Let’s get that word count up. By the time we meet in NINC, I’m going to have a better average for you, Amanda.

Amanda Lee: All right.

James Blatch: Good. And by the way, in NINC, just before, we are going to the new Star Wars park, so I expect to see you there.

Amanda Lee: Oh, are you? I don’t know when I’m going to be able to get to the new Star Wars park. I haven’t figured it out yet, because my fall is pretty full of travel with NINC, and Salem, and-

James Blatch: Well you need to get on a flight a day earlier.

Amanda Lee: So I don’t know yet.

James Blatch: I think the NINC starts on something like the Wednesday. I think the Monday or Tuesday we’re going to be in Star Wars land.

Amanda Lee: Oh see now, my little group does NINC Sunday to Sunday.

James Blatch: Okay.

Amanda Lee: We spend Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday getting massages, getting drunk, hanging out on the beach. Before anyone actually shows up.

James Blatch: You need to be at Galaxy’s Edge doing those things on the Monday and Tuesday.

Amanda Lee: I don’t think I can talk most of my other cozy authors… I’m the only Star Wars freak. So they’re not going to go.

James Blatch: I’m going to introduce you to a couple. Amanda, thank you so much indeed. Looking forward to seeing you in the autumn, and thank you so much for joining us.

Amanda Lee: No problem. You too. Thanks.

James Blatch: There you go. Amanda Lee. So very interesting hearing from somebody who’s getting pretty much everything right.

Actually I did an interview yesterday, as we’re standing here, with Lindsay Buroker, who also sells a shed load of books. And Lindsay puts it really down to having a big, loyal audience who are there waiting for your next book.

Michael Anderle and others in the industry will tell you that, and in fact Lindsay repeated this yesterday, that the number one way of marketing your previous books is to write your next book. And I think Amanda, and her, and quite a few people in that… although they’re quite different genres, in that sort of level of selling, are doing that. They’re getting their product out regularly. They’re servicing their fans.

Mark Dawson: Excuse me?

James Blatch: Didn’t sound quite right. But you know what I mean. Fan service I think is a thing, if it’s not quite the thing you’re thinking of.

Mark Dawson: It is a thing, yes. No, that’s absolutely right. And of course there’s another author, he sells a few books, who you might know, who does the same thing. So it is important to get the books out there. So given I’ll have… probably do four this year. That’s kind of a standard year for me is four novels. I’d be happy with that.

James Blatch: Fantastic. Well I tell you what, in the next episode, I’m going to update you on my novel situation. And not my unique situation, but my novel situation.

Mark Dawson: I can hardly wait.

James Blatch: I think other people are quite interested. I get a few messages every day.

Mark Dawson: I think they are, yes, they are.

James Blatch: Okay look, let’s talk about your school visit. Now this is interesting for me, because these live, real world things, events…

Not that long ago, they were quite a big deal for people, these blog tours, and appearances and so on. And over the last couple of years I’ve certainly sensed, I have no personal experience of this, that people are thinking that now, certainly when you put a lot of time and effort and travel and expenses into it, it’s not really paying back in the same way as a good session at a computer, and sort of digital marketing is doing.

Children’s authors are an exception to that, who often say that going into schools is very helpful for them. And also the other part of it, it’s a really good thing for your soul I think, for you as a person to do, to go in, in the real world, talk to people.

But you’ve been into a school, so tell us how it went and what you got out of it.

Mark Dawson: It was good. There’s a Salisbury Literary Festival on at the moment, and my daughter’s school is part of that. And to go back to what you said, they had a children’s author go in and speak to the girls of Freya’s age. And they all bought books, and Freya brought back these books, and the author had signed them, “Happy birthday,” because it’s Freya’s birthday that day as well.

And then Freya was up late last night and early this morning reading that book, which she picked herself, which is great. She’s getting to the stage now where she likes to read herself. So that was great. And obviously this author has probably sold sixty books, which, that’s not bad. It’s not scalable, but it won’t be a bad afternoon to work for her.

But for me, it wasn’t about selling books. I was talking to sixth formers, so sixteen, seventeen year olds. Fifteen I suppose as well, in that mix. And it was mostly about how I publish, and independent publishing, and digital marketing, and all of that kind of stuff.

It was interesting, there was about 250 children there, and I was interviewed by the English teacher. I asked them at the start, how many people read on a device? And I would say 10% read on a device, 90% didn’t.

James Blatch: Wow.

Mark Dawson: Anecdotally, it is well known that children, and teenagers, still prefer to read in print. Which is not necessarily what you’d expect given that it’s a digital generation. But that was the case.

You can look at that one of two ways. You can either look at it and think, well that’s great. Think of how much further we’ve got to go in terms of the audience that we can tap.

Or you could look at it the other way and go, that’s quite worrying, because when all the people who are reading on Kindles move on, who will take up the slack? And I certainly cleave towards the first of those two possible outcomes.

But it was interesting and I didn’t get many questions. I had a few questions. But mostly from the teachers. And then at the end of it, three of the English teachers came up to me and said, “I’ve finished a novel. What do I do now?” So that was quite interesting.

I had a couple of nice Tweets from teachers who were there and found it interesting, had perhaps been heading towards the agent and traditional publisher route, and didn’t know what was possible. Again, we’ve mentioned this before.

James Blatch: Yeah. Most people don’t.

Mark Dawson: Don’t assume that what we know, listeners to this podcast, and watchers on the YouTube channel, what is we know is not representative of what most people know. We are still in the vanguard, which I find… Well from an SPF perspective, we should probably be looking to buy a Caribbean island quite soon, because there’s a huge amount of authors who don’t know anything about what we do. So that’s great.

And also, I think that works for authors too, in the sense that the readership is still growing. It would probably be what, 30%/70% in terms of the digital/print split at the moment. So that means that we’ve got… I’ve sold a couple million books. There’s a lot more readers out there who’ve never heard of me before, have no idea who I am. And I think that’s exciting.

James Blatch: Really exciting, huge area for growth. And again, mentioning Lindsay Buroker, who I interviewed yesterday. She launched a new pen name, and she did it anonymously, because there wasn’t much crossover with her existing audience, and she launched it successfully, and made money from it.

It was a couple of years ago in this environment that people were telling you and me, sometimes on Facebook messaging, “Oh it’s all over. You can’t do it any more. You were lucky. You got in at the beginning.” That doesn’t seem to be the case.

Mark Dawson: No.

James Blatch: As maybe I’ll find out when we talk about my book next week. Look, that’s it for this episode.

I would just say about teenagers not asking questions, I’ve done quite a lot of school talks over the years at the BBC, and then the BBFC, and you probably did them as well at the BBFC. And often that particular age group, that kind of fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, if it’s school rather than college, they’d often sit there, slumped, looking bored as anything. Which is disconcerting during the entire talk.

Mark Dawson: There was some slumping.

James Blatch: But then afterwards, quite a few of them come up to you, quite lively, and they chat to you and say, “That was really good.” And you just think, well, you could have given me a little bit of facial feedback during the session.

Mark Dawson: I had none at all. But it was fine. I was quite happy just to blather on for 45 minutes.

James Blatch: And they probably went home and told their… Well they probably didn’t tell their parents about it, because children just say, “Fine,” when you ask them how school was.

Okay, good, that’s it for this week. Thank you very much indeed for joining us. Thanks to Mark. We’re going to be back next week. We have a interview next week with Jeff Wheeler, which is going to be a good one. So we’ll see you. And all that remains for me to say, is it’s a goodbye from him-

Mark Dawson: And a goodbye from me. Goodbye.

James Blatch: Goodbye.

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